[3.pr.1] Nōn praeterit mē, Lūcīlī virōrum optime, quam magnārum rērum fundāmenta pōnam senex, quī mundum circumīre cōnstituī et causās sēcrētaque eius ēruere atque aliīs nōscenda prōdere. quandō tam multa cōnsequar, tam sparsa colligam, tam occulta perspiciam? [3.pr.2] premit ā tergō senectūs et obicit annōs inter vāna studia cōnsūmptōs. tantō magis urgeāmus et damna aetātis male exēmptae labor sarciat. nox ad diem accēdat, occupātiōnēs recīdantur, patrimōniī longē ā dominō iacentis cūra solvātur, sibi tōtus animus vacet, et ad contemplātiōnem suī saltim in ipsō fīne respiciat. [3.pr.3] faciet, ac sibi īnstābit, et cotīdiē brevitātem temporis mētiētur; quidquid āmissum est, id dīligentī ūsū praesentis vītae recolliget. fidēlissimus est ad honesta ex paenitentiā trānsitus. Libet igitur mihi exclāmāre illum poētae inclutī versum:
Tollimus ingentēs animōs et maxima parvō
hoc dīcerem sī puer iuvenisque mōlīrer (nūllum enim nōn tam magnīs rēbus tempus angustum est); nunc vērō ad rem sēriam, gravem, inmēnsam postmerīdiānīs hōrīs accessimus. [3.pr.4] faciāmus quod in itinere fierī solet: quī tardius exiērunt, vēlōcitāte pēnsant moram. festīnēmus, et opus nesciō an <in>superābile, magnum certē, sine aetātis excūsātiōne tractēmus. crēscit animus quotiēns coeptī magnitūdinem aspexit, et cōgitat quantum prōpositō, nōn quantum sibi supersit.
Selection 1 (3 pref. 1-4): Opening of the work as a whole.
I have embarked on a massive intellectual task in my old age. I will have to put other things aside and make up for lost time by working quickly.
The language found in the opening of Book 3 would seem to imply that this is the first book of the Naturales Quaestiones as a whole. It shows Seneca’s expansive viewpoint and some of the ways that he ties the study of physics with that of ethics. From this preface it is not apparent that he will soon launch into a survey of existing scholarly opinions about terrestrial waters. Other Senecan works, such as De Ira (On Anger) state from the first sentence the primary topic of the treatise. Many of the prefaces in the NQ discuss ethical and cultural issues instead.
Further Reading: A complete literary and philosophical commentary to Book 3 can be found at Oberlin Classics.
[3.pr.1] How will I cover such far-ranging, scattered, and difficult material?
Non praeterit me: “it does not escape me,” “I am not unaware.” The impersonal use of praetereo takes the accusative, me (AG 388.c) and introduces an indirect question with the subjunctive (quam… ponam).
Lucili virorum optime: Lucilius is the addressee of the NQ, and here one can see his name in the vocative case (AG 49). Lucilius was an old friend of Seneca’s and had recently (probably in 62 CE) been made procurator (a provincial administrator of equestrian status) of Sicily. Only a couple of years younger than Seneca, Lucilius is also the addressee of Seneca’s Epistulae Morales and De Providentia. He often acts as a stand-in for the reader in general, although we do get more of a sense of his career in the preface of NQ 4a. One can read more about him in Griffin 1976: 91–94, and 347–53.
qui ... constitui: relative clause, further defining Seneca/the narrator and the task he has decided to shoulder in his old age. Constituo here takes the complementary infinitive, circumire.
aliis noscenda prodere: the didactic nature of the text is stressed with the publication of these “things that should be learned.” noscenda is the neuter accusative plural form of the gerundive. Aliis is the dative indirect object after prodere, “to make known, report” (LS prodo I.B.2).
consequar ... perspiciam?: Seneca’s questions speak to the work involved in his study of the natural world, in spite of his old age. The knowledge he seeks is copious, scattered, and obscure, which makes him into a kind of detective who has to seek out what is “hidden” (occulta). The verbs could be future indicative, or deliberative subjunctive (AG 444).
[3.pr.2] My advanced age means I will have to work harder and eliminate distractions.
a tergo: “from behind”
obicit annos ... consumptos: a slightly personified old age (senectus) acts as a prosecutor who charges Seneca with wasting his time. Those “vain pursuits” could be his other writings, but also Seneca’s work in the Neronian court.
tanto magis: “so much the more.” Tanto is ablative of degree of difference (AG 414).
damna ... sarciat: “repair the losses.” The subjunctives in this and the following sentence are hortatory or jussive (AG 439).
ad diem accedat: accedere + ad = “to be added to” + acc.
patrimonii ... iacentis cura: The genitive phrase is objective (AG 348) and cura has a sense of “anxiety, worry.” Wealthy Romans often had estates far from Rome. Seneca himself owned estates in Egypt, Spain, and Italy. For a description of a visit to one of these estates, see Seneca Ep. 12. The enclosing word order humorously keeps the estate far away from its verb solvatur.
ad contemplationem sui: ad + accusative indicating purpose with the use of the reflexive pronoun in the genitive as an objective genitive (AG 348). This sort of self-contemplation is urged throughout Seneca’s ethical writings (see Foucault 1986; Bartsch and Wray 2009). Seneca stresses the importance of natural contemplatio for the NQ (cf. 6.32.1, 7.2.3).
in ipso fine: “at the very end,” in the sense of “at the end of life.” Seneca was in his mid-60s when writing the NQ, and the assumption that he is near death helps to add urgency to this preface and the project as a whole. Seneca was forced by Nero to commit suicide in 65 CE, shortly after writing the NQ. He may have even had an inkling that his days were numbered, as Nero’s excesses accelerated in the early 60s. In Tacitus’ description of Seneca’s death, the order to commit suicide came as no surprise to Seneca (Ann. 15.62). This was a subject for artists such as Rubens.
[3.pr.3] Despite the late start, I will endeavor to accomplish much in a short time.
Seneca continues to encourage himself to do this work at this time in his life, and he uses a quotation of Vagellius to help crystallize his sentiment. Vagellius was a contemporary poet who had been suffect consul c. 45 CE, and it is probable that he and Seneca were friends. His fragments are preserved only in Seneca’s NQ (Courtney 1993: 347).
faciet: “it will do so.” animus is the subject.
sibi instabit: the animus will “urge itself on.”
cotidie: the word is emphasized by its position at the beginning of the third part of a rising tricolon.
brevitatem temporis metietur: brevitatem might cause the reader to think back to Seneca’s earlier treatise de Brevitate Vitae, in which he wrote about time and the correct use of one’s time (see also Ep. 1). E. Wilson believes Seneca’s use of metior is wordplay, “measuring out the universe in his mind may help take his mind off his anxieties (punning on the words metior,‘to measure,’ and metus,‘fear’)” (2014: 176).
id: referring back to quidquid amissum est.
diligenti usu recolliget: ablative of means (AG 409). The verb recalls colligam above.
fidelissimus ... transitus: The movement from regrettable choices to more honest and upright ones will be “most dependable” (fidelissimus) when one regrets a history of doing the opposite (ex paenitentia). Seneca was known for his pithy sayings, or sententiae,and this is a good example of one.
libet mihi ... exclamare: libet takes the dative and an infinitive phrase which acts as its subject (AG 368).
incluti poetae: Seneca introduces a quotation from a lost epic of Vagellius about Phaethon; elsewhere, he refers to Vagellius’ poem as in illo incluto carmine (NQ 6.2.9). Book 3 features fourteen poetic citations, more than any other book of the NQ. Because of his attempts to attain sublimity, Seneca interprets Phaethon as a more heroic figure than the foolhardy boy in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
parvo / tempore: ablative of time within which (AG 423). Vagellius contrasts the “great deeds” (maxima) to be done in such a short time, which parallels Seneca’s own task in the NQ.
dicerem si ... molirer: present contrary-to-fact condition (AG 517). Seneca, obviously, is not a young man (as is Phaethon), but he believes the sentiment would hold then as well—a point he explains in the parenthetical comment.
nullum ... angustum est: re-order: nullum tempus non angustum est tam magnis rebus. The subject is so large that, even if a boy were to take it up, it would still be too much for his lifespan. The tam magnis rebus rewords magnarum rerum in the first line of the book.
The phrase looks back to the work of his father, where we find “no time is too small for one word” (nullum tempus uni verbo angustum est, Seneca the Elder, Controversiae 2.3.7).
postmeridianis horis: ablative of time (AG 423), once again emphasizing his age.
[3.pr.4] I will hurry like a traveler with a late start. The grandeur of the subject gives me heart.
Seneca claims that time will be of the essence and that the soul itself revels in this work. Such labor, however, is probably too great for one lifetime. This is part of the reason why it is necessary to review the findings of previous scholars and compile their ideas in this doxographical work.
faciamus: the hortatory subjunctive in the first-person plural brings in the general reader to the activity “let us do.” One gets the sense that Seneca here broadens the audience beyond merely Lucilius, the addressee of the NQ. Seneca suggests that we should all do this, no matter our age, philosophical school, or profession.
quod: “that which,” relative pronoun with an implied antecedent, id.
in itinere: “on a journey” makes concrete some of the “travel” (see circumire and consequar earlier in this selection) that the mind must undergo to discover the secrets of the natural world.
velocitate pensant moram: “they make up their delay by speed.” velocitate is an ablative of means (AG 409). The speed should not imply carelessness or lack of attention to detail, which sometimes had been a veiled critique of the work in early scholarship on the NQ (see Corcoran 1971: xii-xiii for a survey). One can even see it implied in the comments of Quintilian, who claims Seneca’s errors may have been introduced by scholarly assistants (aliquando ab iis quibus inquirenda quaedam mandabat deceptus est 10.1.128).
nescio an: literally “I don’t know whether,” but colloquially used to soften an assertation, so translate “probably, perhaps.” This topic may be insurmountable, but that’s the “heroic” task that Seneca gives to himself and to his fellow students of the natural world.
sine aetatis excusatione: Seneca declines to use old age as an excuse for abandoning the work.
crescit animus: the mind/spirit itself grows in doing this sort of work. As Gunderson asserts, “The image of the cosmic animus as presented by the text feeds our imagination, it fires our own animus” (Gunderson 2015: 72).
coepti magnitudinem: “the enormity of the undertaking”
quantum proposito, non quantum sibi supersit: “how much (work) remains in the task, not how much (time) remains for itself.” Indirect question after cogitat (AG 574). Such cogitatio is important for the text as a whole, as it is the way in which one can truly understand nature (cf. cogitatione visendus est, NQ 7.30.3). The subject may take longer to grapple with than one has time in life, but the pursuit will lead to wisdom and allow one’s spirit to grow.
praetereō praeterīre praeterīvī/praeteriī praeteritus: to pass by, to escape, be unnoticed by (impersonal)
Lūcīlius –ī m.: Lucilius, a friend and correspondant of Seneca
optimus –a –um: best, excellent
fundāmentum –ī n.: foundation, ground-work, beginning
senex senis: old, aged
circumeo (circueō ) –īre –iī/–īvī circuitus: to travel around, inspect
sēcrētus –a –um: separated, hidden, secret
ēruō ēruere ēruī ērutus: to tear out, dig up, bring to light
occultus –a –um: hidden, concealed, secret
perspiciō perspicere perspexī perspectus: to look into, examine, observe
senectūs senectūtis f.: old age 3.pr.2
obiiciō obiicere obiēcī obiectus: to cast, present, set against, use as a defence, hold up as an example
tantō: by so much
urgeō urgēre ursī: to push forward, urge, drive, follow up, keep to
eximō eximere exēmī exēmptus: to use up (time)
sarciō sarcīre sarsī sartum: to restore, make compensation for, correct, repair
occupātiō –ōnis f.: an occupation, seizure
recīdō –ere –cīdī –cīsus: to cut away; reduce
patrimōnium patrimōni(ī) n.: inheritance, paternal estate
contemplātiō –ōnis f.: a viewing, contemplation
saltem or saltim: at the least, at all events, anyhow
īnstō īnstāre īnstitī: to press upon, urge, press, pursue 3.pr.3
cotīdiē or cottīdiē or quotidiē: every day, daily
brevitās –ātis f.: shortness
mētior mētīrī mēnsus sum: to measure, judge, distribute
dīligēns –ntis: careful
recolligō recolligere recollēgī recollectum: to gather again, collect
paenitentia –ae f.: regret for one’s actions, repentance
trānsitus trānsitūs m.: passing over transit transition
exclāmō exclāmāre exclāmāvī exclāmātus: to exclaim
inclutus (inclitus) –a –um: famous, renowned
versus versūs m.: line (of poetry)
māximus –a –um: greatest; maxime: most, especially, very much
mōlior –īrī moītus sum: to labor to bring about, build, erect
angustus –a –um: narrow, close, constrained
sērius -a -um: serious
immēnsus –a –um: immeasurable, boundless, endless, vast
pōmerīdiānus (postmeridianus) –a –m: in the afternoon, post-meridian
tardius or tardium: more slowly 3.pr.4
vēlōcitās –ātis f.: swiftness, speed
pēnsō pēnsāre : weigh out, counterbalance, compensate, recompense
festīnō festīnāre festīnāvī festīnātus: to hurry
īnsuperābilis –e: insurmountable
excūsātiō excūsātiōnis f.: excuse
tractō tractāre tractāvī tractātus: to take in hand, handle, investigate, discuss
coeptum -i n.: undertaking
propositum -i n.: plan, intention, design