Seneca on Science, Nature, and the Key to a Fulfilled Human Future – The Marginalian

Seneca on Science, Nature, and the Key to a Fulfilled Human Destiny

Till the phrase scientist was coined for the polymathic mathematician Mary Somerville, the time period for individuals who devoted their lives to the contemplation and investigation of the surprise of actuality was pure thinker — the examine of nature fell inside the area of philosophy and was indivisible from the humanistic considerations of morality.

Two millennia in the past, when the universe revolved round an Earth many nonetheless thought-about flat, earlier than something was identified of galaxies or genomes, of atoms or antibodies, the nice Stoic thinker Seneca positioned what we now name science — that shimmering systematic curiosity about how nature works — on the coronary heart of a satisfying life. In a number of recommendation to his pupil Lucilius, grouped underneath the heading Pure Questions and included in Seneca’s altogether indispensable Dialogues and Letters (public library), he considers how the fervour to know actuality by itself phrases — the fervour we name science — focuses a life:

If I had not been admitted to those research it could not have been price whereas being born.

I see my soul mirrored in Nature by Margaret C. Prepare dinner from a uncommon 1913 English version of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Obtainable as a print.)

For Seneca, the examine of nature is the closest we get to a real theology — a method of reclaiming God:

I actually am grateful to nature, each once I view it within the side which is open to everybody, and when I’ve entered into its mysteries: once I be taught what’s the materials substance of the universe; who’s its creator or guardian; what god is; whether or not he’s completely wrapped up in himself or generally has regard for us as properly; whether or not he creates one thing day by day or has created it solely as soon as; whether or not he’s a part of the world or he’s the world; whether or not he can decide at this time and modify in some respect the regulation of destiny, or whether or not to have finished issues that have to be modified is a diminution of his grandeur and a confession of his error.

Crucially, pursuing questions on how the world works invitations us to unself, thus saving us from the best flaw of character — our compulsive self-reference, which worms our capacities for selflessness, compassion, generosity, love, and all of the ethical virtues.

Plate from An Authentic Idea or New Speculation of the Universe by Thomas Wright, 1750. (Obtainable as a print and as stationery playing cards.)

Addressing his pupil, Seneca intimates that eradicating evil in ourselves isn’t sufficient — we should additionally generate good, and the very best good is self-transcendence, which the examine of nature affords us extra readily than every other means:

You have got averted the faults of the soul. You don’t have a deceitful air; your speech isn’t tailored to another person’s needs; your coronary heart isn’t veiled; you don’t undergo from greed, which denies to itself what it has taken from everybody else, nor extravagance, which wastes cash shamefully solely to recuperate it much more shamefully, nor ambition, which can increase you to a worthy standing solely via unworthy means. To date you’ve got achieved nothing; and although you’ve got escaped many evils, you haven’t but escaped your self.


The thoughts enjoys the entire and ideal good thing about its human future solely when it has spurned each evil, in search of the heights and getting into the key coronary heart of nature.

Couple with a stupendous Victorian perspective on the spirituality of nature and our accountability to surprise, then revisit Seneca on creativity, gratitude, the antidote to nervousness, and the important thing to resilience within the face of loss.

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