My most excellent Lucilius, I judge there to be as great a gulf within philosophy as between philosophy and other arts, that is, between the part of philosophy which looks towards the human and that which looks towards the divine. The latter is more lofty and spirited: it has grasped at much, not content to stop at what the eye can see. It suspected the existence of something greater and more beautiful which nature had placed out of sight.


The two are as different as God and mankind. The one teaches what should be done on earth; the other, what is done in the skies. The one cuts through our erring ways and hands us a light to elucidate the uncertainties of life; the other rises far above this smog in which we spin our wheels and leads those snatched out of the shadows back to the light.


I, for my part, give thanks to Nature when I do not see just that piece of it which it shows to all, but have entered into its more intimate recesses, when I learn what the substance of the Universe is, who its author or guardian is; what sort of thing God is; whether God is totally self-involved or looks towards us from time to time; whether God makes something daily, or one time made everything once and for all; whether God is part of the world or the very world itself; if God may still issue judgements today, thus changing the very laws of fate, or if this would rather detract from his power, it being a confession of his error that he made things changeable? But he must necessarily persist in what he likes, since he can only like the very best things. This doesn’t make him less free or diminish his power, though—for necessity is his to determine.


If I hadn’t been allowed to enter into such investigations, being born wouldn’t have been worth the trouble. For what reason would I then have to be glad that I had been placed among the living? To cultivate my palate, given over to food and drink? To patch this, my frail, dissolving body, always on the verge of dying unless it be further stuffed—that is, to live ever attending the sick? To fear death, into which we are all born? Take away this priceless good and there’s not so much to life that I should sweat and burn up for it.


Ach, what a lowly thing a human is, unless it has risen above human things! How long are we to wrestle with our moods, what are we doing, who are made for greatness? Suppose even that we’ve managed to rise higher—aren’t we just felling monsters then? Why should we think highly of ourselves simply because we are unlike the worst scum of the earth? I don’t see what reason one should have to congratulate oneself just for being fitter than someone lying in hospital. There is a great difference between true strength and good health.




A person has at last attained the fullness and highest good possible for our lot when, having trampled each and every vice, they seek the heights and depths and reach nature’s innermost recesses. Then is it such joy to wander among the very stars and laugh at the done-up houses of the rich, at the whole earth with all its gold! And I don’t just mean the gold we press into use for coins, but the gold we hoard privately to feed our descendants’ greed, too.


One can’t hold in contempt porticos, vaulted ceilings glimmering with ivory, coiffed forests, or rivers diverted into the house until one has circled the whole cosmos and looked down on this world from above—a puny world, covered for the most part by the sea, squalid where it manages to peek out, always either burning or freezing. They’ll say—this is that point that is carved up amongst so many nations by sword and by flame?


How laughable the borders set by mortals are! Dacia cannot extend past the Danube; the Strymon must shut in Thrace; let the Euphrates block the Parthians; the Danube should divide the Sarmatican from what is Rome’s; let the Rhine bound Germania; the Pyrenees must rise up to divide the Gauls from Spanish provinces, and let a sterile sandy vastness lie between Egypt and Ethiopia!


Were someone to give ants human intelligence, wouldn’t they too carve up one region into many districts? When you rise yourself up to the truly vast heights, whenever you see armies go forth with flags raised (as if something big were happening!), perhaps a horseman now scouting ahead, now enclosed on all sides, you will want to say with Vergil, “a black column moves over the plain.” For it is just a stampede of ants, laboring in narrow straits. What’s the difference between them and us, besides the extent of their tiny bodies?


That place is a mere speck in which you sail, make war, divide up realms: these territories are tiny, even when they touch the Ocean on both sides. Only the realms above are gigantic, which the soul is allowed possession over so long as it has brought with it not even the tiniest part of the body, has washed itself of every stain—then it blazes forth unencumbered, nimble, content with however much it’s given.


When the soul reaches those realms it is nourished, it grows, and it returns to its beginnings as if freed from its chains; and that divine things delight it argues for its own divinity. See, it regards these things not as foreign, but as familiar: it watches the settings and risings of the stars without a care, and the many diverging paths traveled by things that are yet in harmony with each other. The soul then observes intently when each star first shows its light to the earth, when it attains its highest point, what path it runs, and to where it at last descends. Its curious gaze pierces each thing one by one, and searches. Why should it not investigate? It knows all these things are in its hold.

Quantum inter philosophiam interest, Lucili uirorum optime, et ceteras artes, tantum interesse existimo in ipsa philosophia, inter illam partem quae ad homines, et hanc quae ad deos, spectat. Altior est haec, et animosior: multum permisit sibi: non fuit oculis contenta. Maius esse quiddam suspicata est, ac pulchrius, quod extra conspectum natura posuisset.


Denique tantum inter duas interest, quantum inter Deum et hominem. Altera docet, quid in terris agendum sit: altera, quid agatur in coelo. Altera errores nostros discutit, et lumen admouet, quo discernantur ambigua uitae: altera multo supra hanc caliginem in qua uolutamur excedit, et e tenebris ereptos illo perducit, unde lucet.


Equidem tunc naturae rerum gratias ago, cum illam non ab hac parte uideo, quae publica est, sed cum secretiora eius intraui: cum disco, quae uniuersi materia sit, quis auctor sit aut custos; quid sit deus; totus in se intendat, an ad nos aliquando respiciat; faciat quotidie aliquid, an semel fecerit; pars mundi sit an mundus; liceat: illi hodieque decernere, et ex lege fatorum, aliquid derogare, an maiestatis deminutio sit et confessio erroris, mutanda fecisse: necesse est enim ei eadem placere, cui nisi optima placere non possunt; nec ob hoc minus liber et potens est: ipse enim est necessitas sua.


Nisi ad haec admitterer, non fuerat nasci. Quid enim erat, cur in numero uiuentium me positum esse gauderem? an ut cibos et potiones percolarem? ut hoc corpus causarium ac fluidum, periturumque nisi subinde impleatur, sarcirem, et uiuerem aegri minister? ut mortem timerem, cui omnes nascimur? Detrahe hoc inaestimabile bonum, non est uita tanti, ut sudem, ut aestuem.


O quam contempta res est homo, nisi supra humana surrexit! Quamdiu cum affectibus colluctamur, quid magnifici facimus? etiamsi superiores sumus, portenta uincimus? Quid est, cur suspiciamus nosmetipsos, quia dissimiles deterrimis sumus? non uideo quare sibi placeat, qui robustior est ualetudinario. Multum interest inter uires et bonam ualetudinem.




Tunc consummatum habet plenumque bonum sortis humanae, cum, calcato omni malo, petit altum, et in interiorem naturae sinum uenit. Tunc iuuat inter sidera ipsa uagantem, diuitum pauimenta ridere, et totam cum auro suo terram: non illo tantum, dico, quod egessit, et signandum monetae dedit, sed et illo, quod in occulto seruat posterorum auaritiae.


Non potest ante contemnere porticus, et lacunaria ebore fulgentia, et tonsiles siluas, et deriuata in domos flumina, quam totum circumeat mundum, et terrarum orbem superne despiciens angustum, et magna ex parte opertum mari, etiam qua exstat, late squalidum, et aut ustum aut rigentem. Sibi ipse ait: Hoc est illud punctum quod inter tot gentes ferro et igni diuiditur?


O quam ridiculi sunt mortalium termini! Ultra Istrum Dacus non exeat: Strymo Thracas includat: Parthis obstet Euphrates: Danubius Sarmatica ac Romana disterminet: Rhenus Germaniae modum faciat: Pyrenaeus medium inter Gallias et Hispanias iugum extollat: inter Aegyptum et Aethiopias arenarum inculta uastitas iaceat!


Si quis formicis det intellectum hominis, nonne et illae unam aream in multas prouincias diuident? Cum te in illa uere magna sustuleris; quoties uidebis exercitus subrectis ire uexillis et quasi magnum aliquid agatur, equitem modo ulteriora explorantem, modo a lateribus affusum, libebit dicere: "It nigrum campis agmen": formicarum iste discursus est, in angusto laborantium. Quid illis et nobis interest, nisi exigui mensura corpusculi?


Punctum est istud in quo nauigatis, in quo bellatis, in quo regna disponitis: minima, etiam cum illis utrimque Oceanus occurrit. Sursum ingentia spatia sunt, in quorum possessionem animus admittitur: at ita si minimum secum ex corpore tulit, si sordidum omne detersit, et expeditus leuisque ac contentus modico emicuit.


Cum illa tetigit, alitur, crescit, ac uelut uinculis liberatus, in originem redit; et hoc habet argumentum diuinitatis suae, quod illum diuina delectant: nec ut alienis interest, sed ut suis interest: secure spectat occasus siderum atque ortus, et tam diuersas concordantium uias. Obseruat, ubi quaeque stella primum terris lumen ostendat, ubi culmen eius summum, qua cursus sit, quousque descendat. Curiosus spectator excutit singula, et quaerit. Quidni quaerat? scit illa ad se pertinere.

Translator's Note

Seneca gets on my nerves, yet I keep coming back to him like coming home. His Stoic moral and ethical advice at once unnerves and inspires. Yes, let’s be content with what we have and see that apparent outer troubles are often the result of inner turmoil and wrong-headed mindset. Let’s read for quality over quantity. But the obscenely rich Seneca also admonishes us to be content with having just “fewer slaves” (in On Tranquility of Mind) and often seems rather rarely to have practiced his own precepts. 

Thus it is that I’ve found more to like in his Investigations into Nature. He’s still a snob here, reserving the pleasures of philosophy for an elect few who can see how puny valid human worries are. But he also has consoling points amidst poetic imagery. His celebration of the soul that sees the earth from far above reminds me fondly of Carl Sagan’s sobering, yet comforting description of earth as a “pale blue dot” in the universe. His point on the arbitrary and petty nature of political borders rightly highlights how much hurt lines we draw on the globe cause, a globe that Nature does not divvy up.

The Investigations into Nature owe much to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, especially his Problems and On Meteorology. I’ve chosen to translate part of the preface of the text to incite the reader to an awareness that Stoics had a logic and a physics beyond the ethical works that appear on our canonical reading list. I’ve chosen the preface to introduce Seneca’s physics, rather than some question of what a rainbow is, because it reaches for the larger questions and purpose of the work, not because the discussion of rainbows is less worthy.

I mention Aristotle to draw out similarities I see in the two philosophers’ poetic styles and navigation of jargon. Sure, both use and invent technical terms from their respective domains. But I vividly recall the moment when I, though intimidated by my classmates who were reading the same Greek as I and coming up with obscure translations like “predication” and “categories,” realized that I had more access to philosophy in Latin and Greek than I feared. In fact, Greek philosophy was more accessible to me in the original than it had been in translations into my first language, since I had studied the language but was uninitiated into the technical jargon of modern academic philosophy. In our classroom, Aristotle’s language seemed distant and pedantic. When I encountered the Greek as a lone reader, on my own terms, I found Aristotle to be a clear and direct writer. I had no idea what the “predication” my well-trained classmates spoke of was, but I could understand that something “is said to be” such and such a thing, which is in fact how Aristotle puts it.

In translating, I wanted to provide the reader the sort of experience I had on my own when reading philosophy in ancient languages, rather than the more abstruse one I had in the classroom. I have attempted to preserve Seneca’s fascinating mix of the familiar, technical, and imagistic. When it seemed important, I rendered key Stoic philosophical terms without taking a definite position on what they meant to Seneca—hence “[God] must necessarily persist in what he likes…necessity is his to determine,” preserving the shared root in English that exists in the Latin while leaving it to the reader to decide if “necessity” is more like fate, providence, or destiny. Rendering the philosophical questions Seneca asks about the nature of God I have gone more colloquial, opting to focus on the avidity with which Seneca poses the questions. Hence the question of God being “totally self-involved” or caring for human affairs, one who “looks towards us from time to time.” These perennial questions seemed to deserve formulations that would resonate emotionally with modern readers and erode the distance of time. In the same vein, I capitalize “God” not because Seneca had any Judeo-Christian concept of the term, but because the divine being he speaks of is, I believe, vividly present in his thoughts as a defined, distinct entity, as big-G God is to many readers today who follow these religions. Seneca’s concept of God may not be transparent to us in its details—nor to many of his contemporaries—but his attachment to his God is unmistakable.

In my word choices I have avoided the stale and sometimes creepy translations of another era, rendering, for example, “sinus” not as nature’s “bosom,” but “innermost recesses”—since the word has the sense not just of a woman’s lap, but also a recess, a safe port set back from a storm-ravaged shoreline. In like vein, I have avoided the “grammar-ese” I caution my intermediate Latin students against, freely varying my rendering of grammatically parallel constructions in Seneca’s descriptions of the borders humans draw to capture his tone and flourish rather than be ploddingly consistent in syntax. Sometimes I have been freer and tried to be funnier than some would, like in calling silvae tonsiles, which might be “tamed forests” in a straighter-laced version, “coiffed forests” to get at the link that is there in the Latin with the word for “barbers.”

Above all, objections to the man and his snobbery aside, I have tried to give the words we use to talk about our most existential thoughts some of their yearning, poetry and majesty back. There, after all, I’m with Seneca—investigations are wondrous endeavors and open to all of us mortals.

Jamie Banks


In the Classroom