- The Cosmic Viewpoint: A Study of Seneca’s by Gareth D. Williams
Seneca’s Natural Questions is a rather enigmatic work. On the surface, it is an attempt to explain the (often frightening) meteorological and terrestrial phenomena that occur in everyday human experience. At the same time, however, there are several moralizing interludes criticizing human behavior that seem loosely related to its central purpose. This tension between what might be called the technical aspects of the work and its moralizing episodes has been generally regarded as jarring and reflective of Seneca’s shifting between a (careless and un-critical) reliance on the doxographical tradition on the one hand, and his desire to preach on the other. Williams’ new book offers a fresh—and in my view persuasive—reading of the Natural Questions, arguing for an “integrating position” (54) that views the technical and ethical parts of the book as working in tandem to change our perspective from the narrow confines of our lives to the cosmic viewpoint that gives the book its title. There is much for students of Seneca and of ancient science to learn in this erudite and thought-provoking book.
In Williams’ view, Seneca’s Natural Questions is less about the imparting of specialized knowledge about natural phenomena than it is about inviting us to [End Page 577] engage with nature in the first place. In other words, it is not so much the result of one’s engagement with meteorological phenomena that is important, but the cognitive process itself, the “jolt” that unsettles “settled attitudes” (339) and shakes the viewer from contemplation of terrena to sublimia (and, by extension, to caelestia). This change of scholarly focus from the facts to the process marks a departure from previous scholarship on the Natural Questions, which has seen the work mainly as a source for lost Greek writings on these subjects. Williams rightly stresses, however, Seneca’s artistic control over his sources, which he, borrowing from Harry Hine’s masterful “Rome, the Cosmos, and the Emperor in Seneca’s Natural Questions” (JRS 96  42–72), terms a “virtual academy,” a collection of authorities from across time and cultures that serve as models for thinking. The multiple explanations of meteorological phenomena that Seneca advances are aimed not to convince us, but rather to inspire us to look at the world from a different perspective.
It is precisely in the area of Seneca’s artistry and literary sophistication that Williams makes his most important contribution. His claim that the moralizing interludes are not only relevant, but even central to the overall message of the work is provocative and, to my mind, entirely correct, not least because the ethical component is never far beneath the surface of Seneca’s works. Williams argues forcefully that the vitiosi criticized in these interludes form “a counter-culture that weighs the work down even as Seneca strives to raise us to cosmic consciousness” (55). By including these vile examples of terrestria, Seneca asserts the virtue of looking upwards at sublimia and caelestia, as well as the importance of doing so continually, since the coetus vitiorum always threatens to pull one’s gaze back down. The resulting “highly dramatized mode of discourse” (4) ensures that readers are active, not passive, participants in the investigation of nature, and are themselves invited to take part as members of the inquiring community mentioned above.
Most chapters are adaptations of previously published material (only the introductory chapters and that on Natural Questions 2 are new), but have been thoroughly revised. Each chapter tackles a single book in order, and Williams does an equally good job of analyzing the doxographical content as he does of illuminating Seneca’s literary and rhetorical aims. One point of controversy, however: Williams adopts the reordering of the books proposed independently by C. Codoñer Merino and Hine (3, 4a, 4b, 5, 6, 7, 1, 2), and his narrative arc is predicated on this arrangement. Although there are compelling reasons...