In Letter 26, Seneca once again addresses death and how to face it.
When he wrote his letters, Seneca was living the last years of his life although he was obviously unaware that those years would come to an abrupt end with the suicide order imposed by Nero. Yet he is grateful that his mind is still sharp, even if his body is decaying, as is fitting for a stoic who values his mental faculty and considers the body a preferred indifferent.
‘you say, “it is the greatest possible disadvantage to be worn out and to die off, or rather, if I may speak literally, to melt away! For we are not suddenly smitten and laid low; we are worn away, and every day reduces our powers to a certain extent.” But is there any better end to it all than to glide off to one’s proper haven, when nature slips the cable? ‘ (XXVI, 4)
A quick and sudden death is easy and preferable, but the reality is that most of us will slowly decline, losing both our physical and mental strength in the process. This is the difficult challenge of approaching death, and that is the reason the way we approach death is the final test of our character. How will we react to our growing dependence on others? Is it better to stay here until the last minute, or walk through the open door, as Epictetus says, while we are still in control?
It makes good practice to ask ourselves the same question, not only about death, but about how we behave every day: are we really trying, even imperfectly, to live the stoic life, or is it just talk? Seneca places limited value on theoretical learning. The evidence is in practice:
“You are younger; but what does that matter? There is no fixed count of our years. You do not know where death awaits you; so be ready for it everywhere.”(XXVI, 7)
This is a crucial point, and so commonly underestimated. We often talk about someone dying “prematurely.” But we rely on statistical expectations. From the Logos’ point of view, the cosmic web of cause and effect, there is no such thing as too early or too late. Things happen when they happen. And this theoretical knowledge has the potential to be of enormous practical interest, don’t waste time, for the simple reason that you don’t know how much time you have left.
(Image: Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill by Pieter Claesz)
XXVI. On Old Age and Death
1. I was just lately telling you that I was within sight of old age. I am now afraid that I have left old age behind me. For some other word would now apply to my years, or at any rate to my body; since old age means a time of life that is weary rather than crushed. You may rate me in the worn-out class, – of those who are nearing the end.
2. Nevertheless, I offer thanks to myself, with you as witness; for I feel that age has done no damage to my mind, though I feel its effects on my constitution. Only my vices, and the outward aids to these vices, have reached senility; my mind is strong and rejoices that it has but slight connexion with the body. It has laid aside the greater part of its load. It is alert; it takes issue with me on the subject of old age; it declares that old age is its time of bloom.
3. Let me take it at its word, and let it make the most of the advantages it possesses. The mind bids me do some thinking and consider how much of this peace of spirit and moderation of character I owe to wisdom and how much to my time of life; it bids me distinguish carefully what I cannot do and what I do not want to do. . . . For why should one complain or regard it as a disadvantage, if powers which ought to come to an end have failed?
4. “But,” you say, “it is the greatest possible disadvantage to be worn out and to die off, or rather, if I may speak literally, to melt away! For we are not suddenly smitten and laid low; we are worn away, and every day reduces our powers to a certain extent.” But is there any better end to it all than to glide off to one’s proper haven, when nature slips the cable? Not that there is anything painful in a shock and a sudden departure from existence; it is merely because this other way of departure is easy, – a gradual withdrawal. I, at any rate, as if the test were at hand and the day were come which is to pronounce its decision concerning all the years of my life, watch over myself and commune thus with myself:
5. “The showing which we have made up to the present time, in word or deed, counts for nothing. All this is but a trifling and deceitful pledge of our spirit, and is wrapped in much charlatanism. I shall leave it to Death to determine what progress I have made. Therefore with no faint heart I am making ready for the day when, putting aside all stage artifice and actor’s rouge, I am to pass judgment upon myself, – whether I am merely declaiming brave sentiments, or whether I really feel them; whether all the bold threats I have uttered against fortune are a pretence and a farce.
6. Put aside the opinion of the world; it is always wavering and always takes both sides. Put aside the studies which you have pursued throughout your life; Death will deliver the final judgment in your case. This is what I mean: your debates and learned talks, your maxims gathered from the teachings of the wise, your cultured conversation, – all these afford no proof of the real strength of your soul. Even the most timid man can deliver a bold speech. What you have done in the past will be manifest only at the time when you draw your last breath. I accept the terms; I do not shrink from the decision.”
7. This is what I say to myself, but I would have you think that I have said it to you also. You are younger; but what does that matter? There is no fixed count of our years. You do not know where death awaits you; so be ready for it everywhere.
8. I was just intending to stop, and my hand was making ready for the closing sentence; but the rites are still to be performed and the travelling money for the letter disbursed. And just assume that I am not telling where I intend to borrow the necessary sum; you know upon whose coffers I depend. Wait for me but a moment, and I will pay you from my own account; meanwhile, Epicurus will oblige me with these words: “Think on death,” or rather, if you prefer the phrase, on “migration to heaven.”
9. The meaning is clear, – that it is a wonderful thing to learn thoroughly how to die. You may deem it superfluous to learn a text that can be used only once; but that is just the reason why we ought to think on a thing. When we can never prove whether we really know a thing, we must always be learning it.
10. “Think on death.” In saying this, he bids us think on freedom. He who has learned to die has unlearned slavery; he is above any external power, or, at any rate, he is beyond it. What terrors have prisons and bonds and bars for him? His way out is clear. There is only one chain which binds us to life, and that is the love of life. The chain may not be cast off, but it may be rubbed away, so that, when necessity shall demand, nothing may retard or hinder us from being ready to do at once that which at some time we are bound to do.
- ↑ See the twelfth letter. Seneca was by this time at least sixty-five years old, and probably older.
- ↑ This passage is hopelessly corrupt. The course of the argument requires something like this: For it is just as much to my advantage not to be able to do what I do not want to do, as it is to be able to do whatever gives me pleasure.
- ↑ i.e., the money will be brought from home, – the saying will be one of Seneca’s own.
- ↑ Epicurus, Frag. 205 Usener.