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Saturday, May 23, 2015

62 B.C.: Seneca the asthma philosopher

During the last three years of his life, Seneca the Younger spent much of his time writing down his thoughts about the world around him, including his thoughts about asthma and how it impacted his life.  He also gave his advice to other people suffering from this disease.

He said:
"What in fact makes people who are morally unenlightened by the experience of physical distress is their failure to acquire the habit of contentment with the spirit. They have instead been preoccupied by the body... so do not go out of your way to make your troubles any more tiresome than they are and burden yourself with fretting." 
Like the writings of Pliney the Elder, Seneca's writings became well read, and Seneca became one of the most well known philosophers.  In one of his letters to Lucilius, a friend and correspondent of Seneca's, Seneca provided a description of asthma, although he doesn't use the term asthma.

 Sculpture of Seneca by Puerta de Almodóvar in Córdoba, Spain
From his 54th letter to his friend Lucius (who also had asthma and catarrh), we get Seneca's description of asthma from "On Asthma and Death" as translated by Richard M. Gummere:
My ill health had allowed me a long furlough, when suddenly it resumed the attack. "what kind of ill-health?" you say. And you surely have a right to ask; for it is true that no kind is unknown to me. But I have been consigned, so to speak, to one special ailment. I do not know why I should call it by its Greek name; for it is well enough described as "shortness of breath." It's attack is of very brief duration, like that of a squall at sea; it usually ends within an hour. Who indeed could breathe his last for long? I have passed through all the ills and dangers of the flesh; but nothing seems to me more troublesome than this. And naturally so; for anything else may be called illness; but this is a sort of continued 'last gasp.' Hence physicians call it 'practising how to die." For some day the breath will succeed in doing what it has so often essayed (breath will succeed in doing what it is supposed to do). (2, page 361)
In letter 65 he wrote about his catarrh and the catarrh of his friend Lucius (1):
"I am all the more sorry to hear about your constant catarrh, and the spells of feverishness that go with it when it becomes protracted to the point of being chronic, because this kind of ill health is something I have experienced myself. In its early stages I refused to let it bother me, being still young enough to adapt a defiant attitude to sickness and put up with hardships, but eventually I succumbed to it altogether. Reduced to a state of complete emaciation, I had arrived at a point where the catahhral discharges were virtually carrying me away with them altogether. On many an occasion I felt the urge to cut my life short there and then, and was only held back by the thoughts of my father who had been the kindest of fathers to me and was then in his old age. Having in mind now how bravely I was capable of bearing the loss, I commanded myself to live. There are times when even to live an act of bravery." (1)
This was probably saying a lot back then, because I can imagine living in a state of shortness of breath.  And I can imagine this coupled with the misery of allergies on top of that.

Yet I cannot imagine what those two ailments would be like when there was no cure and no remedy that really provided any relief.  It must have been pure hell to live like that.  I can understand how he might be compelled to think about just ending the misery right "there and then."

Yet life is special, and there are few who get to enjoy this special gift.  Seneca realized this.  He used his father to provide himself the courage to go on. 

In letter 65 he described to his friend Lucius what he did to survive the attacks of asthma and catarrh (1). 

"Let me tell you the things that provided me consolation in those days, telling you to begin with that the thoughts which brought me this peace of mind had all the effects of medical treatment. Comforting thoughts contribute to a person's cure; anything which raises his spirit benefits him physically as well. It was my Stoic studies that really saved me. For the fact I was able to leave my bed and was restored to health I give the credit to philosophy. I owe her -- and it is the least of my obligations to her -- my life. But my friends also made a considerable contribution to my health. I found a great deal of relief in their cheering remarks, in the hours they spent at my bedside and in their conversations with me. There is nothing, my good Lucius, quite like the devotion of one's friends for supporting one in illness and restoring one to health, and for dispelling one's anticipation of dread and death. I even came to feel that I could not really die when these were the people I would leave surviving me, or perhaps I should say I came to think I would continue to live because of them, if not among them; for it seemed to me that in death I would not be passing on my spirit to them. These things gave me the willingness to help my own recovery and endure all the pain. It is quite pathetic, after all, if one has put the will to die behind one, to be without the will to life.
Another remedy he later adds...

"is to turn your mind to other thoughts and in that way get away from your suffering. Call to mind things which you have done that have been upright and courteous; run over in your mind the finest parts that have been played. And cast your memory over the things you have most admired."
No potions.  No magic.  No herbs.  Seneca might have been one of the first asthma experts to recommend, mainly due to his own experiences, the importance of relaxing to control your asthma.

"There then are your remedies," he said.

Click here for more asthma history.

  1. Campbell, Robin, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, "Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, " Penguin, 1969, letter LXXVII.
  2. Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, "Seneca Ad Lucilium epistulae morales: Books I-LXI," translated by Richard M. Gummere, 1917, "The Epistles of Seneca," letter LIV "On Asthma and Death," New York, London, William Heinemann, G.P. Putnam's Sons, pages 361-363
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