Seneca is a stoic philosopher, so the philosophy he puts into practice in Phaedra is stoic philosophy. The basic sayings of stoicism are that destructive emotions result from errors in judgment; that self control is essential to overcome such emotions; that human beings should be sincere to duty and guided by rational principles; and finally that only virtue itself is sufficient for happiness. Besides, later stoicism shows a preference for philosophical suicide to represent honorable release from intolerable situations.
Seneca wrote most of his plays specially Phaedra to bring these philosophical teachings into practice. For example, his central character Phaedra is obsessed with lust for Hippolytus. This obsession makes her neglect duty and commit errors of judgment which finally wrecks destruction for herself and others.
To examine the issue more elaborately we may say that in the opening scenes, Seneca draws Phaedra as an essentially good woman who expresses her preference for being a faithful wife. But may it be for her hereditary curse or her husband’s philandering; Phaedra gradually gives into caustic passions and thereby declines to the point of destruction. As she gets poisoned by the passion of lust for her stepson, Phaedra begins to demonstrate nervousness and loses her rational stability. Seneca beautifully presents this instability of Phaedra by listing a series of household chores that she fails to accomplish due to her nervousness. The list begins with weaving, as Phaedra deplores: “The loom of Athena is empty / and the wool slips between my very hands”. The rest of the list covers such wifely activities as adorning temples and participating in Athenian dances or in the secret rites of Demeter. All these indicate that Phaedra is deviating from the natural courses of life and getting neglectful of her duties by losing rational control.
In her next development towards deterioration, Phaedra totally detaches herself from the touch of reason and loses her sense of good and bad. She becomes clouded with passion and in her way to errors of judgment, she rejects with unrealistic arguments all the Nurse’s sensible advice to abjure her love. ‘Love is uncontrollable’, she says and she needs not fear Theseus’ vengeance, because she believes, he will never return from the Otherworld.
From the second act, passion rather turns Phaedra a bad woman. In the notorious ‘mad seen’, she gets devoid of all rationality and let her hair down to flow loose on her shoulders. Having removed her royal robes, she thinks of running disheveled into the woods and literally throws herself at Hippolytus’ feet. Her fluctuation from virtue reaches its climax when we see her urging to Hippolytus to take her as a slave: “Mother – that name is too proud and high; a humbler name better suits my feelings. Call me sister, Hippolytus, or slave – yes, slave is better; I will endure servitude.”
However Phaedra’s decline does not end here. In stoicism good means extreme good and bad means extreme bad and Phaedra also has to complete her full cycle of viciousness. Therefore, when she is rebuffed by Hippolytus, Phaedra drives the last nail to her bad reputation by treacherously accusing Hippolytus of having raped her. Phaedra thus stands out as a classic example of human potential ruined by passion.
Finally, with Phaedra, Seneca also touches upon the stoic philosophical concept of committing suicide. For example, as Phaedra sees the grisly remains of Hippolytus’ dead body, things become intolerable for her and she commits suicide to release her from all sorrows.
For the rest, it can be said that besides Phaedra, unchecked emotion also spell doom for the other characters of the play as well. For example, Theseus does not stop to question his wife’s accusations, but readily calls for the death of his own son, so great is his rage. Even Hippolytus draws a sword on his own stepmother, merely because of her love for him. He then plunges into the forest, without considering the consequences of his hasty departure, and without thinking how his flight may be used against him to cover up Phaedra’s guilt.
Thus the world of Phaedra is a world where emotions loom large and reason is absent. According to Seneca a world devoid of reason means a world devoid of virtue which piles up nothing but horror after horror. A cool rationalist as he is, Seneca writes Phaedra to exercise his stoic philosophical teachings. He lets his characters poisoned with passions and then keeping himself in ironic distance, observes how passion leads man to bestiality which is an inherent human nature in general.