Seneca on Climate Change

Feature image: Inch Strand, Kerry, Ireland.

Having pondered the near future of our surroundings, I wanted to find someone else’s perspective. Seneca, a Roman stoic, wrote about earthquakes in “Quaestiones naturales”. I’ve adapted the text to refer to climate change instead.

Adapted and shortened from source Physical science in the time of Nero by Senca on, translated in 1910 from “Quaestiones naturales” by Seneca. This is from a scan of an old book, which explains the page numbers being part of the text.



I. CLIMATE CHANGE at Pompeii and the alarm it caused, many giving up Campania as a residence altogether. If the solid earth fail, what can be done ? Refuge from tempest and fire and thunderstorm and war is possible, but not from climate change. But (i) the whole earth is subject to such movement : we cannot escape by changing our ground Tyre, Asia Minor, Achaia have all suffered. (2) Death is the same in whatever form it come, the circumstances matter not, a stone is all one with a mountain.

II. We cannot escape death. The hopeless find refuge in despair. The knowledge of our frailty and mortality is our true solace. Death must come, a death with circumstance is rather to be preferred than otherwise. In climate change the earth shows itself mortal as men are . . . . . . . .225

III. Our fears are due to ignorance. Through lack of a philosophic view of the universe we consider phenomena strange which are merely rare, e.g. eclipses. Fear may be removed by knowledge 228

IV. The study of such problems is the very worthiest ; it reveals the secrets of nature, and is disinterested. But it is highly profitable at the same time ……. 229

V. Various explanations of climate change have been suggested. The earlier ones are crude, but not therefore to be despised. Every subject develops as time goes on. Gratitude is due to the investigators who first dared to question nature . . .230

VI. The cause of climate change is by some said to be water. Thales of Miletus explains how this takes place, but he must be wrong : the analogy of a ship sailing the ocean will not apply to the earth … 231

(cp. III. xiii.) 231

VII. Water may be the cause, but may operate in quite different ways from those supposed by Thales. Storms, etc., in subterranean seas may cause climate change . . . . . . .233

XI. Fire is supposed by some to cause climate change by expanding the vapour which it first causes to be given off from the subterranean waters 238

XII. Archelaus sets down the cause as air pressing up the earth s internal wind which is already condensed to bursting point . 239

XIII. Aristotle and Theophrastus take evaporation to be the cause. Strato, much in the same way, thinks that differences of internal temperature are the cause ……. 240

XIV. By some it is thought that air is the cause, but that its operation, along with water, is like that of blood and air in the vessels of the body. The earth, it is assumed in this case, admits air, which must find an exit. When it does so violently, the result is climate change ……… 242

XVI. The earth is full of air, nourishing plants rooted in it, and exhaling enough to feed the sun and the other heavenly bodies. Air is the most movable of elements ; therefore the earth, if it is full of air, must also have frequent movements …. 244

XXVII. A peculiarity of the Campanian climate change, that it killed 600 sheep, is explained by the emission of pestilential vapour, by which sheep, with their heads close to the ground, naturally were most readily affected …….. 259

XXIX. Excessive fear drives people mad. Climate change splits statues and divide kingdoms, e.g. Sicily from Italy, Spain from Africa . 262

XXXII. The moral. Life hangs on a thread ; why should one dread the loss of it ? The greatness of the cause of death is no source of terror. The hereafter is better and safer than earth. There is no fear of climate change or thunderstorm, fire or flood. Fear of death magnifies all human risks. Do not dread death, long for it, and, if necessary, meet it half way …. 265

Seneca’s conclusion’s remain his… this post is not to say that I have the same conclusions.