Books read January 2023

Jane Austen: Persuasion, Intro, Richard Church; Wood-Engravings, Joan Hassall, h/b,  London, the Folio Society, 1975 (1815). 

Persuasion was Jane Austen’s last of seven impressive novels, written as she was succumbing to an unknown illness (perhaps leukemia?).  The novel has a vast array of characters which take some keeping up with but all of Austen’s genius of expression, elegance, sensitivity and complex emotional intrigue and anxiety are on show.  There is something of the fineness of expression, minute differentiation of emotion, understanding and wisdom that keeps Austen’s writing at the head of the class.

 Mr Eliot, a distant relative and the inevitable villain hides his character very effectively for some time and so well that the reader wonders whether he will ever be defeated by the sailer hero Captain Wentworth. The Captain is the more diffident for having been rejected by the heroine Anne Eliot, having been persuaded  against the marriage at an earlier stage of the novel by an older family confidante, Lady Russell. 

After the happy reuniting of the couple at the end of the the novel, Austen has the heroine saying You should not have suspected me now; the case was so different. If I was wrong in yielding to persuasion once, remember that it was persuasion exerted on the side of safety, not of risk. When I yielded, I thought it was to duty…. We are left with an uncertainty of the degree to which one should allow ourselves to be moved by persuasion!

I, like many others, am an unashamed Austen fan. The complex array of characters in this novel is demanding but still one is left with sadness at the thought that no further novels from this amazingly gifted writer will ever come.   5 stars. 

Review of Emily Wilson: Seneca – A Life, h/b, London, Allen Lane/Penguin, 2014  

Emily Wilson

Emily Wilson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and has written previously on Tragedy from Sophocles to Milton and on the life of Sophocles. 

Her venture into the life of the Stoic philosopher Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the Younger), is a masterpiece of exceptional scholarship which also manages at the same time to be a real page turner. Born in Corduba in  Roman Spain in c.5 B.C. Seneca was a sickly child and after five years at home spent some ten years of his life in Roman Alexandria in Egypt, overcoming significant lung disease problems which would challenge him for the whole of his long life.  

Seneca eventually came to Rome in 31 CE at a time when the ruling Emperor Tiberius had lost interest in public life and become paranoid and antisocial almost to the point of madness. He had  gone off to live a life of allegedly constant sex orgies on the Isle of Capri leaving the empire to be ruled by the Senate in a state of terrified uncertainty. This reign of terror continued under the Emperors Caligula and Claudius. Early in Claudius’ reign the married Seneca was banished to Corsica on the doubtful grounds of adultery but was eventually brought back by Claudius’ new wife Agrippina, the former wife of Tiberias to be the tutor of her son by Tiberias. This child was the young Nero. 

Upon the death of the Emperor Claudius, Nero, engineered by Agrippina, became Emperor and Seneca one of his most trusted advisers, his speech writer and even served for part of a year as consul, the highest political office in Rome.  Nero poured great wealth and properties on Seneca. Along with Burras, a trusted friend, they were the power behind Nero’s throne for five years with Seneca’s skills in public relations superb. 

In this period Seneca obtained enormous wealth both in money and property (over three hundred million sestercii), a very large number indeed. Seneca began to rival even Cicero for his wisdom and skill. Daily self-examination, meditative practices, the literature of self-scrutiny matched the sort of interior self-evaluation we see today in Virginia Woolf, Proust and Joyce, argues Emily Wilson. (p.107) In addition his output of satire, violent tragedies, metaphysical theory and moral and political  discussions was enormous although not all has survived. Seneca wrote deeply and powerfully within the Stoic tradition.

In due time as Nero became more and more sure of himself he found less demanding advisers and became increasingly erratic and fickle and dangerous in his  behaviours. Seneca could see the dangers and tried to withdraw from public life and give back to Nero much of his immense wealth. Nero refused his offer and Seneca sensed coming danger.  He solved this problem by “being everywhere and nowhere”. He travelling widely within his own properties, never long in any one place. At the same time he reduced his diet to an absolute minimum to avoid poisoning opportunities. Seneca used this time to produce some of his most famous writing much of which has survived and includes some of the key tenets of  Stoicism

Seneca deserves his reputation as a truly impressive, influential and wise man. He was not the perfect wise philosopher; he was not always consistent; he was not always kind to his wives; but he did try very hard to live up to his Stoic philosophy and to help others. Christian theologians in the early centuries tried very hard to fit Seneca’s philosophy into a type of Christian living (except Augustine, who would have none of him!) There is a possibility that Seneca met Paul the Apostle on Paul’s journeys. Certainly Seneca’s brother Novatus had been appointed as the Roman magistrate  or proconsul in charge of Achaea  and appears in Acts making a decision to throw out complaints made by Jewish opponents of Paul. (Acts 18:12-16)

Emily Wilson has a very helpful epilogue in this book in which she tracks the ways in which Seneca’s philosophy has been both popular and unpopular in various  periods of European history.  He made a huge impact in the writing of Montaigne’s Essays.    This is a wonderful book especially if reading the whole of Seneca’s extant writing is a step too far which it certainly is for me.  

Many of Seneca’s aphorisms have stood the test of time. Attached are a selection of Seneca’s aphorisms discussed in Wilson’s Seneca: A Life.

leisure without study is death; it’s burial for a living man.

– it would be better if some parents never gave birth.

– everyone is the source of their own success.

– only virtue is essential for happiness

-vices tempt you by the rewards they offer.

– While I stood high, my fear was endless; I was even frightened of my own sword. How good it is, to stand in no-one’s way, to eat your dinner safely, lying on the ground.

– Even a sick lion can bite!

– Among the rest of our troubles, this one is the worst of all, that we even change our vices…our problem is that our choices are not just bad but fickle. …we abandon the things we tried to obtain, we search out the things we’ve abandoned, in a state of constant oscillation between desire and regret.

– There’s no easy path from earth to the stars.

how despicable humans are, unless we rise above the human!

– We must reconcile ourselves to the inevitability of death.

– We’re all saved for death.

– He is a great man who uses earthenware dishes as if they were silver; but he is equally great who uses silver as if it were earthenware.

– Continuous writing makes one depressed and exhausted; continuous reading makes one lax and weak.

– show me a person who isn’t a slave.

– It is not the writer’s job to teach, but that of the reader himself.

– the main part of progress is wanting to progress.

– I have sold myself to no-one; I have no master’s name.”

– What we all do, every day, is begin to die.

– the best comfort is to keep one’s memories intact.

– from the end of one desire springs up another. 

– “The greatest proof of an evil mind is fluctuation, and constant wavering between the pretence of virtue and the love of vice.

– one’s life should match one’s teaching.

– nobody is ever changed by precepts..either you teach somebody who already knows how to behave well, or else you teach somebody who does not know, and precepts will never be enough to change him.

– Just because philosophy can’t cure everything, doesn’t mean it can’t cure anything.

– Virtue is aroused by a touch or a shock.

– Everything belongs to other people; only time belongs to us.

– money never makes one rich; enough is never too little.   5 stars and rising.

Christopher Marlowe: The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Ed. & Intro., J. B. Steane, p/b, Ringwood, Penguin, 1969 (in Christopher Marlowe: The Complete Plays.)  

Christopher Marlowe (born in 1564, the same year as Shakespeare), wrote five major plays as well as a translation of Ovid’s Amores, the lengthy Hero and Leander and many other poems, in addition to his five major plays. Traditionally Marlowe has been regarded as a hothead and an atheist but this summation is based on very little information about his life. We know only that there was a street fight after which Marlowe was arrested and bound over to keep the peace, and that he performed some services for the Government of the day in Europe; and that a week or so before he died he was summoned to report to the Council. His death is well known since the Coroner’s Report has been researched.  After a quiet meal and afternoon in a private home with four friends a dispute arose about the reckoning. Marlowe was said to have suddenly attacked one of them and in the ensuing struggle killed his opponent in self defence. 

As regards religion, on the basis of a written statement by one Richard Baines two days after Marlowe’s death, Marlowe is said to have been an atheist, and one utterly scorning God and his ministers. Similarly one Richard Chomley, charged with atheism, argued in his defence that Marlowe is able to show more sound reasons for atheism that any divine in England is able to give to prove Christianity. Likewise the playwright Thomas Kyd, under arrest for atheism, also made accusations regarding atheism against Marlowe! The fact remains that the predominant themes of both Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine are thoroughly Christian in their content, and as J B Steane, the editor of this volume remarks, neither of them are readily conceivable as the work of an atheist in the modern sense of the word.  (p.16). Let readers enjoy Doctor Faustus and make up their own minds regarding his view of God!

The origin of the Doctor Faustus story is based on a C15th story about a scholar and magician Johann Faust, born in 1488, who allegedly sold his soul to the Devil to gain magical powers and spent his life wandering through his German homeland until his death in 1587. The first story of his life, translated into English in 1502 was titled The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor Faustus. 

The extraordinary German polymath Goethe wrote a demanding two volume account of Doctor Faustus simply called Faust. He began Faust in 1773 and continued to work on it sporadically, not completing the work until a year before his death in 1832!  Equally demanding is the German  writer Thomas Mann’s Dr Faustus written in the United States in 1947. Mann linked his version of Faustus with his constant theme of the character and role of the artist especially in relation to the Nazi regime and further elaborated on the Faustus theme in The Genesis of Dr Faustus in 1949. At least four major movies of the Doctor Faustus theme have been created. 

The Faust story and theme is traumatic in the extreme.  Twenty four years seems a long time to have power and lust fulfilled but as the time draws near for Mephistopheles to have his  way so does Faust’s fear grow and his desire to recant.  Marlowe’s Faust is doomed for eternity whereas Goethe’s version has a happier ending. 5 stars.