Classically Inclined

June 27, 2012

Judging Stoic Influence

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:30 am
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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?

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April 19, 2012

Reading as Consolation in Seneca – The Aftermath

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 12:14 pm
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I promised that I would write a little more about my paper on reading as consolation in Seneca which I gave at the Classical Association conference. I thought I’d start out with a Wordle of the paper itself, just for the sake of interest:

As you will be able to guess from the Wordle, most of the paper was about consolation and how it works. I specifically looked at two passages from the consolations Seneca writes to his mother and to the freedman Polybius in which he advises them to turn to various forms of literary activity in order to assuage their respective grief. Telling people to go to philosophy for consolation is nothing new – Cicero does it in a lot of his extant consolatory letters, for instance. But where Cicero tells people to go back to tried and trusted things that they have already learned, Seneca tells his addressees to pick up entirely new intellectual projects, which will actively engage their minds and thus have the psychological effect of bringing balance back to a disturbed soul.

Reading forms a well-known part of the Stoic armory against the distractions of the world, as Martha Nussbaum explores inter alia in her influential book The Therapy of Desire; reading serves as a grounding point, a place to start thinking about ethical growth. By applying this general Stoic attitude to the specific task of consolation, Seneca makes a new point about the use of reading for practical purposes, in this case the calming of grief. He also makes it clear that he expects his addressees to engage with their reading material actively, and that the material is itself an active participant in the process. This is in contrast to Helvia’s finances, which Seneca explicitly says he does not recommend as a distraction from grief. There’s some interesting stuff going on there about the difference between numbers and letters in terms of intellectual activity – the accounts seem passive, for sifting through, rather than active players in the consolatory process.

Where next with this work? Well, sadly, to the back of a desk drawer until I finish The Book, but I’ve got a few ideas for what to do after that. By that point, hopefully a book on the consolatory tradition that somebody mentioned to me will have appeared, which will help me work out if I’ve got a point to make in the first place – but I suspect I will. The current plan is to look at literary activity specifically as a consolatory recommendation in the Latin sources, and to see what that means in a social context where people are not necessarily reading themselves but may be read to by slave secretaries, and what differences this makes to the consolatory admonitions. This was a thread that I only identified at the end of my research for the paper and so didn’t get a lot of airtime in the paper itself, but I think it’s an important social factor to consider when Seneca is so adamant that philosophy must be an active rather than passive occupation.

November 2, 2011

Reading as Consolation in Seneca – a preview

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 4:11 pm
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My good luck with abstracts continues! First it was Animating Antiquity (which is now, um, next week…), then it was Feminism and Classics VI, and now it’s the Classical Association 2012 conference! There are a couple of reasons that I’m really excited about this one. It’s only the second paper I’ve had the opportunity to present that will be based on my thesis research (the first was at the Oikos-Familia conference, link leads to PDF), although technically it’s a further offshoot of the Ad Polybium article. The important thing is that it’s an opportunity to talk about Seneca, who is supposed to be my author of special interest and as yet is a bit underrepresented on the CV. The other major reason I’m very pleased about this is that the CA conference is the major classics conference in the UK, so I’ll have the chance to present my work in a nationally significant arena. It’s the first time it’s been possible for me to talk about my research to this large a group since I returned to England, and thus it will be the first time that I meet many of the people who are now my peers in the profession. It’s great that part of that process will be a chance to share what it I work on.

(I should mention that it also looks like it’s going to be a really good CA meeting for Birmingham – so far I know of one graduate-organised panel and one graduate paper that have been accepted besides me, and I’m sure more will appear on the program.)

So, what is this particular paper about? Two of the themes that this year’s CA hosts at Exeter highlighted as a suggested topics were the ancient book/material text and reading in antiquity. While I was working on the Ad Polybium article, it became increasingly clear that I needed to think about how Seneca was presenting Polybius in relation to literature and scholarship (especially as part of my argument hinged on the fact that Polybius had to be able to understand any Stoic arguments that Seneca might include in his consolation). When the CFP for the CA conference came through, it struck me that this might be a good place to begin thinking about what Seneca does with the topic of reading in his consolations – after all, he makes a similar recommendation in his consolation to his mother, so there’s a bit of a theme going here, and as yet it doesn’t seem to have been discussed much in the secondary literature on the consolations. (Not that there is that much secondary literature on the consolations in the first place, but I digress.)

The paper I will give at the CA is a chance for me to unpick these ideas of consolation and its connection to reading in a little more detail than I had the chance to do in the Ad Polybium article – it seems like it’s an important strategy, and deserves more consideration than I could give it in the article (and indeed in the thesis). I want to focus on the fact that reading seems to be viewed as something that the addressee needs to work at, really get their teeth into, in order to get the most out of the process. I particularly like the comparision Seneca draws in the consolation to his mother, where he makes a distinction between the comfort that comes from reading and the temporary distraction that comes from mathematics!

I also want to look at the kinds of literature that Seneca recommends people should read. It’s obvious in some cases that he’s referring to what we would classify as ‘literature’ (that is, Homer and similar authors), and in other places that he’s thinking of philosophical writing. I want to see if there are differences in how he conceptualises reading and the sorts of benefits we get out of it, and if what we read matters more than how we read. And that, I think, remains a live question in the cultural discourse that surrounds us today.

June 27, 2011

Consolations and grief in the ancient world

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:15 am
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Given how much I’m blogging and tweeting about consolations in the ancient world, I thought I should give a quick run-down of what they actually are rather than expecting everyone to know. It’s actually quite a tricky question, because while people are happy to bandy about terms like ‘the genre of consolatio‘, our evidence for such a thing is remarkably poor. Now, speaking less technically, consolation has been around in the ancient world since as early as Homer – people comfort other people on misfortunes they have suffered, which is the basic definition of consolation. What’s interesting about the consolatio as a genre is that eventually it became a special sort of writing with its own rules and standard tropes. Crantor, a third century B.C. member of the Academy (the school which tried to follow Plato’s way of doing philosophy) is normally credited with being the first person to write a consolatio as we’d understand it – that is, a piece of writing addressed to someone suffering some specific misfortune designed to comfort them with philosophical arguments.

Originally, certain philosophical schools had certain specific consolatory arguments which they would deploy, but by the time we get to Cicero’s period, what seems to have happened is that all these arguments have been brought together into a library of potential consolatory arguments that an author might use in a consolatio. Cicero himself wrote a lost consolatio after the death of his daughter Tullia, and he also wrote many letters of consolation to others who were bereaved or in exile. Consolations were multi-purpose – Cicero tells us that it would be appropriate to write a consolatio for those suffering poverty, an inglorious life, exile, the destruction of their country, slavery, lameness or blindness (Tusculan Disputations 3.81). (more…)

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