Michael Swantek

“Uelocitate pensant moram”: Rhetoric and Intertextuality in Seneca’s Natural Questions III–IVa

1¶ A study of Seneca’s rhetoric needs no apology. He has been called one of the “greatest writers of Latin prose in [his] (or perhaps any) period.” The influence of his father, our source for the controversiae and suasoriae—practice speeches composed for the training of politicians and lawyers during the late Republic and early Empire—coupled with natural ability produced a model stylist both much emulated and at times harshly criticized. The Natural Questions represents what Seneca during his life thought to be his masterwork. As he writes in the preface to Book III, the most important task of the writer is not simply to transmit the unmissable and unending actions of flawed men to future generations. Philosophy always trumps history; to extinguish one’s own faults is what is most noble. Seneca’s method for achieving this goal for himself and for all who read him is to ground his ethical claims in scientific doxography. Drawing on a dizzyingly broad scope of sources, Seneca leads his interlocutor through theories of water on earth and above it, through those of wind and earthquakes, comets and fire, thunder and lightning. Before, during, and after the winnowing of scientific hypotheses Seneca evaluates the moral status of various actions, though often the connection between them is unclear. A journey to the Nile leads to a critique of flattery; elsewhere the harms of spelunking, eating snow, and fearing thunder, among others, are brought under careful and forceful consideration.

2¶ A common criticism of Seneca’s prose is its lavishness. Sometimes, it might be said, Seneca overindulges in rhetorical flair. The enumeration of exempla goes on a line too many, or a rhetorical question raises a question already anticipated. However, it is much easier to be receptive to Seneca’s evangelism when the topic at hand is the nature of the flood that will bring about humankind’s destruction, as it is in Book III. Worth considering, too, is that Seneca writes under the assumption that philosophy and literature are continuous. The philosophical aspect of the Natural Questions carries the message to be inculcated, while the literary elements serve to compel the listener to heed the message and apply it to his or her life. The epigram, as a consequence, plays an unexpectedly important role in Senecan philosophy. The dénouement of III.27–30, a passage of overwhelming literary power laden with all kinds of rhetorical devices and the conclusion to Seneca’s opening book, is a simple, well-chosen epigram that ties off the philosophical discourse and deftly implants into the mind of the interlocutor what Seneca takes to be the unvarnished truth.

3¶ The interaction between teacher and pupil, or Seneca and listener, is self-consciously conversational. In the Natural Questions Seneca names Lucilius as his conversational partner, but we need not interpret the multiplicity of second-person verbs as indicative of a dialogue occurring between them. Seneca is sermonizing to Lucilius and to all who will engage with him: the universal applicability and usefulness of philosophy is one reason why it is superior to other forms of discourse. Seneca, in other words, assumes the role of master teacher. He reminds us in the preface to III that the preparation for such a position was no easy task (ll. 1–4):

4¶ Non praeterit me, Lucili uirorum optime, quam magnarum rerum fundamenta ponam senex, qui mundum circumire constitui et causas secretaque eius eruere atque aliis noscenda prodere.

5¶ I am not unaware, Lucilius, excellent man, of how great is the enterprise whose foundations I am laying in my old age, now that I have decided to traverse the world, to seek out its causes and secrets, and to present them for others to learn about.

6¶ It is important to note that, in spite of a great expenditure of effort, Seneca makes no claims to absolute sapientia. Likewise, no student is perfect, and, accordingly, Seneca is generous with heaping praise onto his pupil: scio quam sis ambitioni alienus, quam familiaris otio et litteris (I know how disinclined to ambition you are, how at home with leisure and study; IVa.Praef.9–10). One might say that in this instance crustula and sciens litteras have matured into verbal praise and pursuing moral excellence embedded in a thorough understanding of the cosmos.

7¶ As is to be expected when relying on so many sources, Seneca occasionally has lapses in memory. At the beginning of Book IVa he begins with an account of the River Nile, the only type of terrestrial water not dealt with in the previous book, and teases Lucilius with a line from his favorite poet, Ovid, who says “nec pluuio supplicat herba Ioui” (“nor does the grass pray to Jupiter of the Rains?”) If we dismiss Borucki’s rather unlikely suggestion that this is a lost line of Ovid, then what we actually have here, remarkably, is the only direct quotation from the works of Tibullus in the extant Latin corpus, 1.7.26:

8¶ Te propter nullos tellus tua postulat imbres,
arida nec pluvio supplicat herba Iovi.
9¶ Because of you your land demands no showers,
And the parched earth does not beseech humbly green-thumbed Jove.

10¶ A striking feature of the rhetoric of the Natural Questions, specially in Books III and IVa, is the employment of repetition (whether explicitly or implicitly) such as this one to advance Seneca’s project to understand the natural world. To find time and again a learned and showy literary dimension in a work of science is curious, for us as much as for the ancients. The aim of this paper, thus, is to show how and why Seneca infuses into his traditionally opulent, conversational, pedagogical style a flurry of intertexts and references to other Latin and Greek writers, namely Ovid, Vergil, Menander, and even himself.

11¶ That the master teacher will depend at times on the words of others is hinted early on in the Natural Questions. Book III, now generally considered to be the rightful beginning of the work as a whole, begins with an address to Lucilius and then a exclamation of fervent anticipation, in the words of an unknown poet, ll. 21–22: tollimus ingentes animos et maxima paruo | tempore molimur (“We raise our mighty spirits and in a brief time | attempt the greatest deeds”). It is with this enthusiasm, Seneca writes, that he would start his mission, whether young or old. But because time is short and the task great, faciamus quod in itinere fieri solet: qui tardius exierunt, uelocitate pensant moram (“Let us do what is normal on journeys: those who have set out rather late rely on speed to make up the delay”). While it is true that Seneca would have had more time to write his text owing to retirement from public duties in 62, the end of III.Praef.4 suggests something more at work:

12¶ crescit animus quotiens coepti magnitudinem aspexit, et cogitate quantum proposito, non quantum sibi supersit.

13¶ My mind grows in stature whenever it sees the size of the undertaking, and it ponders how much of the enterprise, not how much of its own life, remains.

14¶ Here there is, I think, a flavor of Longinian sublimity, if perhaps not of Pindar’s Theban Eagle, both in the movement from earth to a higher cosmic consciousness and in the dazed forgetfulness of human triviality in the face of something greater. At any rate, one gets the sense from these lines that Seneca intends to draw on both the scientific and literary erudition of others to supplement his own efforts in assembling his work. Soon after, at III.1.1., Seneca cites Ovid Met. 3.407 and Vergil Aen. 1.245–6, along with a line of Lucilius for theories about how springs occur. These quotations are purely empirical, and not particularly noteworthy from a literary perspective, but nonetheless they are set apart from the indefinite quidam; no other view is ascribed to an actual name for 147 lines. By mentioning Ovid and Vergil along with Lucilius, and by separating the trio from the rest of the doxography, Seneca effectively places them into a special category of interlocutor, one who is actively engaged with Seneca’s grappling of scientific hypotheses, irrespective of physical locality.

15¶ Seneca commences with the flood narrative at III.27, which increases in intensity and rhetorical flourish until the end of the book. A brief excursus at III.27.13, at first glance, seems like an adulation of Ovid’s own flood description in Metamorphoses I, “ille poetarum ingeniossimus.” In actuality Seneca injects a bit of literary criticism into his account, decrying Ovid’s choice to tarnish his epic with Met. 1.304–5:

16¶ Nat lupus inter oues, fuluos uehit unda leones,
unda uehit tigres…
17¶ A wolf swims among sheep, a wave carries tawny lions,
Another carries tigers…

18¶ For Seneca, these lines represent childish frivolity, entirely inappropriate for a matter as grave as the destruction of humanity. Yet it may not be obvious why Seneca reacts so harshly; in fact, it could be compellingly argued these verses are actually quite good. That image of sheep co-existing with their predator, however dire the situation, reveals the reversal of world order; homeoteleuton links tiger with lion, each bobbing in its own unda, now paired in a battle for survival, just as they so often were paired in the Roman circus. The adjective fulmen, often used of a boar, “suggests the speed and destructiveness of his attack, and perhaps too the flash of his tusks as he attacks”—hardly a comic scene. The citizens of an empire, like the sheep, find themselves cast in the same predicament as the elite members of society: the emperor, the so-called king of the jungle swept up all the same.

19¶ One answer that explains Seneca’s stern judgment is that any notion of a living thing surviving—or even struggling to survive—the machinations of such a cataclysm undermines the whole idea of a recurrent, world-cleansing flood. This is not a mere freak meteorological occurrence but an act of the divine reckoned to redress the iniquities proliferating unchecked throughout the world. Another answer comes in the form of Ovid’s well-known proclivity for subverting the centrality of masculinity in his epic. Following A. Keith’s formulation: “Roman epic, as a genre, can be said to construct a comprehensive model of ‘Roman Order’ at home and abroad, including relations between the sexes.” When Ovid neglects to preserve the seriousness characteristic of epic, he contradicts the premises laid out by Seneca in his prefaces to III and IVa: “flere, queri et gemere desciscere est” (Crying, complaining, and moaning are rebellion; III.Praef.12) and “non mihi muliebres fluxwere lacrimae, non e manibus ullius supplex pependi, nihil indecorum nec bono nec uiro feci” (No womanly tears flowed from me; I did not kneel in entreaty clutching anyone’s hands; I did nothing inappropriate for a good person or man; IV.Praef.16). To write without seriousness, therefore, is tantamount to turning one’s back on the journey for the cosmic perspective, that is, for moral excellence.

20¶ About halfway through the final chapter of Natural Questions III (30.968–69), we come across the line
omnium tunc mare ora fontium implebit, et maiore hiatus soluet.
21¶ Then the sea will fill the mouths of all the springs, and enlarge them with wider openings.

22¶ This sentence bears a few notable similarities to the second choral ode of Seneca’s Medea, a play that focuses on Medea’s revenge on her husband Jason following his decision to abandon her for the daughter of the king of Corinth (350–2):

23¶ quid cum Siculi virgo Pelori,
rabidos utero succinta canes,
omnes partier solvit hiatus?
24¶ What, when the maid of Sicilian Pelorus,
her waist girded with dogs,
opened all her gaping throats together?

25¶ After a number of unsuccessful pleas, she, relying on her witchcraft, resolves to murder Jason’s new wife and their two children, before escaping into the sky on a serpent-led chariot. At Med. 350–2, we find another instance of mouths enlarging; only this time it is not rivers but the jaws of the hunting dogs that guard the sea-creature Scylla’s womb. And so too we find the verbal connection hiatus soluet, which differs only in tense from soluit hiatus. The analogy being drawn, I argue, is that the rising waters of the sea commanded by nature will cause rivers to overflow their banks and create an image similar to that of hounds extending out from the waist of the terrifying Scylla.

26¶ Why would Seneca do this? I believe because it reinforces that idea that something usually conceived of as harmless can indeed have destructive power: just as rivers can both provide sustenance and drown, Scylla threatens passersby with death while simultaneously possessing the body of an alluring woman. It second continues the notion of Vergil and Ovid as Seneca’s absentee interlocutors; the description of fiendish dogs encircling the womb follows the ones found in Aen. 3.424 and Met. 14.59. In addition, it broaches another myth, that of Jason and Argonauts, which resurfaces in the final lines of Book 3 and bears on Seneca’s concluding aphorism. After the flood has destroyed humanity, Seneca writes, nature will order the seas out of the realm of man and back into their own boundaries. From there people will be recreated “unacquainted with wickedness.” He writes:

27¶ et antiquus ordo reuocabitur. omne ex integro animal generabitur…
28¶ And the old order will be restored; every kind of animal will be created again.

A parallel passage with unmistakable similarities appears in Vergil’s Eclogues IV, which Seneca seems to be recalling:

29¶ vltima Cumaei venit iam carminis aetas; magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo.
Now is come the last age of Cumaean song; the great line of the centuries begins anew.

30¶ In both instances, ordo is used in the sense that some action has spurred the world to undergo a complete renewal, a return to the order that used to be—literally “from the beginning.” This pastoral poem is announcing the age of prosperity that will follow the birth of a savior, known widely in antiquity as the Golden Age. It is universally acknowledged as a period of peace, harmony, stability, and prosperity, an era Seneca believes will come into being following the flood. But as Vergil goes on to write later in Ecl. IV:

31¶ Pauca tamen suberunt priscae vestigia fraudis,
quae temptare Thetim ratibus, quae cingere muris
oppida, quae iubeant telluri infindere sulcos:
alter erit tum Tiphys, et altera quae vehat Argo
delectos Heroas; erunt etiam altera bella,

32¶ Some small traces of ancient error will lurk,
that will command men to take to the sea in ships,
encircle towns with walls, plough the earth with furrows.
Another Argo will arise to carry chosen heroes, a second
Tiphys as helmsman: there will be another war…

33¶ That is to say, as a result of human transgression, such as sailing across the sea like Jason and the Argonauts, wickedness will overtake humanity eventually; the Golden Age can only last a finite period of time. Seneca adopts this perspective as his conclusion to Book III, claiming that immoral behavior will reappear and that there is no way to prevent it from happening. On Seneca’s view, virtue, which is the only good, is a challenge to attain and requires instruction by a teacher; vice, conversely, can be learned without any guidance at all.

34¶ I turn now to the flood narrative itself. Brad Inwood has pointed out that “[i]n the flood passage as a whole the anthropocentric nature of the deluge is prominent.” Setting out  with another Ovid intertext at III.28.2, Seneca outlines the metaphysics of earthly destruction, in which apparently cataclysm and conflagration function similarly: utrumque fit cum deo uisum est ordiri meliora, uetera finiri (Both events occur when god has decided to inaugurate a better world and to end the old). This classification is important. Seneca bases his claim on the observation that all that exists forms an undifferentiated mass; everything that it must do, everything that it must undergo has been already been contained within it. When this coded substance is thrust into action by some cause, boundaries begin to break down: the straits of Scylla and Charybdis, Seneca tells us, the Sicilian sea and the Adriatic will collapse into each other. Not long afterwards peribit omne discrimen. With the reversal of world order and the dissipation of boundaries of that gloomy agglomeration of matter, Seneca is free to redefine the flood in terms of a person. Everything becomes easy for the deluge, its waves beat the shore to escape confinement, it takes on breath, it drafts a plan of attack. Nothing, not even fire, can match its power. The reader is calmed only by the very brief assurance that life will emerge again, and the process will start anew.

35¶ Although the story of cycle has been completed in the previous book, one cannot help but have the feeling that the world is still inundated. The preface of Book IVa starts by locating Lucilius in time and space; he is in Sicily, across the sea, holder of a procuratorship. Seneca warns his pupil of the many dangers stemming from flatterers, offering up the words of a betrayed Dido (Ver. Aen. 4.373), who, notably, refers to Aeneas as eiectum, a word frequently used of the shipwrecked. Next we find the only direct reference to Menander in the Senecan corpus:

36¶ Omnes ait malos uiuere, et in scaenam, uelut rusticus, poeta prosiluit; non senem excipit, non puerum, non feminam, non uirum, et adicit non singulos peccare nec paucos, sed iam <sceleri> scelus esse contextum.

37¶ He says that everybody lives wickedly—the poet has leaped onto the stage like a rustic—and he makes no exception for old people, or boys, or women, or men; and he adds that it is not individuals who sin, nor small groups, but now crime is intertwined <with crime>.

38¶ Gareth Williams has pointed out that Seneca’s selection of Menander at this juncture would surely stir up in the mind of the reader the realism with which that poet was closely aligned in antiquity. Why Seneca invokes that association, I argue, is two-fold. On one hand, it reinforces the lesson that has just been taught, specifically, that the deadly, very real strength of an all-consuming flood is not to be taken lightly. Second, it enraptures with the phantasmagoric image of Seneca riding the waves of the Tyrrhenian en route to assist his student. Indeed, the waves lingering in the back of our mind are brought to the forefront by first the champion of rustic simplicity taking to the stage and then by the charming words of Lucilius’ devoted teacher (IVa.Praef.139–143):

39¶ hoc tibi, etsi diuidimur mari, praestare temptabo, ut subinde te iniecta manu ad meliora perducam.
erimus una qua parte optimi sumus.

40¶ Although we are separated by the sea, I shall try to perform this service for you: I shall grasp hold of you at once and lead you to something better.
We shall be together in the best part of us.

[1] Hutchinson, 1993.

[2] Cf. Costa in Innes et al., 1995.

[3] Cf. Herington 1982, p. 515.

[4] Latin text and translations of the NQ from Hine 1996 and 2010, respectively; all others mine.

[5] Cf. Flower 1913, p. 60

[6] Cf. Hine 2010, p. 1–2.

[7] Auguet 1972, p. 85.

[8] Lee 1968, ad loc.

[9] Morgan, 2003.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Inwood in Frede and Laks 2002, p. 130

[12] Austin 1973, ad loc.

[13] Williams 2012, p. 102

1 thought on “Michael Swantek”

  1. Michael – You write with liveliness and engagement. I look forward to discussion of your paper in person and to your revised version. My chief comments / suggestions for this stage are the following:
    Bring the aim of the paper given in para 10 way up to the front. Much of what you say before that can be condensed (and some eliminated) and the reader needs to know where you are headed earlier. The focus of the paper could be clarified and narrowed. You are clearly engaged with all of the material presented here — and that is good!–, but some of it distracts from your overall argument. If the flood episode and the citation of previous writers are the focus, just give the background essential for getting to that. It will help to strengthen and foreground your argument, which may then benefit from further development.
    I don’t know if this disappeared in formatting, but I see no bibliography and secondary sources are mentioned by name, but not page # etc. Regular footnotes are needed.

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