Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Seneca the Younger on Quality Texts

Brian J. Wright has published an excellent book that covers, quite exhaustively, communal reading events in the first century; Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus: A Window into Early Christian Reading Practices (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017). The work is a gold mine of references to little known primary source materials relating to communal reading. One particular nugget that Wright mentions is in reference to Seneca the Younger (4 BCE - 65 CE: p. 99-100). In his famous work, "On Anger" (De Ira), Seneca analyses circumstances that can lead to anger. In one such passage he discusses a poorly copied book.

"We are angry, either with those who can, or with those who cannot do us an injury. To the latter class belong some inanimate things, such as a book, which we often throw away when it is written in letters too small for us to read, or tear up when it is full of mistakes, or clothes which we destroy because we do not like them. How foolish to be angry with such things as these, which neither deserve nor feel our anger! "But of course it is their makers who really affront us." I answer that, in the first place, we often become angry before making this distinction clear in our minds, and secondly, perhaps even the makers might put forward some reasonable excuses: one of them, it may be, could not make them any better than he did, and it is not through any disrespect to you that he was unskilled in his trade: another may have done his work so without any intention of insulting you: and, finally, what can be more crazy than to discharge upon things the ill-feeling which one has accumulated against persons?" (Ira 2.26)

As many know, in the trash mounds of ancient Oxyrhynchus were found many discarded books, Christian and non-Christian works. Many of them appear to have been torn-up before they were cast into the garbage dump (see Anne Marie Luijendijk on this phenomena). Of course we can never know for certain, yet Seneca's comments may apply to some of the fragments of books discovered in places like Oxyrhynchus. Perhaps their owners were disgusted with the perceived poor quality of the text or the style of writing employed. Considering the cost of making a book at this time, Seneca's comments reflect the vain anger of a member of Rome's wealthy elite who can afford to throw something as costly as a book away simply because they do not like it.


Anne Marie Luijendijk, “Sacred Scriptures as Trash: Biblical Papyri from Oxyrhynchus.” Vigiliae Christianae 64:3 (2010): 217-54.

Aubrey Stewart, trans. L. Annaeus Seneca, Minor Dialogs Together with the Dialog "On Clemency" (Bohn's Classical Library Edition; London, George Bell and Sons, 1900)

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