Letter XXVI. On Old Age and Death

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.[1] 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. . . .[2] 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;[3] meanwhile, Epicurus will oblige me with these words:[4] “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.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  See the twelfth letter. Seneca was by this time at least sixty-five years old, and probably older.
  2.  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.
  3.  i.e., the money will be brought from home, – the saying will be one of Seneca’s own.
  4.  Epicurus, Frag. 205 Usener.

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.

Stoic Meditation: It is not events that disturbs you but only your judgment of it.

Epictetus-COVID-19

DEAR EPICTETUS: I’m worried about the new coronavirus. They say that it’s a pandemic, and that up to 70% of the world’s population may eventually get it. There are already cases here in California. I don’t want to get sick, or have my family get sick. How can I stay safe?
Concerned in California

DEAR SLAVE: We are all going to die. Maybe from coronavirus, maybe from cancer, maybe from a heart attack. What, did you think you were immortal? What does it matter if you die next week, feverish and lungs filled with fluid, or 40 years from now, wrinkled and weak and no longer able to remember your own name? Leave your time of death to Fate. Meanwhile, wash your hands for 30 seconds, don’t touch your face, tell your family that you love them, and try to be a good person. It is not the coronavirus that disturbs you but only your judgment of it.
Epictetus

from Duff McDuffee at Cynic & Stoic Memes

Book:

Letter XI. On the Blush of Modesty

Cato's death Pierre Bouillon

In Letter 11 Seneca explains that our body gives us hints that we are not in control using the blushing as an analogy. This is a remarkable insight into the limits of philosophy: wisdom itself, cannot overcome our innate reactions and natural predispositions. When embarrassed we blush, if we feel fear or anger, we cannot avoid the stress. As would Epictetus later teach “not up to us”:

That which is implanted and inborn can be toned down by training, but not overcome.

So, no matter what you do, inborn imperfections, especially the way that your body acts to different situations cannot be controlled. But it doesn’t mean that you are a weak person, it is just the universe telling you “relax, you’re not in control!”

This established, Seneca continues with a bit of good advice, which is to cultivate wisdom despite its limitations. But how do we cultivate wisdom?  Seneca’s answer is archetypal Stoicism:

“Cherish some man of high character, and keep him ever before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them” (XI.8)

“Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit … For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler” (XI.10).

The choice of your personal role model depends on you, but choose well, keep practicing by imagining that he is always looking over your shoulder, and your crooked staff will gradually be straightened out with the help of a straight ruler.

Points:

  1. No matter what we do, inborn imperfections, cannot be controlled.
  2. Nevertheless, cultivate wisdom despite its limitations.
  3. Choose a role model, and act as if the is watching over you.

Also available on Medium.

Image: Cato’s death by Pierre Bouillon. Cato was the best example of stoic conduct according to Seneca.


XI. On the Blush of Modesty

1. Your friend and I have had a conversation. He is a man of ability; his very first words showed what spirit and understanding he possesses, and what progress he has already made. He gave me a foretaste, and he will not fail to answer thereto. For he spoke not from forethought, but was suddenly caught off his guard. When he tried to collect himself, he could scarcely banish that hue of modesty, which is a good sign in a young man; the blush that spread over his face seemed so to rise from the depths. And I feel sure that his habit of blushing will stay with him after he has strengthened his character, stripped off all his faults, and become wise. For by no wisdom can natural weaknesses of the body be removed. That which is implanted and inborn can be toned down by training, but not overcome.

2. The steadiest speaker, when before the public, often breaks into perspiration, as if he had wearied or over-heated himself; some tremble in the knees when they rise to speak; I know of some whose teeth chatter, whose tongues falter, whose lips quiver. Training and experience can never shake off this habit; nature exerts her own power and through such a weakness makes her presence known even to the strongest.

3. I know that the blush, too, is a habit of this sort, spreading suddenly over the faces of the most dignified men. It is, indeed more prevalent in youth, because of the warmer blood and the sensitive countenance; nevertheless, both seasoned men and aged men are affected by it. Some are most dangerous when they redden, as if they were letting all their sense of shame escape.

4. Sulla, when the blood mantled his cheeks, was in his fiercest mood. Pompey had the most sensitive cast of countenance; he always blushed in the presence of a gathering, and especially at a public assembly. Fabianus also, I remember, reddened when he appeared as a witness before the senate; and his embarrassment became him to a remarkable degree.

5. Such a habit is not due to mental weakness, but to the novelty of a situation; an inexperienced person is not necessarily confused, but is usually affected, because he slips into this habit by natural tendency of the body. Just as certain men are full-blooded, so others are of a quick and mobile blood, that rushes to the face at once.

6. As I remarked, Wisdom can never remove this habit; for if she could rub out all our faults, she would be mistress of the universe. Whatever is assigned to us by the terms of our birth and the blend in our constitutions, will stick with us, no matter how hard or how long the soul may have tried to master itself. And we cannot forbid these feelings any more than we can summon them.

7. Actors in the theatre, who imitate the emotions, who portray fear and nervousness, who depict sorrow, imitate bashfulness by hanging their heads, lowering their voices, and keeping their eyes fixed and rooted upon the ground. They cannot, however, muster a blush; for the blush cannot be prevented or acquired. Wisdom will not assure us of a remedy, or give us help against it; it comes or goes unbidden, and is a law unto itself.

8. But my letter calls for its closing sentence. Hear and take to heart this useful and wholesome motto:[1]Cherish some man of high character, and keep him ever before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them.

9. Such, my dear Lucilius, is the counsel of Epicurus;[2] he has quite properly given us a guardian and an attendant. We can get rid of most sins, if we have a witness who stands near us when we are likely to go wrong. The soul should have someone whom it can respect, – one by whose authority it may make even its inner shrine more hallowed.[3] Happy is the man who can make others better, not merely when he is in their company, but even when he is in their thoughts! And happy also is he who can so revere a man as to calm and regulate himself by calling him to mind! One who can so revere another, will soon be himself worthy of reverence.

10. Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.

Farewell

Footnotes

  1.  Epicurus, Frag. 210 Usener.
  2.  Frag. 210 Usener.
  3.  The figure is taken from the ἄδυτον, the Holy of Holies in a temple. Cf. Vergil, Aeneid, vi. 10 secreta Sibyllas.