Scholarly Perspectives

A Community of Enquirers 

Harry Hine, "Rome, the Cosmos, and the Emperor in Seneca's Natural Questions.Journal of Roman Studies 96 (2006): 42-72, at pp. 58-59.

In effect Seneca is constructing a community of inquirers that stretches across the centuries, backwards as far as the Presocratics, and far forwards into future generations, and in this community no one is a privileged authority deserving to be treated with special respect. This intellectual community — a virtual academy, one might call it — includes not only philosophers writing on meteorology, but also astronomers like Eudoxus and Conon (7.3.2–3), and historians like Ephorus (7.16.1–2). Its past members are predominantly Greek, but it also includes Egyptians and Chaldeans, and a few Romans. Of the Romans, Papirius Fabianus, one of Seneca’s teachers, is briefly cited for his views on the causes of the great flood (3.27.4). Balbillus…gave an account of the behavior of dolphins and crocodiles in the Nile (4a.2.13). In Book 5 Varro is given a prominent role in mapping the wind-rose for the Romans (5.16). In Book 2 the Etruscans and their lightning-lore are discussed at length (2.32­–51), and the Roman Caecina, along with Seneca’s teacher Attalus, plays a major part in the analysis and exposition of the Etruscan system (2.49.51). Greek authorities may outnumber the Romans, and the Greeks may have set the standards of argument, but the Romans, when they appear, are treated on equal terms….

Though Seneca does not make the point himself in the Natural Questions, we might see in this imagined academic community some influence from the Stoic idea of the greater republic of men and gods, the world-state that transcends individual states, an idea that Seneca develops elsewhere; for one of his arguments is that we can serve the greater republic through the study of philosophy, which is what he is doing in the Natural Questions… (58–59).

The Struggle to Emerge from Darkness

Gareth Williams, The Cosmic Viewpoint: A Study of Seneca’s Natural Questions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 336-337.

Seneca’s persona begins, then, by embracing cosmic consciousness in the preface to Book 3 and develops toward the full experience and exercise of it in the course of the Natural Questions. He may yet be far from the consummate sapiens, but he is nevertheless liberated and detached in ways that Lucilius for one can apparently never be in his Sicilian procuratorship. Seneca is also liberated in ways that distinguish him from the Everyman restricted by the ordinary narrowness of life (cf. angustias, 1 pref.13), and still more from the deviants he condemns in his moralizing outbursts throughout the Natural Questions. Yet his persona also models the release that is available to Everyman if our existence is re-centered in the cosmic whole.

It is this emphasis on our struggle to emerge from the darkness (cf. 1 pref. 2) that requires the Natural Questions to descend in Books 1 and 2 from the celestial heights reached in Book 7 and in the preface to Book 1; for while cosmic emancipation is showcased as a Senecan ideal, the work focuses primarily on the effort of ascent, and not on its ultimate attainment. As we saw earlier, Seneca’s meteorological theme occupies an intermediate place between terrena and caelestia (cf. 2.1.1), but it is also intermediate in a more figurative sense: it raises us from ground level and yet trains our eye on phenomena that are unstable, ephemeral and potentially illusory, in contrast to the serene steadiness and permanence of phenomena at the celestial level. In this respect, Seneca’s meteorological probings are intrinsically provisional and experimental, progressive rather than definitive; he descends from the heights in Book 7 naturally to return to the intermediate zone, the place of provisionality that is the dominant locus for his entire project.

Knowledge of Nature as Liberation

Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France 1981–1982, trans. G. Burchell (New York: Picador, 2005), p. 279.

[T]he effect [for Seneca] of knowing nature, of this great gaze that scours the world, or which, stepping back from the point we occupy, ends up grasping the whole of nature, is liberating. Why does knowing nature free us? You can see that in this liberation there is nothing like an uprooting from this world, a transfer to a different world, or a break with and abandonment of this world. Rather, it involves two essential effects. First: to obtain a sort of maximum tension between the self as reason — and consequently, as such, as universal reason, having he same nature as divine reason —and the self as individual component, placed here and there in the world, in an absolutely restricted and delimited spot. So the first effect of this knowledge of nature is to establish the maximum tension between the self as reason and the self as point. Second, the knowledge of nature is liberating inasmuch as it allows us, not to turn away from ourselves, not to turn our gaze away from what we are, but rather to focus it better and continuously take a certain view of ourselves, to ensure a contemplatio sui in which the object of contemplation is ourselves in the world, ourselves inasmuch as our existence is linked to a set of determinations and necessities whose rationality we understand.

The Limits of Human Knowledge

Brad Inwood, "God and Human Knowledge in Seneca’s Natural Questions,” in Brad Inwood, Reading Seneca: Stoic Philosophy at Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[In] the Naturales Quaestiones more than any place else in the corpus Seneca seems to be caught between the rock of trivial tralatician themes and the hard place of bellelettristic adornment. Add to this the dilemma the chaotic state of the books (two of the eight are truncated and until recently there has been no usable consensus on their order), and the neglect ceases to surprise. My goal in this essay is to argue that the Naturales Quaestiones contains a good deal more which is of serious philosophical interest, that it contains an important strand of reflection on the relationship between god and man. This important theme is (as is often the case in Seneca) intermittently highlighted against the background of the overtly dominant topic. I will argue, then, that Seneca presents his readers with the fruits of serious thought about the relationship between god and man, and would like to suggest (though proof is not possible) that Seneca’s most important concern in the book as a whole is not the overt theme (explanations of traditionally problematic natural phenomena) but the subterranean theme of the relationship between god and man, and most particularly the epistemic limitations of human nature. Seneca’s interest in god goes beyond the role of god in Stoic cosmology and extends to more general reflections on the epistemological distance between divine and human nature.

Epistemological Tools

Courtney Ann Roby, “Seneca’s Scientific Fictions: Models as Fictions in the Natural Questions.” Journal of Roman Studies 104 (2014): 155–80, at pp. 177-178:

This is what I want to suggest about Seneca’s use of analogy: not that he does not use it, but that he uses the tools of rhetorical persuasion to enrich his model-making repertoire far beyond lining up matching sets of attributes. Moreover, he does so consciously, with the intention of creating genuine epistemological tools, not just making decorations for an analogical core that somehow serves the entirety of his real scientific purpose.

Seneca hints that he will not be making orthodox use of the well-established technique of analogy when he suggests that ‘our acuteness, once trained on invisible things, will be no worse in visible ones’ (‘in occultis exercitata subtilitas non erit in aperta deterior’,, a playful inversion of the traditional formula that analogy moves from visible to hidden things. This is not, of course, to be taken as a declaration of open war on analogy; rather, I think, it is a teasing nod to the complications of attempting to apply analogy universally. In Hine’s ordering of the books, this would indeed be something of a thought-provoking programmatic statement of the rich rhetorical and epistemological adventure the reader is about to undertake.

Acknowledging that the fictionality of scientific models is no barrier to their ability to provide useful and convincing explanations of natural phenomena allows us to fill in some of the blanks left in analogy-focused accounts that still want to suggest that the text conveys genuine scientific knowledge. The approaches outlined here shift the focus of study from the relationship between two objects in the world, or an object in the world and a verbal proposition about it, to include the creator and user of the model, showing how fiction can yield not just persuasive trickery, but genuine insight.

Scientific and Moral Goals

Francesca Romana Berno, “Exploring Appearances: Seneca’s Scientific Works.” In S. Bartsch and A. Schiesaro, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Seneca (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 82–92.

The coexistence of science and moral discussion has often been interpreted as undermining the scientific rigor of the NQ, but it actually follows the Stoic position according to which both logic and physics are inextricably tied to morality (SVF 2.38), as well as the standard association, in Roman thought, between science and ethics. Ever since Sallust, Roman moralistic thought had classified vices around three poles, luxuria, a love of luxury and excess in all its forms (including libido), avaritia, and ambitio, which is also manifested through adulatio.

The association between scientific and moral goals is also clear in the thematic arrangement of the work. Seneca’s opening or final “digressions” share key terms with the scientific discussion occupying the bulk of each book and can therefore be read as a more in-depth treatment of one of the topics with which the books itself is concerned. For instance, Hostius Quadra satisfies his peculiar libido (1.16) through the use of mirrors that deform reality, precisely as mirrors, book 1 goes on to explain, are used to reflect a rainbow. This and other anecdotes show a perverse twisting of the scientific method: in Books IVb and VII, vicious men betray the same unfulfilled passion for research that should normally characterize the philosopher; greedy men mine the earth as though their purpose is to reveal nature’s secrets (book V), and perverted men artfully use their ingenium in the service of their own pleasure (in books I and III).

Seneca’s Intertextual Dialogue with Ovid

Myrto Garani, “Seneca on Pythagoras’ mirabilia aquarum (NQ 3.20–1, 25–6; Ovid Met. 15.270–336).” In M. Garani, A. Michalopoulos, and S. Papaioannou, eds., Intertextuality in Seneca’s Philosophical Writings (New York: Routledge, 2020), pp. 198–253.

What is, then, the function of the Ovidian quotations from Pythagoras’ list within Seneca’s book 3 On Waters? To answer this question, we should first see what follows next in Seneca’s account. Whereas…Seneca initiates his Stoic physical project by intertextually hinting at the vatic figure of Pythagoras, brought forward from the last book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, just after his discussion about the process of self–purgation of the sea. He culminates book 3 with his account of the cosmic deluge (NQ 3.27–30), in the course of which he turns to the beginning of Ovid’s poem, by means of a double allusion to the Ovidian story of the cataclysm (Met. 1.262–312) as well as that of Phaethon and the conflagration (Met. 1.747–2.400). To put it differently, right before Seneca’s account about the final destruction of the world, in which the Ovidian presence is dominant, even if debatable, Seneca demarcates anew his stance toward his poetic predecessor… Nevertheless, Seneca’s intertextual dialogue with Ovid turns out to be a bidirectional process: once Seneca engages with Ovid’s Callimachean list of paradoxa, he unexpectedly places himself within the Roman tradition of Callimacheanism, with its implications of witty generic experimentation and subtle – often ironic – intertextual allusions, which the informed reader should be on the alert to perceive, while reading the last part of book 3 and the rest of Seneca’s Natural Questions. In a word, Seneca presents himself as the ideal Stoic vates with not only therapeutic, i.e., liberating, philosophical aspirations, but also poetic claims, on the basis of which he emulates Ovid, even if writing in (didactic) prose.

Seneca and Epicureanism

Alessandro Schiesaro, “Seneca and Epicurus: The Allure of the Other.” In S. Bartsch and A. Schiesaro, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Seneca (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 239–51.

The important role played by the sublime in both Lucretius and Seneca makes a comparison between their different approaches particularly fascinating. Both authors identify sublimity as an essential cognitive tool that has to be mastered if the philosopher-poet hopes to incite his audience to a heightened understanding of truth and to moral self-improvement. Yet they hold different views on the relationship between sublimity and the gods on the one hand and the interplay of excitement and rational understanding on the other. Lucretius’ sublime is first and foremost an etiological strategy, a cognitive tool for apprehending natural causes that has a liberating and exhilarating effect. The emotional consequences attending sublimity, divina…voluptas atque horror (3.28–9 “divine delight and shuddering”), are subordinated to this cognitive process. Contemplation of nature as such holds no comparable aesthetic or emotional gain. Indeed, a dispassionate consideration of the basic features of the natural world leads to the conclusion that the world was not created for our benefit and is singularly packed with obstacles and dangers, as Lucretius expands at 5.200–34 in order to show that natura rerum is laden with faults (5.199). At the zenith of Epicurus’ voyage across the universe, we find not the contemplation of our world’s smallness and irrelevance but an insight that revolutionizes traditional views on religion. Since Epicurus is now able to understand and convey to us the basic laws of nature that govern all phenomena (nihil ex nihilo, “nothing comes from nothing” and nihil in nihilum, “nothing dissolves into nothing”), he can overcome the power of religion and grant us a definitive victory over superstition and fear (1.78–9). Seneca, on the contrary, argues that intellectual prowess, the ability to penetrate the innermost secrets of nature (1 praef. 3 secretiora) and to derive pleasurable contemplation from this activity (1 praef. 12 delectant) is “proof of the divine nature” of the soul. Indeed, the sapiens’ investigations into truth and nature lead him, unlike animals who see but do not understand, to perceive the presence of divinity. The “law of life” (vitae lex) consists not merely in knowing the gods but in following them (90.34 nec nosse tantum sed sequi deos).

Suggested Citation

Christopher Trinacty, Seneca: Natural Questions: Selections. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 2022. ISBN: 978-1-947822-18-4