Stoic role models: Ulysses in Seneca and Dante, and the difference between curiositas and studiositas

The rock of Gibraltar, one of Hercules’ pillars

I have recently written three essays about Odysseus as interpreted philosophically by the Cynics, the Stoics, and the Epicureans, a reflection of my interest in the idea of Stoic role models, as well as my personal passion for the cunning Greek hero. While those three entries were based on a highly recommended book by Silvia Montiglio (which covers also Platonism), this last entry in the quadrilogy moves forward about a millennium, to see how the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri treats Ulysses (as he was known by the Romans) in Inferno 26, one of the most beautiful passages in the Divine Comedy. This will also give us a chance to look at the surprisingly similar way in which Seneca treats Ulysses, from a Stoic perspective.

My main source for this post is a scholarly article by Gabriel Pihas, published in 2003 in Dante Studies, the Annual Report of the Dante Society, and entitled “Dante’s Ulysses: Stoic and Scholastic models of the literary reader’s curiosity and Inferno 26.” (You can read Pihas’ paper online for free here.)

Ulysses is an important figure in Dante’s Comedy. To begin with, he is the only ancient mythological character that has a major role, all the other main figures being historical individuals, and usually Dante’s own contemporaries. More importantly, Ulysses plays the part of Dante’s consciousness in the poet’s version of a debate that began with Aristotle’s Poetics, continued with Seneca’s discussion of literary studies in his letter on curiosity to Lucilius (CXXXVIII, On Liberal and Vocational Studies), and characterized an important phase of Scholasticism near the end of the Middle Ages, when Thomas Aquinas was seen as a dangerous, possibly heretical, exponent of the nouvelle vague.

The fundamental opposition in Canto 26 of Inferno is between curiosity for curiosity’s sake, and curiosity for things that are morally relevant, what Aquinas referred to respectively as “curiositas” and “studiositas.” As Pihas puts it: “In Inferno 26, curiosity is fundamentally understood, following Seneca, as a problem of the seduction of language and rhetoric, both in philosophic disputation and in poetry. Calling curiosity into question [via his dialogue with Ulysses] is Dante’s form of literary-philosophical self-consciousness.”

At the beginning of 26, Dante almost falls into the pit where Ulysses is being punished, because of his irrepressible interest in the fate of the Greek hero. This is usually interpreted as a metaphor to remind the reader of Ulysses’ own downfall, brought about by his own curiosity about the world. In the version of the story that Dante relates, Ulysses left Ithaca again, after his return home and the punishment of the suitors. He headed toward Hercules’ Pillars (the Strait of Gibraltar), intent on navigating the open ocean to see what lies beyond. And he and his crew perish during the ambitious attempt.

Pihas points out that Seneca’s letter mentioned above is the inspiration for Dante’s encounter with Ulysses, and possibly even for the famous opening lines of the Comedy itself, which find Dante lost in the middle of a forest, a metaphor for what we would today call his midlife crisis, and which is the trigger for his journey of spiritual rediscovery:

“In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there.”

Back to Seneca, here is what he writes to Lucilius about Ulysses:

“Do you seek out where Ulysses’ wondering took him more than try to end our own perpetual wanderings? We don’t have the leisure to hear whether it was between Italy and Sicily that he ran into a storm, or somewhere outside the sea of the world we know … when everyday our souls are running into our own storms, and driven into all the evils that Ulysses ever knew. We are not spared those beauties or enemies that attract the eyes. We too have to contend in various places with savage monsters rejoicing in human blood, insidious voices that flatter our ears, shipwrecks and all manners of misfortune. What you should be teaching me is how I may attain such a love for my country, my father, and my wife, and keep on course for those ideals even after a shipwreck.”

Dante, in Inferno 26, is burning from the desire of asking Ulysses precisely the question that Seneca tells Lucilius should not distract us, because it is mere self-serving curiosity: how did Ulysses die?

Before we accuse Seneca — and therefore Dante — of anti-intellectualism, Pihas remind us that Seneca — and obviously Dante — were not anti-literature. Seneca wrote tragedies, among other things. But they both thought that literature (and philosophy) have to have a moral component, otherwise they deteriorate into simple escapism.

The way Dante brilliantly presents this concern to his readers is by allowing Dante-the-character to be tempted by curiositas while at the same time as Dante-the-author reminds us that our focus should be on studiositas:

Then it pained me, and now it pains me once again,
As I direct my mind to what I saw,
And I rein in genius more than I usually do,
That it not run where virtue not guide it;
So that, if good star or better thing
Has given me the good, I not envy myself of it.

Seneca made the same point in depth in his letter:

“How many superfluous and useless things are to be found in the philosophers. Even they have descended to the level of drawing distinctions between the uses of different syllables and discussing the properties of prepositions and conjunctions … with the result that they are more diligent in speaking than in living. Listen and let me show you the evils too much subtlety can create, and what an enemy it is to truth. Protagoras says that in all things it is possible to argue both sides of any question with equal force, even the question whether or not one can really argue either side of a question! Nausiphanes says that of the things that seem to us to exist, none exists anymore than it does not exist. Parmenides says that, of all the phenomena, none exists except the whole. Zeno of Elea has dismissed all such confusions by introducing another confusion: He declares that nothing exists … All these theories you should throw on that heap of superfluous liberal studies.”

It is hard to read the above and not imagine the Sophist Protagoras has a precursor of modern postmodernist philosophers like Jacques Derrida, or to think that what Seneca is railing against is what Dan Dennett refers to as “chmess,” i.e., difficult, but ultimately pointless philosophizing.

And as Pihas tells us: “Ulysses resembles the philosophers’ in Seneca’s letter insofar as he wishes to go beyond moral reality into a ‘world behind the Sun, without people.” Dante, by contrast, is more concerned with the damage that curiositas can do in the hands of fraudulent politicians, of the kind that sent him into exile from his native Florence (Seneca would have approved of such concern, given his own exile to Corsica at the hand of Claudius). In this sense, then, Inferno 26 is very relevant to contemporary culture: it is a warning that we are led into escapism (bad movies, constant social networking on the internet, not to mention “reality” television), because that serves the interests of the powerful by distracting us from their moral corruption.

At this point Pihas’ paper takes a bit of a different turn, examining Thomas Aquinas’ contribution to the debate on curiositas vs studiositas. I will not go into the details, because it doesn’t really pertain directly to either Ulysses or Stoicism, but it is interesting in terms of a broader understanding of the cultural and intellectual contexts.

Indeed, it had been Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, published a few decades before Dante began writing the Comedy, that presented curiositas as the “evil twin” of studiositas.

Aquinas provides a useful taxonomy of curiositas, which he divides into four categories: (i) zeal for the useless, e.g., love poetry; (ii) interest in the illicit, e.g., fortune telling or superstition; (iii) desire for knowledge of creatures without reference to their end in God; and (iv) interest in what is beyond our capacity to know. By contrast, says Pihas, “studiositas is thoughtfulness about the appetite for knowledge. Note too that Aquinas was actually attempting to save philosophy, and particularly the new studies of the recently rediscovered Aristotle, from the censorship of the Church, which had been suspicious of new ideas since Augustine’s condemnation of philosophy as a distraction from theology.

While I certainly don’t subscribe to Aquinas’ specific classification, nor do I feel bound to agree with Seneca just because I am a Stoic, the basic idea does seem sound to me. There are things that are worth pursuing and others that are useless or even dangerously distracting. And since we all have limited time and resources available, it is wise to keep that distinction in mind.

Here is another insightful commentary by Pihas: “What binds play and the desire for knowledge, and what makes both dangerous, is the idleness from which they may originate. Both curiositas and excessive play are daughters of acedia … [which] may be translated as ‘sloth’ or sometimes as ‘despair,’ but it borders on the modern meanings of boredom and melancholy. It is potentially nihilistic … it is an appetite for nothing.”

There is much to chew on here, but again I do not want the reader to be left with an impression of general anti-intellectualism, which would be a bizarre thing to attribute to intellectual giants like Seneca, Dante, and Aquinas. Ultimately, each of us will need to use practical wisdom to determine where the line lies, in our life and experience, between curiositas and studiositas. And it is up to us individually to navigate it in pursuit of a eudaimonic life.

It seems fit, however, to conclude with the lines from Inferno 26 that so inspired me when I was a teenager and read them for the first time. It’s Ulysses’ speech to his comrades, to convince them to follow him to the limits of the known world:

“O my brothers, who have reached the west, through a thousand dangers, do not deny the brief vigil, your senses have left to them, experience of the unpopulated world beyond the Sun. Consider your origin: you were not made to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge.” Virtue and knowledge indeed.


12 thoughts on “Stoic role models: Ulysses in Seneca and Dante, and the difference between curiositas and studiositas

  1. Paul Braterman

    Small point. In the biography of Seneca that you recommended, Caldwell Holland says that it is very unlikely that Seneca wrote the tragedies that carry his name.

    More seriously, for the first time I find myself seriously out of sympathy. Ulysses (at any rateTennyson’s Ulysses) has long been one of my heroes, the more so as I grew older:

    ” …yearning in desire
    To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
    Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”

    and the very stoical “that which we are, we are”.

    Of course it is important, and difficult, to distinguish between what is significant and what is mere distraction. But I don’t see why Seneca regards linguistic analysis as trivial, when it examines our tools of thought and lays bare unexamined assumptions. Love poetry (a Christian, not a Stoic, example, I know) can expand our self-knowledge and our human sympathies, and if we do not speculate about what is now unknowable, how can we ever discover the tools by which we may come to know it?


  2. Massimo Post author


    Regarding Seneca’s authorship of the tragedies I believe Holland is in disagreement with the majority of scholars.

    As for the more substantive point, I don’t interpret the Stoics as saying that there is no point in linguistic analysis, or logic, or anything else. So long as it actually serves the purpose of improving our lives rather than being an intellectual game.

    I am fully cognizant that one can reasonably disagree even when the point is put that way, and I myself am not sure where I stand, though the more I age the les point I do see in a lot of philosophy and science that indulges in curiositas rather than studiositas.

    As for love poetry, maybe we do get an insight into the human mind, as you say. Or maybe, as Plato would argue, we simply get our emotions manipulated and our hopes misdirected.

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  3. Paul Braterman

    This takes us back to Burden of Proof! “So long as it actually serves the purpose of improving our lives rather than being an intellectual game”; but how do you know and, not knowing, what do you presume?

    Some intellectual activities are indeed pointless, except perhaps in the general sense that sharpening any skill is self-improvement, and should be regarded purely as harmless relaxations; chess, for most of us, may be an example.

    But my own presumption is that any discoveries that are significant in their fields are likely to improve our lives, even if only our inner lives, by enriching our understanding of the context in which they arose. Whereas demanding in advance specifics of how our lives are to be improved, as granting agents come close to doing, is stultifying.


  4. Massimo Post author


    There is no demand in advance going on with Seneca. He is simply warning that certain activities are not as useful as we may think, which we should be able to readily agree on. Notice that he — on purpose — doesn’t give us a list. It is part of our training as Stoics to exercise practical wisdom and, on a case by case basis, decide what is and is not worth spending our time on.

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  5. Paul Braterman

    Significant that Seneca didn’t and Aquinas did. Philosophers point the way; religions legislate. And we are to some extent converging. I remain uncomfortable with Seneca’s example of analysing language, but maybe (having acquired my taste for philosophy in Oxford late 1950s) I’m just being unhistorical.


  6. Massimo Post author


    Well, for one thing we wouldn’t have had a few instances of genocide of native people… Okay, that was a cheap shot, apologies! More seriously, notice that Seneca here is more cautious than Dante. While Dante seems to think that Ulysses’ final voyage was a matter of curiositas and, accordingly, ended badly, Seneca is, again, not specific about what does and does not count as being worthwhile doing. Don’t forget that Seneca (and other Stoics) wrote treatises on astronomy and other aspects of natural history, so they were clearly not against discovery, and not anti-intellectual.


  7. Sarr Blumson

    Of course. I’m an engineer by training, so I tend to get concrete too quickly. The question I’m trying to ask is: is it possible to distinguish curiositas and studiositas except after the fact? I think the answer might be no.

    And of course talking about how Seneca lived vs what he said would also be a cheap shot.


  8. Massimo Post author


    I do think one can make the distinction beforehand, at least in some cases. Trivial example: spending an evening watching reality tv is very clearly an example of curiositas, and not even of the highest level. Or obsessing about what “celebrities” do in their lives. While studying engineering, medicine, and so forth, are all clear examples of studiositas. The difficult stuff comes in the middle, which is why one needs to improve one’s practical wisdom.


  9. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    As my other recent comments probably indicate, this curiositas vs. studiositas question hits close to home for me, as I evaluate the relationship between my career working in a field that’s right in the in-between category (neither vapid nor practically applicable) and my attempts to practice Stoic philosophy. I’ve thought really hard about why I ended up in such a line of work, and ultimately it’s related to my dream when young – which I’m trying to bring back – which was basically to live without regrets and die without fear, like the people I most admired. In other words, the virtues of Courage and Practical Wisdom were the ones that most called out to me, as I and all but those admirable few others around me seemed to struggle with them. Long before I could articulate at all that these were what I was looking for, I had some sense that natural science could help me develop them, pulling me out of myself and my fears, which seems to be what the ancients used its “natural philosophy” precursor for. But just doing the job of a scientist isn’t enough to make my science a valuable part of a life philosophy, so I have to actively contemplate the lessons that can be learned from the practice of science itself and from the concepts I teach and research. Whether I truly study nature or am just idly curious about it is all up to my approach to it. My choice wasn’t made in adolescence when I decided what I wanted to study in college, it’s made every day.

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  10. Mark Storm

    Not really a ‘thought,’ but I would like to recommend Curiosity by Alberto Manguel.

    Manguel devotes a lot of energy to the role of curiosity in Dante: “The entire Commedia can be read as the pursuit of one man’s curiosity.” In fact, as he goes on to show, it belongs not only to the poet: curiosity is the sin that led many of the damned to their unpretty pass, but also the impulse that drives Ulysses: the original type of the adventurer, the seeker, addict of exile and its promises.


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