Recently, I stumbled upon an unfortunate conversation in a Whatsapp group. It does not really matter what the purpose of that group was, nor the people who were part of it. While I was reading the rather inflamed conversation about the merits and flaws of a specific speech therapy, one person typed a real gem. Since I don’t remember the exact wording, I will give a dramatisation of their words. It was something along the lines of “I don’t get why at school we are still studying those old dead people, Latin or Greek. After elementary school we should all stop wasting time on the Classics and go to the school of life“. The point was clear: why are we still studying that useless stuff that some dead guy came up with centuries ago? How is that still relevant? Why aren’t we creating an educational system that actually teaches how to live – this mystical and antasmagorical ‘school of life’ [literally: scuola di vita]?
I am quite sorry to shatter your bubble, but the harsh truth is that the Classics are teaching you how to live: you are simply not listening.
So, here are my favourite quotes from the Classics that opened my eyes and my mind and literally changed the way I approach life.
1. Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus
Death […], the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.
Translation by Hicks, 1910.
This. THIS. Given how much I am prone to melancholy and to endless considerations about the nature of things, life and death, Epicurus‘ own reflections on death and its tetrapharmakos (four-part cure) deeply resonated with me, and they were coming from a guy who lived between the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE. I cannot say that it completely washed away the existential dread that fills my very being (and threatens to overwhelm me) at the thought of just not existing anymore, but the shadows that the looming death casts over my life shrink a little when I remember these words. Since I am alive, death is nothing to me because I cannot even begin to comprehend it – and I don’t know if Damien Hirst was thinking of Epicurus when he titled one of his most famous works, but the title is surely evocative: The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living.
You can find the whole letter here.
2. Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things): Book III, v. 1807.
By protracting life, we do not deduct one jot from the duration of death.
I chose this verse from the last section of the third book of the De Rerum Natura because it’s laconic, terse and it stuck to my mind like an arrow hitting the bullseye, but any part of this poem is ripe with wise words we should all keep close to our hearts. There can be little doubt that the general character of this work is overall gloomy and dark, and some parts have quite an ominous nature (Omnis cum in tenebris praesertim vita laboret: Life is one long struggle in the dark), but Titus Lucretius Carus never claimed his poem to be sweet verses of love and celebration. Quite the opposite: the poet himself compared the Epicurean philosophy he aimed to explain in his verses to a bitter medicine. Whenever I think of it, I am reminded of Whitman when he wrote:
“THERE are who teach only the sweet lessons of peace and safety;
But I teach lessons of war and death to those I love,
That they readily meet invasions, when they come.”
Once again, the sombre remark that death is inescapable and endless reminds us not only of our mortality, but also of the fact that death may be inescapable, but so is life.
3. Horatius, Epistulae (Letters): Book I, 11.
Those who run beyond the sea change the sky they’re under, not their disposition.
A busy idleness harasses us: by ships and by chariots we seek to live happily.
What you are seeking is here […] if only you would not lack a just and even temper.
Translation modified from Authorama.
Quintus Horatius Flaccus is arguably one of the most famous and influential Roman poets. Born in present-day Basilicata in southern Italy, Horatius lived through the tumultuous change from the Roman Res Publica to the Empire during the 1st century BCE. He’s the author of many works, from the Odes, to the Satires to a generous amount of Epistles (letters) written in hexameters.
The passage quoted above finally gave a name to the sometimes-subtle-sometimes-overwhelming feeling of anxiety, unrest and utter boredom that I felt during my formative years: I was experiencing the strenua inertia (busy idleness) and I was not alone in that! Horatius felt that too! As soon as I read these verses, I knew that they would stay with me for a long time, and this is indeed what happened. I sailed half the globe, I am living miles and miles from home and yet, as Horatius said, I cannot escape myself. The only possible escape (if it counts as one) is coming to terms with what we are.
Here is the whole Epistle (in Latin).
4. Seneca, De brevitate vitae (On the Shortness of Life): Chapter I, 3-4.
It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it.
5. Seneca, De brevitate vitae (On the shortness of Life): Chapter VII, 3.
It takes the whole of life to learn how to live, and—what will perhaps make you wonder more—it takes the whole of life to learn how to die.
Translation by Basore, 1932.
I could rant about Lucius Annaeus Seneca for hours. Stoic philosopher, statesman and dramatist, he lived between the 1st BCE and 1st CE. His works include philosophical essays, tragedies, a great corpus of letters and a satirical work, the Apokolokyntosis. Seneca served as adviser to emperor Nero, but he was later involved in the Pisonian conspiracy and – although he was probably innocent – he was ordered to commit suicide in 65 CE.
When we first started reading De brevitate vitae for our Latin class in high school, I had no idea that this work would be so important for my personal growth. I still hold in my heart some of the caustic sententiae Seneca is gifting his friend Paulinus with, and some of them still lay, albeit a little faded, on my night stand, where I wrote them with a permanent marker so I could read them before going to sleep or start my day. We might not want to think about the brevitas of our own life – and I certainly did not when I was in high school – but it’s definitely something we should take into account and that should make us cherish the time allotted to us. If you are looking for someone metaphorically slapping you in the face from centuries ago and telling you to stop wasting your time, Seneca’s definitely the guy for you. Protinus vive!
Seneca gets two quotes because I do have favourites and he’s definitely one of them.
This is all for now! Stay tuned for the second part…