On Letter Writing

We live in an age when many say the art of writing a letter – and any need to do so – is dying, replaced by the ease and gratification of email, texting, Snapchat and Skype. But the difference between these new media and putting pen to paper can help think in more detail about the diverse reasons behind writing letters.

We have many letters from ancient Rome. Perhaps the most interesting are those written in the early 2nd century by Pliny (known to many as Pliny the Younger). We have discussed Pliny’s letters before, but particularly interesting are those he wrote while governor of the eastern province Bithynia-Pontus to the emperor Trajan back in Rome. Pliny’s letters while in office are often practical requests about complex judicial questions, doomed building projects and thorny financial tangles. These detailed reports and requests, and Trajan’s brief replies, have led to derogatory caricatures of Pliny as a weak and needy civil servant incapable of acting alone, constantly checking in with an exasperated emperor who had better things to do.

Roman cursus publicus (postal service) from a column in Igel, Trier (AD 250)

Roman cursus publicus (postal service) from a column in Igel, Trier (AD 250)

Pliny’s letters are even stranger when one takes into account the nuts and bolts of writing. Reliable and rapid correspondence was difficult in the vast and dangerous expanse of the Roman Empire. It was a little easier for those like Pliny who could use the imperial “postal service”. But even with an honest messenger and fair weather, it would have taken over a month, possibly two, for Pliny’s letter to reach Trajan in Rome. The messenger then had to wait for a response, before making the return journey. Pliny was writing while touring his province, so the messenger would not even necessarily know where to find him when he returned! These delays means that Pliny would be waiting many months for replies to his inquiries. And when he did receive a reply he might well be in a different city from the one where the problem arose!

So we ought to think more broadly about reasons for letter writing other than urgent requests. Perhaps Pliny was not as whiney, nor Trajan as terse, as first readings suggest. Trajan’s brief responses almost always affirm Pliny’s proposed actions, and encourage him to source local expertise to solve problems. In fact they sometimes look suspiciously like rubber stamping exercises. Perhaps Pliny was writing in order to be seen to be writing. How different are his letters from modern emails copied to senior colleagues to keep them in the loop and to cover one’s own back?

Finally, while the art of letter writing today is diminished, it nevertheless continues. It has become special act, a gesture to a close friend or loved one who will be thrilled to hear the thump of an addressed envelope falling from the letterbox. This physicality of letters is often forgotten. But a new world of instant communication has highlighted this value to the letter – an object the recipient can pick up, touch, read, put down, keep and pick up again. This is important for thinking about Pliny. The only reason we can read his letters to Trajan is because they were kept, collected and published (with recent scholarship arguing that this was done by Pliny himself). Pliny’s letters and Trajan’s replies are a polished collection cultivating the image of an harmonious relationship between emperor and governor. Pliny, two thousand years ago, was it seems more alive to the importance of public perception of one’s correspondence than certain officials in the modern world who should know better. The visibility of correspondence can be exploited by one’s opponents; it can also be manipulated positively by correspondents themselves.

Writing a letter is not just about the transmission of information. It’s about the communication gesture itself. And the physical preservation of that gesture can be more important than its content. Do you have any more ideas about our continuing love affair with the letter? Answers in the Comments section below. Or on a postcard.

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One thought on “On Letter Writing

  1. Reminds me of the Theuth-Thamus episode recounted by Socrates in the Phaedrus: “now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory” (Phaedrus, 275a).

    It seems to me that instant media like texting and Snapchat are the ultimate in convenience. They have exploded in popularity despite Socrates’ vehement stance against the written word (and, going by his remarks on silent paintings, picture messages). Although we can easily communicate long distance with voice and video messaging, written conversations are still prevalent outside of face-to-face encounters. It strikes me that the real usefulness of letters/emails/texts etc. is in their ability to be conducted without an active addressee – I would wager that, were Pliny and Trajan communicating today, they would be exchanging emails with a similar frequency to their letters, rather than Skyping and calling every other hour.

    Given so many different ways to communicate, we now tailor the method to the recipient and the context. A letter is suddenly more meaningful when it is possible to text or email and a birthday card in the post is practically obligatory when faced with the perceived thoughtlessness of an e-card. We are delighted when a friend hops on a train or plane to visit; pleased to receive a personal, hand-written letter; happy to exchange emails, texts and messages; and unamused when an e-card arrives a week late… Similarly, nothing short of Skype or a visit will do when we miss distant loved ones. It’s all about how closely the method mimics face-to-face conversation. Perhaps Socrates is right in his wariness of the written word – when something is really important we still choose to conduct ourselves in person. Nevertheless, with 3.4 million emails sent every second, we cannot deny the usefulness of written communication.

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