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Seneca. Hardship and Happiness.

SENECA. Hardship and Happiness. Translated by Elaine Fantham, Harry M. Hine, James Ker, and Gareth D. Williams. In The Complete Works of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, edited by Elizabeth Asmis, Shadi Bartsch, and Martha C. Nussbaum. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014. xxix + 318 pp. Cloth, $55.00--This is the fourth in a set from the University of Chicago Press that purports to be a "fresh and compelling series of new English-language translations [of Seneca] in eight accessible volumes." Previous entries include Seneca's sole scientific work, Natural Questions (2010), Anger, Mercy, Revenge (2010), and On Benefits (2011). Since the release of the present work, the fifth, Lectures on Ethics (2015), has also appeared.

Those unfamiliar with Seneca (4 B.C.E.-65 C.E.) will find the introductory essay--which prefaces this and the other volumes--to be a brief yet thorough guide. A wealthy Spaniard by birth, Seneca received a stellar oratorical education at Rome. His genius for administration and political survival catapulted him to the post of Nero's tutor and shadow philosopher-king during the tranquil quinquennium. Later, as a member of the failed conspiracy to supplant the enfant terrible with C. Calpurnius Piso or Seneca himself, he enjoyed a front-row seat to the legendary Julio-Claudian dysfunctions. Seneca's life, like Socrates', ended dramatically: he slit his own veins in a warm tub, choosing suicide over the confiscation of his heirs' property that was de iure for exiled enemies. While Seneca's life ebbed away prematurely, fortunately for students of Stoicism the body of his philosophy has gone from strength to strength.

The nine essays of varying length which constitute this volume are introduced individually by their distinguished translators. A very short list for "Further Reading" is also included for each, and a series of brief endnotes immediately follows. These, ranging from as few as twenty-two pages for the shortest treatise, On Leisure, to ninety-six pages for the more substantial Consolation to Marcia, explain points from the text that are philosophically difficult or historically unfamiliar. Note sixty-four to the Consolation to Helvetia, for example, identifies for us the "sister" in the text as "Apparently Helvia's stepsister ... [t]he wife of Gaius Galerius, prefect of Egypt 16-31 CE." Thanks to the authors' erudition and careful editing, these notes are of quite even quality.

The translations themselves, as in previous volumes, are a significant improvement over what has been available in English of the previous century. Though John Basore's Loeb series has owned the market for nearly eighty years, it is genuinely surprising, given Seneca's great popularity, how few options are available in English. In this reviewer's estimation, the translations presented here admirably achieve the aim set out by the series' editors: "to be faithful to the Latin while reading idiomatically in English. The focus is on high standards of accuracy, clarity, and style." Due to space constraints, one example will have to suffice. Gareth Williams's construal of the proemium to On the Shortness of Life, based on his own 2003 text (Cambridge), is no more accurate than that of Basore's (Loeb, 1932). It does, however, competently update the idioms. Basore has: "The majority of mortals, Paulinus, complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live." Williams renders as follows: "Most of mankind, Paulinus, complains about nature's meanness, because our allotted span of life is so short, and because this stretch of time that is given to us runs its course so quickly, so rapidly--so much so that, with very few exceptions, life leaves the rest of us in the lurch just when we we're getting ready to live." Both translations are faithful renditions that seek to adhere, in the target language, to Seneca's underlying Latinate structure. Williams's version has the advantage of being dressed in newer clothes, that is, "leaves... us in the lurch." Whereas Basore construes conqueritur as "complain bitterly," Williams opts for the simple "complains." A good argument can be made for both. Neither, thankfully, renders malignitate as "malignity," but instead as "spitefulness" and as the somewhat less specific "meanness."

Hardship and Happiness is a handsome volume, beautifully conceived and executed. The translations are even and idiomatic, navigating cleanly between an excessive colloquialism that would render Seneca's lofty thoughts puerile, and an artificial formalism not congruous with Seneca's own style, which alternates between pointed and sharp and breezy and mild. This befits the dispenser of often difficult and counterintuitive advice like this: "Ultimately, that which harms needs to be stronger than that by which it is harmed. But wickedness is not stronger than virtue. Therefore the wise person cannot be harmed" (On the Constancy of the Wise Person). Those with a knowledge of Latin will want to behold Seneca's genius firsthand and not through the veil of gossamer English. Those without will find reading and studying this collection of essays much more a source of happiness than a hardship.--David C. Noe, Calvin College
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Author:Noe, David C.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2016
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