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Seneca's Last Gasps; meditating joyful and brave thoughts (Letter 54)

1. My ill-health had allowed me a long furlough, when suddenly it resumed the attack. "What kind of ill-health?" you say. And you surely have a right to ask; for it is true that no kind is unknown to me. But I have been consigned, so to speak, to one special ailment. I do not know why I should call it by its Greek name; for it is well enough described as "shortness of breath." Its attack is of very brief duration, like that of a squall at sea; it usually ends within an hour. Who indeed could breathe his last for long? 2. I have passed through all the ills and dangers of the flesh; but nothing seems to me more troublesome than this. And naturally so; for anything else may be called illness; but this is a sort of continued "last gasp." Hence physicians call it "practising how to die." For some day the breath will succeed in doing what it has so often essayed. 3. Do you think I am writing this letter in a merry spirit, just because I have escaped? It would be absurd to take delight in such supposed restoration to health, as it would be for a defendant to imagine that he had won his case when he had succeeded in postponing his trial. Yet in the midst of my difficult breathing I never ceased to rest secure in cheerful and brave thoughts.

4. "What?" I say to myself; "does death so often test me? Let it do so; I myself have for a long time tested death." "When?" you ask. Before I was born. Death is non-existence, and I know already what that means. What was before me will happen again after me. If there is any suffering in this state, there must have been such suffering also in the past, before we entered the light of day. As a matter of fact, however, we felt no discomfort then. 5. And I ask you, would you not say that one was the greatest of fools who believed that a lamp was worse off when it was extinguished than before it was lighted? We mortals also are lighted and extinguished; the period of suffering comes in between, but on either side there is a deep peace. For, unless I am very much mistaken, my dear Lucilius, we go astray in thinking that death only follows, when in reality it has both preceded us and will in turn follow us. Whatever condition existed before our birth, is death. For what does it matter whether you do not begin at all, or whether you leave off, inasmuch as the result of both these states is non-existence?

6. I have never ceased to exhort myself with counsels of this kind, silently, of course, since I had not the power to speak; then little by little this shortness of breath, already reduced to a sort of panting, came on at greater intervals, and then slowed down and finally stopped. Even by this time, although the gasping has ceased, the breath does not come and go normally; I still feel a sort of hesitation and delay in breathing. Let it be as it pleases, provided there be no sigh from the soul.7. Accept this assurance from me: I shall never be frightened when the last hour comes; I am already prepared and do not plan a whole day ahead. But do you praise and imitate the man whom it does not irk to die, though he takes pleasure in living. For what virtue is there in going away when you are thrust out? And yet there is virtue even in this: I am indeed thrust out, but it is as if I were going away willingly. For that reason the wise man can never be thrust out, because that would mean removal from a place which he was unwilling to leave; and the wise man does nothing unwillingly. He escapes necessity, because he wills to do what necessity is about to force upon him. Farewell.--Seneca Letter 54 Translated by Richard M. Gummere (with minor changes)

After many long letters, Seneca returns to brevity with a letter that becomes poignant in light of his own end. For a few years after Seneca wrote this, Nero sentenced him to suicide. And it is not clear that by obeying the sentence, Seneca really wills it himself and so escapes necessity. Compare the contrast with a case in which Nero had sentenced him to die, and that in order to escape the mad emperor's henchmen, Seneca had committed suicide. In the latter case, Seneca can be said to escape necessity in virtue of his own actions. Perhaps there is no real distinction here.

Seneca has set the stage for being remembered for his fearless (and dramatic) death.  If you deny that he could anticipate the future, it is worth noting that in this letter the plane of necessity and death are treated in temporal symmetric fashion. Either way, it is not clear to me why Seneca returns to this theme which he had discussed more fully in (recall) letter 24 (among other places).

When I was a teenager, I was diagnosed with exercise asthma. But once diagnosed, it's been mostly under control except once: in the aftermath of my TIA (recall) in the Summer of 2013, my lung capacity collapsed mysteriously. My asthma medicine was changed, and since then it seems to have no impact on my life and not preventing a fairly active life-style. This last fact seems to disappoint the medical types which have attended to me in the aftermath of covid. (For my "covid diaries," see herehere; here; herehereherehereherehere; hereherehere; here; herehereherehere, here; here; here; and here.) For, somehow they are all way more confident they can treat lungs than the spooky, cognitive problems I am dealing with.

I had classmates with debilitating asthma, and once (recall) nearly drowned as a kid, so I can imagine without great effort that an asthma attack could be a kind of practice in the what it's like of a last gasp. Seneca is explicit that physicians call the experience "meditating on how to die" [medici hanc 'meditationem mortis' vocant]. It's hard here not to think of those who claimed that philosophy is a meditation on death "Philosophiam esse meditationem Mortis"), which is often (but not always) associated with Socrates (Phaedo 64A). For a brief moment it looks like we have landed in the competition in the authoritative art of living between medicine and philosophy familiar from, say, the Symposium (including its comedy.)

But Seneca refuses the comic note, and he makes clear there is no competition but rather parallelism between art and philosophy. For, during his asthma attacks he practices another kind of meditation with silent exhortations [exhortationibus - tacitis scilicet] which seem to slow down the actual asthma attacks. The exhortations involve a kind of reminder to self that life is surrounded by death. 

The one time I have been in the presence of death -- my father's (recall) -- his last breath sounded like a deep snort of exhaustion not a gasping at all. But then again, he really was ready to die. Because his whole childhood had been surrounded by mysterious disappearances (recall), which turned out to be deaths, I wonder if he saw his whole life as a kind of lucky surplus and so made it easier to let go. I regret not asking him.  

Be that as it may, and as it happens, a lot of people familiar with my cognitive challenges since long haul covid has set on are encouraging me to take on meditation. (These are not just new age types, but also physicians and fellow long haulers.) Last week I went to my first public lecture. After twenty minutes I felt the onset of great fatigue. But I decided to stick it out by closing my eyes and pretending as if I was listening to the lecture from afar. I even asked a (modest) question, but half-way through the Q&A I realized I was not going to make it home without collapsing if I would stay longer. So I left. 

And if the medical specialists can't find anything -- this week I have lined up a number of appointments --, I have, in fact, toyed with trying out some of Seneca's exhortations filled with joyful and brave thoughts [cogitationibus laetis ac fortibus]. And if these work, I'll share my secret here, for free and joyfully.











Here's a link to my past blogging (and discussions involving me) at: New APPS.


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