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Enlisting the Voice, Engaging the Soul: Seneca’s 84th Epistle

Scott Lepisto


This presentation argues that Senecan prose both evokes and enacts the physical transformation of his audience as they read his texts aloud, a common practice in ancient Rome (Valette-Cagnac 1997). While scholars have attended to Seneca’s didactic technique, particularly its combination of moral exhortation and exposition of philosophical doctrine (Schafer 2009), I argue that Senecan philosophy does more than instruct; it immediately molds the material soul through the physical act of voiced reading. Seneca implies that there is a moral benefit for readers in recognizing their own transformation reflected in the text. 

Epistle 84, a letter famous for Seneca’s practical prescriptions regarding reading and writing (Graver 2014), provides a telling case study for the role of voiced reading in his philosophical project. Likening the adaptation of literary influences to digestion (Ep. 84.5-7), Seneca advocates for reading and writing in alternation (Ep. 84.2). Citing Vergil (Aen. 1.423-33, Ep. 84.3), he compares the appropriation of literary sources to the activity of bees, which, according to one theory, change food they ingest through a property of their breath (proprietate spiritus sui) or spirit (Graver & Long 2015: 549). Seneca claims that our minds ought to be of a similar quality to our texts, with many arts, precepts, and exempla harmonized into one (in unum conspirata). He summons the image of a choir, which features voices of different pitches and genders and the accompaniment of instruments to create a singular sound from many (Ep. 84.9-10). In order to harmonize various influences, Seneca claims we ought to do nothing unless at Reason’s persuasion. He then offers a speech in the voice of Ratio of indeterminate length exhorting Lucilius to give up wealth, pleasure, and ambition. While Gummere 1920: 283 has the speech lasting through section 11 in English, Graver & Long 2015: 286 extend the speech through 12 in their translation. Although the speech is clearly given in direct discourse after dicet, the omission of quotation marks in the Latin texts of Gummere 1920, Reynolds 1965, Motto 1985, and Usher 2006 testifies to the similarity between the literary voices of Seneca and Reason.

I argue that the harmony between Seneca and Reason’s literary voices not only evokes the literary adaptation that the letter prescribes, but also the reader’s relationship to Reason and Seneca’s words as s/he reads the text aloud. While it is certainly possible that Seneca’s ancient audience read the text silently (Johnson 2010), I argue that they were more likely to have vocalized it, in part based on the verbal echoes observed by Buffa Giolito 1997, which evoke the processes of digestion that the letter describes. Based on the Stoic belief that the voice is part of the soul (Long 1999: 571), I argue that Seneca’s letter offers more than instruction or exemplification: the recitation of the text actively changes the physical disposition of the soul, as the reader, like the bees or members of the choir, lends his or her literal breath (spiritus) to Seneca’s words. Reading becomes appropriation as Seneca’s readers recognize his words as their own as they join the vocal harmony with Reason. Through this recognition, Seneca encourages the reader to identify with Stoic Reason itself.

In the conclusion, I analyze Seneca’s claims regarding literary appropriation elsewhere in the Epistles (e.g. Ep. 33, 66, 102, 120) to demonstrate that Ep. 84 is far from an isolated case; rather, I suggest that voiced reading crucially influences both Seneca’s explicit instruction and the implicit literary form of his prose. Seneca’s moral guidance extends beyond his explicit claims and beyond the literary form of his texts; by enlisting the literal voices of his audience, he engages their souls. 

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Letters in the Ancient World

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