21 August 2012

Seneca on Death

Last week an aunt of my father's died, and he was asked to be a pall bearer. Unable to accept (being out of town), the honor fell to me, today. I began this morning reading from Oxford's collection of Seneca's Dialogues and Essays. In "Consolation to Marcia", Seneca writes to a Roman matron whose son died shortly into his adult life. The young man's mother Marcia carried her grief for three years, at which point Seneca took up the pen to offer advice.  Although it would be easy to console herself with the idea that her son had merely gone somewhere, somewhere where she would one day meet him, the best course of action is to accept it as a necessary part of life. He borrows from the Epicureans by pointing out that death is nothing to be feared, because it is nothing in itself but the cessation of sensation. Only our opinion of it gives it  substance, and our opinion can be changed.

What, then, is upsetting you, Marcia? Is it that your son hs died or that he did not have a long life? If it is his death, then you always had cause to mourn; for you always knew he would die. Reflect that no evils afflict one who has died, that the accounts which make the underworld a place of terror to us are mere tales, that no darkness threatens the dead, no prison, or rivers blazing with fire, no river of Forgetfulness, or seats of judgment, no sinners answering for their crimes, or tyrants a second time in that freedom which so lacks fetters: these are the imaginings of poets, who have tormented us with groundless fears. Death is a release from all pains, and a boundary beyond which our sufferings cannot go; it returns us to that state of peacefulness in which we lay before we were born. If someone pities those who have died, let him pity also those who have not been born. Death is neither a good nor an evil; for only that which is something can be a good or an evil; but what is itself nothing and reduces everything to nothingness, delivers us to no category of fortune. 

He points out additionally that death may be a savior: who knows what pains and disgraces might befall someone who lives a long life? He reminds Marcia of Pompey, who had he died of illness at the height of his power, might have been far more content then than he was years later, when Caesar had chased him into the sea, and to Egypt where he thought he might find refuge, only to be killed by the hands of those he thought friends.

Death frees a man from slavery though his master is unwilling; it makes light the chains of prisoners; it leads out of prison those forbidden to leave by a tyrant's power; it shows to exiles, whose eyes and minds turn always to their homeland, that it does not matter beneath whose soil a man may lie; when Fortune has unjustly distributed common goods, and has given one into the power of another, though they were born with equal rights, death makes all things equal; after its coming no man ever does anything again at another's bidding; it is death that makes no man aware of his humble condition; it is death that lies open to all; it is death, Marcia, that your father longed for; it is death, I say, that prevents being born a punishment, that keeps me from collapsing under the threatens of misfortune, that enables me to keep my soul free from harm and master of itself. [...] Life, it is thanks to death that you are precious in my eyes.

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