Seneca

Born:
Died:
From:
Known As:

4 BC
65 AD
Cordoba, Spain (Roman Empire)
Stoic philosopher


On the Shortness of Life



Can anything be more idiotic than certain people who boast of their foresight? They keep themselves officiously preoccupied in order to improve their lives; they spend their lives in organizing their lives. They direct their purposes with an eye to a distant future. But putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune's control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.


Consolation to Helvia



... There is no evil in poverty, as anyone knows who has not yet arrived at the lunatic state of greed and luxury, which ruin everything. For how little is needed to support a man! And who can lack this if he has any virtue at all? As far as I am concerned, I know that I have lost not wealth but distractions. The body's needs are few: it wants to be free from cold, to banish hunger and thirst with nourishment; if we long for anything more we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices, not our needs.

We do not need to scour every ocean, or to load our bellies with the slaughter of every animal, or to pluck shellfish from the unknown shores of the furthest sea. May gods and goddesses destroy those whose luxury passes the bounds of an empire that already awakens envy. They seek to stock their pretentious kitchens by hunting beyond the Phasis, and they aren't ashamed to ask for birds from the Parthians, from whom we have not yet exacted vengeance. From all sides they collect everything familiar to a fastidious glutton. From the furthest sea is brought food which their stomachs, weakened by a voluptuous diet, can scarcely receive. They vomit in order to eat, and eat in order to vomit, and banquets for which they ransack the whole world they do not even deign to digest. If someone despises all that, what harm can poverty do him? If he longs for it, poverty even does him good: for against his will he is being cured, and if even under compulsion he does not take his medicine, for a time at least his inability to have those things looks like unwillingness.

Gaius Caesar, whom I think nature produced as an example of the effect of supreme wickedness in a supreme position, dined in one day at a cost of ten million sesterces; and though helped in this by everyone's ingenuity he could scarcely discover how to spend the tribute from three provinces on one dinner. Poor wretches, whose appetite is only tempted by expensive foods! Yet it is not an exquisite taste or some delightful effect on the palate that makes them expensive, but their scarcity and the difficulty of procuring them. Otherwise, if these people would agree to return to good sense, where is the need for all these skills that serve the belly? What need for importing, or laying waste the woodlands, or ransacking the ocean? All around food lies ready which nature has distributed in every place; but men pass it by as though blind to it, and they scour every country, they cross the seas, and they whet their appetite at great expense when at little cost they could satisfy it. I want to say to them: 'Why do you launch your ships? Why do you arm your bands against both beasts and men? Why do you tear around in such a panic? Why do you pile wealth upon wealth? You really must consider how small your bodies are. Is it not madness and the worst form of derangement to want so much though you can hold so little?

'Therefore, though you may increase your income and extend your estates, you will never increase the capacity of your bodies. Though your business may do well and warfare bring you profit, though you hunt down and gather your food from every direction, you will not have anywhere to store your supplies. Why do you seek out so many things?

'[...] To be sure, our dictator who gave audience to the Samnite envoys while with his own hand he cooked the simplest sort of food (the hand which already had frequently smitten the enemy and placed a laurel wealth on the lap of Capitoline Jupiter) - he lived less happily than Apicius in our time, who in the city from which philosophers were once banished as corrupters of the youth, polluted the age by his teaching as professor of cookery.'

It is worth hearing what happened to him. When he had spent a hundred million sesterces in his kitchen, when he had drunk up at every one of his carousals all those imperial gifts and the enormous revenue of the Capitol, then for the first time he was forced by the weight of his debts to look into his accounts. He reckoned he would have ten million sesterces left, and that living on ten million would be starvation: so he poisoned himself. What luxury, if ten million meant poverty! How then can you think that it is the amount of money that matters and not the attitude of mind? Someone dreaded having ten million, and what others pray for he escaped by poison. But indeed for a man of such perverted mentality that last drink was the best thing for him. It was when he was not merely enjoying but boasting of his huge banquets, when he was making a display of his vices, when he was drawing public attention to his vulgar displays, when he was tempting young people to imitate him (who even without bad exmaples are naturally impressionable) - then it was that he was really eating and drinking poisons.

Such is the fate of those who measure wealth not by the standard of reason, whose limits are fixed, but by that of a vicious life-style governed by boundless, uncontrollable caprice. Nothing satisfies greed, but even a little satisfies nature.


On Tranquility of Mind



What I am saying applies to people who are imperfect, commonplace, and unsound, not to the wise man. The wise man does not have to walk nervously or cautiously, for he has such self-confidence that he does not hesitate to make a stand against Fortune and will never give ground to her. He has no reason to fear her, since he regards as held on sufferance not only his goods and possessions and status, but even his body, his eyes, his hands, and all that makes life more dear, and his very self; and he lives as though he were lent to himself and bound to return the loan on demand without complaint. Nor is he thereby cheap in his own eyes because he knows he is not his own, but but he will act in all things as carefully and meticulously as a devout and holy man guards anything entrusted to him. And whenever he is ordered to repay his debt he will not complain to Fortune, but he will say:

'I thank you for what I have possessed and held. I have looked after your property to my great benefit, but at your command I give and yield it with gratitude and good will. If you want me still to have anything of yours, I shall keep it safe; if you wish otherwise, I give back and restore to you my silver, both boined and plate, my house and my household.'

Should Nature demand back what she previously entrusted to us we shall say to her too: 'Take back my spirit in better shape than when you gave it. I do not quibble or hang back: I am wiling for you to have straightaway what you gave me before I was conscious - take it.'

What is the harm in returning to the point whence you came? He will live badly who does not know how to die well. So we must first strip off the value we set on this thing and reckon the breath of life as something cheap. To quote Cicero, we hate gladiators if they are keen to save their life by any means; we favor them if they openly show contempt for it. You must realize that the same thing applies to us: for often the cause of dying is the fear of it.

Dame Fortune, who makes sport with us, says, 'Why should I preserve you, base and fearful creatures? You will only receive more severe wounds and stabs, as you don't know how to offer your throat. But you will both live longer and die more easily, since you receive the blade bravely, without withdrawing your neck and putting your hands in the way. He who fears death will never do anything worthy of a living man. But he who knows that this was the condition laid down for him at the moment of his conception will live on those terms, and at the same time he will guarantee with a similar strength of mind that no events take him by surprise.