Retirement – First of Three Reflections by Alan Scribner and Doug Marshall

Retirement: Winning the Game

Alan Scribner and Doug Marshall

“I think to myself, how many train their bodies, how few train their character.”
(Cogito mecum, quam multi corpora exerceant, ingenia quampauci.)

Seneca, Letter 80

            On the campus of the university that I attended there once was a statue named The Christian Athlete.  The statue portrayed a muscular young man with a football balanced on his left forearm.  In his right hand he clutched a bible.  The message was clear: physical vigor and spiritual vigor were two sides of the coin of moral rectitude.  The well-trained body betokened the well-trained soul.

            This quaint early twentieth century reinvention of the kaloskagathos Greek ideal still lingers.  We struggle to believe that a famous athlete could be guilty of assault, rape or even murder.  When actually found guilty, there is outrage and disappointment over his fall from grace

            To Seneca also the training of the body and the training of the soul were complementary undertakings. But this was not the view of the molesti whose cheers for the gladiators interrupted Seneca’s contemplations.  “How weak are the minds of those whose shoulders and biceps we admire” (Letter 80).  Gladiators were not expected to furnish patterns for moral living.  Yet in our world, the expectation persists. 

            As usual, Seneca is reassuring.  While the development of the body requires many externals, arduous and lengthy physical training, the development of the soul requires primarily the will to do it.

            Seneca recognizes also that in many cases something more than the will to do it is needed.  One often needs the time as well.  And where can this time be found?  It is in retirement or, to use Seneca’s word, otium.  A busy life, a life in pursuit of the ordinary goals of honor or money or glory “doesn’t allow peace and quiet,” as Seneca observes in Letter 19.  Therefore, Letter 19 continues, one should “withdraw his neck from the yoke” and retire.  Get out “any way you can.” “If you can’t draw yourself away from it, then tear yourself away.”  “Haven’t you risked a lot for money and power?  Retirement is worth the risk as well.” 

            It is retirement that provides the opportunity to devote oneself to the development of the soul.  This is no less true in modern times than it was for Stoics in ancient times.

Ultimi Anni Cover

Alan Scribner has been a lifelong student of Ancient Rome since the age of 4 when, having recently learned to read, he was browsing through an encyclopedia and saw a picture of a man in a toga on the steps of a temple.  
     Later he attended the Bronx High School of Science in New York City, the University of Pennsylvaniaand Yale Law School.  He then became a public prosecutor in New York County and followed a career as an appellate lawyer.
     He is now retired and living in New Hampshire where he and Douglas Marshall started their own two person reading group in Latin and Greek that resulted in the writing and publication of Anni Ultimi.
     Alan Scribner also follows the prescription of Seneca for retirement by imbibing liberalia studia.  In this pursuit he studies astronomy and chess and continues to deepen his involvement with and knowledge of ancient Rome by writing the Judge Marcus Flavius Severus series of mysteries in ancient Rome, so far comprising Mars the Avenger, The Cyclops Case and Marcus Aurelius Betrayed.  

Douglas Marshall studied classics as an undergraduate at Princeton University and received a Ph.D. in classics from the University of Pennsylvania.  He has taught at St. Paul’s School, Oberlin College and Dartmouth College.  He has written numerous articles on Catullus, Julius Caesar and mediaeval vision literature. In retirement he authored a biography George Shattuck, a nineteenth century Boston physician and philanthropist.  
    Marshall’s weekly conversations with Alan Scribner began about twelve years ago.  In his letter to Francesco Vettori, Machiavelli famously recounts his evening visits to the “courts of the ancients.”  “[There I] am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death; I pass indeed into their world.”
   Like Machiavelli, Alan and Douglas turned to the writers of classical antiquity for wisdom. Together they read a wide variety of Greek and Latin texts, but the appeal of Seneca’s gentle advice to two sixty something friends was irresistible.  Their hope of sharing with others Seneca’s advice about withdrawing from an active life, dealing with physical frailty and facing death led them to publish Anni Ultimi.

Anni Ultimi is available to buy on Amazon.

6 thoughts on “Retirement – First of Three Reflections by Alan Scribner and Doug Marshall”

  1. Without reading Letter 80 or Letter 19 anytime recently, I read the authors’ post from a view that retirement means to briefly cast aside the yoke of everday’s duties and pursuits every day. During this 6 or 60 minute spell, one could turn to development of character or the soul.

    Do we need to wait until the kids are grown and the house entirely paid off? I’d like to think not. Just as it’s difficult enough for me to stop my Pavlovian listening for the new email chime so that I can get out and run my semi-regular eight to ten kilometers, it’s the same difficulty I face trying to find time to read Letters 80 and 19. It’s risky to take a pause!

    The term otium, I hope, can be interpreted as being synonymous with laying you head on the pillow at the end of the day (eg, she retired to her chambers for the night) as it may mean hanging up a profession at the end of a long career.

    This is what Stephen Covey meant by stop sawing for a little while and sharpen your saw.

    Rob Jaworski
    San Jose, California

  2. Hi James
    Like you I was impressed with the article in the NYT and have begun to study (purchased two books)Stoicism. Have been retired for over ten years and have not found retirement meaningful until recently when with the help of Stoicism I have clarified my goals to those things I can control and what I can not control and am already more peaceful. Also find focus on the here and now much better than stewing about the past or future.

    1. Thank you for your response. For me “stewing over the past” is my challenge, today. Living in the here and now is my work, my new profession. “It’s getting better all the time”.

  3. It is in my retirement that I came to stoicism. I began a practice a few weeks ago after reading Massimo Pigliucci in the NY Times, and already I have begun to see positive changes in my relationships with my neighbors. My next challenge is on the street and to find a stoic path to deal with New York City. Or is that an oxymoron? Do I need more isolation from that life?

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