Seneca, Epistles 54

1 I was given long leave from bad health; suddenly then it returned, attacking me. You ask, “Of what kind?” Surely, you inquire with merit: presently no sort of disease is unknown to me. Nonetheless, I am consigned to one ailment, which I know not why I call by its Greek name: surely it can ably be called shortness of breath. However, its attack is very brief, and similar to a tempest: within an hour it desists. 2 Who indeed could exhale such a long time? All danger and infirmity of body have passed through me. Nothing seems more a bother to me. Wherefor? Whatever else there is is to be sick of, this is to be want of breath. Thus, medics call this “contemplation of death.” Indeed, sometime my spirit shall do what it has oft attempted.

3 You think me joyous to write to you because I have escaped? I jest if I make light such semi-good health, as he who thinks himself to have won the case when he has postponed the trial. Yet in my suffocation I have not ceased to continue in cheerful and brave thoughts.

4 “Why is this,” I ask, “that death so often taunts me? Let it do such: for a long time I have tested it.” “When?” you ask. “Before I was born. Death is then not able to be. I know it to be so. Thus what was before me will be after me. If any is tormented in this fact, it is and has been necessary, before we should have come out into the light; and thence we perceive no vexation. 5 I ask, would you not call him most stupid who should think a lamp to be better when extinguished than before it was lighted? We too are extinguished and lighted: in that middle time we endure, and all about us is that deep safety. Truly, in this, my Lucilius, I deceive not: we wander because we think that death follows, when it has both preceded us and will follow us. Whatever has been before us is death. What does it matter if you begin or die, when from each work the result is to not be?

6I have never ceased to speak to myself with exhortations (silently, of course, for there was no room for words). Then little-by-little this short breath came on at greater and greater intervals, and it is slowed, and stops. Nor hence, although it has stopped, has breath yet begun to flow naturally: I perceive difficulty and certain delay of it. Let it be as it wills as long as I not breathe out my soul. 7 Receive this for yourself from me: I’ll not fear the end, for not I’m prepared, that I know not of my final day. Do you praise and imitate him whom it bothers not to die, though he loves to live? What then is virtue when you are forced to leave? Nevertheless it is virtue: though I am thrown out, I should otherwise leave. Thus, never is he wise thrown out, because he wished to leave. Farewell.


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