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Wednesday: May 25, 2005

Quotations on Birth and Death

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:11 PM UTC

A few days ago, Eugene Volokh quoted some “Wisdom from the old country” (Russia), passed along by his father:

We die as we are born: without hair, without teeth, and without illusions.

This sounds rather Senecan, though I’ve been unable to find such a quotation in his works. While searching, I ran across a couple of others that are worth quoting, though only tangentially related. The first is from the rhetorician Cestius Pius, quoted in the Elder Seneca’s Controversiae (7.1.9):

Multas rerum natura mortis vias aperuit, et multis itineribus fata decurrunt, et haec est condicio miserrima humani generis, quod nascimur uno modo, multis morimur: laqueus, gladius, praeceps locus, venenum, naufragium, mille aliae mortes insidiantur huic miserrimae animae.

Nature has opened up many paths of death, the fates arrive by many routes, and the most wretched condition of the human race is this, that we are born in only one way, but die in many: noose, sword, cliff, poison, shipwreck, a thousand other deaths lie in ambush for this most wretched life of ours.

Pedantic footnote: Just plain ‘Seneca’ is the more famous Younger Seneca, Stoic philosopher, tragic poet, adviser and later victim of Nero. This is his father, the Elder Seneca, always distinguished as such, who compiled all the best arguments and wittiest remarks of all the contemporary orators, including Cestius Pius. Before running across this quotation on the web, I had known Cestius only as the target of one of the most brutal put-downs ever. Like many a professor today, he apparently went downhill intellectually as he aged, and the Elder Seneca records that his former student Marcus Argentarius, Latin orator and Greek epigrammatist, used to go around swearing per manes magistri mei Cestii, “by the [dead] soul of my teacher Cestius”, when Cestius was still alive.

The second quotation is modern, and needed no web-search to find: I just had to find the book. In Doctor Drink (1950), J. V. Cunningham expands the comparison to cover three times of life, but with only one thing in common:

Epitaph for Someone or Other

Naked I came, naked I leave the scene,
And naked was my pastime in between.