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.
- Death comes, likewise, to the young and the old.
- Live your life, seize the day.
- Good ideas are common property.
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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. Where did you get him? What pleasure did it give you to take up for burial some other man’s dead?” But the slave said: “Don’t you know me, sir? I am Felicio; you used to bring me little images. 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. 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. 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, 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 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, 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
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 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.
- ↑ A jesting allusion to the Roman funeral; the corpse’s feet pointing towards the door.
- ↑ His former owner should have kept him and buried him.
- ↑ 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.
- ↑ i.e., the old slave resembles a child in that he is losing his teeth (but for the second time).
- ↑ i.e., seniores, as contrasted with iuniores.
- ↑ ὁ σκοτεινός, “the Obscure,” Frag. 106 Diels².
- ↑ i.e., of light and darkness.
- ↑ 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.
- ↑ Vergil, Aeneid, iv. 653.
- ↑ Epicurus, Sprüche, 9 Wokte.