Spiritus Mundi

I found this poem by Simon Pomery a while ago in the Times Literary Supplement. Something made me cut it out of the paper and keep it. Part of the reason that it made an impression on me was probably that it is taken from a lengthy verse translation of one of Seneca‘s Moral Epistles called Divina Lux (a couple of other fragments of which you can find here) and this is a work I studied a bit in latin classes at School. You can also find prose translations of some of the 124 such Epistles Seneca wrote very near the end of his life here.

The soul of the world abides.
It doesn’t distinguish between
those born in town or country:
it makes its home in the wild sea,
the blur and seam of the horizon,
the cloud-racked firmament itself.
The space that separates the gods
from men unites them also, where stars,
like watchmen, sleep out in the open.

Seneca espoused a Stoic philosophy that was developed later by Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations is one of my favourite books, although I’ve forgotten too much of my schoolboy Latin to read it in the original. I do, however, keep the paperback English translatlon with me when I go travelling. It is one the greatest works of classical philosophy, but it’s also a collection of very personal thoughts by someone who managed to be an uncompromisingly authoritarian Emperor of Rome at the same time as being a tender and introspective person.

Not that I’ve ever in practice managed to obey his exhortations to self-denial…

3 Responses to “Spiritus Mundi”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Marcus Aurelius tender? He persecuted the early church, at a time when it had (and sought) no political power and its members lived like Christ, aiding people in trouble. This was long before the church ate of the fruit of political power under Constantine and his successors, and became compromised (although what actually happened was that the true church became a subset of the self-declared church).

    I’d rather say that Marcus Aurelius was capable of tenderness. Diocletian was the same on a larger scale, unleashing a much greater persecution yet (uniquely) renouncing power, to grow cabbages on the Dalmatian coast.

    BTW the world doesn’t have a soul. Regardless of our attitude to the world, the world neither loves nor hates us; nor can it.


  2. telescoper Says:

    I agree that it’s hard to think of such a harsh ruler as being tender, but perhaps Marcus Aurelius was torn between what he perceived to be his duty as the emperor and what his own inner voice told him. Reading the Meditations certainly gives you the impression that they were written by a thoughtful and tender man, but those sentiments don’t always square with his actions, as you know, and his rule was brutal in many ways on top of his persecution of the Christians. The book was mostly written while he was leading military campaigns and there’s a heavy sense of world-weariness in it too.

    It is said by mediaeval scholars that Seneca converted to Christianity near the end of his life (he lived considerably before Marcus Aurelius), but I think that may have been just attempt to justify the popularity of his writing amongst Christians.

    I think the phrase Spiritus Mundi (translated as Soul of the World in the poem) refers to the Logos or governing principle of Stoic philosophy. I guess you could loosely translate it as “Fate”.

  3. Samuel Ashworth Says:

    I usually don’t reply to articles but this very subject recently piqued my interest. It was in a movie where a man wanted revenge for the death of his daughter and wife. Meditations literally fell on his head and he opened a page apropos to his situation. He also had “The Art of War” and various other works and studied martial arts. If the movie had any redeeming qualities, it was the intermissions where it stated the particular meditation appropriate to his quandary.

    I also think about this in terms of particle physics. I’m not a physicist but an engineer involved in numerical analysis and modeling. Being lazy (I often have to read up on my own dissertation). I was working on a problem, of course, one with no previous work, and got so frustrated I thought well what about first principles. What is the nature of the thing, am I solving the wrong problem?

    Anyway, thanks for bringing this up. I dusted off a bookshelf and found meditations, bound in gold thread! How ironic as the contents therein are indeed gold.

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