- Lucius Annaeus Seneca: Letters on Ethics to Lucilius trans. Margaret Graver and A. A. Long
Graver and Long’s translation of Seneca’s magnum opus, his Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium, is a welcome addition to the University of Chicago’s series, The Complete Works of Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Here one finds all of the letters published in one volume, which has not been seen in English for a very long time indeed. The translations are accurate, punchy, and forceful. Reading through the complete volume of letters is an enjoyable endeavor in this translation; endnotes help one to delve deeper into issues from “preferred indifferents” (Ep. 31.6, Ep. 70.5), to the qualifications for the equestrian order (Ep. 95.41), to the life of Aristarchus of Samothrace (Ep. 88.39). Graver and Long’s introduction to the volume stresses many of Seneca’s tendencies as a writer and thinker, rightly placing the Epistulae in the tradition of philosophical letters (esp. Epicurus) and noting how such epistolarity helps to make the correspondence appear personal and be open-ended (i.e., any issue in Roman life can be related to ethics). Graver [End Page 573] and Long indicate moments when Seneca’s literary ambitions shine through, especially in particularly purple passages (e.g., Ep. 41.2–4), and how he aims for variatio in both topic and tone throughout the letters. The political world he has ostensibly left behind is evoked here and there, but Seneca is especially interested in his role as a teacher in this collection. The introduction’s explication of his stance as a Stoic teacher is a persuasive distillation of his persona in the Epistulae as a whole, and offers a fresh viewpoint of this “Roman Philosopher at Work” (15). A section on the reception and transmission of the letters points out Seneca’s popularity in the generations after his death, his co-opting by early Christians, and his importance for writers such as Montaigne. In the introduction, I particularly admired Graver and Long’s ability to adumbrate many of the major tenets of Stoicism without becoming bogged down in terminology or lengthy doxography on Stoic minutiae. It is a fine introduction that will greatly benefit students and general readers, especially in tandem with the series introduction that precedes it.
But what about the translations themselves? Here, as to be expected, Graver and Long succeed in giving us an English Seneca that parallels his own flashy rhetoric, satiric vigor, eclectic style, and literary and philosophical erudition. One can find examples throughout the volume, such as the following about the gifts of fortune:
The intelligent person therefore deserts the theater as soon as he sees the gifts brought in: he knows that small favors may come at a high price. No one grapples with him as he is leaving, no one throws a punch as he is headed for the door (nemo exeuntem ferit); the scuffle is around the loot. The same thing happens with the gifts that fortune showers upon us. Poor things, we are all in a fever and a fret (aestuamus miseri, distringimur); we wish we had many hands; we look this way and that. We think they are too slow in coming, these gifts that madden us with desire, that come to so few, though we all expect them.(Ep. 74.8–9)
Favorite sententiae are well represented, as for example, “What satisfies nature does not satisfy man” (quod naturae satis est, homini non est, Ep. 119.8); “Fortune’s gifts are not ours to keep” (nihil dat fortuna mancipio, Ep. 72.7); as are notable passages, such as Seneca’s musing on literary fame:
Deep is the abyss of time that will close over us. A few talented minds will raise their heads above it, and although they too must eventually depart into silence, yet for long will they resist oblivion and assert their freedom.(Ep. 21.5)
More colloquial turns...