Did Seneca practice the art of memory?

I came across this quote while reading Seneca’s “Letters from a Stoic.”

“What reason have I, however, for supposing that one who is ignorant of letters will never be a wise man, since wisdom is not to be found in letters? Wisdom communicates facts and not words; and it may be true that the memory is more to be depended upon when it has no support outside itself.”

Source: LXXXVIII. On liberal and vocational studies.

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He probably did. Memory techniques were widely used back then. Seneca was born only about 40 years after Cicero died. Cicero wrote that memory techniques were so commonly known that he didn’t have to describe them in too much detail.

Consequently (in order that I may not be tedious on a subject that is well known and familiar) one must employ a large number of localities which must be clear and defined and at moderate intervals apart, and image that are effective and sharply outlined and distinctive, with the capacity of encountering and speedily penetrating the mind; the ability to use these will be supplied by practice, which engenders habit, and by marking off similar words with an inversion and alteration of their cases or a transference from species to genus, and by representing a whole concept by the image of a single word, on the system and method of a consummate painter distinguishing the positions of objects by modifying their shapes.


Yep. I read in The Art of Memory that Ad Herennium was wrongly attributed to Cicero for a long time, as well. I don’t remember if that was the case in Seneca’s time, though.

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Is that the part that makes you think this?

Well, yeah probably maybe… but that has nothing to do with your quote…

Quid est autem quare existimem non futurum sapientem eum qui litteras nescit, cum sapientia non sit in litteris? Res tradit, non verba, et nescio an certior memoria sit quae nullum extra se subsidium habet.

“Res tradit, non verba” is a Latin proverb that basically means “actions speak louder than words”. That’s more or less his main point and thus you might get away being “ignorant of letters”.

The “memory” that is “more to be depended upon” when it has “no support outside itself” refers back to “one who is ignorant of letters”. All he’s basically saying here, is that “it may be true” that a formal education in a certain subject may be more hinderance than help. That is what is meant by “no support outside itself”.

Ultimately, it’s actions (res) not words (verba) that matter. In a way, it doesn’t matter if you can debate Keynes vs. Hayek if you can’t apply it to improve the economy… (I’m taking liberties here to make my point.)

Nothing in that quote really refers to “the art of memory” though… not in Latin and really not in the English translation either.

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Are we reading the same part of the text? The story of Simonides is mentioned right above the part I quoted. He wrote that the subject of how to place locations in a memory journey is well known and familiar:

Consequently (in order that I may not be tedious on a subject that is well known and familiar) one must employ a large number of localities [memory palace locations] which must be clear and defined and at moderate intervals apart…

Above that he refers to visual memory being the strongest for creating mnemonic images.

Edit: I wasn’t referring to anything specific that Seneca wrote — only that memory techniques were widely enough used back then to the point where Cicero thought it wasn’t worth explaining them in too much detail.

I don’t read Latin so I can’t really comment on that. The letter as a whole is about how people get wrapped up in learning everything which crowds out learning the most important lessons, which for the Stoics is virtue. Right before the quote I gave Seneca was discussing how the “liberal arts” don’t teach virtue, and one could argue that an education in the liberal arts was unnecessary for such.

In my reading of the English translation of the quote I gave, “letters” are being compared to the liberal arts. They are both something unnecessary for obtaining wisdom. When he says that “memory is more to be depended upon when it has no support outside itself” he is making an analogy with what some, at the time, may have believed that writing makes our memories weaker (since he was just discussing “letters”). This statement is an analogy of the effect of liberal arts education on wisdom/virtue, which is that one may become more wise by abstaining from the liberal arts to concentrate on philosophy.

Out of curiosity, how would you personally translate the quote to English?

In case the reply was to me (not sure), we got a little misunderstanding… yes, it does say that and I agree it’s pretty likely that that is the case. What I was trying to say though was that @QiJitsu original quote in the very first post doesn’t support that. It wasn’t meant as a reply to what you pointed out… was just saying that this would be unrelated evidence (from the first quote).

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Exactly… actions, not words.

Wait, do you mean as in A, B, C, etc.? I think I know where the problem is now…

I wouldn’t… and I’ll show you why…


…in this case I’d translate “Lettres” as “Arts and Humanities”… also compare with this

So as far as an English translation of Seneca, I wouldn’t… there are way too many things to consider given that the text is 2,000 years old. You probably need a paragraph to explain each sentence. There are certain style aspects to consider, such as saying “roofs” instead of “houses,” which is called a pars pro toto (“a part for the whole”). We kind of have it today still in the expression “have a roof over your head” which of course also includes the rest of the house.

Then you got the opposite, totem pro parte, where I can refer to the US by saying America, even though that’s not a country but in the context of countries you can refer to the US (part) as America (total). Obviously, it’s not literally raining “cats and dogs” when somebody says that… and many, many more issues. But to avoid the specific problem:

Google translate offers “uneducated” as an alternative; however, that is not quite right either… because you are referring back to the liberal arts of course (that the person is “ignorant” of). The rest of the automated translation is nonsense by the way.

Anyway, to sum it up… you see how he doesn’t mean literal “letters” that somehow mean

That’s what I already tried to say earlier…

…hope this makes more sense now. “no formal education” = “uneducated” (Google) = “ignorant of letters” (your quote)

Ha, yes, I did think he meant actual letters like A,B, C. I guess that goes to show you can’t take these these translations too seriously.

Sorry, I saw my picture in a quote and then the next quote below that didn’t have a picture so I thought it was a continuation when I first saw it. On closer look, it isn’t the Latin from the page I linked to.

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Published by the Penguin Group
Copyright © Robin Alexander Campbell, 1969
All rights reserved


Translations, and the aims and methods (when they are venturesome enough to profess them) of individual translators, are seldom hard to criticize. But however far men of letters may find themselves from agreement on the principles of translation from a classical author, the intelligent reader can no longer be satisfied with either a literal rendering – on the painful model of the old-fashioned school crib – or an inspired paraphrase – however attractive the result has sometimes been when poet has rendered poet. Somewhere between these two kinds of offering lies the ideal translation, the aim of which I should define as the exact reproduction of the original without omission or addition, capturing its sound (form, style) as well as its sense (content, meaning).

Reproduction of the style presents, except with ordinary conversational or colloquial prose, formidable problems. The practitioner feels that the attempt is one which should be made, even, in the case of poetry, with so difficult a feature of it as its metrical patterns. Yet the result must never be English so unnatural or contrived (unless the original itself clearly set out to obtain such effects) that the reader cannot stomach it. And this consideration has tempered my feeling that the brevity or rhetoric or other elements of Seneca‟s manner should each be closely imitated. It is hardly possible, for instance, to reproduce the compression of such a sentence as Habere eripitur, habuisse numquam or Magis quis veneris quam quo interest. In this field of style it is never possible to claim that a translation „loses nothing‟ of the qualities of the original.

For when all is said and done a translation of a literary work must be readable. To spare the reader the jars which remind him that he is reading a translation, all but the few timeless versions of the classical authors need to be revised or done afresh perhaps every half century. The same principle incidentally suggests that obscurities (allusions, for example, which only a Latinist would notice or appreciate) may be clarified or removed by slight expansion, and I have adopted this practice very occasionally as an alternative to a distracting reference to a note.

The formal beginning and ending of each letter (Seneca Lucilio suo salutem and Vale) is omitted. Colloquialisms (including the forms „it‟s‟, „wouldn‟t‟, etc. and the everyday habit of ending sentences with prepositions) will be noticed here and there; they have been used only where Seneca‟s language is thoroughly colloquial or where he is arguing in the second person with an imaginary interjector.

If an earlier translator has hit on a phrase which one becomes (unwillingly) convinced cannot be bettered, it is surely absurd – the more so if one believes that there is almost always only one best rendering in the language of the translator‟s day – to proceed with a poorer or less accurate one merely for the sake of originality. I am indebted in this way in a number of places to Gummere and Barker, the translators in the Loeb (1917–25) and Clarendon Press (1932) versions respectively.

The translation, originally based on Beltrami‟s text (1931), has been brought into line with the Oxford Classical Text (1965) of Mr L. D. Reynolds, to whom I am grateful for help on several points of difficulty. My appreciation is extended also to various friends who may not well recall the help or interest and encouragement at one time or another given by them, and among them to my former tutors Mr T. C. W. Stinton and Mr J. P. V. D. Balsdon, who have rescued me

from a number of heresies in the parts of this work which they have seen. My thanks are due also to Dr Michael Grant for permission to reprint from The Annals of Imperial Rome (Penguin Books, 1956) his translation of Tacitus‟ account of Seneca‟s death.

It may be asked what criteria have been applied in deciding which letters should be included or omitted. The first has been their interest – as they set out a philosophy and contribute to a picture of a man and of his times. The second has been the avoidance of undue repetition of particular themes or topics of a moralist who tends towards repetitiveness. For similar reasons one or two of the letters have been shortened by the omission of a few passages (at places indicated). My ultimate defence must be the anthologist‟s plea, or confession, that the choice has been a personal one.

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The first recorded full translation of these letters to English was by Thomas Lodge in 1614:

But why is it, wherefore I should esteeme that he shall not become wise, who is ignorant of learning, seeing wisdome is not in learning? It deliuereth deedes, not wordes; and I cannot tell whether the memorie may be more sure, which hath no help out of it selfe.

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