The ancient Stoic philosophy of death
The ancient Stoic philosophy of death
Forget all else, Lucilius, and concentrate your thoughts on this one thing: not to fear the name of death. Through long reflection make death one of your close acquaintances, so that, if the situation arises, you are able even to go out and meet it. — Seneca, On Earthquakes
One day you will die. In many ways, though, death is already present with us throughout life. First, and most obviously, there is the fact that we are, most of us, bereaved several times. We also witness the bereavements suffered by others, and hear about deaths happening all over the world. As children, we learned that animals and plants die — as adults we have already come to know that everything born must die.
Then there is death in another sense: we are, in fact, dying every day. This is not the body to which your mother gave birth, as the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius put it. The child dies to become the adolescent. The adolescent dies to become the man. The boy is father to the man but also predeceases him. We die every night when we go to sleep and awaken a different person, although we often barely notice what has been lost in the process.
Third, death is present in our awareness that every thought and act could, for all we know, be cut short. Whatever we begin may, by its nature, insofar as it takes time to complete, be interrupted. We’re always, inescapably, conscious at some level of the utter fragility of our existence. No matter how much we try to ignore it, we know, each moment of our lives, that our life could suddenly stop.
I think for many people, as I write this, the threat of death is on their minds more than usual.
The Stoic teacher Epictetus told his students to learn from the slaves whispering memento mori, and words to that effect, in the ears of generals and emperors as they rode in triumph through the streets of Rome. I think for many people, as I write this, the threat of death is on their minds more than usual. A few months ago I found myself lying in a hospital bed staring at the ceiling, hoping my heart would continue beating. I didn’t close my eyes and go to sleep that night just in case I didn’t wake up. A few weeks later, first thing in the morning, my phone rang and the stranger’s voice on the other end told me that one of my parents had died suddenly, in another country. We’re surrounded by death. We can try to close our eyes and shut it out but it won’t go away. It’s already there inside us, waiting. Et in arcadia ego — even in paradise, death is waiting.
The Ancient Philosophy of Death
Accepting our death can become a philosophy of life. One of the first men to speak openly about the philosophy of life and death in this way was the ancient Greek Sophist known as Prodicus of Ceos. I think it’s imperative today that we rediscover the ancient Greek wisdom concerning death that used to be part of our heritage.
The state of nonexistence to which we permanently return after our death is no different than the one we were in, for countless aeons, before we were born
Contrary to what I’ve said above, Prodicus taught that death does not exist, either for the living or for the dead. He meant that the living cannot know what death is like until they experience it — it’s just a word or something we perceive happening to other people. Death does not exist yet for the living; yet those who are dead no longer exist themselves. In the eponymous dialogue, Socrates explains this argument to his friend Axiochus, who is dying, and adds “Vain then is the sorrow in Axiochus grieving for Axiochus!”
Socrates describes the argument, perhaps also from Prodicus’ speech on death, that the state of nonexistence to which we permanently return after our demise is no different than the one we inhabited, for countless aeons, before we were born. (This “Argument from Symmetry” is usually attributed to the Epicureans, I know, but here we’re told it predates their school by well over a century.)
When he was dying, Diogenes reputedly asked his followers to simply dump his body outside the city walls.
There’s a wonderful illustration, by the way, of the same idea in an anecdote about Diogenes the Cynic. When he was dying, Diogenes reputedly asked his followers to simply dump his body outside the city walls. They were horrified and said that wild beasts would eat his corpse if it wasn’t disposed of properly. Diogenes calmly said that in that case he’d like them to leave his staff beside his body so that he could use it to beat off the animals. His friends were confused and said that if he was dead he surely wouldn’t know to lift his staff and defend himself — he’d be unconscious. Exactly, said Diogenes, so why on earth would I care, you fools, whether or not my corpse is being eaten? Death, as Seneca put it, is a release from all suffering, and a boundary beyond which our ills cannot pass.
However, to return to our friend, Axiochus objects that supposing death is a state of nonexistence free from pain, nevertheless he is right to fear losing his life, because death is also devoid of pleasures. Life contains many opportunities for enjoyment, he contends, of which he is about to be robbed. Socrates nods and replies that his friend will not, however, be at all conscious of that deprivation. It seems Axiochus can’t escape that easily from the steamroller logic of Socrates’ argument.
This line of reasoning is, of course, not meant to justify taking one’s own life. Socrates is consoling Axiochus about the inevitability of his own impending death from illness. However, Socrates seems also to agree with most of these arguments, and he goes on living. The Stoic ideal holds that the Sage, the man we should seek to emulate, “finds it a joy to live and in spite of that is not reluctant to die”, accepting his mortality and facing death with dignity when the time comes. Life gains value, paradoxically, from our acceptance of death.
The Value of Living
Everyone knows that a brush with death can make you reappraise your priorities in life. What does that really mean, though? It’s not the same for everyone, of course. For most people, nevertheless, it’s pretty similar. We realize that a lot of the things we previously thought were really important, and invested a lot of time and energy in, aren’t actually important at all. That’s powerful medicine. It shatters the illusions that we inherit from the society around us: all the consumerism, celebrity culture, narcissism, egotism, hedonism — all that kind of stuff. To learn how to die, is to unlearn how to be a slave, as Seneca puts it.
Wealth and reputation… You can’t take any of it with you — even if you were going anywhere. Alexander the Great knew that. He reputedly asked for his body to be carried through the towns with his hands dangling out either side of the casket so that everyone could see that he left the world empty-handed. It’s the revelation that most of the things people make out to be so very important in life are not — that it’s all a big con, basically. The Stoics and Cynics called this the τύφος (smoke) that surrounds us in life — smoke and mirrors.
Accepting the certainty of our own death is the royal road to Stoic magnanimity, the ability to become bigger than our troubles…
The Stoics called this ability to rise above our fears “magnanimity” (μεγαλοψυχία), which literally means having a big soul or vast mind in Greek (and Latin). All other virtues, they said, depend upon this quality.
For if magnanimity by itself alone can raise us far above everything, and if magnanimity is but a part of virtue, then too virtue as a whole will be sufficient in itself for well-being — looking down upon all things that seem troublesome. — Diogenes Laertius
Accepting the certainty of our own death is the royal road to Stoic magnanimity, the ability to become bigger than our troubles, and look down upon both pain and pleasure with equanimity. It’s the source of our moral and psychological freedom.
The Love of Wisdom
The Stoics believed that grasping this realization and holding on to it is, in a sense, the goal of life. It’s the beginning of wisdom — the epiphany that reveals all “external goods” such as wealth and reputation are necessarily ephemeral and ultimately vacuous. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and by that he meant first and foremost examining our knowledge of virtue, our highest good. The meaning of philosophy as a way of life, for Socrates and the Stoics, is right there in its name, which literally means the love of wisdom. The way of the philosopher consists in cherishing insights such as these and viewing them as worth fighting to maintain.
Seneca thought that, ironically, an excessive fear of dying often leads to an early grave — nobody, I think, would dispute that. He goes much further, though, and says that the man who fears his own death will never do anything worthy of life. When we face death, if we can bear to look him in the face we have the opportunity to learn something that liberates us forever. If we dare to lift the bogeyman’s scary mask, as Socrates put it, each one of us may make the discovery that not wealth or reputation but wisdom is the goal of life.
Marcus therefore advises contemplating death in each action, to focus our attention on its true worth:
During every one of your actions pause at each step and ask yourself: “Is death deemed catastrophic because of the loss of this?” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Seneca likewise imagines that we should respond to those afraid to die by saying “So are you living now?” We cannot be truly alive so long as we are enslaved by fears, and dread of death itself is the mother of all fears. The philosophy that makes us fearless in the face of death, says Seneca, is a battle plan “effective against all weapons and every kind of enemy”.
In his essay On Earthquakes, Seneca likewise emphasises the folly of fearing death by earthquakes or any other specific thing, when death surrounds us and can strike us down in an infinite number of ways. We can as easily be killed by a single stone as an entire city collapsing on our heads. He writes: “If you wish to fear nothing, consider that all things are to be feared.” Elsewhere he says in his letters: “It is not clear where death is waiting for you, so you should wait for it everywhere.” Epictetus makes the same point: “Do you want me, then, to respect and do obeisance to all these things, and to go about as the slave of them all?” To be everywhere is to be nowhere — and to fear everything is to fear nothing.
Know Thyself and be Mortal
The Delphic Temple of Apollo had several maxims engraved on a pillar at its entrance. According to legend, these went back to the Seven Sages of Greece, in the 6th century BC. Their influence permeated Western philosophy, in other words, from its very beginning. The most famous of these Delphic maxims was undoubtedly “Know thyself.” Seneca claimed that it was to be interpreted as a reference to human mortality:
Those whom you love and those whom you despise will both be made equal in the same ashes. This is the meaning of that command, “Know thyself”, which is written on the shrine of the Pythian oracle. — Seneca, Moral Letters
“What is man?”, asks Seneca. Nothing more than a potter’s vase, which can be shattered into pieces by the slightest knock.
You were born a mortal, and you have given birth to mortals: yourself a weak and fragile body, liable to all diseases, can you have hoped to produce anything strong and lasting from such unstable material? — Seneca, Moral Letters
The oracle also said “Think things befitting a mortal” (Φρόνει θνητά). To know ourselves is to remember that we are mortal, reason accordingly, and live accordingly.
Seneca told himself each night as he closed his eyes to sleep that he might not awaken to see the morning. Marcus Aurelius told himself repeatedly to contemplate his own death. In fact, he told himself to imagine he was already dead, and living on borrowed time.
In a world torn by hope and worry, dread and anger, imagine every day that dawns is the last you’ll see; the hour you never hoped for will prove a happy surprise. — Horace, Letters
This notion of contemplative meditation on the inevitability of death, and the transience of life, was common in philosophy until recent centuries. The iconic image of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a young philosophy student, holding aloft the skull of his childhood friend Yorick would have been recognisable to Elizabethan audiences as an allusion to common philosophical practices that involved contemplating images of death. It should make you realize, if nothing else, that anyone who resents or complains about absolutely anything in life is a rank hypocrite — because we’re ultimately all here by our own choosing.
The Contemplation of Death
Plato wasn’t there to witness Socrates’ execution. He portrays Phaedo, a beautiful and talented young man whom Socrates had rescued from life as a slave in an Athenian brothel, recounting the event, with awe, in the dialogue that bears his name:
Although I was witnessing the death of one who was my friend, I had no feeling of pity, for the man appeared happy both in manner and words as he died nobly and without fear. — Plato, Phaedo
In prison, awaiting execution, Socrates spent his final hours debating amiably with his friends about philosophy. Given the nearness of his own end, he chose to explore the question of what happens to the soul after death. He coolly examines several possibilities while keeping an open mind, tolerant of uncertainty.
He explains his view that philosophy is essentially a lifelong “practice of death” (melete thanatou), as the reason for his surprising indifference. He says that those who practice philosophy in the right way are constantly in training for death. His friends ask him to speak to them as though a little child remains deep within them who still fears death, and to reassure them there is nothing scary behind the mask of this bogeyman. He replies that they should “sing a charm” over their inner child every day until they have charmed away his fears. True philosophers, he says, fear dying least of all men.
The “contemplation of death” therefore emerged right at the most dramatic moment in the birth of Western philosophy, spoken at the heart of what Socrates called his philosophical swansong. When the time came, he calmly drank the poison and waited to die, something he’d clearly reconciled himself to, and faced with supreme equanimity and an attitude of philosophical curiosity.
It is not the things themselves that disturb men, but their judgements about these things. For example, death is nothing catastrophic, or else Socrates too would have thought so, but the judgement that death is catastrophic, this is the catastrophic thing. — Epictetus, Enchiridion