Moral letters by Seneca

What do you need to be a good man? Willpower.
(Letter 80, section 4)

Whatever you do, keep death in mind.
(Letter 114, section 27)

You must embed these thoughts deep in your heart, Lucilius.
(Letter 7, section 12)

Stoicism

The thing about Stoic philosophy is how wrong its premises are and how banal its teachings.

Stoics believed there is a God, that the universe or Nature is God, or God suffuses Nature. Human beings were created by God with a spark of Divine Reason within us. Our job is to clear away all the clutter of work, society, gossip, all relationships, friends and family, all the clamour which clogs up our lives, including all our own passions and emotions, love, anger and so on – in order to cultivate this fragment of the Divine Reason in each of is and, by doing so, bring our lives into alignment with the values of the universe/God. Then, by cultivating detachment from all earthly worries and passions, by strengthening our minds, we can prepare for the worst the world has to throw at us and defuse the ultimate terror, the fear of death.

That’s it. You can vary the wording and multiply the precepts with lots of specific examples (avoid gossip, avoid crowds, eat moderately, don’t get drunk, treat everyone with respect – ponder with the worst possible outcomes so nothing surprises you, analyse every situation with detachment), but it’s that simple and, after the initial novelty has worn off, that boring.

Seneca

The Roman author, tutor, Stoic philosopher, politician and immensely rich man, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC to 65 AD) is called Seneca the Younger because his father (54 BC to 39 AD) – author of a collection of reminiscences about the Roman schools of rhetoric (which survives) and a history of Roman affairs from the beginning of the Civil Wars until the last years of his life (which is lost) – had the exact same name, so is known as Seneca the Elder.

Seneca the Younger, much more famous than his father, is sometimes just referred to as Seneca.

Seneca wrote a prodigious amount; later critics said too much. E.F. Watling, in his Penguin edition of Seneca’s plays, says that his best-loved works are the letters he wrote to one specific friend, Lucilius. Seneca himself titled these the Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (‘Moral Letters to Lucilius’), also known in English as the ‘Letters from a Stoic’. Seneca wrote this collection of 124 letters at the end of his life, from approximately 63 to 65 AD, after he had largely retired as tutor and adviser to the Emperor Nero, a post he’d held since 49 – sixteen years.

The letters are addressed to Lucilius Junior who was then procurator of Sicily and is known to posterity only through Seneca’s writings. (Seneca also dedicated his dialogue On Providence and his encyclopedic Natural Questions to this same Lucilius.)

Scholars fret about whether these were ‘real’ letters, and what the structure of correspondence was – did Seneca only respond to questions sent him by Lucilius? Where is Lucilius’s half of the correspondence? etc. But whether or not they were ever part of a ‘real’ correspondence, it is clear that Seneca wrote these letters with a wider readership in mind. They contain numerous carefully crafted passages obviously aimed at posterity and are structured so as to cover a wide range of subjects dear to Stoics. The 124 letters were published grouped together into 20 ‘books’.

Philosophy as therapy

The letters amount to a series of short moral lessons, designed to help Lucilius achieve the wisdom and peace of mind (‘a calm and correct state of mind,’ Letter 4) promised by Stoic doctrine. In order to do this the letters focus on the traditional themes of Stoic philosophy such as removing oneself from the crowd; cultivating a contempt of death; learning to endure the ups and downs of life; acknowledging virtue as the supreme good, and so on.

The key point which the translator of the Oxford University Press edition, Elaine Fantham, makes in her introduction, is that the letters do not amount to a systematic exposition of Stoicism. Almost the reverse. They are like a series of lessons on ad hoc, specific topics, often beginning with an everyday experience and then extracting from it an insight or type of behaviour which Seneca tells Lucilius he can adopt in order to improve himself. Each letter contains ‘a little bit of profit’ (5) – like instalments in a self-help correspondence course.

Seneca wrote the letters not to promote a complete finished system of thought: he wasn’t necessarily interested in extrapolating a comprehensive system. As Fantham says, Seneca put moral impact before intellectual debate. He ‘puts the ability to avoid fear and desire ahead of any intellectual expertise’ (note, page 298). Seneca gave the work a new type of name, Epistulae Morales, and wrote them with a moral purpose to promote moral behaviour.

Philosophy is not a skill shaped for popular appeal or for display; it does not consist of words but of deeds…it moulds and shapes the mind, arranges one’s life, controls one’s actions, points out what is to be done and what to be avoided. (16)

Thus Seneca instructs Lucilius not about this or that point of abstract philosophical doctrine – but over and over again tells him that he must repeat certain thoughts in order to put them into practice, to make them part of his everyday waking thoughts.

Only Philosophy will wake us up, it alone will shake off our heavy sleep, so dedicate yourself wholly to it. (53.8)

Possibly the most consistent lesson (repeated so many times it gets a little boring) is cultivating a ‘contempt’ for death. When death comes it is over; it is nothing. We need to live with the idea of our death all the time, to get accustomed to it, so as to eliminate all fear and anxiety about it:

  • Let us order our minds so that we wish for whatever circumstances demand, and especially let us think about our ends without sadness. We need to be prepared for death before we are prepared for life. (61.3)
  • The more men have accustomed themselves to hardship, the more easily they will endure it. (76.34)
  • Whatever has been long anticipated comes as a lighter blow. (78.29)
  • Everyone approaches a hazard to which he has long squared himself with more courage and resists harsh events by contemplating them in advance. (107.4)

This accustoming to death takes effort so we must ‘practice thinking this over each day’ (4.5) and ‘ensure that what is now an urge becomes a lasting disposition’ (17.6).

Virtue does not come to a mind unless it is trained and taught and brought to its highest condition by constant exercise. (90.46)

Repeat, practice, memorise. The letters are lessons in how to think, in how to live life in order to maximise calm and reason, mental or psychological exercises which must be learned through constant repetition.

  • You must persist and build up strength by constant diligence until what is now a good intention becomes a good state of mind. (16.1)
  • These are things we must learn, in fact learn by heart. (123.17)

In this respect, the OUP is a good edition because Fantham precedes every letter with a short summary of its main topics, of its time and place of composition, and how it relates to other letters on the same topic. This is extremely useful. (Mind you, the 1917 translation by Richard Mott Gummere which is available online has something the Fantham edition hasn’t, which is attributing each letter a title such as ‘On saving time’, ‘On discursiveness in reading’ and so on. I imagine these titles aren’t in the original but they are extremely useful in remembering at a glance which letter is about what.)

There is some background information about Roman society, but not as much as you’d hope for, certainly nothing like the chatty detail you get in Cicero’s wonderful letters (Seneca consciously distances himself from Cicero’s style and gossipy subject matter in letter 118).

Like all Roman writers, Seneca now and then cites famous Roman heroes or historical figures as examples of ‘virtue’ (notably Marcus Porcius Cato, who committed suicide in 46 BC, as the example of fortitude in the face of death; or Gaius Mucius Cordus who unflinchingly put his hand into a fire to prove his bravery).

There is a description of the lives of the super-rich at Baiae (51), a fascinating portrait of the conditions of slaves (47), a vivid comparison of the spartan bathhouses of old with their modern luxurious equivalents (86), a description of the grand retinues of foreign slaves rich people insist on travelling with (123), a description of viticulture and grafting techniques (86). Mostly, though, the letters are disappointing from a social history point of view. Philosophy is drab.

This Oxford University Press edition does not contain all of the letters – it contains 80 out of 124 (introduction p.xxxv) – but still claims to be the largest selection available in print.

Epistolary traditions

In a throwaway remark, Fantham indicates that there were two types of letter, two epistolary traditions: the philosophical letter of advice (pioneered by Epicurus, born 341 BC, and into which these letters fall) and chatty personal correspondence (Cicero, born 106 BC). [She doesn’t mention a third type which occurs to me, which is the crafted verse epistle as epitomised by Horace’s Letters or Ovid’s Black Sea Letters.]

The problem of suicide

A major stumbling block is Seneca’s worldview, the classical Roman worldview, which promotes suicide as a noble, honourable and virtuous response to all kinds of social humiliations, setbacks, not least the threats from tyrannical power.

It is a noble thing to die honourably, prudently and bravely. (77)

Part of the reason for cultivating a contempt for death, for having death continually in your thoughts, is so that, when the moment comes, it will feel like only a small additional step to fall on your sword or open your veins in a hot bath.

How many people death has been useful to, how many it frees from torture, poverty, laments, punishment, weariness. We are not in any man’s power when death is in our power. (91.21)

The historical model Seneca invokes repeatedly is Cato, who committed suicide in 46 BC two years into the civil war, when he was governor of Utica, a city in North Africa, as Julius Caesar’s army was closing in. Cato killed himself to deprive Caesar of the power of either executing him or (more likely) humiliatingly pardoning him, meaning he would ignominiously owe the rest of his existence to a tyrant.

Desiring neither option, Cato stabbed himself. In the event failed to kill himself, a doctor was called who patched up his stomach wound, gave him medicine, put him to bed. In the night Cato placed his fingers into the stomach wound, ripped it open, and proceeded to pull out his intestines until he died of shock. This is held up by Seneca as exemplary behaviour.

This makes sense within the long Roman tradition of preferring honourable suicide to dishonour, but it is just not a worldview any modern person shares and Cato is not a role model any modern person would wish to copy. Of course, this strand in Seneca’s writings is magnified by the fact that Seneca himself did something similar, committing suicide on the orders of the emperor Nero, his one-time pupil, in an exemplary fashion, calmly dictating notes about Stoic resilience as he bled to death in a hot bath.

Thus he has gone down as a hero of high-minded Stoicism but there are numerous objections to this notion. One is that plenty, thousands, of other Roman notables killed themselves over the centuries, famous examples being Anthony and Cleopatra, and they weren’t Stoic philosophers. So Seneca’s high-minded end wasn’t unique, far from it, it was a very common behaviour among the aristocratic class in the ancient world, and not only under the Empire but the Republic, too.

So a) it was far from being an act unique to ‘philosophers’ but b) it is obviously something very remote indeed from modern society. Sure, people still kill themselves. But not many people kill themselves at the command of an emperor, or to demonstrate their high-minded command over their destiny and a Stoic rising above the petty concerns of life and death. This whole worldview is so remote as to be science fiction.

There seems to me something perverse, almost creepy, about a philosophy which is constantly preparing its followers for death and for suicide. The words ‘death’ or ‘die’ recur on every page. I infinitely prefer Horace’s encouragement to enjoy life to the full while we can.

Come, let’s
Go to the cave of love
And look for music in a jollier key.
(Horace Odes, book 2, poem 1)

Themes in the letters

Despise death

We start to die from the day we are born. When we die there is nothing. There was nothing before life and there will be nothing after. So be not afraid.

  • What I am recommending to you is not just a remedy for this disease but for your whole life: despise death. (78.5)
  • First free yourself from the fear of death. (80.5)

Freedom

Despising death means we are free from the threats of tyrants or society. What is the worst they can do to us if we despise the worst, consider it nothing? Nothing can harm the calm and virtuous mind. By welcoming whatever will happen, it creates its own freedom no matter what the external circumstances. With typical extremity of metaphor or rhetoric, Seneca continually contrasts freedom, not with being bogged down or caught up or hampered by obligations – such as most of us encounter in real life – but with full-on hardcore Roman slavery:

  • You ask what is liberty? To be enslaved to no object, no necessity, no chances, to reduce Fortune to a level field. (51.9)
  • We must busy ourselves with our studies and the sources of wisdom…this is how we should rescue our mind from a most wretched enslavement and restore it to liberty. (104.16)
  • We have enslaved our spirit to pleasure whose indulgence is the beginning of all evils. (110.10)

Now it makes sense that Seneca uses as metaphor the slavery which was, arguably, the central fact of Roman life. But as with the way his mind, when he wants to imagine examples of adversity, leaps straight towards images of torture and execution, it’s another example of the extremity of metaphor and argument which underpins his ‘philosophy’ and makes so much of it feel so alien to the modern mind.

True friendship

Gauge a man before making him a friend. Be cautious, test out friends. But once someone is a friend, bind them to you, share everything with them. True friends share everything, including misfortune. Seneca says you have to learn to be a friend to yourself.

Avoid crowds

‘Shun whatever pleases the common herd’ (8). One iniquitous example can adversely affect you. A crowd presents all kinds of bad examples. People are emboldened to behave badly in crowds. So withdraw into yourself and study philosophy, but not so conspicuously as to draw attention or criticism. Don’t draw attention to your retirement and quietism. Quietly disappear.

Your body

A great and cautious man separates his mind from his body and spends the better part of his time with his better and divine part. (78.10)

Provide it only as much as needed to preserve good health. Avoid excess. Consume as much plain drink as required to quench thirst, as much plain food as to quench hunger, the minimum clothes to protect you from the elements, a house sufficient to protect you from the weather.

Devote some days to eating as little as possible. Become familiar with the bare minimum needed to keep alive and healthy (so that if exile to a bare rock or sudden incarceration befall you, your body is ready for much reduced circumstances).

Don’t exercise to excess. Do as much as needed to keep healthy. Reserve your energy for cultivating the mind.

As to physical pleasures, avoid them like the plague; they enslave the body and then the mind.

  • Uproot pleasures and treat them with absolute loathing. (51.13)
  • First of all we must reject pleasures; they make men weak and effeminate and demand too much time and effort. (104.34)

Your house

Your house should be a size and contain only as much as needed to protect you from the elements. Despise ornament and decoration.

Possessions

Have as few as possible. ‘No one is worthy of God unless he despises possessions.’ (18.13) Have them, but adopt a mindset where you could happily dispense with all of them, where they are all taken from you and you don’t care a jot, because you are secure in the untroubled citadel of your mind.

Enough

Don’t overdo it: don’t mortify your body, don’t insist on eating bread and water, living in a hut, neglecting your body, like the Cynics who, following Diogenes, set out to punish their bodies. Live comfortably and sensibly, just not to excess.

  • So correct yourself, take off your burdens and shrink your desires within a healthy limit. (104.20)

How to be content

And cultivate contentment by being happy with what you’ve got.

  • I will tell you how you can recognise the healthy man: he is content with himself. (72.7)
  • This is what philosophy will guarantee you, something which nothing surpasses: you will never be dissatisfied with yourself. (115.18)

Excess

Similar to his thoughts about suicide and anger, in that it sounds reasonable of Seneca to tell his follower not live to excess, but what Seneca has in mind is Roman excess, the off-the-scale lavishness and baroque luxury of the Roman emperors and the richest in the known world (as described in the letters from the fashionable resort of Baiae, 49, 51).

  • Too many amenities make the spirit effeminate…The stricter discipline of a simpler place strengthens the mind and makes it fit for great undertakings. (51.10-11)

The general point is not so much that indulgence is morally bad in itself: but that people enslave themselves by indulging the pleasures of the senses, deform their minds, make themselves into addicts, by coming to rely on excessive behaviour, on excessive drinking, excessive eating, excessive sex, excessive gambling.

It’s not so much that moderation is good in itself but that it stops you developing addictions and so becoming enslaved to them. Moderation leaves your mind free to focus on more important, ‘higher’ things. Moderation sets you free from all the snares of the senses.

That is why:

We ought to concentrate on escaping as far as possible from the provocations to vice. One’s mind must be hardened and dragged away from the enticements of pleasure. (51.5)

Anger

Quite apart from the letters, Seneca wrote no fewer than three treatises on anger. Fantham makes a really profound point about this which depends, again, on the profound difference between us and Roman society. This is that Roman emperors had complete power over all citizens, and all citizens had complete power over huge numbers of slaves. In this society an angry citizen could order his slave to be tortured or killed, just as an angry emperor could order anyone he fancied to be exiled, thrown into gaol, tortured or executed. Therefore controlling anger was much, much more important than it is in our society. Anger is not a good emotion with us but could have catastrophic consequences in Seneca’s world.

The mind

‘Nothing deserves admiration except the mind’ (9). The mind alone is worth cultivating. No other skills, activities, pastimes are worth cultivating.

  • Control your mind so as to bring it to perfection in the most calm condition, a mind which feels neither what is taken from it nor added to it, but keeps the same disposition however affairs turn out. (36.6)
  • A great and cautious man separates his mind from the body and spends much of his time with his better and divine part. (78.10)

Moral behaviour

Imagine the most moral, honourable person you can. Then imagine they are watching everything you say or do.

Fear, anxiety, stress

All these are caused by worry that the worst is going to happen. Well, imagine the worst has happened. Live with the worst, imaginatively – prepare yourself for the worst. Once you dispel anxiety about unnamed and exaggerated fears, you can get rid of the panic and examine the issue rationally, restoring order and calm to the mind, allowing Reason to operate unhampered by over emotions.

Philosophy

Philosophy, for Seneca, isn’t the working out of a complex system or ideology: it is a psychological or spiritual practice. It is an exercise to attain an attitude, cultivated with the sole aim of making its practitioner mentally strong and resilient against tyranny, suffering and death.

Philosophy is not a skill shaped for popular appeal or for display; it does not consist of words but of deeds. It is not taken up to make sure the day passes with some enjoyment, to take the boredom out of leisure; it moulds and shapes the mind, arranges one’s life, controls one’s actions, points out what is to be done or avoided; it is seated at the helm and steers the course of those adrift among treacherous shoals. Without it no man can live without fear or anxiety; countless things occur each hour that need the advice which we must seek from philosophy. (16.3)

Philosophy may include technical aspects such as types of argument and syllogism (which he consistently ridicules and dismisses for its pedantry) but, far more importantly, Seneca sees ‘philosophy’ as a kind of mental fortress, a psychological redoubt:

So withdraw into philosophy as far as you may; she will protect you in her bosom and in her shrine you will be safe. (103.4)

In doing so, it can raise us above the level of mere mortals:

This is what philosophy promises me, to make me equal to a god. (48.11)

Slavery

As you might expect Seneca admonishes Lucilius to treat his slaves as equals because they are as human as you or I:

Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies. It is just as possible for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see in you a slave. (47.10)

But, just as predictably, Seneca doesn’t actually recommend actually freeing them. (In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Juvenal’s Satires, Peter Green says this attitude was typical of Stoics: ‘[Juvenal] attacked wanton cruelty to slaves, but did not query the concept of slavery itself (another characteristically Stoic attitude.)] Introduction, page 23)

Letter 47 is fascinating for giving an extended description of the types of functions slaves performed in an aristocratic household and the brutal punishments they were liable to for the slightest infraction.

(It is a secondary consideration that in the long letter 90, a detailed list of the technical achievements and innovations which make up civilisation, Seneca despises them all and considers all of them – agriculture and irrigation and milling grain to make bread and architecture and glass windows and all the rest of it – only worthy of slaves and freedmen [who, apparently, largely made up the artisan class of Rome] and so far beneath an aristocrat like himself and his friend Lucilius. Aristocrats needed to rise above these slave occupations in order to practice the only thing worthwhile activity for humans, to cultivate the mind, perfect reason, acquire wisdom, so as to rise above passions and fear of death. That is the primary aim of the letter, but in order to make the point what comes over is a contempt for the artisan class, for engineers and innovators and craftsmen, which makes me dislike Seneca even more. His assumption is that all the achievements of the thousands of people who had perfected all aspects of civilisation and raised it to the luxurious heights of his day only matter insofar as they allow him to perfect his wonderful mind. It’s a privileged narcissism which is, in its own arrogant way, every bit as corrupt as the decadent court of the arch-egotist Nero.)

Self-help slogans

The book is stacked with improving and inspiring thoughts of the kind which have become over-familiar in the subsequent 2,000 years, particularly the last 50 years or so of self-help books.

  • I think it is the first proof of a stable mind to be able to pause and spend time with oneself. (2.1)
  • The best measure of wealth is to have what is necessary and the next best, is to have enough. (2.5)
  • The man at ease should take action, and the man at action should take ease. (5)
  • Who is well born? The man well set up by nature for virtue…it is the spirit that makes one noble. (44.5)
  • Nature made us teachable and gave us an imperfect reason but one which can be perfected. (50.11)

Although Seneca’s long porridgey paragraphs have the heavy feel of ‘philosophy’, the quality of the argumentation is often weak and many of the actual injunctions feel more like daytime TV, self-help guru-talk than Hegel or Hume. Once or twice he came close to the banal catchphrase mocked in the old TV sitcom, Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em: ‘Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.’

I rejoice that you are studying with perseverance and abandoning all else for this one thing, to make yourself a better man each day. (5.1)

Critique

As with all philosophy, and especially ‘moral’ philosophy, there is no end to the debate, discussion, critique and commentary which the Letters from a Stoic have spawned over the past 2,000 years. A handful of themes struck me:

1. Simplistic values

The most obvious, for me, is the extreme difference in the social context between Seneca and us and in particular his concept of negative life events. For Seneca a bad turn of events is an ever-present threat under the tyranny of imperial rule. It is associated with prison, torture, enslavement and all the other dire possibilities of life under arbitrary Roman emperors such as Nero. Thus there is a misleading simplicity to most of his meditations. When he imagines something bad, it’s being thrown into prison or tortured or executed by the emperor. The conception of negative life events which he uses to underpin his entire Stoic system is disconcertingly simple and extreme – exile, torture, death – and so the mental lesson he is teaching is concomitantly simplistic: prepare your mind to be strong and noble under torture or the threat of death (see the harping on about torture and death in letters 67 and 70).

But not many modern readers of the letters are going to have the same concerns – that they will thrown into prison, tortured or forced to commit suicide at the whim of a Roman emperor. The worst things I can imagine happening to me are: being in a life-changing accident i.e. becoming wheelchair-bound or having a stroke; being diagnosed with a terminal or life-changing illness; something bad happening to my loved ones, especially my children. But my day-to-day worries are more humdrum, recalcitrant, fiddly, frustrating: worried about my performance at work, this or that bit of the house needs maintenance, I’m worried about money, about not being able to pay my bills – fuel bills, heating bills, food bills.

I know Stoic thought can be applied to these modern circumstances i.e. I should try to cultivate mental detachment and resilience so I am ready to face bad events and rise above them. But the extremity and the simpleness of the situations Seneca describes and which form the basis of his entire philosophy (arbitrary arrest, torture, execution) rarely if ever occur in modern Western life and so all his much-repeated lessons rarely if at all apply to me. Modern life is more complex and multi-faceted than Seneca’s philosophy allows.

Seneca’s ‘philosophy’ is worth reading as an extremely vivid insight into the mindset of the Stoic classes during the tyranny of Nero but is, in my opinion, of limited use or value to modern readers leading modern lives.

2. Hypocrisy

I’ve just read Tacitus’s Annals where Seneca is described as being one of the richest men in Rome, with mansions as big as Nero’s and gardens even bigger, hundreds of servants, immense wealth in gold and assets. (In fact Seneca’s extreme wealth became proverbial to later generations: Juvenal’s tenth satire describes how Seneca, ‘grown too wealthy’ lost his magnificent gardens.) So it’s pretty ironic, knowing the man was a byword for obscene wealth, to read Seneca’s continual recommendation of the plain, simple life, eschewing pleasure and cultivating virtue. It’s easy advice for the ridiculously rich to give. The hypocrisy is summed up by a character in John Marston’s 1603 play, The Malcontent, which Watling quotes:

Out upon him! He writ of temperance and fortitude, yet lived like a voluptuous epicure and died like an effeminate coward. (The Malcontent, Act 3, scene 1, line 28)

Not quite accurate (Seneca definitely did not die ‘like an effeminate coward’) but the first half, the epicure accusation, has force. This point was epitomised, for me, in a throwaway remark of Seneca’s in a letter which is intended to be about exercise and physical frailty:

I have just returned from my ride. I am just as tired as if I had walked as far as I have been sitting. It is an effort to be carried for a long time, and I rather think the effort is greater because riding is contrary to nature. (55.1)

It is an effort to be carried for a long time. (In a sedan chair, presumably.) Well, what about the slaves who were doing the carrying? Bet it was a bit of an effort for them, too. Seneca’s writings cannot escape from the taint of the astonishing level of privilege enjoyed by his class in general, and the extraordinarily privileged lifestyle enjoyed by him – according to Tacitus the richest man in Rome – in particular.

3. How Christians appropriated Stoic rhetoric

Many of the lessons Seneca spells out to Lucilius are very familiar from the long tradition of Western moralists, from Erasmus, through Montaigne, on into the Enlightenment and then diffused out into the broader culture by thousands of Victorian moralists.

My mum used to tell us kids, ‘Moderation in everything’. You don’t need to read Seneca to already know half of his nostrums and tags. I suggest that much of it seems so familiar because Stoic teachings were taken over wholesale by the early Christians and formed the basis of much Christian everyday morality. Obviously not the bits specific to Christian theology (the Fall, Original Sin, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection etc) but the fundamental theist worldview is often indistinguishable from Christianity:

  • No one is worthy of God unless he despises possessions. (18.13)
  • God is near you, he is with you, he is within you. (41.1)
  • What is enough for God is not too little for masters. (47.18)
  • The place which God occupies in this universe is the place which mind occupies in man. (65.24)
  • God comes to men. Indeed, what is actually nearer, he comes into men. No mind is good without God. (73.16)
  • Whatever is good for us our God and father placed at hand. (110.10)

My point is that in the advice about day-to-day living, the Christians appropriated Stoic teachings so completely that the advice to Lucilius to cultivate the mind, avoid the crowd and their superficial entertainments, practice virtue, despise the knocks of Fortune and cultivate a contempt for death – all these are the familiar background hum of Christian morality, the subjects of hundreds of thousands of Sunday sermons and public lectures, recycled on radio phone-ins and daytime TV and millions of self-help columns in magazines and newspapers and books. Which explains why when we moderns come to read Seneca we are so rarely surprised and so often find his nostrums familiar and reassuring.

4. Repetition

Above all, like any good teacher, he repeats the same key points again and again, in different formulations, approached from different angles, but coming back again and again to the same fundamental idea: rise above the fortuitous events of your life; rise above all emotions and attachments; cultivate ‘philosophy’, which means a Buddhist detachment from everyone else and even from yourself; live with the idea of death so continually that it eventually presents no fears. And then you will have conquered yourself, your fear of death and you will be…free.

  • I am forcing my mind to focus on itself and not be distracted by outside events…The real calm is when a good state of mind unfolds. (56.6)
  • The wise man is full of joy, cheerful and calm, undisturbed. He lives on equal terms with the gods…The wise man’s mind is like the universe beyond the moon: there it is always fine and calm. (59.14)
  • Abandon those distractions which men have rushed to enjoy; abandon riches, which are either a danger or a burden to their possessors; leave the pleasures of body and mind, which soften and weaken you; abandon ambition, which is a bloated, hollow and windy condition with no limit. (84.11)
  • There is only one way the dawn can come: if a man takes in this knowledge of things human and divine and does not just sprinkle it over himself but but steeps himself in it; if he goes over the same things repeatedly (110.8)

But repetition is not argumentation. Despite Seneca using the word ‘philosophy’ all the time, this isn’t really philosophy at all. It is, as I’ve said, more like exhortation to a good frame of mind, moral uplift, encouragement to develop a tough attitude, therapy for the anxious, a self-help manual. And incredibly repetitive.

Unvexed by terrors and uncorrupted by pleasures we shall dread neither death nor the gods. We shall know that death is not an evil and the gods do not exist for evil. What harms us is as weak as what is harmed; the best things lack the power to harm. What awaits us, if we ever emerge from these dregs to the sublime and lofty region, is peace of mind and liberty free from the errors which have been driven out. What does that liberty consist of? Not fearing men or gods; wanting neither what is base nor excessive; having the greatest power over oneself. It is an incalculable good to become one’s own master. (75.17-18)

5. Family and friends

In nearly 300 pages of relentless insistence that we rise above all attachments and emotions, nowhere does he mention family (in just one letter, 104, he mentions his wife, Paulina).

Family was a very big thing indeed for noble Romans, so it’s a striking absence in the context of Seneca’s own time. But regarded as instructions for modern readers, his insistence on boiling your life right down to a relentless focus on cultivating your virtue and your indifference to death completely ignores the scores of relationships most people have in their lives, starting with their family.

Most modern therapy involves getting to grip with your childhood experiences and your relationship with your parents. But parents, spouses or children are completely absent from Seneca’s teachings. His Stoicism is an impressively selfish concern, in which he endlessly exhorts Lucilius to forget about everyone but himself, to focus on his own mind and anxiety of death etc, to think about no-one but me me me.

This makes his ‘philosophy’ inapplicable, in practice, to anyone who has parents, partners or children and really cares for them, is involved in their day-to-day wellbeing and, especially when it comes to children, to their little triumphs or setbacks. None of that for Stoic Seneca. He is in his study toughening up his mind by envisaging torture in every detail so as to be able to rise above it, when the time comes.

But it struck me that this deliberate ignoring of family sheds light on and helps to explain the humanistic obsession with friendship. Seneca’s letters on the importance of having one, key soulmate-level friend are one of the sources for the obsession with friendship which is a central theme of humanist writings from the 15th century onwards.

Friends know that they have everything in common…the true friendship which neither hope nor fear nor self-interest can sever, the friendship with which men die and for which they die. (6.2)

It’s possible to interpret this obsession with Perfect friendship as the Stoic replacing the messy, uncontrollable web of family relationships, with all its unpredictable ups and downs, with One Relationship with One Special Friend. To use the modern buzzword, it’s a very controlling approach. When you read the great humanist works on this subject (Cicero, Montaigne, Bacon) what comes over is that you are only going to meet one or two soulmates in your life and that you will become identical in interests and affections with this one special person. In a science fiction kind of way, you and the True Friend of humanist tradition will become one person.

So, to put it crudely, humanist teaching about friendship a) is a way of ducking the uncontrollable mess of family ties and responsibilities and b) ends up with you looking in a mirror. Solipsistic narcissism.

Horace

As Roman ‘moralists’ go, I prefer Horace. He’s lighter, funnier, his affable tone is more persuasive, more inspiring for me, than Seneca’s dour and relentless lecturing. Seneca sounds like the tutor he was:

I hereby order you to be slow in speaking. (40.14)

Whereas Horace sounds like a friend offering gentle advice:

Try not to guess what lies in the future, but,
As Fortune deals days, enter them into your
Life’s book as windfalls, credit items,
Gratefully…
(Horace, Odes, book 1, poem 9)

Seneca thinks of himself as embattled – quick! time is short! the enemy is at the door! focus on the essentials!

  • I am being besieged right now…the enemy is at our backs…I need a heroic spirit (49.9)
  • Fortune is waging war with me but I will not do what she orders, I will not accept the yoke. (51.8)
  • A real man prefers his sleep to be broken by a bugle than a chorus. (51.12)

This sense of the world as a battlefield, a fight, a struggle against countless enemies all trying to seduce your God-given soul, was inherited by Christianity. It dominates the letters of St Paul who wrote the most influential letters in Christendom, and used rhetoric similar to Seneca when he urged his followers to ‘fight the good fight’ (First letter to Timothy).

To understand Paul, we must grasp that he is at war, with the angels of heaven at his back. The Acts of the Apostles is, at its base, a power-struggle between Christ and Satan, wrenching whole peoples away from Satan’s grasp. (Jesus Walk Bible Studies)

In contrast to this worldview of unrelenting embattled paranoia, Horace writes a letter to a friend inviting him to come round and try the new wine they’ve just bottled on his estate. There’ll be other friends there, and they’ll stay up late together laughing and joking. Seneca’s remedy for the fickleness of human existence is to be continually, constantly thinking about death all the time.

Give me courage to meet hardships; make me calm in the face of the unavoidable…Say to me when I lie down to sleep: ‘You may not wake again!’ And when I have waked: ‘You may not go to sleep again!’ Say to me when I go forth from my house: ‘You may not return!’ And when I return: ‘You may never go forth again!’

Well, you may win the lottery this weekend. You may run down the escalator and bump into the woman of your dreams. If you start speculating about things which may happen, the sky’s the limit. In which case – why focus only on the bad things which ‘may’ happen. Lovely things ‘may’ happen, too. Pondering Seneca’s use of the conditional to dwell only on the most extreme negative outcomes (torture, execution) makes the reader realise how much he is obsessed with the dark side of life, and so insists that we be brutally harsh with ourselves:

  • Cast out whatever desires are lacerating your heart and if they cannot be pulled out any other way then you must tear out your heart with them. In particular, uproot pleasures and treat them with absolute loathing. (51.13)
  • We believe pleasure is a moral failing…Pleasure is a shameful thing. (59.1-2)

What a stupid attitude. Horace has an equally frank acceptance of how time is limited and we are hurrying towards our deaths, but he draws the exact opposite conclusion, which is: carpe diem, enjoy the moment. Instead of considering yourself under siege from wicked temptations so that you have to harden your heart against all affection, think of life as a blessing, bless every moment it brings you, and savour the fleeting pleasures. Horace gets my vote.

Last word to Martial

Martial book 11, epigram 56, begins, in the translation by James Michie:

Because you glorify death, old Stoic,
Don’t expect me to admire you as heroic…

And ends ten lines later:

It’s easy to despise life when things go wrong;
The true hero endures much, and long.


Credit

Selected Letters of Seneca, translated and introduced by Elaine Fantham, was published as an Oxford University Press paperback in 2010. All quotes are from this edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

Of Friendship by Francis Bacon

Bacon is a hugely enjoyable read and his pithy brevity is a welcome break from Cicero’s rambling verbosity.

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon was born in 1561 into an eminent family. His uncle was the Lord Cecil who became the first minister to Queen Elizabeth. Like Cicero he made a career at the bar and in politics, sitting as MP for various constituencies. He was helped up the ladder by the Earl of Essex so when the latter rebelled against Elizabeth in 1601, Bacon’s zealous prosecution of his former patron aroused much bad feeling.

When the old queen died and was replaced by James VI in 1603 Bacon’s ascent up what Disraeli called the slippery pole continued. He was knighted, became clerk of the Star Chamber, Attorney General, Privy Counsellor and Lord Keeper of the Seal, finally becoming Lord Chancellor.

It was at the height of his success, in 1621, that Bacon was charged in Parliament with receiving bribes in his various posts, was found guilty, fined, briefly imprisoned and barred from holding public office. The king let him hold on to his titles.

He had always been many-minded, interested in many aspects of the society of his day, and now was free to devote himself full time to writing. He had already written a number of long works, in the three areas of moral philosophy and theology; legal works; and proto-scientific works, and now he added to them.

In his ‘scientific’ works such as The Advancement and Proficience of Learning Divine and Human (1605) and the Novum Organum (1620) Bacon promoted a universal reform of knowledge by sweeping away the useless scholastic theology inherited from the Middle Ages and promoting forms of knowledge based on close examination of the real world using inductive reasoning.

Though he died in 1626 the influence of these calls for a comprehensive reform of human knowledge along experimental and scientific lines was highly influential for a century or more afterwards. Bacon was cited as a guiding spirit of the Royal Society founded under Charles II in 1660.

Bacon’s Essays

In contrast to these weighty tomes, his brief essays on miscellaneous subjects were for a long time seen as incidental frivolities. However, as time passed and the scientific worldview became more solidly embedded in intellectual life, his big works came to feel more and more dated – whereas the essays, with their shrewd insights into the realities of daily life, became steadily more popular. To quote the blurb on the back of the 1972 Everyman edition:

The Essays consist of reflections and generalisations, together with extracts from ancient writers and examples drawn from the author’s own experience, woven into counsels for the successful conduct of life and the management of men.

They are not intended to promote a rather abstruse philosophy (as Cicero’s essays are) but to be pithy and hard-headed, combining shrewd reflections with practical advice.

They are wonderfully short – many barely more than a page long – and contain entertaining and amusing formulations, some of which have gone on to become reasonably famous:

  • ‘What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate and would not stay for an answer. (Of Truth)
  • Revenge is a kind of wild justice. (Of Revenge)
  • He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune. (Of Marriage and Single Life)
  • The stage is more beholding to love than the life of man. (Of Love)

He added to the essays throughout his life: the first edition of 1597 had just 10 essays, the second edition of 1612 had 38 essays and the third and final edition of 1625 had no fewer than 58.

Of Friendship

This is one of the longer essays, at 8 pages (the five essays before it all barely stretch to a page and a half).

By this stage of the late Renaissance there had been a good deal of writing about friendship, going back, arguably, to the Italian poet Petrarch’s discovery of Cicero’s letters in 1345. The topic of friendship became of central importance to what became known as humanism, strongly influenced by the huge figure of Dutch philosopher and Catholic theologian Erasmus (1466 to 1536).

All these precedents and the centrality of the concept to humanist’s notion of their selves and their project help to explain why the friendship essay is one of Bacon’s longest, but even here he applies his style of being as focused and pithy as possible.

Summary

A natural and secret hatred, and aversation towards society, in any man, hath somewhat of the savage beast.

A crowd is not company; and faces are but a gallery of pictures; and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.

In a great town friends are scattered; so that there is not that fellowship, for the most part, which is in less neighbourhoods.

True friends; without which the world is but a wilderness.

Whosoever in the frame of his nature and affections, is unfit for friendship, he taketh it of the beast, and not from humanity.

The essay is addresses three ‘fruits of friendship’.

1. The first or principal fruit of friendship is to bring ‘peace in the affections’. It is:

the ease and discharge of the fulness and swellings of the heart, which passions of all kinds do cause and induce.

Friendship helps soften the violence of passions and emotions. It is psychologically beneficial:

No receipt [medicine] openeth the heart but a true friend to whom you may impart griefs, joys, fears, hopes, suspicions, counsels, and whatsoever lieth upon the heart to oppress it, in a kind of civil shrift or confession.

That ‘kind of’ is very typical. Bacons finds thoughtful analogies, which shed interesting light on everyday topics.

He expands this thought by considering how great kings and princes have been so driven by the need for friendship that they have often raised ordinary people to be their companions or ‘favourites’ ‘which many times sorteth to inconvenience.’ I love Bacon’s Jacobean English.

There follows a long passage of examples from the ancient and modern world, namely:

  • Sulla’s promotion of the boy wonder general, Pompey
  • Julius Caesar’s friendship with Decimus Brutus, who went on to lure him to his death
  • Augustus’s promotion of his loyal lieutenant Agrippa
  • Tiberius’s promotion of Sejanus which led the Senate to devote a temple to Friendship
  • Septimius Severus and Plautianus

The point being that these rulers were among the most powerful the world has ever since but accounted their lives incomplete unless they had an intimate confidant to ‘supply the comfort of friendship’.

By contrast he briefly summarises the experiences of Commineus (Philippe de Commines, 1447 to 1511, writer and diplomat in the courts of Burgundy and France) under two rulers, Charles Duke of Burgundy and King Louis XIII, who did not confide their worries, were very secretive, thus impairing their judgement and giving themselves much torment. The gnawing worries which a man without friends subjects himself to can be summarised:

Those that want friends to open themselves unto are cannibals of their own hearts.

2. The second fruit of friendship is ‘support of the judgment’; that it has a comparable effect on the rational faculties of the mind as on the emotional, namely helping to steady and clarify our thoughts. It:

maketh a fair day in the affections from storm and tempests…it maketh daylight in the understanding, out of darkness, and confusion of thoughts.

Sharing our thoughts with someone else helps us order and clarify them:

Whosoever hath his mind fraught with many thoughts, his wits and understanding do clarify and break up in the communicating and discoursing with another. He tosseth his thoughts more easily, he marshalleth them more orderly, he seeth how they look when they are turned into words. Finally, he waxeth wiser than himself, and that more by an hour’s discourse, than by a day’s meditation.

An hour’s conversation with a friend helps us sort out our thoughts more effectively than a day’s agonising by ourselves. The best kind of friend is one who gives you feedback and advice, but even without bonus, just the act of saying your thoughts out loud forces you to marshall your thoughts and, often, realise what you’re trying to say:

man learneth of himself and bringeth his own thoughts to light and whetteth his wits as against a stone.

As to benefiting from a friend’s advice:

The light that a man receiveth by counsel from another, is drier and purer, than that which cometh from his own understanding and judgment, which is ever infused, and drenched, in his affections and customs.

It’s a simple metaphor – dry good, wet bad – but unusual and memorable. Our own thoughts tend to flatter ourselves, be kind and compliant, in a way a good friend won’t.

Bacon then divides friendly advice into two types:

Counsel is of two sorts: the one concerning manners, the other concerning business.

Of the first kind:

Reading good books of morality is a little flat and dead. Observing our faults in others, is sometimes improper for our case. But the best receipt (best, I say, to work, and best to take) is the admonition of a friend.

‘Reading good books of morality being a little flat and dead’ certainly describes my experience of reading Cicero’s essays.

As for the second kind of friendly advice, concerning business:

the help of good counsel, is that which setteth business straight.

There is a risk here, of taking advice in fragments from different sources, in fact two risks: one, that it will be biased and reflect the counsellor’s concerns; the other that even if advice is well intentioned, if it doesn’t take into account the full situation of the advisee it might do more harm than good, like a doctor treating one symptom without knowing about the patent’s overall health.

Therefore rest not upon scattered counsels; they will rather distract and mislead, than settle and direct.

3. The third fruit is more multifarious: it is to giving ‘aid and bearing a part, in all actions and occasions’. When you consider how many things you cannot do for yourself, you realise that a friend is kind of ‘another you’, a doubling of your resources and skills. If a man dies with many cares and responsibilities unfinished (such as the care of children) a true friend is like another you, who will complete them.

A man hath a body, and that body is confined to a place; but where friendship is, all offices of life are as it were granted to him, and his deputy. For he may exercise them by his friend.

A man cannot promote himself and extol his merits without appearing to brag, but a friend can.

More subtly, we are limited in many of our communications with significant others by our position or role in relationship to them, whereas a friend can speak more freely, communicate more freely with them what we want to convey, because he or she is not so constrained:

A man cannot speak to his son but as a father; to his wife but as a husband; to his enemy but upon terms: whereas a friend may speak as the case requires, and not as it sorteth with the person.

At which point the essay abruptly ends. Compared with Cicero’s long essay on the same subject, it is short, practical, to the point, entirely lacking the elaborate scene-setting of Cicero’s debates, and unconstrained by Cicero’s tedious commitment to Stoic theology and his obsession with God, Morality, Reason, Wisdom and the rest of his junkyard of worthy but baseless abstractions.


Related link

Elizabethan and Jacobean reviews

Christopher Marlowe

Theatre

Terence

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto*

Terence’s texts

Publius Terentius Afer, generally known as Terence (185 to 160 BC), died at the very young age of 25, having written just 6 plays which, however, are preserved in numerous manuscripts. So, unlike Plautus (who wrote 120 plays of which only 20 survive) a) his oeuvre is very small and b) we have it all.

Not only that but some of the manuscripts contain unprecedented detail for ancient texts – a prologue by the author plus notes giving the date of the play’s composition and notes on its first production. (These notes were written in the mid second century AD by Gaius Sulpicius Apollinaris of Carthage.)

We also have a short life of Terence by the noted historian Suetonius, written about 100 AD i.e. about 250 years after Terence died, with some later additions; plus a set of comprehensive notes on the plays by a later grammarian (the Commentum Terenti of Aelius Donatus). In other words, as ancient authors go, we have an unprecedented wealth of information about Terence and his work.

Biography

Publius Terentius Afer is said to have been born in 185 BC (or 195, accounts vary). He was born either in Carthage or south Italy to a slave woman from Carthage. Romans had three names. Terence’s last name or cognomen, Afer, in Latin meant ‘from Africa’, a term which Romans applied very broadly to all the lands on the south shore of the Mediterranean, generally meaning modern Tunisia and Libya.

Terentius was a slave belonging to the senator Publius Terentius Lucanus, who brought him to Rome, gave him his forenames, a good education and his freedom. Whatever his mother or family may have called him, Terence entered Roman society bearing the first two names of his owner and a cognomen denoting his origin.

The circle of Scipio Aemilius

As a young adult Terence is said to have been a member of ‘the Scipionic circle’, a group of intellectuals who met under the patronage of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Aemilianus (185 to 129 BC), known as Scipio Aemilianus, the Roman general who supervised the final destruction of Carthage in 146 BC.

The existence of such a circle is attested solely by two works of Cicero written a hundred years later in the 50s BC, and is now questioned by some scholars. If it did exist, young Terence would have been mixing with leading Roman intellectuals and philhellenes of the day, including the noted historian of the Punic Wars, Polybius.

Cicero records the circulation of scurrilous rumours that Terence’s plays were far too good for an ex-slave to have written and so must have been written by others in Scipio circle, and we also know this from the remarkable prefaces to the plays which he himself appears to have written and which cite and refute this rumour. The modern scholarly view is that Terence did write all the plays attributed to him.

Terence compared with his predecessor, Plautus

Terence adapted Greek plays from the late phases of Attic comedy, also known as the New Comedy, written by Greek playwrights such as Menander and his contemporaries. This genre of adaptation had a name of its own, fabulae palliatae (‘adaptations of Hellenistic comedies played in Greek dress’).

In this Terence was much like his famous forebear, the comic playwright Plautus (254 to 184) but with importance differences. Plautus’s plays are characterised by:

  • extensive use of complex verse forms, often intended to be sung, a little like operetta (‘the high spots of his plays are often his musical cantica‘)
  • dancing to music
  • clever comic wordplay
  • fast-moving, often slapstick plots

Plautus’s plays are loosely comparable to modern pantomime, in their zany slapdash humour and frequent speeches directly to the audience. By contrast, Terence’s six plays:

  • use simple, conversational Latin rather than elaborate wordplay for its own sake
  • have more plausible plots i.e. the characters aren’t made to do improbable things just for the momentary lols
  • place more emphasis on consistency of character, less on zany slapstick moments

More sophisticated, more philhellenic

In her introduction to the Penguin paperback edition of Terence’s complete plays, the translator Betty Radice points out that the shift from Plautus to Terence was not just a generational one (if Terence was born in 185 that was more or less the same year that Plautus died). It was a cultural shift away from the broad farce which had its roots in Italian peasant life (lots of farms are referred to in Plautus) to a much more refined and intellectual and consciously philhellene culture shared by an urban, cultural elite.

Radice emphasises the sophistication and attention which Terence plays demand of their audience. They tread a line between, on the one hand, the lowbrow, rustic humour of Italian peasant life and, on the other, the deeply conservative, puritanical values based on a reverence for family tradition exemplified by a conservative spokesman like Cato the Censor.

Terence was equidistant from both, promoting the values of an aesthetic circle which valued the merits of the Greek originals but wanted them combined with a more sophisticated reading of character and more believable plots, all conveyed in a refined and purified Latin style.

The double plot and other characteristics

Radice says that Terence’s main contribution to drama was the double plot, and that this allowed him to pursue his chief interest, which was the impact of plot on character. By having a double plot he could experiment with the contrasting impact on differing characters of the same situation. On this reading, plot isn’t something cobbled together to create as many farcical situations and lols as possible, as per Plautus; but a device to explore different types of character through a new kind of clear, expressive Latin verse. Terence:

  • created a simpler, purer Latin style than anything written before
  • made his plays more ‘realistic’ by removing the discursive explanatory prologues of Plautus – instead you have to infer the backstory from the characters’ dialogue alone
  • dispensed with divine intervention, setting his plays entirely in the human world
  • moved away from caricaturing minor characters (think of all those grumpy cooks in Plautus)
  • gave more respect to the older generation who are no longer just fuddy-duddies standing in the way of young lovers
  • was more respectful of women – for example, The Mother in Law is almost entirely a woman’s play

Stage conventions

As with Plautus, Terence’s stage sets showed the front doors of two (occasionally three) buildings. It was the convention of the day that characters exiting left were heading to the countryside or the city harbour, while exiting right was to go to the town centre or forum.

The acting style was declamatory i.e. loud and formalised, as were gestures and movements. It’s probable that, as in Greek comedy, the actors wore masks to indicate typical characters. These included the character types Terence himself mentions in a throwaway remark in his prologue to Heauton Timorumenos:

  • the running slave
  • the angry old man
  • the greedy sponger
  • the shameless imposter
  • the rapacious slave trader

Although Terence didn’t use the sung aria which was one of Plautus’s most notable features, nonetheless his spoken dialogue was entirely in verse which was rhythmically recited to the music of a pipe player. (Because of the survival of the production notes we even know the names of the composers: for example, the pipe music for Andria was composed by one ‘Flaccus, slave of Claudius.’)

The occasional aria is thought to have been mimed by the actor and performed by a professional singer who stood to one side of the stage next to the pipe player. Possibly this was the same person as the cantor who ended every play by inviting the audience to applaud.

It’s hard to think of an approach to theatre more different from our modern style of microscopic realism, where exposure to countless movies and TV dramas has taught us to look for the slightest frown or smile or movement to convey meaning. These guys wore heavy masks, stood still and bellowed at the audience, or broke into song or dance.

Terence’s huge legacy

Terence has a claim to have created ‘problem’ comedy i.e. light-hearted plays which address fairly serious issues. He is routinely described as ‘a major influence on European drama’.

The purity of his Latin quite quickly made him a model for students learning the language, in the ancient world and beyond, which helps to explain the survival of all his texts through the long Middle Ages in numerous copies. Radice gives a long, detailed and fascinating summary of the afterlife of Terence’s plays, through Late Antiquity and into the Middle Ages when they were valued enough to be extensively copied – the scholar Claudia Villa estimated that 650 manuscripts containing Terence’s work date from after AD 800.

Due to his clear and entertaining language, Terence’s works were heavily used by monasteries and convents during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Scribes often learned Latin through the meticulous copying of Terence’s texts. Priests and nuns often learned to speak Latin through re-enactment of Terence’s plays. (Wikipedia)

The dawn of the Renaissance in Italy saw the extensive revival, translation and new performances of his plays. The Renaissance humanist Erasmus included no fewer than 250 references to and quotes from Terence in his Adages, which were designed to prove that the best values of Antiquity were perfectly aligned with Christian morality. The German church reformer Martin Luther not only quoted Terence frequently but recommended his comedies for the instruction of children in school. Terence was translated by numerous eminent Renaissance authors, including Machiavelli.

* Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto

This is Terence’s most famous quote, from the play Heauton Timorumenos. It means literally:

  • I am a human being; of that which is human, I think nothing estranged from me.

More smoothly as:

  • I am human, and think nothing human is alien to me.

I prefer the implications of the latter because it reinforces one of my core principles, which is a frank acceptance of human nature in all its gruesomeness. We are, after all, only animals which, through a quirk of evolution, happen to be able to ‘think’, sort of, sometimes.

Most history is horrific, most humans are disappointing, many are terrifying. We must make the best of life based on a realistic assessment of human history and behaviour. Denying these realities distorts our understanding of human nature, human history and human society, and undermines assessments of what realistic change and reform we can hope to effect.

Therefore I accept it, accept it all, all human behaviour, the killers and rapists, the paedophiles and génocidaires, the greedy billionaires and the drug addict muggers, alongside the sugar and spice and all things nice which the sentimental, naive and wilfully blind want human nature to consist of – and the huge territory between these extremes, where people are confused, uncertain, generally nice, sometimes stressed, angry or inexplicable and unpredictable. And that is what this quote means to me. It signifies a complete, Nietzschean acceptance of the gritty reality.

Radice, on the other hand, translates it as:

  • I am human myself, so I think every human affair is my concern.

Which may be a true translation but whose last few words seems to me to drastically expand the thought, making it far more pro-active and empathetic than my preferred version. Radice’s translation implies that all human affairs are my concern i.e. that I ought to be actively involved in them. Turns it from the detached and rather analytical acceptance of my version into a motto for Amnesty International.

I prefer the second translation, which implies that I should take note of and take account of all human affairs – but not be so foolish as to get caught up in them.


Credit

All page references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition of Terence: The Comedies.

Roman reviews

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint @ the British Museum

‘Thomas is the best doctor for the worthy sick’
(Inscription on a lead ampulla created before 1200 to hold some of the Saint Thomas Becket’s miracle-working blood)

Two years after his murder on 29 December 1170, Thomas Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander III and his tomb at Canterbury cathedral quickly became a site of miraculous healing and wonder cures, and one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in all of Europe, second only to Rome and Santiago de Compostela.

How appropriate of the British Museum to re-open after the long COVID lockdown with a grand exhibition devoted to one of the greatest healers this country has ever known.

The healing of Ralph de Longeville. Miracle window, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Thomas’s story

The exhibition is in the central rotunda at the museum, smaller and more intimate than the large Sainsburys gallery at the back. It is laid out in simple chronological order, with key events told in the dozen or so big wall posters and embellished in the labels of over 100 objects brought together for the first time, including rare loans from across the UK and Europe.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll quote liberally from the exhibition wall labels:

Becket was born in 1120 in Cheapside, a stone’s throw from St Paul’s Cathedral. He had a comfortable childhood. His parents Gilbert and Matilda were immigrants from Northern France, and part of a wealthy merchant community living in the commercial heart of London.

Around the age of 18 Becket went to study in Paris. After three years in Paris, Becket returned to England. He was offered the chance to work as a clerk for Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, joining a group of ambitious young men. The legal and diplomatic training that Becket received in his nine years with Theobald was life-changing.

In 1154 the archbishop recommended him as royal chancellor to the new king, Henry II, and the two men became great friends. It was the best paid position in the royal household, earning him five shillings a day. As chancellor Becket was responsible for issuing documents in the king’s name.

In 1162 Henry II nominated Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, following Theobald’s death. It was a controversial appointment. Becket was not a priest and until then had lived a worldly, secular life. The king wanted him to remain chancellor, hoping that having his friend in both positions would increase royal control over Church and State. This plan failed when Becket renounced the chancellorship and began to oppose Henry. In 1164, with tensions escalating, the archbishop escaped across the Channel.

Henry II saw Becket’s rejection of the chancellorship in 1162 as a betrayal. Over the next two years their relationship disintegrated. One issue in particular divided them. The king demanded that churchmen accused of serious crimes be tried in secular rather than religious courts. Becket refused to endorse this infringement of the rights of the Church, provoking the king’s outrage.

Henry II and Becket arguing in a genealogy of the Kings of England, about 1307 to 1327. © British Library Board – Royal MS 20 A II, f. 7v.

With the situation spiralling out of control, Becket was brought before the king and accused of trumped-up crimes. Fearing for his life, on 2 November 1164 the archbishop fled abroad. He spent six years in exile under the protection of Henry’s rival, Louis VII of France, returning on 2 December 1170. Henry II punished Becket for leaving England without his permission, confiscating his land and wealth.

Becket found himself in France at the same time as Pope Alexander III, who was locked in disagreement with Frederick Barbarossa, an emperor with vast territories in central Europe. Like Becket, Alexander was in exile and sought protection from King Louis VII of France. After making peace the pope returned to Rome. This image shows him embracing Becket before their farewell. Alexander was later responsible for Becket’s canonisation as a saint.

Pope Alexander, who had forbidden the Archbishop of York to perform the sacred act, receives a complaint from Becket. He asks for permission to excommunicate the bishops involved in the ceremony, which the pope duly grants.

The coronation of the Young King spurred Becket into action and, after agreeing a fragile peace with Henry II, he decided to return to England. Fatefully, before leaving France he carried out the sentences of excommunication endorsed by the pope.

On 2 December, Becket returned to Canterbury and the cathedral he had not seen for six years. At his Christmas court in Normandy, Henry learned that Becket had excommunicated the English bishops involved in his son’s coronation. He flew into a rage, calling Becket a traitor and ‘low-born clerk’. Four knights, Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, Richard Brito and William de Tracy, heard the king’s outburst. They hatched a plan to bring the archbishop to Henry and headed for England to arrest him.

The knights arrived at Canterbury and entered the precincts. They tried to arrest Thomas but he fled into the cathedral itself. Here the knights again tried to seize him but Thomas refused to go with them. The knights had worked themselves up into a rage and also risked major humiliation if they ended up having to leave empty-handed. Although the precise exchanges will never be known the confrontation escalated out of control and finally the knights attacked, one of them raising his sword and bringing it down to shatter Thomas’s skull. There were quite a few eye witnesses including Thomas’s clerk, Edward Grim, who tried to intervene and was injured in the struggle. All the eye witnesses agree that Thomas’s skull was shattered and a fragment of it flew to the ground.

The exhibition contains numerous depictions of the deed, as illustrations in illuminated manuscripts such as the MS containing John of Salisbury’s Life of St Thomas Becket from the British Library, one of the earliest known representations of the murder, or as carved reliefs, as shown below.

Alabaster panel showing the murder of Thomas Becket. England, around 1425 to 1450. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Appalled at what they had done the knights returned to Henry’s court in France where the king immediately grasped the significance of the catastrophe. In the years to come he made not one but two major penances to atone for his guilt and eventually took the extraordinary step of going on pilgrimage himself to Canterbury, where he stripped to a loincloth and shuffled through the cathedral on his bare knees, arriving at the altar where he was flagellated by monks.

To understand the utterly Christian worldview of the Middle Ages, you have to grasp that this was a reasonable and practical thing for a king to do. It cleansed him of his personal guilt and thus enabled his soul to enter heaven. It went a long way to winning back those of his subjects and the hierarchy of the church in Rome which had been scandalised by the murder. And so it, at the same time, fulfilled Henry’s purpose of asserting his authority over the farflung territories of his Plantagenet empire which stretched from Scotland to the Pyrenees.

The personal drama

Complicated story, isn’t it, and I’ve followed the museum’s account so closely because your opinion of the murder has to depend on a good grasp of its context and of the precise chain of events leading up to it.

At the level of personal drama, Henry and Becket had at one time been very good friends. Becket was 13 years older than Henry, better educated and in many ways a mentor to the younger man. The pair worked well together when they were king and chancellor. When Henry raised him to the archbishopric he therefore had every expectation that Thomas would be grateful.

But Thomas was also a flamboyant man, given to grandiloquent gestures as chancellor and, when he became archbishop, there is evidence from contemporary accounts that many other clerics disapproved. He had to be promoted through the hierarchy of clerical positions at top speed which many felt made a mockery of religion.

Therefore Thomas was nervously aware of his lack of deep theological training or of proper clerical experience. Combine that with a tendency to grandstand and you have an accident waiting to happen.

To this day historians debate his motives.

1. When he refused Henry’s demands to reform ecclesiastical law in order to make priests who had committed egregious crimes (for example rape or murder) subject to the secular laws of the land, did Thomas do it because he sincerely felt everyone anointed into the church was only accountable to the church – or because of his awareness that he wasn’t a ‘proper’ churchman so he was trying to curry favour with the English church hierarchy and the distant pope?

2. When he made the dramatic move of excommunicating the bishops who anointed Henry’s young son co-king, did he do it out of purely religious fervour and in order to protect the rights and privileges of the post of archbishop of Canterbury, whose ancient right it was to perform coronations and this undermined his authority. Or was he, once again, grandstanding to curry favour, this time with the pope who he met in exile in France and who explicitly approved his actions?

3. Lastly, why did he insist on staying put when the knights came to arrest him? Chances are he knew they were behaving without Henry’s explicit permission, that arresting an archbishop was illegal, and he knew any confrontation between him and the king would inevitably draw in the pope who was a staunch ally. Why not go with the knights, have it out with the king and be exonerated?

Alabaster panel from an altarpiece showing Becket’s consecration as archbishop on 3 June 1162. England, first half of the 15th century. Private Collection. © Nicholas and Jane Ferguson.

Or, as T.S. Eliot’s play on the subject considers, did Thomas want to be martyred? Facing intractable problems, not least his own sense of inadequacy and illegitimacy (as a man who lacked the deep experience required by an archbishop) did his liking for grand gestures kick in, and he taunted the knights so much they were left with no way out?

This is the view of Paul Johnson in his 1976 History of Christianity who quotes Edward Grim, who was an eye witness:

He who had long yearned for martyrdom now saw that the occasion to embrace it had arrived. (Paul Johnson, History of Christianity, 1990 Penguin edition, page 210)

And one of Thomas’s many hagiographers, William Fitzstephen:

Had he so wished, the Archbishop might easily have turned aside and saved himself by flight, for both time and place offered an opportunity to escape without being discovered.’ (ibid)

Could he have simply walked out peacefully with the knights and accompanied them to France with no fuss? We’ll never know.

The saint and healer

The exhibition really blossoms after Becket was murdered because that’s when he was transformed from one among many squabbling European monarchs and their statesman, into a premier league saint.

News of his murder spread far and wide across Europe and almost immediately people rich and poor, high and low, young and old, male and female, began making the pilgrimage to the cathedral and to the precise steps into the choir where he was hacked down. Relics were many: his clothes, his blood, his bones, his coffin, special prayers, these all helped rain down on pilgrims inestimable blessings, healings and cures.

Not only did Canterbury become by far Britain’s premier pilgrimage site but until the Reformation Thomas was the most frequently portrayed of all saints, had more parish churches named after him than any other saint, and more English boys were called after him than any other namesake.

The exhibition includes many of the precious caskets which were lovingly created to contain this or that relic brought back by pilgrims which are all beautiful examples of medieval craftsmanship, but maybe the most striking is this reliquary casket from Norway. Norway! Because apparently in Norway Thomas’s fame was such that he was second in popularity to St Olaf, the national saint.

(If you look carefully at the bottom panel you can not only see the knight hacking Thomas’s head but also the famous fragment of skull falling to the floor.)

Reliquary casket, c.1220–50 from Hedalen Stave Church, Norway. By kind permission of Hedalen Stave Church

The stained glass

In the decades following his death, the authorities at Canterbury cathedral created a new chapel devoted to Thomas. This included what became a set of 12 tall, narrow stained glass windows over six meters in height and each containing a set of four circular roundels themselves divided into segments depicting scenes not from Thomas’s life, but from the countless miraculous healings which people attributed to his powers. Hence they are collectively known as the Miracle Windows.

Five of the original windows were destroyed over the centuries, so seven survive, and one of these seven has been lovingly dismantled, removed from the cathedral and carefully transported here to the British Museum, where the four sections have been separated and are displayed at head height in a special curving gallery.

So this is a golden opportunity to see some masterpieces of medieval stained glass, really close up, beautifully presented and with the sometimes gruesome stories portrayed in each of the panels carefully described and explained.

Take the roundel which describes the sensational story of Eilward of Westoning.

Miracle window, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Eilward was a peasant who was accused of stealing in a drunken quarrel. In the panel on the mid-left he stands with the stolen items tied behind his back. A judge in a cap sentences him to trial by ordeal. Eilward fails and is condemned to blinding and castration. At the bottom left, Eilward is reclining in bed, his head bandaged from a blow. Becket appears to him in a vision, emerging from a shrine to bless him. In the middle-right panel Eilward lies bound to a plank as a man holds him by the neck and stabs his eyes while another wields a blade, kneels on his legs and reaches for his testicles.

Becket appears in a vision to Eilward. The saint makes the sign of the cross in front of his face. On waking, Eilward’s eyes and testicles grow back. The top panel shows Eilward riding a horse to Canterbury Cathedral. In the bottom centre panel a crowd gathers round Eilward as he points to his eyes while another man points at his groin to highlight his miraculous healing. The green tree at the centre symbolises his restored fertility. The panel at bottom right shows Eilward giving thanks at Becket’s tomb.

The other roundels describe in similar detail the miracle of Etheldreda who recovers from a fever, Saxeva who recovers from a painful arm and stomach ache, two sisters from Boxley who were lame and are healed, a monk called Hugh from Jervaulx Abbey who is cured, and so on. I particularly liked the story of Hugh who, at one point, suffers a catastrophic nosebleed which is depicted as a vivid flow of red streaming down from his face, on the lower left.

Detail from Miracle window showing the story of Hugh of Jervaulx, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. Note the vivid red nosebleed from the prostrate man’s face © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Move over, graphic novels!

Thomas and Realpolitik

I was already familiar with the story of Thomas Becket, possibly a little over-familiar with it and not much in the main body of the exhibition told me much I didn’t already know or changed my own personal opinion.

Influenced by secular historians like Paul Johnson, I am inclined to think of Thomas as a deliberately obstructive, showboating and irresponsible man who needlessly set out to make Henry II’s life as difficult as possible. In most accounts I’ve read, the Becket murder was a blip or side issue in the bigger picture of Henry’s lifelong struggle to maintain his Plantagenet empire. It had a seismic impact on popular culture but little or no impact on the diplomatic Realpolitik of the day. After his half-naked atonement Henry restored good relations with the pope who approved his selection for next Archbishop of Canterbury as well as other ecclesiastical posts, as well as his plans to invade and conquer Ireland. In practical, worldly terms, Thomas’s death changed nothing.

(It’s worth pointing out that the curators disagree, and include a treasured manuscript of Magna Carta, signed 45 years after Thomas’s death by Henry’s useless son, King John, in 1215, to make their case. The Charter’s very first clause, probably added at the insistence of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, states that the English Church must be free from royal interference. In the curators’ opinion this demonstrates how Becket’s dispute with Henry II continued to shape English politics long after his death. In Paul Johnson’s view this struggle between king and church was the central issue of the high Middle Ages, would remain a bugbear for centuries until Henry VIII decisively ended it with victory for the secular authority, and Thomas’s death didn’t really affect the issue one way or the other. Discuss.)

The Canterbury Tales

The exhibition has a section devoted to The Canterbury Tales, one of the key texts of English literature and, with its varied and colourful tales told by a motley cross section of late 14th century personalities all engaged on a horseback pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, as explained in the lovely words of the Prologue.

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

‘That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke’, I love that line. Who doesn’t need holp when that they are seeke?

The exhibition includes one of the earliest manuscripts which contains all 24 of the surviving stories, as well as blow-ups of the original medieval portraits of some of the storytellers (the Wife of Bath, the Yeoman, the Merchant and the Shipman). But none of the stories are actually about Thomas and, if anything, they demonstrate a woefully relaxed attitude to Christian faith and morality which would have appalled the saint and his most zealous devotees.

The suppression of a saint

The one part of the exhibition I found genuinely new and informative came right at the end and deals with Henry VIII’s aggressive erasure of the cult of Thomas.

I knew that, as part of the first steps in the Reformation and linked with the Dissolution of the monasteries, Henry had all pilgrimage sites and saints shrines shut down. I knew from Johnson’s account that Thomas’s shrine was the biggest one in the land and that Henry’s commissioners carried off a vast amount of loot, namely 4,994 ounces of gold, 4,425 of silver-gilt, 5,286 of plain silver and 26 cartloads of treasure. A generation earlier, around 1511, the Dutch reformer Erasmus and the English humanist John Colet had visited the shrine and been disgusted at its tackiness. They were offered the opportunity to kiss a prize relic, the genuine arm of St George, or to touch a manky old rag supposedly stained with the saint’s blood, and Thomas’s genuine original shoe to be kissed.

As the curators observe:

After visiting Becket’s shrine real pilgrims bought similar souvenirs, badges to pin to clothing or little flasks worn around the neck. They were made quickly and cheaply by pouring molten lead or tin into a mould. The range of Canterbury souvenirs is remarkable, from miniature bells inscribed with ‘St Thomas’ to tiny swords with detachable scabbards.

And the exhibition includes no fewer than 24 examples of these multivarious knick-knacks and gewgaws. The medieval cult of saints had degenerated to the level of Blackpool souvenirs.

Pilgrim badge, 14th century, England, showing Becket returning from exile in France.

So I wasn’t surprised to learn the specifics of the demolition of Thomas’s massive and treasure-laden shrine, that:

On 5 September 1538, Henry VIII arrived in Canterbury. During his three-day stay royal agents began demolishing St Thomas’s shrine, prising off the jewels and smashing the marble base. They packed up its precious metal in crates, which were taken to London. Becket’s bones were removed, and a rumour spread that they had been burnt and the ashes scattered to the wind.

What I didn’t know and found fascinating was the way King Henry VIII singled out the cult of Thomas for special suppression. It was because, at a political level, above the level of popular culture and religion, Thomas was a symbol of the independence of the Church and Henry’s reformation was about decisively ending centuries of squabbling, and asserting the paramount authority of the secular monarch.

This explains why, after 1534 when Henry broke with Rome and Parliament appointed him Supreme Head of the Church of England, he could not tolerate Becket’s status as a defender of Church liberty and denounced him as a traitor to the country, or the new notion of ‘nation’ which Henry was creating.

Hence the passage of laws which singled out the cult of Saint Thomas and banned it. The laws banned visual references to the saint and insisted that the very word ‘saint’ was to be expunged from the record. Henceforth he was to be referred to as ‘Bishop Thomas’. A wall label quotes from a Royal proclamation, of 16 November 1538:

…from henceforth the said Thomas Becket shall not be esteemed, named, reputed, nor called a saint, but Bishop Becket, and…his images and pictures through the whole realm shall be put down…

The exhibition closes with some quite fascinating examples of how this erasure from history, this rewriting of history, was carried out, including:

  • a book of hours where the devotional prayer to Becket has been carefully cut out, although the illustration of the martyrdom has been left (intriguingly) undamaged
  • a copy of the Golden Legend, a very popular compendium of the lives of saints, in which the text and image for Becket’s story have been crossed out with black ink
  • a manuscript containing texts for the celebration of mass, once owned by the parish church of St John the Baptist in Bromsgrove, near Worcester, in which thick red ink has been selectively smeared across prayers to St Thomas in order to obliterate them

Manuscript containing mass texts from the parish church of St John the Baptist in Bromsgrove in which prayers to ‘Bishop’ Thomas have been obliterated by red ink. Around 1450. © The Syndics of Cambridge University Library

Curators

  • Lloyd de Beer, curator, Medieval Britain and Europe
  • Naomi Speakman, curator, Late Medieval Europe
  • Sophie Kelly, project curator

Related links

Other medieval reviews

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