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Reading as Training: Seneca’s Didactic Technique in De Beneficiis

Scott A. Lepisto

College of Wooster

This paper argues that Seneca’s De Beneficiis is a “formative fiction” (Landy 2012), a work of literature that imparts not just knowledge, but practical skills. Through its literary design, De Beneficiis actively trains the reader in hermeneutic capabilities that can be transferred to evaluating benefactors, beneficiaries, and beneficia (favors, gifts, or benefits). I argue for the importance of literary form to Senecan instruction in contrast with most previous scholarship, which treats Senecan instruction as a combination of moral exhortation and philosophical orthodoxy (Griffin 2013, Schafer 2009, Bellincioni 1978).

In the first part of the presentation, I establish a framework for understanding the affinity between the literary text and its subject. I highlight the importance of interpretation to the exchange of beneficia; signs as subtle as a hesitation or an unfortunate facial expression can seriously diminish the value of a gift (e.g. Ben. 3.8.4). Seneca states that whatever is handed over from one person to another is merely a sign of the true beneficium, which is the will of the giver (Ben. 1.5.2). I demonstrate that Seneca interprets benefactors, beneficiaries, and beneficia themselves (Ben. 1.9.1, 2.24.2-3, 6.35.4) for their implicit, secondary messages in the same way that he interprets his own text for its implicit rather than literal meanings (e.g. Ben. 5.20-22, 7.22-24). Further, I show how Seneca uses, rejects, and interprets the same metaphors in order to disabuse the reader of their literalist mindset. Seneca guides his readers to attend to the implicit subtext of what is conveyed, whether they are interpreting beneficia or De Beneficiis.

In the second part of the presentation, I analyze two resonant thematic episodes that signal to readers that they ought to apply the interpretative skills that the text demands to the exchange of beneficia. In Ben. 4.33-34, Seneca describes the spontaneity required to give beneficia when one does not know whether the recipient will be grateful. Although the passage has been studied primarily as evidence for the Stoic theory of reservation (Brennan 2000, Inwood 1985), I argue that it plays an important thematic role by suggesting affinities between Seneca’s seemingly improvisatory mode of literary composition, his own interpretations, and the reader’s interpretation of his text. His description about acting without sure knowledge of things (certissimam rerum comprehensionem) applies as much to his own approach to theorizing about beneficia, in the course of which he revisits the same precept in order to qualify it or explain its subtext, and our tentative interpretation of his claims as it does to giving gifts.

Seneca’s analysis of Socrates’ refusal to visit King Archelaus (Ben. 5.6.2-7) also alerts the reader to the similarity between reading De Beneficiis and evaluating beneficia. Seneca observes that Socrates could have given Archelaus a gift in the form of a speech, which Seneca provides directly and which would have disabused Archelaus of his superstitious panic at the eclipse of the sun. After the speech, Seneca characterizes Socrates’ way of speaking generally, noting that it proceeded through figures (per figuras sermo procederet). This description of Socrates’ enigmatic refusal to visit Archelaus evokes Seneca-qua-Socrates’ hypothetical description and interpretation of the eclipse (itself a figura), Seneca’s habitual interpretations of the appearances of beneficia, and his audience’s encounter with his cryptic claims and imagery. By collapsing the roles of author, character, and reader in Socrates’ speech, Seneca signals that his audience ought to read beneficia in the same way that they read his text.

The very way in which the literary design of the text maps onto its subject evokes the way that beneficia convey implicit meaning. By demonstrating that Senecan pedagogy relies upon inference and insinuation, I call into question methodologies that take the literal meaning of his propositions as a straightforward guide to his philosophy (e.g. Damschen and Heil 2014). Seneca does more than explain his philosophy; he cultivates the skills necessary to put it into practice.

Session/Panel Title

Ethics and Morality in Latin Philosophy

Session/Paper Number

91.3

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