Seneca to Lucilius: On old age

Old LeonardoThis is the 12th letter to Lucilius, in the translation by Richard Mott Gummere published in the Delphi Classics edition of Seneca’s Complete Works, and it deals with an issue that an increasing number of people in the first world of today have to deal with: old age.

Seneca begins by recalling a recent visit to one of his country houses, during which he complained to one of his employees that too much money was being spent to keep it up. But his bailiff protested that the house was getting old, and the repairs were therefore entirely warranted. So Seneca writes to Lucilius: “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?” (XII.1)

He then argues that there is much to be cherished in that stage of his life that the bailiff’s unchallengeable argument suddenly made him appreciate:

“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. 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.” (XII, 4-5)

Notice the awareness of a coming “abrupt decline,” which Seneca is not foolish enough to argue will make for an enjoyable part of his life, should he live long enough (as it turns out, he didn’t). While not expressly mentioned here, this was the reason why the Stoics — including both Seneca and Epictetus, not to mention Zeno — thought that the wise man should make an exit, take “the open door,” as Epictetus memorably put it, when the appropriate time had come, no a moment sooner, but also not a moment later.

So what should be the wise person’s attitude toward old age? Seneca puts it very vividly to Lucilius:

“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. 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.” (XII.9)

I am often struck by Seneca’s language, and this is one of many instances. “I have lived!, every morning I arise I receive a bonus.” Indeed.

As he frequently does in the early letters, Seneca parts from his friend 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), another, more direct, reference to suicide to be chosen under certain circumstances.

The twist is that the above saying is from none other than Epicurus, the chief rival of the Stoic school at the time. Seneca, then, imagines Lucilius protesting: “‘Epicurus,’ you reply, ‘uttered these words; what are you doing with another’s property?’ Any truth, I maintain, is my own property.” (XII.11)

Again, a beautiful turn of phrase, and an example of real wisdom: it doesn’t matter where the truth comes from, once discovered, it is our collective property.

13 thoughts on “Seneca to Lucilius: On old age

  1. “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. 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.” (Seneca, XII.9)

    While Seneca’s words might be comforting, they seem also to deny the reality of death and its accompanying pain and physical decline. Without the assurance of a joyous afterlife, his are no more than deceptive words, which refuse to engage reality.

    In contrast, Bertrand Russell believed, as do many atheists, that a refuge of meaning could be fashioned out of non-meaning. However towards the end of his journey, he admitted:

    • “I wrote with passion and force because I really thought I had a gospel. Now I am cynical about the gospel because it won’t stand the test of life.” (Os Guinness, The Journey, 106)

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  2. Daniel,

    I’m not positive about that Russell quote. Would like to see a direct reference and the context. Regardless, what I find deceptive is the promise of an afterlife of which we have no evidence whatsoever, so I’ll stick with Seneca, whose words I find both reasonable and comforting.

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  3. ABOUT THE RUSSELL QUOTE – All I have is the reference I have already listed.

    There are many bits of evidence that point to an afterlife. I would be glad to share them with you if you would like.

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  4. Daniel
    “While Seneca’s words might be comforting, they seem also to deny the reality of death and its accompanying pain and physical decline. Without the assurance of a joyous afterlife, his are no more than deceptive words, which refuse to engage reality.”

    The pain and physical decline are not mandatory, as Stoicism considers suicide a good option. In my opinion it is the, false, assurance of a joyous afterlife the words that are deceptive and which refuse to engage reality.

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  5. Stoic philosophy very much addresses death , pain and physical decline. We can control our thoughts and actions. We achieve peace of mind by focusing on what we can control. Practicing/living this path while we are ‘young’ and healthy can help us maintain eudaimonia when faced with the inevitability of physical decline and death. For a Stoic, continuing to focus on what is important in life should not be disrupted by her declining health. I think Seneca’s letter is a nice reminder to focus on and appreciate the benefits of age. A trait that seems to be appreciated more in some cultures than in others.

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  6. Daniel,

    That Russell quote just doesn’t sound like him at all, so I’d like to see a direct reference and the context. As for evidence of the supernatural and of an afterlife, thanks, I’ll respectfully pass. I have looked into that sort of literature, for years, and I have reached conclusions with which I am satisfied.

    As for demons, c’mon. Here is what the very word conjures up in my mind: http://gothamist.com/2016/09/13/psychic_lisa_arrested_for_conning_w.php

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  7. Hi Daniel,

    It is true that “reality of death and its accompanying pain and physical decline” may cause a person to have moments of despair. Even assuming the Russell quote is precise, a moment of despair does not invalidate a lifetime of meaning. Even good passionate Christians may cry out and curse God in a moment of pain, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” This is human and not the sign of invalid philosophy.

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  8. The door is open, and suicide a fundamental human right. I have drafted a living will, limiting the medical care to be provided if I have declined to the point where I can no longer be directly consulted, and deplore the fact that where I live I could be overruled by well-meaning physicians who would consider it their religious duty to prolong my life, should I fall into their hands at the end.

    One side comment: accepting for the moment the gospel narrative as correct, I suspect that Jesus, as a good Pharisee facing death, was not expressing despair but reciting Psalm 22.

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  9. Massimo,

    Thought you might enjoy this journal my friend and I have created.

    We thought we would help folks develop their own mini versions of Letters, Meditations, Discourses etc.

    http://www.journalforastoic.com

    Would love your thoughts and feedback if you get 10 minutes.

    Really enjoy your work and look forward to checking out your book, Answers for Aristotle.

    All the best, Michael Osburn

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  10. Death is not a bad thing. Fear of dying is. The pain you’re going to feel is.

    When I get old, the first thing I’d do is accept that I am going to painfully die. It takes some time for those thoughts to sunk in. Once accepted, I’d live each and everyday with joy.

    No, it’s not because I have a few years left but it’s due to the fact that I am going to die,freeing myself of life’s burden and especially my deteriorating body. So in my remaining days when I get old, I’ll try to enjoy, like I used to do when I was a kid (without any regrets, burdens, stress etc).

    “Life existed before I was born and will continue to exist after I die. So why worry about death? You are one among those 100,000 people who will die with you on the same day. ”

    I never understood why people think too much about something that’s inevitable. Most people never think too much about career, marriage or themselves. I think they are doing it in reverse. They should stop thinking about the inevitable (and accept it) and dedicate their time for other things.

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