The Cosmic Viewpoint: A Study of Seneca's Natural Questions

The Cosmic Viewpoint: A Study of Seneca's Natural Questions

The Cosmic Viewpoint: A Study of Seneca's Natural Questions

The Cosmic Viewpoint: A Study of Seneca's Natural Questions

Synopsis

Seneca's Natural Questions is an eight-book disquisition on the nature of meteorological phenomena, ranging inter alia from rainbows to earthquakes, from comets to the winds, from the causes of snow and hail to the reasons why the Nile floods in summer. Much of this material had been treated in the earlier Greco-Roman meteorological tradition, but what notoriously sets Seneca's writing apart is his insertion of extended moralizing sections within his technical discourse. How, if at all, are these outbursts against the luxury and vice that are apparently rampant in Seneca's first-century CE Rome to be reconciled with his main meteorological agenda? In grappling with this familiar question,The Cosmic Viewpointargues that Seneca is no blinkered or arid meteorological investigator, but a creative explorer into nature's workings who offers a highly idiosyncratic blend of physico-moral investigation across his eight books. At one level, his inquiry into nature impinges on human conduct and morality in its implicit propagation of the familiar Stoic ideal of living in accordance with nature: the moral deviants whom Seneca condemns in the course of the work offer egregious examples of living contrary to nature's balanced way. At a deeper level, however,The Cosmic Viewpointstresses the literary qualities and complexities that are essential to Seneca's literary art of science: his technical enquiries initiate a form of engagement with nature which distances the reader from the ordinary involvements and fragmentations of everyday life, instead centering our existence in the cosmic whole. From a figurative standpoint, Seneca's meteorological theme raises our gaze from a terrestrial level of existence to a more intuitive plane where literal vision gives way to 'higher' conjecture and intuition: in striving to understand meteorological phenomena, we progress in an elevating direction - a conceptual climb that renders the Natural Questions no mere store of technical learning, but a work that actively promotes a change of perspective in its readership.

Excerpt

This study aims to contribute to the modern reassessment of Seneca’s Natural Questions as a meteorological work of considerable literary sophistication and importance—a highly original production in comparison with what survives of the larger Greco-Roman meteorological tradition. Initial studies of different aspects of the work (Williams [2005a], [2005b], [2006a], [2007], [2008a] and [2008b]) were not systematically planned as coordinated pieces. This study supplants those writings by attempting to take stock of the Natural Questions as a whole; although I have drawn extensively in this volume on my previous articles, they have undergone very significant modification, correction, revision, rearrangement and refashioning into the sequence of chapters that is presented here, and much new material has been added.

For permission to draw on previously published material I am grateful to Ramus, the Cambridge Classical Journal, the American Journal of Philology and the Journal of Roman Studies. Material from Williams (2008b) ©The Classical Association, published by the Cambridge University Press, is reproduced with permission, as is material from Williams (2005a) ©2005 The University of Chicago. I thank Claudia Heilbrunn, James Uden, Katharina Volk and James Zetzel for much practical help and advice; John Henderson for illumination on many points when the manuscript was taking final shape; Margaret Graver and Harry Hine for valuable criticism and guidance as readers for Oxford University Press; Thomas Finnegan for his excellent copy-editing, and Saladi Gunabala and Natalie Johnson for managing the production process so well; and Stefan Vranka for both his general encouragement of the project and his expertise in seeing it through the press. I am also grateful to Columbia’s Stanwood Cockey Lodge Fund for a subvention toward the costs of production. All citations of the text of the Natural Questions follow Hine (1996a) unless otherwise stated; translations are my own.

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