Seneca to Lucilius: old age and death

The 26th letter written by Seneca to his friend Lucilius begins in this fashion:

“I give thanks to myself, in your presence, that I do not sense any impairment in my mind, even though I do in my body. Only my faults have grown old, and those parts of me that pay service to my faults.” (XXVI.1-2)

When he wrote his letters Seneca was living the last years of his life, and even though he had of course no knowledge that those years would come to an abrupt end once the order to commit suicide had been delivered by Nero’s guards, he felt it in his bones. Still, he is thankful that his mind is still sharp, even though his body is decaying, as befits a Stoic who puts premium on his faculty of judgment and considers the body a preferred indifferent. I find it endearing that Seneca immediately mentions his faults, that persist because there are parts of him that keep paying service to them. We try to become better people, but we are still very fallible humans.

“My mind tells me to ponder the matter and to discern what of my tranquility and moderate habits I owe to wisdom and what to my time of life; also, to distinguish carefully between things I cannot do and things I do not want to do.” (XXVI.3)

This is a dense passage, addressing two separate issues. The first one is the open question of how much his serenity of mind and temperance of habit is the result of his own efforts at becoming more virtuous, or simply of the fact that he is getting old. The answer, for most of us, is probably an inextricable combination of the two, though there certainly are examples of old people who are neither serene nor temperate.

The second part is a reminder to himself of a version of the dichotomy of control: some things are simply not in our power, so we don’t get to take credit for not doing them. What we should focus instead is on the bits that are under our control, because we are definitely responsible for those. This is the virtue of practical wisdom, or phronesis in Greek (and prudentia in Latin): it is the knowledge of good and evil, and specifically the knowledge that the only truly good and truly evil things are those that fall under our control. Our own correct judgments are the only good (for us), and our own incorrect judgments are the only evil (for us).

“It is a very big problem, you say, for a person to wither and perish and — if I may speak accurately — to melt away. For we are not knocked flat all at once; rather, we waste away a little at a time, as each day erodes our strength.” (XXVI.4)

A quick and sudden death is easy and preferable, but the reality is that most of us will decay slowly, losing both our physical and likely mental strength in the process. That’s the hard challenge of nearing the end, and that’s why how we approach death is the ultimate test of our character. How will we react to our increase dependency on others? Is it better to hang around until the very last minute, or walk through the open door, as Epictetus puts it, while we are still in control? Hence this interesting bit of self doubt:

“I am unafraid as I prepare myself for that day when the artifices and disguises will be stripped away and I shall make judgment of myself. Is it just brave talk, or do I mean what I say? Were they for real, those defiant words I spoke against fortune, or were they just theater — just acting a part?” (XXVI.5)

It’s good practice to ask ourselves the same question, not just about death, but about how we conduct ourselves every day: are we really trying, however imperfectly, to live the Stoic life, or is it just talk? As all Stoics, Seneca puts limited value in theoretical learning (as important as it is). The proof, as we say, is in the pudding:

“Lectures and learned seminars and sayings culled from the teachings of philosophers and educated conversation do not reveal the mind’s real strength. For speech is bold even where the speaker is among the most timorous. What you have achieved will be revealed only when you breathe your last.” (XXVI.6)

Setting aside the substance of what Seneca is saying here, let’s pause for a second to appreciate the beauty of his writing. This why pretty much all translations of Seneca are good, because it is almost impossible to botch the job when one is served with such astounding prose.

“You are younger than I, but what does it matter? Years are not given out by quota. There’s no way to know the point where death lies waiting for you, so you must wait for death at every point.” (XXVI.7)

This is a crucial, and so commonly underappreciated point. We often speak of someone dying “prematurely” if they die young, or even young-ish. But we based that on statistical expectations. From the point of view of the Logos, 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 bit of theoretical understanding has the potential to be of enormous practical interest, if we internalize the thought and act accordingly: do not waste time, for the simple reason that you don’t know how much of a reserve you have in the bank.

Seneca then quotes the archrival Epicurus, who tells us to “rehearse for death.” Seneca explains to his friend that this is really an injunction to rehearse for freedom, because death is freedom from the shackles imposed by life on our bodies and minds. Life itself is a preferred indifferent, for the Stoic, and too much love of life is not a good thing, as it can lead us to act unvirtuously. Which explains the concluding words of the letter:

“There is but one chain that binds us: the love of life. That, admittedly, we may not discard; yet we must lessen it.” (XXVI.9)

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10 thoughts on “Seneca to Lucilius: old age and death

  1. Paul Braterman

    That death is an indifferent I can understand, since unless we choose otherwise we have little choice of when it will come. But “death is freedom from the shackles imposed by life on our bodies and minds.” I find unsatisfactory. Death is the ultimate in freedom from, but also the removal of freedom to. Staying alive is a precondition for whatever one seeks to virtuously accomplish, and when someone dies while still productive we rightly mourn the loss of what they otherwise could have achieved.

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  2. d y

    It is appealing to me that Stoicism and Buddhism (I’m a limping Theravada Buddhist on a good day) have so much in common.

    The idea that death can come at any moment is probably the one that resonates the most with me. I’ve lost two spouses, one unexpectedly, the other after years of illness. Yet, both were gone in a moment. What were their final thoughts? Did they reviewed regrets or good moments? Were they satisfied with how they lived and with what they left behind?

    Between the teachings of Buddhism, Stoicism, and life, I find myself thinking about death nearly every day and asking myself those very questions. It may sounds depressing but it encourages me to live more mindfully and I’ve discovered my outlook of the future is more positive since I’m actively living. The future is unknowable but that doesn’t mean we can’t influence it and the teachings of B&S allow me to believe I truly have that ability.

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  3. Massimo Post author

    Paul,

    Seneca’s talk about death being the ultimate freedom needs to be understood in context. He is saying that we are never completely free to do what is right while we are afraid of dying as a result of our actions. Only when we are no longer afraid of death we can live to the fullest of our potential.

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  4. alonorion

    For my part, I find the reference to theatrics rather than the genuine practice of philosophy a telling example of a weakness in my commitment to an observant life. I can quote plenty of principles from memory but adhere in practice to only a minority of them. The concept of death as a constant possibility is difficult to comprehend as a person in the early 20’s of my life. I have managed to more or less adopt Seneca’s proverb that mortals do not own their future, and it has helped combat my tendency to procrastinate (a work in progress), but I haven’t been able to visualize death in the same way.

    I have been very fortunate in my life up to the present moment, few of my immediate relatives have died, and most of those who have were old and weary of life. I know that I am very fortunate, and I know people far less so who have buried a parent or friend. I find it very difficult to say the empty words “I participate in your sorrow”, which are the appropriate words to say on such occasions in my native language, without feeling a liar. I cannot possibly understand this concept of death at the prime of life since all my experiences of it have been deaths as a means of freedom to souls locked in failing bodies, an understanding which I cannot share in my young age and good health. I have experienced missile attacks, but these also feel distant and haven’t happened very often. In the two occasions a missile exploded in my vicinity, I felt more excited then genuinely threatened, even though I knew the debris alone could have possibly killed me, given a stroke of misfortune and a premature departure from cover. The danger of death on this and other occasions seems to only reinforce the illusion of immortality common in my age.

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  5. labnut

    I read your words and my intellect agrees. But I have been outside Plato’s cave and somehow slipped back inside. I saw and experienced a reality that cannot be told in Plato’s cave. But I can tell you something of what I experience back here in Plato’s cave.

    The other day I stood in a queue at a supermarket. In front of me was a policeman with a hand gun at his waist. I froze. I could not move forward in the queue and I could not drag my gaze away from that wickedly beautiful, death slicked gun. My body was wet with sweat, my hands were cold and clammy. My heart raced and my chest heaved. My throat constricted and an acid taste flooded my mouth. The trolley behind me bumped into my legs and somehow I moved forward. I hoped the teller would not notice the tears streaming down my face.

    Outside I regained control of myself and then noticed, as I always do, the beauty, colour and intensity of life which made every moment precious. Light danced with its reflections and sound tinkled its own entrancing melody. I was alive in a new way. I returned home to the warm love of my family and then knew really that I was alive. In them I find healing and they remind me why we live. We live so that others may live the best lives that we can give them, lives touched by love, goodness and beauty.

    One by one our shadows will slip out of Plato’s cave and not return. Until then we should treasure life for its beauty and love, giving so that others may live.

    This is why we should talk about life and not death. Leave that to the undertakers.

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  6. Massimo Post author

    labnut,

    very interesting experience. But aren’t you making the Stoics’ point? Was your sudden renewal of interest in the warmth of life not triggered by a contemplation of death triggered by the sight of the policeman’s gun?

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  7. labnut

    Massimo,
    But aren’t you making the Stoics’ point? Was your sudden renewal of interest in the warmth of life not triggered by a contemplation of death triggered by the sight of the policeman’s gun?

    Yes, in a certain sense you are right. But this was not a reaction to contemplation, but rather to a moment of involuntary horror. This was a moment that brought home to me the enormous richness and desirability of life in a way that I seriously doubt ordinary contemplation of death can do.

    You say:
    Seneca then quotes the archrival Epicurus, who tells us to “rehearse for death.” Seneca explains to his friend that this is really an injunction to rehearse for freedom, because death is freedom from the shackles imposed by life on our bodies and minds.

    Freedom from what? Freedom from the opportunities, the beauty and joy of life? I have stood face to face with the Grim Reaper and looked him in the eye. I never, for a moment, lacked in courage, and that was because I was well rehearsed. So yes, Seneca has given wise advice, and we should rehearse for death. But we do this not because “death is freedom from the shackles imposed by life on our bodies and minds.” but because we must continue to function effectively, even while shadowed by death.

    We rehearse all the time for unexpected eventualities so that, in the surprise of the moment, we conduct ourselves in the right way. This is as it should be. But we must be careful that this rehearsal does not colour our experience of life, because then we are making that eventuality real in ourselves. My fear is that it will displace or impair what is most valuable about us, our capacity to love the good, the true and the beautiful.

    But, to be fair to you, the context you are arguing from is not the same as mine. You are talking about the contemplation of death in old age. This is a time when the glories of life have become muted memories and the shackles of infirmity are tightening their grip. We all enter this zone and when we do our courage and grace will be tested to our limits.

    For this reason we should be especially attentive to these aged warriors, treating them with respect, giving them affirmation and easing the burden of their shackles. In our youth-worshipping culture this does not happen and instead they are ignored or disrespected. Consequently they must bear another shackle, that of ageism.

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  8. Massimo Post author

    labnut,

    But this was not a reaction to contemplation, but rather to a moment of involuntary horror.

    Right, that’s why the Stoics meditate on this sort of things, so they don’t have to rely on random shocking events.

    Freedom from what? Freedom from the opportunities, the beauty and joy of life?

    No, freedom from fear of dying, which sometimes gets in the way of us doing the right thing.

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  9. Paul Braterman

    From Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

    CASSIUS
    Why, he that cuts off twenty years of life
    Cuts off so many years of fearing death.

    BRUTUS
    Grant that, and then is death a benefit.
    So are we Caesar’s friends, that have abridged
    His time of fearing death.

    Cassius, presumably, is rationalising, but Brutus (the noble Brutus,not the other one who came up in an earlier discussion) means it.

    But surely there is no need to go to the extreme of dying, in order to obtain the benefit of ceasing to fear doing so. I remember a character in a child’s book that I read many decades ago, himself in his 70s, who when asked if his illness was serious replied “At my age, nothing is serious”.

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  10. Massimo Post author

    Paul,

    But surely there is no need to go to the extreme of dying, in order to obtain the benefit of ceasing to fear doing so.

    No, the idea isn’t that one has to go through that extreme. The idea is that reminding ourselves that we have the option to quit at any moment (Epictetus’ “open door”), so if we stay we do so with full intentions to live our life.

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