An excerpt from

Natural Questions

Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Translated by Harry M. Hine

On Terrestrial Waters

(praef.1) 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. When shall I investigate things so numerous, gather together things so scattered, examine things so inaccessible? (2) Old age is at my back and accuses me of having used up my years in fruitless pursuits. Let us press on all the more, and let hard work repair the losses of a misspent life. Let night be added to day, let business aff airs be cut back, let there be no more anxiety about family estates situated far from their owner, let the mind have time entirely to itself, let it turn to contemplation of itself, at least in its fi nal stages. (3) It will do so, it will drive itself on, and each day it will measure the short time left; whatever has been lost, it will recover by using its present life with care. One can rely on the transition from remorse to honorable action.

So I want to shout out these lines by the eminent poet:

We raise our mighty spirits and in a brief time attempt the greatest deeds.

I would say this if I were embarking on the project as a boy or young man (for any length of time would be too limited for such a great enterprise); but as it is we have started a serious, significant, endless project in our afternoon hours. (4) Let us do what is normal on journeys: those who have set out rather late rely on speed to make up the delay. Let us hurry, and let us tackle a task that is perhaps insuperable, certainly great, without using old age as an excuse. My mind grows in stature whenever it sees the size of the undertaking, and it ponders how much of the enterprise, not how much of its own life, still remains.

(5) Some people have worn themselves out writing down the deeds of foreign kings and the sufferings and audacities perpetrated by nations against each other. How much better it is to extinguish one’s own evils than to transmit the evils of others to posterity! How much more important to praise the works of the gods rather than the robberies of Philip or of Alexander, and of others who became famous by destroying nations and were no lesser disasters to mortals than a fl ood that has swept over all the plains, or a conflagration in which a large proportion of living things has gone up in flames! (6) They write of how Hannibal overcame the Alps; how he unexpectedly brought to Italy a war that had gathered strength from the disasters in Spain; how when his power was broken, even after Carthage, he stubbornly wandered from one king to the next, offering them a commander against the Romans, asking for an army; and how as an old man he did not stop looking for war in every nook and cranny: he could manage without a homeland, but not without an enemy!

(7) How much better it is to ask what ought to be done rather than what has been done, and to teach those who have entrusted everything to fortune that she has granted nothing enduring, that all her gifts blow away more rapidly than a breeze! For she cannot keep still, she delights in replacing joy with sorrow, or at least in blending them. So let no one be confident when things go well, or give up when they go badly: events swing back and forth. (8) Why are you rejoicing? You do not know when the sources of your elation will desert you: they will end when it suits them, not you. Why are you downcast? You have hit the bottom, now there is the opportunity to rise up again. (9) Adverse circumstances change for the better, desirable ones for the worse. So one must grasp the vicissitudes not just of private households, which a slight misfortune can overthrow, but of ruling households too. Kingdoms have risen from the lowest levels and towered over their rulers, ancient empires have collapsed at the peak of their prosperity, and it is impossible to count how many empires have been destroyed by others. At this very moment god is building up some, overthrowing others, and not putting them down gently but hurling them from their pinnacle so that nothing will be left. (10) We believe such things are great because we are small: many things derive their greatness not from their intrinsic nature but from our lowly status.

What is most important in human life? Not filling the seas with fleets, nor setting up standards on the shore of the Red Sea, nor, when the earth runs out of sources of harm, wandering the ocean to seek the unknown; rather it is seeing everything with one’s mind, and conquering one’s faults, which is the greatest victory possible. There are countless people who have been in control of nations and cities, very few who have been in control of themselves. (11) What is most important? Raising your mind above the threats and promises of fortune, thinking that nothing is worth hoping for. For what have you to desire? Whenever you sink back from engagement with the divine to the human level, your sight will go dim, just like the eyes of those who return from bright sunlight to dense shadow. (12) What is most important? Being able to endure adversity with a glad mind, to experience whatever happens as though you wanted it to happen to you. For you ought to have wanted it to, if you had known that everything happens according to god’s decree. Crying, complaining, and moaning are rebellion. (13) What is most important? A mind that is brave and defiant in the face of calamity, not just opposed but hostile to luxury, neither courting nor fleeing danger; one that knows not to wait for fortune but to create it, to go to face both forms unafraid and undismayed, unshaken either by the turmoil of the one or the glitter of the other. (14) What is most important? Refusing to let bad intentions enter your mind; raising pure hands to heaven; not seeking any good thing if someone else must give it or must lose it so that it may pass to you; wishing for a sound mind (something that can be wished for without competition); regarding the other things rated highly by mortals, even if some chance brings them into your home, as likely to exit by the door they entered. (15) What is most important? Raising your spirits high above chance events; remembering your human status, so that if you are fortunate, you know that will not last long, and if you are unfortunate, you know you are not so if you do not think so. (16) What is most important? Having your soul on your lips. This makes you free not according to the law of the Quirites, but according to the law of nature. A free person is one who escapes enslavement to himself, which is constant, unavoidable, oppressing by day and by night equally, without break, without respite. (17) Enslavement to oneself is the most severe enslavement, but it is easy to shake it off if you stop expecting a lot from yourself, if you stop making money for yourself, if you set before your eyes both your nature and your age, even if it is very young, and say to yourself, “Why am I going crazy? Why am I panting? Why am I sweating? Why am I working the land, or the forum? I don’t need much, and not for long.”

(18) For these reasons it will be useful for us to investigate nature: fi rst, we shall leave behind what is sordid; next, we shall keep our mind, which needs to be elevated and great, separated from the body; next, when our critical faculty has been exercised on hidden matters, it will be no worse at dealing with visible ones. And nothing is more visible than these remedies which are learned in order to counter our wickedness and madness, things we condemn but do not forsake.

(1.1) So let us inquire about terrestrial waters, and let us investigate how they occur—whether, as Ovid says, “There was a spring free from mud, silvery, with bright waves,” or, as Virgil says,

from where through nine mouths, with a huge roar coming from the mountain, the sea bursts forth, and covers the fields with the sounding waves,

or, as I find in your poetry, my dearest Lucilius, “The Elean river leaps out from Sicilian springs,” or some <other> cause supplies the water—how so many huge rivers fl ow day and night, why some swell with winter waters, others rise when the other rivers are subsiding. (2) For the present we shall separate the Nile from the crowd, since it has its own unique character, and we shall assign a special date to it. Now let us look at ordinary waters, cold as well as hot (in their case we shall need to inquire whether they are created hot or become so). We shall also discuss others distinguished either by flavor or by some useful property: for some benefit the eyes, some the muscles, some cure chronic ailments where the doctors have given up hope, some heal ulcers, some, when taken as a drink, give relief internally and alleviate complaints of the lungs or internal organs, some staunch bleeding.

(2.1) The tastes of individual waters are as varied as their uses. Some are sweet, others are pungent to various degrees: for there are salt and bitter ones, or medicinal ones, some of which we describe as flavored with sulphur, iron, or alum. The taste indicates the effect. (2) There are many other distinctions, first of touch (there are cold and hot), then of weight (there are light and heavy), then of color (there are pure, muddy, blue, bright), then of healthiness (there are beneficial ones and deadly ones). There are waters that become solidified into stone, some thin, some dense. Some provide nourishment, some pass through without any benefit to the drinker, some when drunk promote fertility.

(3) <All waters are either stationary or moving; either they are collected or they have various veins.> The lie of the land determines that water either stands still or flows: on a slope it flows; on level or low-lying land it is retained and forms pools. Sometimes it is pushed uphill by breath: but then it is being forced, not fl owing. It is collected from rainfall; from its own spring it emerges naturally. But there is nothing to prevent water from both being collected and emerging naturally in the same spot, as we see in the Fucine lake: the surrounding mountains channel into it any rain water that pours down, but there are large, hidden veins in the lake itself. So even after the winter torrents have flowed down, it preserves its appearance.

(4) So first let us investigate how the earth has the resources to maintain the flow of the rivers, and where all that water comes from. We are surprised that the seas do not register the arrival of water from the rivers: we should be equally surprised that the earth does not register the loss as they flow away. What is it that either has filled the earth up so that it can provide all this from some hidden reservoir, or else continuously replenishes it? Whatever explanation we give for rivers will also apply to streams and springs.

(5) Some people think that the earth immediately receives back all the water it has discharged; so the seas do not get bigger because they do not absorb what has flowed into them, but at once give it back. The water passes below the earth in hidden channels, and what arrived openly returns secretly. The sea is filtered along its course, because it is pounded as it goes through the numerous twists and turns within the earth, and loses its bitterness and disagreeableness; thanks to all the variety of soils, it sheds its flavor and turns into pure water.

(6.1) Some people think that the earth discharges again everything that it receives from rainfall, and they offer this argument: that there are very few rivers in those regions where rainfall is rare. (2) They say that the deserts of Ethiopia are dry and that few springs are found in the interior of Africa because the climate is boiling hot and virtually always like summer. So the sands lie barren, without trees, without cultivation, since they are moistened by only infrequent rain, which they at once swallow up. On the other hand, it is well known that Germany, Gaul, and, where it borders on them, Italy, are awash with streams and awash with rivers because they have a damp climate, and not even the summer is free from rain.

(7.1) You see that many objections can be brought against this view. First, I, who am devoted to digging my vineyards, assure you that no rainfall is heavy enough to wet the soil to a depth of more than ten feet. All the moisture is absorbed in the outer crust, and does not descend lower down. (2) So how can rain support powerful rivers, when it moistens only the surface of the earth? “But most of the rain is carried off in river channels to the sea. The earth absorbs only a little, and does not retain even that: for either it is dry and soaks up whatever pours down onto it, or it has had its fill, and repels anything that falls surplus to its desires. Therefore rivers are not swollen by the first rainfalls, because the thirsty earth sucks them all into itself.” (3) But just think of how some rivers burst out from rocks and mountains. What will rain contribute to them, since it runs down over bare crags and has no soil to soak into? Add that in the driest locations wells are sunk to a depth of two or three hundred feet or more, and discover rich veins of water at a depth to which rainwater does not penetrate; you will realize that down there it is not celestial water, nor collected water, but so-called living water. (4) This view is refuted by the following argument too: some springs well up on the very highest summits of mountains. It is clear that they are driven upward, or are created there, since all rainwater runs downward.

(8) Some people think that, just as on the outer surface of the earth there are huge marshes and great, navigable lakes, and just as seas stretch out across huge areas and flow into fjords, so the interior of the earth abounds in fresh water, which forms lakes just as broad as the ocean and its gulfs in our world, or rather all the broader, because deep down the earth spreads out further. So those rivers are discharged from that deep-seated supply. Why are you surprised that the earth does not register their removal, since the seas do not register their arrival?

(9.1) Some people support the following explanation: they say the earth has hollow cavities inside itself, and a lot of breath, which, being buried in deep darkness, is inevitably cold. Being sluggish and immobile, once it is unable to sustain itself, it turns to water. (2) Just as above us transformation of the atmosphere produces rain, so beneath the earth it produces a river or a stream. Above us it cannot remain sluggish and oppressive for long (for sometimes it is rarefied by the sun, sometimes it is expanded by winds, and so there are long intervals between rain showers); but below the earth whatever converts it to water is always the same—endless darkness, everlasting cold, inert denseness; so it will constantly be generating springs or rivers. (3) We believe that earth is subject to change; and any exhalations it gives off, since they are not dispersed in the open air, at once grow dense and turn into liquid. Here you have the first explanation of how water is produced under the earth.

(10.1) You can add that everything is produced from everything—air from water, water from air, fire from air, air from fire. So why should water not be produced from earth as well? If it can change into other things, it can change into water too, or rather, especially into water. For both things are related, both are heavy, both are dense, both are driven to one of the extremities of the world. Earth is produced from water: why shouldn’t water be produced from earth? (2) “But rivers are big.” When you see their size, look also at the size of what they come from. Since they flow steadily, and some rush along rapidly, you are surprised that renewed supplies of water are constantly available to them. You might as well be surprised that, when winds move the entire atmosphere, breath is not exhausted but flows constantly day and night, and that it does not move in a fixed channel, as rivers do, but travels on a broad front across a huge expanse of the sky! You might as well be surprised that there is any wave left to follow behind all those that have already broken! (3) Nothing is exhausted if it returns to itself. There are reciprocal exchanges between all the elements: whatever one loses turns into another, and nature weighs its parts as if they were placed on a pair of scales, to make sure that the world does not become unbalanced because the equality of its components is disturbed. (4) Everything is in everything. Not only does air turn into fire, but it is never without fire: take away its heat and it will grow stiff , stand still, become hard. Air turns to moisture, but nevertheless it is not without moisture. Earth produces both air and water, but it is never without water any more than it is without air. So the mutual transformations are easier because the things they are due to change into are already mixed in with them. (5) Thus the earth contains moisture, and it forces it out. It contains air, which the darkness of the subterranean cold condenses, so as to produce moisture. The earth can itself change into moisture too, and it exploits its own nature.

(11.1) “But tell me,” someone says, “If the causes of the appearance of rivers and springs are everlasting, why do they sometimes dry up and sometimes emerge in places where they did not exist previously?” Often the channels are disturbed by an earthquake, and subsidence severs the water’s route; the blocked water seeks new exits and attacks at some point, or is diverted from one place to another by the upheaval in the earth itself. (2) In our experience it commonly happens that rivers whose channels are blocked at first flow backward, then, since they have lost their way, they make another. Theophrastus says that this happened on mount Corycus, on which new springs emerged after an earthquake. (3) He thinks that other causes too can come into play and either elicit water or deflect and divert it from its course. Once mount Haemus was short of water, but when a tribe of Gauls that was blockaded by Cassander took to the mountain and chopped down the forests, an enormous supply of water appeared; obviously the woods were drawing on this for their nourishment, and when they were felled, the liquid was no longer used up on the trees and flowed above ground. (4) Theophrastus says that the same also happened near Magnesia. But, with all due respect to him, this is not plausible, because generally the places with most shade have the most water, and that would not be the case if trees dried up the water supply. They get their nourishment from near the surface, but rivers flow from deep within and are generated beyond the depth to which roots can extend. Then trees that have been cut down need more moisture: for they soak up enough not just to stay alive, but to grow. (5) He also says that near Arcadia, which was a city on the island of Crete, springs and streams stopped flowing because the land was no longer cultivated after the city was destroyed; but when it got its farmers back, it got its waters back too. He suggests that the reason for the drought was that the earth solidified and hardened, and, left undisturbed, it could not let the rainwater penetrate. But in that case why do we see many springs in completely deserted places? (6) And we can find more places that began to be cultivated because of their water than places that began to have water because they were being cultivated. It is not rainwater that causes enormous rivers that can accommodate large boats immediately below their source: you can infer this from the fact that throughout winter and summer the flow from the source remains constant. Rain can produce a torrent, but not a river that flows between its banks with a steady current; rain does not produce it, but speeds it up.

(12.1) Let us look at this again a bit more deeply, if you agree, and then you will know that you have no further questions to ask, since you have arrived at the true origin of rivers. Without doubt a perpetual supply and flow of water produces a river. So you ask me how water is produced? I shall ask in turn how air or earth is produced. (2) But if there are four elements in nature, you cannot ask where water comes from: for it is one-quarter of nature. So why are you surprised that such a large portion of nature can constantly pour something out from itself? (3) Just as air, which is also a quarter of the world, makes winds and breezes move, so water makes streams and rivers move. If wind is flowing air, a river is flowing water too. I have granted water more than enough power when I have said, “It is an element”; you realize that what proceeds from it cannot peter out. (13.1) I shall add, as Thales says, that “it is the most powerful element.” He thinks that it was the fi rst element, and everything arose from it. We too hold the same opinion, or something close to it: for we say that it is fire that seizes control of the world and turns everything into itself; then it becomes faint and weak and dies down, and when the fire is extinguished, nothing else is left in nature except moisture. The hope of a future world lies hidden in it. (2) So fire is the end of the world, and moisture is its starting-point. Are you surprised that rivers can constantly emerge from the substance that stood in for everything and from which everything comes? As things separated out it was reduced to a quarter share, in a location where it could provide sufficient material to produce rivers, streams, and springs.

(14.1) The following theory of Thales’ is silly. He says that the earth is supported by water and floats like a ship, and it is being tossed by the waves, thanks to its mobility, when it is said to be quaking: “So it is not surprising if it overflows with moisture that can pour out rivers, since it is all floating on moisture.” (2) Boo this old, naive theory off the stage: <***> and you have no reason to think that water enters the earth through cracks and forms bilge-water.

The Egyptians posited four elements, from each of which a pair is formed: they think that air is male when it is wind, female when it is misty and still; they call the sea “virile water,” and all other water “womanly”; they call fire “masculine” when it burns with a flame, and “female” when it shines, harmless to the touch; stronger earth, such as rocks and crags, they call “male,” and they give the name “female” to workable, cultivated soil. (3) The sea is all one, established as such from the beginning, of course; it has its own veins from which it is renewed and forms tides. Just like the sea, so this gentler water has vast, hidden reserves, which no river’s current will exhaust. Th e scale of its resources is hidden, but enough is emitted to allow a constant flow.

(15.1) There are some points here that we can vote for, but I would add this to the motion: I think that the earth is controlled by nature, and on the model of our own bodies, in which there are both veins and arteries; the former are receptacles for blood, the latter for breath. In the earth too there are some passages through which water runs, others through which breath does; and nature has created such a resemblance to the human body that our ancestors too spoke of “veins” of water. (2) Now, in us there is not just blood but many kinds of fluid, some essential, some corrupted and rather too thick; in the head there is the brain, mucus, saliva, and tears; in the bones, marrow and something added to the joints as a lubricant so that they can bend more readily. In just the same way in the earth as well there are several kinds of fluid: (3) some that harden when fully developed (from them comes the entire harvest of metals—from which greed seeks out gold and silver—and substances that turn from liquid to stone), and some that are formed from the decay of earth and moisture (such as bitumen and other things of that sort). This is the explanation for the kinds of water that come into being according to the law and will of nature.

(4) But, as in our bodies, so in the earth liquids often go bad: either a blow, or some upheaval, or the old age of the location, or cold, or heat corrupts their nature; a festering process forms a liquid, which may be either long-lasting or short-lived. (5) Now, in our bodies, when a vein has been severed, the blood runs until it has all flowed out, or until the cut in the vein <has healed> and the bleeding has subsided and been staunched, or some other factor has checked the flow of the blood; and in just the same way in the earth, when veins are unsealed and opened, a stream or river runs out. (6) The size of the vein that is opened makes a difference: sometimes it gives out when the water is exhausted; sometimes it is blocked by some obstacle; sometimes it heals over with a scar, as it were, and seals off the path it had opened up; sometimes the earth, which we have said is subject to change, loses its ability to convert its nourishment into moisture. (7) But on occasion what is exhausted can be renewed: sometimes it recovers its own strength; sometimes strength is transferred from elsewhere. For empty things placed next to full ones often divert moisture to themselves; often earth, if it putrefies easily, is itself dissolved and liquefied. The same occurs below the earth as in the clouds, that <the air> is condensed, and, when too heavy to remain in its natural state, it produces moisture; often a thin, dispersed liquid collects like dew, and trickles from many directions into one place (water-diviners call it sweat, because drops are either extruded by the pressure in the region or are extracted by heat). (8) This feeble trickle is scarcely sufficient for a spring. But from large caverns and large reservoirs there emerge rivers, sometimes issuing gently, if the water just flows downhill under its own weight, sometimes violently and noisily, if breath is mixed in with it and forces it out.

(16.1) “But why are some springs full for six hours and dry for six?” It is unnecessary to name individual rivers that are wide in certain months and narrow in certain others, and to look for an opportunity to tell tall stories, seeing that I can give the same explanation for them all. (2) Just as quartan fever turns up on the hour, just as gout keeps to time, just as menstruation sticks to a set day if nothing intervenes, just as childbirth is ready to happen in the right month, in just the same way waters have intervals at which they withdraw and return. Some intervals are shorter, and therefore striking; others are longer but no less fixed. (3) Is it surprising when you see the chain of events and nature advancing as preordained? Winter never goes astray; summer heats up at the right time; the change to autumn and spring occurs at the usual point; solstices and equinoxes alike recur on the right day.

Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 25–35 of Natural Questions by Lucius Annaeus Seneca, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2010 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Natural Questions
Translated by Harry M. Hine
©2010, 240 pages
Cloth $45.00 ISBN: 9780226748382

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