Oh," say you, "those stories have been droned to death in all the schools; pretty soon, when you reach the topic 'On Despising Death,' you will be telling me about Cato." But why should I not tell you about Cato, how he read Plato's book on that last glorious night, with a sword laid at his pillow? [Quidni ego narrem ultima illa nocte Platonis librum legentem posito ad caput gladio?] He had provided these two requisites for his last moments, - the first, that he might have the will to die, and the second, that be might have the means. So he put his affairs in order, - as well as one could put in order that which was ruined and near its end, - and thought that he ought to see to it that no one should have the power to slay or the good fortune to save Cato. Drawing the sword, - which he had kept unstained from all bloodshed against the final day, he cried: "Fortune+, you have accomplished nothing by resisting all my endeavours. I have fought, till now, for my country's freedom, and not for my own, I did not strive so doggedly to be free, but only to live among the free. Now, since the affairs of mankind are beyond hope, let Cato be withdrawn to safety." So saying, he inflicted a mortal wound upon his body. After the physicians had bound it up, Cato had less blood and less strength, but no less courage; angered now not only at Caesar but also at himself, he rallied his unarmed hands against his wound, and expelled, rather than dismissed, that noble soul which had been so defiant of all worldly power.--Seneca, Letter 24.
I have been hesitating to write about Letter 24, because I recognize that I am not quite up to task of writing about its surface theme: the fear of death and the way to handle daily fears that are, in some sense, derivative of this master fear. But as Seneca's argument unfolds he points to the fact that the true fear, behind the fears, is fear itself: "you will then know that they contain nothing awful except the actual fear" [scies nihil esse in istis terribile nisi ipsum timorem.] The theme was picked up, perhaps via Montaigne Essays, in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's First Inaugural Lecture, with its famous phrase that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." [I am not the first to notice this; see Wikipedia.]
In looking, reading and listening at FDR's words, I first noticed that the phrase occurs just as he is also answering (recall) one the great, unsettling questions of Lincoln's Gettysburg address, which asks whether a nation "conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal...can long endure." Lincoln had (recall) offered a new refounding: "It is for us the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work...It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us...that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom." While maintaining the fiction of continuity ("unfinished work"), the project gets re-launched ("new birth"). Confronting the Great Depressions, FDR, with less eloquence, had started his speech as follows:
I will address [my fellow Americans] with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our people impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure, as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.
Here we have one of the great mysteries of political life. FDR presents himself as a witness being sworn to testify. From the Madisonian, political world of opinion he turns to the juridical world of truth (which he sometimes presents as "ancient truths"). And as he speaks honestly (setting up 'honest' Abe Lincoln), we find he moves not into truth-telling, but into the register of prophecy: this great Nation will endure, as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. What's needed for the prophecy to come true in addition to naming one's enemies, we learn, is (again note the Lincolnian trick) a "restoration" by "changes in ethics." (More is needed than these changes.) By this he means primarily a better understanding of the nature of happiness -- the right to pursue of which is so evidently true --, which "lies not in the mere possession of money" (as any Stoic would agree), but, because the value of work needs to be vindicated, "it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort."
Second, if you look at the film nobody seems to be paying attention to what FDR is saying. There is no sense he is speaking historic words. The nearby witnesses (family, future cabinet ministers, important politicians, etc.) all seem to be having their own conversation; the crowd may be listening, but, lonely individuals excepted, they do not seem to be responding to the words--they seem to be shifting around on the look-out for something. In the background, a street-car glides along its destined path. Yet, despite the nearby disinterest, there is no doubt that FDR is taking his task seriously.
And this allows me to return to the true theme of Seneca's letter which is on the significance of words. For, the letter aims to vindicate the Stoic school against the "very disgraceful charge often brought against" it "that we deal with the words, and not with the deeds, of philosophy." That Seneca identifies as a member of the school was first announced in Letter 14, not coincidentally a letter in which he had been rather critical of Cato. It's clear from that letter and this one that Seneca recognizes (not wholly happily) that Cato's final day(s) have become legend, and alongside it the ruling image of his school an instrument of propaganda taught to and by others. Here, he embraces Cato for his own ends.
The striking image of Cato's end is converted into a narrative about the way other people's words [Plato in this case] can control our wishes ,or will [ut vellet mori]. Cato's soul is not autonomous for great deeds; it requires animation by Plato's words. (By contrast, Cato's anger sustains itself.) In one stroke, Seneca brings real world politics and, what I call philosophical politics, together.
In the world of politics, and Seneca does not let us forget that his addressee, Lucilius is leading the political life, you may think you can dismiss words as idle -- a mark of scholarly, sword-less impotence --, but, thereby, fail to note that your actions are governed, almost certainly by the thoughts of others. A true politician understands this.