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

ISBN : 9780190490980

Gareth D. Williams
410 Pages
156 x 234 mm
Pub date
May 2016
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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 Viewpoint argues 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 Viewpoint stresses 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.


I. Interiority and Cosmic Consciousness in the Natural Questions
II. Seneca's Moralizing Interludes
III. The Cataclysm and the Nile
IV. The Rhetoric of Science
V. Seneca on Winds
VI. Earthquakes, Consolation, and the Senecan Sublime
VII. Seneca on Comets and Ancient Cometary Theory
VIII. Seneca on Lightning and Divination
Index of Passages
General Index
Index of Latin Words
Index of Greek Words

About the author: 

Gareth D. Williams is Violin Family Professor of Classics at Columbia University. His most recent book, co-edited with Katharina Volk, is Roman Reflections.

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