You are here

The Self-Divided Dialogical Self in Seneca's De Ira

Caroline Stark

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (ca. 4 BCE - 65 CE) retains some elements of the dialogic form for didactic purposes in his De ira but dispenses with the inefficiency of multiple interlocutors and their sustained points of view. Rather, Seneca presents opposition with imaginary interlocutors as it arises in the argument. Seneca uses this hybrid dialogic form to convey a sense of immediacy of the topic's political relevance without jeopardizing the personal safety of naming his living interlocutors and to address philosophically problematic areas that are often glossed over in traditional dialogues.

De ira, three books on the subject of anger addressed to his brother Novatus, is one of the twelve philosophical dialogues of Seneca, written in the wake of the accession of Claudius after the assassination of Gaius Caesar (Caligula) in 41 CE (Fillion-Lahille 1989; Albrecht and Schmeling 1997). Quintilian refers to these works as dialogi (10.1.129), but recently some scholars have raised objections to labeling these works as dialogues because of the differences in style of Seneca's works in comparison to those of Plato and Cicero (Wright 1974; Long 2003: 205; van Hoof 2007: 61-62; Vogt 2006: 57). One recent monograph has argued that the De ira is not only not a philosophical dialogue but also not even concerned with anger, but rather a parody attacking laws on iniuria (Wycislo 2001). This paper contributes to our understanding of Seneca's use of the dialogic form in De ira in two ways: first, by considering the political climate in which he was writing and its constraints, and second, by bringing into the discussion the poetic philosophical tradition that treats problematic questions in a similar fashion.

Caligula's murder was the result of a palace conspiracy whose ringleader, the praetorian Cassius Chaerea, faced opposition from those who were focused solely on the death of the tyrannical princeps and not on the extermination of the Julio-Claudians. Chaerea would be one of the first executions under Claudius; Seneca found himself in the delicate circumstance of having to curry favor with the new emperor while avoiding overt political engagement in a dangerous climate (Ker 2009; Staley 2010). Seneca refers frequently throughout De ira to episodes of Gaius Caesar's anger as proof of its irrational and uncontrollable nature (1.20.8-9; 2.33.3-5; 3.18.3-19.5; 3.21.5). His constant appeal to intellect and reason over passions in administering justice clearly had political resonance with the new emperor.

Seneca disrupts his exposition on anger with interjections and objections from imaginary interlocutors. He uses a number of techniques to simulate the dialogue and its didactic purpose, including posing objections (Quid ergo?); referring to a 2nd person interlocutor (vos advocabatis); asking rhetorical questions; quoting both anonymous criticisms (inquit) and authorities in disagreement; and using the impersonal, "it is said" (dicitur). The dialogue not only maintains a continuity of argument but also achieves a type of transparency and thereby enhanced credibility. For example, at one point he defends his use of Plato, "for what harm is there in using the arguments of others, so far as they are our own?" quid enim nocet alienis uti ex parte qua nostra sunt? (De ira 1.6.5). At times, he even concedes the point to a hypothetical objection (fateor). By dispensing with the artificiality of the "straw man" opponent and the temporal distance and use of historical figures as vehicles of one's own ideas of the Ciceronian dialogue, Seneca responds to the constraints and needs of his time with a dialogical form that retains its didactic purpose: the philosophical dialogue as the self coming to terms with the ideas of others.

Session/Panel Title

Representation and Self-Representation in Imperial Greek and Latin Dialogues

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy