Seneca on History

The emergence of history as a discipline, like that of other “social sciences,” is relatively recent. There was, however, some ancient discussion about the topic before it become a field in the modern academy. In his letters, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (ca. 1 BC–AD 65) has something significant to say about the liberal arts in general and the study of history in particular. The discipline of history is of course an offspring of the liberal arts, so what Seneca has to say about history tends to be embedded in wider discussions about liberal learning. The eighty-eighth epistle of his Moral Letters to Lucilius shows that the history of historia, like the history of the artes liberales, is complicated.

Seneca’s political career almost certainly affected his view of education. Born in Cordoba, Hispania and educated at Rome, he was banished to Corsica early in his political career by the emperor Claudius for suspected adultery with the sister of Caligula. This first brush with political intrigue would ultimately doom him—and affect his view of the value of the liberal arts. Seneca’s exile was revoked in AD 49, after the intervention of Claudius’ new wife, Agrippina, and Seneca was appointed praeceptorto her son, the young Nero, charged with educating the royal prince in the traditional aristocratic syllabus of the studia liberalia. Nero was still a teenager when he came to power, and he remained under the tutelage of Seneca, who, judging by his De Clementia (On Mercy), had high hopes for the young ruler—as many Romans seemed to. But De Clementia was composed within two to three months of the first murder in Nero’s reign (his step-brother, Britannicus, age 13), in 54. Some four years later, Nero had commissioned the murder of his mother by boating accident. Seneca was in self-imposed exile for the last few years of his life—unable morally to work for the emperor, unable practically to refuse his boss’s “good will.” He finally committed suicide in 68, and his letters suggest that the failure of political leadership he witnessed in Nero’s regime affected his view of the value of education.[1]

Letter 88, written in the early sixties, shows both a high view of the liberal arts tradition and a keen awareness of its limits where virtue is concerned. In describing the liberal arts, Seneca provides a definition that was already ancient by the first century.

I don’t respect any study or count it among good activities if it results in a profit. These are remunerative crafts, useful if they prepare the mind and do not distract it. One should linger in these activities as long as the mind cannot do anything greater; they are our elementary training, not our real work. You see why they are called “liberal,” because they are worthy of a free man.

Immediately after submitting a classic definition of the liberal arts, Seneca moves on to two more interesting points. First he notes that these arts are distinct from virtue:

[O]nly one study is truly liberal, the one that makes him free; wisdom—lofty, courageous, and magnanimous: the rest are puny and puerile. Do you think there is any good in those arts whose teachers you see to be the most shameful and scandalous of all men? We ought not to learn these things, but to have learned them.

This is followed by a series of rhetorical demands. Do not teach me about measuring my property, Seneca says, but rather how to share it with my brother. Do not teach me about the journey of Ulysses, but rather “how I am to love my country, my wife, my father, and how, even after suffering shipwreck, I am to sail toward these ends, honorable as they are.” There is a significant list of virtues here: bravery, loyalty, temperance, modesty, and mercy among them. The artes as Seneca has experienced them have a no more than a loose connection to any of these.

Secondly, Seneca explores the status of historia within the arts. The story of the seven liberal arts is not a simple sequence: idealized in ancient Greece as elements of enkuklios paideia, they were adapted by the Romans as artes liberales.[2]  The content and length of a list of arts varied by author culture: Cato the Elder’s writings embraced medicine, military science, and farming. The same variance is even found within the works of a single author, Philo, whose lists contain three to six members.

Looking at the letter as a whole, an outline of Seneca’s artes would look like this:

Grammar, including history and poetry         3–8

Music                                                              9

Geometry, including surveying                      10–13

Astronomy                                                      14

Excluded by name: painting, statuary, athletics

It is worth noting that Seneca’s list makes historia a species of the grammar genus. Moreover, it has its roots in poetry: “Grammar is preoccupied with care for speech, and if it wants to spread further, about histories and, to extend its boundaries to the limit, about poetry.” Gerald Press’s volume on the development of historiography is valuable here.[3] He provides some historical context by highlighting the “extraordinarily popular” treatise on Grammar by Dionysius Thrax, an Alexandrian who flourished in the second century BC (170–90). “The ready exposition of languages and histories” is third of six parts of grammar, which is both study of language (our “grammar”) and the first stage in the literary education of a child (our “grammar school”). Dionysius’ definition of grammar is, however, more capacious than the modern, popular notion.[4] In fact it contains six aspects:

  • “prosedy”: reading aloud correctly (anágnōsis)
  • exegesis
  • glossai: exposition of obsolete words and subject matter
  • etymology
  • analogies
  • κρίσις ποιημάτων (krísis poiēmάtōn): critical judgement of the works examined

It is notable that, for Dionysius, history is a “gloss” of unfamiliar persons, places, and events: “Here then, history makes its modest debut in the educational curriculum of Western Civilization: not as a discipline, a science, or a body of knowledge, nor even as acquaintance with the writings of historians primarily, but as information about various matters mentioned in whatever literature one studied.”[5] This is obviously not our “history.” In fact searching Seneca for “history” per se can be frustrating for anyone hoping for a familiar, less-than-inchoate definition of the field. No “field” yet exists. There is nevertheless reason to bear our “history” in mind while reading ancient authors.

If no historical discipline is delineated in Seneca, some things that will become distinctive characteristics of it are present. Consider the questions raised by Seneca:

  • Who was older, Homer or Hesiod?
  • What is the route of Ulysses’ wanderings?
  • Was he tossed around only near Italy, or “beyond the world known to us”?
  • [I]n the absence of written records, shall I make an estimate of the number of years which lie between Orpheus and Homer?

These are clearly within the province of the historian as we understand the label, but also demonstrate the fluid and unsettled state of categories where disciplines are concerned. Reading Seneca’s letter offers more evidence that liberal learning—particularly before the medieval period—was more of an argument than a system. What does this mean for those of us involved in classical education? The complicated history of the disciplines that today comprise the liberal arts may strike us a destabilizing. On further consideration, however, there is as much encouragement here as not. There is something comforting about the fact that the canonical trivium and quadrivium were hard won.

[1] He surveys the other arts, then 20: So do liberal studies bring us no advantage?” Much for other purposes, but nothing for virtue; for even those openly worthless arts worked by hand contribute a lot to the tools of life, but are irrelevant to virtue.” ‘So why do we train our sons in liberal arts?’ No because these arts can bestow virtue, but because they prepare the mind to accept virtue. Just as that first lettering…by which the alphabet was passed on to boys does not teach the liberal arts but prepares the soul for the reception of virtue.”#

“So, when you say that we cannot reach virtue without liberal studies, how can you deny that they contribute anything to virtue.” Like food is required, it is not relevant to v; it’s like the timber on a ship.

[2] H. Parker, “The Seven Liberal Arts,” EHR 5 (1890): 417-61. “The term liberales artes is good Latin. Cicero employs it, and that is enough” 417.

[3] The Development of the Idea of History in Antiquity. McGill-Queen’s University Press: 1982.

[4] The Grammar of Dionysios Thrax, Thomas Davidson, trans. St Louis: 1874, 3-4.

[5] Press, The Development, 38.