Saturday 12 August 2023

A Pseudo-Senecan Aphorism

The Aphorism:
exiguum est ad legem bonum esse 


'it is a small thing to be good according to the law'


This saying is found in books of quotations, usually it is attributed to Seneca the Younger. One recent attribution is in The Routledge Dictionary of Latin Quotations (2004).

Although the saying itself is not from any of the works of Seneca, a similar sentiment can be found in his book on anger:

Quis est iste qui se profitetur omnibus legibus innocentem? Vt hoc ita sit, quam angusta innocentia est ad legem bonum esse! Quanto latius officiorum patet quam iuris regula! Quam multa pietas humanitas liberalitas iustitia fides exigunt, quae omnia extra publicas tabulas sunt! (De ira 2.28.2)

‘Who is there that can declare himself to have broken no laws? Even if there be such a man, what a stinted innocence it is, merely to be innocent by the letter of the law. How much further do the rules of duty extend than those of the law! how many things which are not to be found in the statute book, are demanded by filial feeling, kindness, generosity, equity, and honour?’ (Aubrey Steward's translation)

The attribution itself of this saying to Seneca goes back at least several hundred years. The earliest source I could find was Hugo Grotius's Annotationes in libros evangeliorum ['Annotations on the books of the Gospels'] (1641), p.68, in his notes on the Gospel of Matthew 5:20; Grotius writes: 'Ubi legis nomen palam est ita usurpari, quomodo retulimus a Seneca dictum, exiguum esse quiddam ad legem bonum esse.'  Grotius was paraphrasing Seneca, but some readers must have taken this as a direct quotation, and thus a new Pseudo-Senecan aphorism was born.