The Way and Its Poor: Bareness of Life from Seneca to Jerome

Alex Dressler (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Continuities between Classical and Christian forms of asceticism were recognized by the ancients, as when Jerome called the Neronian philosopher, “our Seneca, of most moderate existence” (continentissimae vitae, Jer. Vir. ill. 12.850, 629a). While many modern thinkers (e.g. Foucault 2011, 177-90) have discussed the aesthetic character of this asceticism, none have explained its development from the idea of the thesis, argument, or theme of a work of art, propositum (Jer. Comm. in Eph. 1.11, 1.558, cp. Quint. 3.3.5), in ancient aesthetic theory. Reviewing instances of this word, which will come to denote the monastic “way” of poverty, in the letters of Seneca and Jerome (Sen. Ep. 5.4, with TLL 1Aβ2), I argue that the reduction of art to its theme in criticism was fundamental to the formation of the aesthetics of existence in ethical life and to certain forms of “realism” or the representation of the poor in Latin literature.