Optimism Without a Future: Strategies of Consolation in Seneca's Trojan Women

Chiara Graf poster

Wednesday, February 13, 2019 at 4:00pm
Chiara Graf, 2018-2019 NFC Doctoral Fellow 
Northrop Frye Centre, VC102, Old Vic, 91 Charles st. West

The Roman author Lucius Annaeus Seneca penned two major bodies of works, whose relationship to each other has generated much controversy and discussion. On the one hand, in his philosophical treatises, Seneca espouses Stoicism, a belief system geared towards eradicating the emotions through reason and achieving a state of affectively flattened apathy. Yet Seneca also penned eight tragedies, which portray a wide array of passions with unbridled gusto and intensity. To make matters worse, the most emotional protagonists of Seneca’s tragedies often express quasi-philosophical ideals and make frequent reference to Stoic maxims and buzzwords. How should we interpret the coexistence in the tragedies of these explicitly Stoic elements with the overabundant passions of flawed characters? This paper will treat the relationship of these two strands of Senecan thought in his tragedy Trojan Women. This play narrates the condition of the women who have survived the fall of Troy at the hands of Greek forces, and who must cope both with the total destruction of their own society and with the prospect of a life of captivity to Greek masters. The women in this play turn to a variety of methods of consolation in the face of this uncertain future—some take comfort in Stoic rationalization and affective flattening, whereas others find paradoxical solace in extreme forms of grief. I argue that, in this play, the latter, “tragic” form of consolation proves more effective than “proper” philosophical methods. In fact, consolatory methods rooted in extreme grief expose the ways in which strictly rational approaches to a troubling future gloss over, aestheticize, and sometimes even take enjoyment in, human suffering. Thus, the Trojan Women engages with, yet ultimately parodies and undercuts, the ideals of affective flattening set forth in his philosophical works.

Chiara Graf is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Classics. Her dissertation explores the ethical potential of affect in the literary, philosophical, and scientific works of the Roman author Lucius Annaeus Seneca. She argues that we should not formulate affect primarily as an obstacle to or distraction from rational knowledge; rather, affect can provide alternative routes to wisdom and define the relationship of the subject to his universe. She has a strong interest in critical theory, particularly modern affect theory.