Veniet Tempus (QNat. 7.25): Stoic Philosophy and Roman Genealogy in Seneca's View of Scientific Progress

Fabio Tutrone


Seneca's views on the future development of knowledge have often been interpreted as an enlightened anticipation of the modern faith in progress. And Seneca himself has been depicted as a sort of Condorcet avant la lettre. In the present paper, I argue that while it is extremely interesting to investigate the reception of Senecan patterns in modern thought, the writer's idea of scientific and moral enhancement should primarily be understood in the intellectual and socio-anthropological framework of ancient culture. Indeed, a reassessment of the evidence offered by the Natural Questions and the Moral Epistles shows that Seneca devises a broadly conceived spectrum of progress, which reflects both his adherence to Stoic philosophy and his careful assimilation of Roman cultural models. On the one hand, Seneca emphasizes man's vocation to strive for scientific knowledge and his need to costantly make an inner advance towards wisdom, engaging in a creative exposition of Stoic ethics and natural theology. While so doing, he seems to react against the idealization of primitive times as an age of true wisdom (in the “technical” Stoic sense) put forth by other contemporary Stoics such as Chaeremon and Cornutus (and presumably already expressed in the Middle Stoa). On the other hand, Seneca's insistence on the communal and intergenerational character of progress – which depends on the view that ethical and physical knowledge are a non-individual heritage to be preserved and improved – echoes a deep-rooted belief of Roman society: the typically aristocratic concept of linear transmission and intergenerational competition, which plays a central role in Latin public and private morality. In addition, the bold claims about future discoveries made in the Natural Questions can be organically connected to the tradition of Hellenistic science and its methodological optimism.

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ISSN: 2281-3209                DOI Prefix: 10.7408

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