Seneca on Old Age and the Thought of Death

“Every day, therefore, should be regulated as if it were the one that brings up the rear, the one that rounds out and completes our lives.”

 

Letters from a Stoic by Seneca translated and introduced by Robin Campbell (1969, Penguin Classics)

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC-65 AD) – Roman statesman, Stoic philosopher and dramatist – known as “Seneca the Younger” or simply “Seneca”, was famously compelled by emperor Nero to “commit suicide” following the discovery of a plot that might have resulted in Seneca’s elevation to the throne.

The Penguin Classics edition Letters from a Stoic contains a good selection of the Roman thinker’s letters. Here he paints the picture of a self-possessed person who remains untroubled during the setbacks of life. Other important topics include the value of friendship and criticism of the harsh treatment of slaves and the cruelties of gladiatorial games.

In Letter XII, Seneca reflects on his old age and offers suggestions on how we must “think” about death. He begins:

Wherever I turn I see fresh evidence of my old age. I visited my place just out of Rome recently and was grumbling about the expense of maintaining the building, which was in a dilapidated state. My manager told me the trouble wasn’t due to any neglect on his part: he was doing his utmost but the house was old.

“Wherever I turn I see fresh evidence of my old age. ” (Photo: Old Roman villa by User “Shoestring”, CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0, Wikimedia Commons)

He continues later:

“It’s not very pleasant, though,” you may say, to have death right before one’s eyes.” To this I would say, firstly, that death ought to be right there before the eyes of a young man just as much as an old one – the order in which we each receive our summons is not determined by our precedence in the register – and, secondly, that no one is so very old that it would be quite unnatural for him to hope for one more day

Every single day should be whole and complete, an almost festival, Seneca seems to say:

Every day, therefore, should be regulated as if it were the one that brings up the rear, the one that rounds out and completes our lives. Pacuvius, the man who acquired a right to Syria by prescription, was in the habit of conducting a memorial ceremony for himself with wine and funeral feasting of the kind we are familiar with, and then being carried on a bier from the dinner table to his bed, while a chanting to music went on of the words “He has lived, he has lived” in Greek, amid the applause of the young libertines present. Never a day passed but he celebrated his own funeral. What he did from discreditable motives we should do from honourable ones, saying in all joyfulness and cheerfulness as we retire to our beds, I have lived; I have completed now the course/ That fortune long ago allotted me.

“…saying in all joyfulness and cheerfulness as we retire to our beds, I have lived; I have completed now the course/ That fortune long ago allotted me.” (Photo: Fresco of a Pompeii family feast, Naples, Wikimedia Commons)

He speaks on the peace and happiness that come with a lack of worry:

If God adds the morrow we should accept it joyfully. The man who looks for the morrow without worrying over it knows a peaceful independence and a happiness beyond all others. Whoever has said “I have lived” receives a windfall every day he gets up in the morning.

But I must close this letter now. “What!” you’ll be saying. “Is it coming to me just as it is, without any parting contribution?”  Don’t worry, it’s bringing you something. Why did I call it ‘something’, though? It’s a great deal. For what could be more splendid than the following saying which I’m entrusting to this letter of mine for delivery to you: “To live under constraint is a misfortune, but there is no constraint to live under constraint.” Of course not, when on every side there are plenty of short and easy roads to freedom there for the taking. Let us thank God that no one can be held a prisoner in life – the very constraints can be trampled under foot.

“Let us thank God that no one can be held a prisoner in life – the very constraints can be trampled under foot” – this might look like death-worship but it can be quite a comforting thought during the tough seasons of our lives.

Featured Image: Manuel Domínguez Sánchez, The suicide of Seneca (1871), Museo del Prado

Preview Letters from a Stoic by Seneca.


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3 thoughts on “Seneca on Old Age and the Thought of Death

  1. Very interesting to read this when I have just reached the end of the seventh decade of my life. Each new decade marked seems to increase our chronological age by so much more time, though of course the length of our lives moves at the same pace all the time.

    Liked by 1 person

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