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Seneca’s Corpus: A Sympathy of Fluids, Passions, Plants, and Planets

Michael Goyette

Brooklyn College

The doctrine of sympatheia, promulgated by Stoic philosophers such as Posidonius and explored in various genres of Greek and Latin literature, posits that all of the universe’s components, including human beings and their lives, exist in a network characterized by a constant state of interdependent tension and reciprocal interaction. This framework, with its emphasis upon the integration of the cosmos, bears an close conceptual kinship to humoralism, a medical doctrine disseminated in the Hippocratic Corpus which asserts that illness results from the imbalance of the four humors, or bodily fluids, that were thought to flow throughout the body. The sympathetic and holistic nature of this system is further evident in how each of the four humors came to be associated with specific aspects of the natural world that lie beyond the limits of the human body (e.g. seasons, winds, elements).

A close interconnection of the human body and the natural world is also reflected in the poetic tragedies and the Stoically-colored philosophical prose of the Roman author Seneca the Younger. Perhaps because Seneca was not a writer of expository medical prose per se, this aspect of Seneca’s work has not been thoroughly investigated by scholars working in the area of ancient medicine. This paper seeks to demonstrate some of the complex ways in which Seneca links human bodies—including bodily fluids and emotional processes—with the natural environment (including trees and plant life) and the cosmos at large (including planets and other celestial bodies). Examining a selection of Seneca’s poetic tragedies (Thyestes and Oedipus) and prose works (Naturales Quaestiones and Epistula 58), my paper builds upon the work of Thomas Rosenmeyer, who has discussed the role of sympatheia in Senecan tragedy, but from a standpoint that focuses on sympathetic interactions exhibited at a cosmic level. My paper shows that Seneca peppers Thyestes with language that evokes various types of disturbance and flux (e.g. fluctuare and tumere), connecting for example “waves” of emotion with disturbances of bodily fluids (e.g. sanguis) and descriptions of the literal swelling of the waves on the sea. In addition, I discuss how Seneca closely associates Atreus’ horrific acts of dismemberment with the mutilation of the house of Atreus itself (lacerae domus artus, 433-434), and also with the deviating movements of celestial bodies, including the sun. In my discussions of Oedipus, I observe that the thirst of plague-stricken individuals is embodied in local rivers, which are described as devoid of umor (41), and I examine how the plague confuses various other processes of nature, such as the cycle of day and night (1-5). I argue that these various forms of disturbance and fluctuation highlight the permeability of the human body and the mutability of human emotions, and that these qualities are indicative of the inclination toward change which Seneca’s philosophical prose often attributes to the broader microcosm of the universe. These various manifestations of sympathetic fluidity in turn underscore the challenges inherent to maintaining physical health, as well as the mental and emotional constancy associated with a Stoic lifestyle. In such ways, my paper situates the sympathetic interactions that I identify in Senecan tragedy and prose within a broader discussion of medical and philosophical inquiry in Greek and Roman antiquity.

Session/Panel Title

From Plants to Planets: Human and nonhuman Relations in Ancient Medicine

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