Thinking About Seneca’s Thoughts on Dying

By Glenn Hughes

Seneca (C. 4 B.C.- A.D.65), a Roman essayist, philosopher, playwright, and tutor to Nero, writes a short essay about his asthma, which he calls “difficulty in breathing.” Seneca says that he has suffered just about all that can go wrong with a man (he said that he would have committed suicide but that his father would have been unable to bear the loss), and he finds his asthma the worst ailment, an assessment he thinks we should find reasonable since with this affliction one is constantly at one’s last breath. Roman doctors nicknamed asthma “rehearsing death.” Anyone who has seen someone suffer a serious asthma attack know the aptness of the phrase the Roman doctors used.

How does Seneca feel about these attacks of asthma, attacks, he says, which last about an hour. Terrible, this gasping desperately for air, the oppressive smothering, but Seneca, a stoic, says he reflects while he is struggling for breath.

Writes Seneca,

“So death is having a try at me, is he? Let him then! I had a try at him a long while ago myself,” writes Seneca.

When we ask when he had this “try” at death, he replies, “Before I was born.” To Seneca, Death is simply not being, not existing. He thinks that after his death he will be what he was before his life: nothing. He says if there is any torment in the later state, there must have been torment in the former, yet we are not conscious of any distress then.

He then says,

“I ask you, wouldn’t you say that anyone who took the view that a lamp was worse off when it was put out than when it was lit an utter idiot? We, too, are lit and put out. We suffer in the intervening period, but at either end of it there is deep tranquillity….We are wrong in holding that death follows after, when in fact it precedes as well as succeeds. Death is all that was before us. What does it matter, after all, whether you cease to be or never begin, when the result of either is that you do not exist?”

Seneca assures us he is not afraid to die. He says he is “prepared, not planning as much as a day ahead.”

He closes,

“The man, though, whom you should admire and imitate is the one who finds it a joy to live and in spite of that is not reluctant to die. For where’s the virtue in going out when you’re really being thrown out? And yet there is this virtue about my case: I’m in the process of being thrown out, certainly, but the manner of it is as if I were going out. And the reason why it never happens to a wise man is that being thrown out signifies expulsion from a place one is reluctant to depart from, and there is nothing a wise man does reluctantly. He escapes necessity because he wills what necessity is going to force on him.”

When I read what Seneca said about a wise person gracefully accepting what necessity will perforce bring, I remembered the wonderful tape by Sheldon Solomon on Otto Rank’s thought (tape available from the EBF, and if you haven’t heard Sheldon you’re missing a real treat) in which Sheldon in his inimitable and insightful way talks about Rank’s urging that we must develop a “voluntary acceptance of the obligatory.” Both Seneca and Rank are saying the same thing: one must live in the world on the world’s terms. Necessity will have its way with us, and we waste energy and force denying it. Margaret Fuller once grandiosely said in Thoreau’s presence, “I accept the universe” to which the crusty Thoreau said, “You’d better.”

We cannot demand of necessity, only gracefully submit to it. When Seneca’s friends wept at his death sentence, ordered by Nero, he admonished them, asking them where their philosophy had gone, that resolution against the inevitable misfortunes. “Surely nobody was unaware that Nero was cruel!” he said. “After murdering his mother and brother, it only remained for him to kill his teacher and tutor.” Seneca made plans to die. His death was long and painful, but Seneca remained serene, even dictating to secretaries while he waited to die. He severed veins in his arms and legs, but still he lived. He took poison, but it did not dispatch him. Finally he was carried into a “vapor-bath,” where he suffocated.

I do know that as I finish up the preceding paragraph, the lone crow comes out of the tall trees behind the neighbor’s house and perches on the chimney thrusting from the roof. He takes my mind off Seneca. How the bird glistens–his ebony feathers iridescent in the afternoon light–shining, shimmering crow. He twirls his head a bit, seems to look at me, and then he lifts into the air and is gone, and once again I think of Seneca and of dying.

Seneca has been dead for two thousand years. And although like most of us, his philosophy of life is more noble than his actual life, although he wrote better than he lived (he has been called a hypocrite), he understood humankind’s fate, the piercing perishability of life, the fleeting moment, the blossom ripening for a moment, holding its beauty for the briefest of times, and then falling into ruin. I’d guess that Seneca loved the bare naked trees of winter as much as the heavily leafed limbs of early summer. The dying flower on the ground, its vivid color fading fast, is more poignant to the poet, more “symbolic,” more meaningful than the beaming flower proud on the stalk. And the person who seeks only the flower at its perfection sees not the beauty of life at all, cannot catch the fleeting hem of the gown of vulnerable ecstasy disappearing even as the dusk wrings the last light from day.

Seneca thought there is no virtue in our being thrown out of life. He believed that if one accepts necessity, one is under no compulsion. One should love life, he thought, seek out the moon, whether it be bright gourd in the sky or thin, unstrung bow, but one should not be reluctant to leave life. Seneca thought that self-consciousness is a fugitive fever, short-lived, flanked by nothingness, and as simple as it sounds (and we know how hard it is to do), Seneca equates death with the time before we were born: we simply do not exist.

I don’t think I have ever heard anyone lament the oblivion before one’s birth. Implicit in Seneca is the belief that we come from a boundless sea of nothingness into life, into self-consciousness, for a burning moment, and then we retreat back to the eternal sea of oblivion.

But it is this flickering, ephemeral beacon of conscious life, this quick spurt of flame swallowed by the immense clouds of darkness, that seizes our attention. We are here now, alive, the world about us, the guttural-crying crow beating his way to somewhere.

Alive, we find it hard to talk of oblivion, to understand its meaning, of its great peace. Most of us are transfixed by the shimmering of the lone crow’s feathers, the towering green trees nodding in the wind, the blue sky with its white clouds above and beyond the boughs. Self-consciousness might be an aberration, an anomaly in this universe, but it is the thing we cannot ignore, like a bright handkerchief waving across the way, like a band rehearsing next door, the quick drums rattling, the guitar throbbing. What do dead ears hear? What do dead eyes see? Seneca would say nothing, nothing at all.

Seneca and Rank are right, of course: one must bow to the necessity of life, to one’s fated dying, but on a day as lovely as this one, one in which the glittering crow took his accustomed perch in the tall sweet gum tree, a black coal floating in the emerald sea of trembling leaves, most of us would be sorry to shut up this mortal house, pack up the imagination, and trundle off into the unknown dark. Not just yet. In spite of Seneca’s calm and reassuring words.

Yes, Seneca is gone (and Rank too). We are here, though, but we know, too, that like Seneca and Rank we will leave, just like the lone crow that leaps into fading day and seamlessly swims away. Oh, the image of the lone crow, that dark spot moving through the air, the trees choked with green leaves as a backdrop–can we say good-bye easily to such things? Our leaving this world is obligatory, but the perception of the world’s beauty is not obligatory. Perhaps Seneca and Rank knew that it is the necessity in life that somehow urges some persons to create beauty and meaning. Wallace Stevens says, “Death is the mother of beauty.” I don’t know, but it’s grand sometimes to think so, isn’t it? Do Stevens’s words somehow ease the burden of the obligatory? Do Seneca’s fortify the terrified imagination at three in the morning?