Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Seneca's Phaedra as Transition from Guilt to Responsibility Culture

Writers are attracted to some stories over others because of the kinds of things those stories highlight. An example of this is the myth of Hippolytus and Phaedra, which investigates the issue of transitioning from one kind of social regulation to another.

Euripides' version of the story is a tragedy that takes place in the transition from shame culture to guilt culture, and it highlights the danger of this transition in the actions of Phaedra. In The Phaedra Syndrome: Of Shame and Guilt in Drama, Albert Gerard argues that the modern sense of guilt was "clearly beyond the reach of Euripides' Phaidra," since "This sense of guilt has two components: remorse and atonement" (34). While it is clear that Phaedra feels remorse for her feelings toward Hippolytus, it is hardly atonement which drives her self-punishment.

If we consider the fact that guilt is internal and that it compels one to want to confess one's sins (internal desires are also sins with guilt, while with shame, only actions are sins), we can see why the transition is particularly dangerous. In the play, Phaedra feels guilt for desiring her step-son, Hippolytus. This guilt compels her to confess to her Nurse and the chorus, and her nurse in turn tells Hippolytus. Her feelings being exposed, Phaedra's feelings of shame compel her to commit suicide. With either guilt or shame, Phaedra would have been fine. With guilt alone, she wouldn't have felt the shame that would have driven her to commit suicide, and with shame alone, she wouldn't have told the nurse, and her failure to act would have resulted in a failure to feel shame. It was the combination of the two that was fatal.

While Euripides' Phaedra is driven by guilt to confess to the Nurse and chorus, then driven by shame to commit suicide after the confession exposes her shameful feelings, Seneca "Makes his Phaedra responsible for whatever she says and does."
By transferring to her some of the Greek Nurse's flashes of cynical insight and pragmatic advice he enhances the audience's perception of her unwavering awareness of right and wrong: she embarks on her evil course of action in full knowledge that she is violating the rational-ethical principles that should govern human conduct. (Gerard, 27-28)
It is on rational-ethical principles which the very idea of responsibility is founded. So if the Nurse is trying to push Phaedra toward rational-ethics, she is trying to push her toward responsibility. This is thus a tragedy dealing with the transition from guilt to responsibility -- which probably explains the strong interest in Seneca's work during the Renaissance transition from a guilt culture to a responsibility culture. Seneca's Phaedra thus moves from guilt to responsibility. She recognizes her own responsibility for Hippolytus' death, and it is this recognition of responsibility that causes her to commit suicide as punishment to herself for her sin. 

Seneca's Phaedra is safe from outward punishment, but not from "the built-in sanction, the voice of conscience, the inner sense of guilt in a soul tormented by the gnawing awareness of her own crime" (35). That is, she has clearly gotten away with everything such that nobody is going to punish her for what she's done or felt. Were this a shame culture in Seneca's version, Phaedra would have never committed suicide after Hippolytus' death. This is why she has to commit suicide in Euripides' version before Hippolytus' death. Yet, with guilt, Phaedra has not done anything before Hippolytus' death that would warrant her own death.

Gerard argues that
The suicide of Euripides' Phaidra was a clear example of shame-culture behaviour: her sole concern was to preserve her reputation. The suicide of Seneca's Phaedra is an early example of guilt-culture behaviour: repentance is the gist of her final rhesis, atonement is the purpose of her ultimate action. (35)
and that
The tragedy of Seneca's Phaedra signals the triumph of a guilt ethic based on the primacy of reason and the inner sanctions of conscience just as the tragedy of Euripides' Phaidra had illustrated the failure of a shame ethic based on the primacy of reputation and the outward sanctions of society. (37)
Except Gerard is not quite right, as we have seen. Gerard is confusing guilt and responsibility, which are two different social regulators. More, it is the transition between the two that drives Phaedra's decision in each case. Euripides' Phaedra slipped back into shame from guilt, and that slippage resulted in her committing suicide. Seneca's Phaedra is on the transition between guilt and responsibility. She is encouraged by the Nurse to take responsibility for her actions, and the combination of guilt-driven conscience and reason-driven responsibility is what drove Phaedra to commit suicide after she caused Hippolytus' death. The recognition that she was the responsible cause of the bad action is what makes it clear that this is a factor.

We can thus see that Seneca's Phaedra is a proper tragedy insofar as it is driven by the transition from one form of social regulation to another; it is their co-dominance which drives each Phaedra's suicide. Without the transition, there would be no tragedy, since there would be no internal conflict making living impossible.

Of course, historically, the budding responsibility culture surrounding Stoicism retreats in the face of emergent Christianity. It will be over 1000 years before the responsibility culture returns, with the European Renaissance. With it will return the influence of Seneca and the return of tragedy in Shakespeare and Racine. It is perhaps no coincidence that it is during this time that we get a new version of Phaedra, from Racine.
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