Seneca, Master of Emotions in Competition for Attention

face of a prisoner

Seneca, meaning Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, was a leading statesman, Stoic philosopher, and dramatist in the first century of the Roman Empire. Seneca was personally and intellectually versatile and pragmatic. He was elected to a quaestorship. He won recognition as a brilliant orator. After Seneca got into political difficulties, Nero’s mother Agrippina called Seneca back from exile to be tutor to her son. Seneca became an adviser and speech-writer for Nero when Nero became Emperor. Seneca wrote books of political satire (Apocolocyntosis), essays in applied Stoic philosophy, and studies of nature (Naturales quaestiones). These works acquired enough notice and circulation to have survived to the present.

Seneca expressed disdain for competition for attention and popular success. Seneca’s play Hercules Furens described acclaim by “the mob” and vagaries of popular success:

One is more dazed by popular acclaim;
the mob, more shifting than seawaves,
hoists him as he swells with an empty breeze.

Another may be carried to many countries
by Renown; garrulous Rumour may praise him
through every city^

Seneca lamented and philosophically analyzed pantomime’s greater popular success than philosophy:

For who that is pleased by virtue can please the crowd? It takes trickery to win popular approval; and you must needs make yourself like unto them; they will withhold their approval if they do not recognize you as one of themselves. … if I see you applauded by popular acclamation, if your entrance upon the scene is greeted by a roar of cheering and clapping, — marks of distinction meet only for actors, — if the whole state, even women and children, sing your praises, how can I help pitying you? For I know what pathway leads to such popularity.^

According to an ancient historian, Seneca was a speech-writer “whose pleasing talent was so well suited to a contemporary audience.”^ Seneca wrote the speech that soon-to-be-emperor Nero spoke at Emperor Claudius’s funeral:

On the day of the funeral the emperor pronounced his predecessor’s praises. While he recounted the consulships and Triumphs of the dead man’s ancestors, he and his audience were serious. References to Claudius’ literary accomplishments too, and to the absence of disasters in the field during his reign, were favourably received. But when Nero began to talk of his stepfather’s foresight and wisdom, nobody could help laughing.^

The audience’s laughter at Nero’s delivery of Seneca’s words of false praise defies a wooden, dispassionate interpretation. Seneca’s disdain for pleasing the crowd is Stoic. Given Seneca’s versatility and his appreciation for trickery, his theatrical work should not be interpreted stoically. Seneca apparently tricked Nero.

Seneca wrote his tragedies in ways that favored their popular success. Compared to fifth-century Athenian tragedies, Seneca’s tragedies communicate more from a third-personal standpoint. Running commentaries, which do not occur in Greek tragedy, are a common third-personal form in Seneca’s tragedies. Narrative set-pieces are another common third-personal form.^ Nominally first-person speech also often has a third-personal standpoint. For example, Megara in Seneca’s Hercules Furens declares: “A cold shudder runs through my stunned body. What outrage has struck my ears?”^ The third-personal standpoint common in Seneca’s tragedies characterizes competition for attention.

Other features of Seneca’s tragedies also indicate competition for attention. Compared to fifth-century Athenian tragedies, Seneca’s tragedies have a looser narrative thread and more focus on characters’ internal psychological dynamics.^ Fifth-century Athenian tragedies represent persons in action. Seneca’s tragedies represent passions in persons and environments.^ Passions in Seneca’s tragedies are more volatile and wide-ranging than passions in fifth-century Athenian tragedies. These differences indicate a shift from competition for acclaim to competition for attention.

Seneca magnified emotional dynamics in his tragedies. Trojan princess Polyxena’s execution in Seneca’s Trojan Women moves emotions quickly across contrasting feelings. Helen, who was the object of the terrible battle at Troy, links marriages and funerals:

Any marriage that is funereal and joyless, that brings lamentations, slaughters, blood, and groans, deserves Helen as its sponsor.

Helen falsely tells Polyxena of the gods’ kindly favor: “plans to dower you with a blessed union,” “the holy rites of lawful wedlock” uniting Polyxena to Pyrrhus, son of Greek hero Achilles and heir to the throne of a Greek kingdom. Andromache, widow of a slain Trojan hero, believes Helen’s story. Andromache declares:

For the ruined Phrygians {Trojans} this was the one woe missing – to rejoice. Pergamum’s {Troy’s} wreckage is blazing all around: an apt time for a wedding! … Go on, prepare the wedding! What need of pine brands and ceremonial torches, what need of fire? Troy lights the way for this strange wedding. Celebrate the nuptials of Pyrrhus, you Trojan women, celebrate them worthily – with sounds of blows and groaning.

Subsequently a messenger reports the truth:

O cruel deaths, harsh and pitiable and horrible! What crime as grim and savage has Mars beheld in these twice five years? What shall I first tell with tears: your griefs {to Andromache} or yours, old woman {to the mother of Polyxena}?

A crowd of Trojans and Greeks gathers for Polyxena’s execution for conspiring in the killing of Achilles. The crowd gathers at Achilles’s burial mound in a space that “slopes up in the form of a theatre.” Gathering in a theatre, the play’s spectators hear a messenger describing the crowd in a space like a theatre watching Polyxena’s execution.^ This double layer of spectatorship removes the play’s spectators further from a second-personal standpoint. The messenger reports Polyxena being led to her death:

Both peoples {Trojans and Greeks} were held paralyzed by dread. She {Polyxena} herself lowered her gaze in modesty, but her eyes were radiant nonetheless, and her beauty shone forth more than usual at its ending, as Phoebus’ light is always lovelier at the moment of setting, when the stars take up the cycle and failing daylight is threatened by night’s closeness. The whole crowd was awestruck. Some were moved by her beauty, some by her tender years, some by life’s shifting changes; all were moved by the braveness of her spirit, facing death head-on; they marveled and felt pity.^

The description of Polyxena’s radiant eyes and her beauty (“as Phoebus’ light…”) gives the messenger’s speech the same emotional lability as is found in Philostratus’s Imagines. Seneca’s Medea similarly describes Medea showing “evidence of each and every emotion.” That emotional lability is foreign to fifth-century Athenian tragedy.

As the execution ritual continues, the range of emotions widens along with the viewpoint on the action. The Trojan War was fought over Helen. Pyrrhus, Polyxena’s false groom, was the son of Archilles. Archilles desired Polyxena. The messenger’s description of Pyrrhus killing Polyxena aligns eros with death:

When his hand did plunge the blade-thrust deep into her, and then withdrew the death weapon, blood suddenly erupted through the massive wound.

While only a few lines earlier Polyxena “lowered her gaze in modesty,” her emotional tone quickly shifts again:

Nevertheless in dying she still maintained her pride: she fell, so as to make the earth heavy for Achilles, face downward and with angry force.

The messenger’s perspective continues to retreat and widen:

Each group wept, but the Phyrgians {Trojans} uttered timid laments, while the victor {Greeks} lamented more loudly. Such was the order of the ritual. The spilt gore did not stand or flow on the ground’s surface: immediately the tomb swallowed and savagely drank down all the blood.^

An astute scholar of Seneca’s tragedies noted that in Seneca’s Trojan Women:

the dramatic action is particularly incoherent and episodic. … Seneca was aiming at portraying the most dramatic, pathetic, or spectacular episodes within the Trojan saga, without any particular interest in creating dramatic coherence as well as dramatic illusion.^

Emotions change too rapidly in Seneca’s tragedies to flow throughout the human body. Only the brain can entertain them.^ The emotional dynamics of fifth-century Athenian tragedy, in contrast, had the bodily physiology of drunkenness.

Seneca’s Hercules Furens has characteristically greater emotional lability than does Euripides’s Herakles. In Seneca’s prologue, Juno rages against Hercules:

Onward, my anger, onward! Crush this overreacher! Grapple with him, tear him apart with your own hands.

Because she is not truly in a Bacchic frenzy, Juno’s reasoning continually pushes back her emotion:

My mind will aggressively pursue undying anger, and my fierce resentment will abolish peace and wage eternal warfare.

What warfare? Any fearful thing the hostile earth produced, or sea or air brought forth, however frightening, monstrous, poisonous, dreadful, savage, has been broken and tamed. He prevails….

Juno summons violent, fearsome Furies against Hercules, then immediately asks herself, “Juno, why are you not raging?” Juno is not raging only in the sense that her rage does not overwhelm her reason. She summons the Furies to madden her, but then immediately her reason prompts an abrupt change in emotional tone:

I must change my prayer: may he return and find his sons safe, I pray, and may he come back strong of hand.^

Juno’s plan is to set Hercules at war with himself, just as she has been at war with herself. Hercules’s loss will be her victory and her revenge.

Euripides’s prologue to Herakles is less volatile. Amphitryon starts proudly, declaring his famous name and describing his prominent family. He then describes the background narrative for the drama. The actions of that narrative transform him into a pathetic figure. He becomes a “blathering old nuisance,” and his family, “worse than beggars.”^ That transformation occurs through minutes of narrative apparently traversing years of time. In contrast to Juno’s psychological turmoil, Amphitryon’s emotions are tightly bound to specific external circumstances represented in narrative.

In Seneca’s Hercules, Amphitryon and Megara enter with speeches containing unmotivated, counter-balancing shifts between confidence and despair. Amphitryon questioningly contrasts Hercules’s past heroics with his current impotence. But he concludes with sudden, unlimited confidence in Hercules:

He will be with us, seeking vengeance, and suddenly emerge to the sight of the stars. He will find a way, or else make one.

Megara picks up dramatically on Amphitryon’s confidence:

Emerge, my husband! Dispel the darkness by force, break it open! If there is no way back, if the path is closed, then return by rending the earth, and release with you all that lies in the grip of the black night.

But despair closes in on Megara and encompasses her:

Either return safely and defend us all, or drag us all down. — You will drag us down, no god will rebuild our broken lives.^

Amphitryon’s and Megara’s concluding positions set up a short argument between them. But the emotional movements that took them to their positions occur with no reason for those different positions.

In Euripides’s Herakles, the emotional contrast between Amphitryon and Megara is more muted. With her first speech, Megara follows Amphitryon’s emotional movement in the prologue from pride to despair. A short argument between Amphitryon and Megara arises with Amphitryon’s weak justification for doing nothing:

My girl, I don’t know what to say. Our troubles
Call for hard thought, not casual chatter.
When you’re weak, what can you do but wait?
…The tears welling up
In your boys’ eyes, brush them away;
Tell them a story that will make their crying stop,
No matter how much a lie the story seems to you.

In Euripides, imagined stories with emotional effects are merely lies for children. External circumstances drive adult emotions:

The wind blowing against us, that makes you
Desperate now, won’t always be this strong —
It’ll blow itself out.^

While storms within the mind can vanish in seconds, storms in the natural world take hours or days to blow out. Emotions in Seneca often vanish in seconds. Emotions in Euripides typically last hours.

Hercules’s madness is less narratively motivated and more internally generated in Seneca than in Euripides. Concluding a prayer for a peaceful natural order, Seneca’s Hercules adds:

If the earth is even now to produce some wickedness, let it come quickly; if she is furnishing some monster, let it be mine.^

A monstrous madness then immediately clouds Hercules’s mind. Hercules instantly becomes the monster that he seeks. In Euripides, madness appears as a personified phantom that the chorus first sees above the roof of Hercules’s house. Madness is a caring but dutiful woman who first argues against Hera’s plan to madden Hercules. Recognizing that she must do her job, Madness describes what she will do and then describes her actual maddening of Hercules. While in both plays madness comes upon Hercules instantaneously, the difference in the dramatic framing makes the madness in Seneca’s play more abrupt and surprising. The monstrous murderer that Oedipus seeks in Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus is revealed to him slowly. That’s consistently with the longer narrative development of Hercules’s madding in Euripides relative to in Seneca.^

Hercules’s madness ends with external action in Euripides and internal action in Seneca. In Euripides, the maddened Hercules ultimately charges at his step-father Amphitryon. Only Athena knocking Hercules down with a boulder checks his madness. In Seneca, Amphitryon despairingly urges Hercules to kill him, too:

Look, the victim stands at the altar, his neck bent, and awaits your hand. I present myself, willingly, insistently: perform the killing!

At this height of pathos and horror, Hercules emotionally metamorphoses:

What is this? Are my eyes failing, and grief dulling my sight, or do I see Hercules’ hands trembling? His eyes are closing in sleep…^

Unlike in Euripides, in Seneca no external physical object strikes Hercules. Hercules’s hands trembling hint at an internal emotional break. The action is psychological. That enables emotions to be both more extreme, and more volatile.

Seneca had disdain for popular competition for attention. Seneca’s plays, however, have the emotional lability characteristic of competition for attention. Despite his disdain for it, the emotional lability of Seneca plays indicate that he participated in competition for attention.

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