Seneca on rhetorical delivery

A summary of Seneca’s ideas was published in English by Sir Roger L’Estrange in 1678. The volume included a rearrangement and summary of Seneca’s books On Benefits, On The Happy Life, On Anger, and On Clemency, as well as Seneca’s 124 epistles to Lucilius. This work went through 37 printings from its first edition to 1799. The height of its popularity was in the 1760s, when in 1764 one of the five editions included several illustrations.

The first four of L’Estrange’s 28 “epistles” collected Seneca’s ideas on rhetorical delivery and style.

Below is a transcription of the first epistle and its facing engraving from the 1764 edition (with paragraph breaks added):

Roman soldier in armor and feathered helmet holding fire in right hand and an open book and hourglass in the left hand. From Seneca's Morals by Way of Abstract, trans. L'Estrange, 1764.

Eloquence, depicted by a Roman soldier in armor and cape holding fire in his right hand and an hourglass in his left hand, atop an open book. From “Seneca’s Morals by Way of Abstract,” trans. L’Estrange, 1764.

EPIST. I.Certain general Directions for the Government of the Voice; as in speaking soft, or loud; quick, or slow: The Speech is the Index of the Mind.

YOU say well, that in speaking, the very Ordering of the Voice, (to say nothing of the Actions, Countenances, and other Circumstances that accompany it) is a Consideration worthy of a Wise Man.

There are that prescribe Certain Modes of Rising, and Falling: Nay, if you will be govern’d by them, you shall not speak a word, move a step, or eat a Bit, but by a Rule: And these perhaps are too critical.

Do not understand me yet, as if I made no Difference betwixt entering upon a Discourse loud, or soft; for the Affections do naturally rise by Degrees; and, in all Disputes, or Pleadings, whether publick, or private, a Man should properly begin with Modesty, and Temper, and so advance by little and little, if need be, into Clamor, and Vociferation. And as the Voice rises by Degrees, let it fall so too; not snapping off upon a sudden, but abating, as upon Moderation: The other is unmannerly, and rude.

He that has a precipitate Speech, is commonly violent in his Manners: Beside, that there is in it much of Vanity, and Emptiness; and no Man takes Satisfaction in a Flux of Words, without Choice; where the Noise is more than the Value.

Fabius was a Man eminent, both for his Life, and Learning; and no less for his Eloquence. His Speech was rather easy and sliding, than quick; which he accounted to be not only liable to many Errors, but to a Suspicion of Immodesty. Nay, let a Man have Words never so much at will, he will no more speak fast, than he will run; for fear his Tongue should go before his Wit.

The Speech of a Philosopher should be like his Life, composed, without Pressing, or Stumbling; which is fitter for a Mountebank, than a Man of Sobriety, and Business. And then to drop one Word after another, he is as bad on the other Side. The Interruption is tedious, and tires out the Auditor with Expectation.

Truth and Morality should be delivered in Words plain, and without Affectation; for, like Remedies, unless they stay with us, we are never the better for them. He that would work upon his Hearers, must no more expect to do it upon the Post, than a Physician to cure his Patients, only in passing by them.

Not but that I would have a wise Man, in some Cases, to raise himself, and mend his Pace; but still with a regard to the Dignity of his Manners; though there may be a great Force also in Moderation. I would have his Discourse smooth, and flowing like a River; not Impetuous, like a Torrent. There is a rapid, lawless, and irrevocable Velocity of Speech, which I would scarce allow, even to an Orator; for if he be transported with Passion, or Ostentation, a Man’s Attention can hardly keep him Company. It is not the Quantity, but the Pertinence, that does the Business. Let the Words of an ancient Man flow soft, and gentle; [*] but not run on without Fear, or Wit, as if a whole Declamation were to be but one Period.

Cicero wrote with Care, and that which will for ever stand the Test.

All publick Languages are according to the Humor of the Age. A Wantonness, and Effeminacy of Speech, denotes Luxury; for the Wit follows the Mind: If the latter be sound, composed, temperate, and grave; the Wit is dry, and sober too: but if the one be corrupted, the other is likewise unsound.

Do we not see, when a Man’s Mind is heavy, how he creeps, and draws his Legs after him? A finical Temper is read in the very Gesture and Cloaths; if a Man be choleric and violent, it is also discovered in his Motions. An angry Man speaks short, and quick; the Speech of an effeminate Man is loose and melting. A quaint and solicitous way of Speaking, is the Sign of a weak Mind; but a great Man speaks with Ease, and Freedom; and with more Assurance, though less care.

Speech is the Index of the Mind: When you see a Man dress, and set his Clothes in Print, you shall be sure to find his Words so too, and nothing in them that is firm and weighty: It does not become a Man to be delicate. As it is in Drink, the Tongue never trips, until the Mind be over-born; So it is with Speech, so long as the Mind is whole and sound, the Speech is masculine and strong; but, if one fails, the other follows.

(p. 276-278)

* Note. This edition omitted a phrase: “let those of an Orator come off Round, and Powerful” (1702, p. 377)

Seneca, L. A. (1764). Seneca’s morals by way of abstract. To which is added, a discourse under the title of an after-thought. Adorned with cuts. By Sir Roger L’Estrange, knt. (R. L’Estrange, Trans.). London: Printed for J. and R. Tonson, A. Millar, E. Ballard, W. Strahan, J. Rivington, R. Baldwin, L. Hawes, W. Clark and R. Collins, W. Johnston, and C. and R. Ware.

2 thoughts on “Seneca on rhetorical delivery

  1. hi! I am interested to pursue PhD in Rhetoric. I wonder if the research is “sound one” if my artifact is a local singer and I analyze her interviews instead of speeches in order to decipher the ethos, pathos or logos in her communication?

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