Ancient History

Ancient Letters Speak Today

“I rest only so long as I am writing to you or reading your letters.” —Cicero, To Atticus 9.4.1

“That which is sweetest when we meet face to face is afforded by the impress of a friend’s hand upon his letter –  recognition.” —Seneca, Moral Letters 40.1

I am drawn by some invisible force to “look for the ancient paths” (Jer. 6:16). I want to be the “teacher trained in the Kingdom” whom Jesus compares to “a homeowner who brings from his storeroom new gems of truth as well as old” (Matt. 13:52). I love digging down deep into the soil of our past to find the tap root of the Christian faith. I am a true “radical” in that way, insofar as the word “radical” (from where we get the word “radish”) literally means “getting back to the root.” 

I’m halfway through my doctoral program in New Testament Context—a research degree immersing me in the primary writings of the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds. I feel like I’m straddling two different worlds at the same time, trying to become fluent in both cultural worlds, and then trying to make the two world’s to speak to and enlighten each other. 

My hunger and drive for my studies ebbs and flows. This past week my reading engine was energetically jump-started again as I approach another essay deadline. My current project explores ancient letter writing (or, epistolography) as a preeminent mode of moral formation among the ancient philosophers and early Church Fathers. When my stress-O-meter skyrockets as research deadlines draw near, I try to remember that my motive for going back to school was for the fun of learning—an excuse to dig into the ancient classical writings I’ve been collecting on my shelves for years.

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My collection of ancient classical writings … finally digging in!

While the following list will elicit gaping yawns from most, these are the ancient texts (mostly letters) I’ve been devouring lately with no little joy:

Letters of Cicero (1st C BC)

Letters of Seneca (1st C AD)

Letters of Pliny the Younger (1st C AD)

Letter to Diognetus (2nd C AD)

Letters of Ignatius (2nd C AD)

The Didache (c. 100 AD)

Letters of St. Basil (4th C AD)

Letters of Gregory Nazianzus (4th C AD)

Letters of St. Augustine (4/5th C AD)

Eusebius’ Church History (c. 300 AD)

These ancient documents are public domain and found online for free. So every spare moment I get I’m opening my phone browser and perusing another letter or two. At the pool, on the toilet, waiting in line, or when my head hits the pillow—I’m copying and pasting little excerpts of to my notebook that are relevant to my thesis or of some personal interest. Let me share a few random samples here from Pliny the Younger (61-113 AD), Seneca (4 BC-65 AD) and Cicero (106-43 BC).

First, in this Letter of Pliny to Cornelius Tacitus, we find this aristocratic man of letters joking about his becoming a “sportsman” during a recent hunting excursion to the woods.

“You will laugh (and you are quite welcome) when I tell you that your old acquaintance is turned sportsman, and has taken three noble boars. “What!” you exclaim, “Pliny!”—Even he. However, I indulged at the same time my beloved inactivity; and, whilst I sat at my nets, you would have found me, not with boar spear or javelin, but pencil and tablet, by my side. I mused and wrote, being determined to return, if with all my hands empty, at least with my memorandums full. Believe me, this way of studying is not to be despised: it is wonderful how the mind is stirred and quickened into activity by brisk bodily exercise. There is something, too, in the solemnity of the venerable woods with which one is surrounded, together with that profound silence which is observed on these occasions, that forcibly disposes the mind to meditation. So for the future, let me advise you, whenever you hunt, to take your tablets along with you, as well as your basket and bottle, for be assured you will find Minerva no less fond of traversing the hills than Diana. Farewell” (Pliny, Letters 4).

I laughed out loud reading this one because I also enjoy retreating to our family’s hunting cabin out west, bringing not a gun but books and a laptop, and in search of the “profound silence” that helps me think and write and muse about the intellectual “hunt” for eternal truth and wisdom.

A second excerpt is from a letter of Seneca to his disciple Lucilius. These two passages struck me as potent challenge to our ADD soundbite culture where we’re constantly being bombarded and shaped by short headlines, bitesized Tweets, catchy hashtags, snarky memes, short blog posts and out-of-context YouTube soundbites. Who has the time and personal discipline to read entire books anymore? Why wade through an author’s carefully argued thesis when we can google a book and find a list of favorite quotes ripped out of context by somebody else who actually read the book? How many of us have had a book recommended to us, but instead of bothering with the book, we settle for watching video clips of the author on YouTube?  Seneca would urge us to read the entire book and not settle for a quick google search or Wikipedia article:

“For this reason, give over hoping that you can skim, by means of epitomes, the wisdom of distinguished men. Look into their wisdom as a whole; study it as a whole. They are working out a plan and weaving together, line upon line, a masterpiece, from which nothing can be taken away without injury to the whole. Examine the separate parts, if you like, provided you examine them as parts of the man himself. She is not a beautiful woman whose ankle or arm is praised, but she whose general appearance makes you forget to admire her single attributes” (Seneca, Moral Letters 33.5).

On a similar note, Seneca also advocates the ancient ideal of coming under the influence of a smaller number of sages to do a full download all of their wisdom:

“Be careful, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere” (Seneca, Moral Letters 2.2).

Philo of Alexandria, a 1st century Jewish philosopher, likewise thought his writings could “serve as teachers, filling the ears of readers with a continuous flood of instruction.” Drinking from the firehose of a few trustworthy guides is better than casually sipping a few drops of wisdom from a thousand different fonts. 

Third, any teacher or mentor figure will find their heart warmed by the effusive joy spilling out of this letter of Seneca praising his apprentice for his progress—indeed, his excellence:

“I grow in spirit and leap for joy and shake off my years and my blood runs warm again, whenever I understand, from your actions and your letters, how far you have outdone yourself; for as to the ordinary man, you left him in the rear long ago. If the farmer is pleased when his tree develops so that it bears fruit, if the shepherd takes pleasure in the increase of his flocks, if every man regards his pupil as though he discerned in him his own early manhood, – what, then, do you think are the feelings of those who have trained a mind and moulded a young idea, when they see it suddenly grown to maturity? (Seneca, Moral Letters 34.1)

These are just a couple examples of the timeless wisdom to be found by reading other people’s mail and digging through  ancient letters. Now if only we all had more leisure to indulge in this ancient joy of writing and reading letters! Cicero concurs:

“What could give me greater pleasure, failing a face to face talk with you, than either to write to you, or to read a letter of yours? What often annoys me still more is my being tied up with such pressing engagements that I find it impossible to write to you when the spirit moves me” (Cicero, To Friends 12, 30, 1). 

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