SOME think of Annaeus Seneca as a writer of little value, whose works are not worth taking up, since his style seems commonplace and ordinary, while the matter and the thought are characterized, now by a foolish and empty vehemence, now by an empty and [p. 363] affected cleverness; and because his learning is common and plebeian, gaining neither charm nor distinction from familiarity with the earlier writers. 1 Others, on the contrary, while not denying that his diction lacks elegance, declare that he is not without learning and a knowledge of the subjects which he treats, and that he censures the vices of the times with a seriousness and dignity which are not wanting in charm. I myself do not feel called upon to criticize and pass judgment upon his talents in general, or upon his writings as a whole; but I shall select for consideration the nature of the opinions which he has expressed about Marcus Cicero, Quintus Ennius and Publius Vergilius. For in the twenty-second book of his Moral Epistles, which he addressed to Lucilius, he says 2 that the following verses which Quintus Ennius wrote 3 about Cethegus, a man of the olden time, are absurd:
He by his fellow citizens was called,He then wrote the following about these lines: “I am surprised that men of great eloquence, devoted to Ennius, have praised those absurd verses as his best. Cicero, at any rate, includes them among examples of his good verses.” 4 He then goes on to say of Cicero: “I am not surprised that there existed a man who could write such verses, when there existed a man who could praise them; unless haply Cicero, that great orator, was pleading his own cause [p. 365] and wished his own verse to appear excellent.” Later he adds this very stupid remark: “In Cicero himself too you will find, even in his prose writings, some things which will show that he did not lose his labour when he read Ennius.” Then he cites passages from Cicero which he criticizes as taken from Ennius; for example, when Cicero wrote as follows in his Republic: 5 “As Menelaus, the Laconian, had a kind of sweet-speaking charm,” and said in another place: “he cultivates brevity of speech in his oratory.” And then that trifler apologizes for what he considers Cicero's errors, saying: “This was not the fault of Cicero, but of the times; it was necessary to say such things when such verses were read.” Then he adds that Cicero inserted these very things in order to escape the charge of being too diffuse and ornamental in his style. In the same place Seneca writes the following about Virgil also: “Our Virgil too admitted some verses which are harsh, irregular and somewhat beyond the proper length, with no other motive than that those who were devoted to Ennius might find a flavour of antiquity in the new poem.” But I am already weary of quoting Seneca; yet I shall not pass by these jokes of that foolish and tasteless man: “There are some thoughts in Quintus Ennius,” says he, “that are of such lofty tone that though written among the unwashed, 6 they nevertheless can give pleasure among the anointed”; and, after censuring the verses about Cethegus which I have quoted above, he said: “It would be clear to you that those who love verses of this kind admire even the couches of Sotericus.” 7 [p. 367] Worthy indeed would Seneca appear 8 of the reading and study of the young, a man who has compared the dignity and beauty of early Latin with the couches of Sotericus, implying forsooth that they possessed no charm and were already obsolete and despised! Yet listen to the relation and mention of a few things which that same Seneca has well said, for example what he said of a man who was avaricious, covetous and thirsting for money: “Why, what difference does it make how much you have? There is much more which you do not have.” Is not that well put? Excellently well; but the character of the young is not so much benefited by what is well said, as it is injured by what is very badly put; all the more so, if the bad predominates, and if a part of the bad is uttered, not as an argument about some slight and trivial affair, but as advice in a matter requiring decision.
By every man who lived and flourished then,
The people's chosen flower, Persuasion's marrow.