I’m in the middle of revisions for the ad Polybium article, which are taking me a while to get back into – such are the consequences of letting the research wheels stop during the middle of term and the resulting dissipation. But never mind, I’m slowly getting back into the swing of things now. One of the things the article tries to do, in a very small and modest sort of way, is point out that the ad Polybium is a Stoic text. But what does being a Stoic text actually mean?
This is the sort of question that generates heated discussion at conferences, particularly when people are talking about Seneca’s tragedies. The tragedies are the sensible place to start because they exemplify the problem particularly clearly(and if you’re into this sort of thing, check out the article by Hine in the further reading at the bottom of this post, because he provides brilliant summary of the various arguments involved). We know that the Seneca who wrote these plays was a committed Stoic – but does our knowledge of his philosophical convictions change how we interpret the plays? Are they deliberately written to promote Stoicism? To illustrate the horrors of lives lived against Stoic doctrine? To show that Stoicism doesn’t work? Does Seneca expect the people who consume his plays to be fully aware of a Stoic framework, entirely unaware of it, or a mix of the two?
These kinds of questions are impossible to answer conclusively (and I will need to come back to this issue when I get around to thinking about the tragedies more), whereas the more obviously philosophical texts have an explicit Stoicising agenda – nobody would ever ask this sort of thing about the Epistulae Morales or the On Benefits, for example.
What I hadn’t quite fully realised until I looked over the readers’ reports on the ad Polybium article was that Seneca’s consolations fall halfway between these two interpretative extremes, the obviously-Stoic and the impossible-to-be-sure. On the one hand, I’d say there’s pretty strong evidence there for a Stoic framework, and indeed some of my arguments are based upon Seneca’s innovative use of the Stoic doctrine of cosmopolitanism to make his point. But on the other hand, the very nature of the consolation by this period is to be philosophically rich and diverse; there’s space there for a sceptic to claim that what I’m taking as indications of philosophical affiliation are actually just the footprints of the consolatory tradition. That question bothers me less than the question of the consolation’s readership – was Seneca expecting his readers, not to mention Polybius himself, to come to the text with a fully functioning knowledge of Stoicism? Can the text function qua consolation if the vast majority of its potential audience are not sufficiently well philosophically educated to appreciate all of its doctrinal intricacies?
At the moment, the article risks making it sound as if nobody without Stoicism can get anything out of the consolation – but the more I think about it, the more I think this is a matter of my rhetoric and phrasing, as that’s certainly not what I think. I’d say that the text is working at various different levels – some people pick up the Stoic elements, some people don’t, but the Stoic framework helps explain some of the consolation’s perplexing features. I actually thought I’d made this point quite clearly – but apparently not. One of the joys of editing, of course, is making sure you’ve said what you think you’ve said, and I’ve just been reading some very useful stuff about Seneca’s approach to ‘every day’ uses of language versus ‘technical’ or Stoic uses of language which should help me articulate the point a bit more clearly.
The central point, though, is that the consolations are texts where it is not immediately apparent how Seneca’s Stoic inclinations affect their content – while I may think it’s blindingly obvious, I still need to make the case for reading them in this way.
Hine, H. M. 2004. “Interpretatio Stoica of Senecan Tragedy.” In M. Billerbeck and E. Schmidt, eds. Sénèque le tragique: huit exposés suivis de discussions. Vandœuvres -Genève: Fondation Hardt: 173-220.