Never trust an historian…Ordered Universe Reading Group in Durham


Well, by Hercules, as Seneca did, in fact, say, the Ordered Universe Reading Group (Durham Chapter), finished this week its reading of Seneca’s Natural Questions. A very interesting experience, with our usual interdisciplinary mix. While the explanations for terrestrial waters might not have commanded universal interest, the books on Comets and on Cloud <Rain, Hail and Snow> were of particular note, given the project symposium in Oxford in May. Having Grosseteste’s discussion of bubble and droplet formation, and of comets, in the background made for a forensic as well as didactic reading of the ancient work. The group enjoyed working from the marvellous translation by Professor Harry Hine, and working from his edition, as well, especially with similar translation questions on terminology for natural phenomena that arise in Grosseteste. ‘Coma’ and ‘cometa’ for comet, with its hair ‘crinis’ (flowing behind, or according to one theory Seneca discusses, all around).

The virtues of understanding nature, and the fickleness of human thought on the matter,  came out, much to the amusement of the group, in Seneca’s condemnation of historian’s fables when it comes to making events they describe seem more unusual and striking than they perhaps were. This applies, for example to comets:

Some of them [historians] court popularity with tales of the unbelievable and use marvellous stories to engage the reader who will turn to something else if presented with a series of everyday events. Some of them are gullible, some are negligent. Falsehood takes some by surprise, and is welcomed by others; the former do not avoid it, the latter seek it out. This applies to the whole tribe of historians, who do not think their work can win approval and become popular without a sprinkling of falsehood. (Harry Hine, trans. p. 125)

So, be warned about history. The limits of human capacity, physical and mental, emerge in discussion of how individual human knowledge pales in the context of longer arcs of time, and the relative priorities humans adopt as part of life. As Seneca puts when considering unanswerable all questions about the nature of comets:

There will come a day when the passage of time and the efforts of a longer stretch of human history will bring to light things that are now obscure. One lifetime, even if it can be wholly devoted to astronomy, is not sufficient for the investigation of such matters. And just think of how we divide out tiny number of years unequally between out studies and our vices….There will come a day when our descendants are astonished that we did not know such obvious facts.

An appropriate message for the history of human engagement with natural phenomena – and as one of our cosmologists remarked when reading the De luce by Grosseteste, it may well be the case that scientists in the 29th century look back to the 21st, and wonder why we were obsessed with dark energy and dark matter. Or, more nearly, see the application of structures of thought, authorities and inspiration, which, though culturally different, are nonetheless reasoned and faithful to the subject and the motives of the investigator. Approaching the thought of the past requires a similar movement from our part.

The reading group will be meeting in Durham over the summer – we’ll put details on the website – with a focus on Hugh of St Victor’s Practical Geometry (back to the 12th century, and to triangles…!). For Michaelmas Term 2017 we’ll look at John Sacrobosco’s On the Sphere, for Ephiphany Term 2018 some Avicenna, and then for Easter Term a change and an examination of John Philoponus. If you’re in Durham and would like to attend please drop us a line.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: