Seneca to Lucilius: On Old Age, by Massimo Pigliucci

portrait-of-seneca-after-the-antique-the-pseudo-seneca-by-lucas-vorsterman-public-domain-via-wikimedia-commonsThis 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.

~ This piece was originally published at How to Be a Stoic on September 15, 2016

~ Massimo Pigliucci is K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York and member of the faculty at CUNY’s Graduate Center. Massimo has a background in evolutionary biology and philosophy of science. His most recent book, co-edited with Maarten Boudry, is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

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