Humanities at Large

Affect and Rationality in the Face of Natural Disaster in Seneca’s Natural Questions

Submitted by Sonja Johnston on November 08 2019.

Chiara Graf, a Chancellor Henry N.R. Jackman Graduate Fellow in the Humanities, gave a recent Fellows' Lunch talk about affect and rationality in Roman philosopher, scientist, and tragedian Lucius Annaeus Seneca's (c.1 BCE-65 CE) Natural Questions. We had a few special guests including Ted Parker and Kat Furtado, PhD students in Classics and Charlie Foran from CBC Ideas.

Chiara is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Classics. Her dissertation explores the relationship of affect and natural science in the Seneca's works. What feelings arise in the face of unexpected, beautiful, or frightening natural phenomena? What can these feelings teach us? How can we harness them towards ethical thought and action?

Seneca, part of double-herm in Antikensammlung Berlin
Seneca, part of double-herm in Antikensammlung Berlin

As a Stoic, Seneca encouraged reason and emotional detachment in his students. Between 62-64CE he wrote an 8-book meteorological treatise called Natural Questions that examined: meteors, halos, rainbows, mock suns, etc.; thunder and lightning; water; the Nile; hail, snow and ice; winds; earthquakes and the sources of the Nile; and comets.

In Natural Questions Seneca takes a rationalizing approach to the natural world. By explaining the laws that govern meteorological phenomena, he aims to eliminate his readers' sense of shock and fear in their wake. However, Seneca also acknowledges that most of his readers will never be able to attain perfect reason and will inevitably feel problematic emotions in the face of strange weather. Chiara proposes that, for Seneca, imperfect humans can make ethical progress by harnessing their emotions, rather than eliminating them.

Why would a Stoic philosopher like Seneca be so interested in meteorology and so invested in meteorological questions? Meteorology, and natural science in general, figured in the development of cosmic consciousness—which includes a broadened perspective of the whole world, and a realization that seemingly chaotic, random and unconnected occurrences actually have an order to them, and are explicable and related to each other in a rational way. Stoics believe that the cosmos is pervaded by a rational order, that everything is divinely and beneficently planned, that everything happens for a reason and that everything is connected.

Attaining perfect Stoic knowledge (sagehood) means grasping rational order and cosmic consciousness. In Stoicism cosmic consciousness is leveraged for a specific ethical end. If people can grasp the immensity of the cosmos, they will realize how insignificant things like wealth, enterprise, imperial ventures, war etc. are and that they are not worth worrying about. In a certain way, Seneca aims to diminish the human subject position in the cosmos. Seneca uses the triviality and insignificance of our material lives as a foil to talk about the dominance and importance of human rationality and the human mind.

The cosmic perspective is important to Seneca because it helps lead to the state of mind—apatheia, or apathy. What we normally think of when we think of Stoicism is an emotional detachment from the world. However, much of the Natural Questions is not narrated from this perspective. Some of the books include rationalising discourse appealing to laws of rule and order, but there are many dramatic, affectively-charged descriptions of natural phenomena that give no explanations—why include these affectively-charged and totally rationally irrelevant passages? Chiara argued that, for Seneca, intense emotions in the face of natural disaster can present us with some of the benefits of the cosmic perspective.

Chiara’s presentation analyzed two descriptions of natural disaster in the Natural Questions, making the case that, in these passages, intense shock and fear can translate into a numbing affective stupor, which can serve as a paradoxical form of therapy.

The first passage, from book three of the Natural Questions, describes a flood. Seneca dramatically refers to the flood waters as immeasurable, with constant comparatives such as the clouds attack more and more strongly, the water rises higher and higher to an amazing height. He draws attention not only to the violence and the devastation, but also to the inability of people to respond appropriately to the disaster, let alone classify it. “Having overturned smaller buildings which it had carried off in passing, it turns more violently towards larger ones. It drags away cities and populations entangled in their own walls, uncertain whether to lament collapse or shipwreck for what can crush them and what could drown them come at the same time.” This response is the opposite of cosmic consciousness (knowing everything and detachment). However, Seneca continues with a passage that implies this sense of shock among the flood victims has redemptive potential—“What remained of the human race clung to the highest peaks. When they had been driven to such extremes, this was their only solace: that fear had transformed into shock. Since they were amazed, there was no room for them to be afraid, nor did pain have any place because it loses power and him, who was miserable beyond the point of feeling misery”. Shock renders the flood victims incapable of actually feeling fear.

The second passage Chiara chose to examine describes earthquakes. Seneca begins book six of the Natural Questions with an anecdote about a devastating earthquake in Campagna, Italy. His aim is to remove the immense fear that events like earthquakes cause by rationalizing their causes and supressing affect—the classic cosmic viewpoint. He begins with a very dramatic description of earthquakes. “For one can seem safe enough to anyone. If the world itself is shaken and its most solid parts slip away, the one thing that is immobile and fixed in the world so as to hold everything that depends on it wavers. If the earth loses what it has as its defining characteristic, namely to stay in one place, when will our fears abate what shelter will our bodies find? Where will they flee in their trepidation if fear springs up from the depths and is drawn up from the bottom.”

This doesn't reflect the cosmic viewpoint, but Seneca interrupts this dramatic description to comment on it and rationalizes that when we fear everything, we can’t fear just one thing specifically, and this intense affect paradoxically numbs us and leads us to some form of serenity. Sages who’ve fully attained cosmic consciousness seek to eliminate affect. However, Seneca makes it clear that most of us are fools and will never be sages, so we should aim for some sort of perverse serenity from within our limitations rather than trying to transcend these limitations.

Chiara led a discussion with the Fellows about how her research could relate to our theme year of Strange Weather. She pointed out that Seneca may help us cope as individuals with what we encounter but as a collective dealing with devastating events and headlines that are almost incomprehensible, we often disengage and become numb, leading to inaction. We talked about positive and negative affect, classifying affect as good or bad, the tension between ideal rationality and affect, comparisons with Amitav Ghosh, and Stoic theory of the emotions.

Thanks to Chiara Graf who provided some of the text for this post.