Selection 7 (6.3.1-6.5.3)

[6.3.1] Illud quoque prōderit praesūmere animō, nihil hōrum deōs facere, nec īrā nūminum aut caelum concutī aut terram; suās ista causās habent nec ex imperiō saeviunt, sed quibusdam vitiīs, ut corpora nostra, turbantur et tunc, cum facere videntur, iniūriam accipiunt. [6.3.2] nōbīs autem ignōrantibus vērum omnia terribiliōra sunt, utique quōrum metum rāritās auget; levius accidunt familiāria; ex īnsolitō formīdō maior est. quārē autem quicquam nōbīs īnsolitum est? quia nātūram oculīs, nōn ratiōne, comprehendimus, nec cōgitāmus quid illa facere possit, sed tantum quid fēcerit. damus itaque huius neglegentiae poenās tamquam novīs territī, cum illa nōn sint nova sed īnsolita. [6.3.3] quid ergō? nōn religiōnem incutit mentibus, et quidem pūblicē, sīve dēficere sōl vīsus est, sīve lūna, cuius obscūrātiō frequentior, aut parte suī aut tōta dēlituit? longēque magis illa, actae in trānsversum facēs et caelī magna pars ārdēns et crīnīta sīdera et plūrēs sōlis orbēs et stēllae per diem vīsae subitīque trānscursūs ignium multam post sē lūcem trahentium? [6.3.4] nihil hōrum sine timōre mīrāmur. et cum timendī sit causa nescīre, nōn est tantī scīre, nē timeās? quantō satius est causās inquīrere, et quidem tōtō in hoc intentum animō! neque enim illō quicquam invenīrī dignius potest cui sē nōn tantum commodet, sed impendat.

[6.4.1] Quaerāmus ergō quid sit quod terram ab īnfimō moveat, quod tantī mōlem ponderis pellat, quid sit illā valentius quod tantum onus vī suā labefactet; cūr modo tremat, modo laxāta subsīdat, nunc in partēs dīvīsa discēdat, et aliās intervāllum ruīnae suae diū servet, aliās citō comprimat; nunc amnēs magnitūdinis nōtae convertat intrōrsum, nunc novōs exprimat; aperiat aliquandō aquārum calentium vēnās, aliquandō refrīgeret, ignēsque nōnnumquam per aliquod ignōtum anteā montis aut rūpis forāmen ēmittat, aliquandō nōtōs et per saecula nōbilēs supprimat. mīlle mīrācula movet faciemque mūtat locīs et dēfert montēs, subrigit plāna, vallēs extūberat, novās in profundō īnsulās ērigit. haec ex quibus causīs accidant, digna rēs excutī. [6.4.2] ‘Quod’ inquis ‘erit pretium operae?’ quō nūllum maius est, nōsse nātūram. neque enim quicquam habet in sē huius māteriae tractātiō pulchrius, cum multa habeat futūra ūsuī, quam quod hominem magnificentiā suī dētinet, nec mercēde sed mīrāculō colitur. īnspiciāmus ergō quid sit propter quod haec accidant: quōrum mihi adeō est dulcis īnspectiō ut, quamvīs aliquandō dē mōtū terrārum volūmen iuvenis ēdiderim, tamen temptāre mē voluerim et experīrī <an> aetās aliquid nōbīs aut ad scientiam aut certē ad dīligentiam adiēcerit.

[6.5.1] Causam quā terra concutitur aliī in aquā esse, aliī in ignibus, aliī in ipsā terrā, aliī in spīritū putāvērunt, aliī in plūribus, aliī in omnibus hīs. quīdam līquēre ipsīs aliquam ex istīs causam esse dīxērunt, sed nōn liquēre quae esset. [6.5.2] nunc singula persequar. illud ante omnia mihi dīcendum est, opīniōnēs veterēs parum exāctās esse et rudēs: circā vērum adhūc errābātur, nova omnia erant prīmō temptantibus, posteā eadem illa līmāta sunt, et sī quid inventum est, illīs nihilōminus referrī dēbet acceptum. magnī animī rēs fuit rērum nātūrae latebrās dimovēre, nec contentum exteriōre eius aspectū intrōspicere et in deōrum sēcrēta dēscendere. plūrimum ad inveniendum contulit quī spērāvit posse reperīrī: [6.5.3] cum excūsātiōne itaque veterēs audiendī sunt. nūlla rēs cōnsummāta est dum incipit; nec in hāc tantum rē omnium maximā atque involūtissimā (in quā, etiam cum multum āctī erit, omnis tamen aetās quod agat inveniet), sed et in omnī aliō negōtiō longē semper ā perfectō fuēre prīncipia.

Selection 7 (6.3.1–6.5.3): Earthquakes and the quest for knowledge. 

Book 6 of Natural Questions discusses the causes of earthquakes and the theories of previous thinkers (see also Selection 8). One of the primary themes of this book and the treatise as a whole is that the very quest for knowledge of the natural world will make us better ethically and help us face traumatic experiences; Seneca elucidates that idea in this selection. Book 6 responds in a direct way to an earthquake that struck the Pompeii area in 62 or 63 CE. This was a severe earthquake and there are signs that much of Pompeii was still recovering when Vesuvius erupted in 79. The famous earthquake relief in the house of Caecilius Iucundus in Pompeii shows landmarks in the city swaying and tottering.

Further Reading: Tutrone 2017 and Shearin 2019 show how Book 6 responds to Lucretius in its conception of the sublime.

[6.3.1]: An earthquake does not occur because the gods are angry or because Jupiter orders it.

illud: “the following (thought),” accusative object of praesumere

proderit: “it will help,” “it will be beneficial” > prosum prodesse profui

praesumere animo: “to anticipate in one’s mind,” “to keep in mind” (introducing indirect statement)

ira numinum: irā is ablative of means (AG 409).

aut caelum concuti aut terram: aut … aut = “either… or”; the “shaking” of the sky would traditionally be associated with Jupiter, while earthquakes were Neptune’s prerogative. concuti is a present passive infinitive.

suas ista causas habent: ista refers back to the earth and sky being shaken.

ex imperio: “on command”

ut corpora nostra: “just as our bodies.” Seneca employs the world/body analogy, as in Book 3 (see Selection 2).

cum facere videntur: supply iniuriam from what follows. facere is emphatic.

[6.3.2]: If we do not understand the causes of natural phenomena, we fear them more, especially when they are uncommon.

At the opening of Book 6 Seneca had written about the traumatic fear that gripped the residents of Pompeii during the earthquake of 62/3 CE: “Solace for these fearful people must be found, and their great dread must be eliminated” (quaerenda sunt trepidis solacia et demendus ingens timor, 6.1.4).

ignorantibus verum: ignorantibus agrees with nobis, which is dative of person judging (AG 378): “in our ignorance of the truth,” or “because we do not know the truth.”

terribiliora: comparative adjective agreeing with omnia.

utique quorum metum raritas auget: “especially (those things) whose rarity increases (our) fear,” such as earthquakes. The antecedent of quorum is omitted, which is common when the antecedent is indefinite  (AG 307.c).

accidunt: “impinge upon,” “affect” us (OLD accido 4.b)

levius: “with less force,” “more lightly,” comparative adverb > levis (AG 218)

familiaria: substantive use of the adjective

ex insolito: “from (something) unusual”

oculis non ratione: this states a major point of the NQ and is very much in line with Stoic epistemological ideas; reason (ratio) is the key, and our senses can be faulty. Ratio is what sets man apart from the animals and is equivalent to the divine inside humankind (see NQ 1.pr.1 and 1.pr.14 where god is totus … ratio). It is also a cure against fear: “reason dispels fear from the wise” (ratio terrorem prudentibus excutit, NQ 6.2.1).

quid … possit … quid fecerit: indirect questions, with different tenses in accordance with the sequence of tenses (AG 575).

huius neglegentiae: objective genitive (AG 348)

damus … poenas: “we pay the penalty”

tamquam novis territi: territi modifies the subject “we” (nominative plural) with novis ablative of means (AG 408). tamquam = “as if,” modifying novis.

cum … sint: concessive cum clause (AG 549). Seneca aims to point out the difference between what is really novel (nova) and what is merely unusual (insolita).

[6.3.3]: Eclipses and comets are particularly frightening.

Seneca details a number of these celestial fires in more detail in NQ 1.14.1–15.8 and NQ 7, which is devoted to comets.

quid ergo?: this sort of rhetorical question engages the reader.

non religionem incutit mentibus: “does it not fill people’s minds with religious awe?” (LS religio II.A). The subject is the solar or lunar eclipse, which instills superstitious awe in the minds of men.

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The ability to foretell an eclipse was one of the major discoveries of Thales’ investigations into the world, and eclipses were often subject of scientific investigation (and had religious significance). It is possible that the Antikythera device could predict solar and lunar eclipses utilizing the Saros Cycle.

publice: (adv.) “on a community-wide scale”

aut parte sui aut tota: whether the moon suffers a partial or total eclipse. Total lunar eclipses are more common than total solar eclipses.

longeque magis illa: “the following are much more common.” illa is anticipatory of the list of lights in the sky (faces, crinita sidera ...).

actae … faces: for more on these “torches” and their oblique paths (in transversum) in the night sky, see NQ 1.1.5-12 and 7.5.1–6.3.

caeli magna pars ardens: at NQ 1.15.5 Seneca tells the story of this phenomenon and how it caused the emperor Tiberius to send troops to Ostia, because he thought it was on fire.

plures solis orbes: the parhelia described at NQ 1.13.1–3 (see Selection 11).

per diem: “during the day.” The comet of 44 BCE (Caesar’s comet) was so bright that it was visible during the day (NQ 7.17.2). For more on comets, see Barrett 1978.

subitique transcursus ignium … trahentium: subiti modifies transcursus (which is nominative plural). trahentium modifies ignium and has multam lucem as its direct object. This description covers many different falling stars and meteorites.

[6.3.4]: The cause of fear is ignorance. How much better it is to investigate these phenomena and try to make sense of them!

Seneca says at a number of places in the NQ that the soul itself enjoys and seeks out this sort of work (cf. NQ 1.pr.5, 1.pr.12, 3.pr.18).

cum timendi sit causa nescire: nescire is a predicate nominative (AG 284). Remember the infinitive can be used as a noun (AG 452). sit is subjunctive in a cum causal clause (AG 549). timendi is the genitive of the gerund (AG 504) with causa.

tanti: “of great value”; tanti est ne here must introduce a negative purpose clause (AG 538), although it usually introduces a result clause (AG 568).

quanto satius: “how much better it is… !”; quanto is an ablative of degree of difference (AG 414).

intentum: supply esse to make it parallel inquirere.

toto … animo: ablative of means (AG 409). Seneca will repeat this collocation at NQ 7.31.3: id quod unum toto agimus animo.

illo … dignius: “more worthy than that (topic)… ”; this is then further modified by the relative clause of characteristic introduced by cui (AG 535).

se non tantum commodet sed impendat: “(the mind) not only lends itself (in occasional contemplation) but spends itself (in sustained study).” Seneca encourages contemplation of topics that are difficult and can be a subject of fascination, whether one is spending a small amount of time studying it (commodet) or one’s whole life (impendat). In his Consolatio ad Marciam, Seneca believes the afterlife of the blessed is spent in such study of cosmological phenomena, see ad Marc. 26.2-7.

[6.4.1]: We need to look into this strong force, which produces thousands of miraculous effects.

quid sit quod: “what it is that…,” indirect question after quaeramus.

illa valentius: illā is ablative of comparison (AG 406); its antecedent is terra.

modo ... modo: “sometimes ... at other times”; supply terra as the subject. The indirect questions continue.

alias ... alias: “sometimes ... at other times” (LS alio C.1.b). terra continues to be the subject. The indirect questions continue.

convertat ... exprimat: terra continues to be the subject. The indirect questions continue.

intervallum ruinae suae: “a gap caused by its collapse.” This crevice sometimes is preserved; at other times it quickly closes up again.

convertat introrsum: “causes to turn backwards within (itself).” Rivers sometimes change course or disappear because of seismic activity. An earthquake in Missouri caused the Mississippi River to run backwards in 1812.

notos ... per saecula nobiles: the area familiar to Seneca around the Bay of Naples and Phlegrean Fields was rife with geothermal activity. The multiple tremors in the area would sometimes create steam vents and fumeroles. See Kroonenberg 2013 for more on the geology of this region.

mille miracula movet: note the alliteration of 'm' sounds.

haec ex quibus causis accidant: take haec as subject of accidant and the clause as an indirect question (translate ex quibus causis first).

digna res: supply est and take excuti, “to be scrutinized,” as the predicate. Seneca is having some fun using excuti, since its core meaning, “to be shaken,” would be appropriate for an earthquake.

[6.4.2] The pursuit of this study is deeply rewarding. I discussed it in a youthful work but will see if I can do better now.

Seneca’s earlier treatise on earthquakes is lost.

pretium operae: "the reward for the trouble," "the payoff," a common idiom (LS pretium III.B.1)

quo: “(a reward) than which,” abl. of comparison after maius

nullum: “no (reward)”

nosse naturam: “(namely) knowledge of nature.” nosse = novisse, perf. infin. > nosco. In many ways this knowledge is the purpose of the NQ as a whole and is analogous to the knowledge of god that such study promises: “from this vantage point [the mind] begins to understand god” (illic incipit deum nosse, 1.pr. 13).

neque ... quicquam habet ... pulchrius ... quam quod: this study “does not have anything more beautiful ... than the fact that ... ” There is beauty in truth and in the effort to appreciate nature. One thinks of Keat’s Ode on a Grecian Urn: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

tractatio: “consideration,” “discussion,” subject of habet and the following verbs. The Stoics engaged in a rhetorical exercise called retractatio, in which the author makes a new work from an older one. In essence, this is what Seneca is doing with a revisionary treatment of his own earlier work on earthquakes.

cum ... habeat: concessive cum clause (AG 549)

multa ... futura usui: “many future benefits.” usui is dative of purpose, common with this word (AG 382).

hominem: “a person” who studies nature intensively

magnificentia sui detinet: “engages with its own magnificence”

colitur: “is cultivated,” "receives devotion" (LS colo II.A.4)

quid sit propter quod: “why”

haec: earthquakes and similar phenomena

adeo est dulcis inspectio: introduces a result clause (AG 537), with the perf. subj. verb voluerim below. Seneca also writes of the rewards of such an investigation (inspectio) of the universe at Ep. 65.19–23.

quamvis ... ediderim: quamvis with a subjunctive in a concessive clause (AG 527)

aliquando: “once,” a long time ago (LS aliquando I.D), modifying ediderim, but placed early in the clause for emphasis

iuvenis: nominative, “as a young man… ”

tamen: “nevertheless,” answering quamvis

temptare me: “to put myself to the test” (LS tento II.A.α)

experiri <an>: “to find out whether,” introducing an indirect question. an is in brackets because it is an editorial supplement.

[6.5.1] The various theories about the causes of earthquakes lie in the four elements individually, or some combination of them.

alii ... alii: “some... others,” with putaverunt introducing indirect speech.

liquere: impersonal, “it is clear,” with the main verb, dixerunt: “Some people have said it is clear that some one of these is their cause.”

quae esset: “which (cause) it was,” indirect question (AG 574)

[6.5.2] The opinions advanced by older writers on this subject were crude, but that is quite understandable. These innovators were bold thinkers and deserve credit for later discoveries.

illud: anticipatory, “the following thing… ”

mihi dicendum est: passive periphrastic with the dative of agent (AG 374)

exactas: “precise” > exigo

circa verum ... errabatur: their “wandering” around the truth helps to explain their “errors”; Seneca is again having fun with his language, which helps to reinforce the analogy between mental investigation and physical movement.

nova: predicate, placed first for emphasis

primo temptantibus: “for those making the first attempts (to understand such subjects).” This parallels Seneca’s own youthful attempts to write about earthquakes that he explained above (6.4.2) and, possibly, the way he is testing himself (temptare me) in this book.

limata: “polished,” “accurate” > limo

si quid inventum est: si quid = si aliquid.

illis nihilominus referri debet acceptum: “it should nonetheless be referred to them as something received,” i.e. “we should nonetheless give them credit,” since no progress would have been possible without them. The language is financial. acceptum -ī n. is the receipt side in an account ledger. acceptum referre = “to acknowledge receipt” of an item from a person (+ dat.).

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Even if later thinkers make novel discoveries, they should still acknowledge what they received from their sources. This penchant for attribution helps to explain many of the details of Seneca’s doxographical methodology. He often will name early Presocratic thinkers and others from various schools. Seneca does not claim to know all this because of his own innate genius or hide his sources. As Hine states, “he shows no favoritism to his own Stoic school” (2010b: 9).

magni animi res: "a thing (characteristic) of a great spirit," genitive of quality (AG 345). This collocation recalls the call-to-action in the opening of this book: “let us assume a great spirit against that misfortune” (magnum sumamus animum adversus istam cladem, 6.1.10).

nec contentum: "and, not (being) content with..." + abl. contentum is best understood as the accusative subject of the infinitives introspicere and descendere, which in turn act collectively as subject of fuit (AG 542.1).

in deorum secreta descendere: whereas the mind now descends into the “secrets of the gods,” elsewhere (especially the preface of Book 1), the mind has to ascend into the heavens to enter the secretiora [naturae] (NQ 1.pr.3). Here, in part because of the subject of the book, it must move below to understand nature (a.k.a. god).

plurimum ad inveniendum contulit: “contributed the most to discovery” (LS confero B.b.α). inveniendum is the gerund.

qui speravit posse reperiri: “(the person) who hoped that (the truth) could be found,” i.e., the pioneers in scientific investigation.

 [6.5.3] No investigation is exhausted at its beginning. It takes time for theories to be proven and for additional information to be gathered, tested, and understood.

excusatione: “leniency,” “forbearance.”

nec tantum ... sed et: “not only ... but also”

maxima atque involutissima: “most important and complicated.” In a similar sentiment, Seneca approves of the words of Demetrius the Cynic, “Truth is concealed, hidden in the depths.” (involuta veritas in alto latet, De Beneficiis 7.1.5).

etiam cum: “even when” + future indicative (erit)

multum acti erit: “much will have been done.” acti is partitive genitive (AG 346), common after multum.

quod agat: “(something) which it might do,” “more to do” (relative clause of characteristic, AG 534)

in omni alio negotio: “in every other pursuit.” It takes a long time to reach a perfected understanding of nature, as is true with other subjects as well.

fuere: syncopated 3rd plural perfect with principia the nominative plural subject.

praesūmō –ere –sūmpsī –sūmptus: to consume, perform, presume, presuppose. 

concutiō –cutere –cussī –cussus: convulse, shake, shatter

saeviō saevīre saeviī saevitum: to rage, rave, act violent 

iniūrōsus –a –um: doing wrong, wrongful, unfair, harmful

īgnōrō īgnōrāre īgnōrāvī īgnōrātus: be unfamiliar with, be ignorant of 6.3.2

vērum –ī n.: that which is true; truth

terribilis terribile: frightful, terrible, terrifying. 

utīque: certainly, by all means, at any rate

rāritās –ātis f.: rarity. 

accidō accidere: happen occur; affect

familiāris familiāre: domestic, intimate

īnsolitus –a –um: unusual, unaccustomed

formīdō formīdinis f.: fear, terror, alarm

īnsolitus –a –um: unusual, unaccustomed

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

neglegentia –ae f.: heedlessness, neglect, negligence

īnsolitus –a –um: unusual, unaccustomed

religiō religiōnis f.: reverence, awe, respect. 6.3.3

incutiō –ere –cussī –cussus: to strike, instill. 

obscūrātiō –ōnis f.: darkening, obscuring, eclipse

dēlitēscō –ere dēlituī: to conceal oneself, lie hidden, lurk

trānsversus –a –um: lying across, flanking, oblique 

crīnītus –a –um: hairy, long haired. 

subitus –a –um: sudden, rash, unexpected. 

trānscursus –ūs m.: rapid movement across a space

quantō: by how much, by as much as, according as 6.3.4

inquīrō inquīrere inquīsīvī inquīsītum : to examine, investigate, scrutinize. 

intentus –a –um: earnestly attentive

commodō commodāre commodāvī commodātus: to lend, hire, give, bestow

impendō –pendere –pendī –pēnsum: to spend, expend, devote

īnfimum -i n.: lowest part or region (superlative > inferus -a -um below, lower) 6.4.1

mōlēs mōlis f.: mass, structure, weight

valēns –entis: strong, powerful, potent

labefactō labefactāre labefactāvī labefactātus: to shake, loosen, make unsteady

tremō tremere tremuī: to tremble

laxō laxāre laxāvī laxātus: relax, widen, undo

subsīdō –ere –sēdī –sessus: to sink, subside, settle

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

aliās ... aliās: sometimes ... at other times

intervāllum –ī n.: interval, space, gap, opening, break, pause

ruīna ruīnae f.: collapse

cito citius (comp.) citissime (superl.): quickly

comprimō comprimere compressī compressum: to press together, check, curb

intrōrsum or intrōrsus: inwardly, within

exprimō exprimere expressī expressum: to press, express

aliquā: in any direction

caleō –ēre –uī: to be warm; to glow

vēna vēnae f.: vein, channel

aliquā: in any direction

re–frīgerō –āre: to make cool (again)

nōnnumquam: sometimes

īgnōtus –a –um: unknown

anteā: before, formerly

rūpēs –is f.: rock

forāmen –inis n.: hole, opening, pore

ēmittō ēmittere ēmīsī ēmīssus: let go, send out, cast, expel

aliquā: in any direction

supprimō –primere –pressī –pressum: to hold back, check

mīrāculum –ī n.: wonder, marvel, amazement

plānus –ī m.: level ground, a plain

vallēs vallis f.: valley

extūberō –āre : to swell out, raise

profundus –a –um: deep

ērigō ērigere ērēxī ērēctus: to raise, rise, set up, excite, encourage

accīdō accīdere accīdī accīsus: to cut into

excutiō excutere excussī excussum: to shake out, to examine, to investigate

quō: (expresses degree of difference) 6.4.2

maior māius: bigger

tractātiō –ōnis f. : handling, discussion, treatment

futūrus –a –um: about to be; future

magnificentia –ae f.: grandeur

dētineō –ēre –uī –tentus: to hold up, keep occupied

mercēs mercēdis f.: pay, reward, recompense, payment, price

mīrāculum –ī n.: wonder, marvel, amazement

īnspiciō –ere –spexī –spectus: to look into or overlook

accīdō accīdere accīdī accīsus: to cut into

īnspectiō –ōnis f.: an inspection; consideration

aliquā: in any direction

mōtus mōtūs m.: movement, earthquake (esp with terrae), motion

volūmen volūminis n.: book, roll

tentō tentāre tentāvī tentātus: to try

dīligentia dīligentiae f.: diligence, care, frugality

adiciō adicere adiēcī adiectus: to add, increase, to add to 

concutiō –cutere –cussī –cussus: convulse, shake, shatter 6.5.1

liqueō liquēre, liquī: to be clear, manifest, evident

persequor persequī persecūtus sum: to follow persistently, chase after, prosecute 6.5.2

opīniō opīniōnis f.: opinion, conjecture, hypothesis

rudis –e: uncultivated

vērum –ī n.: that which is true; truth

prīmō (prīmīs): at first

tentō tentāre tentāvī tentātus: to try

līmō –āre –āvī –ātus: to file, polish, refine

nihilōminus or nihilō minus: nevertheless

latebra –ae f.: hiding-place, retreat

dīmoveō –ēre –mōvī –mōtus: to remove, expel

contentus -a -um: satisfied, content

exter extera exterum: outward, foreign

aspectus aspectūs m.: sight, look, appearance

introspiciō introspicere introspexī introspectum : look into; examine mentally

sēcrētum –ī n.: hidden, secret

excūsātiō excūsātiōnis f.: leniency, forbearance 6.5.3

māximus –a –um: greatest; maxime: most, especially, very much

involūtus –a –um: concealed, complicated

perficiō perficere perfēcī perfectus: to accomplish, perfect

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