Monday, July 5, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Shadi Bartsch, David Wray (ed.), Seneca and the Self. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. ix, 304. ISBN 9780521888387. $99.00.
Reviewed by Amanda Wilcox, Williams College

Table of Contents

Seneca and the Self originated in a conference of the same name hosted by the University of Chicago in 2003. In the intervening period, interest in the topic as well as its halves has continued to flourish.1 This collection makes a noteworthy addition to Senecan scholarship, and succeeds in preserving the intellectual energy and synergy that is the hallmark of a fine conference. Moreover, reading all of Seneca and the Self convinced me of the desirability of encountering these essays between shared covers, despite the fact that in the interim between conference and book, four papers in this collection of twelve have appeared elsewhere, either in identical form (Long, Inwood) or tailored for inclusion within more sustained discussions (Gill, Schiesaro).

The collection is split into four parts, an introductory section and three sections grouped by scholarly orientation (philosophical, cultural) and genre (tragedy). Here, I will offer brief comment on each chapter, followed by remarks on the volume as a whole.

In the book's introduction, the editors summarize each of the book's chapters at some length. Pleading the diversity of approaches and opinions represented in the collection, they do not attempt to generalize about Seneca's possible innovations in understanding or articulating selfhood, beyond noting that expressions of mind-body dualism in Senecan thought seem "not ontological but rather ethical, and even there more rhetorical than doctrinal" and that "Seneca's is a performative self -- but not for this any less authentic, necessarily, than the modern subjective self" (4).

The editors' introduction is paired in Part One with A. A. Long's "Seneca and the self: why now?" Long contextualizes the current revival in Senecan studies within intellectual history and popular culture, and gives Michel Foucault well-deserved credit for provoking an interest in Seneca and selfhood among scholars of antiquity, including Long himself. The most helpful aspect of Long's essay, to judge from its rate of quotation in other chapters, is his sketch of a definition for Senecan selfhood.2 This concept of self is dual not in an ontological sense but rather for ethical and evaluative purposes. Long uses the terms "occurrent" and "normative" to describe, respectively, the self as it presently exists and the self that an individual should aspire to be (26-27). Seneca's representations of self significantly anticipate the understanding of modern personhood articulated by Charles Taylor (Sources of the Self, Cambridge, Mass. [1989]), but Long suggests that it is Seneca's depiction of the negotiations between occurrent subjectivity and normative identity, and his "complex sense of the self's relation to its own temporality" (34) which infuse his representations of selfhood with their continuing power and validity, and make Senecan selfhood recognizable to us.

Part Two begins with Brad Inwood's essay, "Seneca and Self-assertion," which also acknowledges Foucault's influence on the scholarly conversation, though Inwood is concerned to demonstrate that there is nothing ontologically novel about Seneca's concept of the self, whereas Foucault on occasion seemed to suggest that there was, and certainly some scholars have claimed to follow Foucault in doing so.3 Rather, Inwood concludes, if there is something novel in the sense of self that Seneca conveys, it "is in one way a mere artifact of literary technique" (63). Inwood wonders when "such literary artifacts" can be fairly regarded as "philosophical innovations" (63), and suggests, tentatively, that what subsequent tradition does with such artifacts may be a criterion for determining their philosophical significance.

Christopher Gill's chapter, "Seneca and selfhood: integration and disintegration," advances an independent view of Seneca's thinking about the self that intersects with those of both with Inwood and Long.4 Like Inwood, Gill thinks the "subjective-individualist" concept of selfhood that some readers have seen in Seneca is chimerical, and he agrees with Long that the dualism apparent in Seneca's thinking about the self is non-ontological. Rather, he suggests that "Seneca's portrayal of psychological division reflects...salient features of the Stoic unified psychological model" (65) that go back to Chrysippus, a model of selfhood that is objectivist and naturalizing. Gill uses as case studies Seneca's tragic portrayals of Medea and Phaedra, whose "passionate self-divisions" result from struggles between their "natural" and "actual" selves. The self-consciousness of these characters displays not the emergence of an innovative understanding of the self, but the character's failure to achieve psychological integration. The preoccupation with selfhood in Seneca's works that some have taken as philosophical innovation is more likely, Gill thinks, to be evidence of Seneca's attempts to come to grips with fractures he perceived in his own selfhood, the result of ineluctable conflicts between his principles and actions.

Martha Nussbaum's contribution, entitled "Stoic laughter: Seneca' Apocolocyntosis" suggests that this work inspires laughter stemming from disgust, laughter akin to that provoked and experienced by the satirist in Juvenal 10. This distancing laughter, modeled for the reader by the work's narrator, suggests that he is taking a first step toward philosophical detachment from the concerns and values of the world, a step that may lead eventually to the lofty serenity of the sage. The emphasis in Nussbaum's paper on a peculiarly Roman technique of self-therapy (i.e., satire), sets it apart from the other papers in the "Philosophical perspectives" portion of the book, and makes it a fitting transition to the collection's third section, "Seneca and Roman culture."

Part Three begins with Elizabeth Asmis' rich and challenging paper, "Seneca on fortune and the kingdom of god." Surprisingly enough, in Seneca's philosophical works, "A person follows resisting fortune" (121). Asmis shows how Seneca uses traditional Roman views of fortune to recast Stoic fate as something that we accept by vanquishing. All mortals are born into a "kingdom of fate" (regnum fortunae) that holds absolute sway over the circumstances and events of our lives, but we are all simultaneously subjects of a divine kingdom, and potentially kings ourselves (and kings of ourselves), insofar as we are able individually to perfect our divine power of reason. Asmis demonstrates also that fortune holds sway in the political community, and she delineates the special role played by Nero, who essentially acts as fortune embodied, though, because he is mortal, he is also subject to fortune. Seneca invites his Roman readers "to act heroically against any assault on their freedom...whether this come from inside or outside the political community" (116). This invitation constitutes Seneca's "morality of resistance" (115) and makes possible an activist reading of his philosophy, whether the reader is the emperor or his subject.

Catharine Edwards addresses a powerful nexus of Senecan metaphor in "Free yourself! Slavery, freedom, and the self in Seneca's Letters." For the Stoic, freedom is an achieved status for any one, regardless of their social standing. Thus, it is striking but not surprising that "Seneca invites his readers, in their striving for philosophical freedom, to emulate a slave's aspiration to be free" (141). Edwards examines multiple ways that metaphors of slavery function in Seneca's work: the mind may be enslaved to the body, its pleasures, or other externals. Further, Edwards suggests that Seneca's pervasive use of metaphorical slavery reinforces its power in the realm of actual human relations. Freedom, for Seneca, means being master of oneself, and the ability to control oneself is so closely associated with the right to control others that self-mastery implies mastery over others. Edwards closes with a section on the politics of freedom and the characterization of imperial rule as an imposition of slavery on the Roman elite. Seneca's readers are invited to imagine themselves both as metaphorical slaves, who must free themselves from attachments to externals, and also to identify with actual slaves, who may become free through self-possession regardless of their outward subjection to the emperor.

James Ker's cogent essay, "Seneca on self-examination: On Anger 3.36" revisits Foucault's reading of this passage, highlighting its considerable merits and reviewing the critiques it has inspired (including Inwood in this volume). Ker follows this reassessment with a rereading of the passage that supplies an appraisal of its literary and rhetorical elements and analyzes their contribution to the passage's function within the De Ira and its enduring attraction for readers from the Renaissance to our own time. Ker's reading of De Ira 3.36 beautifully illustrates the subtlety and intensity of Seneca's prose style. He then goes on to consider other aspects of this "textual event," including the way that Seneca's imitation of Sextius prospectively models the imitation of Seneca for its reader, and the necessity for metaphor to mediate discourse on the self (on which see Bartsch in this volume). Ker's paper concludes by considering how this passage participates in Seneca's retrospective structuring of the three books of De Ira, and how the scene of nocturnal self-examination exemplifies "a haven of time-control" for its reader.

Shadi Bartsch's "Senecan Metaphor and Stoic self-instruction," elegantly and convincingly rounds off the collection's middle section. She begins with a comparison of two ways of dealing with metaphor when reading Seneca's philosophical prose, that of Inwood (discussed also by Ker), who urges us to strip metaphor away, and the more literary approach of Mireille Armisen-Marchetti, who emphasizes Seneca's claims for the didactic uses of metaphor. Turning to Letter 59.6, Bartsch argues that metaphor is in fact essential to Seneca's mode of philosophy. Metaphor brings us in rem praesentem, "to the very spot." It provides us with the corroboration that autopsy provides. Furthermore, reality itself is, paradoxically, "the effect of the figural" (193). A proper apprehension of and evaluation of reality requires us to perform a metaphorical re-representation of externals and our relations to them, and also to apply a figural procedure of self-formation. In service of the latter task, Seneca supplies us with a rich store of metaphors of the self, including the self as inner space, as commodity, and as a work of art.

The last section of the collection consists of three papers on Senecan tragedy. First is Alessandro Schiesaro's "Seneca and the denial of the self," which uses Thyestes and Medea to show that tragic characters who mistrust the cognitive value of their emotions find themselves undone, while the powerful anti-heroes of these plays successfully fuse reason and passion, making use of the cognitive qualities of each.5 The master manipulator Atreus "us[es] tricks of the overcome the controlled boundaries of the self" (234-5). Medea enacts the triumph of self-will over the constraints of reality, including time. Emotional agony grants Atreus the true vision of Thyestes that eludes rationalization. Similarly, a fully realized Medea demands recognition from Jason. In both cases, what gets recognized is a core version of selfhood that remains unchanged by time or circumstances. These moments of recognition stand as the "ultimate victory of the past" (234).

David Wray's contribution, "Seneca and tragedy's reason," takes a historicist approach to analyzing and resolving the antipathy to Stoic rationalism that continues to guide, limit, and deform many contemporary literary readings of Senecan tragedy. In the essay's first half, Wray traces romantic and modernist objections to Seneca back to his negative reception by both late-seventeenth century Augustinian Christian readers who found him "morally lax, hypocritical, and arrogant," as well as by eighteenth century secular materialist readers who condemned him as "a hypermoral ascetic fanatic laying his curse on life's fairest joys" (244). In the second half, Wray proposes a way forward, relying on Seneca's own cultural context as guide. The discursive practice of rhetoric in forensic oratory was, for Seneca, not only a means of persuasion but also "a necessary step in arriving at ethical knowledge" (246). At Letter 48.8 Seneca compares philosophy to a praetor, who presides over court cases, adjudicates them, and when they are not adequately argued, reinstates them. So philosophy, Wray argues, will insist that the philosopher use all the resources recommended to declaimers, including impassioned, tragic self-performance.

The last essay in the volume, by Austin Busch, is entitled "Dissolution of the self in the Senecan corpus." Busch takes up Wray's suggestion that Seneca's tragedies argue both sides of philosophical issues with all the imaginative resources made available by passion. Busch particularly wishes to explore Seneca's apparent advocacy of suicide in his prose works as the "final reservoir of freedom" (262) for the self. (For a contrasting view, not noted by Busch, see Asmis [132].) Busch is unsatisfied by the casual attitude taken in the prose works toward the survival or annihilation of the self after death, so, for a fuller picture of Seneca's thoughts about death, he turns to depictions of death and its consequences in the tragedies, specifically in Thyestes and Troades. Busch finds plenty of material there. However, the question of whether Seneca's tragedies effectively indict the "therapeutic limitations" and "imaginative anemia" of his philosophical prose (282) depends on premises that not all readers will accept. Many of the papers in this collection are mutually informing, whether by juxtaposition (e.g., Asmis and Edwards), or by overlapping observations and angles of approach, such as Wray and Ker's independent considerations of ratio, or Schiesaro's demonstration of the mastery of time that accompanies self recognition in the Medea, and Ker's analysis of self-examination (recognitio sui) as a locus of time-control. Individual authors differ widely, however, in whether, and how extensively, they signal awareness of these interrelationships. (As also seems to be the case in the citation of scholarly literature; it varies widely from chapter to chapter.) In their introduction, the editors might have done more to indicate connections. On the other hand, the contributions of both Bartsch and Wray (chapters nine and eleven, respectively) are not only among the finest in the volume, but also do an excellent job of noting how their papers interact with those of other contributors. These two chapters, together with Long's essay, will orient a reader to the tone and thrust of most of the collection. Yet Inwood's essay, which is farthest removed from the predominantly literary and cultural tack taken in the rest of the volume, proves a productive foil for others, particularly Ker and Bartsch.

Calls to look beyond stale internal quarrels about, for instance, the reconcilability of Seneca's prose and tragedy bear repeating, but they also receive intelligent amplification via a number of these essays. Moreover, Gill rightly admonishes classicists to take note of scholarly interest beyond the bounds of classical studies that holistic, objectivist, Stoic understandings of the self are now receiving (79, n. 7). Taken together, this collection lends its considerable weight to ways of reading Seneca that have been considered risky or even insupportable for too long, and that is all to the good.

The volume concludes with a bibliography and general index. An index of passages would have been a welcome addition. Typographical errors are rare.6


1.   As evidenced by related books published in the interim by contributors to this collection. A partial list includes those of Shadi Bartsch (The Mirror of the Self, Chicago [2006]), Catharine Edwards (Death in Ancient Rome, New Haven [2007]), and James Ker (The Deaths of Seneca, Oxford [2009]).
2.   Long's essay also appears in his collection From Epicurus to Epictetus, reviewed for BMCR at 2007.05.42.
3.   Inwood's essay also appears in his collection Reading Seneca, reviewed for BMCR at 2007.06.45.
4.   Gill's essay reproduces some material (roughly pp. 424-427) from his 2006 book, The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought.
5.   The essay is based on chapters three and five of his book The Passions in Play, reviewed for BMCR at 2004.07.37.
6.   On 72, "consists" for "consist," on 214 "hath" for "hard," and in the Bibliography on 296 stilo for stile, in two subsequent entries.

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