Thursday, August 30, 2012
Everlasting Clatter about Virtue
Seneca was born to be of the Church of England. He is the father of all that work in sentimentality, and, by fine speaking and decent behaviour, study to serve God and Mammon, to stand well with philosophy and not ill with Nero. His force had mostly oozed out of him, or 'corrupted itself into benevolence, virtue, sensibility.' Oh! the everlasting clatter about virtue! virtue! virtue! In the Devil's name be virtuous, and no more about it! Seneca could have been a Bishop Heber; Dr. Channing, too, and that set, have some kindred with him. He was, and they are, better than nothing, very greatly better. Sey gerade, sey verträglich.Some say that Sey gerade, sey verträglich (be straight-forward, be good-natured) is an echo of Goethe's
Dir frommt an jedem Ort, zu jeder Zeit,which Carlyle translated elsewhere as
Geradheit, Urteil und Verträglichkeit
In every place, at every time, thy surest chanceThomas Carlyle, essay on Diderot in Foreign Quarterly Review (1833):
Lies in Decision, Justice, Tolerance.
Thus poor Seneca, on occasion of some new Version of his Works, having come before the public, and been roughly dealt with, Diderot, with a long, last, concentrated effort, writes his Vie de Seneque; struggling to make the hollow solid. Which, alas, after all his tinkering still sounds hollow; and notable Seneca, so wistfully desirous to stand well with Truth, and yet not ill with Nero, is and remains only our perhaps niceliest-proportioned Half-and-half, the plausiblest Plausible on record; no great man, no true man, no man at all; yet how much lovelier than such,—as the mild-spoken, tolerating, charity-sermoning, immaculate Bishop Dogbolt to some rude, self-helping, sharp-tongued Apostle Paul! Under which view, indeed, Seneca (though surely erroneously, for the origin of the thing was different) has been called, in this generation, 'the father of all such as wear shovel-hats.'The Oxford English Dictionary defines shovel-hat as "A stiff broad-brimmed hat, turned up at the sides and projecting with a shovel-like curve in front and behind, worn by some ecclesiastics." Perhaps Carlyle coined it. The first citation in the OED is to Carlyle's journal (1829): "Does not the very sight of a shovel hat in some degree indispose me to the wearer thereof?"
OED, s.v. dog bolt: "As a term of contempt or abuse: (prob. originally) a person who is at someone else's command, a menial, a dogsbody; (in later use) a worthless person, a wretch, a knave."
I owe my knowledge of Carlyle's judgments on Seneca to T.R. Glover, The Conflict of Religions in the Early Roman Empire (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1909), pp. 40-41.