READING: Seneca vs. Posidonius on Wheþer Technology Is Philosophy

Posidonius for, Seneca against; it is a pity that the monks erased all the surviving manuscripts of Posidonius: he sounds like somebody it would have been good to get to know, virtually—an urban...

…Greek polymath would almost surely have been better company than a Roman aristocrat…

Lucius Annaeus Seneca Minor (64): Moral Letters to Lucilius 90: On the Part Played by Philosophy in the Progress of Man: SELECTIONS: ’Philosophy[’s]… sole function is to discover the truth about things divine and things human. From her side religion never departs, nor duty, nor justice, nor any of the whole company of virtues…. Philosophy has taught us… [that] among men [is] fellowship. This fellowship remained unspoiled for a long time, until avarice tore the community asunder and became the cause of poverty…. For men cease to possess all things the moment they desire all things for their own….

That philosophy discovered the arts of which life makes use in its daily round I refuse to admit…. I, for my part, do not hold that philosophy devised these shrewdly-contrived dwellings of ours which rise story upon story, where city crowds against city, any more than that she invented the fish-preserves, which are enclosed for the purpose of saving men’s gluttony from having to run the risk of storms…. Was it philosophy that taught the use of keys and bolts? Nay, what was that except giving a hint to avarice? Was it philosophy that erected all these towering tenements, so dangerous to the persons who dwell in them?… That was a happy age, before the days of architects, before the days of builders! All this sort of thing was born when luxury was being born,—this matter of cutting timbers square and cleaving a beam with unerring hand as the saw made its way over the marked-out line… “The primal man with wedges split his wood”… were not preparing a roof for a future banquet-ball…. Forked poles erected at either end propped up their houses. With close-packed branches and with leaves heaped up and laid sloping they contrived a drainage for even the heaviest rains. Beneath such dwellings, they lived, but they lived in peace. A thatched roof once covered free men; under marble and gold dwells slavery.


On another point also I differ from Posidonius, when he holds that mechanical tools were the invention of wise men…. It was man’s ingenuity, not his wisdom, that discovered all these devices. And I also differ from him when he says that wise men discovered our mines of iron and copper, “when the earth, scorched by forest fires, melted the veins of ore which lay near the surface and caused the metal to gush forth.” Nay, the sort of men who discover such things are the sort of men who are busied with them…. The hammer [and] the tongs… were both invented by some man whose mind was nimble and keen, but not great or exalted; and the same holds true of any other discovery which can only be made by means of a bent body and of a mind whose gaze is upon the ground….

Which man, pray, do you deem the wiser—the one who invents a process for spraying saffron perfumes to a tremendous height from hidden pipes, who fills or empties canals by a sudden rush of waters, who so cleverly constructs a dining-room with a ceiling of movable panels that it presents one pattern after another, the roof changing as often as the courses,—or the one who proves to others, as well as to himself, that nature has laid upon us no stern and difficult law when she tells us that we can live without the marble-cutter and the engineer, that we can clothe ourselves without traffic in silk fabrics, that we can have everything that is indispensable to our use, provided only that we are content with what the earth has placed on its surface? If mankind were willing to listen to this sage, they would know that the cook is as superfluous to them as the soldier….

Nature suffices for what she demands. Luxury has turned her back upon nature… made the soul a bondsman to the body, and bade it be an utter slave to the body’s lusts. All these crafts by which the city is patrolled—or shall I say kept in uproar—are but engaged in the body’s business; time was when all things were offered to the body as to a slave, but now they are made ready for it as for a master… the workshops of the weavers and the carpenters… the savoury smells of the professional cooks… the wantonness of those who teach wanton postures, and wanton and affected singing. For that moderation which nature prescribes.. it has now come to this—that to want only what is enough is a sign both of boorishness and of utter destitution….

Posidonius then passes on to the farmer… the plough… the earth, thus loosened, may allow freer play to the roots; then the seed is sown, and the weeds plucked out…. This trade also, he declares, is the creation of the wise,—just as if cultivators of the soil were not even at the present day discovering countless new methods of increasing the soil’s fertility!… He even degrades the wise man by sending him to the mill…. Posidonius came very near declaring that even the cobbler’s trade was the discovery of the wise man.

Reason did indeed devise all these things, but it was not right reason. It was man, but not the wise man, that discovered them…. Says Posidonius, “the wise man did indeed discover all these things; they were, however, too petty for him to deal with himself and so he entrusted them to his meaner assistants.” Not so; these early inventions were thought out by no other class of men than those who have them in charge to-day. We know that certain devices have come to light only within our own memory—such as the use of windows which admit the clear light through transparent tiles, and such as the vaulted baths, with pipes let into their walls for the purpose of diffusing the heat which maintains an even temperature in their lowest as well as in their highest spaces. Why need I mention the marble with which our temples and our private houses are resplendent? Or the rounded and polished masses of stone by means of which we erect colonnades and buildings roomy enough for nations? Or our signs for whole words, which enable us to take down a speech, however rapidly uttered, matching speed of tongue by speed of hand? All this sort of thing has been devised by the lowest grade of slaves. 

Wisdom’s seat is higher; she trains not the hands, but is mistress of our minds…

Share Grasping Reality Newsletter, by Brad DeLong

Leave a comment

Seneca’s full letter: <>

(Remember: You can subscribe to this… weblog-like newsletter… here: 

There’s a free email list. There’s a paid-subscription list with (at the moment, only a few) extras too.)