To What End Active?
A Memoir of Seneca on Corsica — Part 2
Second part of the short story started there.
“At this season of life, it is more important to keep up good resolutions made than to form new ones and noble.” But even as I speak, I see the young man’s intelligent eyes glaze over. Which is a bad thing. A worse is the fact that the fault is mine alone.
Whoever said that the flower of a philosopher’s life falls between the ages of forty and sixty got it wrong. I am almost exactly midway in that range. And already the youths who come to converse with me, their elders who engage me, and even the pluckier of my slaves (whose education by osmosis exceeds that of most Rome’s free-born citizens) agree on one point. The mute testimony of their eyes concur: I am become a crapulous old bore.
Which, to be sure, befalls every teacher sooner or later—Socrates and Diogenes perhaps excepted. The former so faithfully followed the dictates of that daemon of his as never, it seems, to have lost his freshness, his sparkle, his piquancy. The latter? Diogenes? He made up in inspired buffoonery what he more and more came to lack in genuine profundity.
As for me? I may feel God close—as yesterday evening. This does not mean the deity openly addresses me. Or, at ant rate, if I hear that one’s voice it is by no means consistently or clearly. And, on the other hand, I refuse to play the wise clown. For too often the would-be, later-day Diogenes ceases to teach and begins to entertain. Both of which considerations leave me, as I said above, the crapulous old windbag, parroting wisdom his only by appropriation. A squatter in the land of the wise, with but a tenuous tenancy.
In the present case I much regret this, inadvertent and unavoidable as the fault perhaps is. For I like this young man before me, Marcellinus Sertorius Vibius. More to the point, it is not yet clear which way he will bend, what thing his character will grow into. Virtue or vice. Philosophy or profligacy. Those old, old questions. Which lends my task as tutor a definite urgency. Unlike some—the sect styled “Christian”, for instance—I do not address my teaching to all and sundry. The cultivation of wisdom is an art. It has, therefore, an aim. Accordingly, it only addresses those who can progress in it and, if it withdraw from hopeless cases, it does so only after having applied drastic remedies. It does not, as I am now, taper away into wheezing drivel, over-exercising already tired platitudes.
Besides, Marcellinus here is the grandson of my close friend Bassus Sertorius Vibius, a man and a philosopher I much admire. A man who is philosopher enough not to indulge in the foolery of trying to instruct his own household in wisdom. The gulf between father and son—or grandson, even—yawns far too wide for that. No Bassus is a man who—due to my frank and open admiration?—so reverences me in return as to entrust his only grandson to my instruction.
But, frankly, the boy has not progressed under my tutelage. His overt vices are, to be sure, yet few. A fast temper and a sometime slinking after whores in nearby Ficaria. But one vice can easily breed many more. Or, left alone, even that one can bore into a man’s soul like a worm into an apple and rot the whole from within. But what, in all candor, is there about my person to provoke progress? A balding, man of over fifty running more to suet than firm flesh. I look like a boiled egg set atop a three-quarters melted candle. But forget the similitudes. I look very much like what I in fact am: a well-read, too-well fed intermittent dabbler at wisdom.
So, if I think thus, why do I not at least shine at simple honesty? Speak openly to Bassus’ grandson. Confess my mounting incapacity for tendering moral instruction. Because…I pray all the gods that this be not pride’s vanity. But I keep on with the boy because I had rather lack success than lack faith.
My preoccupation with myself here makes me lose the thread of my unraveling talk completely. I founder for a few moments before concluding, “Make of yourself the sort of companion in whose presence you dare not sin.” Fine words and noble. But coming like this from me, I fear they are tantamount to a confession that I know myself to be no such companion. Not that young Marcellinus is this moment capable of drawing any such inference. My conversation has reduced him to a state little short of sleepwalking.
I seem to see this youth’s future and fortune writ out before me. After this obligatory season at the feet of a philosopher of repute—me (and god knows why)—he will acquire a certain cachet. After all he studied under such-and-so. Not merely a philosopher, but one in Corsican exile, which enjoys a certain degree fashionability in Rome. Vibius the Youngest will take that cachet of his and move himself to Rome. Become there one of those who assiduously strain at doing nothing with furrowed brow and in all naïve bad faith. These two leaps are too great for all but philosophy’s most-gifted athletes: that from well-turned maxim to actual practice; and that from seeing faults in the abstract to seeing them in one’s own person.
Beholding this youth’s fate to come, I suppose I could spout some nonsense here about how Fortuna rules all with no evident order. Slough off onto metaphysical chaos the blame for our human lassitude. In fact, though, I am more and more convinced that Providence rules all through stern cause and effect. Which makes of me one of the causes—and a conscious, volitional one—impelling this young man (and how many others?) to, I fear, perhaps ruinous effect. Ten, twelve years ago, would I have thought such a thing? Would I have had to? Say what I will in praise of philosophical retirement, I have a fear. Living as I do, bereft of adversaries, my mental prowess withers. Freedom forces upon me a premature dotage. And, in their peculiar way, doddering old fools are surer corrupters of youth than painted and perfumed catamites. For we, the former, are the more insidious: our age and authority call forth such a degree of ill-placed trust.
It is with relief on both sides that Marcellinus and I part. Relief rendered all the greater because I do not even invite my pupil to mid-day dinner. Normally this would be a snub; now it is a mercy. I fully expect a letter from his grandfather later this evening, making this our last colloquy. Truly is the problem just exactly myself? Or is it rather some shift in intellectual fashions that tenders my every word, well-weighed and weighty—an unmitigated burden to my listeners? I dismiss this line of thought. Vexations can find their own way in. No need to invite them.
I dine, as is more and more my wont, alone. Epicurus under the table my sole and silent company. There are, I know, men famed for their conversation at table. This has ever struck me as an aberration. The consumption of food no more needs to be accompanied by a stream of chatter than, say, fornication. Defecation, even. The acts themselves hold sufficient attraction.
This is the case even when, as today, my meal consists of but the rougher sort of greasy bread, a few cloves of garlic, and plain water. A regimen, this, that I follow for three or four successive days each month. Why, when by the standards of easily three-quarters of this empire, I am a wealthy man? Precisely because I am a wealthy man. For one thing, wealth comes at a price. If you would number our maladies, count our cooks. I am not so far past fifty and no tippler, but already gout makes its pestilential presence sometimes felt.
“Already.” That I use that word is a measure of mine own immaturity. If gout does not befit a man of fifty, then when? But my reason for this spartan fare is not solely or even mainly health. For many a man shortens his true living, placing himself under a doctor’s orders, rendering himself thereby a sort of live automaton, effectively bereft of his own will. To increase the number of a man’s days may actually shorten what deserves to be called his life. For properly, a man lives only when subject to his own will, and master of that will.
No, my motivation behind these meager meals is mainly philosophical. I eat poorly because I could have better. Reducing myself to this plainest fare, I am able to ascertain my honest answer to the question, “Is this what I fear?” Happily, I am able to answer, “No.”, almost without reservation. Trust me: the confidence with which my spirit is then fed is savor more succulent than any sauce or sausage. No, it is Epicurus, my dog, who alone suffers on such nights.
Even better, this night such a meal—or rather the relish with which I am able to consume it—restores my spirits in large measure. Does Marcellinus find my person preposterous, my company tedious, and my teaching a bore? Very well. Such season and its attendant inconvenience is the lot of all who do not die young. It makes no sense to complain of what is common to all. But, some querulous part of me cavils, I cannot help feeling the distress I do? Well and good, again. Because, again, it is inhuman not to feel. But it is unmanly not to bear bravely what we must feel. Bear, moreover, with uncreased brow.
It is said that men learn the most while teaching. The lesson for me today—as for so many days of late—is that my efforts are not yet made pure. The pure effort commences and terminates with itself. The impure reckons on reward, or at least on enjoyment. That young man Marcellinus Sertorius Vibius denied me the reward I had already claimed in imagination: his rapt attention. And I am troubled. This speaks not well of me at all.
For to crave approval is a thing common; it is not, however, a thing natural. I built my envisioned day this day—as much of my life—around some prospective, shining moment. Such moments may or may not arrive. In either case, one loses half the day at hand in either anticipation or regret. A fool, with all his other faults, has this too: he is always “getting ready” to live. That is why men fear death so greatly. It is not that they have not yet had enough of life. It is rather that they, most of them, have had no life at all. If a man cares less to live long than well, a short span might suffice him and he go to his grave with gratitude. Having learned the one thing needful—to feel befitting joy—each day comes thereafter as a supernumerary blessing.
I push back my chair and toss a half-eaten wedge of bread to the doleful Epicurus. I do pity him on such nights and feel none of the wonted Stoic amusement at the sight of a frustrated epicure. As for myself, rarely have I eaten a more satisfying meal, sating soul and stomach alike. Think you how few were the hours you can say in all honesty were not ill-spent. Yet in the past two days, I have enjoyed at least two such. One last evening there among the menhir; the other here at table. To cast yet further back in recollection would show me a miserly hoarder of memories, so I desist.
As I linger over table yet awhile, my aging slave, Baeticus, comes in to clear off the few dishes. “Aging”—he is but five weeks older than myself. As usual lately, I am faintly troubled in his presence, yet withal grateful for that same presence. Indeed, grateful even for the faint troubling. A few weeks ago it was thought by the doctors I summoned that Baeticus was in the first evident stages of the crab illness1. Which first evidence usually betokens shortness of time. Cancer: that malady that spares none it strikes nor, having struck, spares them one whit of agony’s fullest measure.
Epicurus—the philosopher, not my dog—teaches that pain is of two sorts. If mild, it is bearable; if unbearable, of short duration. I wonder: did Epicurus never see an advanced case of cancer? Yet, in Baeticus’ case, all turned out to be a false alarm. He was back on his feet inside ten days.
So, why then am I still troubled? Because while “my” slave yet lingered ill, I shed private tears and entreated God to defer what is for every man inevitable. The doing of which shows me not one-quarter so settled about death—and therefore life, virtue—as I would have the world believe. As I would have my own self believe. Truly, we must let death be the last and most exacting of our life’s fine speeches.
Does that strike you a cliché? “Let death play the critic &c. &c.”? Indeed the bulk of my talk and my teaching consists in just such compilation and catalogue of rank platitudes. But, of a truth, no wise man’s writings come to much more than just such reworking of truisms tired while his grandfather was still a boy. This is, however, no criticism. For if that man consistently practices but a handful of such truisms, we esteem him a sage. Socrates, to take an easy example, devoted all his seventy-plus years to living the one maxim: “Know thyself.” Platitude is part and parcel of our practice. This means wisdom is out of the reach of no man. As such, charming converse and novel turns of phrase comprise the most damning distractions. I smile at Baeticus as he shuffles out with those several dishes. His simple continued living an unwitting lesson for me.
After dinner, I decide not to write. Doctors have warned me already of the urination illness2. It comes often enough to portly men of my years. And I am, in fact, a portly man of just exactly my years. Already, too, I have the pre-prandial dizziness; the post-prandial sleepiness. So, much as it goes against the younger Seneca’s rather heroic notions of industry, I elect to take a mid-day sleep.
My bed is simple here on Corsica. In Rome it was not always so (or,yes, even my own). But here I have come to take to heart the words of Epicurus—again the philosopher, not my dog: “Whether a bed be of ivory or of wood matters not to a sick man. He carries his malady with him.” Nor, I draw the contrary corollary, does that bed matter to one well. His health accompanies him just as surely.
Coming into my chamber, I see that the other Epicurus (the one with four feet) has taken up station at the bed’s foot and eyes me expectantly. To a faithful dog, even a shared siesta is an adventure to be savored. One of my household’s several cats has followed me here as well, claiming a right to the blanket, appearing there as if by magic, though a scant second before she had been rubbing my legs from exactly behind.
Which one this? Sulla, I think. A name not chosen by chance. For all he was every inch a man and a soldier, as dictator Sulla showed himself most feline in his caprices and cruelties. The cat, I am happy to report, shows hers an altogether steadier character, albeit with a tendency to be self-serving, though nowise malicious. Now, she curls up near my pillow, already purring steadily. Epicurus eyes her enviously. His lot to sleep on the floor. I trained him in this wise because my （now ex-）wife so trained me.
Before sleep, at whatever hour, I observe one unfailing ritual. Standing as erect as my paunch permits, I face Rome and offer a prayer. Not that I worship either that place or its Emperor. But I am sprung from the city. It made me, and it is God’s will that I find my heart there. A man may be “a citizen of the world”; this does not render him, therefore, homeless. Even, as I have found, in exile.
It affords me a curious pleasure to pray with my animals present. I have thereby had occasion to remark that the beasts, so-called, have a peculiar piety of their own. The cat, its fastidious cleanliness; the dog its unbounded loyalty. Ceremonials both, and tended to and tendered with all solemnity and reverence.
My own prayer is not long. A simple three-fold petition to God. First, for warranted good conscience. Then for soundness of mind. Finally for health of body for so long as it takes me to gain that prayed-for good conscience. For this is, I think, the sincerest prayer a man makes: that his faults perish before him. Prayer aside, mind, it further behooves him to lavish all his waking hours on this ridding himself of faults.
True, I am skeptic enough that I do not conclude my prayer without a qualm. Skeptic however not of the divine, but of myself. For this is where skepticism is properly directed. How much, I ask myself of this praying of paens and moderation of spirit do I owe to wisdom, and how much to the first onset of old age? A man must discriminate exceeding fine between what he no longer wishes to do, and that which he no longer is able to do. Then, with this caveat standing guard over me, I am pleased to sleep. For all its seeming inactivity, this half day has not been without its modest attainments.
“Cancer” is, of course Latin for “crab”. In ancient times, doctors copnsidered malignant tumors actual parasitic life forms, not the mutation of the patient’s own tissues we know the malady to be. Translating the term “cancer” literally retains the sense of shock at the invasive horror the disease was seen as. ↩
Seneca here speaks of “diabetes”. That term, meaning “a siphon” because of the excessive passing of urine, was not used until the 2nd Century physician Aretus the Cappadochian brought it into currency. ↩