In the process of tidying up the Ad Polybium article and working on turning the first three chapters of the dissertation into the first three chapters of a book, one methodological theme has been making its presence known again and again. It’s something I find I’ve hinted at in the dissertation itself, but one of the referees for the Ad Polybium article gave me the language to talk about it in a rather more sophisticated way. It’s the issue of what can be called “two-level discourse” and how that relates to philosophy.
Let’s start with the idea that a text can be multilayered. We’re all pretty comfortable with the idea that a text can have multiple meanings – George Orwell’s Animal Farm, for instance, can be read as a fictional story about rural agricultural life or as a metaphor for life in the Soviet state, depending on the amount of background information a reader has available to inform their reading. The same principle applies to films (which are also texts, in the theoretical ‘everything is a text’ sense) – when I saw the recent remake of Alice in Wonderland (2010), I saw a parable of the adolescent girl’s struggle to come to terms with menarche, which may not have been a univerally shared interpretation…
This idea, which works well (as Animal Farm demonstrates) for political writing, transfers to philosophy, particularly Stoicism. Most of our evidence for hardcore Stoic theory in the Roman period comes from Cicero, who was not a Stoic himself, but wrote a number of dialogues outlining Stoic, Epicurean and Sceptic theories and their flaws. Seneca also has some moments of heavy doctrinal theorising – On Benefits is full of it, which makes it heavy going in places, and some of the Moral Epistles are fairly dense. But, in the main, Seneca doesn’t write doctrinal tracts designed to lay out the practical workings of Stoicism. What he does instead is write work which on one level wants to be accessible and relevant to the average reader, and also seeks to speak on another level to those who are aware of the Stoic importance of seemingly everyday terms.
Let’s take a very simple example, the sapiens or wise man. For an average Roman reader, the wise man is just that – a man who is wise. But for a Stoic reader, the wise man (sometimes also called the sage) is somebody very special – he is the only human who truly achieves virtue, and thus is happy. Everyone else is a proficiens, or somebody approaching virtue. The Stoics recognised that it was not easy to become a sage – one famous passage reminds us that the sage was as rare as the phoenix (Alexander, On Fate 196.24-197.3). Leaving aside precisely what achieving virtue involves, hopefully this definition explains why any discussion of the ‘wise man’ or indeed the ‘good man’ in Seneca should immediately raise alarm bells – there are two levels of meaning in operation, the surface meaning and the Stoic meaning. So when Seneca tells Polybius that “nothing is less fitting for a good man than to calculate in his sorrow for a brother” (Ad Polybium 9.1), he means both that a good Roman (as defined by your average Roman on the Via Appia) would not do this, but also that such behaviour does not meet the high ethical standards of the Stoic sage, which he is gently encouraging Polybius to strive towards throughout the text.
A lot of my work is grounded in this sort of unpicking of meaning, and in unwinding the traces of Stoicism that have otherwise gone unnoticed. Because I’m coming at Seneca from a so-far unexplored angle, that of family ethics, it means there’s a lot to untangle. The principle of the multivalent text is central to what I do, and the richness of Seneca’s philosophical language means that there’s still a lot hidden in his work to discover – and it’s one of the reasons I find my work so satisfying.
I owe the term “two-level discourse” to Brad Inwood, who refers to a “two-level mode of discourse” on pg 90 of Reading Seneca: Stoic Philosophy at Rome (2005, Oxford).