(from Seneca: Dialogues and Letters, edited and translated by C.D.N. Costa, Penguin Books, 1997 –slightly edited)
[Seneca advises Lucilius on how to face the anxieties of a lawsuit and troubles in general]
Seneca to his Lucilius, greeting:
1. You write that you are worried about the outcome of a lawsuit I which an enraged enemy is bringing against you. You think that I'll persuade you to view the future with confidence and calm yourself with comforting hope. For what need is there to summon troubles, to anticipate them, all too soon to be endured when they come, and squander the present in fears of the future? It is certainly foolish to make yourself wretched now just because you are going to be wretched some time in the future. But I shall lead you to tranquility by another route.
2. If you want to be rid of all anxiety, suppose that anything you are a&aid of happening is going to happen in any case, then mentally calculate all the evil involved in it and appraise your own fear: you will undoubtedly come to realize that what you fear is either not great or not long-lasting.
3. It won't take long to assemble examples to convince you: every age has produced them. Cast your mind back to any sphere of life, whether at home or abroad, and you will think of minds which showed either philosophical maturity or great natural energy. If you are condemned, can you think of a harsher fate than exile or imprisonment? Is anything more fearful than burning or death? Set up these horrors one by one and summon forth those who have despised them: we don't have to hunt for them, but to select them.!
4. Rutilius bore his condemnation as though the only thing that hurt him was the false judgment. Metellus endured his exile bravely, Rutilius even willingly; the former afforded the state the chance to recall him, the latter refused to return for Sulla - a man to whom one did not then refuse anything. Socrates debated when in prison, and refused to accept the promise of escape, remaining there so that he could free men from their two worst fears, death and prison.
5. Mucius put his own hand in the fire. Being burnt is ghastly: how much more so if you submit to it voluntarily! Here you see a man neither clever nor fortified by precepts against death or pain, simply a product of tough military discipline, punishing himself for a failed attempt. He stood and watched his right hand dripping into the enemy's brazier, and did not remove the bare bones of his dissolving hand until his enemy took the fire away. He could have done something more successful in that campaign, but noth- ing more brave. You can see how much more keen is virtue to anticipate dangers than cruelty to inflict them: Porsina was more ready to spare Mucius for wishing to kill him than Mucius was to spare himself because he had failed to do so.
6 'These stories are chanted in all the rhetorical schools,' you say; .' 'soon you'll be coming to the theme Contempt for Death and telling me about Cato. And why not tell you about him reading Plato's dialogue on that last night, with a sword near his pillow? He had taken care to have these two aids in his extremity, the will to die and the means to die. And so, arranging his affairs so far as his final disaster allowed, he determined to act so that no one would have the choice whether to kill Cato or to spare him.
7. He then drew his sword which until that day he had kept unstained by any slaughter, and said, 'Fortune, you have achieved nothing by blocking all my efforts. So far I have fought for my country's liberty, not my own, and all my determination was aimed at living, not a free man myself; but among free men. But now that mankind's affairs are hopeless let Cato be led to safety.'
8 Then he dealt himself a fatal wound on the head. This was bound up by the doctors, but, though his blood and his strength were failing him, his courage failed him not, and by now angry not just with Caesar but with himself he tore at his wound with his bare hands, and not so much let forth as cast out that noble spirit which despised ,any kind of tyranny.
9. I am not piling up examples just to exercise my wits but to support you against a horrifying prospect; and I shall do this the better by showing you that not only brave men have treated with contempt this moment when life ceases, but some who were in other respects indolent have here matched the courage of the bravest. Such was Scipio, father-in-law of Gnaeus Pompey, who, carried back by adverse winds to Africa and seeing his ship in the power of his enemies, fell on his sword, and when men asked where was the general he replied, 'All is well with the general.' These words raised him to the stature of his ancestors and ensured the continuance of that renown which destiny granted the Scipios in Africa. It was a great achievement to conquer Carthage, but a greater one to conqut;r death:
10. 'All is well with the general,' he said: should a general - and what is more Cato's general - die otherwise? I'm not referring you to the history books or assembling from all past ages the very many who have despised death.
11. Look at these times of ours whose apathy and affected manners we complain about: they will still offer you individuals of every rank, fortune and age who have cut short their sufferings by death. Trust me, Lucilius, death is so far not to be feared that, thanks to it, nothing is to be feared.
12. So listen with tranquillity to your enemy's threats, and though your good conscience gives you confidence, since there are many powerful factors outside the case, you must both hope for the most favourable outcome and gird yourself to face the most unfavourable one. But this above all remember: to banish life's turbulence and see clearly the essence of everything. You will then realize that there is nothing fearful there except fear itself.
13. What you see happen with children is true of us slightly older children too. If they see their own friends and regular playfellows wearing masks they become frightened of them. Well, not only people but things must have their masks stripped off and their true features restored.
14. Why do you show me swords and flames and a crowd of executioners clamouring around you? Away with that parade behind which you lurk to terrify fools: you are death, whom lately my slave and my handmaid despised. Why display again all that equipment of whips and racks - the instruments specially designed to tear apart individual joints, and a thousand other tools for slaughtering a man bit by bit? Lay aside those means of paralysing us with horror; silence the groans, the shrieks, the hoarse cries extorted under torture. Of course you are pain - pain which the gouty man scorns, the dyspeptic suffers while he indulges himself, the girl endures in childbirth. You are mild if I can bear you and short-lived if I cannot.
15. Think these things over: you have often heard them and often said them yoursel£ but you must give practical proof that you have really absorbed them from others and uttered them sincerely. For this is the most shocking charge commonly brought against us, that we deal in the words of philosophy and riot its works. Well, then, have you just now realized that death looms over you, or exile, or anguish? You were born to these things.
16. Let us reflect that whatever can happen is going to happen. I am sure you have done what I'm telling you to do: my point now is not to let your mind be overwhelmed by this anxiety of yours, for it will be deadened and lose its vigour when the time comes for it to bestir itself to action. Divert it from your individual case to a general one. Tell yourself that you have only a little body, frail and mortal, and threatened by pain not only from ill-treatment by superior strength. Pleasures themselves lead to pain, banquets bring indigestion, excessive drinking brings muscular paralysis and fits of trembling, lust brings deformity in hands, feet and all the joints.
17. I shall become poor: I'll be among the majority. I shall become an exile: I'll suppose myself a native of my place of banishment. I shall be bound in fetters: so what? Am I free now? Nature has tied me to this grievous weight of my body. I shall die: what you mean is this - I shall cease to be liable to illness, I shall cease to be liable to bonds, I shall cease to be liable to death.
18. I am not so gauche as to keep repeating the Epicurean refrain here, that fears about the underworld are groundless, and there is no Ixion turning on his wheel, no Sisyphus heaving a stone uphill with his shoulders, no possibility of anyone's entrails being daily devoured and reborn. No one is so childish as to fear Cerberus and darkness and the spectral fonus of skeletons. Death either destroys us or sets us free. If we are released, the better part of us remains having lost its burden; if we are destroyed, nothing remains and good and evil alike are removed.
19. Allow me at this point to quote your own verse, first warning you to deem it written not for others but even for yourself It is shocking to say one thing and think another: how much worse to write one thing and think another! I recall that you once treated this topic, that we don't suddenly meet death but gradually approach it.
20. Every day we die, for every day part of our life is lost, and even when we are growing bigger our life is growing shorter. We have lost successively childhood, boyhood, youth. Right up to yesterday all the time which has passed has been lost, and this present day itself we share with death. It is not the last drop of water which empties the water-clock, but all that dripped out previously. In the same way the final hour when we actually die does not alone bring our death but simply completes the process. At that point we have arrived at death, but we have been journeying thither for a long time.
21. When you had established this with your usual eloquence, always noble but never more pungent than when your words match the truth, you then said: 'We face more deaths than one: 'tis the last one takes us off.' I'd rather you read your own words than my letter: you will see clearly that this death which we fear is not the only one, only the last.
22. I see what you are looking for: you are wondering what I've packed into this letter, what spirited remark of somebody, what useful precept. I'll send you something straight from my current reading. Epicurus rebukes equally those who wish for death and those who fear it, saying, 'It is silly to run to meet death through boredom with life, when it is just because of your life-style that you have created the need to do so'.
23. Similarly he remarks elsewhere: 'What is so silly as to seek death when it is the fear of death which has made your life anxious?' You can add this reflection too which makes the same point: so great is human thoughtlessness, even madness, that certain people are driven to death by the fear of it.
24. Pondering over any of these thoughts will fortify your mind to endure either death or life; for we have to be advised and strength- ened to face both without either loving or hating our life too much. Even when reason persuades us to end our lives we should not follow this urge rashly or impetuously.
25. A brave and wise man should not flee from life but step out of it, and that mood above all must be avoided which grips many men - a passion for dying. For, Lucilius, there is an unthinking tendency towards death, as towards other things, which often gets hold of men of noble and most energetic character, and often men who are indolent and spiritless: the fanner despise life, the latter are flattened by it.
26. Some people suffer from a surfeit of doing and seeing the same things. Theirs is not contempt for life but boredom with it, a feeling we sink into when influenced by the sort of philosophy which makes us say, 'How long the same old things? I shall wake up and go to sleep, I shall eat and be hungry, I shall be cold and hot. There's no end to anything, but all things are in a fixed cycle, fleeing and pursuing each other. Night follows day and day night; summer passes into autumn, hard on autumn follows winter, and that in turn is checked by spring. All things pass on only to return. Nothing I do or see is new: sometimes one gets sick even of this.' There are many who think that life is not harsh but superfluous.