Selection 13 (2.36-38)

[2.36.1] Quid enim intellegis fātum? exīstimō necessitātem rērum omnium āctiōnumque quam nūlla vīs rumpat. hanc sī sacrificiīs aut capite niveae agnae exōrārī iūdicās, dīvīna nōn nōstī. sapientis quoque virī sententiam negātis posse mūtārī; quantō magis deī, cum sapiēns quid sit optimum in praesentia sciat, illīus dīvīnitātis omne praesēns sit!

[2.37.1] Agere nunc causam eōrum volō quī prōcūranda exīstimant fulmina, et expiātiōnēs nōn dubitant prōdesse aliquandō ad submovenda perīcula, aliquandō ad levanda, aliquandō ad differenda. [2.37.2] quid sit quod sequatur, paulō post persequar. interim hoc habent commūne nōbīscum, quod nōs quoque exīstimāmus vōta prōficere salvā vī ac potestāte fātōrum. quaedam enim ā dīs inmortālibus ita suspēnsa relicta sūnt ut in bonum vertant sī admōtae dīs precēs fuerint, sī vōta suscepta; ita nōn est hoc contrā fātum, sed ipsum quoque in fātō est.

[2.37.3] ‘Aut futūrum’ inquit ‘est aut nōn. sī futūrum est, fīet, etiamsī vōta nōn suscipis. sī nōn est futūrum, etiamsī suscēperis vōta, nōn fīet.’ falsa est ista interrogātiō, quia illam mediam inter ista exceptiōnem praeterīs: futūrum est hoc, sed sī vōta suscepta fuerint.

[2.38.1] ‘Hoc quoque’ inquit ‘ipsum necesse est fātō comprēnsum sit, ut aut suscipiās vōta aut nōn.’ putā mē tibi manūs dare et fatērī hoc quoque fātō esse comprēnsum, ut utique fīant vōta: ideō fīent. [2.38.2] fātum est ut hic disertus sit, sed sī litterās didicerit; at eōdem fātō continētur ut litterās discat: ideō docendus est. hic dīves erit, sed sī nāvigāverit; at in illō fātī ōrdine quō patrimōnium illī grande prōmittitur, hoc quoque prōtinus adfātum est, ut et nāviget: ideō nāvigābit. idem tibi dē expiātiōnibus dīcō: effugiet perīcula, sī expiāverit praedictās dīvīnitus minās; at hoc quoque in fātō est, ut expiet: ideō expiabit. [2.38.3] ista nōbīs oppōnī solent, ut probētur nihil voluntātī nostrae relictum, et omne iūs faciendī <fātō> trāditum. cum dē istā rē agētur, dicam quemadmodum manente fātō aliquid sit in hominis arbitriō; nunc vērō id dē quō agitur explicuī, quōmodo, sī fātī certus est ōrdō, expiationēs prōcūrātiōnēsque prōdigiōrum perīcula āvertant: quia nōn cum fātō pugnant, sed et ipsae in lēge fātī sunt. [2.38.4] ‘quid ergō’ inquis ‘aruspex mihi prōdest? utique enim expiāre mihi etiam nōn suādente illō necesse est.’ hoc prōdest, quod fātī minister est; sīc cum sānitās dēbeātur fātō, dēbētur et medicō, quia ad nōs beneficium fātī per huius manūs venit.

Selection 13 (2.36.1–38.4): Fate, free will, and the efficacy of prayer.

Discussion of lightning and thunder leads Seneca to a consideration of the Roman practice of treating lightning as a prodigy: a sign of divine displeasure and imminent misfortune that must be averted by expiatory sacrifice, ritual, and prayer. Can such prayers really change the outcome of future events when all is predetermined by fate? Somewhat surprisingly, Seneca argues that it can.

This element of Roman religion was taken from the Etruscans (who wrote libri fulgurales “lightning books” to classify lightning and its effects). Stoics, like the Etruscan priests, were believers in the fixed dispensations of fate. But there are important differences. Seneca gives a rather thorough account of Etruscan divination (2.31.1–2.51.1) and compares Stoic doctrine as follows. “We [Stoics] believe that lightning is produced because the clouds collide, but they believe the clouds collide in order to produce lightning. In effect, because they attribute everything to the gods, they do not believe that lightning has a meaning because it happens, but that it happens in order to express a meaning” (2.32.2). For the Stoics, the world was ordered according to god, so if we understand how to read “signs” from god, we should be able to understand more about the way of the world and our place in it.

It was commonly thought that exceptional lightning activity (and comets, see Book 7) preceded the assassination of Julius Caesar (see Vergil’s Georgics 1.487–88). Tacitus notes frequent and fierce lightning in 64 CE (Ann. 15.47). So, depending on the date of this work, such activity may have been happening as Seneca was writing. Pliny the Elder gives a wealth of interesting information about lightning-struck trees and vines in his Natural History (e.g. N.H. 16.24, 14.119, 17.124).

Further Reading: See Strunk 2016: 171–214 for more on Stoic conceptions of divination; Jannot 2005: 24–27 for more on the use of lightning in Etruscan divination; and Hine 1980: ad loc.

[2.36.1] Fate is unalterable necessity.

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As Seneca details the various qualities of lightning bolts, he digresses about their ability to predict the future (2.32.1ff.). He considers how lightning and the flight of birds offer signs that can be read to understand future events. This idea of fate is one of cause-and-effect and the long chain of causes rolls on much like a rapid river (2.35.2). One must abide by fate’s decree, in as much as the entire future is already fated (cuius haec prima lex est, stare decreto). Section 2.36 provides more insight into Seneca’s conception of fate, sacrifices (which, elsewhere, he believes to be ineffectual, cf. 4b.6.1–4b.7.3), and the divine perspective on time.

intellegis: supply esse. Seneca has just discussed what other philosophical schools or individuals believed fate to be.

existimo necessitatem: supply fatum esse. For connections between necessitas and fatum see also Cicero’s De Fato 21, 40, and passim. In NQ, Seneca connects the two concepts when he discusses the flood at 3.27.3.

omnium: should be taken with rerum and actionum.

quam: relative pronoun with necessitas as its antecedent, introducing a relative clause of characteristic, hence rumpat in the subjunctive (AG 535).

si … iudicas … nosti: a present particular condition (AG 515); nosti is the syncopated present perfect of noscere.

sacrificiis aut capite niveae agnae: ablatives of means (AG 409). The sacrifice of white animals is usually reserved for deities of the upper world, while those to Hades or underworld spirits were dark in color. On the Ides, a white lamb was sacrificed to Jupiter, according to Ovid (Fast. 1.56). Here such sacrifices seem to indicate that one could somehow sway fate/necessity (hanc), and it recalls the fundamental do ut des (“I give in order that you give.”) relationship between human and divinity in Greek and Roman religion. See Faraone and Naiden 2012 for more on animal sacrifice.

divina: substantive use of the adjective (AG 288).

sapientis … viri: the ethically perfect sage of Stoic philosophy (Vit. Beat. 8.3, Ep. 92.11–13). In Ep. 42, Seneca says one comes around as often as the phoenix, i.e., every 500 years or so.

negatis: >the 2nd person plural indicates that Seneca is thinking of a larger group of interlocutors, perhaps Stoics in general.

quanto magis dei: quanto is ablative of degree of difference with magis (AG 414). Supply sententia with the genitive dei. The sententia of god is unable to change, in as much as the Stoic god is fate (see NQ 2.45.1–3 for Seneca’s strong identification of Jupiter with fate, nature, and the cosmos).

cum … sciat ... praesens sit: causal cum-clauses (AG 549).

quid sit optimum: indirect question (AG 574) after sciat.

in praesentia: supply tempora

illius divinitati omne praesens sit!: order: (cum) omne (tempus) sit praesens divinitatis illius. Seneca’s chiastic ordering (AG 598.f) of the two clauses with praesens sit reflecting the earlier sit… in praestentia to emphasize the similarity (and difference) between god and the sapiens; illius refers to god. All future time is like the present to god, who knows what will come and, because of the circularity of time and eternal recurrence, these events have happened infinite times (for more on Stoic time, see Ep. 12.6–8); divinitas can mean both “divinity” and “divination” and both meanings may be present in this section that muses on the power of prophecy as well as the power of god. In the NQ, Seneca posits the goal of seeing the “whole” (omne) with the mind (NQ 3.pr.10) and eradicating one’s vices.

[2.37.1] Some believe that expiatory sacrifices avert, lessen, or postpone disaster.

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Seneca proceeds to argue on behalf of making sacrifices and expiation at the appearance of lightning. Reading lightning flashes was one of the main skills of Etruscan priests (the so-called disciplina Etrusca), and Seneca will later describe the various fulgura and how they were interpreted at 2.39.1–49.3.

agere … causam: “plead the case” (LS ago II.D.9).

procuranda: supply esse in an indirect statement. Places where lightning struck in an urban area were permanently cordoned off. Priests performed a sacrifice and ceremonially buried the remains, interring on the spot anyone killed. This process was known as “burying the lightning” (fulmen condere, see NQ 2.59.10 and Harpers Dictionary of Antiquities, s.v. Bidental) The intent of the ceremonial expiation (procurare, expiare) was to avert the wrath of heaven of which the lightning was a sign.

expiationes: Lucan describes such a rite at 1.605–13.

aliquando … aliquando … aliquando: the different results of such rites.

ad submovenda pericula: ad + gerundive to express purpose (AG 506).

levanda: supply pericula here, and with the following differenda.

[2.37.2] Stoics also believe in the efficacy of prayer. The gods leave some matters in suspense .

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Seneca puts off further discussion before speaking of certain events left undetermined by the gods and which could go a certain way if vows are undertaken. It will be fated, then, for those vows to happen and subsequent events to occur; therefore, this is an example of something that is co-fated.

quid sit quod sequatur: indirect question (quid sit) indicating what he will pursue after this digression and what the ramifications are for the ability to put off or lighten dangers (AG 574).

hoc habent commune nobiscum: communis can take the dative or cum + ablative, as here.  hoc looks forward to the quod clause. This expression of communis with habeo is formulaic.

salva vi ac potestate fatorum: ablative absolute, “without detriment to the force and power of fate” (OLD saluus 7). The strength and power of fate is still preserved (salva), in spite of the fact that prayer can be beneficial at certain moments. See Bobzien 1998 for the pervasive importance and permutations of this idea in Stoicism.

a dis inmortalibus: ablative of personal agent (AG 405) with the passive voice, relicta sunt.

ita suspensa … ut: a result clause (AG 537).

si admotae dis preces fuerint: admoveo takes the dative, dis; admotae fuerint is future perfect.

si vota suscepta: supply fuerint.

ita: signals the conclusion to this section.

[2.37.3] Objection: fate is fixed, so prayer can have no effect whatsoever.

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Seneca responds to an interlocutor who believes the question of fate is black or white. Seneca shows how there is a shade of grey with co-fated events, as he has been explaining in the previous section.

aut … aut: “either… or… ”

si futurum est, fiet: future more vivid condition (AG 516).

etiamsi: concessive clause (AG 527).

ista interrogatio: “that line of questioning.”

quia: causal clause (AG 540). quia takes the indicative when the speaker vouches for the explanation, subjunctive when it introduces an alleged reason (LS quia I).

illam mediam ... exceptionem: “the intermediate alternative.” illam suggests that the response to the logical fallacy is well-known.

sed si vota suscepta fuerint: a strong adversative, “but only if”; fuerint is future perfect.

[2.38.1] Objection: the prayer itself is fated, and so has no changing effect.

necesse est: often can take the subjunctive (comprensum sit) without ut in a result clause (AG 569).

ut … suscipias: substantive clause (AG 561).

me tibi manus dare: indirect speech after puta with me the subject accusative (AG 580). manus dare = “to give the hands to be bound,” i.e., to surrender, here used metaphorically of yielding a point in an argument.

utique: “surely,” “no matter what”

ideo: “for this reason,” because they are fated.

fient: future tenses of the verbs in this and the following section make fate seem inevitable and necessary.

[2.38.2] Some fated events occur only with the aid of human action.

disertus: “well-spoken,” “eloquent”

sed si: “but (only) if”

litteras didicerit: “has gotten a liberal education” (LS littera II.B.9), the main goal of which was eloquence.

in illo fati ordine quo: Seneca varies the presentation to avoid repeating the same structure as in the first example (i.e. he does not simply repeat eodem fato…). For this man to become wealthy, there is a longer series of events (fati ordine).

patrimonium: “estate,” “fortune,” not an inherited patrimony in this case since it is to be acquired by overseas trade (naviget ... navigabit). In the preface to this work, Seneca writes about the need to dismiss anxieties about such a patrimonium (NQ 3.pr.2). It is possible that this intratextual echo would help the reader see how such possessions are likewise granted by fate (and thus to diminish one’s anxieties about such holdings).

adfatum est: Although Hine believes adfatum is incorrect because the sense should be confatum (Hine 1981: ad loc.), the idea is simply "it is also decreed" (as Corcoran translates).

ut et naviget:  et = etiam (LS et II.H)

praedictas divinitus minas: divinitus is an adverb to be taken closely with the perfect passive participle.

hoc … ut expiet: the hoc is anticipatory of the ut clause.

[2.38.3] Objection: this fatalism leaves no space for human will.

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Stoics believed that free will was possible, even if fate ultimately holds the final say. Seneca claims he will write about this more extensively in a later account, which probably is the (lost) Libri moralis philosophiae that he was working on from 64 until his death. For more on the question of free will and autonomy see Setaioli 2014: “The belief in both freedom of will and the meaning of goal-directed activity are necessary assumptions for Seneca in order to carry out his mission as a self-appointed spiritual director aiming at the moral improvement of his addressees as well as his own self” (296); “Freedom results from accepting all of fate as god’s will as our own; we should bravely and freely offer ourselves to fortune as we do to fate” (298).

ista: the arguments given in 2.38.2.

nobis: the Stoics.

ut probetur: purpose clause (AG 563).

voluntati nostrae: dative indirect object (AG 362).

omne ius faciendi <fato> traditum: the text is uncertain, but it should contain the idea that humans have little ability to change fate. Faciendi is the genitive of the gerund after omne ius (AG 504). Seneca wrote of the fate’s own ius at 2.35.2 and the laws of nature at 3.pr.16, and 3.16.4.

cum … agetur: cum + future indicative (AG 547) in a future temporal clause. Seneca does not speak about free will elsewhere in NQ.

quemadmodum … sit: indirect question (AG 574).

manente fato: ablative absolute (AG 419).

explicui: while this verb can mean simply “to explain,” its core meaning is “to unroll” and often fate is thought of as a papyrus scroll, see Verg. Aeneid 1.22, 1.261–2.

quomodo … avertant: this indirect question was the subject being discussed (id de quo agitur).

procurationesque prodigiorum pericula: prodigies or prodigia are eerie or unnatural occurrences (lightning, earthquake, the birth of a hermaphodite, a rain of milk, a swarm of bees settlng in the Forum—all attested examples) that indicate the wrath of the gods against the res publica and foretell future misfortunes. The danger ideally can be averted by some expiatory sacrifice or other ritual (procuratio). As events with public significance, prodigies were often recorded by pontifices in the archives of the Senate, and the Romans developed an extensive prodigy classification system, which included the proper procuratio to mitigate the future danger. Livy often writes of prodigies being expiated (e.g. 33.26.9: haec prodigia maioribus hostiis sunt procurata) and, in a famous passage, remarks on the decline of prodigy reporting (43.13.1–2). See Julius Obsequens, On Prodigies [late 4th or early 5th c. CE], and Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, s.v. prodigium.

quia: introduces a causal clause with the indicative (AG 540).

ipsae: the expationes and procurationes. Some manuscripts read ipsa, which would be the dangers (pericula), but Hine 1981 explains, “[Seneca’s] message is that expiation is within the control of fate; besides which pericula which are averted do not really exist, so cannot strictly be under fate’s law” (ad loc.).

lege fati: one might expect the “law of fate” to be a common expression, but in this form it only appears in Vergil’s Aeneid 12.819, where Juno and Jupiter discuss what is fated to happen in Italy after the battle between Aeneas and Turnus.

[2.38.4] Objection: if we’re fated to perform the expiations, what is the need for a haruspex?

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The haruspices (or aruspices) were originally free-lance priests from Etruria. They practiced divination by examining the entrails of animals, especially the liver, and, most relevant here, they propitiated the anger of the gods as indicated by lightning or other prodigies, interpreting their significance according to Etruscan formulae. They were generally held in high regard, and by Seneca’s day they had a formal guild (collegium) in Rome. Note that Seneca defends their legitimacy here, comparing them to doctors. For more on divination in the Republic, see Santangelo 2013.

expiare mihi … necesse est: necesse est can take the dative (mihi) and a complementary infinitive (AG 457), but elsewhere Seneca uses this construction with a subjunctive in a substantive clause of result (AG 569).

etiam non suadente illo: ablative absolute (AG 420); illo is the haruspex, who would offer recommendations (suadente) regarding an expiatory sacrifice.

hoc … quod: hoc is anticipatory and looks forward to quod.

sic: “in the same way.”

cum sanitas debeatur fato: concessive cum-clause (AG 544).

debetur et: et here is “also, in addition.”

quia … venit: causal clause with the indicative (AG 540).

per huius manus: per + accusative for means/agency; manus is accusative plural.

actiō actiōnis f.: action, activity, deed

sacrificium sacrifici(ī) n.: sacrifice, offering to a god

niveus –a –um: white, snow-white

agna agnae f.: lamb

exōrō exōrāre exōrāvī exōrātus: plead, entreat, win over by entreaty

dīvīnus –a –um: divine

dīvīnitās –tātis f.: divinity, nature of god, divination

procūrō procūrāre procūrāvī procūrātus: manage, administer, attend to 2.37.1

fulmen fulminis n.: a lightning flash, thunderbolt

expiātiō –ōnis f.: atonement, expiation, purification

aliquando: sometime, at some time

summoveō –ēre –mōvī –mōtus: remove, expel, ward off

levō levāre levāvī levātus: lighten, lessen, relieve

persequor persequī persecūtus sum: to follow persistently, chase after, prosecute 2.37.2

commūne –is n.: that which is in common; community, state

prōficiō prōficere prōfēcī prōfectum: make, accomplish, do good

salvus –a –um: safe, intact

immortālis immortālis immortāle: immortal

suspendō suspendere suspendī suspēnsum: to hang

admoveō admovēre admōvī admōtus: bring to, apply, approach, add

etiamsī: even if, although

interrogātiō –ōnis f.: inquiry, questioning 2.37.3

exceptiō –ōnis f. : exception, qualification

praetereō praeterīre praeterīvī/praeteriī praeteritus: to pass by, to escape, be unnoticed by (impersonal)

comprehendō (comprendō) comprehendere comprehendī comprehensus: bind together, detect, capture, comprehend 2.38.1

utīque: certainly, by all means, at any rate

disertus -a -um: eloquent, learned 2.38.2

nāvigō nāvigāre nāvigāvī nāvigātus: sail, put to sea

patrimōnium patrimōni(ī) n.: inheritance, paternal estate

grandis grandis grande: full–grown; large

adfor (affor) adfārī adfātus sum: to speak to; address

nāvigō nāvigāre nāvigāvī nāvigātus: sail, put to sea

expiātiō –ōnis f.: atonement, expiation, purification

effugiō effugere effūgī: flee from, escape the notice of, escape

expiō –āre –āvī –ātus: purify, avert, avenge

praedīcō praedīcere praedīxī praedictus: to say beforehand; foretell

dīvīnitus: from heaven, providentially, prophetically

mina –ae f.: threat

expiō –āre –āvī –ātus: purify, avert, avenge

oppōnō oppōnere opposuī oppositum: to place opposite, oppose 2.38.3

iūs iūris n.: law, right, justice

arbitrium arbitrī(ī) n.: power, control, independent judgment

explicō explicāre explicāvī/explicuī explicātus/explicitus: unroll, explain, display

expiātiō –ōnis f.: atonement, expiation, purification

prōcūrātiō –ōnis f.: expiation of (+gen.), management of, charge over

prōdigium –iī n.: prodigy, portent

āvertō avertere avertī aversus: turn away, divert

(h)aruspex –icis m.: soothsayer, reader of omens 2.38.4

utīque: certainly, by all means, at any rate

expiō –āre –āvī –ātus: purify, avert, avenge

suādeō suādēre suāsī suāsus: urge, persuade, recommend

minister –tra –trum: subordinate

sānitās –ātis f.: sound health, healthiness

medicus medicī m.: doctor

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