Dialogues and Letters (16 page)

BOOK: Dialogues and Letters
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21         for a long time. 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

23         you have created the need to do so'. 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 strengthened
to face both without either loving or hating our life too
much. Even when reason persuades us to end our lives we should

25         not follow this urge rashly or impetuously. 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 former 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.


An unpleasant journey through a tunnel and the thoughts it prompts

1           When I was due to return to Naples from Baiae I easily persuaded
myself that the weather was too stormy to try a second sea voyage.
And yet the whole of my route was so muddy that anyone
would think I had sailed nevertheless. That day I had to go
through everything that athletes endure: after our anointment
with mud we then faced a sand-dusting in the Naples tunnel.

2           Nothing is longer than that prison, nothing more gloomy than the
torches there, which intensify the darkness rather than enabling us
to see through it. In any case, even if the place had any light, the
dust would conceal it. Dust is a serious nuisance even in the open:
you can imagine what it's like in that place, where it just eddies
around, and since there's no ventilation it settles on those who
have stirred it up. We suffered simultaneously from two normally
opposing inconveniences: on the same journey and the same day
we had to cope with both mud and dust.

3                 And yet that darkness gave me something to think about: I felt
a sort of mental shock and confusion, though without fear, caused
by the novelty and also the unpleasantness of an unusual experience.
I'm not now talking to you about myself – I'm far from
being even a passable man, let alone a perfect one – but about the
sort of man over whom Fortune has lost her rights: even his mind

4           will suffer a blow and his colour change. For there are some
things, dear Lucilius, which no courage can escape – nature warns
that courage of its own mortality. And so this man will contort
his features at sad news, and shudder at sudden occurrences, and
turn giddy if he stands on the edge of a great height and looks

down. This isn't fear but a natural reaction which cannot be
conquered by reason. And so some brave men who are more than
willing to shed their own blood cannot bear to see someone else's.
Some people collapse and faint at the sight and handling of a fresh
wound, others at an old and festering one. Some receive a sword

6          thrust more easily than they see one given. Well, as I was saying,
my feeling was not really a serious disturbance but a sort of
confusion, and at the first glimpse of the return of daylight my
natural cheerfulness returned without thought or volition.

Then I began to say to myself how foolishly we fear some
things more or less although the same end awaits us all. For what
difference does it make whether a watchtower or a mountain
collapses on somebody? None, of course. Yet you will find people
who are more afraid of the mountain falling, though both are
equally fatal. So true is it that fear contemplates not results but
what brings them about.

7                 Do you imagine I am now talking about the Stoics, who
believe that the soul of a man crushed by a great weight cannot
survive and is straightway broken up because there was not a clear
outlet for it? Not in the least: those who say this seem to me

8           wrong. Just as a flame cannot be crushed (for it escapes around
whatever is pressing it), nor can air be damaged or even divided
by hitting and striking it, but flows around that which it gives
way to; so the soul, which is composed of the most rarefied
material, cannot be trapped or crushed within the body, but,
thanks to its fine texture, it forces its way right through any
overpowering weight. Just as however widely a thunderbolt's
force and flash is diffused it returns through a tiny opening, so the
soul, which is even more rarefied than fire, can escape through

9           any part of the body. And so we must ask this question: can it be
immortal? Well, be sure of this: if it survives the body, it can in
no way be destroyed, since no sort of immortality is qualified and
nothing can damage what is eternal.


Seneca asks Lucilius for details about Charybdis, and encourages him to write a poetical account of Mount Etna, as others have done. Literary emulation is possible and desirable, but wisdom and virtue cannot involve rivalry

1           I am looking forward to your letter in which you will tell me
what you discovered in your trip around the whole of Sicily, with
full and reliable details about Charybdis in particular. For I am
well aware that Scylla is a rock and not, in fact, dangerous to
sailors, but I want you to tell me whether Charybdis matches up
to the tales about it. Also, if you happen to notice (which is well
worth noticing), do inform me whether it is lashed into whirlpools
by only one wind, or any storm at all stirs up that sea, and
whether it is true that anything caught up by that whirling eddy
is dragged under water for many miles and does not surface till it

2           reaches the shore of Tauromenium.
If you write and tell me these details I'll venture to commission you to climb Etna too for
my sake. Some people judge that it is being worn away and is
gradually sinking from the fact that sailors used to be able to see
it from further away. This might happen not because the mountain
is getting lower, but because its fire has declined and is ejected
with less force and volume, causing the smoke too to appear more
sluggishly during the day. Neither possibility can be ruled out,
that the mountain is daily diminished by being consumed, or that
it remains unchanged because the fire is not actually devouring
it, but, starting in some subterranean hollow, blazes away there,
feeding on other material and using the mountain itself not as

3           food but as a way out. There is a well-known region of Lycia
(the local name is Hephaestion), where the ground is perforated
in several places, and a harmless fire plays around the area without
doing the least damage to the local plant life. In fact, the region
is lush and rich in vegetation, as the flames do not scorch anything,
but simply cause a glow without any strength in their heat.

4                 But let us defer these questions for consideration when you've
written to tell me how far away from the crater are the snows,
which do not melt even in summer, so safe are they from the
nearby fire. However, there is no question of your doing this
investigation as a favour to me: you were going to indulge your

5          obsession anyway, even if nobody asked you to. What could I
give you
to describe Etna in your poem and handle this theme
so well-worn by every poet? Ovid was in no way prevented from
treating it by the fact that Virgil had previously dealt with it fully;
and neither of them deterred Cornelius Severus from doing the
same. Besides, this subject is a rich field for all writers, and those
who have gone before do not seem to me to have pre-empted
what can be said about it, but rather to have shown the way.

6          There is a great difference between taking on a topic which is
exhausted and one which is well prepared for you. The latter is
always expanding, and previous treatments of it do not preclude
later ones. What is more, the latest writer is in the best position:
he finds words ready to hand which he can rearrange to produce
a new effect. And since they are public property he cannot be

7          said to be doing violence to the words of others. If I know you,
Etna is making your mouth water: you've been longing to tackle
some lofty theme in a way to rival your predecessors. Your modesty
does not allow you to hope for more, and it is so excessive
that you actually seem to me to curtail your mental powers if
there's any risk of your outdoing another writer: so greatly do

8                 you respect your predecessors. Wisdom has this among its other advantages, that no one can
be outdone by another except in the act of rising to achieve it.
When you have come to the top everything is equal: they have
come to a halt and there is no room for further development.
Can the sun add to its bulk or the moon exceed its normal fulness?
The seas do not increase; the world preserves the same physical

9          form and limits. Things which have arrived at their prescribed
bulk cannot extend themselves: all men who have achieved wisdom
are equal and on a level. Each individual among them will
have his own natural gifts: one will be more genial than the others,
another more quick-witted, another swifter in repartee,
another more eloquent. But the quality we are concerned with,

10        the one that brings them bliss, is equal in all of them. I don't
know whether this Etna of yours can collapse and fall on itself,
and whether the unrelenting force of its fires is demolishing that
lofty peak which is visible over vast tracts of ocean. But I do
know that no fire or collapse will bring down virtue: this is one
grandeur that cannot be humbled. It cannot be raised or lowered
as its stature is fixed, like that of the heavenly bodies: let us try to

11        raise ourselves to this height. By now much of the task has been
accomplished – no, if I am to be honest with you, not much of
it. For goodness does not consist in being better than the worst.
Who would boast about his eyesight if he had only a hazy view
of daylight? If the sun shines on a man through the mist, he can
be glad that for a while he has escaped the darkness, but he is not

12        yet enjoying the blessing of light. Our mind will only have
grounds for self-congratulation when it has emerged from this
darkness which enfolds it and sees clearly with no restricted vision,
when it absorbs the full light of day and is restored to the heavens
where it belongs, recovering the place allotted to it at birth. Its
own origins summon it upwards, and it will get there even before
its bodily prison dissolves, when it has shaken off its faults and
being pure and unburdened it darts upwards to divine reflections.

13        This activity, this whole-hearted journey of ours, is a joy, dear
Lucilius, even if few or none know about it. Fame is the shadow
of virtue and attends virtue even against its will. But just as you'll
see a shadow sometimes preceding, sometimes following behind,
so fame sometimes goes ahead of us, visible to all, and sometimes
follows us, and is all the greater for coming late when envy has

14        departed. What a long time did Democritus seem to be mad!
Socrates scarcely achieved fame in the end. What a long time was
Cato ignored by his country! It disdained him and did not realize
its mistake until it lost him. Rutilius' innocence and virtue would
have escaped notice had he not been wronged; but when violated
they shone forth in glory. Did he not give thanks to his fortune
and welcome his exile with open arms? I am talking about those
whom fortune glorified while she afflicted them. But how many
are there whose enlightened conduct achieved celebrity only after
their death, whose fame did not attend their lives but restored

BOOK: Dialogues and Letters
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