Guest Post by Scott Lepisto
The ancient Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger doesn’t just aim to teach his readers: he aims to transform them. Wonder at the beauty and mystery of the natural world plays a significant role in Seneca’s transformational program. He devotes less effort to explaining his aesthetic theory than to offering readers the kind of aesthetic experiences that reorient their understanding of themselves and the world, through the descriptive power of his texts.
Take, for instance, his 41st Epistle. In the letter, Seneca ruminates on natural wonders and the moral character of his ideal philosopher. He writes,
If you happen to be in a wood dense with ancient trees of unusual height, where interlocking branches exclude the light of day, the loftiness and seclusion of that forest spot, the wonder of finding above ground such a deep, unbroken shade, will convince you that divinity is there. If you behold some deeply eroded cavern, some vast chamber not made with hands but hollowed out by natural causes at the very roots of the mountain, it will impress upon your mind an intimation of religious awe. We venerate the sources of great rivers; we situate an altar wherever a rushing stream bursts suddenly from hiding; thermal springs are the site of ritual observance; and more than one lake has been held sacred for its darkness or its measureless depth.Seneca, 41st Epistle (trans. Graver & Long 2015: 124)
Note the striking visual detail of Seneca’s description (the lofty trees, the interlocking branches, the vast cave, etc.). Seneca doesn’t just tell us about how impressive nature is: he makes a visual impression on our mind’s eye as we read, imagining these wonders. This isn’t just an idle imaginative exercise: contemplating the natural world, for Seneca, was something akin to a philosophical-spiritual practice.
This description is best understood in light of Seneca’s religious beliefs. Seneca held that nature, fate, reason, and God were one and the same. According to the Stoic view, a divine breath, or fire, pervades the entirety of physical reality; they believed that this divine breath or fire structures, guides, and pervades all of physical reality (much like “The Force” in Star Wars). It is a physical force that rationally orders the universe. As Seneca describes it earlier in the same letter, this mysterious, divine presence doesn’t just lie within the natural world: it exists “near you – with you – inside you.” It’s all around us and within us.
The highest goal of the Stoic life is to live in harmony with this force. The ancient Greek Stoic Zeno deemed the highest good to be “a good flow of life.” The Stoics believed that the mind itself is a concentrated portion of the divine breath that pervades all things. The goal of life, and indeed the only good thing in life according to the Stoics, is the harmony we have with this providential force. Seneca’s encounter with the beautiful grove, then, serves as a reminder of the continuity between the inner self and the outer cosmos: they’re unified in a continuum of divine breath.
This recollection of the true nature of physical reality helps us acquire a more accurate understanding of ourselves and our relationship to the objects of our desire. If we view ourselves, not as entirely discrete individuals, but rather portions of this divine force, which exists throughout all of nature, then we can recognize that our success, our health, our ambitions, etc. are not really our own. Seneca writes later in the same letter, “If you see a person undismayed by peril and untouched by desire, one cheerful in adversity and calm in the face of storms, someone who rises above all humankind and meets the gods at their own level, will you not be overcome with reverence before him?” He goes on to note that a “celestial force” drives such an individual and that this divine power helps him laugh at fears and desires. By distinguishing between true selves, our portions of divine breath, and our identities, we can live more Stoic lives, immune from the vacillations of fortune. Natural beauty, like reading Seneca’s text, brings our focus back to these important Stoic truths.
The concluding passage of Seneca’s Consolation to Marcia makes the point even more dramatically. Marcia, a Roman aristocrat and daughter of a (then) famous historian and senator, Cremutius Cordus, has lost her son. Although written to Marcia, Seneca doubtlessly directs the text to the general public as well. In the Consolation, Seneca deploys a battery of arguments in order to help Marcia stop grieving. However, Seneca ends the text by imagining the speech of consolation that Marcia’s father would have given her if he could address her from heaven.
After chastising her for grieving the loss of her son, who, in death, is exempt from any further misfortune, Seneca writes as Cremutius Cordus, offering Marcia a description of the cosmos:
If the universality of fate can be of any comfort to you in your bereavement, realize that nothing will remain standing where it now stands, that old age will topple everything and sweep it away. It will toy not just with human beings (for what a tiny fraction of the power of fortune they represent) but with places, with countries, with whole sections of the world. It will flatten entire mountains and in other places will force up new cliffs; it will swallow seas, divert rivers, disrupt communication between nations, and undo the partnership and cohesion of the human race; elsewhere it will make cities disappear into huge chasms, shake them with earthquakes, send plague-ridden air from deep below, cover all habitation with floods, kill every living creature as it drowns the earth, and scorch and burn all that is mortal in huge fires. And when the time comes for the world to extinguish and renew itself, everything will destroy itself by its own strength, stars will collide with stars; and as all matter goes up in flames, the bodies that now shine in an orderly configuration will all burn in a single fire. We also, the blessed souls destined for eternity, when god decides to recreate the world, as everything else collapses, we too shall be a small appendage to the wholesale destructions, and we shall be returned to our original elements.Lucius (trans. Hine 2014: 36)
Certainly, this is a far cry from the pragmatic vision that so many find in Seneca’s work. Note that he isn’t explaining the finer points of philosophy, but rather making an impact through the descriptive power of language. According to the Stoics, the divine fire will eventually engulf the entire cosmos and it will be created anew only to follow the same course. Seneca invites us to imagine the whole sweep of history from this cosmic viewpoint.
Seneca reminds us, and Marcia, of this fact in order to reframe our understanding of ourselves and our attachments. Through describing the vast sweep of history, he reminds us both of the entirely awe-inspiring process of which we are a part as well as how insignificantly tiny our misfortune is when viewed from the perspective of the whole. Note, crucially though, that Seneca doesn’t just explain this point: through his visually impactful description, he brings it before our minds’ eye as readers. Above and beyond the explanatory force of the passage, Seneca seeks to make an aesthetic impact on us that will properly reframe our perspectives and attachments. Through this broadened perspective, Marcia might quit her grief and we might become more immune to our comparatively minuscule misfortune.
Senecan philosophy, when read within the broader context of his Stoic thought, gives us much more than actionable lifestyle advice: reading it reminds us of our true identities and helps us reframe our individualistic pursuits and desires. Through his aesthetic vision, he seeks to change our perspective on ourselves and our place within the world. Through our capacity for aesthetic awe, we can understand the miraculous nature of the world that we live in as well as the simultaneously wondrous and minuscule role that we play within it. In what are hopefully the waning months of coronavirus restrictions and the first days of spring, as we itch for normal life to resume, perhaps we ought to take a page out of Seneca’s book and get outside to remind ourselves of just how small our hopes, aspirations, and miseries are in the grand scheme of things.
Fantham, Elaine, Harry M. Hine, James Ker, and Gareth D. Williams (trans.). 2014. Lucius
Annaeus Seneca: Hardiship & Happiness. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Graver, Margaret and A. A. Long (trans.). 2015. Seneca: Letters on Ethics to Lucilius. Chicago:
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Long, A. A., and Sedley, D. N. 1987. The Hellenistic Philosophers. Vol. 1 and 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Williams, Gareth D. The Cosmic Viewpoint. Oxford: Oxford University Press.