Embodied Metaphor and Seneca’s Phaedra

Mary Catherine Contreras (University of Maryland)

Embodied cognition is reflected in our speech, namely in metaphors that draw upon our physical experience (Lakoff and Johnson, 2003). This paper explores the use of physical metaphors to represent emotional states in Seneca the Younger’s tragedy Phaedra. Seneca often draws upon the ontology of rectitude and inclination, physical imagery that has remained an important and influential theme in moral philosophy (Cavarero 2016) and in his own prose works as well (Rimell 2017). This paradigm of rectitude and inclination outlines two opposing states of being, each one of which combines concepts of physical states with abstract moral qualities (Rimell 2017).

What does this physical imagery in Phaedra reveal about Seneca’s understanding of emotional cognition? Seneca repeatedly invokes the language of rectitude to describe Hippolytus (Phaedra 229, 271, 413, 459, 580), who enacts this ideal to a destructive extreme. In this paper, I will argue that Hippolytus embodies a failed, unproductive, and misapplied image of rectitude, that it is the extreme rigidity and lack of inclination of this rectitude that ultimately leads to his demise, and that this negative rectitude and its consequences serve as a critique of rectitude without inclination. Hippolytus’ lack of inclination limits his capacity for emotional processing (Phaedra 483-564, 566-568). Without embracing this crucial part of the human experience, Hippolytus’ efforts in rectitude fail (Phaedra 686, 1066-1113). Inclination, though it is generally scorned by moral philosophy, proves to be essential for the Stoic life.

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