BMCR 2005.05.53

Lo specchio, il vizio e la virtù. Studio sulle Naturales Quaestiones di Seneca. Testi e manuali per l’insegnamento universitario del Latino 79

, Lo specchio, il vizio e la virtù : studio sulle Naturales quaestiones di Seneca. Testi e manuali per l'insegnamento universitario del latino ; 79. Bologna: Pàtron, 2003. 390 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 8855527231. €32.00.

1 Responses

The subject of Berno’s monograph is formed by the passages of a moralizing character appearing in Seneca’s Naturales Quaestiones (νθ the ‘Kapuzinerpredigten’, as Goethe called them.1 These prefaces, epilogues and some digressions accompany Seneca’s investigation into different natural phenomena in the several books composing the NQ.

Berno offers an interpretation of each passage and discusses some prominent rhetorical mechanisms appearing in Seneca’s text. She also takes a stance in the disputed question of the relation between the different parts of the work (moralizing and scientific), strongly defending the unity of the NQ.

In the introductory chapter (p.15-29), a few subjects are briefly discussed. Berno explains matters such as the intention of her work and the delimitation of the subject. She also gives an overview of the results of her research here (20-23). A clarification of the concept of digression comes next (23-24), as well as a comparison of the moral themes occurring in the NQ with Stoic moral teaching (25-27). I will mention some points and comment on them, before proceeding to discuss the rest of the book.

As the starting-point of her inquiry, Berno mentions (15-17) a thought about which, as she says, overall agreement exists in literature: the subordination of the physical discussions to an ethical aim in the NQ. Man’s inquiry into nature must be relevant to his moral progress. Berno states that her study aims to confirm this idea. She will pursue this research in the context of the work’s unity (‘indagando le modalità del rapporto così inteso nel quadro di una unità strutturale e tematica dell’opera’, p.17).

This casual remark about the unity of the NQ conceals a complex question: the cohesion between the different parts of the work, the physical inquiries and the moralizing passages, has been one of the main points of debate concerning the NQ.2 In each chapter, Berno will argue that there are different connections between the moralizing passages and physical discussions (see below for examples). Mention of the previous debate on this question in the secondary literature and her position in it would not have been out of place.

The discussion of another much disputed aspect of the work, the book order of the NQ, is confined to a note (note 4, p.17), which states the different possibilities that have been brought forward for the original ordering of the books. The author discusses the different books of the NQ independently and has chosen not to pay attention to this question.3

The term ‘digression’ is used by Berno for all the moralizing passages of the NQ. Her discussion of the concept of digression in the introduction (23-24) consists of a reference to an article by Grimal on digressions in Seneca, with a mention of Cicero’s phrase ‘ornandi aut augendi causa digredi’ (de oratore 2.80).4 Following Grimal, Berno states that a digression must be understood in terms of its function. In the short overview presenting the results of her research, she explains that the function the digressions is to bring forward a particular theme inherent to the scientific discussion or to elaborate on a general aspect of the research (p.20). The digressions are justified because they are strongly connected to the whole book or to its framing parts.

It would have been useful to give more attention to the concept of digression than the short discussion in the introduction. The remark that the digressions are ‘justified’ through their connection with the rest of the work (p.20) is understandable in the context of the ‘Forschungsgeschichte’ of the NQ (not mentioned by Berno). The NQ has been criticized for its digressive passages without relevance to the main discussions; Berno defends their relevance. However, it must not be forgotten that a digression is also characterized by its digressive character, by its being ‘extra causam’. To speak in terms of the justification of a digression seems to me an awkward formulation.5

The book has a clear structure: following the introduction, each chapter discusses one of the moralizing passages. After a brief overview of what has been said by previous researchers on a passage, Berno gives an interpretation of it, with distinct discussion of some specific themes. To each chapter is added a Latin text of the passage. An appendix discusses possible references to Nero in the NQ, with the help of Suetonius’ account of Nero’s life. A long bibliography and some useful indices conclude the book.

Berno deserves credit for having attempted a reading of the ‘Kapuzinerpredigten’. For example, she discusses the preface to book 4a, a piece on flattery which had been left almost unstudied. She uncovers Seneca’s argumentations, demonstrating his rhetorical strategies. There is attention to details in the interpretations and much information about single terms in the notes. Since it is impossible to discuss Berno’s interpretation of all the passages, I will select one of them and focus on the main themes of the book.

In the extant part of book 4b, Seneca speaks about the nature of hail and snow. NQ 4b 13 reveals the “vicious” use of snow, swallowed during dinner parties to cool down overloaded stomachs. Berno points at different oppositions (‘coppie polari di campi semantici’, p.149), which form the moralizing text, all to be brought back to the main opposition between ‘natura’ and ‘luxuria’ (p.148ff.). Thus she mentions an opposition between moderation and insatiability, between free and expensive and between health and sickness. The “vicious” eaters of snow in 4b 13 demonstrate they have no measure in what they do, they are insatiable. They have put a price on water (a component of snow), which nature had made available to everyone. The ‘viziosi’ have thus perverted the use of water, as they have perverted the process of eating. The physical illness which results from this is an indication of a more profound, mental illness; in the passage appear terms uniting the mental and physical aspects of the illness. The vices are described at greater length than their virtuous opposite.

Apart from such oppositions between vice and virtue, there is also a similarity between vice and virtue. Both use the same means and strategies to achieve opposite goals. Berno calls this the ‘specularità’ of vice and virtue: vice imitates virtue in a ‘mirroring reversal’. She discovers this rhetorical mechanism in the moralizing passages of NQ 1, 3, 4a, 4b, 5 and 7. The behaviour of the ‘viziosi’ imitates — and reverses — the scientific process of achievement of knowledge. For example, Berno contrasts the account of man’s vicious descent under the earth in search of gold, out of avarice (NQ 5.15), with a scientific expedition (p.194).

In NQ 4b, vice can also be shown to pervert scientific investigation: just as scientific research investigates something, luxury’s (or vice’s) inventions are also mentioned (p.161-162). In her introduction, Berno had placed Seneca’s moralizing passages in the context of the Roman moralizing discourse (‘il moralismo romano’, p.26). In her work on ‘Plinio il vecchio e il moralismo romano’, Citroni Marchetti had already spoken about the ‘invenzione negativa’ of vice.6 It is surprising that Berno does not refer to Citroni Marchetti when mentioning the same idea.

Sometimes the contrasts and correspondences between vice and virtue that are pointed out seem forced. For example, the already mentioned search for riches under the earth is compared to Seneca’s program of penetrating nature’s secrets (p.195). In both cases there is an image of descent into hidden places, but there is no evidence that Seneca compares and contrasts these two points. The ‘specularità’ does not apply to all cases.

Another recurrent point of analysis is that of the connections between the different parts of a book. Again, NQ 4b serves as my example. Berno sees several connections between the epilogue and the main text. The first one is mentioned by Seneca himself in 4b 13.2: the scientific discussion uncovers the nature of snow, consisting more of air than of water; this is an even greater reproach to those who put a high price on snow, since they buy air instead of water, Seneca argues. The already mentioned perversion of the scientific inquiry by the “vicious” forms another connection between epilogue and main text.

Berno further mentions that there are pairs of opposites in the scientific discussion, which correspond to the opposition nature/luxury in the epilogue. One of these is the opposition true/false (‘vero/falso’, p.167). In the course of the scientific discussion, the different theories mentioned about the natural phenomena are judged true or false. Berno comments: ‘le teorie ‘litigant’ tra loro (NQ 4b 5.1), come Seneca contro la ‘luxuria’ (NQ 4b 13.1)’. The fact that the different theories are said to fight each other, just as Seneca fights luxury, establishes a connection between the opposition true/false and nature/luxury, and between the epilogue and the main text. The author adds that both ‘false’ and ‘luxury’ have a preponderant place in the text (as we saw, Seneca devotes more attention to the description of vice than to virtue). This preponderance shows the ‘victory’ of these terms over the others. I do not understand what is meant by the ‘victory’ of false theories over correct ones in the scientific discussion. The argumentation does not convince me: it starts from the idea of true and false doxographical theories, extrapolates from this the idea of fighting theories, compares it to Seneca’s fight against luxury, and generalises this parallel to the parallel between true/false and nature/luxury and main text and epilogue.

Other opposed pairs are added, which occur in the scientific discussion but are also part of the characterisation of perversion in NQ 4b. These are hot/cold and hard/soft.7 Such connections between the different parts of a book abound in this study; my criticism of them would be similar.

Let me give another example, concerning book 2, which discusses the causes of lightning and thunder. Its last chapter forms a consolation for the fear these phenomena provoke. Berno finds ‘una sorte di analogia’ between man’s position as described in the main part of the book and in the epilogue, seen from the point of view of the opposition nature/against nature (p.234). Just as man gives in to fear and falls into vice — though this happens according to nature when it concerns death (Berno argues that fear of death is not a vice against nature, as other vices) — likewise lightning is brought downwards against its nature (fire usually goes upwards, Seneca says) by a greater power, which, however, is part of the order of things, of nature. This parallel is not clear to me. There seems to be no reason to compare man and lightning; the movement downwards of fire is not similar to man’s ‘fall into vice’ or his fear of death.

A question arises: if we were to accept a connection such as that between ‘vero/falso’ and ‘natura/luxuria’, how could we understand it in the context of the NQ? As having a function, like a digression? As representing a structure of a more poetical kind in the work? It seems as if the author has assembled these different kinds of connections without pausing to ask such questions. Perhaps the connections confirm, in her opinion, the primacy of morals over physics in the NQ; the introduction stated that it was the goal of her work to corroborate this idea. If this is the case, it would have been helpful if it had been explained more clearly.

A problem attached to these connections between the different parts of a book is that it is possible to bring forward many of them. For example, Berno argues that there is a connection between the digression of book 3 (chapters 17-18) and its epilogue (chapters 27-30), based on the concept of ‘adynaton’ appearing in the digression, which she uses to interpret the epilogue (p.96ff.). Gauly (2004) has given a different, symbolic interpretation of the connection between these passages. He also indicated that his interpretation differed in some ways from other (symbolic) interpretations.8 How must we decide which of these interpretations is correct? More attention to the criteria on which to base the interpretation of the NQ would have been useful.

It is interesting to compare Berno’s extreme position about the unity of the NQ to Gauly’s point of view. Gauly points to divergences between the moralizing passages and the physical inquiries; he speaks of a dialogue between them. These two recent studies, in giving such different views on the composition of the NQ, show that this work offers an exciting field for interpretations touching on questions of unity.

Parallels with Seneca’s tragedies form another recurrent feature in Berno’s work. For NQ 4b 13, she points at the parallel with the description of Tantalus in the Thyestes (see e.g. v.97-99). The insatiable hunger and thirst Tantalus suffers is described in terms similar to the situation of the ‘viziosi’ in 4b 13 (p.172-173). The tragedies can thus offer interesting parallels for the NQ; the idea of bringing the NQ in relation with these texts is valuable. The correspondence with Tantalus demonstrates that Seneca uses a certain terminology to describe an insatiable hunger and thirst. If one wants to demonstrate more through such a parallel, the result becomes more speculative. This is the case for the thought that the parallel with Tantalus adds the idea of an eternal punishment for the “vicious” eaters of snow (p.174).

To conclude: Berno’s sometimes forced theories and especially her rash assertions on the unity of the different books detract from the value of this work, in my view. The theoretical basis of the book would have merited more attention. Some theories could have been explained with more clarity. The best part of this study lies in the readings of the different moralizing passages and the commentary on details.9

[[For a response to this review by , please see BMCR 2005.07.01.]]


1. Goethe, Gedenkausgabe der Werke, Briefe und Gespräche, ed. E. Beutler, volume 16, Zürich 1949, p.337 (Schriften zur Farbenlehre).

2. See e.g. Codoñer, C., ‘La physique de Sénèque: Ordonnance et structure des Naturales Quaestiones’, ANRW 36.3 (1989), p.1803ff.

3. See e.g. Gauly B.M., Senecas Naturales Quaestiones. Naturphilosophie für die römische Kaiserzeit, München 2004, p.53ff. for a clear discussion of the subject.

4. Grimal, P., ‘Nature et function de la digression dans les oeuvres en prose de Sénèque’, in Sénèque et la prose latine, Vandoeuvres-Genève 1991, 219-252.

5. In her article ‘Ostio Quadra allo specchio. Riflessioni speculari e speculative su Nat. Quaest. 1.16-17’, Athenaeum 90 (2002), 214-228 (of which chapter 1 of her book is a revised version), Berno shows a similar idea of digression as a denomination that can be avoided by establishing connections between the digressive passage and the main text.

6. Citroni Marchetti, S., Plinio il vecchio e il moralismo romano, Pisa 1991. See the index s.v. ‘invenzione negativa’, and especially p.201f. about its occurrence in Pliny.

7. P.167-169. Berno’s note 65 p.313 provides a list of the instances of connections involving pairs of opposites in the NQ. Berno adds a last connection for NQ 4b: the occurrence of irony in both parts of the work. This connection of course lies at another level than the previous ones.

8. Gauly, B.M., Senecas Naturales Quaestiones. Naturphilosophie für die römische Kaiserzeit, München 2004, p.102-104. See also my review of Gauly in BMCR 2005.01.16.

9. I noted only a few typographical errors: p.23 n.24 ‘physique’, not ‘phisique’, p.250 ‘circostanze’, not ‘cisrcostanze’, p.339 second title ‘l’histoire’, not ‘l’histoires’; sixth title ‘stoïcisme’, not ‘stocisme’, ‘Balde’, not ‘Blade’, ‘Freyburger’, not ‘Freyburgen’. In the passage concerning NQ 3.27-30 (p.93ff.), the word ‘diluvio’ is written with a capital letter a few times, without apparent reason.