Sand without mortar

Words have an elusive quality. They are not facts to be known with full certainty or mathematical entities to be derived from reason. They are drawbridges, always turning, always shifting access and passage. Good discourse always requires more than a juxtaposition of words.

The Roman emperor Caligula wasn’t impressed with Seneca the Younger’s epigrammatic style. As a philosopher, Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD) sought to convey as much as possible using as little as possible. Discursively economic, Seneca’s style fell short of the emperor’s expectations. Caligula is known to have complained that Seneca’s essays were like ‘sand without mortar’, arena sine calce, words piled up on each other without anything to hold them together. Simplicity is misleading. Caligula the baroque reader was misled. For Seneca’s philosophical writings, such as his essay On The Tranquillity of Mind or On The Shortness of Life, make up in clear-eyed insight what they may lack in Ciceronian flourish. Seneca adopted a direct, penetrative style which favoured coordination, rather than subordonation, of clauses. The effect was freshness and frugal elegance – laser-guided words tracking the moving targets of philosophical inquiry. So concentrated was the Senecan juice that almost every thinker from Augustine to Dante made it part of their diet. Concentrated yet low-sugar. Seneca is also one of the most quotable and quoted ancient philosophers. Forget sand and mortar, there’s pure marble here.

Yet it would be unfair to say that Caligula was wrong in his expectation. That a work should hold its own weight and its parts ought to be such as to make the overall piece architecturally solid and coherent is a reasonable thing to ask. But the form, as Seneca shows, ought not to be the line of trees concealing the deep forest of substance outwith.

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