2 February 2018

On the Shortness of Life

Very recently, a few of us were celebrating a friend’s birthday and the friend mentioned that at our age, he does not look forward to birthdays since that reminds him he is one year closer to his death. That started some very spirited (admittedly, some of the spirit was contributed by the wine we were drinking) discussion on life, how we spend it etc. I made a mental note of going back home and re-reading Seneca’s letter on “On the Shortness of Life”. I cannot remember a better treatise on what causes us to be remorseful of shortness of life than that letter. Roger Whitney and Somshekhar Baksi had pointed me to this literature in the past.

Some of the words have left a strong effect on me. A notable quote:
“We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passes away before we knew it was passing”.

Which led me to realize that it is indeed a small part of life that we really live. The rest is not life but merely time.

There is a place where he talks in similar language to what I had first read in Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture.”. Addressing Paulinius, Seneca says
“You are living as if destined to live for ever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you do not notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply…”

Another thought that made a big mark in my mind was Seneca’s pointing out that we what we invest to achieve often takes more investment to keep. To preserve prosperity, he says, we need other prosperity. To support the prayers which have turned out well, we have to make other prayers. Remarkable quote again:

“So it is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil”

Fortune, after all, is never to be less trusted than when it is the fairest!!

If you ever get a chance, read the letter. It is usually available as a collection of three of his most famous letters. The other two did not make that large an impact on me. I read the Penguin Books version.

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28 January 2018

My first impressions – “Rome’s Last Citizen”

Roger Whitney piqued my interest in Stoicism a few weeks back. I had downloaded a few books to understand what he was talking about and started in a slightly unconventional way. Instead of reading about the subject, I first started by reading about people who have followed it.

The history of Cato attracted me. Supposedly a very principled person and Julius Caesar’s arch nemesis (who he viewed as somebody bent on destroying the constitution), he was most famous for how he committed suicide rather than live one day under Julius Caesar’s reign. Ironically, Cato’s son-in-law – Brutus – would be instrumental in the killing of Caesar a couple of years later.

I would give this book about a 6 out of 10. It portrays Cato fairly brilliantly. It does a great job of not steadfastly putting up Cato as just a principled person. In fact, it highlights the fallacies and foibles that Cato had too. The times that he seemingly compromised. And the one time that he did not – when it could have completely changed Roman history in his favor. All due to deep seated fears he harbored of Pompey’s ambitions. It also does a great job of the times that Cato stood up to the rest of the world and like the Twelve Angry Men got the world (or at least those who mattered) to his point of view.

The best contribution the book has is to trash the myth of the so-called greatness of the Great Roman Civilization. If anything, it lays bare the internecine warfare, the depth at which corruption ran, the mockery of democracy by bribes, the backstabbing, the temporary friendships, the brutal use of force and all those things you would not call a civilization by the adjective “Great”.

Where the book gets tedious at times is getting lost in seemingly unimportant details. The book that is 381 pages in lowest size font in iBook (on an iPad Pro) could have been easily put in about 150-180 pages and still contained the full import. (That readers may not have paid the steep price for that thin a book is a different concept altogether)!

The other place where the book failed me personally (less to do with the book, more to do with the fact I was trying to understand Stoicism) is the way the authors make fairly weak and sometimes extremely tenuous connection between Stoicism and how that must have affected Cato. As an example, he giving his second wife Marcia off to the sexagenarian Hortensius – and how that comes from Stoic beliefs of women and their (re)productive years is extremely tortured if not outright misplaced.

As an aside – and the authors mention it only once tangentially – the parallels between the Roman democracy during those years and contemporary US politics was intriguing to me. The influence of money; the conservative (often associated with the Republicans and Cato) versus the liberal (often associated with the Democrats and Julius Caesar), the use of filibuster, the “oppose everything the other guy stands for” … was almost prescient to me!!

Would I suggest you read this book? Not if you are trying to understand Stoicism. But if you had any interest in understanding Cato or the internal workings of the Roman elite (versus the public), it is a reasonably good read. A tad long though it might be.