Was Seneca Worth an Oscar Award?

The dramatic philosophy in Seneca’s tragedies…

The first step in providing a proper analysis of the dramatic view Lucius Anneus Seneca held, in regards to his tragedy works, is to investigate his language and precise use of high and pregnant words. This is definitely the first and probably the most important, sign of a big fracture between the philosophical and the dramatic works.

If the main purpose of philosophy is to be useful for the inner perfection, the philosopher will have to care about the res, not about an elaborate and rich vocabulary: non delectent verba nostra sed prosint (Epistulae ad Lucilium, 75, 5). This would be justified only if -according to an expressive effectiveness, which means its use in sententiae or poetical quotes- it accomplished a psychagogic intent: they will help to plant a moral rule or a precept in the reader’s mind.

But the reading of Seneca’s philosophical works sheds a bright light on a contradictory aspect: even Seneca’s philosophical prose is almost the emblem of a laboured style, dense and complex, characterized by a precise use of coinciding epigrams and expressions.

Seneca refuses the compact classical architecture that characterizes Cicero’s periodization. Its hypotactical disposition orders the inner logical hierarchy, and creates an eminently paratactical style. The intent is to reproduce the sermon, spoken language, and destroy the structure of the thought in a series of sharp and sententious periods. The link is mainly given by antithesis and repetitions (producing that effect of sand without lime, that was underlined by Caligula).

This contrast with Cicero’s harmonic speech represents a revolution and has its origin in the Asianic rethorics and the preaching of the cynical philosophers: it’s typical development among a game of parallelisms, oppositions, repetitions, in a quick series of short, nervous, sentences -the minutissimae sententiae blamed by Quintilianus-, with a sort of pointillist technique, has the effect of analyzing an idea from all the points of view available, offering a pregnant and coincided formulation, until it is crystallized in the epigrammatic expression.

Seneca uses this sharp and penetrating style (that, in its tension, cannot avoid some kind of theatricality) as a spy to investigate on the human mind’s secrets and the contradictions that split it, as well as to talk to people’s hearts and lead to the achievement of wisdom: it is an intimately contrapositive and antithetical style (in other words, dramatic) that can easily move from the humble tones of the inner meditation to the loud ones of preaching: it is a style that emblematically reflects the drives which lighten Seneca’s philosophy up, stretched between the search of ego’s freedom and the humanity’s freedom.

The dramatic hiatus between individual and collective is one of the main topics in Seneca’s tragedies. The several tragic events are configured as contrasting forces struggles (especially in the human mind), as opposition between mens bona and furor, between sense and passion: the renewal of relevant topics from the philosophical works (such as, in the Hercules’ story, the topic of a strong man who exceeds life’s trials in order to achieve freedom) shows a deep consonance between the two sectors of Seneca’s production, and makes sure that Seneca’s theatre is nothing more, in an exemplary way give by the myth tradition, than a representation of the stoic doctrine.

The analogy has not to be too underlined though, because in the tragedies, the literary matrix is specifically accentuated (Euripides was the first to put in literature the struggles that split the human mind and, therefore, he’s one of Seneca’s models) and because, in the tragic universe, the logos, the rational principle which rules the world according to the stoic philosophy, is not able to stop the human passions and prevent the evil to overflow. The background of every tragedy is a darkish and brute reality and in this scenario the crusade of evil psychological phenomena is set: there a war is sparkled.

A war that does not affect only the human psychology (which is often examined in every aspect, by means of long and pathetic monologues), but also the whole world (perceived, according to the stoic doctrine, as the identity of moral and physical), giving the struggle a cosmic importance and a universal meaning.

It is very important to underline, among the forms that describe the rise of evil from the world, how paradigmatic the character of the tyrant is. He is a bloodthirsty and avid of power character, far from the stoic ideas of moderation and mercy, tormented by fear and anxiety, and he offers the opportunity to investigate on the ethic conception of power, which is one of the most important topics both in the philosophical and dramatic Seneca’s production.

In the work called De Clementia, Seneca expresses his view of the idea of power.

The opera is dedicated to the young emperor Nero (written in 55-56) as a trace of an ideal political programme inspired by moderation and equity. Seneca doesn’t question about the constitutional legitimacy of the principality, as well as the monarchical characters it has taken: the power of a single man was more accordant to the stoic idea of a cosmic order ruled by the logos, the universal law, the best to suit the idea of a cosmopolite universe, by means of the unification of all the people who were part of the Empire; still not to consider how the monarchical-ish form had already settled in facts and it wouldn’t seem realistic to hope for a restoration of the republican libertas that was auspicated in the stoic circles of the aristocratic opposition.

The problem in Seneca’s work, then, is to have a good sovereign: and in an utter power regimen, without any kind of “external control”, the only limit for the emperor is his very own conscience that should prevent him from ruling as a tyrant. Mildness (which is not a form of charity, but something which is born from a deep sense of philanthropy) is the valor that should characterize the emperor’s relationship with the crowd: he will catch their consent only by put that valor into practice and not by practising violence and inculcate fear. The devotion of the crowd is definitely the most effective guarantee of stability in a government.

It is evident that, in such an illuminated and paternalistic idea of empire, which gives the emperor’s conscience and moral integrity the opportunity to put a good and stable government into reality, how important the philosophy is in the education of the future emperor, as well as its function as muse for the lead of the government. This ambitious project does recall the platonic idea of State actually. Another point in common between Plato is Seneca is the importance of philosophy in the everyday life.

In his letters to Lucilius (epistulae ad Lucilium), Seneca claims that exchanging letters allows him to build a colloquium with his friend, to create a daily intimacy that, starting with a life model, is much more useful than the doctrine from a pedagogical point of view. Seneca wants Lucilius to be ready to face all the trials of life, by achieving a high philosophical culture: he claims that philosophy is important in the everyday life because it is the most powerful instrument that allows us to distinguish between positive and negative drives and to avoid the deviances that might lead us to furor, madness. So, at the end of the day, it is evident how close Seneca’s tragedies and philosophical works are: they both are the expression of the stoic philosophy, but the tragedies also have a deeper meaning: they investigate on the failure of the stoic doctrine and demonstrate how dangerous it can be to get out of the philosophical stoic trail.

Madness is the antithesis of wisdom and Seneca excludes anything in between. This dramatic and somehow weirdly romantic idea is probably the most effective protrektikon, the most effective exhortation to philosophy: the choice of a popular transmission code, such as the dramatic theatrical form of art, triggers an even more immediate perception of the problem and increases the dramatic effect of mental corruption.

Alessandro De Arcangelis was born in Naples, Italy. He published two books, “Un’Elitaria Democrazia” and “Zampa di Gatto” and worked with several magazines and newspapers. His interests vary from humanities to music, from philology to IT. He attended the classical literature and philology university in Milan, Italy.