In Ben Jonson’s 1609 play entitled Epicoene or The Silent Woman, the character Truewit identifies as a benefit of reading the Younger Seneca the acquisition of a stoic attitude toward the vicissitudes of life. ‘What’s six kicks to a man that reads Seneca?’, he observes. Truewit , a confessed admirer of Seneca the Younger, and no doubt his creator Ben Jonson would have found much to admire in Gareth Williams’ book The Cosmic Viewpoint. A Study of Seneca’s Natural Questions (Oxford 2012). And we do too.
For many if not most of us, the Natural Questions is perhaps more often cited than read, but as Williams skillfully demonstrates in this broad-ranging and elegantly written study, there is a much more to Seneca’s text than meets the eye. On the premise that ‘the physics of the Natural Questions…is inseparable from ethical self-development’ and that the work is in turn closely bound to the historical and cultural context in which it was written, Williams takes us on a learned journey – much as Seneca himself imagines his reader doing -- through the various parts of this fascinating and challenging work. In each chapter after the first, Williams examines the ‘moralizing interludes’ featured in each of the Natural Questions eight books, explaining how they illuminate and are illuminated by the meteorological phenomena Seneca examines. As we progress on this world tour we are treated to a careful exegesis of the ‘artistic elaboration’ that underpins Seneca’s discussions of, for example, the Nile, water, wind, earthquakes, comets, lightning and divination, encountering on every page Williams’ impressive command of philosophy, philology, science, history, and classical literature.
In an era when STEM-centered education seems to be crowding out the humanities, The Cosmic Viewpoint is a welcome reminder that our discipline has a good deal to offer those interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Though most often regarded as a scientific text for humanists, and even if no longer considered a ‘work of science’ in the modern sense, the Natural Questions remains a rich humanistic text for scientists, past and present. Yet it is more than that, as will be apparent to all who read The Cosmic Viewpoint. In Williams’ concluding words, the Natural Questions ‘speaks across the ages, exhibiting a form of self-liberation and of cosmic awareness…that is perhaps as pertinent to the crush of so many modern lives as it was to the age of Seneca’. It is a rare accomplishment to write a book in our field that manages to transcend the boundaries of the discipline in such a convincing fashion. It is therefore with considerable pleasure and pride that we award the 2013 Charles J. Goodwin Award of Merit to Gareth Williams.
C. J. Goodwin Award of Merit Committee
Peter T. Struck, Chair
Barbara Weiden Boyd
Alain M. Gowing