The Aging Body, A Failing Ship

Seneca, Moral Epistle 30.1-3

“I have seen that best man, Aufidius Bassus, worn out, ravaged by old age. Now they have already pressed him down enough that he cannot be raised up. Old age has fallen down upon him with all of its great weight. Well, you know that his body was always weak and drawn. Yet for a long time he managed it–or perhaps I should say contained it–until it suddenly failed him.

Just as a ship that springs a leak can be stopped up with one fix or another, yet when many places begin to open up at the same time and yield to the water, it is impossible to save the floundering vessel–it is the same way for an aging body.  You can cover up or make up for the weakness to a certain extent, but once it is like a condemned building, and every joint is loose, and one part falls apart while others are repaired, well then we need to take a look around to see how we can leave.

Yet, Bassus’ mind is sharp. Philosophy grants this: to laugh at the sight of death, to be brave despite the body’s condition, to be happy and unfailing even as the body fails. A great captain knows how to sail even with torn sails; even as the ship fails, they can still direct what remains of their body on its course. Our Bassus is doing this. He looks to his own end bravely  and with a detachment you would think too severe even for watching someone else’s death.

Bassum Aufidium, virum optimum, vidi quassum, aetati obluctantem. Sed iam plus illum degravat quam quod possit attolli; magno senectus et universo pondere incubuit. Scis illum semper infirmi corporis et exsucti fuisse. Diu illud continuit et, ut verius dicam, continuavit; subito defecit. Quemadmodum in nave, quae sentinam trahit, uni rimae aut alteri obsistitur, ubi plurimis locis laxari coepit et cedere, succurri non potest navigio dehiscenti; ita in senili corpore aliquatenus inbecillitas sustineri et fulciri potest. Ubi tamquam in putri aedificio omnis unctura diducitur, et dum alia excipitur, alia discinditur, circumspiciendum est, quomodo exeas.

Bassus tamen noster alacer animo est. Hoc philosophia praestat, in conspectu mortis hilarem et in quocumque corporis habitu fortem laetumque nec deficientem, quamvis deficiatur. Magnus gubernator et scisso navigat velo, et, si exarmavit, tamen reliquias navigii aptat ad cursum. Hoc facit Bassus noster et eo animo vultuque finem suum spectat, quo alienum spectare nimis securi putares.

A color photograph of an oil painting. A man leans into a tilting sailing ship with a broken mast on choppy seas. There are sharks in the water before him
The Gulf Stream (1899). Oil on canvas, 71.4 x 124.8 cm (28.1 x 49.1 in). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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