Accepting Mortality – the Stoic Way

 The Stoics often get bad press from their claim that death is no ‘bad’ thing. But what did they mean by this and what kind of life did the Stoic, having internalised this attitude, lead? Corey Anton explores these questions. 

‘On Death Acceptance’

Corey Anton

Like many philosophical systems in the ancient word, the Stoic tradition makes no lofty bid for an afterlife nor does it instruct us to despise death.  Death is outside of one’s control, and accordingly, it must be dealt with by indifference.  It is accepted as part of the meaning of life, as something that Divine Providence saw to be fitting.  In book 2, chapter 6 of The Discourses, we find Epictetus admonishing us from trying to take under our control what is beyond it: “…know that you are cursing men when you pray for them not to die: it is like a prayer not to be ripened, not to be reaped.”  And in The Handbook #14 he writes, “It is silly to want your children…and your friends to live forever, for that means that you want what is not in your control to be in your control, and what is not yours to be yours.”  Not only is the fact of death beyond our control, Providence saw fit that humans can have no knowledge of anything beyond life.  We are to act with regard to this world, meeting our duties with courage and goodwill and accepting whatever happens.

            As fundamentally beyond our control, death is something to which we should be indifferent, although admittedly the wise may learn how to use death as a resource for gaining perspective and making decisions.  In #21 of The Handbook, Epictetus advocates a nearness to death, if only to keep desire in its proper place: “Keep before your eyes from day to day death and exile and all things that seem terrible, but death most of all, and then you will never set your thoughts on what is low and will never desire anything beyond measure.”  Death too can be regarded as a gift insofar as we can know that we will die, which basically implies that we know that we cannot postpone decisions indefinitely; a time to act will come and then that moment will pass.  By maintaining an image of death before us, we are reminded of what is and is not under our control.  We are essentially, as Epictetus writes, “a tiny soul carrying around a corpse.”

            We also find Epictetus giving advice that brings together the Stoic demand of concerning ourselves only with what is under our control while also meeting the demand of social politeness and graciousness.  In #16 of The Handbook, Epictetus suggests that we can sympathize with someone who is grieving over the loss of a loved one, so long as we remember what it is that actually troubles people:

When you see a man shedding tears in sorrow for a child abroad or dead, or for loss of property, be sure that you are not carried away by the impression that it is outward ills that make him miserable.  Keep this thought to you: “What distresses him is not the event, for that does not distress another, but his judgment on the event.”  Therefore do not hesitate to sympathize with him as far as words go, and if it so chances, even to groan with him; but take heed that you do not also groan in your inner being.

Death is not a bad thing.  It only seems bad if we already assented to putting under our jurisdiction what is naturally beyond our power.  Mortality simply makes sense; it had to come along for life to be what it is, and all of this is good.

            Writing about the gift character of existence, Moses Hadas describes Seneca’s views on death and death-acceptance.  He suggest that once a fully Stoic view is adopted, a person,

reckons not only his chattels and property and position but even his body and eyes and hand, all that a man cherishes in life, even his own personality, as temporary holdings, and he lives as if he were on loan to himself, and is ready to return the whole sum cheerfully on demand…When the order to return the deposits comes he will not quarrel with Fortune but will say, “I am thankful for what I have held and enjoyed.”

It is, in fact, only when we seek what is beyond our control that death becomes an issue.  Imagine a spoiled child looking up at the nighttime sky, seeing the stars in the heavens, and the youth reaches up and tries to grab one.  Witnessing such an event, a parent might tell the child that this is impossible, “You cannot touch the stars, but you can look at them.”   We can imagine the child’s ungrateful reaction “I don’t even want to see what I can’t have; I’d just as soon banish the stars.”  And so, we too may be upset that we can have ideas of what we will never physically experience.  Fortunately, we need not have life after death, for life itself is enough.  We need not hold eternity in our hands.  It is enough to merely glimpse eternity, to share in the logos and hence to be able to contemplate the Cosmos.

            Ultimately, death poses no problem once we focus exclusively upon moral intention rather than ultimate achievement of any ends.  Moral intention gives an act completeness from its very inception.  As Pierre Hadot, writes, “Even if the action which we are carrying out were in fact interrupted by death, this would not make it incomplete; for what gives an action its completeness is precisely the moral intention by which it is inspired, not the subject matter on which it is exercised.”  If we have lived right the entire time, all has been good.  To live right is to give each day the completeness of the eternal.

Adapted version, taken from Corey Anton, Sources of Significance; Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism, Purdue University Press, 2010. 

More about CoreyCorey Anton (Ph.D., Purdue University, 1998) is Professor of Communication Studies at Grand Valley State University.  With wide research interests in communication theory, phenomenology, semiotics, media ecology, communicology, and stoicism, Anton is author of Selfhood and Authenticity (SUNY Press, 2001);Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism (Purdue University Press, 2010); Communication Uncovered: General Semantics and Media Ecology (IGS Press, 2011); and editor of Valuation and Media Ecology: Ethics, Morals, and Laws (Hampton Press, 2010), and co-editor, along with Lance Strate, of Korzybski And… (IGS Press, 2012).  A Fellow of the International Communicology Institute, he currently serves as the Vice-President of the Institute of General Semantics and as the President of the Media Ecology Association.

Corey has a great series of Youtube videos exploring Stoic philosophy too. You can see them here. Here is one of Corey’s videos:

4 thoughts on “Accepting Mortality – the Stoic Way”

  1. Pingback: cory.anton
  2. Opposition to the Stoic and Epicurean contention that death does not represent harm or evil and should not be feared stems from a confusion on the critics’ part between what they consider “harm” and what is defined as harmful in the original philosophies. In brief, for the Stoics, anything not under our control is neither bad nor good, but “indifferent,” and can neither benefit us nor harm us in any but purely circumstantial, and therefore inconsequential, ways. Similarly in Epicureanism: death is “nothing to us” because it is out of our control and because after our lives are over we cannot experience anything, including death. Therefore, it’s pointless to fret over it and thereby disturb our ataraxia, our peace of mind—or, in a word, our happiness.

    Critics of this view offer a variety of arguments that purport to show that, in one way or another, death does cause harm; but they bring in an exogenous definition of “harm” that is not part of the doctrinal framework of the original philosophies. They refer to a spouse’s infidelity as something harmful, of betrayal of trust, of spiteful attacks on our reputation after we’re dead, and of a host of other unpleasant situations as causing harm. But these things are not bad or harmful in Stoicism and Epicureanism, whether the person at whom they’re directed is dead OR alive. To use the useful distinction made by Frank Robert Vivelo in Pragmatic Rationalism (Verlaine Publishing, 2013), these matters affect our “circumstantial happiness,” with which neither Stoicism nor Epicureanism is concerned but not our “autocthonal happiness” (or happiness as ataraxia, our serenity or tranquility), with which the Hellenistic philosophies ARE concerned. Vivelo devotes an entire chapter to this subject, explicating what the original philosophies were saying and demonstrating how the critics are ignoring these original doctrinal frameworks and substituting their own definitions, which have no real relevance to the originals.

    As Vivelo says (p. 44): “It is an unacceptable tactic to treat a proposition concerning autochthonal happiness as if it were a proposition concerning contingent [or circumstantial] happiness, and then to attack it critically or try to prove it is untenable as a proposition about contingent happiness, which it never purported to be in the first place! It’s simply not legitimate to blame something for not being something other than what it is intended to be. I can’t reasonably condemn a zebra for not being a horse . . . . It’s criticizing baseball by applying the rules of cricket. Baseball isn’t cricket. Neither is this philosopher’s ploy: it isn’t cricket. It just isn’t good sportsmanship.”

  3. Thank you Corey for your invaluable thoughts and in this regard I strongly recommend the excellent book by Dr. Eben Alexander ”Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife”.

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