Sometimes, when you are writing a thesis chapter, you find yourself going off on a tangent. It’s a pretty tangent, with highways and byways and beautifully flowered verges, and you wander through it on your way back to your main point, and you think nothing of it, because it’s been part of your mental process to get where you are in your thinking about your material. Then you hand your draft to your advisor, who looks at it, raises an eyebrow, and wants to know how on earth this relates to what you said you were going to give her. Although in my case, she did it very kindly, and she was right. Chapter two of my thesis was supposed to look at the subject of brothers and the Stoic cosmopolis in Seneca’s de Consolatione ad Polybium, a really interesting treatise that gets maltreated because – well, there’s no way of getting around it, it’s a bit sycophantic. Seneca claims he’s writing to Polybius to console him on the recent death of his brother, but he writes with the agenda of getting himself recalled to Rome from Corsica, where he’s currently being held in exile. Let’s just say that he gets the tiniest bit florid, and over the years many academics haven’t reacted well to his stylistic choices.
I wanted to look at the relationships between brothers in the consolation, because my thesis was about the family. However, I ended up getting distracted by the representation of the Emperor Claudius, and how he gets described using several images that the Stoics use to talk about God. It’s all a bit complicated, as the same images are used to describe Jupiter, head of the Roman pantheon, but that’s part of the point. Anyway, I wrote a great big lengthy draft of this chapter and proudly sent it off to my supervisor; she duly worked through it and her feedback essentialy said that it was all very interesting, but wasn’t this chapter supposed to be about brothers and the ad Polybium rather than Stoicism and the ad Polybium? At which point I re-read what I’d written, groaned, and chopped about four thousand words out of the manuscript. They were there because they were trying to take over my chapter, and turn it into something else. It wasn’t that what I wanted to say about Claudius and the Stoic god and all my other shiny ideas weren’t worth saying – it was just that they didn’t actually contribute towards my overall thesis about how families work in Seneca.
I knew, however, that hanging on to those four thousand words would come in handy. I spent most of last week hacking them together into a very, very rough draft of what I am calling my Stoic exile article, which basically looks at what Seneca does with the ad Polybium about exile and with the Stoic idea of god, and how it all interweaves together to make an interesting point that I think has been neglected up to now (mainly because it’s applied philosophy, not neatly laid-out doctrine). My motivation in doing this was to put something together, however rough, for my reading group, the wonderful Kai Ta Loipa, whose praises I will doubtless sing in another post; it’s my week to share material, and I wanted to see what they thought. I wanted to know whether they thought I had a point to begin with, but also to give me some perspective that I just couldn’t get on my own.
You see, the problem with Chapters That Breed is that the text you salvage often relies on arguments you made in the text that originally came before it. You had argued for Point A when you came to write Point B, so the passage you’re salvaging assumes Point A as a matter of course – but, actually, you need to make the case for Point A all over again. The problem with doing this with a chunk of your thesis is that the ideas are so ingrained in your head that you forget where you need to justify and explain the logical connection you’re making. You might catch some of them, but you’ll miss at least one significant point that you really need to spend more time explaining. Which is what reading groups are for – giving you the perspective you need to develop your thoughts into a great article manuscript. So the Stoic Exile article is now in KTL’s tender hands, and I’m waiting to see what feedback I get from them so I can work out the next stage in turning my rough idea into a viable article.
So the moral of the story is that sometimes, your thesis chapters will try to breed. When they do, take the ideas, keep them somewhere safe, and come back to them later. You need to keep your thesis on track – but there’s no need to discard insights which, given their own space to unfold and the proper nourishing attention, will probably be brilliant.