I must admit, I was going to to post something on Seneca the Younger, but I was drawn back to his father, the rhetorician Seneca the Elder. As I read up on some quotes, I found the most simplistic sentence I have almost ever read, in Latin.
Nihil infinitum est.
No thing is without end.
Ninguna cosa es infinita.
When I translate, I try to convey the sense of what is actually being said. I think that is why I end up with translations that are longer than the Latin. I mean, in Ancient Greek, you are pretty much out of luck with that. There is so much packed into so little you will run into space issues. The Latin, however, is much more practical, much more interesting that way. Romans do not like to exert their language, their pragmatism was renowned. Think not only of a Roman now, but of a Roman Stoic. These people were the ultimate pragmatists. Here is the father of Seneca (the philosopher), saying something as simple and forgettable as the fact that all things end. Maybe I read too much, and I find myself remembering so many things from other writers that find the phrase just too good to pass up.
Pindar once wrote:
“Since all men are compelled to die, why should anyone sit stewing an inglorious old age in the darkness, with no share of any fine deeds? As for me, on this contest I will take my stand. May you grant a welcome achievement.” (Olympian 1.84-6).
I could not avoid hearing the war cries of soldiers as they marched on to war. The contest, as Pindar puts it, is the culmination of the training and preparation people do when bad things come their way. Why avoid it? Both writers agree it is foolish to run away from something because we may get hurt doing it, we are all dying anyway.
Leonidas, Spartan king supposedly once said (if you watched “300”):
“You there, Ephialtes. May you live forever.”
The phrase is awesome. In Spartan culture, to die for the polis was the greatest achievement a Spartan could attain. Even if a warrior had lived honorably, suffered many wounds in battle, and became the greatest citizen of Sparta, if he died not in battle he was not given a grave marker. Consider this, Leonidas (the phrase is not ancient, and it is probably original to the film) curses Ephialtes to never die. He will never be given even the honor of dying, let alone the honor of a good death. In this statement, Leonidas is not only recognizing the value of those things which end, or the value of a death facing the challenge of sport, he is also epitomizing the courage necessary to do these things when death is the end result.
Another film. William Wallace says, in “Braveheart”:
“Aye, fight and you may die. Run, and you’ll live… at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”
Movie speeches or not, Seneca the Elder’s quote is held up to the light by all of these ideas. Things end, after all. All things end. If so, reader, why not end them well? Face that fear, put down that enemy of your conscience, seek the freedom that comes from facing problems now, in the present, instead of letting them bounce around in your brain. In the end, and despite my better nature, for I could really just run through examples ad infinitum, I will leave you with one last movie quote. One last push, if you will. And remember, the fact that nothing is endless should not make you rush towards your end, by any means; nor go around unprepared. Rather the contrary is true: you prepare, you train and think about that test, that challenge, that problem, even if it is not visible yet. When it comes, because you were stoically prepared, things will be more like just another day at the office than a problem. You will overcome by reflex. Oh no! Just thought of another quote; we will have to part with two.
Bruce Lee (the martial artist and movie star who also had a bachelor’s in Philosophy) said, in “Enter the Dragon”:
“A good fight should be like a small play, but played seriously. A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.”
Here’s to something done so much that your body no longer acts, by reacts. It is not a conscious action, but a reaction of the body to circumstances already experienced through mock up scenarios and training. The good are good because they practice; you can do that all on your own, natural talent or not. So work hard, reader, and work hard now. Now, that final quote I promised; from the guys who spend their whole life training to react as the enemy acts. Those guys who, in actual life, know of death while doing their job better than the rest of us, and can say this while charging up the battlefield and know exactly what Seneca meant:
“Starship Troopers”. Jean Rasczak and Johnny Rico:
“Come on you apes, you wanna live forever?“