A Windfall Every Morning

Dancing with Death

We should cherish old age and enjoy it. It is full of pleasure if you know how to use it. Fruit tastes most delicious just when its season is ending. The charms of youth are at their greatest at the time of its passing. It is the final glass which pleases the inveterate drinker, the one that sets the crowning touch on his intoxication and sends him off into oblivion. Every pleasure defers till its last its greatest delights. The time of life which offers the greatest delight is the age that sees the downward movement – not the steep decline – already begun; and in my opinion even the age that stands on the brink has pleasures of its own – or else the very fact of not experiencing the want of any pleasures takes their place. How nice it is to have outworn one’s desires and left them behind!

‘It’s not very pleasant, though,’ you may say, ‘to have death right before one’s eyes.’ To this I would say, firstly, that death ought to be right there before the eyes of a young man just as much as an old one – the order in which we each receive our summons is not determined by our precedence in the register – and, secondly, that no one is so very old that it would be quite unnatural for him to hope for one more day.

Every day, therefore, should be regulated as if it were the one that brings up the rear, the one that rounds out and completes our lives. Pacuvius, the man who acquired a right to Syria by prescription,[1] was in the habit of conducting a memorial ceremony for himself with wine and funeral feasting of the kind we are familiar with, and then being carried on a bier from the dinner table to his bed, while a chanting to music went on of the words ‘He has lived, he has lived’ in Greek, amid the applause of the young libertines present. Never a day passed but he celebrated his own funeral. What he did from discreditable motives we should do from honorable ones, saying in all joyfulness and cheerfulness as we retire to our beds,

I have lived; I have completed now the course
That fortune long ago allotted me.[2]

If God adds the morrow we should accept it joyfully. The man who looks for the morrow without worrying over it knows a peaceful independence and a happiness beyond all others. Whoever has said ‘I have lived’ receives a windfall every day he gets up in the morning.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Letters from a Stoic (62-65 A.D.)

1 A lawyer’s joke. Pacuvius served there for many years as deputy to a governor who was never permitted to go to his province by the emperor Tiberius. Roman law, like British law, had a doctrine of title by prescription, that is to say, the legally recognized ownership of land notwithstanding, sometimes, evidence that the occupier or ‘squatter’ is not the true owner, after sufficiently long occupation of it.

2 Virgil, Aeneid, IV:653.

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