What do you think when you get to the top of a high mountain like the Marmolada (3,343 meters; 10,968 ft)? 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 ancient tradition and came to the conclusion that the view from above, for ancient philosophers such as Platonists, Epicureans and Stoics, is a kind of practice, of exercise of physics, to the extent that – with the help of physical knowledge – the individuals conceive themselves 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 second part of the post introduces modern reflections on the view from above, dialoguing with Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit (2003).
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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 contemplating 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. At 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 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 into 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 them and us, 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. At high altitudes, there are immense spaces, and the soul is allowed to possess them, but on the 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 free 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 found, and how far they descend. 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, pertains to itself.
(Seneca, Naturales Questiones, I, 7-13; the translation is mine)
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Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit (2003) explores the reasons why humans are attracted to mountain-tops and the views from above. Macfarlane does not consider the contribution of ancient philosophers and religions to this topic but privileges a historical and cultural reconstruction to trace the genealogy of a “secularized feeling towards height (…) according to which the individual discovered pleasure and excitement in height for its own sake” (149). From this point of view, human attraction to the mountains is a fairly recent phenomenon, even though ancient religions and philosophies greatly appreciated the altitudes and believed the upper world was the home of the gods.
Not by chance, prophets and seers received their divine counsels from the top of the mountains. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, Mt Pisgah comes to mind: “The Lord ordered Moses to the top of this mountain and told him to look in all directions, thus revealing the Promised Land to the tribes of Israel” (Deuteronomy 3:27). Along these lines, one may recall that Moses ascended Sinai to receive the ten commandments. Moses departed to the mountain and stayed there for 40 days and nights to receive God’s commandments (Exodus 19, Exodus 24, Deuteronomy 4). These are just a couple of examples, and we should consider that the idea of mountainous altitudes as sites of the sacred is not exclusive to the Judaeo-Christian tradition but belongs to world religions.
The discovery of the pleasure and excitement in altitude for its own sake developed during a centuries-long process in Western civilization. Before the Eighteenth Century, humans were, in fact, scared of the mountains that were considered the sites of devils and monsters, very dangerous locations due to unpredictable meteorological phenomena. Except for mountain eremites, anachorites, and holy persons looking for the presence of God in altitudes, climbing the mountains was considered a crazy and dangerous idea. The starting point of the appreciation of altitude is considered the ascent of Mont Ventoux, in Vaucluse (in Provence; elevation 1912 meters), undertaken in 1336 by the Italian poet Francis Petrarch. He narrates his ascent in a famous letter written around 1350 (Letters on Familiar Matters, IV, 1). He claimed to be the first person since antiquity to have climbed a mountain for the view. But to reach the summit was not a straightforward process for him as it was for his brother Gherardo who was a monk. Petrarch feels weak and looks for easier paths. What was a vertical ascent for the religious person (Gherardo) became a zig-zag process for the poet.
When he reaches the summit, Petrarch reveals the ambiguity of the human spirit in front of the environment: on the one hand, the cupiditas videndi, the desire to view from a great height indulging in the visibility of the plain, an aesthetic pleasure, for its own sake; on the other hand, the search for the inward dimension, the inner immaterial reality. In other words, Petrarch turns from the physical to the metaphysical realm and reads a passage from Augustine’s Confessions on top of the mountain, praising the magnificent reality of the human soul. This letter remains within the framework of what Derek Pearsall considers the Middle Ages’ typical attitude toward natural phenomena that are presented in allegorical, kind of stereotyped form as a mode of expression for an interpretation of reality that transcends or even denies those phenomena in the name of God, the only true source of awe.
Religious ideas were still instrumental in developing a positive attitude towards mountains in early modernity. The doctrine of natural theology that developed at the end of the seventeen century and the beginning of the eighteenth is a prominent example in this regard. By emphasizing that any aspect of nature and whatever existed in the world was created as an image of God given to humans, theologians like Thomas Browne (1605-1682) transformed the observation and scrutiny of nature into a form of worship. For Browne, nature was a bible open to all, as he writes in his Religio Medici (Religion of a Doctor; 1645): “Thus there are two books from whence I collect my Divinity; besides that written one of God, another of his servant Nature, that universal and public Manuscript, that lies expans’d unto the eyes of all; those that never saw him in the one, have discovered him in the other” (32).
At this time, the mountains started to be conceived as a text in which it was possible to read the words of God. Macfarlane writes, “The natural theology movement was crucial in revoking the reputation of mountains as aesthetically displeasing” (208). Toward the end of the eighteenth century, these ideas became current, and the mountain-worship from religious became gradually secular. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Nouvelle Heloise (1761) is credited to be the manifesto of such a transformation. With him, the higher spheres of the earth became the site of a “supernatural beauty” that charms both the senses and the mind to the point that one forgets everything in the world, including oneself.
Since the eighteenth century, Macfarlane writes, ” climbing upwards came to represent -as it still does- the search for an entirely new way of being (…). The upper world was an environment which affected both the mind and the body in ways cities or the plains never did – in the mountains, you were a different you” (213). In other words, mountains started to reshape our understanding of ourselves and of our inner life in a way that was already evident in Seneca’s Naturales Questiones and Petrarch’s words in front of the view from above atop Mont Ventoux. Whereas Seneca and Petrarch privileged the inscape, starting from the eighteenth century on, there is much more appreciation of the landscape, the beauty of the mountains embodied in particular by the architectural gestures of the light as manifested in phenomena like the alpenglow, which is caused by the reflection of the sun on snowfields.
Mountaineers like John Auldjo (1805-1886) contributed substantially to developing modern mountain imagery and imagination. Auldjo, a Canadian-British traveler, geologist, writer, and artist, in his Narrative of an Ascent to the Summit of Mont Blanc: On 8 and 9 August 1827, describes his extreme suffering from the climbing and the sublime beauty of the mountain. In this regard, he writes,
My attention was now attracted by the sun rising, his rays
falling on Mont Blanc and the Dôme du Goûté, clothing them
in a variety of brilliant colours, quickly following one another,
from a light tint of crimson to rich purple, and then to bright
gold . These rapid alternations of reflected splendour, on a
surface so vast and sublimely picturesque, presented a scene of
dazzling brilliancy too much almost for the eye to encounter, and
such as no powers of language could adequately portray. (33)
The suffering of the ascent was compensated by the view from the summit of Mt Blanc. In the words of Auldjo’s account, one can perceive the distance from Seneca’s narrative of the view from above. Ancient philosophy’s moral and spiritual reflections are now replaced by a new emphasis on the aesthetic dimension in modern mountaineer literature. Auldjo’s book became very influential and triggered many other attempts to reach the summits. As Macfarlane writes, humans started to be attracted to the mountains by two intertwined ideas: “First, the abstract notion that reaching the summit of a mountain was a worthwhile end in itself; and second, the belief that the view from a great height (…) could be sufficiently beautiful to merit risking one’s life to see it” (166).
Nonetheless, another idea resurfaces in modern accounts of reaching the summits of mountains, an idea that was crucial in ancient literature: reaching the summit empowers humans and enriches them with the appreciation of sublime beauties but at the same time puts them in touch with something that is more-than-human and induces humility and recognition in front of what is not human-made.
Auldjo, John, Narrative of an Ascent to the Summit of Mont Blanc: On 8 and 9 August 1827. London: Thomas Davison, Whitefriars, 1828.
—. The ascent of Mont Blanc by John Auldjo’s party in 1827, lithograph. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images firstname.lastname@example.org http://wellcomeimages.org. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Browne Thomas. Religio Medici (Religion of a Doctor). Boston: Robert Brothers, 1878.
Seneca, Lucius A, and Thomas H. Corcoran. Seneca in Ten Volumes: 7: Naturales Questiones. 1. London: Heinemann, 1971. Print.Hadot, Pierre. N’oublie Pas De Vivre: Goethe Et La Tradition Des Exercices Spirituels. Paris: Albin Michel, 2011. Print.
Macfarlane, Robert. Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit. New York: Vintage Book, 2003.
Pearsall, Derek A, and Elizabeth Salter. Landscapes and Seasons of the Medieval World. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973