BMCR 1998.05.10

98.5.10, The Passions in Roman Thought and Literature

, , The passions in Roman thought and literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. x, 266 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780521473910. $59.95.

Based on a conference held at Exeter in July 1992, as the preface tells us, these eleven essays, though some are substantially rewritten, appear to have been a little swamped by the rising tide of interest in the emotions in Hellenistic philosophical theories and the reflex of these theories on subsequent literature. It seems safe to say that some of them—particularly the one or two that concern areas treated in recent studies of and editions of the Herculaneum papyri—would be significantly different in conception if started today. Though fear, erotic passion, and grief receive their due, anger is treated most prominently, particularly because several contributors—Don Fowler, M. R. Wright, and Christopher Gill—are fascinated by the continuing controversy over the ethical significance of Aeneas’ anger in the final scene of the Aeneid. Two of them plump heavily for the negative view of it, which makes poor Aeneas look waylaid. An interesting range of other texts is treated: Cicero’s view of grief in the Tusculans, some epistles of Seneca, Juvenal 13, Tacitus’ appeals to emotion in his depiction of the fall of Vitellius in the Histories, Catullus 76, and Statius’Thebaid. Alessandro Schiesaro deals with Senecan tragedy. In a good introduction the editors acknowledge (see p. 15) that this is hardly a comprehensive selection from among the possibilities, Horace and Lucretius being notable omissions, and the approaches including “some, and by no means all, of the possible lines of inquiry.” They also give (to within the last year or so, plus notices of publications to come) at least some bibliographical indicia for the study of the passions in Hellenistic philosophy and the literature.

As Aeneas’ anger is dealt with at beginning, middle, and end of this volume, we will save it for last, and take the other essays in order. Andrew Erskine’s “Cicero and the Expression of Grief” is well enough in itself, but the two essays on the Tusculans by Stephen White and A. E. Douglas in Cicero the Philosopher, ed. J. G. F. Powell, Oxford 1995 (neither essay, nor the book, is in the bibliography: this too is a book which came out rather slowly, originating as it did in a conference in 1991) would have changed Erskine’s essay considerably if they had had time to influence it. Cicero’s relation to the Epicureans, especially, is dealt with far more creatively by White. Again, Marcus Wilson’s “The subjugation of grief in Seneca’s Epistles” offers an interesting analysis of the rhetoric and techniques of Epp. 63 and 99, but betrays a remarkable naiveté about the parameters of philosophical therapeia in antiquity. Wilson can recognize that 63 is a genuine therapeutic consolatio, but is surprised that Seneca acknowledges himself here full of grief on his own, philosophical adviser though he claims to be, and elsewhere in the Epistles calls himself “a patient in the same ward as you” (27.1) and says “It’s not a doctor but a sick man that lives here” (68.9). Even more surprising to him is the idea that Seneca should address Marullus so aggressively in 99, beginning solacia expectas? convicia accipe, “Are you looking for consolation? take some abuse instead,” and that when he is still grieving for his son.

To call this “paradoxical” in a consolatio (49) misses the point. It’s obvious from Plutarch’s How to know a Flatterer from a Friend that the ancient philosophical “therapist,” who loved to use medical analogies for his practises, had both flattery and violent blame in his diatribic pharmacopeia, according as he conceived himself to be talking to a tender soul or one manly enough to take straight talk—and the second kind is an implied compliment, not an insult: the addressee is portrayed for the reading public as a person of the kind to say “Give it to me straight, Doc. I can take it.” Wilson even theorizes that Marullus must be a lay figure, for Seneca would not speak so to a real friend. This is wholly unnecessary. Philodemus, in his peri Parrhesias ( On Frank Speaking), which if not so fragmentary would be a classic reference-text on this subject, explicitly recommends both the technique of Ep. 63 and of Ep. 9, the technique of pretending to be one who has suffered from the same faults as the patient (the self-deprecating man of the world saying experto crede) and what he calls the σκληρὸν γένος τῆς παρρησίας, the harsh kind of frank speaking, which is suitable for the strong and may be used with the same determination as a physician uses repeated drenches of strong purgative without mercy till he gets his result. We now have a fine summary in Clarence Glad’s Paul and Philodemus: Adaptability in early Christian Psychagogy, Brill 1995 (for the two kinds of therapy, see chapter 3 passim) and a translation by a team headed by David Konstan and Diskin Clay has just come out ( Philodemus on Frank Criticism, Atlanta, Scholars’ Press, 1998); but full use has not been made here even of Martha Nussbaum’s 1986 essay on “Therapeutic Arguments,” which does appear in the bibliography, while the essays of M. Gigante on which it depends, and which are crucial, do not appear at all. For the record: “Philodème: sur la liberté de parole,” ACGB, 1969 (!) 196-217; “Philosophia Medicans in Filodemo,” CErc 5, 1975, 53-61; Ricerche Filodemee, Naples 1983 (second edition), 55-114.

Susanna Braund’s lively essay on anger in Juvenal 13, though it mainly expands on the well-established view that the poem is a mock-consolatio in which the arguments usually used to console grief are transferred with comic and satiric effect to console a rich old miser Calvinus for being cheated out of ten thousand sesterces he will hardly miss, carries on this line of thought with many new insights and to excellent effect. In establishing that the long concluding picture, in which Calvinus is consoled with the thought of the torments such an evil person as the one who cheated him is sure to endure even in this life, is a satire on Calvinus’ childish desire for vengeance, she perhaps doesn’t emphasize enough that the speaker’s own purpose, of which he himself seems to be in full control, is in itself perfectly moral and humane: to make the childish old man refrain, by pouring out all these exaggerated ampullae about the torments the guilty person will automatically endure, from any efforts at vengeance on his own. We needn’t suppose the persona is always a mere scarecrow! Even the Church Lady of happy memory on Saturday Night Live scored a shrewd point here and there.

If I had not read other more detailed and more impressive pieces on Senecan tragedy by Alessandro Schiesaro than the brief and rather too general essay on “The Passions in Seneca Tragedy” in this volume, I would be less interested by it. It is a clear enough brief statement of his view, not an uncommon one in Senecan criticism (indeed one could say that even the heros ktistes of modern Senecan criticism, Reitzenstein, shared it) that the tragedies make the villains too attractive, their foils too feeble, to be compatible with Stoicism; instead, as opposed to the philosophical works, they really express an existential despair about the taming of evil passions by philosophy. The Hercules Furens, a pointed moral allegory where it appears to me at least and several other critics that the hero is not the full grown Stoic Hercules but a hybrist who needs chastening by his madness, goes unmentioned here; and Schiesaro’s recurrent “Atreus and Medea” as examples of these supposedly attractive villains does not convince me as a pairing . It seems as clear to me that Atreus self-destructs at the end of the play into a monster of futility, as that Medea is an entirely different case from his. As Schiesaro points out, though, it is worth remembering that there are no Wise Men except as distant visions of the long-suffering Chorus in these plays. Madness rules. It would be a different story if Seneca and not the poetaster who wrote the Hercules Furens, also unmentioned here, had introduced like his admirer George Chapman a positive role model as well as a negative one into his Stoic tragedies.

On the other hand an extremely interesting essay by Ruth Webb on how orators and rhetorical experts from Quintilian onward—Philostratus, Aelius Aristides, “Longinus,” ps. Dionysius, etc.—carried on the tradition of Aristotle’s Rhetoric book 2 in their theories about how to rouse emotions does not deal with any ethical question about these emotions’ desirability or praiseworthiness and seems less exciting in a context where this issue is so focussed on, valuable though it is in itself. Again, D. S. Levine’s acute and helpful analysis of the various appeals to pity and fear in Tacitus’ treatment of the fall of Vitellius seems to hold that Tacitus wavers from a strictly moral analysis of Vitellius’ behavior in order to invoke some sympathy for him in his downfall, which is not precisely true in that the grounds we are given to feel some limited pity for him come from the same common morality as the grounds we are given to feel contempt for him as a general and a ruler—that is, the few ways in which he is recognizable as what Aristotle would have called a human being like us, ton homoion hemin. There is no doubt, though, that Levine is right in showing Tacitus as little influenced by the philosophers and more interested in challenging his readers’ sensibilities in his own way and on his own terms.

More in line with the book’s philosophical theme are the two essays by Joan Booth and Elaine Fantham. Booth shows in a challenging study of Catullus 76, si qua recordanti, that it would be a mistake to leave philosophical ethics and medical theories out of court and merely talk of romantic poetry in accounting for Catullus’ “sickness” of passion in this poem. After all, when one does one is still forced to conclude, as she does, that Catullus has said something much more profound than Philodemus, the Stoics, or the doctors would have said, however much of their language he borrows: the poem presents “the awful possibility that for once a Roman poet, all by himself, was trying to say something strikingly original and even, in a sense, true.”

Fantham’s study of hatred in Statius’s Thebaid is good on its background in Greek tragedy, less impressive on philosophical sources; for example, Aristotle’s fundamental distinction in the Rhetoric between anger as pain at slight and pleasure in the thought of revenge which will show the offender he was wrong to slight you, and hatred as a mere desire that the offender should not even continue to exist, is quoted but unused. Fantham criticises Vessey for making the poem too Stoic, but concludes “Let us return to seeing Statius in his own terms. His epic presents a world in which human hatred is the central proliferating power of evil that only piety and clemency can bring to an end … its point of view is both moral and retributive, leaving the world to those who punish the guilty without animosity and deal with their neighbours unmoved by envy, anger, fear or the hatred which they generate.” (212). And where would these ideal beings be found except among Stoics?

M. R. Wright’s “Ferox Virtus: anger in Virgil’s Aeneid” ascribes to Vergil, quite intelligently, the Aristotelian view of anger which allows the wise, particularly in war, to take pain in slight and pleasure in revenge and consequently vindicates the feelings of both Aeneas and Turnus as those of intelligent warriors; if he is an Aristotelian, then Vergil provides “a context for a recognized psychological mechanism for individual-survival and social justice,” (212). (This view is not correctly characterized by Braund in her introduction, p. 4: “Aeneas’ anger is presented no more favourably than Turnus'”; Wright could not be clearer that they both in Aristotle’s terms have a perfect human right to their anger and their expression of it.) It seems a large advance on views like Michael Putnam’s and Christopher Gill’s (“Passion as madness in Roman poetry,” 213-241), which attempt to make Vergil a Stoic, against the historical evidence, since we know of no Stoic influence on him, and against plausibility. For if Vergil held the Stoic view that emotions are impermissible to the wise man, then all in the poem except perhaps Latinus and Achates are equally fools and villains, Turnus and Dido included, and there is no reason to single Aeneas out for criticism for his anger.

There is a third possibility, however, which does have historical support, that Vergil’s view of anger was Epicurean. Don Fowler, who tries to deal with this argument, refuses to cite the evidence which has now been ten years before the scholarly public and mentioned in several of the articles he criticises for taking this view, that Vergil and many of his friends, particularly Varius, Quintilius and Plotius Tucca, were members of the circle of the author of most of the Herculaneum treatises, the Epicurean Philodemus of Gadara. Their names have been discovered together and published as addressees of one of his ethical treatises (Gigante and Capasso, SIFC 7, 1989, 3-6). This confirms the evidence of the Catalepton and of Servius on the sixth eclogue that Vergil was an Epicurean. How can one ignore this?

Again, Fowler does not even try seriously to understand Philodemus’ treatise On Anger, and while Indelli’s edition, also a decade before the public ( La Scuola di Epicuro, 5, Naples, 1988) is too concerned to establish the text to supply much purely philosophical commentary, there is the essay by the late John Procopé which Fowler has read without understanding its main points (“one has a constant sense of somehow missing the point of the argument,” 24, a statement Fowler’s essay handsomely illustrates). As Procopé, and for that matter Indelli, make quite clear, Philodemus’ main point is not that you should feel moderate anger (in fact it can be quite intense and satisfy his definition of “natural” anger). It is that in contradistinction to Aristotle’s view you have as a mature person a right and a natural necessity to feel the pain of anger, but not the pleasure of anger and revenge, which is always violent, dangerous, mentally confusing, and everything that an Epicurean pleasure should not be. That is the central point of Philodemus’ treatise. It is the point of the long opening imitation of a Stoic diatribe against anger that pleasure in violence and revenge is a sickness and self-destructive. It is the point of the argument against the Aristotelians that follows (cols. 31.4-34.6) that if you allow warriors to be confused by the violent pleasure of revenge, they will be disobedient to their leaders and not win. The “natural” anger which is accompanied by pain and not pleasure—and is therefore self limiting and brief, because no one wants pain prolonged—is described over and over in the concluding columns (e.g. a wise man accepts this feeling like a session with the physician’s knife or drinking a bitter drink for medical purposes, 44.20-21).

Now this has its obvious relevance to the Aeneid. Turnus is young, and stable emotions are not expected by ancient ethicians of the young, but Vergil could not be more clear that his violent pleasure in killing Pallas is a bad and deceptive feeling, which leads directly to his arrogantly displaying the fatal belt on his shoulder which in the end will be his doom (cf. especially Aeneid 10.500-505). Aeneas per contra never betrays a moment’s pleasure in his anger or his revenge, and one cannot doubt that at the end of the poem his emotion will disappear with Turnus’ death and Turnus be given back to his father for burial—i.e. that it will be as brief as even Philodemus could require, and as unpleasurable. That is all that Galinsky and Erler were arguing, and it deserves a lot better reply than Fowler’s, who takes refuge instead in some sort of decades-outdated existentialist paradox-mongering that no ancient thinker—as he himself admits—would have given a minute’s tolerance (“Our intuitions about anger are inherently incoherent and unstable: the problem of anger cannot be solved,” “I read the Aeneid as simultaneously asserting the absolute necessity of emotional control and its complete impossibility such a conclusion is obviously one no ancient and few modern philosophers would accept,” 34).

In short, in spite of several very valuable essays—especially Braund’s, Webb’s, Levene’s, Booth’s, and Wright’s—this book contains much that is already, and much that will be, superseded as the nexus between poetry and philosophy in the ancient world becomes more and more a subject of discussion, and as literary critics progress in their expertise in handling ancient philosophical issues.