Thursday, December 16, 2010

a fortuitous find

I have assigned a selection of readings from Plutarch's Moralia (the Quaestiones romanae et graecae) and from Seneca's Epistles (the Epistulae morales) in my graduate course, World of the New Testament. I'm interested in both Plutarch and Seneca as presentations of features of the Greco-Roman world from elite, pagan perspectives. Plutarch explicitly is trying to explain features of Latin culture to his Greek readers; Seneca, on the other hand, is exploring and commending certain behaviors or ways of thinking to his friend, Lucilius.

I'm certainly no Latin scholar; still less do I know anything about Seneca. So I was pleasantly surprised when I came across the following:
I shall therefore send to you the actual books; and in order that you may not waste time in searching here and there for profitable topics, I shall mark certain passages, so that you can turn at once to those which I approve and admire. Of course, however, the living voice and the intimacy of a common life will help you more than the written word. You must go to the scene of the action, first, because men put more faith in their eyes than in their ears, and second, because the way is long if one follows precepts, but short and helpful, if one follows patterns. Cleanthes could not have been the express image of Zeno, if he had merely heard his lectures; he shared in his life, saw into his hidden purposes, and watched him to see whether he lived according to his own rules. Plato, Aristotle, and the whole throng of sages who were destined to go each his different way, derived more benefit from the character than from the words of Socrates. It was not the class-room of Epicurus, but living together under the same roof, that made great men of Metrodorus, Hermarchus, and Polyaenus. Therefore I summon you, not merely that you may derive benefit, but that you may confer benefit; for we can assist each other greatly. (Seneca, Ep. 6.5–6)

Seneca's view of texts—what they are, what they're good for, and how to use them properly—is particularly interesting to me, given my own interests in media criticism and Christian origins. Seneca is a member of the Roman elite social class (he was Nero's tutor!), highly educated, familiar with the range of philosophical texts produced by and for the Greek and Roman upperclasses, able to live a life of relative leisure even in comparatively difficult times (see Ep. 1.4), and sufficiently resourced to send a barrage of letters to a friend who is physically distant from him. Even so, Seneca is no raw bibliophile; he isn't interested in amassing and reading texts for their own sake (see Ep. 2). Instead, although he exhibits familiarity with texts from outside his favored Stoic tradition (Epicurean, Platonic, etc.), he exhorts Lucilius to confine himself to familiar and more profitable texts. Reading too many texts is akin to knowing too many people, and being a friend to none (Ep. 2.2).

So how does Seneca suppose texts function (or ought to function) in order to maximize their benefit? Texts only work properly, according to the excerpt quoted above, within the context of social relationship. The value to Lucilius of Seneca's Moral Epistles isn't in the reading but in the relationship between the two men established prior to the epistles and evoked, strengthened, and furthered by means of the texts. Similarly, Cleanthes embodied and furthered Stoic philosophy via his relationship with Zeno rather than by reading his texts. The same applies, mutatis mutandis, of Socrates' followers; indeed, famously Socrates didn't even leave behind any textual remains!

And so Seneca says (and this really is quite amazing), "Of course, however, the living voice and the intimacy of a common life will help you more than the written word. You must go to the scene of the action, first, because men put more faith in their eyes than in their ears, and second, because the way is long if one follows precepts, but short and helpful, if one follows patterns." The written text enables Seneca to face and overcome the problem of geographical distance (he is physically removed from his friend, Lucilius). But the text is no substitute for the interpersonal relationship and interaction that is given concrete expression in face-to-face conversation; indeed, the text—when it behaves properly—mimics social interaction. Seneca becomes present to Lucilius via the written text. For this reason, Lucilius read a different text than the one before me; when I read Seneca, there is no extratextual relationship invoked (and evoked) in my act of reading.

Notice that this is a far cry from the standard opposition between "orality" and written texts we find in much biblical scholarship. We're not juxtaposing oral tradition over and against written text. Rather, we're on the lookout for how written texts functioned in a world conditioned by and geared toward the actual social engagement of human beings with one another. Thus the significance of Seneca's allusion to social script of autopsy (eyewitness testimony) when he says men prefer their eyes to their ears. On the surface this may seem to elevate written texts—accessed with the eyes—over spoken words—perceived with the hear. But in fact this is exactly the opposite of Seneca's point! Seneca privileges the concrete experience of knowledge shared through interpersonal relationships (including words spoken between people) over that gained second hand, through the reports of someone else or mediated by means of written reports.


John C. Poirier said...

Your posting this passage is fortuitous for me as well. I'm interested in the notion of "marking" passages. It seems that Seneca refers to marks placed directly within the text. Is that how you read it?

Rafael said...

Yes, it is. In context Seneca is particularly exuberant about some thing or other that he's learned and, in his enthusiasm, wants to share his wisdom with Lucilius. Thus he promises to send the texts to Lucilius with certain passages marked. While there's nothing to suggest whether such marks would've been permanent or temporary, I'm inclined to see them as permanent (penned in the margins?) rather the ancient equivalent of 3M Post-Its.

Tyler Stewart said...

This is a fascinating passage. It seems to fit nicely with the "epistolary-presence" thesis that Paul's letters are representations of his apostolic presence. I wonder what a comparison between Seneca and 2 Cor 10.9-12 might reveal?

Sean said...

Be sure to have a look at Larry Hurtado's post which mentions a new book on this topic. See

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