If fate is conquered by tears, let us muster them to shed; let every day pass amid grief, let sleepless melancholy consume the night…if it will serve our purpose, let grief practice every kind of savagery. But if no amount of wailing recalls the dead, if all distress is powerless to alter a fate that is un changeable and fixed for ever, if death holds fast whatever it has carried away, let sorrow, which runs it course, cease.
Seneca, the Stoic philosopher and tutor to the young emperor Nero, was born around 1 BC. His discourses on how to navigate this troubled life remain a great resource even today. One of his major interests was the shortness of life: the brevity of our existence, our collective and individual fear of death and our immeasurable grief upon the loss of those we love.
I recently read his “Dialogues and Essays” (Oxford Unviersity Press, 2007) and highlight some of his most impactful, illuminating aphorisms:
Why, then, do we show such persistence in mourning for one we loved, if it does not come at Nature’s bidding? Because we fail to anticipate any evil before it actually befalls us, but rather, as though we are privileged and have set foot on a path less dangerous than others, we fail to learn from the mishaps of others that such things affect us at all. So many funeral processions go past our doors: we do not reflect on death; so may deaths are premature…and never does it enter our heads that our own wealth rests on ground just as treacherous. It follows necessarily, then, that we are more liable to collapse: we are struck, as it were, off guard.
Who ever regarded his property, thinking he would die? Which one of you ever dared to think about exile, about poverty, about grief?… ‘I did not think it would happen (to me).’
Is there anything you think will not happen, when you know that it can happen, and your own eyes show it has happened already to many?
Seneca quotes Publilius Syrius of Antioch, a former slave, whose epigrams greatly impressed and inspired Seneca:
This is an outstanding verse, better than any I could have expected in any play :
Whatever fate one man can strike can come to all of us alike.
…we ought to love all our dear ones, both those we desire to outlive us by condition of their birth, and those who themselves pray most justly to pass away before us, but always in the realization that have received no promise that they will be ours for ever, no, not even for a length of time. Many times must the heart be reminded, it must not forget that those we love will leave, indeed are already leaving…
You have been given no promise about tonight — I have granted too long an adjournment — no promise about this very hour.
…We have entered the real, of Fortune, who rule is harsh and unconquerable, and at her whim we will endure suffering deserved and undeserved.
What is the need to weep at parts of life? All life is worthy of tears.
What is man? A vessel that the slightest shaking, the slightest buffet, will break…
What is man? A weak and fragile body, naked in its natural state without defence, in need of another’s assistance, exposed to all the insults of Fortune…a flawed and useless thing.
…It began life with tears, and what a commotion meanwhile this despicable creature makes, what great thoughts it entertains, forgetting the end to which it must come! Man ponders on matters immortal and eternal, forming plans for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, while in the meantime death surprises him amidst his far-reaching designs.