Death: For Future Use
Alan Scribner and Doug Marshall
“None of us considers that at some time or other he
must leave this domicile. Just so do old inhabitants
stay in a place through nostalgia and habit, even
amidst bad conditions.”
Nemo nostrum cogitat quandoque sibi ex hoc domicilio exeundum; sic veteres inquilinos indulgentia loci et consuetudo etiam inter iniurias detinet. Seneca, Letter 70
I have the luxury of living in a house that my family purchased over fifty years ago. The creak of every floor board is familiar. The books that line the wall of my study smile at me like old friends. I know the hiding places of obscure medicines, rarely used sets of dishes and the toys played with by several generations of children. But as I sit basking in the cocoon of familiarity with which I have surrounded myself, I feel a chill. Seneca’s disapproving glance confronts me. Why, he wonders, should someone who has drunk from his well of Stoic wisdom stumble along a path of self delusion? Why should I attach such importance to transitory things?
To complicate matters further, the “domicile” referred to in Letter 70 is the domicile of the body. If I loathe the idea of leaving my beloved house and its comforts only to be spirited away to some “retirement community,” doesn’t that betoken the dread with which I anticipate leaving my dear body with all its imperfections, aches and pains? After all, my body has served me pretty well for over seventy years. And isn’t the fear of death a sure indication that the principles of living life as a Stoic haven’t been mastered?
“None of us” Seneca says in Letter 70 has faced the moment of death’s termination of all that is familiar. “None of us” includes Seneca himself. We may reflect on these matters in the comfort of our book-lined studies, but until we are face to face with the decisions they may entail (Seneca’s letter is actually about suicide), we cannot begin to put the fruits of our reflections into practice. In anticipation of that moment, Seneca provides us with a well-furnished tool box labeled: FOR FUTURE USE.
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.