April 26th, Marcus Aurelius’ birthday

meditations-iv-7

Marcus Aurelius was born 1899 years ago, on April 26, 121.

During the last 14 years of his life he faced one of the worst plagues in the history of Europe, the Antonine plague, which received his name. In the midst of this plague, Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations, the greatest classic of stoicism, where he records moral and psychological advice to himself. He often applies the stoic philosophy to the challenges of dealing with pain, illness, anxiety and loss.

Marcus Aurelius teaches us that fear does us more harm than the things we fear.

Letter XVIII. On Festivals and Fasting

Saturnalia_by_Antoine_Callet

Seneca’s Letters offer something beyond philosophy: you get occasional glimpses of his private life,, as well as life in Rome at the height of imperial power. This is a great bonus beyond philosophical knowledge!

This is one of my favorite letters, where Seneca gives the advice not to abstain from amusement, but simply not to exaggerate:

“It shows much more courage to remain dry and sober when the mob is drunk and vomiting; but it shows greater self-control to refuse to withdraw oneself and to do what the crowd does, but in a different way, – thus neither making oneself conspicuous nor becoming one of the crowd. For one may keep holiday without extravagance.” (XVIII, 4)

This is exactly how I feel at Carnival, Christmas and so on. Of course we want to have fun and share a pleasant moment of life with our family and friends. But do we have to get drunk or sick from eating too much to do that? Seneca then uses the topic in question to present a more general point about a standard stoic exercise, moderate self-privation:

“… follow the custom of these men, and set apart certain days on which you shall withdraw from your business and make yourself at home with the scantiest fare. Establish business relations with poverty…. For he alone is in kinship with God who has scorned wealth. Of course I do not forbid you to possess it, but I would have you reach the point at which you possess it dauntlessly; this can be accomplished only by persuading yourself that you can live happily without it as well as with it, and by regarding riches always as likely to elude you.” (XVIII, 12-13)

Points:

  1. No need to abstain from amusement, but simply do not exaggerate;
  2. Practice moderate self-privation;
  3. Get used to frugality.

image: Antoine-François Callet (1741 – 1823) baroque interpretation of Saturnalia

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XVIII. On Festivals and Fasting

1. It is the month of December, and yet the city is at this very moment in a sweat. Licence is given to the general merrymaking. Everything resounds with mighty preparations, – as if the Saturnalia differed at all from the usual business day! So true it is that the difference is nil, that I regard as correct the remark of the man who said: “Once December was a month; now it is a year.”[1]

2. If I had you with me, I should be glad to consult you and find out what you think should be done, – whether we ought to make no change in our daily routine, or whether, in order not to be out of sympathy with the ways of the public, we should dine in gayer fashion and doff the toga.[2] As it is now, we Romans have changed our dress for the sake of pleasure and holiday-making, though in former times that was only customary when the State was disturbed and had fallen on evil days.

3. I am sure that, if I know you aright, playing the part of an umpire you would have wished that we should be neither like the liberty-capped[3] throng in all ways, nor in all ways unlike them; unless, perhaps, this is just the season when we ought to lay down the law to the soul, and bid it be alone in refraining from pleasures just when the whole mob has let itself go in pleasures; for this is the surest proof which a man can get of his own constancy, if he neither seeks the things which are seductive and allure him to luxury, nor is led into them.

4. It shows much more courage to remain dry and sober when the mob is drunk and vomiting; but it shows greater self-control to refuse to withdraw oneself and to do what the crowd does, but in a different way, – thus neither making oneself conspicuous nor becoming one of the crowd. For one may keep holiday without extravagance.

5. I am so firmly determined, however, to test the constancy of your mind that, drawing from the teachings of great men, I shall give you also a lesson: Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?”

6. It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs manoeuvres, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes. Such is the course which those men[4] have followed who, in their imitation of poverty, have every month come almost to want, that they might never recoil from what they had so often rehearsed.

7. You need not suppose that I mean meals like Timon’s, or “paupers’ huts,”[5] or any other device which luxurious millionaires use to beguile the tedium of their lives. Let the pallet be a real one, and the coarse cloak; let the bread be hard and grimy. Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food, and you will understand that a man’s peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune; for, even when angry she grants enough for our needs.

8. There is no reason, however, why you should think that you are doing anything great; for you will merely be doing what many thousands of slaves and many thousands of poor men are doing every day. But you may credit yourself with this item, – that you will not be doing it under compulsion, and that it will be as easy for you to endure it permanently as to make the experiment from time to time. Let us practise our strokes on the “dummy”;[6] let us become intimate with poverty, so that Fortune may not catch us off our guard. We shall be rich with all the more comfort, if we once learn how far poverty is from being a burden.

9. Even Epicurus, the teacher of pleasure, used to observe stated intervals, during which he satisfied his hunger in niggardly fashion; he wished to see whether he thereby fell short of full and complete happiness, and, if so, by what amount he fell short, and whether this amount was worth purchasing at the price of great effort. At any rate, he makes such a statement in the well known letter written to Polyaenus in the archonship of Charinus.[7] Indeed, he boasts that he himself lived on less than a penny, but that Metrodorus, whose progress was not yet so great, needed a whole penny.

10. Do you think that there can be fulness on such fare? Yes, and there is pleasure also, – not that shifty and fleeting pleasure which needs a fillip now and then, but a pleasure that is steadfast and sure. For though water, barley-meal, and crusts of barley-bread, are not a cheerful diet, yet it is the highest kind of pleasure to be able to derive pleasure from this sort of food, and to have reduced one’s needs to that modicum which no unfairness of Fortune can snatch away.

11. Even prison fare is more generous; and those who have been set apart for capital punishment are not so meanly fed by the man who is to execute them. Therefore, what a noble soul must one have, to descend of one’s own free will to a diet which even those who have been sentenced to death have not to fear! This is indeed forestalling the spear-thrusts of Fortune.

12. So begin, my dear Lucilius, to follow the custom of these men, and set apart certain days on which you shall withdraw from your business and make yourself at home with the scantiest fare. Establish business relations with poverty.

Dare, O my friend, to scorn the sight of wealth, 
And mould thyself to kinship with thy God.[8]

13. For he alone is in kinship with God who has scorned wealth. Of course I do not forbid you to possess it, but I would have you reach the point at which you possess it dauntlessly; this can be accomplished only by persuading yourself that you can live happily without it as well as with it, and by regarding riches always as likely to elude you.

14. But now I must begin to fold up my letter. “Settle your debts first,” you cry. Here is a draft on Epicurus; he will pay down the sum: “Ungoverned anger begets madness.[9] You cannot help knowing the truth of these words, since you have had not only slaves, but also enemies.

15. But indeed this emotion blazes out against all sorts of persons; it springs from love as much as from hate, and shows itself not less in serious matters than in jest and sport. And it makes no difference how important the provocation may be, but into what kind of soul it penetrates. Similarly with fire; it does not matter how great is the flame, but what it falls upon. For solid timbers have repelled a very great fire; conversely, dry and easily inflammable stuff nourishes the slightest spark into a conflagration. So it is with anger, my dear Lucilius; the outcome of a mighty anger is madness, and hence anger should be avoided, not merely that we may escape excess, but that we may have a healthy mind.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  i.e., the whole year is a Saturnalia.
  2.  For a dinner dress.
  3.  The pilleus was worn by newly freed slaves and by the Roman populace on festal occasions.
  4.  The Epicurians. Cf. § 9 and Epicurus, Frag. 158. Usener.
  5.  Cf. Ep. c. 6 and Martial, iii. 48.
  6.  The post which gladiators used when preparing themselves for combats in the arena.
  7.  Usually identified with Chaerimus, 307-8 B.C. But Wilhelm, Öster Jahreshefte, V.136, has shown that there is probably no confusion of names. A Charinus was archon at Athens in 290-89; see Johnson, Class. Phil. ix. p. 256.
  8.  Vergil, Aeneid, viii. 364 f.
  9.  Frag. 484 Usener.

Letter XVII. On Philosophy and Riches

Abraham_Janssens The_judgement_of_Midas

Once again Seneca addresses the matter of the little importance of money for happiness and exalts us to place the study of philosophy in the first place, leaving the wealth hoarding in second place.

Such advice, coming from one of the richest men in Rome, may seem hypocritical, and Seneca himself was the target of his critics, who asked, “Why do you talk so much better than you live?” Seneca in his writings discusses the possibility of someone being rich, even extremely rich, and maintaining ethical integrity. There are three main criteria for this, Seneca tells us.

The virtuous rich man must maintain the right attitude, detached and non-slaveful to his wealth, possessing it without obligation and willing to give up everything when necessary: “He is a great man who uses clay dishes as if they were silver; but he is equally great who uses silver as if it were clay”.
In the second place, it is important for him to acquire wealth in a morally legitimate manner, so that his money is not “stained with blood.”
In the third place, one must use his riches generously, for the benefit of those less fortunate than himself – a disposition that invites comparison with the charitable work done by rich philanthropists in our own time.


Image: The judgement of Midas by Abraham Janssens


XVII. On Philosophy and Riches

1. Cast away everything of that sort, if you are wise; nay, rather that you may be wise; strive toward a sound mind at top speed and with your whole strength. If any bond holds you back, untie it, or sever it. “But,” you say, “my estate delays me; I wish to make such disposition of it that it may suffice for me when I have nothing to do, lest either poverty be a burden to me, or I myself a burden to others.”

2. You do not seem, when you say this, to know the strength and power of that good which you are considering. You do indeed grasp the all-important thing, the great benefit which philosophy confers, but you do not yet discern accurately its various functions, nor do you yet know how great is the help we receive from philosophy in everything, everywhere, – how, (to use Cicero’s language,[1]) it not only succours us in the greatest matters but also descends to the smallest. Take my advice; call wisdom into consultation; she will advise you not to sit for ever at your ledger.

3. Doubtless, your object, what you wish to attain by such postponement of your studies, is that poverty may not have to be feared by you. But what if it is something to be desired? Riches have shut off many a man from the attainment of wisdom; poverty is unburdened and free from care. When the trumpet sounds, the poor man knows that he is not being attacked; when there is a cry of “Fire,”[2] he only seeks a way of escape, and does not ask what he can save; if the poor man must go to sea, the harbour does not resound, nor do the wharves bustle with the retinue of one individual. No throng of slaves surrounds the poor man, – slaves for whose mouths the master must covet the fertile crops of regions beyond the sea.

4. It is easy to fill a few stomachs, when they are well trained and crave nothing else but to be filled. Hunger costs but little; squeamishness costs much. Poverty is contented with fulfilling pressing needs. Why, then, should you reject Philosophy as a comrade?

5. Even the rich man copies her ways when he is in his senses. If you wish to have leisure for your mind, either be a poor man, or resemble a poor man. Study cannot be helpful unless you take pains to live simply; and living simply is voluntary poverty. Away, then, with all excuses like: “I have not yet enough; when I have gained the desired amount, then I shall devote myself wholly to philosophy.” And yet this ideal, which you are putting off and placing second to other interests, should be secured first of all; you should begin with it. You retort: “I wish to acquire something to live on.” Yes, but learn while you are acquiring it; for if anything forbids you to live nobly, nothing forbids you to die nobly.

6. There is no reason why poverty should call us away from philosophy, – no, nor even actual want. For when hastening after wisdom, we must endure even hunger. Men have endured hunger when their towns were besieged, and what other reward for their endurance did they obtain than that they did not fall under the conqueror’s power? How much greater is the promise of the prize of everlasting liberty, and the assurance that we need fear neither God nor man! Even though we starve, we must reach that goal.

7. Armies have endured all manner of want, have lived on roots, and have resisted hunger by means of food too revolting to mention. All this they have suffered to gain a kingdom, and, – what is more marvellous, – to gain a kingdom that will be another’s. Will any man hesitate to endure poverty, in order that he may free his mind from madness? Therefore one should not seek to lay up riches first; one may attain to philosophy, however, even without money for the journey.

8. It is indeed so. After you have come to possess all other things, shall you then wish to possess wisdom also? Is philosophy to be the last requisite in life, – a sort of supplement? Nay, your plan should be this: be a philosopher now, whether you have anything or not, – for if you have anything, how do you know that you have not too much already? – but if you have nothing, seek understanding first, before anything else.

9. “But,” you say, “I shall lack the necessities of life.” In the first place, you cannot lack them; because nature demands but little, and the wise man suits his needs to nature. But if the utmost pinch of need arrives, he will quickly take leave of life and cease being a trouble to himself. If, however, his means of existence are meagre and scanty, he will make the best of them, without being anxious or worried about anything more than the bare necessities; he will do justice to his belly and his shoulders; with free and happy spirit he will laugh at the bustling of rich men, and the flurried ways of those who are hastening after wealth,

10. and say: “Why of your own accord postpone your real life to the distant future? Shall you wait for some interest to fall due, or for some income on your merchandise, or for a place in the will of some wealthy old man, when you can be rich here and now. Wisdom offers wealth in ready money, and pays it over to those in whose eyes she has made wealth superfluous.” These remarks refer to other men; you are nearer the rich class. Change the age in which you live, and you have too much. But in every age, what is enough remains the same.

11. I might close my letter at this point, if I had not got you into bad habits. One cannot greet Parthian royalty without bringing a gift; and in your case I cannot say farewell without paying a price. But what of it? I shall borrow from Epicurus:[3] “The acquisition of riches has been for many men, not an end, but a change, of troubles.

12. I do not wonder. For the fault is not in the wealth, but in the mind itself. That which had made poverty a burden to us, has made riches also a burden. Just as it matters little whether you lay a sick man on a wooden or on a golden bed, for whithersoever he be moved he will carry his malady with him; so one need not care whether the diseased mind is bestowed upon riches or upon poverty. His malady goes with the man.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  Perhaps from the Hortensius; see Müller, Frag. 98, p. 326.
  2.  Literally, “Water!”
  3.  Frag. 479 Usener.

Letter XVI. On Philosophy, the Guide of Life

Philosophy and Christian Art by Daniel Huntington

Would stoicism be useful for religious people? and for atheists and agnostics? Seneca says yes, and for everyone. The basic idea of letter 16 is made clear in its first lines: “no man can live a happy life, or even a supportable life, without the study of wisdom” (XVI, 1)

However, the study of philosophy is really a love of wisdom, and should not be pursued for trivial matters, as Seneca makes clear shortly afterwards (this would virtually eliminate much modern academic philosophy):

“Philosophy is no trick to catch the public; it is not devised for show. It is a matter, not of words, but of facts. It is not pursued in order that the day may yield some amusement before it is spent, or that our leisure may be relieved of a tedium that irks us. It moulds and constructs the soul;” (XVI.3).

In the fifth paragraph Seneca presents an interesting argument as to why philosophy should be our guide in life, regardless of our (metaphysical) religious positions:

“whether Fate binds us down by an inexorable law, or whether God as arbiter of the universe has arranged everything, or whether Chance drives and tosses human affairs without method, philosophy ought to be our defence.” (XVI, 5)

Observe the three possibilities considered: inexorable destiny, or what we would today call determinism; God as the master planner of everything that happens in the universe, similar to the Christian idea of Providence; or chance, the epicurean chaos that typifies a cosmos in which God plays no active role.

This is nothing different from what Marcus Aurelius stated in his Meditations:

“Either there is a fatal necessity and invincible order, or a kind providence, or a confusion without a purpose and without a director. If then there is an invincible necessity, why dost thou resist? But if there is a providence which allows itself to be propitiated, make thyself worthy of the help of the divinity. But if there is a confusion without a governor, be content that in such a tempest thou hast in thyself a certain ruling intelligence. ” (Meditations XII, 14)

Seneca then pulls out one of Epicurus’ not rare positive quotes: “This also is a saying of Epicurus: “If you live according to nature, you will never be poor; if you live according to opinion, you will never be rich.“. (XVI.7)

The letter concludes with this agreeable and instructive contrast, which leads to a profound truth:

Suppose that fortune carries you far beyond the limits of a private income, decks you with gold, clothes you in purple, and brings you to such a degree of luxury and wealth that you can bury the earth under your marble floors; … Natural desires are limited; but those which spring from false opinion can have no stopping-point. The false has no limits. (XVI, 8-9)

Points:

  1. Philosophy is useful for both the atheist and the faithful;
  2. Live according to nature;
  3. Natural desires are limited

image: “Philosophy and Christian Art” by Daniel Huntington

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XVI. On Philosophy, the Guide of Life

1. It is clear to you, I am sure, Lucilius, that no man can live a happy life, or even a supportable life, without the study of wisdom; you know also that a happy life is reached when our wisdom is brought to completion, but that life is at least endurable even when our wisdom is only begun. This idea, however, clear though it is, must be strengthened and implanted more deeply by daily reflection; it is more important for you to keep the resolutions you have already made than to go on and make noble ones. You must persevere, must develop new strength by continuous study, until that which is only a good inclination becomes a good settled purpose.

2. Hence you no longer need to come to me with much talk and protestations; I know that you have made great progress. I understand the feelings which prompt your words; they are not feigned or specious words. Nevertheless I shall tell you what I think, – that at present I have hopes for you, but not yet perfect trust. And I wish that you would adopt the same attitude towards yourself; there is no reason why you should put confidence in yourself too quickly and readily. Examine yourself; scrutinize and observe yourself in divers ways; but mark, before all else, whether it is in philosophy or merely in life itself[1] that you have made progress.

3. Philosophy is no trick to catch the public; it is not devised for show. It is a matter, not of words, but of facts. It is not pursued in order that the day may yield some amusement before it is spent, or that our leisure may be relieved of a tedium that irks us. It moulds and constructs the soul; it orders our life, guides our conduct, shows us what we should do and what we should leave undone; it sits at the helm and directs our course as we waver amid uncertainties. Without it, no one can live fearlessly or in peace of mind. Countless things that happen every hour call for advice; and such advice is to be sought in philosophy.

4. Perhaps someone will say: “How can philosophy help me, if Fate exists? Of what avail is philosophy, if God rules the universe? Of what avail is it, if Chance governs everything? For not only is it impossible to change things that are determined, but it is also impossible to plan beforehand against what is undetermined; either God has forestalled my plans, and decided what I am to do, or else Fortune gives no free play to my plans.”

5. Whether the truth, Lucilius, lies in one or in all of these views, we must be philosophers; whether Fate binds us down by an inexorable law, or whether God as arbiter of the universe has arranged everything, or whether Chance drives and tosses human affairs without method, philosophy ought to be our defence. She will encourage us to obey God cheerfully, but Fortune defiantly; she will teach us to follow God and endure Chance.

6. But it is not my purpose now to be led into a discussion as to what is within our own control, – if foreknowledge is supreme, or if a chain of fated events drags us along in its clutches, or if the sudden and the unexpected play the tyrant over us; I return now to my warning and my exhortation, that you should not allow the impulse of your spirit to weaken and grow cold. Hold fast to it and establish it firmly, in order that what is now impulse may become a habit of the mind.

7. If I know you well, you have already been trying to find out, from the very beginning of my letter, what little contribution it brings to you. Sift the letter, and you will find it. You need not wonder at any genius of mine; for as yet I am lavish only with other men’s property. – But why did I say “other men”? Whatever is well said by anyone is mine. – This also is a saying of Epicurus:[2] “If you live according to nature, you will never be poor; if you live according to opinion, you will never be rich.

8. Nature’s wants are slight; the demands of opinion are boundless. Suppose that the property of many millionaires is heaped up in your possession. Assume that fortune carries you far beyond the limits of a private income, decks you with gold, clothes you in purple, and brings you to such a degree of luxury and wealth that you can bury the earth under your marble floors; that you may not only possess, but tread upon, riches. Add statues, paintings, and whatever any art has devised for the satisfaction of luxury; you will only learn from such things to crave still greater.

9. Natural desires are limited; but those which spring from false opinion can have no stopping-point. The false has no limits. When you are travelling on a road, there must be an end; but when astray, your wanderings are limitless. Recall your steps, therefore, from idle things, and when you would know whether that which you seek is based upon a natural or upon a misleading desire, consider whether it can stop at any definite point. If you find, after having travelled far, that there is a more distant goal always in view, you may be sure that this condition is contrary to nature.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  i.e., have merely advanced in years.
  2.  Frag. 201 Usener.

Letter XV. On Brawn and Brains

Letter 15 recommends that we find a balance between physical and mental training. We must maintain our efforts in mental growth. For there is still a great emphasis on a better body, a more muscular and beautiful body, but we forget the importance of a beautiful and strong mind. Many are stressed by their bodies, sweat in the gym day by day, but forget to exercise their minds.

“you can never be a match, either in strength or in weight, for a first-class bull.” (XV, 2)

However, do not sweat in doubt. According to Seneca, you should still go to the gym, but not spend four hours a day there. In Seneca’s letter he even recommends physical exercises that are in fashion today!

“Now there are short and simple exercises which tire the body rapidly, and so save our time; and time is something of which we ought to keep strict account. These exercises are running, brandishing weights, and jumping… Select for practice any one of these, and you will find it plain and easy.” (XV, 4)

Another main idea in the letter is to be grateful for the things we already possess and don’t overestimate the things we want, because everything seems better when you don’t have it:

“if we could be satisfied with anything, we should have been satisfied long ago; nor do we reflect how pleasant it is to demand nothing, how noble it is to be contented and not to be dependent upon Fortune.” (XV, 9)

“why should I demand of Fortune that she give, rather than demand of myself that I should not crave?” (XV, 11)

Points:

  1. Do physical exercise;
  2. Give preference to the development of your mind;
  3. Keep control of your desires. Be content with what you have.

image: Marble Relief – Greek Men Wrestling 500 BC.

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XV. On Brawn and Brains

1. The old Romans had a custom which survived even into my lifetime. They would add to the opening words of a letter: “If you are well, it is well; I also am well.” Persons like ourselves would do well to say: “If you are studying philosophy, it is well.” For this is just what “being well” means. Without philosophy the mind is sickly, and the body, too, though it may be very powerful, is strong only as that of a madman or a lunatic is strong.

2. This, then, is the sort of health you should primarily cultivate; the other kind of health comes second, and will involve little effort, if you wish to be well physically. It is indeed foolish, my dear Lucilius, and very unsuitable for a cultivated man, to work hard over developing the muscles and broadening the shoulders and strengthening the lungs. For although your heavy feeding produce good results and your sinews grow solid, you can never be a match, either in strength or in weight, for a first-class bull. Besides, by overloading the body with food you strangle the soul and render it less active. Accordingly, limit the flesh as much as possible, and allow free play to the spirit.

3. Many inconveniences beset those who devote themselves to such pursuits. In the first place, they have their exercises, at which they must work and waste their life-force and render it less fit to bear a strain or the severer studies. Second, their keen edge is dulled by heavy eating. Besides, they must take orders from slaves of the vilest stamp, – men who alternate between the oil-flask[1] and the flagon, whose day passes satisfactorily if they have got up a good perspiration and quaffed, to make good what they have lost in sweat, huge draughts of liquor which will sink deeper because of their fasting. Drinking and sweating, – it’s the life of a dyspeptic![2]

4. Now there are short and simple exercises which tire the body rapidly, and so save our time; and time is something of which we ought to keep strict account. These exercises are running, brandishing weights, and jumping, – high-jumping or broad-jumping, or the kind which I may call, “the Priest’s dance,”[3] or, in slighting terms, “the clothes-cleaner’s jump.”[4] Select for practice any one of these, and you will find it plain and easy.

5. But whatever you do, come back soon from body to mind. The mind must be exercised both day and night, for it is nourished by moderate labour; and this form of exercise need not be hampered by cold or hot weather, or even by old age. Cultivate that good which improves with the years.

6. Of course I do not command you to be always bending over your books and your writing materials; the mind must have a change, – but a change of such a kind that it is not unnerved, but merely unbent. Riding in a litter shakes up the body, and does not interfere with study; one may read, dictate, converse, or listen to another; nor does walking prevent any of these things.

7. You need not scorn voice-culture; but I forbid you to practise raising and lowering your voice by scales and specific intonations. What if you should next propose to take lessons in walking! If you consult the sort of person whom starvation has taught new tricks, you will have someone to regulate your steps, watch every mouthful as you eat, and go to such lengths as you yourself, by enduring him and believing in him, have encouraged his effrontery to go. “What, then?” you will ask; “is my voice to begin at the outset with shouting and straining the lungs to the utmost?” No; the natural thing is that it be aroused to such a pitch by easy stages, just as persons who are wrangling begin with ordinary conversational tones and then pass to shouting at the top of their lungs. No speaker cries “Help me, citizens!” at the outset of his speech.

8. Therefore, whenever your spirit’s impulse prompts you, raise a hubbub, now in louder now in milder tones, according as your voice, as well as your spirit, shall suggest to you, when you are moved to such a performance. Then let your voice, when you rein it in and call it back to earth, come down gently, not collapse; it should trail off in tones half way between high and low, and should not abruptly drop from its raving in the uncouth manner of countrymen. For our purpose is, not to give the voice exercise, but to make it give us exercise.

9. You see, I have relieved you of no slight bother; and I shall throw in a little complementary present, – it is Greek, too. Here is the proverb; it is an excellent one: “The fool’s life is empty of gratitude and full of fears; its course lies wholly toward the future.” “Who uttered these words?” you say. The same writer whom I mentioned before.[5] And what sort of life do you think is meant by the fool’s life? That of Baba and Isio?[6]No; he means our own, for we are plunged by our blind desires into ventures which will harm us, but certainly will never satisfy us; for if we could be satisfied with anything, we should have been satisfied long ago; nor do we reflect how pleasant it is to demand nothing, how noble it is to be contented and not to be dependent upon Fortune.

10. Therefore continually remind yourself, Lucilius, how many ambitions you have attained. When you see many ahead of you, think how many are behind! If you would thank the gods, and be grateful for your past life, you should contemplate how many men you have outstripped. But what have you to do with the others? You have outstripped yourself.

11. Fix a limit which you will not even desire to pass, should you have the power. At last, then, away with all these treacherous goods! They look better to those who hope for them than to those who have attained them. If there were anything substantial in them, they would sooner or later satisfy you; as it is, they merely rouse the drinkers’ thirst. Away with fripperies which only serve for show! As to what the future’s uncertain lot has in store, why should I demand of Fortune that she give, rather than demand of myself that I should not crave? And why should l crave? Shall I heap up my winnings, and forget that man’s lot is unsubstantial? For what end should I toil? Lo, to-day is the last; if not, it is near the last.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  i.e., the prize-ring; the contestants were rubbed with oil before the fight began.
  2.  Cardiacus meant, according to Pliny, N. H. xxiii. 1. 24, a sort of dyspepsia accompanied by fever and perspiration. Compare the man in Juvenal v. 32, who will not send a spoonful of wine to a friend ill of this complaint.
  3.  Named from the Salii, or leaping priests of Mars.
  4.  The fuller, or washerman, cleansed the clothes by leaping and stamping upon them in the tub.
  5.  Epicurus, Frag. 491 Usener.
  6.  Court fools of the period.

Stoic Meditation: Be thoughtful, but don’t panic.

p6-meditations-ix-2

As we mentioned before, during the rule of Marcus Aurelius the Antonine Plague took place and devastated the Roman Empire, causing the death of five million people.

Dealing with the fear of death is a recurring theme of Meditations. The plague is also cited, as in this passage, where the emperor condemns irrational attitudes:

“The corruption of the soul is a far graver disease than any comparable disturbance in the air that surrounds us. For this corruption is a pestilence of animals so far as they are animals; but the other is a pestilence of men so far as they are men.”

Meditations IX,2

The whole third paragraph deals with the expected attitude in the face of death: Do not be careless, but do not fear:

“Do not despise death, but be well content with it, since this too is one of those things which nature wills. For such as it is to be young and to grow old, and to increase and to reach maturity, and to have teeth and beard and gray hairs, and to beget and to be pregnant and to bring forth, and all the other natural operations which the seasons of thy life bring, such also is dissolution. This, then, is consistent with the character of a reflecting man—to be neither careless nor impatient nor contemptuous with respect to death, but to wait for it as one of the operations of nature. As thou now waitest for the time when the child shall come out of thy wife’s womb, so be ready for the time when thy soul shall fall out of this envelope.”

Meditations IX,3

Letter XIV. On the Reasons for Withdrawing from the World

Death of Cato by Giambettino Cignaroli

The 14th letter is the first in which Seneca explicitly places his political guidance and tells Lucilius that we must often consider a tyrannical ruler in the same way as a storm: a prudent captain diverts his course and does not try to change what he knows to be much stronger.

Stoicism, as opposed to epicurism, advocates participation in politics and civil society. In this letter Seneca warns of the limits of such a strategy using the example of Cato who during the civil war in the end of the republic fought both Julius Caesar and Pompey. 


“… do you regard the philosophy of Marcus Cato as moderate? Cato’s voice strove to check a civil war. Cato parted the swords of maddened chieftains. When some fell foul of Pompey and others fell foul of Caesar, Cato defied both parties at once!”(XIV, 12)

Seneca quotes Epicurus one more time, and finishes the letter with a warning about the risks of wealth seeking: 

He who yearns for riches feels fear for them. No man, however, enjoys a blessing that brings anxiety; he is always trying to add a little more. While he is intricate in increasing his wealth, he forgets to use it. He collects his accounts, wears down the floor of the forum, he turns his ledger, in short, he ceases to be a master and becomes a butler”. (XIV, 17)

Points:

  1. Give preference to the development of your mind;
  2. Be part of society, but don’t fight formidable opponents;
  3. Don’t worry much about wealth.

Image: Death of Cato by Giambettino Cignaroli

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XIV. On the Reasons for Withdrawing from the World

1. I confess that we all have an inborn affection for our body; I confess that we are entrusted with its guardianship. I do not maintain that the body is not to be indulged at all; but I maintain that we must not be slaves to it. He will have many masters who makes his body his master, who is over-fearful in its behalf, who judges everything according to the body.

2. We should conduct ourselves not as if we ought to live for the body, but as if we could not live without it. Our too great love for it makes us restless with fears, burdens us with cares, and exposes us to insults. Virtue is held too cheap by the man who counts his body too dear. We should cherish the body with the greatest care; but we should also be prepared, when reason, self-respect, and duty demand the sacrifice, to deliver it even to the flames.

3. Let us, however, in so far as we can, avoid discomforts as well as dangers, and withdraw to safe ground, by thinking continually how we may repel all objects of fear. If I am not mistaken, there are three main classes of these: we fear want, we fear sickness, and we fear the troubles which result from the violence of the stronger.

4. And of all these, that which shakes us most is the dread which hangs over us from our neighbour’s ascendancy; for it is accompanied by great outcry and uproar. But the natural evils which I have mentioned, – want and sickness, – steal upon us silently with no shock of terror to the eye or to the ear. The other kind of evil comes, so to speak, in the form of a huge parade. Surrounding it is a retinue of swords and fire and chains and a mob of beasts to be let loose upon the disembowelled entrails of men.

5. Picture to yourself under this head the prison, the cross, the rack, the hook, and the stake which they drive straight through a man until it protrudes from his throat. Think of human limbs torn apart by chariots driven in opposite directions, of the terrible shirt smeared and interwoven with inflammable materials, and of all the other contrivances devised by cruelty, in addition to those which I have mentioned![1]

6. It is not surprising, then, if our greatest terror is of such a fate; for it comes in many shapes and its paraphernalia are terrifying. For just as the torturer accomplishes more in proportion to the number of instruments which he displays, – indeed, the spectacle overcomes those who would have patiently withstood the suffering, – similarly, of all the agencies which coerce and master our minds, the most effective are those which can make a display. Those other troubles are of course not less serious; I mean hunger, thirst, ulcers of the stomach, and fever that parches our very bowels. They are, however, secret; they have no bluster and no heralding; but these, like huge arrays of war, prevail by virtue of their display and their equipment.

7. Let us, therefore, see to it that we abstain from giving offence. It is sometimes the people that we ought to fear; or sometimes a body of influential oligarchs in the Senate, if the method of governing the State is such that most of the business is done by that body; and sometimes individuals equipped with power by the people and against the people. It is burdensome to keep the friendship of all such persons; it is enough not to make enemies of them. So the wise man will never provoke the anger of those in power; nay, he will even turn his course, precisely as he would turn from a storm if he were steering a ship.

8. When you travelled to Sicily, you crossed the Straits. The reckless pilot scorned the blustering South Wind, – the wind which roughens the Sicilian Sea and forces it into choppy currents; he sought not the shore on the left,[2] but the strand hard by the place where Charybdis throws the seas into confusion. Your more careful pilot, however, questions those who know the locality as to the tides and the meaning of the clouds; he holds his course far from that region notorious for its swirling waters. Our wise man does the same; he shuns a strong man who may be injurious to him, making a point of not seeming to avoid him, because an important part of one’s safety lies in not seeking safety openly; for what one avoids, one condemns.

9. We should therefore look about us, and see how we may protect ourselves from the mob. And first of all, we should have no cravings like theirs; for rivalry results in strife. Again, let us possess nothing that can be snatched from us to the great profit of a plotting foe. Let there be as little booty as possible on your person. No one sets out to shed the blood of his fellow-men for the sake of bloodshed, – at any rate very few. More murderers speculate on their profits than give vent to hatred. If you are empty-handed, the highwayman passes you by; even along an infested road, the poor may travel in peace.[3]

10. Next, we must follow the old adage and avoid three things with special care: hatred, jealousy, and scorn. And wisdom alone can show you how this may be done. It is hard to observe a mean; we must be chary of letting the fear of jealousy lead us into becoming objects of scorn, lest, when we choose not to stamp others down, we let them think that they can stamp us down. The power to inspire fear has caused many men to be in fear.[4] Let us withdraw ourselves in every way; for it is as harmful to be scorned as to be admired.

11. One must therefore take refuge in philosophy; this pursuit, not only in the eyes of good men, but also in the eyes of those who are even moderately bad, is a sort of protecting emblem.[5] For speechmaking at the bar, or any other pursuit that claims the people’s attention, wins enemies for a man; but philosophy is peaceful and minds her own business. Men cannot scorn her; she is honoured by every profession, even the vilest among them. Evil can never grow so strong, and nobility of character can never be so plotted against, that the name of philosophy shall cease to be worshipful and sacred. Philosophy itself, however, should be practised with calmness and moderation.

12. “Very well, then,” you retort, “do you regard the philosophy of Marcus Cato as moderate? Cato’s voice strove to check a civil war. Cato parted the swords of maddened chieftains. When some fell foul of Pompey and others fell foul of Caesar, Cato defied both parties at once!”

13. Nevertheless, one may well question whether, in those days, a wise man ought to have taken any part in public affairs, and ask: “What do you mean, Marcus Cato? It is not now a question of freedom; long since has freedom gone to rack and ruin. The question is, whether it is Caesar or Pompey who controls the State. Why, Cato, should you take sides in that dispute? It is no business of yours; a tyrant is being selected. What does it concern you who conquers? The better man may win; but the winner is bound to be the worse man.”[6] I have referred to Cato’s final rôle. But even in previous years the wise man was not permitted to intervene in such plundering of the state; for what could Cato do but raise his voice and utter unavailing words? At one time he was “hustled” by the mob and spat upon and forcibly removed from the forum and marked for exile; at another, he was taken straight to prison from the senate-chamber.

14. However, we shall consider later[7] whether the wise man ought to give his attention to politics; meanwhile, I beg you to consider those Stoics who, shut out from public life, have withdrawn into privacy for the purpose of improving men’s existence and framing laws for the human race without incurring the displeasure of those in power. The wise man will not upset the customs of the people, nor will he invite the attention of the populace by any novel ways of living.

15. “What then? Can one who follows out this plan be safe in any case?” I cannot guarantee you this any more than I can guarantee good health in the case of a man who observes moderation; although, as a matter of fact, good health results from such moderation. Sometimes a vessel perishes in harbour; but what do you think happens on the open sea? And how much more beset with danger that man would be, who even in his leisure is not secure, if he were busily working at many things! Innocent persons sometimes perish; who would deny that? But the guilty perish more frequently. A soldier’s skill is not at fault if he receives the death-blow through his armour.

16. And finally, the wise man regards the reason for all his actions, but not the results. The beginning is in our own power; fortune decides the issue, but I do not allow her to pass sentence upon myself. You may say: “But she can inflict a measure of suffering and of trouble.” The highwayman does not pass sentence when he slays.

17. Now you are stretching forth your hand for the daily gift. Golden indeed will be the gift with which I shall load you; and, inasmuch as we have mentioned gold, let me tell you how its use and enjoyment may bring you greater pleasure. “He who needs riches least, enjoys riches most.”[8] “Author’s name, please!” you say. Now, to show you how generous I am, it is my intent to praise the dicta of other schools. The phrase belongs to Epicurus, or Metrodorus, or some one of that particular thinking-shop.

18. But what difference does it make who spoke the words? They were uttered for the world. He who craves riches feels fear on their account. No man, however, enjoys a blessing that brings anxiety; he is always trying to add a little more. While he puzzles over increasing his wealth, he forgets how to use it. He collects his accounts, he wears out the pavement in the forum, he turns over his ledger,[9] – in short, he ceases to be master and becomes a steward.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  Cf. Tacitus, Annals, xv. 44, describing the tortures practised upon the Christians.
  2.  Scylla was a rock on the Italian side of the Straits. Charybdis was a whirlpool on the Sicillian side. Servius on Vergil, Aeneid, iii, 420 defines the dextrum as the shore “to the right of those coming from the Ionian sea.”
  3.  Cf. Juvenal, x. 22 cantabit vacuus coram latrone viator.
  4.  Cf. the proverb necesse est multos timeat quem multi timent, which is found in Seneca, de Ira, ii. 11. 4 and often elsewhere.
  5.  Literally, “is as good as a (priest’s) fillet.”
  6.  Cf. Tac. Hist. i. 50 inter duos quorum bello solum id scires, deteriorem fore vicisset.
  7.  See, for example, Letter xxii.
  8.  Epicurus, Ep. iii. p. 63. 19 Usener.
  9.  Named kalendarium because interest was reckoned according to the Kalends of each month.

Stoicism and the Plague: Marcus Aurelius and the Antonine Plague

p5-MarcusAurelius-Death

Marcus Aurelius died 1840 years ago, on March 17th, 180AD, during an expedition against the Marcomans in Vindobona (now Vienna). He was a victim of the Antonine Plague that devastated the population of the Roman Empire, causing the death of five million people, almost 5% of the Empire’s population.

By the middle of the second century A.D. the commercial and financial prosperity of the Roman Empire was formidable and when Antoninus Pio died in 161, the financial surplus left to his successor, Marcus Aurelius, was 2.7 billion sesterces. The crisis that incapacitated the Roman Empire in the 2nd century A.D. and fatally injured its supremacy was not caused by a human enemy but by a microscopic and lethal virus. The invisible threat originated in Central Asia, where it was released into the expanding population of the Ancient World. When the pandemic reached the Far East in 161 A.D., it began to inflict appalling deaths on the population of the Han Empire. At the military borders, Chinese forces lost between 30% and 40% of their personnel, with soldiers either killed or weakened by the first deadly outbreaks of infection. The virus led the same devastation to the fortified Roman borders and imposed greater fatalities among the legions than any barbaric horde could wish to attain. The pandemic also spread the infection through the Mediterranean core of the empire, transmitted in the Roman bazaars crowded with people conducting their business. For the first time since the time of Augustus, there has been a serious decline in state finances” (The Roman Empire and the Silk Routes, Raoul MacLaughlin)

Marcus Aurelius knew death closely, both in battle and at home, having lost 6 of his 13 children. He consoled himself in the following way:

Another prays: How shall I not lose my son? You do: How shall I not be afraid to lose him? (IX, 40)

The Meditations contain numerous passages reminding us that illness and death are natural and should not be feared. For example, Aurelius says:

“Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.” (IV,17)
“Everything is ephemeral, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.” (IV,35)
“You’re a little soul carrying a corpse”(IV,41)
“Alexander the Macedonian and his groom by death were brought to the same state; for either they were received among the same seminal principles of the universe, or they were alike dispersed among the atoms. (VI, 24)
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Donald Robertson, author of “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius“, wrote a dramatic account of the events surrounding the Antonine Plague and the discussion of these events in relation to the stoic philosophy. Excellent reading.

Letter XIII. On Groundless Fears

13-Coronavirus

Note
I understand that the containment measures are valid and that the problem is real. The image was chosen to alert against panic and irrational fear. You probably have enough toilet paper at home.


This is one of my favorite letters. In it Seneca addresses the main factor that hinders our development, the fear.

What prevents you from seeking your dream work, from making art, from traveling the world, from exposing yourself? It’s Fear. It’s that simple. We can give the excuse of being busy or at a bad time or not having talent or resources or a million other things, but in reality many times it is the fear that holds us back.

The 13th letter begins by arguing that we have to experience certain things to build our character and develop resistance against them:

“no fighter can go with high expectation into the fight if he has never been beaten; the only competitor who can enter the fight with confidence is the man who has seen his own blood, who has felt his teeth rattle under his opponent’s fist… the one who, as often as he falls, rises again with greater stubbornness than ever before” (XII, 2)

He continues:

“There are more things, Lucilius, that can frighten us than there are to defeat us; we suffer more in the imagination than in reality… Thus, some things torment us more than they should; some torment us before they should; and some torment us when they should not. “(XIII, 4)

Both passages later became the main theme of Epictetus: we must distance ourselves from our first impressions, consider them rationally and decide whether to give or withhold approval from them. In fact, we suffer more often in our imagination than in reality, as reality is often more bearable than our fears let us believe.

Points:

  1. To know your fear is to defeat it;
  2. Things are often worse in your mind;
  3. Explore what could really go wrong;
  4. Don’t panic, it is witless (§9).

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XIII. On Groundless Fears

1. I know that you have plenty of spirit; for even before you began to equip yourself with maxims which were wholesome and potent to overcome obstacles, you were taking pride in your contest with Fortune; and this is all the more true, now that you have grappled with Fortune and tested your powers. For our powers can never inspire in us implicit faith in ourselves except when many difficulties have confronted us on this side and on that, and have occasionally even come to close quarters with us. It is only in this way that the true spirit can be tested, – the spirit that will never consent to come under the jurisdiction of things external to ourselves.

2. This is the touchstone of such a spirit; no prizefighter can go with high spirits into the strife if he has never been beaten black and blue; the only contestant who can confidently enter the lists is the man who has seen his own blood, who has felt his teeth rattle beneath his opponent’s fist, who has been tripped and felt the full force of his adversary’s charge, who has been downed in body but not in spirit, one who, as often as he falls, rises again with greater defiance than ever.

3. So then, to keep up my figure, Fortune has often in the past got the upper hand of you, and yet you have not surrendered, but have leaped up and stood your ground still more eagerly. For manliness gains much strength by being challenged; nevertheless, if you approve, allow me to offer some additional safeguards by which you may fortify yourself.

4. There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality. I am not speaking with you in the Stoic strain but in my milder style. For it is our Stoic fashion to speak of all those things, which provoke cries and groans, as unimportant and beneath notice; but you and I must drop such great-sounding words, although, Heaven knows, they are true enough. What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come.

5. Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow. The first of these three faults[1] may be postponed for the present, because the subject is under discussion and the case is still in court, so to speak. That which I should call trifling, you will maintain to be most serious; for of course I know that some men laugh while being flogged, and that others wince at a box on the ear. We shall consider later whether these evils derive their power from their own strength, or from our own weakness.

6. Do me the favour, when men surround you and try to talk you into believing that you are unhappy, to consider not what you hear but what you yourself feel, and to take counsel with your feelings and question yourself independently, because you know your own affairs better than anyone else does. Ask: “Is there any reason why these persons should condole with me? Why should they be worried or even fear some infection from me, as if troubles could be transmitted? Is there any evil involved, or is it a matter merely of ill report, rather than an evil?” Put the question voluntarily to yourself: “Am I tormented without sufficient reason, am I morose, and do I convert what is not an evil into what is an evil?”

7. You may retort with the question: “How am I to know whether my sufferings are real or imaginary?” Here is the rule for such matters: We are tormented either by things present, or by things to come, or by both. As to things present, the decision is easy. Suppose that your person enjoys freedom and health, and that you do not suffer from any external injury. As to what may happen to it in the future, we shall see later on. To-day there is nothing wrong with it.

8. “But,” you say, “something will happen to it.” First of all, consider whether your proofs of future trouble are sure. For it is more often the case that we are troubled by our apprehensions, and that we are mocked by that mocker, rumour, which is wont to settle wars, but much more often settles individuals. Yes, my dear Lucilius; we agree too quickly with what people say. We do not put to the test those things which cause our fear; we do not examine into them; we blench and retreat just like soldiers who are forced to abandon their camp because of a dust-cloud raised by stampeding cattle, or are thrown into a panic by the spreading of some unauthenticated rumour.

9. And somehow or other it is the idle report that disturbs us most. For truth has its own definite boundaries, but that which arises from uncertainty is delivered over to guesswork and the irresponsible license of a frightened mind. That is why no fear is so ruinous and so uncontrollable as panic fear. For other fears are groundless, but this fear is witless.

10. Let us, then, look carefully into the matter. It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things.

11. What shall you gain by doing this? Time. There will be many happenings meanwhile which will serve to postpone, or end, or pass on to another person, the trials which are near or even in your very presence. A fire has opened the way to flight. Men have been let down softly by a catastrophe. Sometimes the sword has been checked even at the victim’s throat. Men have survived their own executioners. Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime it is not. So look forward to better things.

12. The mind at times fashions for itself false shapes of evil when there are no signs that point to any evil; it twists into the worst construction some word of doubtful meaning; or it fancies some personal grudge to be more serious than it really is, considering not how angry the enemy is, but to what lengths he may go if he is angry. But life is not worth living, and there is no limit to our sorrows, if we indulge our fears to the greatest possible extent; in this matter, let prudence help you, and contemn with a resolute spirit even when it is in plain sight. If you cannot do this, counter one weakness with another, and temper your fear with hope. There is nothing so certain among these objects of fear that it is not more certain still that things we dread sink into nothing and that things we hope for mock us.

13. Accordingly, weigh carefully your hopes as well as your fears, and whenever all the elements are in doubt, decide in your own favour; believe what you prefer. And if fear wins a majority of the votes, incline in the other direction anyhow, and cease to harass your soul, reflecting continually that most mortals, even when no troubles are actually at hand or are certainly to be expected in the future, become excited and disquieted. No one calls a halt on himself, when he begins to be urged ahead; nor does he regulate his alarm according to the truth. No one says; “The author of the story is a fool, and he who has believed it is a fool, as well as he who fabricated it.” We let ourselves drift with every breeze; we are frightened at uncertainties, just as if they were certain. We observe no moderation. The slightest thing turns the scales and throws us forthwith into a panic.

14. But I am ashamed either to admonish you sternly or to try to beguile you with such mild remedies.[2] Let another say: “Perhaps the worst will not happen.” You yourself must say: “Well, what if it does happen? Let us see who wins! Perhaps it happens for my best interests; it may be that such a death will shed credit upon my life.” Socrates was ennobled by the hemlock draught. Wrench from Cato’s hand his sword, the vindicator of liberty, and you deprive him of the greatest share of his glory.

15. I am exhorting you far too long, since you need reminding rather than exhortation. The path on which I am leading you is not different from that on which your nature leads you; you were born to such conduct as I describe. Hence there is all the more reason why you should increase and beautify the good that is in you.

16. But now, to close my letter, I have only to stamp the usual seal upon it, in other words, to commit thereto some noble message to be delivered to you: “The fool, with all his other faults, has this also, – he is always getting ready to live.”[3] Reflect, my esteemed Lucilius, what this saying means, and you will see how revolting is the fickleness of men who lay down every day new foundations of life, and begin to build up fresh hopes even at the brink of the grave.

17. Look within your own mind for individual instances; you will think of old men who are preparing themselves at that very hour for a political career, or for travel, or for business. And what is baser than getting ready to live when you are already old? I should not name the author of this motto, except that it is somewhat unknown to fame and is not one of those popular sayings of Epicurus which I have allowed myself to praise and to appropriate.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  Seneca dismisses the topic of “exaggerated ills,” because judgements will differ concerning present troubles; the Stoics, for example, would not admit that torture was an evil at all. He then passes on to the topic of “imaginary ills,” §§ 6-7, and afterwards to “anticipated ills,” §§ 8-11. From § 12 on, he deals with both imaginary and anticipated ills.
  2.  Cf. Solon’s καί με κωτίλλοντα λείως τραχὺν ἐκφανεῖ νόον.
  3.  Epicurus, Frag. 494 Usener.

Letter XII. On Old Age

Heraclitus by Johannes Moreelse

In the 12th letter Seneca deals with an issue that a growing number of people today have to deal with: old age.

He begins by recalling a recent visit to one of his cottages, during which he complained to one of his employees that he was spending a lot of money on maintenance. But his caretaker protested that the house was getting older, and the repairs were therefore fully justified. Seneca writes, “this was the house which grew under my own hands! What has the future in store for me, if stones of my own age are already crumbling?“(XII, 1)

What should be the wise person’s attitude towards old age? Seneca puts very vividly:

Let us go to our sleep with joy and gladness; let us say: I have lived; And if God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts. When a man has said: “I have lived!“, every morning he arises he receives a bonus. (XII, 9)

As he often does in his letters, Seneca ends with a “gift,” a meaningful quotation from another author, which in this case is: “It is wrong to live under constraint; but no man is constrained to live under constraint” (XII, 10). This is another reference to suicide, something to be chosen under certain circumstances according to the stoics.

The above saying is from none other than the master of the main rival of the stoic school. Seneca, then, presumes Lucilius’ protest:

“Epicurus,” you reply, “uttered these words; what are you doing with another’s property?” Any truth, I maintain, is my own property (XII, 11)

Once again, an appealing expression, an example of true wisdom: no matter where the truth comes from, once learned, it is our collective property.

Points:

  1. Death comes, likewise, to the young and the old.
  2. Live your life, seize the day.
  3. Good ideas are common property.

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Image: Heraclitus by Johannes Moreelse


XII. On Old Age

1. Wherever I turn, I see evidences of my advancing years. I visited lately my country-place, and protested against the money which was spent on the tumble-down building. My bailiff maintained that the flaws were not due to his own carelessness; “he was doing everything possible, but the house was old.” And this was the house which grew under my own hands! What has the future in store for me, if stones of my own age are already crumbling?

2. I was angry, and I embraced the first opportunity to vent my spleen in the bailiff’s presence. “It is clear,” I cried, “that these plane-trees are neglected; they have no leaves. Their branches are so gnarled and shrivelled; the boles are so rough and unkempt! This would not happen, if someone loosened the earth at their feet, and watered them.” The bailiff swore by my protecting deity that “he was doing everything possible, and never relaxed his efforts, but those trees were old.” Between you and me, I had planted those trees myself, I had seen them in their first leaf.

3. Then I turned to the door and asked: “Who is that broken-down dotard? You have done well to place him at the entrance; for he is outward bound.[1] Where did you get him? What pleasure did it give you to take up for burial some other man’s dead?”[2] But the slave said: “Don’t you know me, sir? I am Felicio; you used to bring me little images.[3] My father was Philositus the steward, and I am your pet slave.” “The man is clean crazy,” I remarked. “Has my pet slave become a little boy again? But it is quite possible; his teeth are just dropping out.”[4]

4. I owe it to my country-place that my old age became apparent whithersoever I turned. Let us cherish and love old age; for it is full of pleasure if one knows how to use it. Fruits are most welcome when almost over; youth is most charming at its close; the last drink delights the toper, – the glass which souses him and puts the finishing touch on his drunkenness.

5. Each pleasure reserves to the end the greatest delights which it contains. Life is most delightful when it is on the downward slope, but has not yet reached the abrupt decline. And I myself believe that the period which stands, so to speak, on the edge of the roof, possesses pleasures of its own. Or else the very fact of our not wanting pleasures has taken the place of the pleasures themselves. How comforting it is to have tired out one’s appetites, and to have done with them!

6. “But,” you say, “it is a nuisance to be looking death in the face!” Death, however, should be looked in the face by young and old alike. We are not summoned according to our rating on the censor’s list.[5] Moreover, no one is so old that it would be improper for him to hope for another day of existence. And one day, mind you, is a stage on life’s journey. Our span of life is divided into parts; it consists of large circles enclosing smaller. One circle embraces and bounds the rest; it reaches from birth to the last day of existence. The next circle limits the period of our young manhood. The third confines all of childhood in its circumference. Again, there is, in a class by itself, the year; it contains within itself all the divisions of time by the multiplication of which we get the total of life. The month is bounded by a narrower ring. The smallest circle of all is the day; but even a day has its beginning and its ending, its sunrise and its sunset.

7. Hence Heraclitus, whose obscure style gave him his surname,[6] remarked: “One day is equal to every day.” Different persons have interpreted the saying in different ways. Some hold that days are equal in number of hours, and this is true; for if by “day” we mean twenty-four hours’ time, all days must be equal, inasmuch as the night acquires what the day loses. But others maintain that one day is equal to all days through resemblance, because the very longest space of time possesses no element which cannot be found in a single day, – namely, light and darkness, – and even to eternity day makes these alternations[7] more numerous, not different when it is shorter and different again when it is longer.

8. Hence, every day ought to be regulated as if it closed the series, as if it rounded out and completed our existence. Pacuvius, who by long occupancy made Syria his own,[8] used to hold a regular burial sacrifice in his own honour, with wine and the usual funeral feasting, and then would have himself carried from the dining-room to his chamber, while eunuchs applauded and sang in Greek to a musical accompaniment: “He has lived his life, he has lived his life!”

9. Thus Pacuvius had himself carried out to burial every day. Let us, however, do from a good motive what he used to do from a debased motive; let us go to our sleep with joy and gladness; let us say:

I have lived; the course which Fortune set for me
Is finished.[9]

And if God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts. That man is happiest, and is secure in his own possession of himself, who can await the morrow without apprehension. When a man has said: “I have lived!”, every morning he arises he receives a bonus.

10. But now I ought to close my letter. “What?” you say; “shall it come to me without any little offering?” Be not afraid; it brings something, – nay, more than something, a great deal. For what is more noble than the following saying[10] of which I make this letter the bearer: “It is wrong to live under constraint; but no man is constrained to live under constraint.” Of course not. On all sides lie many short and simple paths to freedom; and let us thank God that no man can be kept in life. We may spurn the very constraints that hold us.

11. “Epicurus,” you reply, “uttered these words; what are you doing with another’s property?” Any truth, I maintain, is my own property. And I shall continue to heap quotations from Epicurus upon you, so that all persons who swear by the words of another, and put a value upon the speaker and not upon the thing spoken, may understand that the best ideas are common property.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  A jesting allusion to the Roman funeral; the corpse’s feet pointing towards the door.
  2.  His former owner should have kept him and buried him.
  3.  Small figures, generally of terra-cotta, were frequently given to children as presents at the Saturnalia. Cf. Macrobius, i. 11. 49 sigila . . . pro se atque suis piaculum.
  4.  i.e., the old slave resembles a child in that he is losing his teeth (but for the second time).
  5.  i.e., seniores, as contrasted with iuniores.
  6.  ὁ σκοτεινός, “the Obscure,” Frag. 106 Diels².
  7.  i.e., of light and darkness.
  8.  Usus was the mere enjoyment of a piece of property; dominium was the exclusive right to its control. Possession for one, or two, years conferred ownership. See Leage, Roman Private Law, pp. 133, 152, and 164. Although Pacuvius was governor so long that the province seemed to belong to him, yet he knew he might die any day.
  9.  Vergil, Aeneid, iv. 653.
  10.  Epicurus, Sprüche, 9 Wokte.