Updated: Apr 29, 2019
In a letter by the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC-AD 65) a passage of his writing concerns the origin of certain natural forms.
"If you have ever come on a dense wood of ancient trees that have risen to an exceptional height, shutting out all sight of the sky with one thick screen of branches upon another, the loftiness of the forest, the seclusion of the spot, your sense of wonderment at finding so deep and unbroken a gloom out of doors, will persuade you of the presence of a deity. Any cave in which the rocks have been eroded deep into the mountain resting on it, its hollowing out into a cavern of impressive extent not produced by the labours of men but the results of processes of nature, will strike into your soul some kind of inkling of the divine. We venerate the sources of important streams; places where a mighty river burst suddenly from hiding are provided with altars; hot springs are objects of worship; the darkness or unfathomable depth of pools has made their waters sacred. And if you come across a man who is never alarmed by dangers, never affected by cravings, happy in adversity, calm in the midst of storm, viewing mankind from a higher level and the gods from their own, is it not likely that a feeling will find its way into you of veneration of him?"
For Seneca a sense of wonder when contemplating things such as caves, trees, the passage of streams "persuades" of the presence of a deity. What did Seneca mean by this? Is he talking about a god that is creating such beautiful things? I don't think he is here.. Stoics believed in a sort of god, but not in the sense of a personal, anthropomorphic god like the Christian God. They believed that the universe was governed by a Divine Reason, which they called Logos, Zeus, or God. Seneca uses metaphor here to make clear the relationship between the deity and the mind. It is reason that is governing us, and we must live in close relationship with nature at all times in order to lead a good life.
Accompanying Seneca's veneration of natural forms and processes, is veneration of man who lives by Stoicism's philosophy of personnel ethics. Central to this philosophy is the belief that as social beings, the path to happiness is to be found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, but not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain. Knowledge is the highest good, and one's mind should be used to understand the world at all times. Such wisdom was called prohairesis and was made in partnership with nature. He continues:
"It is not likely that you will say to yourself , 'Here is a thing which is too great, to sublime for anyone to regard it as being in the same sort of category as that puny body it inhabits'. Into that body there has descended a divine power. The soul that is elevated and well regulated, that passes through any experience as if it counted for comparatively little, that smiles at all the things we fear or pray for, is impelled by a force that comes from heaven. A thing of that soul's height cannot stand without the prop of a deity. Hence the greater part of it is situated where it descends from; in the same way as the sun's rays touch the earth but are really situated at the point from which they emanate, a soul possessed of greatness and holiness, which has been sent down into this world in order that we may gain a nearer knowledge of the divine, associates with us, certainly, but never loses contact with its source. On that source it depends; that is the direction in which its eyes turn, and the direction it strives to climb in; the manner in which it takes part in our affairs is that of a superior being".
The souls dependence on "the source" from which it emanates, is beautifully described in Seneca's opening paragraph of landscape forms. For the soul to be well regulated, he suggests that we must maintain prohairesis, living in "in accord with nature" and everything else can go. The Stoic principle that virtue is the only good, and that external things such as health, wealth and pleasure are not good or bad in themselves but have a value as "material for virtue to act upon" places moral virtue at the height of the our understanding and engagement with natural forms.
I have been inspired recently to return to my practice and consider how materials shown in dialogue with forms in landscape might affirm or question such philosophical ideas. Returning to two trees I once described in a drawing in 2016, I placed two glass discs within the grass below two of their central branches. I waited approximately thirty minutes before looking at them again. I then recorded what had changed. Both had heated up, making an impression of the grass and collecting water below their surface. The top surface had not collected water, but they had caught petals and other debris from the tree. What I saw in the reflection of the glass had also changed, as had the light and the movement of the grass.
The discs also made me very aware of how incredibly complex and intelligent the whole environment within and surrounding the tree is.. it changes, evolves, and creates itself, and while the origin of this activity is uncertain, the presence of the sun, the heat of the earth and the air we breath, are the sources we can be sure of.