Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

I am currently working on the references for a translation of some of Foucault’s lectures. The editors in French have established a very extensive editorial framework – adding in all the references to texts referred to and alluded to by Foucault. (Foucault read and wrote far too much is my only comment here as I slowly work through this material!) Amongst the reference are some letters from Seneca (4 BC–AD 65).

The letter I have cited from below is a salutory reminder – but also an encouragement – to academics and other artists wondering what their role is at present. It must be pointed out, however, the establishment proponents of performative metrics would no doubt take a much dimmer view of these remarks. The extract begins with a warning which could equally well apply to the dangers of social media and the current media news cycle. All a demonstration that even if certain cultural and social mores have changed, humans still tend to respond in a similar fashion.

Without doubt, the larger the group we associate with, the greater the danger. Nothing, though, is as destructive to good character as occupying a seat in some public spectacle, for then the pleasure of the sight lets the faults slip in more easily. 3 What do you suppose I mean? Do I come home greedier, more power-hungry, more self-indulgent? Worse than that! I become more cruel and inhumane, just because I have been among humans.

Purely by chance, I found myself at the midday show, expecting some amusement or wit, something relaxing to give people’s eyes a rest from the sight of human blood. On the contrary! The fights that preceded turned out to have been downright merciful. The trifling was over: now it was unmitigated slaughter.
A break in the action: “Cut some throats in the meantime, just so there will be something going on!”
9.There is no reason for you to be enticed into the midst of the people by a prideful wish to display your talent for public recitation or debate. I would want you to do that if you had any merchandise suitable for this populace; as it is, there is nobody capable of understanding you. Perhaps somebody or other will show up, and even that one will need to be instructed, to teach him how to understand you.

“For whom, then, did I learn these things?” You need not fear that your time has been wasted so long as you have learned them for yourself.

10 And so that my own learning today will not be for myself alone, I will share with you three exceptionally fine sayings that come to mind as having some bearing on the point at hand. One shall pay what is due with this letter, and the other two you may credit to my account. Democritus says,

One person counts as a nation with me, a nation as one person.*

11 Also well spoken is the remark of whoever it was (for there is some dispute as to the author) who said, when asked why he expended such efforts over a work of art that very few would ever see,

A few are enough; one is enough; not even one is also enough.

The third is especially good. Epicurus, writing to one of his companions in philosophy, said,

I write this not for the many but for you: you and I are audience enough for one another.*

12 Take these words to heart, dear Lucilius, so that you may think little of the pleasure that comes from the acclaim of the many. Many people do praise you: does it give you reason to be satisfied with yourself if you are one whom many people can understand? Direct your goods inward.

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, “Letter 8: Writing as a form of service” In Letters on Ethics: To Lucilius, University of Chicago Press, 2015, pp.36-37.

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