To What End Active?
A Memoir of Seneca on Corsica — Part 1
This short story has been sent to us by a member of the community, who kindly wanted to share it with us. Because of its length, we are going to split it into several parts, interleaved with Michel Daw's series on the Mneme.
“’Curus!”, I shout sharply.
On the yellow-brown slope of wintertime grass opposite, a triangle of three black dots snaps into view. Then, at my whistle, the triangle resolves itself into eyes and a nose, and the dog’s body bursts into relief, loping my way. The near identity of respective colors makes it seem as if a swath of turf sprang to animate life. As ‘Curus bounds up to me, I make growling noises in my throat and roughly tousle the canine head.
“’Curus”: an abbreviation for Epicurus, which sage I much admire despite the sharp divisions between our respective shools, the sometime effeminacy of his doctrines. For it is an—I hope harmless—affectation of mine to name favored dogs, horses of mine after men I find exemplary. A way, this, of keeping their example ever before me. Or, which comes to the same thing, a way of keeping myself ever under their admonishing eye. For, already past fifty, I still do not so respect myself as to dare dismiss such attendants. A failing the realization of which, I make bold to flatter myself, must itself count as progress, modest though it may be.
Yet even as I thus sport with the dog, I am faintly troubled. The animal is over seven, nearing eight. As dogs’ age is reckoned this makes of him almost my exact contemporary. Indeed, I acquired the pup not long after my not completely willing arrival here on Corsica. And yet, more and more it strikes me that I know him not at all, constant companions though we are. This situation rather akin to human marriage where, after an interval of some five to seven years, each member of the couple awakes to the awareness that they are wed to a complete stranger. Yes, I know it childish and foolish to fret oneself over some such presumed failure of insight into canine character, but disquiet me it does.
I wonder if this is so because neither am I myself wed. Not presently and no longer. The wife of my youth chose divorce and Rome and cares over Corsica and exile’s freedom. Which is predictable womanly reckoning. I doubt she made the best bargain, for all that she had her reasons and those not unsound. Here, however, the sea of this place is mine: wine-rich dark indigo at a distance; nearly transparent where it laps the white beaches. Here, too, freedom from the hornet’s nest of vexations Rome cannot fail to be. Freedom for… ? What else: the freedom for philosophy’s practice. And, I might as well be frank and admit it, here finally is relative proximity to Rome, should ever recall come. There was that letter from Aggripi—but, no. Rome: that place has long since become the object of my indifference. Relative indifference. Men need change of soul far more than ever they need change of climate. And my soul is no longer bondsman to any place.
I throw a stick for Epicurus and we continue our trek up this gently rising hill towards our goal. My goal anyway. Epicurus—true to both his canine nature and the teaching of his appellation’s original bearer—is as amenable to chance and fate as was his namesake. I chuckle as I remember my Greek. After all, are not the very dogs themselves philosophers?1 And was not Diogenes, that sect’s exemplar, the man least vexed by Fortune’s twists?
Come to think on it, I am not so different in this way than either my dog or Diogenes. Those few words a moment ago about Rome and possible recall were just words. No more a measure of my mind they than a passing cloud stains the sky’s blue. As quoth Stilbo, hauled before Demetrius the conqueror and fresh from the loss that day of family and hearth and city, “I have all my goods yet with me.” Easier it is to conquer a kingdom than a man. And only he is unblest who deems himself so. Which, I allow, is to put rather too brave a face—and too fair a complexion!—on the circumstances of my coming here.
Now, there is the sort of man to whom exile is scarcely to be borne. A man accustomed to action, activity, affairs. One wonted to pass his days among a certain select circle of friends and clients. Such a man finds exile but a constant torture and that not the mildest. I myself was not that man. But there is in me much that understands him. Understands and even sympathizes, when I let my guard slip. In Rome, first from my school and later from my own lips, I often heard it said that he who would have leisure must dare much.
After all, friends are not easily denied, business insinuates itself into even a frugal man’s household, and the summons of neither Senate nor Emperor is lightly to be said no. We may set aside consideration of the “responsibilities” we so often plead. It is our patrons and benefactors who usurp our lives with their intended blessings.
Still… my exile… There are times like this when, recalling my own noble words, I envy the mute. For typically we stray on the most traveled roads, and my path to exile was one well-trodden indeed…
At that time, I was forty-four. Full maturity? In years, perhaps. In fact and for all my philosophy… what is to be said? It is not boyhood that stays with us but something worse: boyishness. This is rendered worse in that we possess the authority of age with the foolishness of youth. There is a tedious old proverb that if a sailor knows not his harbor, no wind blows right. Physical passion is just such a chance wind and when its gales mount, any harbor looks inviting, no matter the hazard or the straying.
As it chanced, my then harbor was Julia Livilla. Yes, THAT Julia Livilla. Along with her half-brother Caligula, one of Germanicus’ ill-starred children, and Germanicus as fine a man and a leader as ever Rome birthed. Livilla and Caligula. The simple pairing of the names should have told me much by way of warning. Perhaps it did so tell, but not so that I heeded. The wind blew that strong. Caligula, by then dead, had spared my life only because he thought my chronic ill-health a more lingering end that any he cared to devise and one no less certain. Livilla: the onetime incestuous paramour of Caligula, whose assassination she nonetheless later connived in.
Enough in such a family—such a single generation, rather—to have warned anyone but a degenerate? Perhaps. Yet, even with such warning… well, one had to set eye to Livilla: more than enough in her person to tempt even a philosopher. To tempt this one at any rate. And, yes, to snare. At that season of life, a man—again, myself—much loves busyness. Which is not at all the same as a passion for industry. It is rather an addiction to any activity that covers over the awareness, stark and unsettling, that one has gotten a good deal older without at all knowing what it is he ought to be about or why. For such a one, the right younger woman will serve as well as winning a proconsulship; a couchload of catamites as well as the imperator’s chariot at a triumphal procession.
Of course, I encountered no mild competition for the favor and favors of Livilla. That, in fact, is one of the many ways a man cements himself in chronic wrongdoing: he counts other men’s judgements rather than weighing any. In such competitions for the basest prize, it is no small paradox that the best man often wins, as did I. But the price of such victory is his becoming the worse man. I will spare you however the details of such delights as Julia Livilla provided me. What begins as titillation in a listener soon arrives at boredom. And what begins as rueful rumination in a raconteur, soon ends as rut reawakened. Suffice it to say… well, suffice it to say that silence alone is here seemly. It is with the aftermath that my concern now lies. That aftermath? Rome harbors precious few true secrets, for all that everything there transpires in the shadows. Valeria Messalina, the Emperor Claudius’ then (and till a few months ago) wife heard word of our liaison. Or, given the aforesaid scarcity of secrets, it were more accurate to say that she acted on this hearing which had long since ceased to be news or novelty. Claudius was even then old; Messalina therefore insecure in her preeminence. A woman of Julia’s audacity and will, wiles and guile, could not fail to represent a threat. She had unmade Claudius’ predecessor. Provoked or on the defensive, she could easily be imagined as unmaking Caligula’s successor.
Besides that, and withal, Valeria Messalina was lustful, rapacious, and cruel in her own right. Which is to say, every inch and in each ounce, a woman It was she who worked Julia Livilla’s exile. Mine was but the corollary. An afterthought to lend the personal grudge against my lover a semblance of symmetry. Perhaps even of legality and logic. True, in some moods I am wont to imagine that Valeria Messalina loathed me for my (otherwise) virtue. In truth, I myself see how preposterous is the notion. If she thought about me at all, it was doubtless to sneer or snicker at my hypocrisy: a philosopher slave to his loins. In fact, I am nearly certain that I—this man, Lucius Annaeus Seneca—scarcely figured in her reckoning at all. I was simply the adjunct to a situation Valeria Messalina manipulated for her own ends.
It is a maxim of jurisprudence that to spare the wicked is to punish the good. Surely this is but common sense with a dash of eloquence and I question it not. Yet it sometimes strikes me that to exercise oneself much on the arguably wicked amounts to another punishment of the… well, if not the good, then certainly of those liable to betterment. For my Livilla was, at times and in certain of her acts, arguably one wicked. And I think it but simple truth and nothing of vanity to style myself one capable of betterment. One of my sharpest memories and one I shall carry with me to my grave is that of Julia Livilla’s snowy white and rounded buttocks quivering under the repeated ramming of my hips. Then I go on to imagine later what must have…
Why bring up so indelicate a memory here? Because, not content with simple exile, Valeria Messalina so worked upon Claudius to have Julia Livilla put to death, and no ordinary death it was. Claudius had survived the reign of his nephew Caligula by feigning simple-mindedness. But no man can wear a mask forever. And none can wear one long without disfiguring his soul. Claudius did not merely have Livilla put to death. He had her starved.
I am, I freely confess, a man who likes to eat. A man, moreover, who takes some measure of comic delight in feeding well and to excess his dog Epicurus, too. So, when I imagine what the beautiful and bounteous Livilla must have wasted away to… what that pear-round, upward-tapering set of buttocks must have become… With all respect to my school, its teachings and its founding sages, it would be unnatural did I not weep. In all likelihood, I never truly loved Julia. Our epoch is one too jaded and self-absorbed for that. But I certainly saw that in her worthy of love in some happier, less-warping age. Glimpses vouchsafed to me of the fragments of who she might have been in the age of, say, Cincinnatus, or even of Cato. So, truly, it would be unnatural in me not now to weep.
Besides, and call this next what you will, congress with a woman awakens in we men a natural solicitude for her well-being. Doubtless here are the first stirrings of that urge to protect and defend that ennobles even the most ordinary man when put to the test. The impulse which founds happy cities and, unhappily, empires. To protect and to defend. Options and manly ones denied me here in exile. Which, I suppose, is the whole point of exile. When I think after this wise, wounds reopen and show themselves newly suppurant. Anger awakens as well, and it is only with steely effort that I am able to remind myself with regard to Messalina that the sun shines also on the wicked. If the very gods so little play favorites, by what right I? Though I admit to a slinking, whispering voice in my heart. That voice insinuates that the sun can very well afford this display of impartiality, being so lifted above it all. Not so we earthbound men… Still, if I can see the sun why not, then, aspire after this degree of similitude? To define oneself by one’s alleged limitations is a kind of surrender and blameworthy partial suicide.
Epicurus comes bounding back down the hill to me. He has already gained the low summit and would have me hasten after. Have me hurry for no more reason than that—for all that a dog’s capacity for joy is at least equal to any man’s—the creature has no gift for solitary happiness. Joy unshared is, to a dog, joy lost. Strictly speaking, neither does man have the capacity for solitary joy. But his case is paradox-producing complex. Qua the god within, a man must needs feel joyful. But this, the part that feels joy in a man and that we mistakenly call human joy, must needs take in the entire cosmos. In this sense, no human joy is solitary. Joy so nihilates all that is purely personal and accidental as to suffuse the cosmos itself. The happy man is therefore never “solitary” in that there is no bounded self to set over against anything else. Joy is not, as it were, localized.
I like the tenor of these thoughts and will write them down when I return to my villa. I so much like the sound of my words here that I nearly forget to offer a brief prayer that they may also be true. Exile, I aver, has done at least this much for me. From time to time, I even destroy well-written passages or pages if, on reflection, their veracity strikes me as suspect or even too equivocal.
On the top of the hill, a grove of ancient olive trees. Twisted, gnarled, and long past bearing usable olives—indeed, any at all, for the most part. This spot, wild and weird, draws me back again and again. It is a place pregnant with teaching, though no words are heard here. Inside the grove, in what must once have been a clearing, a circle of some one-and-twenty menhir2. Each of them a flattened stone slab taller than a man by a good head and more. Their shape, the human figure reduced to the barest uncanny suggestion: a long straight torso, rounded head, two eye-holes and a circular mouth.
There are those, and not a few, among my countrymen dwelling here who shun this spot and call it cursed. Romans like to think the world, such of it as is worth noticing, began with themselves. Or at least no further back than the coming of Anneaus to the shores of the Latifundia. As such, they are loath to be reminded that there ever were peoples and mighty who nevertheless passed on and away, leaving only a scattering of such mute reminders as these menhir.
Myself? This I count as one of the profoundest lessons of my exile and enforced solitude. I return often to this spot, but still seldom enough that the place becomes not familiar. My custom on such visits as this—while Epicurus hunts his rabbits and partridges—is ever to take up station at sun’s setting in the midst of the twenty-one. I the uninvited twenty-second and, as intruder, the center of their silent scrutiny.
For what is philosophy but a similar scrutiny: a self-searching in silence? I have alluded already to the utility of one’s master’s memory supplanting the as yet unruly self-will. But I sometimes suspect that the truth may go yet deeper than this point of simple psychology. Why, that is, is it not possible that there be the scrutiny of other judges—a Judge?—we know nothing directly of, but whose jurisdiction we nevertheless come under? Mankind is fallen far in its appetites and aspirations. It is fully possible that we no longer so much as notice what was once patently obvious to all. And even in Rome, ignorance of the law is no excuse. So, guided by such fancy—or insight—I come here and stand here, and submit to scrutiny’s scourge.
Why? For one thing, I am the first to admit something—here. Here I am the first to admit that, while I spend easily two-thirds of my waking hours in philosophical writing, talk, or reflection, there is one thought quite other ever with me. That thought? That many, as I, have fallen far only to rise yet higher. Which maxim, in a terse dozen words sets at naught the whole of my pretended philosophy, my would-be wisdom.
A humbling realization this: that oneself may be, with all the good intentions he can muster, a hypocrite. A thoroughgoing one. And this despite all strong contrary inclinations. So that is why I come here by twilight: night brings our faults to light far more than ever it banishes them.
One of the menhir stands directly between me and the now-setting sun, a gap in the grove admitting what of the light yet lingers. The figure puts me in mind of a judge striding forth from his chambers. Yet surely no mortal judge ever wore a visage so implacable impassive. Stern approval perhaps? Wishful thought! More likely the inexorable austerity—hard as the stone the figure is cut from—that sends the miscreant’s self and soul recoiling back onto their owner’s awareness.
What my offense? Mayhap a grave one: misappropriation of solitude. Embezzlement of exile, call it. No worse sin for a mortal man than squandering solitude. Yet, I would object, I am even now putting the finishing touches to a book, De brevitate vitae. A noble written treatise. One arguing that even a short life suffices, so long as it be well-lived. A book which, if I may be so presumptuous, itself bids fair to live for the ages.
Which is precisely the rub. There on papyrus, the noble sentiments of a noble (sounding) soul. But what of its author’s soul? Truly? At best, his an equivocal character and, after the better part of a decade in philosophical retreat, still very much a work in progress. If “progress” there at all has been. A man always “progressing” but never arriving? What a wayward monstrosity!
After all, the usual excuse men urge for their errant busyness and lack of realization is simply false: “I was compelled.” No one is bound to pursue capricious Fortune at top speed. It speaks far better of a man if he can call a halt. Writing a book—no less that sycophantically seeking a governorship—is too often to be busy for the sake of being busy. Slavery holds few men fast; many more the men who hold fast to their slavery.
It occurs to me here that I might even be held derelict in my duty as a citizen, and leave philosophy out of the discussion altogether. In sending me into exile, what else was the Emperor doing than daring to trust me with myself? Yet it is just this stewardship that I neglect, penning volumes for others’ eyes and approbation. The benefits of solitude are two: to rely on no man, and to fear no witnesses. The fool—that would be me—loses these and betrays himself.
And yet… yet… A rustling in the grass off to my right. Epicurus plows through the shrubbery after what is in all probability an animal only in his fancy. But my following glance reminds me. Over here a menhir I especially—dare I say?—revere. With the ages it has come to incline forward. And though its face is fully as unreadable as all its fellows’, this forward list means I cannot avoid imparting to the figure a measure of solicitude. Under its sightless gaze, I see that the rosy sunset lends the visage a beneficent air and I take heart.
After all, it was here in exile—shortly after word of Julia Livilla’s death reached me—that I found prayer. Not the quid pro quo quibbling my fellow Romans fling into the void of their ignorance. Wheedling superstition, that. True prayer, if I may speak so boldly. For it was here that I began to pray for the health of my soul and left off querulous begging for what belongs to others, And I like to think that I am now come near to that point that marks freedom: the ability to pray in public for what I sincerely want. This is the criterion that desire has ceased to rule a man. So, measuring myself by the philosopher’s yardstick—that is, not by the formulating and writing of maxims, but by stoutness of heart and lessening of desires—yes, I make progress. I may not always desire the same right things. But desire them I do, and for longer and longer intervals unbroken.
This menhir I stand before may or may not represent some forgotten god. All the same, I tender thanks to that god and make a mental note to bring here an offering on the morrow. And, to cover all the possibilities, I invoke on this menhir’s long-ago raisers a blessing from the gods I do know. Saturn, then Jupiter, then a moment of silence for whatever name the chief—sole?—god might go by in this place. This sloping stone plinth teaches me no less that its accusatory twin to the west. As my faults are real, so too my progress against them.
With this filled measure of gratitude, I turn to go. What remains of the twilight behind me suffuses this once-clearing in a clear, directionless illumination. For this interval, anyway, life’s purpose is fulfilled. I have ceased to take joy in useless things. And, above all, this is the business of a man: to take joy. To learn to feel joy, and that in things worthy.
It is fitting, too, that this realization comes to me, as always, just as night begins to fall—the most dangerous moment of the day. For joy is the sternest of masters and we must cultivate our joy in a world where darkness falls fast.
A muted command calls Epicurus to my side and we turn homeward. I know the dog no better now than at this excursion’s outset. But, I am cerrtain, I know myself, this Seneca, the better. Know better the part perishable and fallible, and know better that divine.
The name of the “Cynic” school—a sect sometimes extolled by the Stoics—was derived from the Greek for “dog.” ↩
The term is not, of course, Latin. I have chosen the modern term which derives from Breton, as being the preferred name for the figures and probably known to at least some readers. Whether Seneca actually lived near the site of the menhir at present-day Filitosa matters not at all. It is a plausible liberty with history that, in ancient times, there were more such sites scattered about the island. ↩
To be continued...
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