Tone of voice is crucial to understanding the writing style of an author or brand. It’s the building blocks of a personal story, helping readers and listeners understand the information they are consuming and the ancient world was full of writers who wanted to craft a specific tone of voice for themselves.
The Roman politician Lucius Seneca was one such writer who carefully cultivated a specific identity through his plays, letters and political statements. Complicated and endlessly fascinating, Seneca was a man of many contradictions and it’s in his writing style that we get a glimpse of who he was and the tone of voice he crafted for his own brand of Stoic philosophy.
In this article you’ll find out how to write like Seneca and see his brand tone of voice broken down.
A rhetorical tone
In a writing context, tone is how an author chooses to deliver their message to the audience. It’s the attitude behind the words and applying certain vehicles or literary techniques to the presentation.
In Seneca’s case, his tone was built on rhetoric, the ancient art of persuasive writing that was popular among Greek and Roman politicians in antiquity. When using rhetoric, politicians could wield words to impressive effect but there has always been a criticism of this kind of speech lacking in meaning and sincerity.
As Dr Emily Wilson explains in Seneca: A Life:
“There was a disconnect between political realities and acceptable forms of speech, which led to a culture characterised by dissimulation; being fake was a prerequisite for social success. Elite Roman men were eager to assert their masculinity (or virtus – virtue or manhood) in a political system that robbed them of the old kinds of power.
They constantly spoke and wrote in a kind of double-speak, making verbal gestures that could always be interpreted more than one way. The fashionable style of speech and writing piled up aphoristic polished witticisms, a bombardment of the most ‘truth-y’ kind of sentence, as if to compensate for an underlying fear of falsehood.
Rhetoric was not only a style but a way of being in the world. Seneca was the master of this style.”
By using rhetoric in his writing, Seneca developed a tone that was aphoristic, punchy, witty and erudite. This can be seen in a lot of Seneca quotes:
- “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
- “Necessity is usually more powerful than duty.”
- “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
There’s also a resonant quality in Seneca’s tone through the way his prose creates a personal connection with the reader, a notable quality in the Letters to Lucilius:
“Whoever does not regard what he has as most ample wealth, is unhappy, though he be master of the whole world.” Or, if the following seems to you a more suitable phrase, — for we must try to render the meaning and not the mere words: “A man may rule the world and still be unhappy, if he does not feel that he is supremely happy.” In order, however, that you may know that these sentiments are universal, suggested, of course, by Nature, you will find in one of the comic poets this verse: Unblest is he who thinks himself unblest.”
In reading this quote and several other passages in the Letters to Lucilius, I felt as if Seneca was addressing me specifically. He is writing about timeless themes and this is deliberate on the author’s part, as Wilson goes on to explain:
“The Letters To Lucilius conjure up a paradoxical relationship between writer and addressee. On one hand, Seneca sets out to give advice to his friend, suggesting that he himself is at least somewhat further along the road towards philosophical perfection. On the other hand, he constantly acknowledges that the real work has to be done by each person for himself: only Lucilius can teach Lucilius.
But Seneca constantly works in the Letters to undermine the distinction between the reader and the writer; we are supposed to become so closely involved that this distinction disappears. If you can find a true friend, he suggests, you can talk to him as if to a second self. Seneca manages to invite us to think of the text as a transparent window into his thoughts, even as he constructs his own image.”
All of this is the power of rhetoric. While it may be tempting to think of Seneca’s writing as disingenuous when seeing his work through this political lens, there is evidence that he was genuinely concerned with trying to put his words into action by embracing Stoicism.
Cadence is another important part of tone of voice. It’s the flow and rhythm of sentences and how text is constructed on the page.
Seneca’s cadence shifts between punchy and mannered, to flowing and grandiose. In some instances, his sentences are short and pithy, designed to hit the reader instantly. Other times he’s focused on creating a sweeping narrative, inviting the reader inside his mind with longer sentences.
The most notable element of Seneca’s cadence is the twisting and turning i.e the writer never being satisfied with one idea. He’s eager to lead the reader on a journey, constantly building on different themes in the pursuit of presenting himself as a philosopher.
Wilson provides a great example of this in how Seneca wrote about coping with illness throughout his life:
“As often in Seneca’s prose, just as we think we have reached an end point, there turns out to be another twist. Seneca then assures his reader that the abstraction of philosophy alone was not all he lived for: it was his friends who “helped me greatly towards convalescence.” He tells that it was they (not the father or other family members) who sat at his bedside while he was sick.
“I was comforted by their words, by their presence at night by my side and by their conversation. “Nothing,” he assures Lucilius, “refreshes and helps a sick person as much as the love of his friends; nothing is so good as taking away the dread and the fear of death.”
This passage veers off in several directions, addressing philosophy, fear and death, showcasing Seneca’s twisting cadence and flow.
Language in writing is about imagery and metaphors. It’s how an author evokes emotion and the specific pictures that are used to present themes. Seneca’s language is vivid and haunting, zoning in on themes of Stoicism, how to live a good life, death and freedom.
To understand Seneca’s language it’s important to understand his view of Stoicism and Wilson explains:
“Seneca clearly saw Stoicism not as an abstract intellectual interest but as a practical guide to the big decisions and small daily habits of his life. He made a series of choices between preferred and nonpreferred indifferent things: he chose Rome over exile, vast wealth over modest means and enormously high social status at court over a humble life in the provinces.
His work is haunted by the question of whether indulging in the ‘preferred indifferents’ like money and honour, may get in the way of the journey towards the true value of virtue. Stoicism allowed him to justify choosing or preferring things like health, wealth and luxury and not preferring exile or torture or death.”
Seneca expressed the language of Stoicism through various phrases and imaginary situations in his prose. For example, Seneca famously wrote a letter to Lucilius about being seasick on crossing the Bay of Naples and in his writing he’s highly self-deprecating and views himself as ridiculous.
“When I finally calmed my stomach (for you know that one does not escape sea sickness by escaping from the sea) and refreshed my body with a rubdown, I began to reflect how completely we forget or ignore our failings, even those that affect the body, which are continually reminding us of their existence, – not to mention those which are more serious in proportion as they are more hidden.
Let us, therefore, rouse ourselves, that we may be able to correct our mistakes. Philosophy, however, is the only power that can stir us, the only power that can shake off our deep slumber. Devote yourself wholly to philosophy. You are worthy of her; she is worthy of you; greet one another with a loving embrace. Say farewell to all other interests with courage and frankness. Do not study philosophy merely during your spare time.”
In this short entry, there are multiple motifs and images vying for our attention. Seneca admits his own shortcomings and identifies sea sickness as a kind of perpetual malady that affects him no matter where he is in the world.
He goes on to describe philosophy as a prescription to this illness, a fair maiden who can provide comfort and healing. It’s one of many examples where Seneca flexes his creative muscles to deliver timeless wisdom.
Summarising Seneca’s brand tone of voice
Now that we’ve examined tone, cadence and language, Seneca’s brand tone of voice can be summed up:
- Twisting and turning
- A strong focus on multiple themes and backtracking
- Relatively free with grammar
Through understanding this tone of voice, we can better understand who Seneca was. A deeply complicated man obsessed with knowing himself inside and out. A man who struggled to reconcile his beliefs with his choice of lifestyle. A man who loved philosophy, writing and who constantly strived to be more than he was.
Be sure to check out my analysis of Marcus Aurelius’ tone of voice and find out how to write like a Roman Emperor.
Build your brand tone of voice with Stoic Athenaeum
Stoic Athenaeum helps businesses craft their tone of voice through understanding the kind of story that needs to be presented to customers. This is done through philosophy-led content marketing and for more information get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org