Friday, May 05, 2023

On De Consolatione Ad Marciam And Outcomes

De Consolatione Ad Marciam (To Marcia on Consolation) in Lucius Annaeus Seneca's Moral Essays (Loeb Classical Library Volume 254) was written by Seneca to Marcia (Cremutius) Cordas, a friend of the Emperor Augustus's wife Livia.  The occasion of the consolation is the death of her son Metilius, who passed away three years prior to the writing of it.  In it, he reminds Marcia of the fact that death is endemic to all men and can actually represent a release both from potential sins as well as from actual suffering.

Today's thought exercise, though, is taken from a section dealing not so much with the consolation as with the historical examples of living long enough to see: 

"Think how great a boon a timely death offers, how many have been harmed by living too long?  If Gnaeus Pompeius (Ed:  Pompey the Great), that glory and stay of the realm, had been carried off by his illness at Naples, he would have departed the unchallenged head of the Roman people.  But as it was, a very brief extension of time cast him down from his pinnacle.  He saw his legions slaughtered before his eyes, and from that battle where the first line was the senate, he saw - what a melancholy remnant! - the commander himself left alive!  He saw an Egyptian his executioner, and yielded to a slave a body that was sacrosanct to the victors, though even if he had been unharmed, he would have repented of his escape; for what were baser than that a Pompey should live by the bounty of a king!

If Marcus Cicero had fallen at the moment when he escaped the daggers of Catiline, which were aimed not less at him that at his country, if he had fallen as the saviour of the commonwealth which he had freed, if his death had followed close upon that of his daughter, even then he might have died happy.  He would not have seen swords drawn to take the lives of Roman citizens, nor assassins parceling out the goods of their victims in order that these might even be murdered at their own cost, nor the spoils of a consul put up at public auction, nor murders contracted for officially, nor brigandage and war and pillage - so many new Catilines!

If the sea had swallowed up Marcus Cato as he was returning from Cyprus and his stewardship of the royal legacy, and along with him even the money which he was bringing to defray the expense of the Civil War, would it not have been a blessing to him?  This much at least he might have taken with him then - the conviction that no one would have had the effrontery to do wrong in the presence of a Cato!  As it was, having gained the respite of a very few years, that hero, who was born no less for personal than for political freedom, was forced to flee from Caesar and submit to Pompey.

...All things human are short-lived and perishable, and fill no part at all of infinite time."

Seneca point to Marcia was that his early death spared him from suffering unimagined ills that were yet to come.  My meditation today is on a tangent to this point:  living long enough to see the consequences of our actions extend to their logical conclusion.

For many of us - most of us? - we take a multitude of actions every day.  Some of these are of no import at all, but some of them can have drastic impacts on ourselves, our loved ones, and even the society around us.  Some decision are consciously made for this very reason - that somehow we are going to make our family/home/geographical entity a better place.

We make these decisions and blithely assume that everything will work out for the best.

Sometimes, of course, we luck out and the decision goes moderately well.  Other times - well, other times we get removed from the situation or (worst case) die before we see the outcome.

Other times though, we get to live through it.

That is the tangential point of Seneca:  Pompey lived long enough to the Civil War go against him (does anyone think at the start of a war they will not win?), Cicero saw the end of the Republic that he had tried to save by executing one man only to let loose the larger scourge of Civil War, Cato lived to see how his inflexible Stoic and political beliefs contributed to the destruction of the Republic that he spent his life serving.

One can argue it is part of the human condition:  we are shorted sighted and can barely look five years out, let alone 50 or 100.  For example, 100 years ago most of the US was still rurally based, electricity was just becoming a thing, and Soviet Communism was still "a pretty good idea based on the previous inequalities and backwardness of the Tsarist regime".  

That last point, of course, looks quite different from our vantage point now.

I write this for two reasons.  One, of course, is simply to remind myself that nothing is permanent.  The fact that history (personal and "big picture"), while not predicting outcomes of things, can often guide us in how they are likely to work out in the long run is something to take wisdom from and refuge in.  Many of the things I find in my own personal life as well as the larger world, seemingly giant, can suddenly change.

The other is for those involved in making the sorts of decisions that they believe will change themselves, their situations, or the world without accounting for the long term impacts.   It is not only that the course you chart is the course you end up with - unlike travel, the actual world is far more messy and influenced by many factors beyond your control.  The other point is that often you live just long enough to see the final outcome of your changes - and sometimes, to be consumed by them.

One wonders if, looking back, Pompey, Cicero, Cato, and even Seneca himself would have chosen differently.


  1. Well said, TB, very well said. My take is that we humans are completely incapable of thinking actions through to their logical conclusion. One reason is as you stated, that there are too many unseen factors and variables beyond our comprehension and control. The other is simply that we are not logical creatures by nature. (Moreso in modern times, I'd say, after decades of being told to consult our feelings and follow our hearts.)

    We also don't seem to learn from the past. For example, 100 years of failing to make a pretty good idea work doesn't deter people from thinking they are somehow smart enough to make it work.

    It's a pretty sad commentary on humans that we have the benefit of all of history plus the wisdom of the ancients, yet we are still headed toward a colossal disaster at a breathtaking pace. It's rather amazing that so very few people seem to understand this, much less prepare for it.

    1. "The other is simply that we are not logical creatures by nature. (Moreso in modern times, I'd say, after decades of being told to consult our feelings and follow our hearts.)" - Very true Leigh. Previous generations at least had the opportunity to be exposed to the works of the past history . We are burning that ability to replace it at an astonishing rate.

      Progress has made us able to not learn from the past - where in the past policies would have resulted in things like famine and collapse of economies, we have overcome with science and technological progress. It seems to me that we might be reaching the end of that curve - when policies to "make things better" result in direct famine and riots, people tend to learn (or re-learn) pretty quickly.

      Education takes time and investment of energy. As a general note, we have - at least in the West - become a culture of leisure and entertainment. The hard work of learning, implementing - "Turning Pro", as Steven Pressfield would say - is being put into areas that will not outlast us as civilization, as the works of Seneca have.

  2. Anonymous5:03 AM

    "But THIS time it'll work".........a sad epitaph for so many attempts.

    1. Indeed. And it almost never works out for the best, if it works out at all.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. As long as there is life there is hope. Suicide is abandoning your troops and people and is a coward's death.

    1. Suicide - outside of the religious considerations - has been viewed differently by different cultures at different times. For the three individuals above, Roman culture did not view suicide as we in the post-Christian West did. Pompey and Cicero were in fact murdered; Cato chose suicide rather than allow himself to be pardoned by Gaius Julius Caesar, who he despised as a tyrant and destroyer of the Roman Republic. Caesar was said to have been angry at the fact that he was denied the ability to pardon Cato.


Your comment will be posted after review. If you could take the time to be kind and not practice profanity, it would be appreciated. Thanks for posting!