In this series of blog posts I attempt to translate the Moral Letters to Lucilius by Seneca into modern English. In letter 26 Seneca describes how to approach death and aging.
I was telling you recently that I started to feel old. On second thoughts, I don’t even consider myself as old. That is now behind me. Why? Well, because I don’t feel too bad at all.
Some old people feel exhausted both physically and mentally, but my mind is as alert as ever. I only wish that my body was too!
For example, I know that aging is outside of my control. It allows me to consider what is in my control such as what I want to do with my time.
I also know that over the next few years my mind and body will slowly wear out. Each year will see me wear out and my faculties melt away. That is assuming that I don’t suddenly die.
But whatever way I go, the people I leave behind can judge me on how virtuous I was. Only then can others sum up your life and determine the impact you made. At that point your deeds will speak louder than your words. So my advice to you is to take some time out to reflect on your whole life. What sort of person do you want to be? Are you a role model for this behaviour? If not, then why? Don’t try to deceive yourself about why you are acting in a less than virtuous way. Be the best possible version of you that you can be.
And try to satisfy yourself that you have accepted the inevitability of death. Once you do then maintain control your thoughts and choices. If you can do this then you will always be free. Free of the fear that comes with the thought of the moment of death. After all you are dying every day in small, incremental ways.
The last line of the original letter is:
…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.
That line is especially chilling considering how Seneca died. Tacitus, Annales 15, said:
[A centurion has informed Seneca of a death sentence upon him, and, as was custom for the upper class, is given a chance to honorably commit suicide]
“Seneca, quite unmoved, asked for tablets on which to inscribe his will, and, on the centurion’s refusal, turned to his friends, protesting that as he was forbidden to requite them, he bequeathed to them the only, but still the noblest possession yet remaining to him, the pattern of his life, which, if they remembered, they would win a name for moral worth and steadfast friendship.
At the same time he called them back from their tears to manly resolution, now with friendly talk, and now with the sterner language of rebuke. “Where,” he asked again and again, “are your maxims of philosophy, or the preparation of so many years’ study against evils to come? Who knew not Nero’s cruelty? After a mother’s and a brother’s murder, nothing remains but to add the destruction of a guardian and a tutor.”
Having spoken these and like words, meant, so to say, for all, he embraced his wife; then softening awhile from the stern resolution of the hour, he begged and implored her to spare herself the burden of perpetual sorrow, and, in the contemplation of a life virtuously spent, to endure a husband’s loss with honourable consolations. She declared, in answer, that she too had decided to die, and claimed for herself the blow of the executioner. There upon Seneca, not to thwart her noble ambition, from an affection too which would not leave behind him for insult one whom he dearly loved, replied: “I have shown you ways of smoothing life; you prefer the glory of dying. I will not grudge you such a noble example. Let the fortitude of so courageous an end be alike in both of us, but let there be more in your decease to win fame.” Then by one and the same stroke they sundered with a dagger the arteries of their arms.
Seneca, as his aged frame, attenuated by frugal diet, allowed the blood to escape but slowly, severed also the veins of his legs and knees. Worn out by cruel anguish, afraid too that his sufferings might break his wife’s spirit, and that, as he looked on her tortures, he might himself sink into irresolution, he persuaded her to retire into another chamber. Even at the last moment his eloquence failed him not; he summoned his secretaries, and dictated much to them which, as it has been published for all readers in his own words, I forbear to paraphrase.
Nero meanwhile, having no personal hatred against Paulina and not wishing to heighten the odium of his cruelty, forbade her death. At the soldiers’ prompting, her slaves and freedmen bound up her arms, and stanched the bleeding, whether with her knowledge is doubtful. For as the vulgar are ever ready to think the worst, there were persons who believed that, as long as she dreaded Nero’s relentlessness, she sought the glory of sharing her husband’s death, but that after a time, when a more soothing prospect presented itself, she yielded to the charms of life. To this she added a few subsequent years, with a most praise worthy remembrance of her husband, and with a countenance and frame white to a degree of pallor which denoted a loss of much vital energy.
Seneca meantime, as the tedious process of death still lingered on, begged Statius Annaeus, whom he had long esteemed for his faithful friendship and medical skill, to produce a poison with which he had some time before provided himself, same drug which extinguished the life of those who were condemned by a public sentence of the people of Athens. It was brought to him and he drank it in vain, chilled as he was throughout his limbs, and his frame closed against the efficacy of the poison.
At last he entered a pool of heated water, from which he sprinkled the nearest of his slaves, adding the exclamation, “I offer this liquid as a libation to Jupiter the Deliverer.”
He was then carried into a bath, with the steam of which he was suffocated, and he was burnt without any of the usual funeral rites. So he had directed in a codicil of his will, when even in the height of his wealth and power he was thinking of his life’s close.”
I recommend you read all of the most influential Letters in this new Penguin Classic book. It is the best translation, in my opinion, because it captures Seneca’s humour and style. It is also the easiest to read. My copy is full of highlighted lines, margin notes and tabs. A treasure chest of profound, practical advice which you can apply immediately.
Warning: this is not an academic text; it describes a hands-on philosophy of life. Discover powerful, instantly helpful wisdom. The complete guide to improving your day-to-day activities, thoughts and actions.