How much does the way in which we speak and write matter? What can it indicate about us? For Seneca the Younger, the answer was, “A lot.” In Ep. 114, using Maecenas as a notorious case study, Seneca argued that oratio is not only indicative of an individual’s lifestyle but, if widespread enough, the character of an age (1-2).
And yet Seneca’s own prose style has historically drawn its share of criticism. Writing within a generation of Seneca’s death, Quintilian praised a number of Seneca’s virtutes but also stated that many aspects of his style are “corrupt” (corrupta) and “very destructive” (perniciosissima), and noted that earlier in his own career he acquired a reputation because of his efforts to get the young to grow beyond their love of Seneca (Inst. 10.1.125-31). In the following century Aulus Gellius reported that even those who admit that Seneca’s writings do not lack knowledge do not deny that there is “insufficient elegance” (elegantiae parum) in his words (N. A. 12.2.1).
What is all of this about? Can prose style really be destructive or insufficient? And what can it actually indicate about an individual or an age? While Quintilian did not provide illustrative examples to support his evaluation of Seneca’s style, some critics in the sixteenth century, a true saeculum Senecanum, did. Digging into minutiae such as how embracing or neglecting variety in the use of conjunctions affects a sentence, several editors and commentators put Seneca’s prose under their philological microscopes, testing samples of Senecan style against the theories of previous researchers.
In this paper I examine three such studies: Erasmus’ dedicatory epistle to his 1529 edition of Seneca; Henri Estienne’s 1586 Ad Senecae Lectionem Proodopoeia; and Justus Lipsius’ Iudicium super Seneca eiusque Scriptis and commentary in his 1605 deluxe edition. In these works, philological analysis of style is juxtaposed with aesthetic, educational, and intellectual issues. Indeed, such an actively critical method of reading encourages us to reevaluate the attention allotted to the ethical and social dynamics of style in Seneca’s Ep. 114. Surely the attractive style of classical and early modern authors is one key reason why students continue to take them in hand, and yet today in both print and the classroom style often takes a backseat to other interpretive priorities. This study explores how reading style closely—and philologically—can help people write and think with greater care and sensitivity.
Seneca in the Renaissance