You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.
Seneca. ON THE SHORTNESS OF LIFE.
I read that passage as if I were in front of a painting. A neoclassical painting set in Rome. Long fluted columns bathed in marble. It is here where I was sitting as these words rolled over me, as these words engulfed and took me to another place.
What is it to act like a mortal in all that we fear? Is it that reflex deep within us that cuts all our thoughts short? Every racer short in their steps? That moment when we realize we have lost before we have begun? It would appear that when we fear we seem to embody everything weak about nature. About being human. About living a life rooted in vice.
We hear Seneca, in other words, say
Vices surround and assail men from every side, and do not allow them to rise again and lift their eyes to discern the truth, but keep them overwhelmed and rooted in their desires.
It is as if Seneca has a complicated view of fear and desires. That is, how they intertwine. For it would seem a perfect definition of fear is that for a vice, that is, it does “not allow them [people] to rise again and lift their eyes to discern the truth.” That is why I called fear that moment that embodies everything weak about being human.
Similarly, as fear keeps us weak, it also shows itself when we are “overwhelmed and rooted” in desires. For if it is plausible that if a vice is fear, and therefore a weak aspect of being human, then Seneca just might be suggesting that fear is itself a desire. This is another reason why Seneca has a complicated view of fear and desire. That is, fear and desire are not necessarily opposites, but rather the same thing but with varying degree.
It might be clearer to draw that last point if we change the word fear to vice. As in the original quote. It is then much clearer that a vice is not actually in opposition to desire, but rather a distortion of it. It is a sin in the Hebrew sense of transgression as Avah, Chatha, Pasha (iniquity, sin, and transgression, respectively).
But now we are beginning to turn from our discussion on fear to desire. That is, if we now agree that fear is in some sense a desire. Thus, it might be time to remind ourselves what Seneca says of our desires, that is we act “like immortals in all that we desire.” And this is where I am falling blank without reasons. I cannot understand this sentence, this sentence is what has thrown me back to Rome, beneath a pillar, beneath the altars of Artemis, Athena, Hermes, Zeus.
For how do we desire like immortals? Is it that our desires are in some sense comparable to the gods? How have our desires lead at least one person, Seneca, to be reminded of a deity? How did the feebleness of our greatest exploits and desires somehow become a testimony to something inhuman? That is unless there is, at least one, that is very much like us.