If you wait till you are old to discover this, it will be too late (Nigel Warburton)

If you wait till you are old to discover this, it will be too late (Nigel Warburton)

This tough philosophy began in Ancient Greece, but it was in the Roman Empire that it flourished. Two important writers who helped to spread the Stoic teaching were Marcus Tullius Cicero (106—43 BC) and Lucius Annaeus Seneca (1 BC-AD 65). The brevity of life and the inevitably of ageing were topics that particularly interested them. They recognized that ageing is a natural process, and didn’t try to change what couldn’t be changed. At the same time, though, they believed in making the best of our short time here.

Cicero seemed to pack more than most into a day: he was a lawyer and politician as well as a philosopher. In his book On Old Age he identified four main problems with growing older: it gets harder to work, the body becomes weaker, joy in physical pleasures goes, and death is close. Ageing is inevitable but, as Cicero argued, we can choose how we react to that process. We should recognize that decline in old age need not make life unbearable. First, old people can often get by doing less because of their experience, so any work they do can be more effective. Their bodies and minds won’t necessarily decline dramatically if they exercise them. And even if physical pleasures become less enjoyable, old people can spend more time on friendship and conversation which are themselves very rewarding. Finally, he believed that the soul lived for ever, so that old people shouldn’t worry about dying. Cicero’s attitude was that we should both accept the natural process of growing older and recognize that the attitude we take to that process need not be pessimistic.

Seneca, another great popularizer of Stoic views, took a similar line when he wrote about the brevity of life. You don’t often hear people complaining that life is too long. Most say it’s far too short. There’s so much to do and so little time in which to do it. In the words of the Ancient Greek Hippocrates, ‘Life is short, art is long.’ Old people who can see their death approaching often wish for just a few more years so that they can achieve what they really wanted to in life. But often it’s too late and they’re left feeling sad about what might have been. Nature is cruel in this respect. Just as we are getting on top of things, we die.

Seneca didn’t agree with this view. An all-rounder like Cicero, he found time to be a playwright, a politician and a successful businessman as well as a philosopher. The problem as he saw it was not how short our lives are, but rather how badly most of us use what time we have. Once again, it was our attitude to unavoidable aspects of the human condition that mattered most for him. We should not feel angry that life is short, but instead should make the most of it. He pointed out that some people would waste a thousand years as easily as they do the life that they have. And even then they’d probably still complain that life was too short. In fact life is usually long enough to get plenty done if we make the right choices: if we don’t fritter it away on useless tasks. Some chase after money with such energy that they don’t have time to do much else; others fall into the trap of giving over all their free time to drinking and sex.

If you wait till you are old to discover this, it will be too late, Seneca thought. Having white hair and wrinkles doesn’t guarantee that an old person has spent much time doing anything worthwhile, even though some people mistakenly act as if it does. Someone who sets sail in a ship and is carried this way and that by stormy winds hasn’t been on a voyage. He’s just been tossed about a lot. So it is with life. Being out of control, drifting through events without finding time for the experiences that are most valuable and meaningful, is very different from truly living.

One benefit of living your life well is that you won’t have to be afraid of your memories when you are old. If you waste your time, when you look back you may not want to think about how you spent your life, as it will probably be too painful to contemplate all the opportunities you missed. That’s why so many people become preoccupied with trivial work, Seneca thought — it’s a way of avoiding the truth about what they’ve failed to do. He urged his readers to remove themselves from the crowd and
to avoid hiding from themselves by being busy.

How, then, according to Seneca, should we spend our time? The Stoic ideal was to live like a recluse, away from other people. The most fruitful way to exist, he declared — perceptively — was studying philosophy. This was a way of being truly alive.

Seneca’s life gave him plenty of chances to practice what he preached. In AD 41, for example, he was accused of having an affair with the Emperor Gaius’ sister. It’s not clear whether he had or not, but the result was that he was sent into exile in Corsica for the next eight years. Then his luck turned again and he was called back to Rome to become tutor to the 12-year- old emperor-to-be, Nero. Later Seneca acted as his speech writer and political advisor. This relationship ended very badly, though: another twist of fate. Nero accused Seneca of being part of a plot to murder him. There was no escape for Seneca this time. Nero told him to commit suicide. Refusal was out of the question and would have led to execution anyway. To resist would have been pointless. He took his own life, and, true to his Stoicism, was peaceful and calm to the end.




A Little History of Philosophy
Nigel Warburton  



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