chapter  5
31 Pages

THE LETTER AS TRACT

In this chapter there is an attempt to follow the development of the letter used as a tract for the purposes of persuasion and instruction, or as a public statement which is written with the intent of reaching a listening public beyond the overt addressees. The letter-form is used in a way which is not on the face of it ‘natural’ to the genre; it is a form which gives letter-signals to the reader’s expectations (though usually not for long), but then replaces them with serious intents which go beyond the boundaries of ordinary private or administrative correspondence, in terms of both length and tone. The letter-form here can be regarded as a kind of informal costume or dress which is assumed in order to put the reader at ease and offer encouragement to tackle the true character of what lies beneath; the author presents himself as wanting to win the reader to a closer, less formal relationship, and to listen to one side of a conversation, even though this takes the form of a monologue or even a contrived speech. A magisterial – sometimes pompous or even hectoring – tone is a frequent characteristic of such letters, the writer speaking as the head of a school, a leader of opinion, a senior adviser or chief instructor. It is a genre with a long subsequent history. The addressees of these letters may be problematic too. The name or names

at the head of the letter indicate appropriate and perhaps original recipients, but they commonly do not denote the whole anticipated readership. Thus, when Isocrateswrites to Philip, or Plato to the sons of Dion, or Epicurus to Pythocles, they are conscious of a potentially much wider audience and sometimes admit as much. This leads to another phenomenon: when letters like this enter or are entered into the public domain, they, like all works of literature, acquire a life of their own, and it can be argued that some of the early Christian letters, for instance, have been ‘promoted’ by the Church to an instructional and definitively doctrinal status which was not their original intention. This kind of letter had already been identified in antiquity. Demetrius in

his essay On Style wrote:

Letters which are too long and in addition too weighty in their style would not truly be called letters but written works which have the

addition of the word ‘Greetings’, like the many letters of Plato and the letter of Thucydides.1