Seneca on Science, Nature, and the Key to a Fulfilled Human Destiny
By Maria Popova
Until the word scientist was coined for the polymathic mathematician Mary Somerville, the term for those who devoted their lives to the contemplation and investigation of the wonder of reality was natural philosopher — the study of nature fell within the domain of philosophy and was indivisible from the humanistic concerns of morality.
Two millennia ago, when the universe revolved around an Earth many still considered flat, before anything was known of galaxies or genomes, of atoms or antibodies, the great Stoic philosopher Seneca placed what we now call science — that shimmering systematic curiosity about how nature works — at the heart of a fulfilling life. In a selection of advice to his pupil Lucilius, grouped under the heading Natural Questions and included in Seneca’s altogether indispensable Dialogues and Letters (public library), he considers how the passion to know reality on its own terms — the passion we call science — focuses a life:
If I had not been admitted to these studies it would not have been worth while being born.
For Seneca, the study of nature is the closest we get to a true theology — a way of reclaiming God:
I myself am grateful to nature, both when I view it in the aspect which is open to everyone, and when I have entered into its mysteries: when I learn what is the material substance of the universe; who is its author or guardian; what god is; whether he is entirely wrapped up in himself or sometimes has regard for us as well; whether he creates something daily or has created it only once; whether he is part of the world or he is the world; whether he can make a decision today and modify in some respect the law of fate, or whether to have done things that need to be changed is a diminution of his grandeur and a confession of his error.
Crucially, pursuing questions about how the world works invites us to unself, thus saving us from the greatest flaw of character — our compulsive self-reference, which worms our capacities for selflessness, compassion, generosity, love, and all the moral virtues.
Addressing his pupil, Seneca intimates that eradicating evil in ourselves is not enough — we must also generate good, and the highest good is self-transcendence, which the study of nature affords us more readily than any other means:
You have avoided the faults of the soul. You don’t have a deceitful air; your speech is not adapted to someone else’s wishes; your heart is not veiled; you do not suffer from greed, which denies to itself what it has taken from everyone else, nor extravagance, which wastes money shamefully only to recover it even more shamefully, nor ambition, which will raise you to a worthy status only through unworthy means. So far you have achieved nothing; and though you have escaped many evils, you have not yet escaped yourself.
The mind enjoys the complete and perfect benefit of its human destiny only when it has spurned every evil, seeking the heights and entering the secret heart of nature.
Couple with a beautiful Victorian perspective on the spirituality of nature and our responsibility to wonder, then revisit Seneca on creativity, gratitude, the antidote to anxiety, and the key to resilience in the face of loss.
Published February 6, 2023