Old Age: Nothing Is Better Than Something
Alan Scribner and Doug Marshall
Seneca’s Letter 12, dealing with old age, contains an idea that has always struck me as particularly insightful and valuable — a piece of ancient Stoic wisdom useful for modern living. Seneca writes: “To want nothing takes the place of pleasure. How sweet it is to have tired of wanting and to have left it behind.” (Aut hoc ipsum succedit in locum voluptatium, nullis egere. Quam dulce est cupiditates fatigasse ac reliquisse).
Whenever I mention this thought, especially to senior citizens, and ask them whether they have ever aspired to want nothing, few have responded positively. But when asked if they would like to aspire to this, many usually recognize a good idea and nod yes.
To want nothing, to find pleasure in wanting nothing rather than in wanting things, is almost a subversive thought in our modern consumer society. It was probably subversive in Roman society as well. Nowadays we are constantly told, indeed assaulted, with the notion that we should want more, acquire more, buy more, get more, spend more as a road to pleasure and satisfaction. Seneca tells us this is all wrong; quite the opposite is true.
Seneca is drawing on the Stoic idea of frugality (frugalitas), which he identifies as one of his three main Stoic principles, his “way to the stars”, along with courage (fortitudo) and self-control (temperantia). Frugality to Seneca excises what is unnecessary in life, the superfluous things. This idea is easily understood by a mathematician who seeks a clear, elegant proof; by a writer, who abjures superfluous adjectives and repetitions; by a scientist who looks to Occam’s razor, as a way of finding truth through a form of simplification.
For Seneca, wanting nothing is a major goal in living a Stoic life. And when he expresses this principle in terms of finding pleasure in wanting nothing, rather than wanting things, one can recognize immediately the value of the thought. This principle can readily be applied to living in the modern world, a way to free the mind to transcend false values and unnecessary, burdensome complications.
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.