How we face death is an ever-recurring theme in the texts of the Roman Stoics. As a frequent reader of these texts, I have at times wondered why they were so preoccupied with death. What is the value of being aware over your own mortality, and can thinking about death make us live better lives?
Most of us do not spend any more time reflecting over our mortality than we have to. We live in societies where we are far more sheltered from death than has ever been the case, especially those of us who live in Western societies. Modern medicine and our healthcare systems have allowed most of us to reach a high age, and the corona epidemic, which although it should not be underestimated, is still nothing compared to past epidemics, which have left entire cities desolate.
I don’t think it’s unusual to reach my age (33) without having seen a dead person, or having lost someone you care about. Death appears as something that largely concerns others, or at worst ourselves in a very distant future. This situation seems to be a quite recent development. You do not have to go back further than a few generations before things that are now quite manageable, like a cardiac arrest, were something much more serious which would more often than not end in death.
Wars are also largely a distant memory in Western-Europe, and although western-European soldiers have been deployed in several wars since WW2, those wars have been fought in foreign lands. Trade and technology have distanced us from nature, in that poor harvests rarely have any direct consequences for most our lives beyond an increase in the cost of food, which in the West is mostly quite manageable.
Therefore, I do not think that it is strange that many of us would consider contemplating death to be a weird habit. I do think, however, that there are good reasons to reflect on the fact that we will die one day. Contemplating death can that we will die provides guidance on how we live until we die, and it can help us spend our time better. As Seneca, wrote:
Can you show me even one person who sets a price on his time, who knows the worth of a day, who realizes that every day is a day when he is dying? In fact, we are wrong to think that death lies ahead: much of it has passed us by already, for all our past life is in the grip of death.Epistle 1.2
If we are able to set a price on our time, to know the worth of a day, and to realize that every day is indeed a day when we are dying, it seems clear to me that there will be certain ways of being in the world that will seem more meaningful than others. As long as we consider death to be something that happens to other people, or to our distant selves, we might end up treating ourselves as immortals, in some sense. If we do recognize our mortality, however, we might act like people act when they know that they do not have much time left. We might get a desire to at least intend to settle old scores, to right past wrongs, to not waste so much time and try to squeeze more life out of every day.
And likewise, there are certain states of mind and activities that will begin to seem ridiculous if we are able to be conscious of our mortality. How much sense does it really make to go around and sulk over some past slight, over the potential partner who rejected you, the job you applied for, but didn’t get, or the professor who gave you a poorer grade than you felt that you deserved? Or what about all the things we do to kill time, or merely thoughtless habits, which more often than not fail to even bring us pleasure, like binge-watching half-good shows on Netflix or long trips down a rabbit hole on YouTube.
In other words, we see that death can be a lens which we see life through, and help us to assess what has and does not have value. In chapter 34 of the Enchiridion, Epictetus gives us an advice on how we can resist temptations. He encourages us to not only consider the pleasure that we might get from a certain object or activity, but also how you would feel after you have gained the object or preformed the activity. While Epictetus is main point here seems to be a way for us to resist temptations, it seems quite possible to extend this perspective to the way we spend our time.
How will you feel at the end of the day if all you have done is to watch Netflix? And if you reflect over the amount of time that you spend sulking over past wrongs, do you really think that the time that you spent sulking was time well spent? Death adds something even more to this exercise, since a consciousness of our mortality will also make us conscious over the fact that the number of days that we will live on this planet is finite. And since our time here is limited, it seems plausible that we can waste it. Viewed through this lens, it becomes easier to see that we are indeed wasting time. At the very least we can do what Seneca claimed that he had accomplished when he said that “I cannot say that nothing has been wasted, but at least I can say what, and why, and how; I can state the causes of my impoverishment.” (Epistle 1.4.) In other words, while it seems quite a challenge to waste no time, we can at the very least hope to waste less of it.
Another perspective that the Stoics drew is that it is not the length of life that matters, but rather its content. How can we then ensure that the content of life is as good as it could be? I think that we can go far simply by looking at some of the low-hanging fruits, so to speak. I do not think that you need to agree with the Stoics’ claim that virtue is sufficient for happiness to follow along on what I have written so far, and I will not try to defend that claim here, but rather merely appeal to an intuition that most of us have over the value of virtue in and of itself.
While not all of us would go as far as the Stoics did, and say that this is sufficient, I think that we all can agree that things like justice, courage and so on are indeed virtues that we ought to strive for. We can also try to think of our lives as projects in which certain goals ought to be achieved, and time is the currency that we spend in order to fulfill those goals.
Fear of Death
Death seems terrifying for most us, and those of us who are not terrified of death are often calm due to the sense of distance between us and death. For Seneca, death was simply the end: all sensory impressions and cognitive abilities cease. He occasionally borrows some thoughts from Epicurus who said that “When we are, death is not, when death is, we are not.” (Letter to Meneocius)
It is possible to object to this, and claim that the evilness of death is rather that you are deprived of the opportunity to experience various goods that you could have experienced if you had still been alive. However, you won’t be able to perceive that you have lost the opportunity to achieve these goods. It is also possible to compare being dead with not having been born. Both are a form of non-existence, and since we cannot claim to have suffered any harm by the other, it makes sense to say that the first one should present any problem either. If death is just a cessation, death cannot itself be an evil.
For the Stoics, however, the fear of death itself is an evil. While they would claim that no harm befalls us when we die, we are harmed by spending our days in fear over something that we cannot escape, and we can very well end up doing harm to ourselves by the things that we do to extend our lives, such as for instance deserting from an army that is fighting a just war, failing to help someone who is about to be beaten to death or raped and other similar things, because we fear that we might get killed ourselves. Our fear of death can therefore have a devastating effect on our own character, as extreme situations can force us to do terrible actions to keep ourselves alive.
Also, the greatness of someone’s character can be seen especially clear in situations where their lives are on the line or where they are presented with an apparently great danger, such as Socrates during his trial, or Epicurus on his deathbed. For a more contemporary example, we can turn to Witold Pilecki who volunteered to go undercover in Auschwitz during WW2 in order to gather intelligence for the allied forces. One of the things that made these people great is that they had learned to consider their own deaths as something acceptable.
Furthermore, death remains beyond our own control. Although we eat healthy, shy away from danger, and refrain from drugs and alcohol, we might still slip on our way out of the shower and smash our heads into the floor. We are fragile creatures, and not much is required to kill us. While we can intend to take care of our bodies and extend our lives (and it most cases, we should), we can never be certain that we will succeed to achieve what we intend.
Therefore, we should intend to do these things with a reservation clause, and always be conscious over the fact that we might fail. Also, we should keep in mind that failing to extend our lives is not something horrible, and that death comes to us all regardless of what we do. This should not, however, be a license for us to waste our lives, either by destroying our bodies needlessly or wasting our time.
Although we cannot do anything about the fact that we are dying, we can do something about the very fear of dying. We can do this not by avoiding thinking about it, but rather by thinking clearly about it. By reflecting on death we can see that death is nothing to fear. For it is not death itself that is an evil. The problem is our perception of it as an evil. Getting rid of this notion is also something we ourselves can control.
The Stoics utilized several techniques for doing so, one of my favorites, although perhaps amongst the gloomier ones, comes from Marcus Aurelius: “Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?” (Meditations X, 29). This, I think, can serve two purposes.
On the one hand, if you do this while you are stuck in traffic, on hold while calling some call center, or something like that, it can become quite clear that life consists of several things that it makes no sense to fear losing.
On the other hand, it can also encourage you to do more things that would at the very least make you pause to consider whether the answer could be ‘yes’, for instance if you do this while you are hugging your kids, reading philosophy or conducting brave and just actions.
If you do feel that you must pause to consider whether death is something horrible because you cannot do this anymore, it may be necessary to take it a step further, and try to internalize the idea that death is a part of life, and that we are all actors in a play, and that our very mortality is one of the things that give life meaning. Would not everything seem to pale if they could not be lost? How could you even speak of wasting time, if the amount of time that you have at your disposal is infinite? Yet another exercise is to imagine some great person, either from your own life, or from history or from fiction, who faced death with equanimity.
This leads us into a bigger problem. How should we deal more generally with what is beyond our own control? Life is not the only thing we hold on to that we cannot control. For example, we care about others’ perceptions of ourselves, we want to avoid pain, and we want some form of material prosperity. These things are deeply beyond our control. We may intend to avoid apparent evils and achieve apparent benefits, but when we try to do so, we can tread wrongly and end up corrupting what is actually a good, our own character.
At this point, it might be prudent to say a few words about an important concept in Epictetus, prohairesis. While it is difficult to translate, the “faculty of will” seems to be a good choice. Our prohairesis is the only thing that is potentially perfectly within our own control. It is also something that we can use to add value to all of the things that are outside our control. While death, pain and bodily harm are not truly evil, enduring these things with equanimity when they cannot or should not be avoided is a good thing.
The point is not that we should be completely apathetic (in the non-Stoic meaning of the word) to anything but our own character, but rather we should be detached from it, and realize that all that we have, we have borrowed, and that we can lose it at any time. Furthermore, we might follow Epictetus’ lead, and stop saying that we have lost something altogether, but rather that we have given something back. This is not the same as, to have any reasons for preferring something over something else but rather a form of interest with a reservation. Having an interest in staying alive with a reservation will in effect mean recognizing that you will die, that you cannot do anything about it, and that preserving our own character should be the highest goal, so that if one has to choose between saving your life, or preserving your own character, you must choose the latter.
I think that Witold Pilecki can be used as an example to show how we ought to do this, and how we might care about our own lives with a reservation. He was a married man, and had children, and while it is impossible for me to know what went through his mind when he volunteered to go undercover in Auschwitz, but it might very well be that he managed to see that while he had reasons for not risking his life, there was something that was more important, namely to do what is right, to stand up to injustice and to fight tyranny.
We have now seen a couple of Stoic perspectives on death, as well as how this affects the way we live our lives. This is by no means exhaustive, but I hope this text will be able to trigger a desire to continue reading about the Stoics. Since the Roman Stoics talk about it so frequently, all of their works can be recommended.
There is however, a more recent selection of annotated quotes primarily by Seneca called How to die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life, edited, translated and introduced by James S. Romm. Also, for someone who would like to read a more modern philosopher who is still greatly indebted to the Stoics, Michel de Montaigne’s essay “To Philosophize is to Learn to Die” is highly recommended. Also, The Apology by Plato is of course essential reading. There are still important aspects of death that I have not directly addressed, such as how to deal with the death, suicide and euthanasia of others. There are also some features of the way the Stoics talk about death, which occasionally turns into something that almost seems like a longing for death.
In conclusion, I would say that the main point that I have been trying to put forward is that getting the right perspective on death is a way of getting the right perspective on life and how one should live it. The fact that life has an end gives it perspective and meaning. I choose to give the last words to Marcus Aurelius:. “Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able—be good.” (Meditations IV, 17)
- Aurelius, Marucs. Meditations. Translated by Gregory Hays. The Modern Library: New York.
- Epictetus. Discourses, Fragments, Handbook. Translated by Robin Hard. Oxford University Press: Oxford. .
- Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. Letters on Ethics to Lucilius. Translated by Margaret Graver and A. A. Long. University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London.
Harald Kavli is a Masters Student in Philosophy at the University of Oslo. He is the organizer of the Oslo Stoics, and is currently translating Epictetus’ Discourses into Norwegian.
What a lovely distillation of these ideas. Thank you for writing it, Harald.
Hi, Mr. Kavli,
Thank you for a useful discussion of the Stoics’ views on death and the fear of death. Since you mention the great essayist and quasi-Stoic, Michel de Montaigne, I will recommend a short, charming little book called, “Summer with Montaigne,” by the French professor of literature, Antoine Compagnon, and translated by Tina Kover.
Compagnon makes it clear that Montaigne’s views on death evolved over time, so that whereas, in some of his early writing, Montaigne emphasized the importance of assiduously contemplating death in the manner of the Stoics, his later writing suggests a more detached or–if you will–a “Zen” perspective. He wrote,
“Let death take me planting my cabbages, indifferent to him, and still less of my garden not being finished.” (tr. Charles Cotton)
Not a bad piece of advice, I think!
Ronald W. Pies, MD
The approach to death, for one like me who has lost faith in organized religion a few years ago (formerly Catholic) is a relevant issue. Can anyone advice more readings, besides the original stoic sources mentioned at the end of the chapter, to further get into the Stoic approach to death as applied to current life?
As a catholic attempting to be the best stoic I can be, I read often about death. Those that have lost their faith have lost a lot and will struggle with their lives if they have enough intellectual ability to ponder it and death. While organized religion (even Catholicism) has made many errors in presenting the teachings of Jesus one must not throw out everything for mans’ errors. Once one elevates themselves on their own distorted thinking and decisions about life and death they are stranded in the desert and lost.