The view from above

What do you think when you get to the top of a high mountain like the Marmolada? There are so many answers to this question, maybe as many as there are individuals climbing the mountains. However, there is a very ancient reflective tradition on the view from above that is still interesting today. Pierre Hadot studied this tradition and came to the conclusion that the view from above, for Platonists, Epicureans and Stoics, is a kind of practice, of the exercise of physics, to the extent that, with the help of physical knowledge, the individual
conceive himself/herself as part of the totality of the world or of the infinity of the worlds.

Scientific knowledge in ancient culture was quite often combined with ethical reflections. Something that has been lost in the evolution of modern science. The following is a profound reflection on the view from above from the Stoic philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC – AD65) in his Naturales Questiones (Natural questions), which is a combination of ethics and philosophical physics.

The soul reaches the full and perfect good of the human condition when, crushed every evil, turns upwards and penetrates the deepest breast of nature. Then, while the soul wanders among the stars, it rejoices in mocking the floors of the rich and the whole earth with his gold, and I mean not only the gold extracted and handed over to the mint to be coined, but also the gold that the earth keeps hidden for the avarice of posterity.

Only after having contemplated the whole universe can the soul truly despise grandiose porches and coffered ceilings resplendent of ivory and thickets cut with care and waterways diverted to reach wealthy palaces. In that moment, the soul, looking from above down upon this narrow world –covered for the most part by the sea, with vast regions desolate even in the emerged lands and with areas either burned or frozen,– says to itself “Is it all here the pinpoint that many people fight over with iron and fire to conquer and divide?”

Oh, how ridiculous are the borders set by men! (0 quam ridiculi sunt mortalium termini)
Let our empire keep away the Dacians from the Ister (lower Danube) and confine the Thracians with the Haemus; let the Euphrates block the Parthians and the Danube mark the boundary between the territories of the Sarmatians and those of the Romans; let the Rhine place a limit for Germany, the Pyrenees raise their chain between the Gaul and the Spain, a vast desolate and sandy desert lie between Egypt and the Ethiopians.

If the human intellect was given to ants, wouldn’t they divide a single area in many provinces? When you rise to those really great realities, every time you see armies marching with unfurled flags and the knights scouting in front or going to the flanks of the army –as if they were doing something grandiose– you will want to say: “a black swarm goes through the  fields. This army is like a coming and going of ants that tire in a narrow space. What is the difference between us and them, if not the size of a tiny little body?”

That is an insignificant point on which you sail, on which you wage war, on which you create tiny kingdoms; tiny, even when the ocean meets it on both sides. On high altitudes, there are immense spaces, and the soul is allowed to possess them, but on condition that it carries with it as little as possible of what comes from the body, it clears all impurities, and raises free, light and content with little.

When the soul has touched those heights, it finds nourishment, it grows and, as freed from chains, it returns to its origin. A proof of its divine nature comes from the fact that it is pleasantly attracted by the divine realities, in which it participates not as alien things, but as things that belong to the soul itself. The soul calmly views the setting and rising of the stars and their orbits so different yet so harmonious; it observes the place where the stars begin to show the earth their own light, where their apogee and the highest point of their course are fund, and how far they descends. As a curious spectator the soul separates the individual details and investigates every natural and physical thing. And why should it not? The soul looking from above knows that all this, the entire universe, pertain to itself.

(Seneca, Naturales Questiones, I, 7-13; the translation is mine)

First page of the manuscript Questiones Naturales, made for the Catalan-Aragonese crown.  Bibliothèque Nationale de France




Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Thomas H Corcoran. Seneca in Ten Volumes. 7: Naturales Questiones. 1 /, Heinemann, 1971.
Hadot, Pierre. N’oublie Pas De Vivre: Goethe Et La Tradition Des Exercices Spirituels. Paris: Albin Michel, 2011. Print.