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

Eastward Ho! by George Chapman, Ben Jonson and John Marston (1605)

Six salient facts:

1. Eastward Ho and Westward Ho were the cries of the watermen who plied on the Thames, telling customers which way they were headed.

2. Eastward Ho! was a collaboration between three leading playwrights of the era, George Chapman, Ben Jonson and John Marston. Scholars have been arguing for centuries about who wrote which bit.

3. Eastward Ho! was staged at the Blackfriars Theatre by a company of boy actors known as the Children of the Queen’s Revels, granted a patent by King James I in 1604. Boy actors! So imagine everything that follows being played by boys! All the double entendres and jokes about pricks and purses, Gertrude making eyes at Quicksilver, Sindefy the whore, all the vamping… boys.

4. Eastward Ho! was performed at the Blackfriars Theatre. This was an enclosed theatre which catered to a financial elite, charging sixpence admission, compared to 1 pence at the more popular and open-to-the-elements Globe Theatre.

5. Eastward Ho! includes references to and parodies of popular contemporary plays such as The Spanish Tragedy, Tamburlaine and Hamlet. Even the play’s title is a reference, a riposte to the recently performed Westward Ho! by Thomas Dekker and John Webster, who then went on to write Northward Ho! as a response to Eastward. Jacobean theatre was a tightly packed, highly competitive, self-referential little world.

6. The play contained scathing satire on all manner of subjects to do with contemporary London life, but one of these was the widespread animosity against the many Scots who had accompanied the new king, James VI of Scotland who became James I of England upon the death of Queen Elizabeth in March 1605, down to London. Chronically poor from the start of his reign, James quickly became notorious for selling knighthoods for £40. 900 were sold in the first year of his reign. This created a mercenary atmosphere of corruption, that all that mattered was money, a sense that you could get rich and climb the social ladder overnight by clever scams. This is the corrupt vision which lures Quicksilver, Petronel and Security, the play’s three baddies, who all hope to get rich quick by various scams – and who are balanced by Touchstone, standing for the bourgeois virtues of hard work, and Golding, who stands for loyalty and honesty.

Having read the play I’m surprised that the handful of satirical references to the Scots and the selling of knighthoods are relatively trivial, you could blink and miss them.

1. When Sir Petronel Flash is washed up on the Isle of Dogs two passing gentlemen mock him, and then one – out of tune with his preceding remarks – says something in a Scots accent:

FIRST GENTLEMAN: On the coast of Dogs, sir; y’are i’th’ Isle o’ Dogs, I tell you, I see y’ave been washed in the Thames here, and I believe ye were drowned in a tavern before, or else you would never have took boat in such a dawning as this was. Farewell, farewell; we will not know you for shaming of you. I ken the man weel; he’s one of my thirty pound knights.
SECOND GENTLEMAN: No, no, this is he that stole his knighthood o’ the grand day for four pound given to a page; all the money in’s purse, I wot well.

It’s peculiar the way this one-off remark and its odd Scottish impersonation sticks out from the text around it, as if it’s been cut and pasted onto the rest of his speech in English. It’s an oddly random moment in the text

2. In the pub, the gentlemen who are joining the expedition to Virginia ask Captain Seagull what it’s like and he sets off on a long deceitful description of how it’s overflowing with gold,m in the middle of which he suddenly segues into a passage about Scots, and the jokey idea that it would be lovely if all the Scots in London could be magically transported to America.

SCAPETHRIFT: And is it a pleasant country withal?
SEAGULL: As ever the sun shined on; temperate and full of all sorts of excellent viands: wild boar is as common there as our tamest bacon is here; venison as mutton. And then you shall live freely there, without sergeants, or courtiers, or lawyers, or intelligencers, only a few industrious Scots, perhaps, who indeed are dispersed over the face of the whole earth. But as for them, there are no greater friends to Englishmen and England, when they are out on’t, in the world, than they are. And for my part, I would a hundred thousand of ’hem were there, for we are all one countrymen now, ye know, and we should find ten times more comfort of them there than we do here.

Someone reported the playwrights to the authorities as disrespecting the new king. Marston got wind of it and went into hiding, but Jonson and Chapman were briefly imprisoned for lèse majesty.

Ten years later, Jonson told Drummond of Hawthornden (a Scots writer who he stayed with on a visit to Scotland) that they thought they might have their ears and noses slit.

It’s very difficult for us to really assimilate the casual violence and casual death of the Elizabethan/Jacobean period. Tens of thousands died of the periodic outbreaks of plague. There were plenty of other ailments to die of in between. You were liable to be conscripted for one of the endless wars. Jonson is known to have killed a fellow actor in a duel. The plays refer to the common punishment of being whipped. And here are a couple of poets in gaol for a few weeks wondering if they’ll publicly have their ears cut off or noses slit! As I say, difficult for us to really imagine what life was like.

What happened to Jonson and Chapman? The pair wrote letters to every influential patron and person they knew asking for their intercession. These letters are included as an appendix in the New Mermaid edition of the play and very interesting reading they make, too. Eventually, they were released, whereupon they threw a big banquet for their friends and supporters.

Cast

There’s quite a large cast (all played by boys!):

Touchstone, a goldsmith.
Quicksilver, and Golding, apprentices to Touchstone.
Sir Petronel Flash, a shifty knight.
Security, an old usurer.
Bramble, a lawyer.
Seagull, a sea-captain.
Scapethrift, and Spendall, adventurers bound for Virginia.
Slitgut, a butcher’s apprentice.
Poldavy, a tailor.
Holdfast, and Wolf, officers of the Counter.
Hamlet, a footman.
Potkin, a tankard-bearer.

Mistress Touchstone.
Gertrude, and Mildred, her daughters.
Winifred, wife to Security.
Sindefy, mistress to Quicksilver.
Bettrice, a waiting-woman.
Mrs. Ford, Mrs. Gazer, Coachman, Page, Constables, Prisoners, &c.

Eastward Ho! plot summary

Master Touchstone is an honest but tetchy goldsmith. He has two daughters and two apprentices. The elder daughter, Gertrude, is ‘of a proud ambition and nice wantonness’, the younger, Mildred, ‘of a modest humility and comely soberness’. So with the apprentices who are nicely paired & contrasted, Quicksilver is a graceless unthrift ‘of a boundless prodigality’, but Golding is ‘of a most hopeful industry’, a model of industry and sobriety.

Act 1 scene 1 The play opens with Touchstone and Frank Quicksilver arguing, the latter insisting he is the son of a gentleman and is off to the pub to hang out with gallants and gull them out of money. Crossly, Touchstone says that he rose by hard work and repeats his catchphrase, ‘Work upon it now!’ Touchstone exits and Golding is left alone with Quicksilver, who insults Touchstone for being a flat-capped bourgeois, swears a lot and it is in this speech that Quicksilver says Golding shouldn’t face West to the setting sun, but look out for himself and fare Eastward Ho!

As the play develops East is associated with:

  • the rising sun
  • the mythical castle in the country which Sir Petronal Flash claims to own
  • the direction down the Thames the ship to America will take

Act 1 scene 2 Proud Gertrude is impatiently awaiting the arrival of her suitor, Sir Petronel Flash, while meek and mild sister Mildred watches her dress up in pretentious finery, mock the lowly origins of her own parents, and look forward to becoming a fine lady. Her tailor, Poldavy, encourages her to prance and bob like a ‘fine lady’. She is a type of the pretentious bourgeois.

Enter Sir Petronel Flash who quickly comes over as a superficial fool. Mistress Touchstone is as keen to be rich as Gertrude and the two of them, plus Flash, make a bevy of pretentious fools. Mistress T explains that Sir Petronel is one of the new knights, a reference to James I’s innovation of selling knighthoods. Gertrude wishes him to take her away from all this to his big house in the country. She uses the affected pronunciation of city-dames, namely saying ‘chity’ and ‘chitizen’.

The pretentious threesome exit leaving the stage to Touchstone, Mildred and Golding. Rather surprisingly Touchstone marries Golding to Mildred. She is all filial loyalty and so meekly agrees, Golding swears his devotion to his master and they go in to have a little wedding meal. Touchstone, alone on stage, explains that he is running a little experiment:

This match shall on, for I intend to prove
Which thrives the best, the mean or lofty love.
Whether fit wedlock vow’d ’twixt like and like,
Or prouder hopes, which daringly o’erstrike…

There is no mention of any love or affection whatsoever between the young couple. It is a striking example of Jonson’s didactic theatre, utterly lacking either the magical romance of Shakespeare’s comedies, or the innocent mirth of Dekker’s Shoemakers’ Holiday.

Act 2 scene 1 Next morning outside Master Touchstone’s shop. He calls Quicksilver to him, who is hungover and explains he got smashed at the party to celebrate Gertrude and Sir Petronel’s wedding. He staggers off to drink some more. Touchstone retires and listens to the conversation of Golding and Mildred which is exemplary for love and devotion. At this point Quicksilver staggers back on stage, positively drunk and asks first Golding, then Touchstone if he can borrow money.

Touchstone has had enough and throws him out, giving him his indenture and all other belongings. Very drunk, Quicksilver quotes the opening speech from Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, then swears at Touchstone:

Quicksilver: Sweet Touchstone, will you lend me two shillings?
Touchstone: Not a penny.
Quicksilver: Not a penny? I have friends, and I have acquaintance; I will piss at thy shop-posts, and throw rotten eggs at thy sign.

As Quicksilver staggers offstage, Touchstone abruptly frees Golding from his apprenticeship, offers him a handsome dowry and promises to host a marriage feast even more spectacular than Petronel’s. Golding, modest and sober, demurs, saying it would be profligate and wasteful and he and Mildred will be happy to have a small ceremony with just Touchstone present, and then consume the cold leftovers from Petronel’s feast. Touchstone remarks that his daughter is now impatient to seat off Eastward to her knightly husband’s country pile.

Act 2 scene 2 At Security’s house. Security has a little soliloquy in which he introduces himself as Security, the famous usurer, who keeps people’s belongings, in this case the fine clothes of Quicksilver, who in the past has nipped in here to swap his prentice clothes for fancy togs to go meeting his gallant mates.

Enter hungover Quicksilver climbing into his swagger clothes. The notes explain the business relationship between the two: Quicksilver pretends friendship to city rakes and gallants, lends them money, then pretends to be in debt, persuades them to sign a bond for a commodity or an exorbitantly high-interest loan payable to Security, for which they are responsible. In other words, Quicksilver dupes his ‘friends’ into getting into deep debt with Security: which is why Security keeps his clothes and minds his affairs for him.

Security is married to a young woman, Winifred but has a sexy servant, Sindefy, ‘Sin’ for short, who comes bearing the rest of Quicksilver’s posh clothes. Quicksilver calls Security ‘Dad’. After lengthy speeches about how they rely on no trade, preferring to make money out of money, (which are designed, I think, to make the audience despise them) Security lays out their latest plan: Quicksilver will get Sir Petronel Flash into his debt. They’ve learned that Flash married Gertrude to get his hands on her inheritance, to convert it to cash and take ship for Virginia as a ‘knight adventurer’.

They devise a Plan: Gertrude has not yet gone down to the country to visit her husband’s (fictional) castle, but is still in London. Quicksilver will visit her and will help the introduction of Sindefy who will take on the character of a gullible young woman just up from the country – you can just imagine this will lead to an orgy of ridiculous social pretentiousness.

Just before they pack up, Security is called offstage by his wife (?) Winnie, leaving Quicksilver alone. Out of Quicksilver’s mouth oozes pure, malicious evil, as he insults Security behind his back and says he hopes to live to see dog’s meat made of his flesh. This sounds like Ben Jonson. It is exactly the tone of vicious hatred which animates Mosca in Volpone. Coming from the bonhomie of The Shoemakers’ Holiday, this kind of thing is like treading in dog poo.

Act 2 scene 3 Quicksilver is at Petronel’s London lodging as the latter prepares to set off. He wants to flee London to escape his wife, who he can’t stand. He readily admits he has no castle in the country, something Gertrude will shortly find out. With what I think of as typical Jonsonian heartlessness, Petronel hopes Gertrude will hang herself in despair.

Quicksilver persuades Petronel to stay and get Gertrude to sign over her inheritance, give it in bond to Security who will increase its value. Enter Gertrude now dressed grandly and swanking with grand manners, telling the men when to doff their hats and when to put them back on.

Security presents to her Sindefy, demurely dressed, and preposterously describes her as a simple country girl who intended to become a nun but has come up to the big city seeking advice. In her pretentiously lofty manner, Gertrude agrees to employ her as her personal maid.

Security invites Petronal to come and dine with him but Gertrude is hen-pecking him, and refuses to let him go, insisting they dine at home so she can quickly take him to bed. Quicksilver and Security make cheeky asides about her being bossy. Finally it is agreed that Petronel will visit Security the following morning.

Act 3 scene 1 The next morning at Security’s house, he has just given Petronel a fine breakfast feast. They exchange extravagant compliments, Security promising to make Petronel godfather to his first child, while Petronel gives him a diamond to give his first-born, and Security makes his young wife, Winifred, kiss him. Security’s lawyer, Bramble, has drawn up documents.

Enter the captain of the ship taking Petronel, Captain Seagull and Spendall who say they must haste and leave under cover since the ship is taken out in a false name.

Act 3 scene 2 An inn-yard where the harassed coachman and servant makes haste to prepare Gertrude’s coach. She is obsessed with being the wife of a knight and having a coach. Two city women, Mistresses Gaze and Fond, line up to watch the show and shout encouragement to Mistress Gertrude, who is accompanied by her mother, Mistress Touchstone, equally impatient to be a Great Lady.

Petronel himself arrives and asks her to wait, but she says she is impatient to decorate his castle for his arrival. Quicksilver also enters and tells Gertrude her father has just officiated at the wedding of Golding and Mildred. Gertrude is disgusted at her father for marrying her sister to a common apprentice: henceforth he (her father) will have to call her ‘Madam’.

Enter Touchstone, Mildred and Golding. Gertrude is appalled her sister got married in such a common hat. Touchstone disowns her for snobbery. Gertrude insults Golding for marrying her sister. Golding is tactful and considerate of his master.

Enter Security and his lawyers and they cozen Gertrude into signing away her inheritance, she thinking it’s a minor property in town and the money will be used to beautify the castle. She and Mistress Touchstone and Sindefy, her maid, depart in the coach. Petronel and Quicksilver discuss the very great disappointment Gertrude is going to have when she discovers he has no castle – but by then Petronel will have fled the country.

Petronel expects Security to bring him the money they’ve discussed at Billingsgate. There then follows a complicated sequence during which Petronel reveals to Security that he is in love with the wife of Security’s lawyer, Bramble. He would like, as a favour, Security to take Bramble out for a drink, while he steals Bramble’s wife away. Security enters into the spirit of the plot and exits. Only then do Petronel and Quicksilver reveal that, while Security is out with Bramble, Petronel will steal away Security’s wife, Winifred. Quicksilver and Petronel are fretting about how to disguise her, when Security unexpectedly re-enters and says the best disguise will be his wife’s cloak and hands it over.

Act 3 scene 3 Captain Seagull and his men (Spendall and Scapethrift) are at the Blue Anchor tavern, Billingsgate, awaiting Petronel. His dim men ask about Virginia and Seagull confidently tells them the streets are paved with gold, says the expedition there of 1579 was a great success and the Englishmen intermarried with the natives.

Petronel arrives and they toast the success of the voyage. Security and Bramble arrive, impressed with the toasting and confidence of the crew. Quicksilver arrives with Security’s wife in disguise and wearing a mask. Petronel explains, ostensibly for the benefit of Bramble, that it is a cousin come to see him off who doesn’t want to be recognised in a low tavern.

She is crying and so Petronel asks Security, as a favour, to comfort her. This is designed to elicit howls of laughter from the audience, as Security is all unknowingly comforting his own wife, telling her she is well shot of ‘an old jealous dotard’ and will soon be in the arms of a young lover! About six times various characters make the joke that the ship is bound that night for Cuckold’s Haven, a real place, on the Thames below Rotherhithe.

Increasingly drunk, Petronel suggests to the company that they hold their farewell feast aboard Sir Francis Drake’s old ship, and they dance round the silent, disguised woman to celebrate the idea. Bramble tells Security the mystery woman is wearing Security’s wife’s clothes, but Security just laughs at him, confident that she is Bramble‘s wife – everyone in the audience, of course, laughing at him.

Security and Bramble go their ways but the rest of the company calls for a boat to take them to Sir Francis Drake’s ship, where they’ll get even more drunk, before setting off to be put aboard their final ship. The pub’s drawer watches them go, remarking that the tide is against them and a storm is brewing and it is a fool’s errand.

Act 3 scene 4 A very brief scene, just long enough for Security to return home, find his wife not there, discover that she is at Billingsgate, make the deduction that she is the mystery woman and is sailing with Petronel, and run off yelling for a boat.

THE STORM

Act 4 scene 1 Cuckold’s Haven There’s a storm blowing and the Thames is turbulent, A fellow named Slitgut is climbing up a tree at Cuckold’s Haven to attach cuckold’s horns to it, after an ancient tradition when he spies a ship going down in the river. He gives a running commentary of a man struggling through the waves who comes ashore and proves to be Security, who moans his wretched luck and crawls away. He has been crushed down to the earth.

The Slitgut sees another person wallowing in the weltering wave, a woman, and describes how she is rescued by a man who brings her to shore. It is the drawer from the Blue Anchor tavern who came down to visit a friend at St Katherine’s and he has rescued Winifred. She asks him to go fetch her bundle of clothes which she left at the pub, but begs him to keep quiet about her or it will ruin her reputation. A would-be whore, she has washed ashore by St Katherine’s monastery.

Next out of the water is Quicksilver, washed ashore capless by the gallows reserved for pirates. He bewails the fact the storm has sunk the ship and ruined all his plans.

Next to stagger ashore are Petronel and Seagull who are drunkenly, confusedly convinced they have washed ashore in France until two men passing by assure them they are on the Isle of Dogs and briskly make off, but not before making the joke that one of them (i.e. Petronel) looks like a thirty-pound knight.

I ken the man weel; he’s one of my thirty pound knights.

This is obviously written to be said in a Scots accent and was the most obvious bit of anti-Scots satire, which caused its authors to be thrown into gaol. Petronel and Seagull are now united with Quicksilver and all bewail their fate. They had not, in fact, made it as far as the main ship which was to take them to America, but worry that that ship will now have been seized (there was something illicit about it which I didn’t quite understand).

Petronel is all for giving in, but Quicksilver suddenly changes the subject by declaring he has the specialist knowledge to make copper look like silver: he’ll restore their fortunes yet. The other two adore him and they depart.

Enter the Drawer and Winifred now dressed in dry clothes. He has brought her near to the pub where he works, and very nobly leaves her to continue alone i.e. uncompromised by being seen with a strange man. Which is when she bumps into her husband, Security! Quickly Winifred ad libs and lies that she has come out expressly to look for him, that she was fast asleep when he returned to see her (at the end of act 3) and his shouting stirred her and she was about to call back but he ran off in such a hurry. Thus, lying her head off, she is restored to her husband and he ends up apologising, promising that every morning he will go down on his knees and beseech her forgiveness. They exit.

At which point Slitgut, who has been up his tree watching each of these encounters, climbs down saying he won’t continue the ridiculous pagan custom, and bids the cuckold tree farewell.

Act 4 scene 2 A room in Touchstone’s House Touchstone has heard that Petronel and Quicksilver’s ship was sunk. He tells us he has also heard that his ungrateful daughter, Gertrude, and his wife and the maid, discovered there was no castle anywhere and so ended up sleeping in the famous coach until they crept back to London, repentant.

Golding appears and in his guileless way reports that he has been voted Master Deputy Alderman. He had already been taken into the livery of his trade, so Touchstone is thrilled that he is progressing in his career and doubts not that he will soon be more famous than Dick Whittington.

Then Golding tells Touchstone that the rascally crew were shipwrecked as they took a ferry boat down towards Blackwall, were washed ashore and are returning in dribs and drabs to London and Golding has organised a reception committee of constables. Touchstone’s reaction is what I think of characteristically Jonson, and the reason I didn’t like this play:

TOUCHSTONE: Disgrace ’em all that ever thou canst; their ship I have already arrested. How to my wish it falls out, that thou hast the place of a justicer upon ’hem! I am partly glad of the injury done to me, that thou may’st punish it. Be severe i’ thy place, like a new officer o’ the first quarter, unreflected.

Revenge, the fiercer and severer the better, is the Jonson theme. A mood continued when Gertrude and her mother and Sindefy enter. Mistress Touchstone is thoroughly mortified by the discovery that Petronel was a liar, but Gertrude remains comically obstinate, persisting in the belief she is a lady and owes nothing to her father who ought to bow to her. She flounces out.

A constable enters to announce the arrival of Petronel and Quicksilver. Touchstone is gleeful. He insists that Golding (in his new rank of deputy alderman) judges the rascals. The Shoemakers’ Holiday was about forgiveness and festivity. Eastward Ho! is about judgement and punishment. Golding lays out the accusations against both Petronel and Quicksilver in detail, and is seconded by a vengeful Touchstone. Then they instruct the constable to take them away pending further judgement.

Act 5 scene 1 At Gertrude’s lodgings Gertrude and Sindefy bewail the hard times they’ve fallen on. Gertrude has pawned her jewels, her gowns, her red velvet petticoat, and her wedding silk stockings and all Sin’s best apparel. She wishes she could sell her ladyship. She fantasises about finding a jewel or gold in the street, anything which could save her from poverty.

Her mother enters and laments all her ambitions and decisions to become a lady, but Gertrude blames her and asks how much she’s stolen from her cursed father. But she weeps bitterly. It’s not a funny scene. Eventually Mistress Touchstone advises that she goes and throws herself on the mercy of her good sister Mildred.

Act 5 scene 2 Goldsmith’s Row Wolf comes who is a gaoler of ‘the Counter’ where Petronel, Quicksilver and Security are imprisoned. He has brought letters from them begging for help and then describes their reformations. Touchstone is tempted to forgive but exists rather than give way to pity. Golding, true to his immaculate character as Good Man gives Wolf some money and messages of hope to take back to the prisoners.

Act 5 scene 3 The Counter i.e. prison. Lawyer Bramble visits Security who has gone half mad in captivity and can’t stand the light. Two anonymous gentlemen comment on the extent of Quicksilver’s reformation, who gave away all his fancy clothes, has penned a wonderful apology for his life and helps the other prisoners write petitions.

Wolf arrives back from Golding with the message of hope and a little money. Quicksilver has completely changed. He genuinely thanks Golding, then asks Wolf to distribute the money to other prisoners. The two gentlemen who have observed this noble gesture, remark on Quicksilver’s reformation.

Next, Golding himself arrives in disguise. He has a Plan. He asks Wolf to let him into the prison, then take his ring to Touchstone and say that he, Golding, has been imprisoned for a debt to some third party, can he (Touchstone) come quickly. Then they will work some kind of resolution. Wolf agrees, lets Golding into the prison, sets off with the message to Touchstone.

Act 5 scene 4 Touchstone’s house Mildred and Mistress Touchstone try to intercede on behalf of Gertrude but Touchstone insists his ears are stoppered like Ulysses’ against the sirens. Until Wolf arrives with the token, with Golding’s ring, which Touchstone recognises and instantly promises to come to his aid.

Act 5 scene 5 The Counter Touchstone enters with Wolf. Petronel and Quicksilver enter, and a prisoner and two gentlemen are present to listen to Quicksilver’s sincere and moving song of repentance. It’s a long doggerel poem and various bystanders applaud, ask for more and, at every interval. In an aside, Touchstone tells us that his hard heart is melting. By the end he is quite convinced of Quicksilver’s reformation and forgives him. He goes bail for Quicksilver, Petronel and half-mad Security and they are all released.

Gertrude, Mildred, Mistress touchstone, Sindefy and Winifred all arrive i.e. all the main characters are on stage. Gertrude finally repents and asks Touchstone’s forgiveness, and also her husband’s forgiveness and he begs her forgiveness for deceiving her. Is anything missing? Only that Quicksilver should marry his punk, Sindefy, and make a decent woman of her. Which he instantly volunteers to do.

Bad tastes

I didn’t like this play for at least three reasons:

  1. The contrasts set up right at the start between Dutiful Daughter and Haughty Daughter, and Conscientious Apprentice and Spendthrift Apprentice, feel too mechanical, to put it mildly. Like many other aspects of the play the characters of Golding, who is Peter Perfect, and Mildred, who barely exists as an individual, feel schematic and lifeless.
  2. The rascal characters are all too inevitably riding for a fall and, when they hit it, are judged very inflexibly and harshly. They don’t just fall, they are crushed into the dirt and ground underfoot, reduced to miserable penury in prison. Security goes mad. The harshness of their fate feels cruel.
  3. And at countless incidental moments along the way, the characters are vile. Gertrude’s haughtiness to her father is meant to be funny, but can easily be read as just horrible. Much worse is the way Quicksilver and Security conspire against Petronel, but then Quicksilver and Petronel conspire against Security. They’re all scum. The basic attitude was epitomised for me by the way Petronel said that, once his deceived wife discovers there is no castle, she will be so angry, that she’d be doing Petronel a favour if she hanged herself. A kind of Tarantino level of heartlessness and hate underlies the whole thing. It left a bad taste in my mouth.

The quality of justice

Feels contrived. The rascals’ repentances have no real psychological validity. Gertrude in particular is a bitch up to the last moment – and believable and funny as such, probably the funniest character in the play – till she suddenly turns up in prison right at the last minute, a changed woman. It is literally unbelievable.

In my opinion there is something necessarily shallow about Jonson’s entire view of human nature, shallow and extreme. He sees people as viciously cynical and wicked right up to the last few pages… when they suddenly undergo miracle conversions. The cynicism is unpleasant and the conversions are insultingly shallow and contrived.

But the cardboard stereotypes are an inevitable result of the strictness of his theory of comedy. He thinks comedy should hold up folly and vice to ridicule. But this is a very ideological and schematic ambition, and explains the metallic inflexibility of the play. The precise details may be unpredictable but the ultimate outcome – the crushing humiliation of the rascals and fools – is never in doubt and feels profoundly unconvincing.

As C.G. Petter points out in his introduction to the New Mermaid edition of the play, there is a marriage at the play’s end, the rather tediously inevitable requirement of any comedy – but it is the marriage of an upstart social pretender (Quicksilver) to a whore (Sindefy) whose dowry is paid by a usurer (Security). Gertrude and Petronel’s marriage is a sham from the start, he only marries her for her money. And the marriage of Golding and Mildred in the first act has absolutely no romance or emotion about it whatsoever because it is the union of two wooden puppets.

The intellectual and psychological crudity of so much of this is typified by the thumpingly crude final moral, delivered by Touchstone. Having forgiven Quicksilver after the latter has read out his very poor, doggerel poem of repentance, Touchstone offers Quicksilver decent clothes to change into from his prison rags. But the newly penitent Quicksilver nobly turns down the offer, preferring to walk through the streets of London in his prison clothes to set an example to the children of Cheapside. At which Touchstone intones the final lines of the play:

TOUCHSTONE: Thou hast thy wish. Now, London, look about,
And in this moral see thy glass run out:
Behold the careful father, thrifty son,
The solemn deeds which each of us have done;
The usurer punish’d, and from fall so steep
The prodigal child reclaim’d, and the lost sheep.

Could anyone seriously expect that plays as wooden and contrived and stereotypical and obvious as this could be expected to ‘reform’ vice and folly? What a ludicrous idea. They’re a night out at the theatre, full of jokes, lots and lots of sexual innuendo, absurd farce, ironic reversals, sentimental speeches and a big round of applause at the end.


Related links

Elizabethan comedies

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Restoration comedies

17th century history

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