Elaine Sanderson (University of Edinburgh)
Throughout his Natural Questions, the Younger Seneca urges the mind to break free from the constraints of the body (Sen. NQ 1. praef. 4-5, 1. praef. 11; 3. praef. 18) and laments that the body hinders the mind’s ability to comprehend nature (Sen. NQ 1.2.3; 2.2), a lofty subject which exceeds the limits of bodily perception (Sen. NQ 1. praef. 1-3, 1.3.7-10). However, despite these complaints, Seneca makes repeated calls for Lucilius – and presumably his wider audience – to perceive and understand various natural phenomena through the senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch (e.g. Sen. NQ 1.1, 1.1.3-4; 2.21.2, 2.27-9, 2.53.2; 3.2.1-2). Furthermore, his accounts of natural phenomena are bodily analogies and sensory language (Sen. NQ 2.3.2, 2.15-16; 3.15-16, 3.30.4; 5.4.2-3), thus reiterating the centrality of bodily experience in man’s engagement with and rationalization of the natural environment.
This paper examines the apparent contradiction in Seneca’s attitude towards the body in the Natural Questions. I propose that Seneca’s comments on the body’s limitations for comprehending nature contribute to his broader framing of the natural world as a source of the sublime (Sen. NQ 6.3.4; 7.27.5), an aesthetic experience associated with wonder, majesty, danger, and ineffability (Williams 2012; Gunderson 2015; Porter 2016). Since the sublime resists straightforward comprehension and understanding, bodily faculties of perception fall short in their attempts to rationalize these entities. I then consider how Seneca uses ekphrasis to channel his subject matter’s affective powers, mirroring and projecting the sensation of the sublime beyond the pages of his work (Sen. NQ 3.17-18). I ultimately suggest that, in highlighting the shortcomings of bodily faculties of perception and comprehension while also repeatedly encouraging sensory interactions with natural phenomena, Seneca casts the body as a crucial if imperfect tool for engaging with nature’s wonders and their representation in the Natural Questions.