Natural Questions
13th-century manuscript made for the Crown of Aragon
AuthorLucius Annaeus Seneca
Original titleNaturales quaestiones
CountryAncient Rome
SubjectNatural philosophy
Publication date
62–64 AD

Naturales quaestiones (Natural Questions) is a Latin work of natural philosophy written by Seneca around 65 AD. It is not a systematic encyclopedia like the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder, though with Pliny's work it represents one of the few Roman works dedicated to investigating the natural world. Seneca's investigation takes place mainly through the consideration of the views of other thinkers, both Greek and Roman, though it is not without original thought. One of the most unusual features of the work is Seneca's articulation of the natural philosophy with moralising episodes that seem to have little to do with the investigation. Much of the recent scholarship on the Naturales Quaestiones has been dedicated to explaining this feature of the work. It is often suggested that the purpose of this combination of ethics and philosophical 'physics' is to demonstrate the close connection between these two parts of philosophy, in line with the thought of Stoicism.


The earliest date (terminus post quem) for writing is AD 60,[1] and it is generally thought to have been written around 62 to 64 AD.[2]


The Naturales Quaestiones is addressed to Lucilius Junior:[3]

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 traverse the world, to seek out its causes and secrets, and to present them for others to learn about. [Book 3] [4]

The work originally had eight books, but the book on the Nile (book 4a) is missing the second part, whereas the book concerning Hail and Snow (book 4b) is missing the first half.[2] These two books have been joined by tradition to become book 4.

The contents of these seven books are as follows:[3]

  1. meteors, halos, rainbows, mock suns, etc.
  2. thunder and lightning. (theory of thunderstorms [5])
  3. water; this book also contains the description of the Roman heat exchangers, which were called "dracones", or "miliaria"; and a description of the deluge.
  4. the Nile (4a); hail, snow, and ice (4b). (theory of hail [6])
  5. winds.
  6. earthquakes and the sources of the Nile.
  7. comets.

The original order of the books is a matter of scholarly disagreement.[7][8] Several scholars consider an original order, as used by Harry M. Hine, being Book 3 (firstly), then Book 4a, 4b, Books 5-7 then Books 1, and finally Book 2.[9][10]


The work is a study on questions of physics and meteorology.[11] It is one of the few Roman works which deals with scientific matters. It is not a systematic work, but a collection of facts of nature from various writers, Greek and Roman, many of which are curiosities. Moral remarks are scattered through the work; and indeed the design of the whole appears to be to find a foundation for ethics in the knowledge of nature.[3] There is an incontrovertible intertwinement of an ethical concern with the questions of nature (physics) in the work.[2][12]

Stoics from early in their history considered the telos (goal) of their efforts to be kata physin (according to nature).[13] Thus for Seneca, virtue in a human was dependent on behaving in a natural way.[14] The highest good or virtue is to live "according to one's own nature" (secundum naturam suam vivere in Ep. 41:9, Ep. 121:3); referring to both nature in general and one's own innate nature.[14]

Seneca had been the imperial advisor during the early part of Nero's reign before falling out of favour, and Seneca compliments Nero four times in Naturales quaestiones. A more indirect allusion to his former role can be found in book 2 when during a discussion of lightning bolts (Book 2.43), Seneca breaks off to urge rulers to always take counsel from their advisors.[15] Seneca thought that promoting an active interest in science to Nero would be beneficial to the emperor's morality.[15]

What is most important? Not to admit bad intentions into your mind, to raise pure hands to raise your spirits high above chance occurrences .... for these reasons the study of nature will be helpful.....we shall leave behind what is sordid.... separate the mind, which needs to be elevated and great, from the body ... when we have exercised our intellect on hidden obscurities, it will be no less effective on matters in plain view

— NQ3 Preface (Quote taken from G.D. Williams p. 1-2 [2])

Contemplation of nature for Seneca "unchains the mind"[16] enabling a person to transcend evil, and by experiencing the totality (totum)[2] of nature, develop a consciousness and being more compatible with direct experience of God, by elevating one's moral nature.[17][16]

God is in all things natural (is intramundane[18]), for Seneca:[19]

quisquis formator universi fuit sive ille Deus est potens omnium, sive incorporalis ratio, ingentium operum artifex, sive divinus spiritus, per omnia, maxima, minima, aequali intentione diffusus
Whoever was the former of the universe, whether God almighty, whether incorporeal Reason, whether the divine Spirit, diffused equally through all things, the greatest and the least.[20]

Achieving an existence in keeping with the correct manner of living (that is being ethical) depends on a person fulfilling that existence in accordance with the principles of the natural law or ius naturae (p. 258 [16]) of the divine universal order (Seneca - Ep 76.23 as shown at p. 84-5 [14]), inherent in the totality of nature.[2][14][16] To make one in agreement with nature (όμολογουμένως τή φύσει).[21]

Later history

The known history of the text begins in the 12th century.[8] Erasmus of Rotterdam once owned a copy of the work, which had previously belonged to the 15th century humanist Rodolphus Agricola.[22]

The first edition (editio princeps) was published in Venice in 1490. English language editions include that published in 1972-73 by the Loeb Classical Library.[23]

See also


  1. ^ J. Tracy cross-references Hine (2006) in Jonathan Tracy (2014). Lucan's Egyptian Civil War. Cambridge University Press. p. 104. ISBN 978-1107072077. Retrieved 2015-03-18.
  2. ^ a b c d e f GD Williams (2012). The Cosmic Viewpoint: A Study of Seneca's 'Natural Questions'. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199742516. Retrieved 2015-03-17.
  3. ^ a b c George Long (ed.William Smith). Seneca, L. Annaeus. Little, Brown and Company Boston 1867. Archived from the original on 2011-06-06. Retrieved 2011-10-21.
  4. ^ HM Hine (translator) On Terrestrial Waters Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2010. [Retrieved 2015-3-17] OCLC 642208470
  5. ^ Posidonius, Ian Gray Kidd - Posidonius: The commentary. Vol.2 (p.503) (Cambridge University Press, 1988) ISBN 0521354994 [Retrieved 2015-3-18]
  6. ^ Ian Gray Kidd - p.510 [Retrieved 2015-3-18]
  7. ^ Limburg, F. J. G., 2007, Doctoral thesis, p. 10-11. Leiden University
  8. ^ a b M von Albrecht - A History of Roman Literature: From Livius Andronicus to Boethius : with Special Regard to Its Influence on World Literature (p.1193) Editor GL Schmeling (BRILL, 1997) ISBN 9004107118 [Retrieved 2015-3-17]
  9. ^ Open Library at The Internet Archive - (shows) Table of Contents of Natural questions translated by Harry M. Hine Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2010 ISBN 0226748383 [Retrieved 2015-3-16]
  10. ^ Jonathan Tracy (2014). Lucan's Egyptian Civil War. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1107072077. Retrieved 2015-03-17.
  11. ^ J Sellars - Stoicism (Routledge, 5 Dec 2014) ISBN 1317493915 [Retrieved 2015-3-16]
  12. ^ Limburg, F. J. G., 2007, Doctoral thesis, p. 1-2. Leiden University
  13. ^ D Mehl (2002). C Damon; JF Miller; KS Myers (eds.). The Stoic Paradoxes according to Cicero (in) Vertis in Usum. Walter de Gruyter. p. 40. ISBN 3598777108. Retrieved 2015-03-19.
  14. ^ a b c d Groenendijk, Leendert F. and de Ruyter, Doret J.(2009). 'Learning from Seneca: a Stoic perspective on the art of living and education', Ethics and Education (PDF). pp. 81–92. doi:10.1080/17449640902816277. S2CID 143758851. Retrieved 2015-03-17.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  15. ^ a b Jonathan Tracy (2014). Lucan's Egyptian Civil War. Cambridge University Press. pp. 246–251. ISBN 978-1107072077. Retrieved 2015-03-18.
  16. ^ a b c d MS Bjornlie (2013). Politics and Tradition Between Rome, Ravenna and Constantinople: A Study of Cassiodorus and the Variae. Cambridge University Press. pp. 527–554. ISBN 978-1107028401. Retrieved 2015-03-18.
  17. ^ GD Williams (2012). The Cosmic Viewpoint: A Study of Seneca's 'Natural Questions'. Oxford University Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-0199742516. Retrieved 2015-03-17.
  18. ^ M Vassányi - Bayle's identification of Spinozism with the World-Soul theory (3rd paragraph of p.219) in Anima Mundi: The Rise of the World Soul Theory in Modern German Philosophy: The Rise of the World Soul Theory in Modern German Philosophy (Springer Science & Business Media, 16 Nov 2010) ISBN 9048187966 (Volume 202 of International Archives of the History of Ideas) [Retrieved 2015-3-18]
  19. ^ G Reydams-Schils - Seneca's Platonism (in) Ancient Models of Mind: Studies in Human and Divine Rationality (p.205) (edited by A. Nightingale, D. Sedley) Cambridge University Press, 11 Nov 2010 ISBN 1139489763[Retrieved 2015-3-18]
  20. ^ R Lynam - The British Essayists: Lucubrations, or Winter evenings. General index (p.94) J. F. Dove, 1827 (original copy from Harvard University)[Retrieved 2015-3-18] (ed. this reference provides the English language translation)
  21. ^ J Wildberger - Brill's Companion to Seneca: Philosopher and Dramatist (p.315) Brill's Companions in Classical Studies (edited by Andreas Heil, Gregor Damschen) BRILL, 13 Dec 2013 ISBN 9004217088 [Retrieved 2015-3-18]
  22. ^ J Sperna Weiland, W Th. M. Frijhoff - Erasmus of Rotterdam: The Man and the Scholar : Proceedings of the Symposium Held at the Erasmus University, Rotterdam, 9-11 November 1986, Volumes 9-11 (p.159) (Brill Archive, 1988) ISBN 9004089209[Retrieved 2015-3-17]
  23. ^ HM Hine - Studies in the Text of Seneca's "Naturales Quaestiones" - Bibliography (Walter de Gruyter, 1 Jan 1996) ISBN 3110958074 [Retrieved 2015-3-16]
  24. ^ R Hoffmann, I Boyd Whyte - Beyond the Finite: The Sublime in Art and Science (p.122) ISBN 0199792747 (Oxford University Press, 14 Sep 2011) [Retrieved 2015-3-18]

Further reading