58. Moral Letters to Lucilius | Seneca


Letter 58

LVIII. On Being

1. How scant of words our language is, nay, how povertystricken, I have not fully understood until to-day. We happened to be speaking of Plato, and a thousand subjects came up for discussion, which needed names and yet possessed none; and there were certain others which once possessed, but have since lost, their words because we were too nice about their use. But who can endure to be nice in the midst of poverty?

2. There is an insect, called by the Greeks oestrus, which drives cattle wild and scatters them all over their pasturing grounds; it used to be called asilus in our language, as you may believe on the authority of Vergil:-Near Silarus groves, and eke Alburnus’ shades Of green-clad oak-trees flits an insect, named Asilus by the Romans; in the Greek The word is rendered oestrus. With a rough And strident sound it buzzes and drives wild The terror-stricken herds throughout the woods.

3. By which I infer that the word has gone out of use. And, not to keep you waiting too long, there were certain uncompounded words current, like cernere ferro inter se, as will be proved again by Vergil:-Great heroes, born in various lands, had come To settle matters mutually with the sword. This “settling matters” we now express by decernere. The plain word has become obsolete.

4. The ancients used to say iusso, instead of iussero, in conditional clauses. You need not take my word, but you may turn again to Vergil:-The other soldiers shall conduct the fight With me, where I shall bid.

5. It is not in my purpose to show, by this array of examples, how much time I have wasted on the study of language; I merely wish you to understand how many words, that were current in the works of Ennius and Accius, have become mouldy with age; while even in the case of Vergil, whose works are explored daily, some of his words have been filched away from us.

6. You will say, I suppose: “What is the purpose and meaning of this preamble?" I shall not keep you in the dark; I desire, if possible, to say the word essentia to you and obtain a favourable hearing. If I cannot do this, I shall risk it even though it put you out of humour. I have Cicero, as authority for the use of this word, and I regard him as a powerful authority. If you desire testimony of a later date, I shall cite Fabianus, careful of speech, cultivated, and so polished in style that he will suit even our nice tastes. For what can we do, my dear Lucilius? How otherwise can we find a word for that which the Greeks call οὐσία, something that is indispensable, something that is the natural substratum of everything? I beg you accordingly to allow me to use this word essentia. I shall nevertheless take pains to exercise the privilege, which you have granted me, with as sparing a hand as possible; perhaps I shall be content with the mere right.

7. Yet what good will your indulgence do me, if, lo and behold, I can in no wise express in Latin the meaning of the word which gave me the opportunity to rail at the poverty of our language? And you will condemn our narrow Roman limits even more, when you find out that there is a word of one syllable which I cannot translate. “What is this?" you ask. It is the word ὄν. You think me lacking in facility; you believe that the word is ready to hand, that it might be translated by quod est. I notice, however, a great difference; you are forcing me to render a noun by a verb.

8. But if I must do so, I shall render it by quod est. There are six ways in which Plato expresses this idea, according to a friend of ours, a man of great learning, who mentioned the fact to-day. And I shall explain all of them to you, if I may first point out that there is something called genus and something called species. For the present, however, we are seeking the primary idea of genus, on which the others, the different species, depend, which is the source of all classification, the term under which universal ideas are embraced. And the idea of genus will be reached if we begin to reckon back from particulars; for in this way we shall be conducted back to the primary notion.

9. Now “man” is a species, as Aristotle says; so is “horse,” or “dog.” We must therefore discover some common bond for all these terms, one which embraces them and holds them subordinate to itself. And what is this? It is “animal.” And so there begins to be a genus “animal,” including all these terms, “man,” “horse,” and “dog.”

10. But there are certain things which have life (anima) and yet are not “animals.” For it is agreed that plants and trees possess life, and that is why we speak of them as living and dying. Therefore the term “living things” will occupy a still higher place, because both animals and plants are included in this category. Certain objects, however, lack life, – such as rocks. There will therefore be another term to take precedence over “living things,” and that is “substance.” I shall classify “substance” by saying that all substances are either animate or inanimate.

11. But there is still something superior to “substance"; for we speak of certain things as possessing substance, and certain things as lacking substance. What, then, will be the term from which these things are derived? It is that to which we lately gave an inappropriate name, “that which exists.” For by using this term they will be divided into species, so that we can say: that which exists either possesses, or lacks, substance.

12. This, therefore, is what genus is, – the primary, original, and (to play upon the word) “general.” Of course there are the other genera: but they are “special” genera: “man” being, for example, a genus. For “man” comprises species: by nations, – Greek, Roman, Parthian; by colours, – white, black, yellow. The term comprises individuals also: Cato, Cicero, Lucretius. So “man” falls into the category genus, in so far as it includes many kinds; but in so far as it is subordinate to another term, it falls into the category species. But the genus “that which exists” is general, and has no term superior to it. It is the first term in the classification of things, and all things are included under it.

13. The Stoics would set ahead of this still another genus, even more primary; concerning which I shall immediately speak, after proving that the genus which has been discussed above, has rightly been placed first, being, as it is, capable of including everything.

14. I therefore distribute “that which exists” into these two species, – things with, and things without, substance. There is no third class. And how do I distribute “substance"? By saying that it is either animate or inanimate. And how do I distribute the “animate"? By saying: “Certain things have mind, while others have only life.” Or the idea may be expressed as follows: “Certain things have the power of movement, of progress, of change of position, while others are rooted in the ground; they are fed and they grow only through their roots.” Again, into what species do I divide “animals"? They are either perishable or imperishable.

15. Certain of the Stoics regard the primary genus as the “something.” I shall add the reasons they give for their belief; they say: “in the order of nature some things exist, and other things do not exist. And even the things that do not exist are really part of the order of nature. What these are will readily occur to the mind, for example centaurs, giants, and all other figments of unsound reasoning, which have begun to have a definite shape, although they have no bodily consistency.”

16. But I now return to the subject which I promised to discuss for you, namely, how it is that Plato divides all existing things in six different ways. The first class of “that which exists” cannot be grasped by the sight or by the touch, or by any of the senses; but it can be grasped by the thought. Any generic conception, such as the generic idea “man,” does not come within the range of the eyes; but “man” in particular does; as, for example, Cicero, Cato. The term “animal” is not seen; it is grasped by thought alone. A particular animal, however, is seen, for example, a horse, a dog.

17. The second class of “things which exist,” according to Plato, is that which is prominent and stands out above everything else; this, he says, exists in a pre-eminent degree. The word “poet” is used indiscriminately, for this term is applied to all writers of verse; but among the Greeks it has come to be the distinguishing mark of a single individual. You know that Homer is meant when you hear men say “the poet.” What, then, is this pre-eminent Being? God, surely, one who is greater and more powerful than anyone else.

18. The third class is made up of those things which exist in the proper sense of the term; they are countless in number, but are situated beyond our sight. “What are these?" you ask. They are Plato’s own furniture, so to speak; he calls them “ideas,” and from them all visible things are created, and according to their pattern all things are fashioned. They are immortal, unchangeable, inviolable.

19. And this “idea,” or rather, Plato’s conception of it, is as follows: “The 'idea' is the everlasting pattern of those things which are created by nature.” I shall explain this definition, in order to set the subject before you in a clearer light: Suppose that I wish to make a likeness of you; I possess in your own person the pattern of this picture, wherefrom my mind receives a certain outline, which it is to embody in its own handiwork. That outward appearance, then, which gives me instruction and guidance, this pattern for me to imitate, is the “idea.” Such patterns, therefore, nature possesses in infinite number, – of men, fish, trees, according to whose model everything that nature has to create is worked out.

20. In the fourth place we shall put “form.” And if you would know what “form” means, you must pay close attention, calling Plato, and not me, to account for the difficulty of the subject. However, we cannot make fine distinctions without encountering difficulties. A moment ago I made use of the artist as an illustration. When the artist desired to reproduce Vergil in colours he would gaze upon Vergil himself. The “idea” was Vergil’s outward appearance, and this was the pattern of the intended work. That which the artist draws from this “idea” and has embodied in his own work, is the “form.”

21. Do you ask me where the difference lies? The former is the pattern; while the latter is the shape taken from the pattern and embodied in the work. Our artist follows the one, but the other he creates. A statue has a certain external appearance; this external appearance of the statue is the “form.” And the pattern itself has a certain external appearance, by gazing upon which the sculptor has fashioned his statue; this is the “idea.” If you desire a further distinction, I will say that the “form” is in the artist’s work, the “idea” outside his work, and not only outside it, but prior to it.

22. The fifth class is made up of the things which exist in the usual sense of the term. These things are the first that have to do with us; here we have all such things as men, cattle, and things. In the sixth class goes all that which has a fictitious existence, like void, or time. Whatever is concrete to the sight or touch, Plato does not include among the things which he believes to be existent in the strict sense of the term. These things are the first that have to do with us: here we have all such things as men, cattle, and things. For they are in a state of flux, constantly diminishing or increasing. None of us is the same man in old age that he was in youth; nor the same on the morrow as on the day preceding. Our bodies are burned along like flowing waters; every visible object accompanies time in its flight; of the things which we see, nothing is fixed. Even I myself as I comment on this change, am changed myself.

23. This is just what Heraclitus says: “We go down twice into the same river, and yet into a different river.” For the stream still keeps the same name, but the water has already flowed past. Of course this is much more evident in rivers than in human beings. Still, we mortals are also carried past in no less speedy a course; and this prompts me to marvel at our madness in cleaving with great affection to such a fleeting thing as the body, and in fearing lest some day we may die, when every instant means the death of our previous condition. Will you not stop fearing lest that may happen once which really happens every day?

24. So much for man, – a substance that flows away and falls, exposed to every influence; but the universe, too, immortal and enduring as it is, changes and never remains the same. For though it has within itself all that it has had, it has it in a different way from that in which it has had it; it keeps changing its arrangement.

25. “Very well,” say you, “what good shall I get from all this fine reasoning?" None, if you wish me to answer your question. Nevertheless, just as an engraver rests his eyes when they have long been under a strain and are weary, and calls them from their work, and “feasts” them, as the saying is; so we at times should slacken our minds and refresh them with some sort of entertainment. But let even your entertainment be work; and even from these various forms of entertainment you will select, if you have been watchful, something that may prove wholesome.

26. That is my habit, Lucilius: I try to extract and render useful some element from every field of thought, no matter how far removed it may be from philosophy. Now what could be less likely to reform character than the subjects which we have been discussing? And how can I be made a better man by the “ideas” of Plato? What can I draw from them that will put a check on my appetites? Perhaps the very thought, that all these things which minister to our senses, which arouse and excite us, are by Plato denied a place among the things that really exist.

27. Such things are therefore imaginary, and though they for the moment present a certain external appearance, yet they are in no case permanent or substantial; none the less, we crave them as if they were always to exist, or as if we were always to possess them. We are weak, watery beings standing in the midst of unrealities; therefore let us turn our minds to the things that are everlasting. Let us look up to the ideal outlines of all things, that flit about on high, and to the God who moves among them and plans how he may defend from death that which he could not make imperishable because its substance forbade, and so by reason may overcome the defects of the body.

28. For all things abide, not because they are everlasting, but because they are protected by the care of him who governs all things; but that which was imperishable would need no guardian. The Master Builder keeps them safe, overcoming the weakness of their fabric by his own power. Let us despise everything that is so little an object of value that it makes us doubt whether it exists at all.

29. Let us at the same time reflect, seeing that Providence rescues from its perils the world itself, which is no less mortal than we ourselves, that to some extent our petty bodies can be made to tarry longer upon earth by our own providence, if only we acquire the ability to control and check those pleasures whereby the greater portion of mankind perishes.

30. Plato himself, by taking pains, advanced to old age. To be sure, he was the fortunate possessor of a strong and sound body (his very name was given him because of his broad chest ); but his strength was much impaired by sea voyages and desperate adventures. Nevertheless, by frugal living, by setting a limit upon all that rouses the appetites, and by painstaking attention to himself, he reached that advanced age in spite of many hindrances.

31. You know, I am sure, that Plato had the good fortune, thanks to his careful living, to die on his birthday, after exactly completing his eighty-first year. For this reason wise men of the East, who happened to be in Athens at that time, sacrificed to him after his death, believing that his length of days was too full for a mortal man, since he had rounded out the perfect number of nine times nine. I do not doubt that he would have been quite willing to forgo a few days from this total, as well as the sacrifice.

32. Frugal living can bring one to old age; and to my mind old age is not to be refused any more than is to be craved. There is a pleasure in being in one’s own company as long as possible, when a man has made himself worth enjoying. The question, therefore, on which we have to record our judgment is, whether one should shrink from extreme old age and should hasten the end artificially, instead of waiting for it to come. A man who sluggishly awaits his fate is almost a coward, just as he is immoderately given to wine who drains the jar dry and sucks up even the dregs.

33. But we shall ask this question also: “Is the extremity of life the dregs, or is it the clearest and purest part of all, provided only that the mind is unimpaired, and the senses, still sound, give their support to the spirit, and the body is not worn out and dead before its time?" For it makes a great deal of difference whether a man is lengthening his life or his death.

34. But if the body is useless for service, why should one not free the struggling soul? Perhaps one ought to do this a little before the debt is due, lest, when it falls due, he may be unable to perform the act. And since the danger of living in wretchedness is greater than the danger of dying soon, he is a fool who refuses to stake a little time and win a hazard of great gain. Few have lasted through extreme old age to death without impairment, and many have lain inert, making no use of themselves. How much more cruel, then, do you suppose it really is to have lost a portion of your life, than to have lost your right to end that life?

35. Do not hear me with reluctance, as if my statement applied directly to you, but weigh what I have to say. It is this, that I shall not abandon old age, if old age preserves me intact for myself, and intact as regards the better part of myself; but if old age begins to shatter my mind, and to pull its various faculties to pieces, if it leaves me, not life, but only the breath of life, I shall rush out of a house that is crumbling and tottering.

36. I shall not avoid illness by seeking death, as long as the illness is curable and does not impede my soul. I shall not lay violent hands upon myself just because I am in pain; for death under such circumstances is defeat. But if I find out that the pain must always be endured, I shall depart, not because of the pain but because it will be a hindrance to me as regards all my reasons for living. He who dies just because he is in pain is a weakling, a coward; but he who lives merely to brave out this pain, is a fool.

37. But I am running on too long; and, besides, there is matter here to fill a day. And how can a man end his life, if he cannot end a letter? So farewell. This last word you will read with greater pleasure than all my deadly talk about death.