Of the three great Stoics, Seneca always interested me the least. A playwright and professional philosopher, he seemed unlikely to be acquainted with the more mundane forms of suffering that beset humanity. This made him seem unfit to propound upon a philosophy concerned with right conduct under challenging circumstances.
Marcus Aurelius, ruler of an enormous empire, spent most of his reign embroiled in wars he had no desire to fight. Epictetus, a Greek who endured the hardships of slavery, also embodied the Stoic ideal. Cries of “ad hominem!” aside, it is hard to dispute that our experiences shape our outlooks on living. Biographical criticisms can be flimsy, but the central argument in De Brevitate Vitae — an otherwise inspirational classic — was exceptionally naive for the 1st century.
Although Seneca understood intrigue and exile firsthand, he was not privy to the time-sapping vicissitudes of householding or holding down a job.
On the Shortness of Life can serve as a handbook for a privileged few, but its message is impractical for the rest of us. Seneca believes life is long enough if it is spent properly. His entire contention hinges upon a very dubious if. After all, it is contingent on knowing what living properly entails, which is difficult enough to discover for ourselves, much less for another person.
His position was doubly indefensible at a time when infectious diseases commonly killed people before their thirties. Few would dispute that quality is often preferable to quantity, but there are limits. Dedicating our days to contemplation may be best in Senecca’s opinion, but for anyone with ordinary responsibilities and a normal need for respite, it is not realistic.
When someone finally retires, they may not be up to earnestly studying philosophy, science, or art. Sickness, as well as the aches and cognitive decline society dismisses as “normal,” become more detrimental to our happiness and productivity with each passing year.
“The life is so short, the crafts so long to learn.”
Seneca believes the average person fritters away their free hours on mindless entertainment and irrational emotions. It is not enough to resolve against getting angry or jealous. It is not enough to replace television with the Nicomachean Ethics. Obtaining expertise in any area, including self-control, demands concentrated and protracted effort. How can this be done with a normal human lifespan, which is bound to be over before the opportunity to hit our stride arises?
The poet John Keats and the mathematician Évariste Galois forever changed their respective fields before passing away in their early twenties. Though they were profoundly gifted and privileged to have such talent, their deaths were a loss to us all. Yet this tragedy is played out again and again.
Death is always tragic, no matter how old the person may be, because it robs them — and the world — of all their recollections and all their future contributions. If death doesn’t do it, aging beats it to the punch by tampering — if not completely extinguishing — their creative flame.
From fortifying breakfast cereals to mandating structures be built to withstand natural disasters endemic to an area, civilization has advanced by becoming better at safeguarding development of human potential. Delaying or curing the infirmities of old age should be the mission of modern medicine, not just for economic reasons, but humanitarian ones.
What is more heartbreaking than the sculptor whose arthritis keeps them from their craft or a singer whose withered vocal cords can no longer soar as they once could? What about a teacher or professor who wants to continue imparting their experience to future generations, but lacks confidence because their memory is not what it used to be?
Is there anything worse than seeing something come to a close before it has had the chance to begin?
The wisdom of a seasoned mind housed within a flexible brain is a formidable force. One of the only ways of widely realizing this ideal is through regenerative medicine, the sort that will let chronologically old brains learn and adapt like young ones.
Perhaps we have been too harsh on Seneca. He is, after all, following a core tenet of Stoicism, namely, to be indifferent to things outside of our power. However, this is only one side of the coin. It is our duty to change what is within our power. In his era the end of aging was nowhere in sight, but that is no longer the case.
At this point, it is clear that aging is another part of life human ingenuity can tame. It is time to rethink the way we look at death: not as something to which we must bow, but something, like Nature herself, we should strive to understand.