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Seneca’s Etna: the Epicurean principle of multiple explanations, anti-sublimity and the Stoic sage (Ep. 79)1

Myrto Garani

Résumé

In his Letter 79 (probably written in c. AD 64) Seneca asks his addressee, Lucilius, who was then serving as procurator of Sicily, to send him a report on his travels around the island, including information specifically on Charybdis and Lucilius’ climb up Mount Etna. In addition to this “scientific tourism”, Seneca encourages Lucilius to attempt a new poem on Etna, “the venerated theme of every poet” (Ep. 79.5) and not to be deterred from doing so by the fact that there are already prominent literary works that offer remarkable descriptions of Etna. In my paper, I will first briefly discuss the implications of Seneca’s choice to single out Vergil’s and Ovid’s works as the specific volcanic intertexts against which not only Lucilius, but also he himself will initiate the process of literary emulation. In this connection, I will also explore the significance for Seneca of the fact that Lucretius’ volcanic passages -to which Seneca does not refer overtly- are the dominant intertexts for both Vergil and Ovid. I will then discuss the principle of multiple explanations and the notion of the sublime, two prevailing thematic themes that the Epistle 79 shares with the Natural Questions (in particular Books 3 and 4a) and which are conditioned by Seneca’s intertextual reception of Lucretius and Ovid.

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  • 1 This is a revised version of the paper presented at the Seneca 2022 International Conference “What (...)
  • 2 For Seneca on travelling, literary practice and wisdom see Montiglio (2006) 568–569.
  • 3 Cornelius Severus was an epic poet, according to Quintilian 10.1.89. On the basis of Seneca’s refer (...)
  • 4 Reydams-Schils (2010) 199–200 about the notion of body-soul dualism and the Platonic resonances.
  • 5 McGill (2012) 200–202.
  • 6 Trinacty (2014) 13.

1In his Letter 79 (probably written in c. AD 64) Seneca asks his addressee, Lucilius, who was then serving as procurator of Sicily, to send him a report on his travels around the island, including information specifically on Charybdis and Lucilius’ climb up Mount Etna.2 In addition to this “scientific tourism”, Seneca encourages Lucilius to attempt a new poem on Etna, “the venerated theme of every poet” (hunc sollemnem omnibus poetis locum, Ep. 79.5) and not to be deterred from doing so by the fact that there are already prominent literary works that offer remarkable descriptions of Etna. Seneca explicitly mentions Vergil, Ovid and Cornelius Severus (Ep. 79.5-7).3 Seneca then shifts the focus away from the literal summit of the volcano (hoc excelsum cacumen et conspicuum per vasti maris, “that lofty peak, visible far out at sea” Ep. 79.10) to the summit upon which the Stoic sage sits (ad summum perveneris, “you reach the summit” Ep. 79.8), i.e. from the scientific and literary sphere to the moral one, in which virtue and wisdom dominate (Ep. 79.8-10). By means of Platonic imagery he touches upon the Stoic idea of the liberation of the soul from the body and its restoration to the heavens (Ep. 79.11-12).4 He ends his letter with a discussion of the contrast between mundane, but temporal fame on the one hand, and authentic and thus ever-lasting reputation on the other (Ep. 79.13-14). In this connection Seneca employs the example of Epicurus (Ep. 79.15-16). This letter is usually discussed in terms of Seneca’s views on the mechanics and the evaluation of intertextual practice and his approach to what we mean by the modern term “plagiarism”.5 While Seneca exhorts Lucilius to emulate his predecessors, in Christopher Trinacty’s words, “Seneca practices what he preaches.”6

  • 7 See Gareth Williams’ particularly illuminating discussion in his book on the Venetian humanist Piet (...)
  • 8 For the explicit presence of Lucretius in Seneca’s philosophical writings see Gatzemeier (2013) 59– (...)
  • 9 Fantham (2010, 138) points out that in this particular letter, “Seneca draws on the model of Epicur (...)

2In my paper, I will first briefly discuss the implications of Seneca’s choice to single out Vergil’s and Ovid’s works as the specific volcanic intertexts against which not only Lucilius, but also he himself will initiate the process of literary emulation. In this connection, I will also explore the significance for Seneca of the fact that Lucretius’ volcanic passages -to which Seneca does not refer overtly- are the dominant intertexts for both Vergil and Ovid.7 This concealment on Seneca’s part should not come as a surprise, given that this is what Seneca repeatedly does in his intertextual engagement with Lucretius throughout his corpus of philosophical writings.8 I will then discuss the principle of multiple explanations and the notion of the sublime, two prevailing thematic threads that Epistle 79 shares with the Natural Questions (in particular Books 3 and 4a) and which are conditioned by Seneca’s intertextual reception of Lucretius and Ovid. Given the fact that Seneca’s epistolary corpus and his natural philosophical treatise Natural Questions were written around the same time, on account of a degree of “surface correlation” in Gareth Williams’ words, the two works can be justifiably studied in combination. In fact, as a typical case of such a close thematic interaction between the two works, Williams singles out Epistle 79.9

  • 10 Garani (2024).
  • 11 For Etna in Ps.-Longinus see Porter (2016) 175, 383, 476, 516, 535. See also Billault (2004), Halli (...)

3Before we proceed, we should bear in mind that Etna was typically categorized among the marvels of nature (Pindar Pyth. 1.26-28 τέρας μὲν | θαυμάσιον προσιδέσθαι, | θαῦμα δὲ καὶ παρεόντων ἀκοῦσαι “a portent and a wonder to behold, a wonder even to hear from those who have seen”) and as such was included in discussions about mirabilia (cf. Ps.-Arist. Mir. 33-41).10 In his scientific approach to Εtna, Seneca follows in the Stoic tradition, according to which “the wise man never wonders at any of the things which appear extraordinary, such as Charon’s mephitic caverns, ebbings of the tide, hot springs or fiery eruptions” (ἔτι γε τὸν σοφὸν οὐδὲν θαυμάζειν τῶν δοκούντων παραδόξων, οἷον Χαρώνεια καὶ ἀμπώτιδας καὶ πηγὰς θερμῶν ὑδάτων καὶ πυρὸς ἀναφυσήματα. SVF 3.642 von Arnim=Diog. Laert. 7.123). Last but not least, in Ps.-Longinus’ On the Sublime (35.4-36.2) Εtna is included among the dangerous landscapes that cause awe and is invoked as an example of the sublime in nature; in line with this it ultimately serves as an analogy for the creative fire of art.11 My purpose in the present discussion is to determine the conceptual and literary means by which Seneca disentangles the volcano from the connotations of wonder and integrates it into his discussion of moral height.

Is Etna an overworked topic? Seneca’s Intertextual Volcanic Web

  • 12 Seneca plausibly reverberates here Lucretius’ famous analogy between the letters of the alphabet an (...)

4Seneca explicitly claims that, even though Etna as a poetic topic is extensively elaborated by many forerunners, there is still plenty of space for literary creativity (Ep. 79.5-6):12

[5] Omnibus praeterea feliciter hic locus se dedit, et qui praecesserant non praeripuisse mihi videntur quae dici poterant, sed aperuisse. [6] [Sed] Multum interest utrum ad consumptam materiam an ad subactam accedas: crescit in dies, et inventuris inventa non obstant. Praeterea condicio optima est ultimi: parata verba invenit, quae aliter instructa novam faciem habent. Nec illis manus inicit tamquam alienis; sunt enim publica.

5 Anyway, it is fertile ground for everyone. The earlier writers have not, I think, exhausted the possibilities; rather, they have opened up the way. 6 It makes a big difference whether you take up a spent subject or one that has merely been treated before. A topic grows over time; invention does not preclude inventiveness. Besides, the last to come has the best of it: the words are all laid out for him, but a different arrangement lends them a fresh appearance. Not that he takes them up as belonging to someone else: they are public property. (translation by Graver/Long 2015)

5In this section I will briefly review the main intertexts on which Seneca surely draws. Obviously, we cannot overlook the fact that modern scholars have followed in the footsteps of ancient literary volcanologists and in their turn have meticulously dissected the corresponding passages. Despite the bibliographical bulk, this synopsis importantly pre-conditions the discussion to follow, since in this way we will be able to evaluate how Seneca reacts to what he inherited from his poetic predecessors, and so to assess which specific aspect(s) -if any- of the earlier volcanic narratives he chooses to challenge.

  • 13 For Vergil in Seneca see Berno (2011), Papaioannou (2020) with further bibliography.

6Regarding Vergil, almost certainly Seneca refers to Aeneas’ narration to Dido and the Carthaginians in which we read a vivid description of Etna and the Etnean horrors (Aen. 3.583 immania monstra) that confronted the Trojans on their approach to the Sicilian coast (Aen. 3.570-584).13 This Vergilian passage is cited in the context of the loaded literary criticism offered by Favorinus, the Roman sophist, philosopher and polymath, who compares it with the corresponding description of Etna in Pindar’s first Pythian (Pyth. 1.13-33) and concludes that Vergil failed in his emulation, since his “is the most monstrous of all monstrous descriptions” (Gellius NA 17.10.19 omnium, quae monstra dicuntur, monstruosissimum est). Setting aside Favorinus’ negative verdict, a perceptive reader, such as Seneca, could not disregard the Callimachean echo in Vergil’s description, in which instead of the Pindaric Typhoeus it is now Enceladus that is placed under the volcano (3.578-582):

fama est Enceladi semustum fulmine corpus
urgeri mole hac, ingentemque insuper Aetnam
impositam ruptis flammam exspirare caminis,
et fessum quotiens mutet latus, intremere omnem
murmure Trinacriam et caelum subtexere fumo.

  • 14 The translation of Vergil’s Aeneid is quoted from Fairclough (1916), revised by Goold (1999). For C (...)

The story runs that Enceladus’ form, scathed by the thunderbolt, is weighed down by that mass, and mighty Aetna, piled above, from its burst furnaces breathes forth flame; and ever as he turns his weary side all Trinacria moans and trembles, veiling the sky in smoke.14

  • 15 Williams (2017) 35.

7Williams also draws our attention to the cosmic implications of the anthropomorphic Etna (3.574-577 attollitque globos flammarum et sidera lambit; interdum scopulos avulsaque viscera montis / erigit eructans, liquefactaque saxa sub auras / cum gemitu glomerat fundoque exaestuat imo. “(Aetna) uplifts balls of flame and licks the stars-now violently vomits forth rocks, the mountain’s uptorn entrails, and whirls molten stone skyward with a roar, and boils up from its lowest depths.”) and Etna’s intra-textual links with monstrous Polyphemus (Aen. 3.655-674).15

  • 16 For [Aechylus]’s P.V. see Glauthier (2018) who discusses the association with Pindar’s Pythian 1. F (...)

8The Aeneid, however, is not the only Vergilian volcanic intertext to which Seneca surely refers. At the end of the first book of the Georgics, a volcanic eruption is listed among the portents that supposedly followed the murder of Julius Caesar (Geo. 1.471-473). Scholars generally agree that Vergil alludes to Lucretius’ description of Empedoclean Etna in DRN Book 1 and the rationalistic mechanic explanation in Book 6 (see discussion below), as well as to Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound (PV 363-372).16 In DRN 1.716-733, Lucretius praises the philosophical poet Empedocles, who is an even greater miracle than all the natural wonders in Sicily, Mount Etna in particular (DRN 1.722-725):

                                  et hic Aetnaea minantur
murmura flammarum rursum se colligere iras,
faucibus eruptos iterum uis ut uomat ignis
ad caelumque ferat flammai fulgura rursum.

  • 17 Translations of Lucretius are quoted from Rouse (1924), revised by Smith (1992).

and here Etna’s rumblings threaten that the angry flames are gathering again, that once more its violence may belch fires bursting forth from its throat, and once more shoot to the sky the lightnings of its flame.17

  • 18 Williams (2017) 43.
  • 19 Gale (2000) 120–123. In his seminal discussion on the traces of Lucretian multiple explanations in (...)

Williams remarks that “For Lucretius, the Gigantomachic associations of Etna emblematize the struggle of philosophical rationalism against monstrous (cf. horribili, 1.65) religio.”18 Vergil disrupts these triumphant Lucretian connotations and instead associates Etna with the forces of cosmic chaos. In Gale’s words, “Virgil has both remythologized Lucretius and restored the conventional moral value to the myth. Typhoeus no longer stands for the heroic philosopher, but now is a symbol of cosmic disorder; his escape both symbolizes and foreshadows the impiety and destructiveness of Civil War.”19

  • 20 Williams (2017) 49–54.
  • 21 For Ovid’s Etna see Myers (1994) 154–155, Viarre (2001), Guzmán Arias (2003), Hardie (2015) 526–528 (...)
  • 22 The translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses are quoted from Miller (1916), revised by Goold (1984).

9Regarding Ovid, we may infer from the Metamorphoses two potential volcanic intertexts, which contradict each other, one being mythological, the other rationalized. In the so-called Musomachia of Book 5 we read the mythical explanation of the phenomenon. In reply to a different version offered by the Pierid, Calliope narrates the mythological imprisonment of Typhoeus beneath Sicily (Met. 5.346-356).20 On the other hand, in Metamorphoses 15 the vatic Pythagoras teaches Numa, the second king of Rome, about natural law (Met. 15.176-459). Taking for granted that the overall speech has been exhaustively analysed in terms of its Empedoclean and Lucretian connotations, we will now focus on the second part in which Pythagoras expounds the principle of constant cosmic transformation. In doing so, he introduces a list of natural wonders, amongst which he presents us with three possible rationalistic causes for the fact that, since everything is subject to change, one day the fires of Etna will also be extinguished (Met. 15.340-355).21 According to Pythagoras Etna will atrophy either because there will be some sort of change in the structure of the earth beneath it which is perforated with passages, being similar to an animal (Met. 15.342-345), or because the winds will lose their strength and thus be unable to ignite the fires of Etna (Met. 15.346-349), or even because there will be no more fuel available for the fire (Met. 15.350-355). We should register the Stoic connotations of Ovid’s image of earth which is depicted as a living organism that breathes through holes (Met. 15.342-344 nam sive est animal tellus et vivit habetque / spiramenta locis flammam exhalantia multis, / spirandi mutare vias “For if the earth is of the nature of an animal, living and having many breathing-holes which exhale flames, she can change her breathing-places”). We should also bear in mind that Pythagoras does not identify the initial causes of the fiery phenomenon and its eruptive activity, but rather the reasons why such fieriness will one day cease (Met. 15.340-341 nec quae sulphureis ardet fornacibus Aetne, / ignea semper erit, neque enim fuit ignea semper. “And Aetna, which now glows hot wither sulphurous furnaces, will not always be on fire, neither was it always full of fire as now.”).22

  • 23 For a comparison of Pythagoras’ account with Lucretius’ account on Etna see Williams (2017) 56.
  • 24 Smolenaars (2005) 322–323.

10Pythagoras’ speech looks back to Lucretius’ rationalistic explanation about volcanic eruptions in DRN 6.23 Lucretius offers us only one main explanation of the specific physical mechanism that triggers the initial generation of lava within the volcano. Volcanic eruptions are caused by the subterranean air trapped within the volcano’s hollow caves. When this air is agitated, it becomes wind and then, growing hot with motion and friction, it heats and melts the surrounding earth and rocks (DRN 6.682-693). Lucretius’ wind-based explanation is very similar to his theory about one of the causes of earthquakes (DRN 6.535-607) and Ovid’s second explanation (Met. 15.346-349 sive leves imis venti cohibentur in antris / saxaque cum saxis et habentem semina flammae / materiam iactant, ea concipit ictibus ignem, / antra relinquentur sedatis frigida ventis; “or if swift winds are penned up in deep caverns and drive rocks against rocks and substance containing the seeds of flame, and this catches fire from the friction of the stones, still the caves will become cool again when the winds have spent their force;”). It is also noteworthy that, although among his explanatory tools as regards his description of Etna Lucretius uses vivid anthropomorphic language (DRN 6.687 furens, 6.689 faucibus), his Epicurean approach which holds that everything is made up of inanimate atoms is not congruent with Ovid’s Stoic living breathing earth (Met. 15.342-345). In the second part of this passage (DRN 6.694-702), Lucretius accounts for the enormous quantities of flames, smoke, ashes and rocks and proposes what Smolenaars calls the “Neptunist theory”, i.e. that there is a supply of supplementary material, which enters the volcano from outside through a passage that connects the crater with the sea.24

  • 25 For objections see Bakker (2016) 67–75.
  • 26 Diogenes of Oenoanda Fr. 13.II.12–III.13 περὶ / δἀνατολῶν ἤδη λέγω- / μεν καὶ δύσεων καὶ τῶν / ἐφ (...)

11In connection with his explanations in relation to Etna, Ovid’s Pythagoras strikingly appropriates Lucretius’ principle of multiple explanations. According to this Epicurean principle, all explanations are possible, provided that they do not contradict our sensory experience (cf. Epicurus’ πλεοναχός τρόπος, Ep. Pyth. 87). There is a general scholarly consensus that this Epicurean technique ultimately looks back to Theophrastus’ Metarsiology.25 As Voula Tsouna has recently discussed in much detail, there was a debate within the Epicurean school whether there was a difference between the explanations listed in terms of their plausibility (cf. Diogenes of Oenoanda fr. 13 II.12 - III.13 Smith).26 Whatever the case may be, perhaps it should not be considered a coincidence that Lucretius’ statement about the principle of multiple explanations (DRN 6.703-711) appears just after his account of Etna (DRN 6.639-702):

Sunt aliquot quoque res quarum unam dicere causam
non satis est, uerum pluris, unde una tamen sit;
corpus ut exanimum siquod procul ipse iacere
conspicias hominis, fit ut omnis dicere causas
conueniat leti, dicatur ut illius una.
nam neque eum ferro nec frigore uincere possis
interiisse neque a morbo neque forte ueneno,
uerum aliquid genere esse ex hoc quod contigit ei
scimus: item in multis hoc rebus dicere habemus.

There are also a number of things for which it is not enough to name one cause, but many, one of mention which is nevertheless the true cause: just as if you should yourself see some man’s body lying lifeless when one at a distance, you may perhaps think proper to name all the causes of death in order that the one true cause of the man’s death may be named. For you could not prove that steel or cold had been the death of him, or disease, or it may be poison, but we know that what has happened to him is something of this sort. Even so in many cases we have the like to say.

  • 27 Garani (2020b). For Seneca’s reception of Ovid see also Degl’Innocenti Pierini (1990a) and (1990b), (...)

12Bearing in mind the Lucretian substratum of Pythagoras’ volcanic explanation -regarding both the rationalization of the phenomenon on the basis of the action of Empedoclean elements and the use of multiple explanations-, we turn now to Seneca’s intense intertextual dialogue with this particular Ovidian passage. In his Natural Questions 3 Seneca engages intertextually in detail with a segment of Pythagoras’ list of mirabilia, the mirabilia aquarum, from which he extensively quotes. In fact, there are four such quotations. Ovid’s Pythagoras is not consistent in his viewpoint, since instead of rejecting all mythical explanations in favor of scientific ones, he opts for keeping both of them in play. For example, regarding the sobering effect of the waters of the spring of Clitor, Pythagoras puts forward two explanations, one scientific and one mythical (Met. 15.322-328; 324: the power of water is opposed to the heating power of wine, 15.325-328: the story of Melampus and the crazed daughters of Proteus). Thus, Pythagoras constantly encourages amazement at the marvels of nature (Met. 15.317; 321, 408, 410). As I have argued elsewhere in detail, Seneca challenges Pythagoras’ account, either by omitting or by correcting specific examples, whenever he regards them as fallacious, especially when these are explicitly associated with a mythical narrative. In this demythologizing process, Seneca adopts a critical stance towards the Ovidian world of mythical transformation, which, as he suggests, is erroneously imbued with wonder and fear.27

13In this dense intertextual web that I have sketched so far, it turns out that Etna oscillates between rival scientific (Lucretius and Ovid’s Pythagoras) and mythological (Vergil and Ovid’s Calliope) interpretations and is multifariously burdened with positive and negative connotations alike. Let us now see which of these approaches Seneca aligns himself with.

Seneca’s principle of multiple explanations in Letter 79

14At the very beginning of the letter, Seneca asks Lucilius to provide him with information about Scylla and Charybdis (Ep. 79.1):

[1] Expecto epistulas tuas quibus mihi indices circuitus Siciliae totius quid tibi novi ostenderit, et omnia de ipsa Charybdi certiora. Nam Scyllam saxum esse et quidem non terribile navigantibus optime scio: Charybdis an respondeat fabulis perscribi mihi desidero et, si forte observaveris (dignum est autem quod observes), fac nos certiores utrum uno tantum vento agatur in vertices an omnis tempestas aeque mare illud contorqueat, et an verum sit quidquid illo freti turbine abreptum est per multa milia trahi conditum et circa Tauromenitanum litus emergere.

I am looking forward to a letter from you describing what new information you have discovered on your sailing trip around Sicily; and in particular, some definite facts about Charybdis itself. For I am well aware that Scylla is only a promontory, and not especially dangerous to navigation; Charybdis, though, I would like to have described to me in writing. Is it like the Charybdis of legend? If you happen to have made any observations—and it is well worth the trouble—then fill me in. Is there only one wind that makes it billow up, or does every squall stir up the sea in the same way? And is it true that anything that is drawn into the whirlpool there at the strait is carried many miles underwater until it surfaces near the beach at Taormina? (translation by Graver/Long 2015)

  • 28 Cf. also Seneca QNat. 6.30.1 (quotation of Verg. Aen. 3.414-419, but meaningful omission of Verg. A (...)

15Seneca promptly dismisses the mythological explanation regarding Scylla, since he is well aware, as he states, that this promontory is not particularly perilous for navigation.28 Regarding Charybdis, however, he wonders whether, contrary to the legend, this part of the sea is disturbed by only one particular wind or any passing storm. In these introductory paragraphs, Seneca first adopts and rehearses his rationalizing stance, which is in accordance with his approach in the Natural Questions. While he asks Lucilius to conduct an autopsy (observaveris […] observes), he raises high expectations about his great esteem for empirical scientific observation as a source of valid knowledge (dignum est). It is also remarkable that Seneca puts forward a set of multiple explanations (utrum […] an).

  • 29 For Seneca’s interest in volcanic phenomena (QNat. 2.104, 2.26.4-6, 2.30.1; 5.14.4) see Dupraz (200 (...)

16Seneca, then, hopes that Lucilius will also investigate the reasons why there is a change in the visual appearance of Etna, when seen from a distance (Ep. 79.2):29

Si haec mihi perscripseris, tunc tibi audebo mandare ut in honorem meum Aetnam quoque ascendas, quam consumi et sensim subsidere ex hoc colligunt quidam, quod aliquanto longius navigantibus solebat ostendi. Potest hoc accidere non quia montis altitudo descendit, sed quia ignis evanuit et minus vehemens ac largus effertur, ob eandem causam fumo quoque per diem segniore. Neutrum autem incredibile est, nec montem qui devoretur cotidie minui, nec manere eundem, quia non ipsum <ignis> exest sed in aliqua inferna valle conceptus exaestuat et aliis pascitur, in ipso monte non alimentum habet sed viam.

If you write to me on these points, my next request will be a bold one: climb Etna too, in my honor. Some say that the summit of that mountain is being eaten away and is gradually diminishing in elevation. This is an inference from the fact that it used to be visible from further out at sea; but that might not be because the height of the peak is diminishing but because its fires are becoming fainter, spewing out less violently and in lesser amounts, as is the smoke during the day. Neither explanation is implausible. It could be that the mountain is shrinking, being consumed from within day by day; but it could also be that it remains the same, since the fire is not burning the mountain itself but welling up from some recess deep within the earth. In that case, the actual peak is not its source of supply but only a channel. (translation by Graver/Long 2015)

Seneca himself extrapolates the potential answers and expounds another set of multiple explanations. As he suggests, this modification may imply either that the height of the volcano gradually lessens, its material being consumed from within, or that, although the height remains the same, such a false impression is caused by the volcanic fires becoming fainter, because they are then fueled by diminishing amounts of external material. As a consequence, a smaller amount of smoke is now emitted from the furnace of the volcano with less force. Both explanations are based on the interaction of elements, earth and fire in the former case, fire and wind in the latter.

  • 30 Berno (2012); Garani (forthcoming). For Seneca’s use of three supernatural causes in one of his tra (...)
  • 31 Cf. Epicurus fr. 351 Usener. See also Sen. QNat. 2.22.1-3, 5.4.1

17Epistle 79 is not the only context in which Seneca employs the principle of multiple explanations. In fact, there are several such occurrences in Natural Questions. Although a thorough discussion of the way in which Seneca uses this technique would go far beyond the scope of this paper, still we should bear in mind that he does not use multiple explanations uniformly throughout the work. To cite just a few examples, in Natural Questions 3, in which -as we have already mentioned above- the presence of the Ovidian Pythagoras dominates, in the process of exploring the variety of properties and tastes in water and their different effects, Seneca puts forward four possible causes for these phenomena, all of which are based on different substances dissolved in water (QNat. 3.20.1-2). As possible reasons that may lead to the eschatological flood, Seneca mentions the morphology of the Earth, the rising of the outer sea, heavy rain, rivers and springs, winter and water that falls from the heaven, concluding that all these principles work together to destroy the human race (QNat. 3.27.1).30 Last but not least, in the context of his explanations of earthquakes Seneca explicitly refers to this principle in connection with Democritus and Epicurus (QNat. 6.20.5):31

[20,1] Ueniamus nunc ad eos qui omnia ista quae rettuli in causa esse dixerunt aut ex his plura. Democritus plura putat. […]

[20,5] Omnes istas esse posse causas Epicurus ait pluresque alias temptat et illos qui aliquid unum ex istis esse affirmauerunt corripit, cum sit arduum de his quae coniectura assequenda sunt aliquid certi promittere.

[20,6] Ergo, ut ait, potest terram mouere aqua, si partes aliquas eluit et adrosit, quibus desiit posse extenuatis sustineri quod integris ferebatur. Potest terram mouere impressio spiritus: fortasse enim aer extrinsecus alio intrante aere agitatur, fortasse aliqua parte subito decidente percutitur et inde motum capit. Fortasse aliqua pars terrae uelut columnis quibusdam ac pilis sustinetur, quibus uitiatis ac recedentibus tremit pondus impositum.

[20,7] Fortasse calida uis spiritus in ignem uersa et fulmini similis cum magna strage obstantium fertur. Fortasse palustres et iacentes aquas aliquis flatus impellit et inde aut ictus terram quatit aut spiritus agitatio ipso motu crescens et se incitans ab imo in summa usque perfertur. Nullam tamen illi placet causam motus esse maiorem quam spiritum.

(1) Let us move on now to those who have said that all the factors I have described, or several of them, are responsible. Democritus thinks several are. […] (5) Epicurus says that all these causes can operate, and he tries out several others, criticizing those who have declared that just one of them is the cause, since it is difficult to guarantee certainty about topics that have to be pursued by conjecture. (6) “Therefore,” he says, “water can cause an earthquake if it has washed away and eroded parts of the earth which, once worn away, leave the earth no longer able to support the weight it could when they were intact. The impact of breath can cause earthquakes: perhaps the air is disturbed when more air enters from outside; perhaps when part of the earth suddenly collapses, it causes a shock that sets the air in motion. Perhaps part of the earth is supported by some columns and piers, as it were, and when they are weakened and worn away, the weight placed on them shakes. (7) Perhaps some hot breath that has turned to fire, like a lightning-bolt, moves forward, causing serious damage to anything in its path. Perhaps some breeze sets marshy, stagnant water moving, and then either the impact shakes the earth, or the agitation of the breath grows with its own movement, spurs itself on, and travels from the depths right up to the surface.” But he thinks that no cause of motion is more important than breath. (translation by Hine 2010)

  • 32 Schiesaro (2015) 247. For Seneca see Bakker (2016) 63–65. Graver (2020) 490 n.14 raises her doubts (...)

In this context, much scholarly emphasis has been placed on Seneca’s testimony about the conjectural character of Epicurus’ principle of πλεοναχὸς τρόπος. Despite the fact the Seneca presents us with a list of alternative Epicurean causes, he himself eventually identifies one explanatory model, the one that he considers correct, i.e. breath.32

  • 33 For various sets of multiple explanations in the pseudo-Vergilian poem Aetna (109–117, 123–127, 282 (...)

18Let us now explore the distinctive way in which Seneca incorporates the Epicurean principle of multiple explanations in Letter 79. Seneca claims that, since both explanations do not contradict empirical reality, rather than privileging one over another one should consider them as equally plausible (Neutrum autem incredibile est); this statement unmistakably echoes Epicurus’ principle of οὐκ ἀντιμαρτύρησις. Given the fact that Seneca methodically engages with Ovid’s speech of Pythagoras in his Natural Questions 3 as well, it is reasonable to infer that in the present context he also engages intertextually with this specific Ovidian passage, with the focus now placed on Etna’s erosion over time. Seneca’s anticipated inspection of multiple possible reasons for Etna’s decay readily evokes the corresponding scope of Pythagoras’ volcanic account, since he raises the same question about the diminution of the volcano and applies the same scientific method of interpretation which is clearly freighted with Lucretian undertones.33 Even more, Seneca’s second explanation based on the gradual decline in the supply of material plausibly looks back to the third part of Pythagoras’ corresponding account (Met. 15.350-355):

sive bitumineae rapiunt incendia vires,
luteave exiguis ardescunt sulphura fumis,
nempe, ubi terra cibos alimentaque pinguia flammae
non dabit absumptis per longum viribus aevum,
naturaeque suum nutrimen deerit edaci,
non feret illa famem desertaque deseret ignis.

or if it is pitchy substances that cause the fire, and yellow sulphur, burning with scarce-seen flames, surely, when the earth shall no longer furnish food and rich sustenance for the fire, and its strength after long ages has been exhausted, and greedy Nature shall feel lack of her own nourishment, then she will not endure that hunger and, being deserted, will desert her fires.

At the same time, this Ovidian intertextual allusion introduces into Seneca’s discourse an eschatological dimension, which is inherent in both Ovid’s and Lucretius’ volcanic narratives.

19Seneca, then, points to another marvelous aspect of the volcano, the existence of snow near the volcano even during the summer and wonders whether there is a way to measure the distance of this snow from the crater (Ep. 79.4):

Sed reservemus ista, tunc quaesituri cum tu mihi scripseris quantum ab ipso ore montis nives absint, quas ne aestas quidem solvit; adeo tutae sunt ab igne vicino. Non est autem quod istam curam inputes mihi; morbo enim tuo daturus eras, etiam si nemo mandaret.

But let’s save those inquiries until after you have written to me about the others. How far is it from the crater to the patches of snow? They are well sheltered from the heat—even in summer they do not melt. No, don’t charge this effort you are making to my account. In your fevered state, you’d have done it anyway, even if no one had requested it. (translation by Graver/Long 2015)

  • 34 Hine (2002) 62.

The reader may quickly infer that the measurement of such a physical marvel is both pragmatically futile and ultimately pointless. Regarding both questions, Harry Hine comments on the lack of precision in detail and discerns a subtle humor: “[O]n this occasion Seneca is, as it were, just bluffing, going through the motions of scientific curiosity for literary purposes.”34 In other words, as soon as Seneca asks Lucilius to forgo his duties as procurator, in order to investigate not only the nature of Charybdis and the causes of Etna’s diminution, but also its summer snowline, the reader is alerted to the fact that Seneca will in effect destabilize his initial zeal for the conquest of scientific truth.

Anti-sublime Etna and the Stoic sage

20Seneca embarks on his discussion by evaluating the volcanic knowledge derived from multiple explanations (Ep. 79.10):

An Aetna tua possit sublabi et in se ruere, an hoc excelsum cacumen et conspicuum per vasti maris spatia detrahat adsidua vis ignium, nescio.

Whether your Mount Etna could ever collapse onto itself, whether that lofty peak, visible far out at sea, is shrinking from the constant force of its fires, I do not know. (translation by Graver/Long 2015 slightly modified)

  • 35 I would like to thank Daniel Markovich for this astute remark.

21This remark comes as a turning point in the discussion: by adding the second person possessive pronoun to Etna (Aetna tua), Seneca appears to be distancing himself from Lucilius’ zeal. He admits that he himself does not have a definite answer concerning Etna’s height and its conjectured decay. He thus takes his addressee aback and asserts that this lack of knowledge about the causes of Etna’s decay is not as crucial as suggested at the beginning. Unlike his predecessors, i.e. Lucretius and Ovid, who feel a pressing need to elucidate the precise causes of such a dreadful natural phenomenon which potentially proclaims the end of the world and so confers grandeur and / or incites fear, Seneca stresses only the physical process by which the height of the volcano is diminished. This point of difference should not come as a surprise; while the Epicureans deny that divine intervention occurs in nature and human affairs and believe that the multiple explanations which pertain to natural phenomena guarantee their liberation from the fear of gods, for the Stoics the wonders of nature amply bear witness to divine providence. So, provided that any one of the competing multiple explanations about Etna’s decay is rationally viable, there is no need for the Stoic proficiens to decide which explanation is correct, since it is the commitment to reason by itself that can eliminate his fear of death. The import of the Epicurean principle of multiple explanations is thus redefined. As a consequence, by means of this subtle modification in his handling of this Epicurean explanatory concept, which is vividly charged with Lucretian and Ovidian connotations, Seneca subjects the eminence of Etna to a de facto process of downgrading. The semantic degrading of Etna as a source of physical sublimity also entails its demotion as a sublime literary topic with a formidable literary reputation. This process of discharging Etna of both negative and positive intertextual implications, which we have traced in our preliminary survey, results in the forging of an anti-sublime image of Etna. Given, however, the fact that even if the volcano is physically reduced in size, it remains massive and massively threatening, capable of wondrous destructiveness, the reader may realize that any such reduction is a matter of perspective that Seneca wishes to impose. Seneca plausibly harks back to Lucretius’ similar anti-climax in DRN 1.716-733, when the wondrous sublimity of Etna seemingly abates once compared to Empedocles. Empedocles’ place is now usurped by the Stoic sage.35

22Before we consider further the reasons underlying Seneca’s decision to modify the stereotypical sublime image of Etna, we should take into consideration the fact that Letter 79 is not the only context in which Seneca subjects Etna to this process of devaluation.

  • 36 Williams (2014) 142–146, especially 145.
  • 37 Williams (2014) 145.

23Let us first turn to the Natural Questions, since -to quote Williams-, “It is as if the two works momentarily converge in Ep. 79, before Seneca veers away from his physical probings (79.4), shifting his focus from the summit of Etna to the summit of wisdom and virtue (esp. 79.10-12) and thereby setting the Epistulae back on its main ethical course.”36 In the Prologue to Natural Questions 4a, which in Willliams’s words is “epistolary in appearance”,37 just before his investigation of Nile’s summer flooding, Seneca warns Lucilius of the dangers of flattery, to which he is exposed as a procurator of Sicily.

Delectat te, quemadmodum scribis, Lucili uirorum optime, Sicilia et officium procurationis otiosae, delectabitque, si continere id intra fines suos uolueris nec efficere imperium quod est procuratio. Facturum hoc te non dubito; scio quam sis ambitioni alienus, quam familiaris otio et litteris. Turbam rerum hominumque desiderent qui se pati nesciunt: tibi tecum optime conuenit.

You are delighted with Sicily—so you write, Lucilius, excellent man—and with the duties of a procuratorship that leaves you leisure time; and that delight will continue, if you are willing to keep the duties within their limits and not treat a procuratorship as a governorship. I have no doubt that you are willing. I know how disinclined to ambition you are, how at home with leisure and study. (Translation by Hine 2010)

Seneca draws a contrast between Lucilius’ risk of vanity and his own image in the preface to his Natural Questions 3 as a Stoic sublime traveler on his quest for knowledge (QNat. 3 Praef. 1):

Non praeterit me, Lucili virorum optime, quam magnarum rerum fundamenta ponam senex, qui mundum circuire constitui et causas secretaque eius eruere atqui aliis noscenda prodere. Quando tam multa consequar, tam sparsa colligam, tam occulta perspiciam?

I am not unaware, Lucilius, excellent man, of how great is the enterprise whose foundations I am laying in my old age, now that I have decided to circumnavigate the universe, to seek out its causes and secrets, and to present them for others to learn about. When shall I investigate things so numerous, gather together things so scattered, examine things so inaccessible? (Translation by Hine, slightly modified)

  • 38 For the notion of sublime in the prologue to QNat. 3 see Garani (2020a). See also Williams (2016). (...)
  • 39 Williams (2017) 46: “Just as Seneca qualifies Lucilius’ (self-)importance in Sicily by wittily char (...)

As I have argued elsewhere in considerable detail, in the latter passage Seneca engages intertextually with the Ovidian figures of Pythagoras and Phaëthon as well as Lucretius’ Epicurus.38 Thus, in contrast to all these intertexts of positive sublime figures, Seneca portrays Lucilius’ pride at being so close to Sicilian Etna. In doing so, Seneca aims at prioritizing the awesome spectacle of the Nile over the volcanic marvel, which is thereby devalued.39

  • 40 For Letter 51.1 see Williams (2017) 46–8. See also Gowers (2011) 187. For Letter 79 see Williams (2 (...)

24In a similar fashion, Seneca undermines Etna’s exceptionality in Letter 51, which was written from the city of Baiae on the bay of Naples (Ep. 51.1):40

Quomodo quisque potest, mi Lucili! Tu istic habes Aetnam, editum illum ac nobilissimum Siciliae montem, quem quare dixerit Messala unicum, sive Valgius, apud utrumque enim legi, non reperio, cum plurima loca evomant ignem, non tantum edita, quod crebrius evenit, videlicet quia ignis in altissimum effertur, sed etiam iacentia.

We make do with what we have, dear Lucilius. You have Etna there, tallest and noblest mountain in Sicily—though why Messala calls it “unique,” I cannot discover. Or was it Valgius? I have read it in both. Many places belch forth fire, and not only high places—though that happens more often, no doubt because fire tends upward—but level places too. (translation by Graver/Long 2015)

  • 41 König (2022) 116; more generally see id. 107–118 on scientific viewing and the volcanic sublime.

König remarks that in this context the notion of dignity that is commonly associated with Etna is juxtaposed with the laxity of Baiae. This approach to Etna is consonant with the idea of mountains as places of virtue.41 Still, given that Seneca observes that many smaller volcanoes also belch forth flames, he destabilizes Etna’s uniqueness.

25Along the same lines, in Letter 79 Seneca changes the focus from Etna’s literal height to the metaphorical height which the Stoic sage should reach (Ep. 79.10):

virtutem non flamma, non ruina inferius adducet; haec una maiestas deprimi nescit. Nec proferri ultra nec referri potest; sic huius, ut caelestium, stata magnitudo est. Ad hanc nos conemur educere.

What I do know is that no flame, no devastation will ever bring down the exalted nature of virtue. This is the one greatness that knows no diminishment. It can neither be heightened nor reduced; its magnitude is fixed, like that of the heavenly bodies. Let us endeavor to advance ourselves to that condition. (translation by Graver/Long 2015)

  • 42 For the way in which the apocalyptic imagery of the ruina caused by small-scale natural disasters s (...)
  • 43 Wilcox (2008) 464–475 regarding Seneca’s Dialogi, especially 464. She rightly notes (464, footnote (...)
  • 44 Papaioannou (2020) 109. Along these lines, she explores the variety in Seneca’s implementation of i (...)
  • 45 Williams (2017) 48.
  • 46 Berno (2019). For the idea of the heroic sage standing alone in the midst of collapsing universe se (...)

Seneca also makes a subtle shift from the decline of Etna to the idea of eschatological conflagration (non flamma, non ruina), a shift that is already hinted at in the Lucretian and Ovidian intertexts;42 this idea appears relatively insignificant, when it is compared to virtue. At the same time, he replicates the verb nescio with its epistemological echoes, but now assigns as its subject the personified virtue (haec una maiestas […] nescit). Contrary to this twofold negation of knowledge, the reader infers that, since the diminution of Etna must appear as slight at best, the painstaking search for any such reduction of scale merely -and ironically- confirms the actual massiveness of the volcano which then acts as a positive point of comparison with the summit of Stoic wisdom: in this way Seneca clearly demonstrates that on a comparative scale, wisdom is still more figuratively towering even than mighty Etna. As Amanda Wilcox astutely remarks, “an ironic mode of moralizing is particularly suited to Stoicism, which dealt in paradoxes as a major mode of communicating ideas from the time of its founding.”43 Building on Wilcox’s discussion, Sophia Papaioannou draws our attention to what is called “situational irony”, i.e. “a condition of affairs that is understood by a third party to be ironic”.44 We could, therefore, claim that the passage under discussion may fall into this category of ironical discourse: whereas Etna may undergo slight permutation in its physical size and be subject to visual distortion through the fallibility of our senses, Stoic wisdom towers high in an always unwavering and constant way; it cannot be diminished or made subject to size-adjustment, and it endures through time in ways that even Etna cannot. In this way, Seneca also draws a contrast between the inconsequential fluidity of the natural world and the permanence of ultimate virtue. From the point of view of the sage, who rests on the summit of his wisdom everlastingly, any definite answer pertaining to the nature of the volcano seems superfluous. To put it differently, the sage does not need a specific scientific answer in order to achieve moral height. Despite the limits to our understanding of the physical world that surrounds us, what really matters is the summit of wisdom and virtue, which -in Williams’s words- is a “conceptual wonder”.45 Seneca thus touches once again upon the idea of the sublimity of the Stoic sage.46

  • 47 Garani (2007) 137–141, especially 139: “Lucretius emphasizes in general why worldly upheavals shoul (...)

26While Seneca implies a comparison between Etna with its eschatological implications and virtue, with the latter occupying the pinnacle, he appears to have appropriated Lucretius’ technique of proportion that we read in DRN 6 specifically in association with the eruptions of Etna. On the basis of the similar atomic constitution of the fiery lava and the fevered warmth of disease, Lucretius unfolds the causes of dreadful volcanic phenomena and implicitly points to the inevitable end of the world (DRN 6.639-679). In order to alleviate human fear regarding death, he applies the so-called “technique of proportion” and thus deflates the significance of the phenomenon, once he has displayed this from the perspective of the universe (DRN 6.648-652):47

Hisce tibi in rebus latest alteque uidendum
et longe cunctas in partis dispiciendum,
ut reminiscaris summam rerum esse profundam,
et uideas caelum summai totius unum                          650
quam sit paruula pars et quam multesima constet
nec tota pars, homo terrai quota totius unus.

In considering these matters you must cast your view wide and deep, and survey all quarters far abroad, that you many remember how profound is the sum of things, and see how very small a part, how infinitesimal a fraction of the whole universe is one sky–not so large a part as one man is of the whole earth. If you should keep this steadily before your mind, comprehend it clearly, see it clearly, you would cease to wonder at many things.

Conclusions

27To sum up our findings, in order to account for why Etna atrophies, Seneca coopts into his Stoic arsenal the Epicurean weapon of multiple explanations, along with its Lucretian and Ovidian ramifications. Yet, when it comes to the Stoic sage, Seneca gently tests and even undermines the ethical value of this kind of volcanic knowledge. Accordingly, he ironically degrades the physical grandeur of the volcano and thus deflates its prevailing associations with the notion of sublimity. So, the literal summit of the volcano surrenders its place to the metaphorical summit of Stoic virtue and wisdom. In so doing, Seneca revisits dominant themes that he also touches upon in Natural Questions 3, now viewed from a different perspective, but still in close intertextual dialogue with Lucretius and Ovid. All in all, Seneca himself adds a new ring to the intertextual chain, which Lucilius is about to take over.

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Notes

1 This is a revised version of the paper presented at the Seneca 2022 International Conference “What more can we say about Seneca?” that took place at the School of Arts and Humanities, University of Lisbon, Portugal (17–20 October 2022). I would like to thank the organizers and particularly Ricardo Duarte for their hard efforts to bring together a great number of Senecan scholars. The penultimate version of this paper has been presented at the Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati. I would like to wholeheartedly thank Daniel Markovich for the invitation, the warm hospitality, and his constructive criticism. Sincere thanks are also due to the audience, especially to Dylan Kenny, Kelly Shannon-Henderson, and Zoe Stamatopoulou. I am deeply grateful to the two anonymous reviewers for their stimulating, detailed and informative suggestions and comments.

2 For Seneca on travelling, literary practice and wisdom see Montiglio (2006) 568–569.

3 Cornelius Severus was an epic poet, according to Quintilian 10.1.89. On the basis of Seneca’s reference to “public property”, Trinacty (2014, 12) adds to these explicit intertexts, Horace’s Ars Poetica, in the end of which there is a reference to Empedocles’ legendary death by leaping into Etna (Ars 463 Siculi poetae). This plausible allusion strengthens the association of Seneca’s notion of sublimity in Epistle 79 with the Empedoclean / Lucretian / Ovidian vatic sage. For Seneca and Horace see the volume edited by Stöckinger, Winter and Zanker (2017).

4 Reydams-Schils (2010) 199–200 about the notion of body-soul dualism and the Platonic resonances.

5 McGill (2012) 200–202.

6 Trinacty (2014) 13.

7 See Gareth Williams’ particularly illuminating discussion in his book on the Venetian humanist Pietro Bembo and Etna (2017) 23–71.

8 For the explicit presence of Lucretius in Seneca’s philosophical writings see Gatzemeier (2013) 59–83.

9 Fantham (2010, 138) points out that in this particular letter, “Seneca draws on the model of Epicurus’ letters to his closest friends”. For Seneca and Lucretius see Schiesaro (2015), Graver (2015) and (2020).

10 Garani (2024).

11 For Etna in Ps.-Longinus see Porter (2016) 175, 383, 476, 516, 535. See also Billault (2004), Halliwell (2022).

12 Seneca plausibly reverberates here Lucretius’ famous analogy between the letters of the alphabet and the atoms (DRN 1.196-198, 1.814-829, 1.897-914, 2.688-699, and 2.1013-1022), according to which, just as there is an infinite supply of a limited number of letters in the alphabet which can produce an enormous number of various words by changing only their order, there must be the infinite quantity of each type of atoms greatly varying in size and shape that combine to create various objects by changing their order as well as their motions. On the basis of the Epicurean principle of the impossibility of palingenesis, the emphasis in the present context is placed on the fact that, as far as literary creation is concerned, every new rearrangement of volcanic material results in a new creation. For a recent discussion of Lucretius’ analogy see Buglass (2022).

13 For Vergil in Seneca see Berno (2011), Papaioannou (2020) with further bibliography.

14 The translation of Vergil’s Aeneid is quoted from Fairclough (1916), revised by Goold (1999). For Callimachus’ Enceladus (Aet. fr. 1.36 with schol. ad Pind. Ol. 4.7 = p. 132.5-7 11c Drachmann) and the “Alexandrian footnote” signaled by the phrase fama est (Verg. Aen. 3.578) see Williams (2017) 35. See also Thomas (1999) 283–286.

15 Williams (2017) 35.

16 For [Aechylus]’s P.V. see Glauthier (2018) who discusses the association with Pindar’s Pythian 1. For Pindar and [Aeschylus] see also Berranger-Auserve (2004). For Pindar see Hine (2002) 69–72

17 Translations of Lucretius are quoted from Rouse (1924), revised by Smith (1992).

18 Williams (2017) 43.

19 Gale (2000) 120–123. In his seminal discussion on the traces of Lucretian multiple explanations in later hexameter poetry, Hardie (2009, 237-238) argues that this passage looks back to the beginning of Georgics 1, in which Vergil resorts to the Lucretian technique of multiple explanations in order to explicate the beneficial effect for the soil of the stubble-burning (Geo. 1.84-93): “[A]n awareness of the contrast between the naturalist processes of stubble-burning and the supernatural disasters that mark the death of Caesar may serve retrospectively to qualify the reader’s confidence in the Lucretian explanatory model to which the stubble-burning passage adverts”. Along the same lines, one should read Pythagoras’ use of multiple explanations in Met. 15 as a reply to Verg. Geo. 1.

20 Williams (2017) 49–54.

21 For Ovid’s Etna see Myers (1994) 154–155, Viarre (2001), Guzmán Arias (2003), Hardie (2015) 526–528. See also Buxton (2016). For the speech of Pythagoras in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 15 see e.g. Crahay and Hubaux (1958), Hardie (1995).

22 The translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses are quoted from Miller (1916), revised by Goold (1984).

23 For a comparison of Pythagoras’ account with Lucretius’ account on Etna see Williams (2017) 56.

24 Smolenaars (2005) 322–323.

25 For objections see Bakker (2016) 67–75.

26 Diogenes of Oenoanda Fr. 13.II.12–III.13 περὶ / δἀνατολῶν ἤδη λέγω- / μεν καὶ δύσεων καὶ τῶν / ἐφεξῆς, ἐκεῖνο προθέντες/| ὅτι τὸν ζητοῦντά τι περὶ / τῶν ἀδήλων, ἂν βλέπῃ τοὺς / τοῦ δυνατοῦ τρόπους πλεί- / ονας, vac. 1 περὶ τοῦδέ τινος / μόνου τολμηρὸν καταπο- / φαίνεσθαι· μάντεως γὰρ / μᾶλλόν ἐστιν τὸ τοιοῦτον / <ν>δρὸς σοφοῦ. vac. 1 τὸ μέντοι / λέγειν πάντας μὲν ἐνδε- / χομένους, πιθανώτερον / δεἶναι τόνδε τοῦδε ὀρθῶς / ἔχει. “Let us now discuss risings and settings and related matters after making this preliminary point: if one is investigating things that are not directly perceptible, and if one sees that several explanations are possible, it is reckless to make a dogmatic pronouncement concerning any single one; such a procedure is characteristic of a seer rather than a wise man. It is correct, however, to say that, while all explanations are possible, this one is more plausible than that.” (text and translation by Smith 1993) with Tsouna (2023). See also Bénatouïl (2003), Hankinson (2013), Masi (2014), Verde (2016), Verde (2022). For multiple explanations in Diogenes of Oenoanda see Corsi (2017). Kidd (1992, 303–304) distinguishes different attitudes to multiplicity of causal explanation in Greek philosophy.

27 Garani (2020b). For Seneca’s reception of Ovid see also Degl’Innocenti Pierini (1990a) and (1990b), Borgo (1992), De Vivo (1995), Garani (2020a), (2021) and (2022).

28 Cf. also Seneca QNat. 6.30.1 (quotation of Verg. Aen. 3.414-419, but meaningful omission of Verg. Aen. 3.420-428 about Scylla and Charybdis): “I am not surprised that a statue was split apart, for I have said that mountains have separated from mountains, and the ground itself has been torn apart from the depths: They say that once these regions, convulsed by violence and wide devastation, (long aeons of time can cause so much change) sprang apart, although to begin with both the lands were one. The ocean came with mighty force and split the huge flank of Hesperia from the flank of Sicily, and ran in a narrow strait between fields and cities that were separated by the sea.” (translation by Hine 2010). On Charybdis see also Sen. Ep. 14.

29 For Seneca’s interest in volcanic phenomena (QNat. 2.104, 2.26.4-6, 2.30.1; 5.14.4) see Dupraz (2004). Cf. Arist. Mete. 2,8 366b32-367a11.

30 Berno (2012); Garani (forthcoming). For Seneca’s use of three supernatural causes in one of his tragedies see Sen. Oed. 576–581.

31 Cf. Epicurus fr. 351 Usener. See also Sen. QNat. 2.22.1-3, 5.4.1

32 Schiesaro (2015) 247. For Seneca see Bakker (2016) 63–65. Graver (2020) 490 n.14 raises her doubts about the claim that Seneca’s principle derives solely from Epicurus.

33 For various sets of multiple explanations in the pseudo-Vergilian poem Aetna (109–117, 123–127, 282–292, 306–312) see Garani (2009), Verde (2018) and (2020).

34 Hine (2002) 62.

35 I would like to thank Daniel Markovich for this astute remark.

36 Williams (2014) 142–146, especially 145.

37 Williams (2014) 145.

38 For the notion of sublime in the prologue to QNat. 3 see Garani (2020a). See also Williams (2016). For the sublime in Lucretius see in particular Conte (1994), Hardie (2009). For a comprehensive overview of the concept of classical sublime see now Glauthier (2023) who remarks (17–18): “By the end of the fifth century, the sublime had become a recognizable phenomenon, an ethical stance, a marker of ideology and value, and a topic of debate. […] This state is often described as wonder, amazement, stupefaction, terror, or dread, ad it registers a moment of or aspiration towards transcendence, broadly construed. To pass beyond the limits of everyday sense-perception; to become suddenly aware of nature’s vastness, might, or order; to be transported mentally through space or time; to come into contact with the divine -such are the experiences of the classical sublime.”

39 Williams (2017) 46: “Just as Seneca qualifies Lucilius’ (self-)importance in Sicily by wittily characterizing his office there as a mere procuratiuncula (Letter 31.9, ‘a mini-caretakership’), so the wonders of Sicily-and, by silent implication, even the wonder of wonders that is Etna- are subsequently dwarfed by the awesome spectacle of the Nile and its summer flood in the main body of Natural Questions 4a: through this change of place Lucilius is gently put in his place.” For a combinational reading of QNat. 3 and 4a see Williams (2012) 93–135.

40 For Letter 51.1 see Williams (2017) 46–8. See also Gowers (2011) 187. For Letter 79 see Williams (2017) 47–49.

41 König (2022) 116; more generally see id. 107–118 on scientific viewing and the volcanic sublime.

42 For the way in which the apocalyptic imagery of the ruina caused by small-scale natural disasters such as earthquakes (and -I should add- volcanoes) are associated with cosmic eschatology and herald the overall ruina that awaits our world (DRN 6.607 mundi confusa ruina “the confused ruin of the world”) see Schiesaro (2021) who also discusses the impact of Lucretian eschatology on subsequent authors such as Vergil, Ovid, Lucan and Seneca. See also Williams (2021) for what he calls Seneca’s “eschatological epistolarity”.

43 Wilcox (2008) 464–475 regarding Seneca’s Dialogi, especially 464. She rightly notes (464, footnote 30): “Stoic paradoxes are statements that seem impossible or nonsensical to a person who takes a conventional stance, but to a convinced Stoic they are simply statements of fact. Thus, Stoic paradoxes participate in simple corrective irony. They draw attention to an apparent conflict of appearance and reality which correct interpretation resolves. That is, they are resolved by an attitudinal reorientation on the listener’s or reader’s part, which reorientation reveals apparent nonsense to be true statements of how things really are.”

44 Papaioannou (2020) 109. Along these lines, she explores the variety in Seneca’s implementation of irony in his intertextual dialogue with Vergil’s Aeneid in the Epistles. As she states (2020, 109–110): “situational ironies are explored through analysis of the observer’s ironic sense and attitudes. The irony works precisely through the pretense that something that reason could not invent has been invented. […] When irony works from a moral perspective, which in my view is Seneca’s case in many respects, it sets out to compromise intellectually two seemingly incongruent things: to define and defend our living in the context of a cultural frame, political situation and set of ideals, which nonetheless we have come to doubt and question under certain circumstances. […] Intertextuality is a particularly effective way to employ irony.” Papaioannou (2020, 110) introduces also the concept of “stable irony” which seems to be applicable in the context under discussion: “Stable irony is irony in which the author has or takes a position, and where the irony may function in such a way that the reader who ‘gets it’ at least is offered the possibility of making that position his or her own. Stable irony is, then, irony that is endowed with a moral purposiveness.” For various forms of irony see Muecke (1969) and (1970). See also Booth (1974) for the notion of “stable irony”.

45 Williams (2017) 48.

46 Berno (2019). For the idea of the heroic sage standing alone in the midst of collapsing universe see Ep. 9.16-18.

47 Garani (2007) 137–141, especially 139: “Lucretius emphasizes in general why worldly upheavals should not appear miraculous to us, and discusses the origins of such deleterious atomic congregations (6.662-772). As our world supplies an immeasurable amount of atoms, the combinations of which generate diseases, in the same way the universe furnishes our world with an even greater number of atoms, which provoke endless meteorological disorders, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, rainstorms and the like.” Cf. Williams (2017) 44. For the representation of volcanoes in Lucretius see also Guittard (2004).

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Myrto Garani, « Seneca’s Etna: the Epicurean principle of multiple explanations, anti-sublimity and the Stoic sage (Ep. 79) »Dictynna [En ligne], 20 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2023, consulté le 21 avril 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/dictynna/3629 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/dictynna.3629

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Myrto Garani

University of Athens

mgarani@phil.uoa.gr

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