BMCR 2005.01.16

Senecas ‘Naturales Quaestiones’. Naturphilosophie für die römische Kaiserzeit. Zetemata 122

, Senecas Naturales quaestiones : Naturphilosophie für die römische Kaiserzeit. Zetemata, Heft 122. München: C.H. Beck, 2004. 303 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 340652348X €64.00.

A new study has been added to those few monographs so far published on the Naturales Quaestiones (NQ) Seneca’s somewhat elusive combination of physical discussions and ethical framing. Gauly starts from the latest insights that have been reached in the study of the NQ, and is one of the first studies to discuss the work according to the 3-2 book order. Gauly offers us some new elements and challenging theories about the NQ; he creates a sophisticated image of this work, in which many passages have a symbolical meaning and contain references to contemporary events or persons. Gauly endeavours to place the NQ in the context of its own time, distinguishing between Greek and Roman elements in the work. His interpretations however often have too small a factual basis and do not convince.

In chapter 1 Gauly discusses some introductory matters, such as the date at which the NQ was written (between 62 and 64, by now a known fact) (1.2), and the philosophical background of the work (1.3). Gauly pays special attention (1.4) to the fact that Seneca wrote in Latin, instead of the more usual Greek. He explains this by saying that Seneca wanted to appeal to a specific, senatorial public that would respond better to Latin. Greek philosophy had an ambivalent status in Rome, as is known; Seneca seeks to avoid the ambivalent connotations of Greek philosophy by writing in Latin.

In my opinion Gauly is a bit too quick to come to this conclusion: the matter of Seneca’s writing in Latin is more complex than he presents it here (and perhaps simpler too). A very simple factor he omits in the discussion is the influence Cicero and Lucretius (and others) could have exercised on Seneca in this matter (p.45 Gauly dismisses such an explanation as ‘insufficient’, without further explanation). The evidence Gauly presents for his theory, like the precarious position of philosophy in Rome, is purely ‘circumstantial’. He argues that Seneca formulated some thoughts as to the care one should take not to displease the emperor, and the avoidance of a pronounced external philosophical appearance. This is something quite different, however, from writing in Latin to avoid the label ‘philosophical’; Gauly’s interpretation, though original, must remain hypothetical.

In chapter 2 some matters pertaining to the structure of the NQ are discussed. In 2.1 Gauly examines a question of importance: the original book order of the NQ. He accepts the book order proposed by NQ-scholars Codoñer and Hine, the order 3-4a-4b-5-6-7-1-2 (and baptises it the ‘non praeterit order’, after the first words of Book 3).1 It is of great importance that Gauly advocates this book order, since, as he argues with some indignation, it has not received the attention it deserves in recent publications on the NQ. Gauly bases his study of the work on this book order, giving programmatic value to the preface of Book 3 as the preface to the entire work, and using it as a starting point for the study of other passages.

From the book order of the NQ, Gauly proceeds to the discussion of the ordering of the material in the work (2.2), according to the four elements and the ascending line visible in the work, going from water (Books 3, 4a), via air (4b, 5, 6), to fire (7, 1, 2).

In chapter 2.3 Gauly tackles that most discussed question concerning the NQ, the relation between the rather moralizing passages on the one hand (prefaces, epilogues and some digressions) and the doxographical discussions of physical phenomena (such as the Nile, earthquakes and comets) on the other hand. Seneca has long been reproached for not integrating the different parts in a whole, but the NQ has also been defended against this negative view, especially in more recent literature.

Gauly introduces a new element to this discussion: Bakhtin’s idea of the ‘Dialogizität’ of a work (a work is always in dialogue with a context, earlier works etc. — to put it most roughly). According to Gauly, the NQ forms a dialogue between the Greek doxographical material at its base and the Roman framing parts. What is most interesting about Gauly’s position in this question is that he does not judge the lack of integration between the different parts of the work negatively, nor does he try to argue that the different parts are well connected to each other (two options favoured by earlier scholars), but he starts from the idea of a ‘Bruch’ between the different parts of the NQ to give a positive interpretation of the work.2

Gauly ties this idea of the ‘Dialogizität’ of the work to the literal dialogue with an interlocutor appearing at certain places in the NQ (as in Seneca’s prose more generally). Gauly sees this interlocutor (sometimes the addressee Lucilius, sometimes a person remaining anonymous) as representing the ‘Dialogizität’ of the NQ; most notably, the interlocutor questions the doxographical discussions at the transition to the moral parts of the work, forming a Roman reaction to a Greek discussion.

The idea of a combination (or dialogue) of different ‘discourses’, Greek and Latin, is useful for the understanding of the NQ. It is also possible to apply such an idea to the NQ without the addition of Bakhtin’s ‘Dialogizität.’ This is for example demonstrated in an article on Pliny the Elder by A. Wallace-Hadrill,3 who speaks of the combination of a Greek and Roman discourse, while discussing the same question in connection with Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia (and also refers to the NQ).

In the next chapter (3), Gauly discusses a few of the moralizing passages (the digression in Book 3, the endings to Books 4b and 1). As an example of his interpretation of such a text I will mention his discussion of the moralizing digression in NQ 3, chapters 17-18 (3.2). In Book 3 (inquiring into the origin of terrestrial water) the mention of the incredible fishes that are to be found under the earth leads Seneca to censure man’s even more incredible habit of watching fish die on the dinner table for a ‘gluttony of the eyes’.

Gauly wants a deeper, non-moralistic interpretation to prevail over the explicit, primary moralistic message of the passage. He pursues the line of thought of studies that have emphasized the symbolical interpretation of Seneca’s moralism.4 Gauly thus argues that the morbid interest in dying fishes is also to be seen as the morbid interest of a society in death. The digression can therefore also be read as a reference to impending doom. This metaphorical reading of the passage, Gauly states, provides a connection with the end of Book 3, in which a deluge ending the world is described. Gauly’s interpretation is a refinement of earlier theories that have connected the digression and the finale of the book, stating that it is vice as presented in the digression that is destroyed in the deluge ending the world.

In my opinion, Gauly’s theory must remain hypothetical. Though I can agree with the idea that the moralistic passages represent scenes symbolical of the decadence of a society, the precise metaphorical meaning Gauly gives to the scene, as representing an interest in death, remains unproven. Moreover, ‘a society with an interest in death’ does not provide a reliable connection with the representation of the deluge at the end of the book.

Gauly begins his discussion of the moralizing passages with an analysis of Book 3, preface paragraph 18, a text he considers to be programmatic for the whole of the NQ (chapter 3.1). Here Seneca speaks about the goal of the study of nature; ‘to this end’, he says, ‘the study of nature will be of use for us: in the first place we will get away from sordid matters, then we will separate the spirit from the body; also the exercise of the mind provided by the study of nature will be useful for moral matters’. Based on this passage, Gauly concludes that the idea of the ‘Abkehr von der Welt’ is more important in the NQ than the ‘formatio morum’ (‘Hauptziel’ versus ‘mögliches Nebenprodukt’, p.95). Separation from the world, not ethical improvement, is the most important goal of the study of nature.

For this interpretation Gauly must deny any connection between paragraph 18 and the previous paragraphs of the preface, which form a moral argument. As Gauly mentions, others have thought paragraph 18 to refer to the previous paragraphs, the study of nature also being useful to the end described there, i.e. living a virtuous life (the words ‘to this end’, at the beginning of paragraph 18, then refer to the previous paragraphs). It seems strange to separate the interpretation of paragraph 18 from the rest of the preface.5 For his interpretation Gauly must also say that moral questions are given a ‘relativ geringe Wert’ in the preface (p.95); this is a statement which, because of the attention given to ethics in the preface, is surprising. Gauly bases this idea on the words ‘nihil est autem apertius’ in the preface, par. 18, saying that they characterize morals as ‘geistig wenig anspruchsvoll’; yet such a meaning is not attached to ‘apertius’ at all. Gauly adds that another argument may be that moral questions constitute a ‘typische Gegenstände einer Schulphilosophie von der sich der Autor schon durch den Gebrauch der lateinischen Sprache distanziert’. This refers to the earlier discussed theory of chapter 1.4. The importance moral questions have in Seneca’s work makes it impossible to argue that he distances himself from them. In the preface to NQ 3, Gauly ignores especially passages such as paragraphs 2, 5-7, 11ff., which also pertain to what Seneca is undertaking in the NQ. In my opinion, Seneca’s idea of ‘Abkehr von der Welt’, of the separation of the soul from the body, has a moral aspect inherent in it.

On the basis of this interpretation of NQ 3, preface paragraph 18, Gauly tries to find in several moralistic passages a different interpretation that would prevail over the moral meaning. Though the idea of giving programmatic value to the preface to Book 3 as the preface introducing the entire work is interesting, it is difficult to see how the emphasis put on the ‘Abkehr von der Welt’, on a non-moralistic goal of the study of nature, in the preface to Book 3 can be an argument for a symbolical (non-moralistic) interpretation of the digression (and other moralizing passages).

Gauly’s theories are based on a sense of dissatisfaction with Seneca’s moralizing passages as ‘banal’ and ineffective. I agree; however, in trying to find another meaning to these passages, Gauly creates different problems. We must imagine that Seneca is in fact not interested in the moralizing passages he has written at some length, but in a deeper meaning found in them only with some difficulty. The moralizing passages would then be explained as concessions to the Roman public. There are in my view too many uncertainties in this interpretation to agree with it. It seems a better option to take the moralizing passages at face value; the rest of Seneca’s prose provides a context in which to understand them. This is a possibility Gauly has not investigated.

In chapter 4 (‘Erde und Himmel: Kosmologie in den NQ’) Gauly discusses Books 7 and 1. He argues that the argumentation of NQ 7, concerning comets, has a metaphorical character; the comets appear to be signs of a divine order. A metaphorical aspect also plays a role in the interpretation of the natural phenomena discussed in chapter 5 (for example in the fearful character of earthquakes and thunder and lightning), and in the examination of the Platonic character of the preface to Book 1 (4.4).6 Gauly in general argues for the presence (and importance) of Platonic elements in the NQ, beginning with the importance given to the element of ‘Abkehr von der Welt’ in the preface to Book 3 (and the NQ as a whole).7

In chapter 5 (‘Naturphilosophie als Bild der Zeit’), Gauly focuses on the search for references to Seneca’s own time in the NQ. He examines the presence of Nero in the NQ, in Seneca’s flattering references to the emperor and in possible (less positive) allusions to him (5.1). Gauly argues that one case of clear allusion to Nero is found in the references to Alexander the Great. Gauly further pays attention to the political aspect of the prefaces to Books 4a and 3 (5.2).

In 5.3-5.4 Gauly looks for traces of ‘metus temporum’ in the books of the NQ dealing with fearful phenomena, i.e. the earthquakes of Book 6 and lightning and thunder (Book 2). Gauly shows how the different parts of these books differ in their treatment of the natural phenomena discussed (a case of ‘Dialogizität’). While the doxographical discussion is aimed at providing a rationalistic explanation for the phenomena (and thus taking away fear of them), the framing parts (the preface to Book 6 and the epilogues to Books 6 and 2), which attempt to offer consolation for these phenomena, emphasize their importance and fearfulness. For example, while in the preface to Book 6 Seneca argues that earthquakes can happen everywhere and make the entire world unsafe, in the ensuing discussion he mentions that earthquakes only occur in limited areas.

So far I agree with Gauly’s demonstration. However, Gauly also considers the preface and epilogues as representing ‘contemporary fears’. The prodigious character of the natural phenomena also plays a role in the discussion of Books 6 and 2, Gauly states; such ‘prodigia’ were regarded as negative signs and had a political meaning. Thus, for the contemporary reader of the NQ, the representation of these phenomena contains a (fearful) political aspect and therefore is a sign of ‘metus temporum’. This ‘Roman element’ disrupts the rationality of the discussion of the phenomena. This is an example of the contemporary references Gauly finds in the NQ.

When Gauly sees the fearful representation of earthquakes, thunder and lightning in the preface and epilogues as signs of ‘Zeitangst’ (p.270 he speaks of ‘Dokumente eben dieser Ängste’), he forgets an important aspect of Seneca’s work. Indeed, Gauly seems to pay no attention to the factor of rhetoric in his study. In this case this leads to a faulty interpretation. Indeed, the emphasis on the importance of the fearful phenomena in the moralizing passages is clearly of a rhetorical nature. It is part of consolatory mechanisms to emphasize the importance, the danger etc. of the phenomenon for which consolation is to be offered. This appears from several other Senecan texts, where the same mechanism is applied (see the beginning of EM 91 [discussing the fire of Lyon], EM 30, the summary of Seneca’s lost de remediis fortuitorum [paragraphs 2-3]; compare ad Helviam 2.1-2). Thus we must also see the dissimilarity between the different parts of these books as a difference of genre (here the genre of the ‘consolatio’ versus the explanation of the causes).

In the last part of his book (5.5) Gauly gives an elaborate discussion of the description of the deluge forming the end of Book 3. Here he again pays attention to the (non)Stoic character of the passage, and to its interpretation in terms of contemporary references. Gauly argues that the deluge, which Seneca describes in place of the Stoic conflagration, contains elements not present in the Stoic representation of the end of the world: the representation of the deluge as a destruction and the idea of a punishment of mankind. On the basis of the comparison made in the preface to Book 3 (paragraph 5) of conquerors like Alexander the Great with disasters such as deluge and conflagration, Gauly also argues for a political reading of the representation of the deluge as a reference to the collapse of a political system brought about by Nero.

To conclude: this book contains many complex theories about the NQ, which cannot all be discussed here. Gauly has assembled a large amount of material concerning the NQ, which is presented very neatly. Regrettably, this material has been used to form some hazardous theories. Gauly in any case proves that there is still much to argue about and uncover in the NQ.


1. See Codoñer’s 1979 Spanish edition of the NQ (preface to vol. 1, p.xii-xxi) and her article about the NQ in ANRW II 36.3 (1989), p.1784-1795, and Hine’s 1996 Teubner edition of the NQ (preface p.xxii-xxv), and the references to his earlier work found there.

2. However, p.97 Gauly says, speaking about the digression of Book 3, that there is an ‘innere Verbindung’ between this passage and the rest of the book. Gauly does not explain how this (more traditional) theory relates to his idea of ‘Brüche’ between the different parts of the work.

3. ‘Pliny the Elder and man’s unnatural history’, Greece and Rome 37.1, 1990, p.80-96, not mentioned by Gauly.

4. See especially Citroni Marchetti, ‘Plinio il vecchio e la tradizione del moralismo romano’, Pisa 1991.

5. Later on in the book Gauly does not draw such a line between paragraph 18 and the previous part of the preface: p.217 Gauly thinks that the idea of ‘die Abwendung von tyrannischer Politik’, present earlier in the preface, is also part of the idea of ‘Abkehr von der Welt’ in paragraph 18.

6. Gauly bases his ideas on metaphors on H. Blumenberg’s theory of ‘Metaphorologie’ (see especially chapter 4.2, p.139 ff.); see especially Blumenberg’s ‘Paradigmen zu einer Metaphorologie’, Frankfurt am Main 1998.

7. In this discussion Gauly follows Donini: see especially ‘L’eclettismo impossibile. Seneca e il platonismo medio’, in Donini, P., Gianotti, G.F. (edd.), ‘Modelli filosofici e letterari. Lucrezio, Orazio, Seneca’, Bologna 1979, 149-300.