Tag Archives: Birth

Simplicity, complexity, simplicity

In concluding one of his Epistles to Lucilius (22.13-17), Seneca cites in Latin two versions of a sentiment expressed in Vatican Saying 60 (quoted below):

Nemo non ita exit e vita, tamquam modo intraverit, ‘Everyone goes out of life just as if he had but lately entered it’, specifically attributed by Seneca to Epicurus; and Nemo aliter quam quomodo natus est exit e vita, ‘No one leaves this world in a different manner from one who has just been born’ (trans. R.M. Gummere, reading in the second instance qui modo (Wolters) for quomodo of the manuscripts).

After quoting the first version, Seneca suggests a couple of ways in which an old person may be considered to be like a young person: an old person, or indeed a person of any age, is just as afraid of death and ignorant of life; and an old person has nothing finished, through putting things off.

Seneca then quotes the second version and denies that it is true, alleging that through our own fault ‘we are worse when we die than when we were born’ (peiores morimur quam nascimur). When we come into the world we are free of desires, fears, superstition, treachery and such things. We should go from life as we were at the beginning, having learned wisdom; instead at the approach of death our courage fails us.

Having denied the truth of the saying, however, Seneca comes close to acknowledging its applicability. We fret at death because we go from life stripped of all our goods; we have nothing – just as we had nothing when born, though he does not say that explicitly.

Perhaps his final point is the most poignant: we do not care how well we live but how long, whereas what is within our power is not how long we live but how well (omnibus possit contingere, ut bene vivant, ut diu, nulli). He implies: the will to live is there at the end as at the beginning, and what have we learned in the meantime?

Thoughts for the Day, September 15: ‘We all go from life as we were when just born’ (Vatican Sayings 60). Or, ‘Everyone goes from life as if just born.’ The Greek has πᾶς ὥσπερ ἄρτι γεγονὼς ἐκ τοῦ ζῆν ἀπέρχεται. In the first translation, the ‘we’ form has been used for gender neutrality; the second translation is phrased to avoid the same problem.

Old age as a time of birth and death

Ancient texts handed down in manuscript form inevitably contain transmissional errors. It is necessary, therefore, from time to time to correct details in a text in order to restore as far as possible the original wording and meaning. However, it is important in the first instance to be reasonably sure that a text actually needs correction. The fact that a meaning may not be readily apparent could be a result not of a faulty text but of faulty understanding of the text.

These issues are relevant for understanding Vatican Saying 42. The Vatican manuscript reads (according to Wotke’s text and apparatus):

ὁ αὐτὸς χρόνος καὶ γενέσεως τοῦ μεγίστου ἀγαθοῦ καὶ ἀπολύσεως.

The expression ὁ αὐτὸς χρόνος (‘the same time’) and the word γενέσεως (‘beginning’, ‘birth’, ‘production’ and so on) are capable of a range of meanings, adding to the interpretative uncertainty. Much depends on the last word, ἀπολύσεως, but this word also can bear a number of senses (e.g. ‘release’, ‘separation’, ‘departure’, ‘death’) and moreover was corrected in the first edition to ἀπολαύσεως, ‘enjoyment’.

With that correction accepted, one finds for example the translation, ‘The time of the beginning and enjoyment of the greatest good is the same’ (O’Connor, Essential Epicurus, p. 81). Quite different is the translation by Inwood and Gerson, which retains ἀπολύσεως but introduces (cf. the edition of Arrighetti) an explanatory insertion, τοῦ κακοῦ: ‘In the same period of time both the greatest good and the dissolution <of bad> are produced’ (Epicurus Reader, p. 38).

Both these translations correct the text on the assumption that a satisfactory meaning cannot be obtained otherwise, but they make different corrections with entirely different results – a great hazard of correcting a text at all. Is it possible to interpret the text satisfactorily without changing it?

The version in the Epicurus Reader appears to refer to the point at which pleasure increases to its greatest extent and pain which pleasure is replacing disappears (as in eating to sufficiency and overcoming hunger). This interpretation frames the saying in terms of the Epicurean theory of pleasure and the notion of limits. O’Connor’s version also seems to refer to the process of enjoying pleasure as a good.

I suggest that a more coherent interpretation can be achieved by framing the saying in terms of the Epicurean theory of old age. A number of Epicurean sayings show that Epicurus was fond of ironical contrasts, and we may see him using one here in the proposition that old age, while naturally associated with death (a possible meaning of ἀπόλυσις), can also be a time of birth (γένεσις), not physically but morally. As Vatican Saying 17 indicates, when a person who has lived a good life comes to old age, experience and gratitude can combine to produce a new stage of moral experience:

A young person is not the one to be pronounced happy but an old person who has lived a good life. For the young person in the flower of youth roves about distracted by chance events; but the old person has come to anchor in old age as in a harbour, having locked in by a firm sense of gratitude good things (τῶν ἀγαθῶν) which one could scarcely hope for previously.

The word ἀπόλυσις occurs with the sense of ‘decease’ in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 5.71, where the Peripatetic philosopher Lyco specifies in his will that certain things are to be done ‘after my decease’, μετὰ τὴν ἐμὴν ἀπόλυσιν.

Thoughts for the Day, September 2: ‘The same time of life is a time both of birth – of the greatest good – and of decease’ (Vatican Sayings 42).

C. [also K.] Wotke and H. Usener, ‘Epikurische Spruchsammlung’, Wiener Studien 10(2), 1888, 175-201, at p. 194.