ISBN 978-0-691-17557-7   Princeton   £14.95

 Reviewed by Alan Dent

            A morbid title, perhaps, but Seneca often returned to the idea of preparation for death. His sense that acknowledgment of our mortality enhances our lives is at odds with the contemporary obsession with resistance of ageing, especially in the U.S.A.. Paradoxically, it requires a firm hold on life to be ready to contemplate leaving it. In more modern terms, it might be said that our narcissistic personalities prevent us from accepting the brevity of youth and life itself. Franz Kafka is reputed to have remarked that the point about life is that it ends. D.H. Lawrence wrote a poem about beautiful old age. Maybe what is really morbid is the refusal to accept mortality, the fear of death which entails also a fear of life.

            “Those who have learned how to die have unlearned how to be slaves,” he writes. Why fear prison, tyranny or any of life’s tortures if you know you have a way out? There is a speciousness to this because it suggests that denying life is the way to deal with its difficulties. Seneca saw life a rite of passage. The soul would be set free. For our more atheistic age, death is simply the end. To see it as the means to avoid a painful life may be rational if you expect some existence beyond death, if not to escape through death is simply failure. “…the one who will return to the world should leave it with equanimity..”. But what of the one who knows return is impossible?

            “You will see that nothing in this cosmos is extinguished but everything falls and rises by turns.” Once again, Seneca has a comforting faith in the eternal nature of life. Today we know from the laws of thermodynamics that heat death is inevitable. Though the time-span is unconscionable, some thousand trillion years, the energy of the universe will exhaust itself. In our scientific age, we are deprived of Seneca’s comforts.

            “If death holds any torment, then that torment must also have existed before we came forth into the light, but, back then we felt nothing troubling.” We have experienced non-existence, Seneca suggests, so why should we fear it? Of course we haven’t experienced non-existence which is why we shouldn’t fear not existing any longer. It’s mere nothingness. Fear of the process of dying is, of course, another matter and fear or regret of loss of life, have a rational core.

            “…we must first and foremost…count our breath among the things we think cheap..” Shakespeare, who was influenced by Seneca’s tragedies, thought differently when he put into Claudio’s mouth his plea for life in Measure for Measure: “The weariest and most loathed wordly life/ That age, ache penury and imprisonment/Can lay on nature- is a paradise/To what we fear of death.” Seneca’s line of argument seems a little strained when set against Shakespeare’s healthy love of life.

            Seneca recounts a visit to his friend Bassus, an old man whose body is giving out but who remains sharp-minded and cheerful. Sensible, as we should make the best of life till the last moment. “Life is granted with death as its limitation” is Bassus’s view. It’s a certainty and  should be awaited not feared. Surely too, certainties should be put off as long as possible if they are negative. “When that inescapable hour arrives, go out with a calm mind.” There’s no point in panic over what can’t avoided and leaving life with dignity is part of living well.

            The case of the philosopher Metronax who died young, gives Seneca the chance to compare a short life lived well and a long one merely endured. “His lifetime was cut short, but his life was completed.” Milan Kundera has echoed this in his comment that “a man’s destiny can end before his life”. Is anyone lucky enough to find that their life-span and their destiny match exactly? What makes death truly tragic, however, is when it comes at the end of a life that never began. Not only do we find the death of children distressing for this reason, but knowing someone has merely eked out their years without having fulfilled their nature is disturbing. The man or woman who dies after a long life lived in fulfilment we can celebrate, even though we regret losing them.

            “…the one thing in life we can’t complain of: it detains no one”. Laughter Rabelais says, following Aristotle, is natural to humankind. We must learn to laugh at what we can’t change. Death has been a source of laughter in literature, song and theatre for centuries. Life would impossible without it. To be able to accept the fact of death without morbidity is to love life.

            “The human condition is a good one, in that no one is unhappy except by his own fault.” What Seneca means is that death provides the exit from an unhappy life. Yet his assertion is too glib. Most of the world’s unhappiness is the result of how people are treated by others. The notion that if you are bullied or exploited or abused it’s your own fault because you could always dispatch yourself with a bare bodkin, is poor thinking for a philosopher. Hamlet is right: when we are driven  by the evil of others to act in ways which clash with our natures, the question of whether life is worth living arises. Yet his conclusion is also more truthful than Seneca’s: the pale cast of thought robs us of the will to do away with ourselves. Hamlet is unhappy because of the corruption in the court of Denmark. Seneca should have admitted that the struggle for right as a remedy for unhappiness is more valid than self slaughter.

            “It’s the mark of a great soul to turn back to life for the sake of others.” In a way, this goes widdershins. Seneca’s essential idea is that we have the capacity to rid ourselves of life if it is too burdensome, that death is an escape, that we have no reason to tolerate an unhappy life; but at this point he admits what has been lacking – that life is matter of relationship. We don’t live for ourselves. Even hermits, in their withdrawal from community recognise it. We are willing to put up with a difficult, even painful or heartbroken life, for the sake of others, especially our offspring. Much of Seneca’s discussion is essentially egocentric. It is in recognising that we live for others and that our death will have consequences for them that he begins to see the question in the round.

            Our narcissistic culture is sunk in the delusion that we live for ourselves. No one ever does. No one is indifferent to how they are seen by others, indeed, narcissists are obsessed by it. Our selfhood begins in relationship, which is why Seneca is right: it is a sign of a great soul to stay true to life for the sake of others. That is the greatest wisdom of this little book.