Stoicism and Death: Making Sense of Our Eventual Demise

Stoicism and Death: Making Sense of Our Eventual Demise

Everyone dies. It is the end of all and can be a mortifying thought.

I used to think about death a lot. I would get stuck, often thinking about a large black void on repeat. I told myself over and over, “the day will come where I no longer exist. I will be nothing.”

Dwelling on our eventual death is unhealthy and a poor use of time and energy. We shouldn’t fight what we can’t change. Death should serve as our greatest motivator to live in the moment and cut out all negative influences in our lives. Simplicity has been my aim for a better part of a year and I’ve cut out most sources of stress. I’ve structured my life for maximum happiness and minimal drama.

Enter Stoicism

Stoicism is a school of thought founded in the third century BC by a Greek philosopher named Zeno. It flourished through the glory of the Roman Empire until 529 AD, when Emperor Justinian I found stoicism to be in conflict of Christianity.

My interpretation of Stoicism is simple: 

Worry about the parts of my life within my control and disregard everything else.

Stoicism is a way of life, and we must always be aware of the destructive nature of negative thoughts and work to combat these faulty emotions through self-control and logic. Being aware of our impulses and our flaws isn’t enough; we must work to deflect negativity and look to develop true meaning in our lives. 

Envy, greed, jealousy, anger; these emotions can sink even the most composed individual.

Live in the present moment and forget about worrying about the future. It cannot be dictated with reasonable accuracy, thus no time should be spent “worrying” about how things will turn out.

I was first exposed to Stoicism through “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius (free here). Surprisingly, I was already living a quasi-stoic life. I champion self-control and am not easily bothered or stressed. I work hard to keep a leash on my negative emotions, only letting them positively fuel me.

SenecaRecently, I read Letters from a Stoic,” written by the famous Stoic philosopher Seneca. More than just a philosopher, Seneca became a Roman statesman in his later life, becoming wealthy and powerful as a close adviser to Emperor Nero. Seneca met his end after he was wrongly accused of plotting to kill Nero and forced to commit suicide through poison. The true nature of Seneca is questioned as some say he was not a true stoic and embraced the wealth and luxuries he denounced in his writings. Regardless, his impact on the human condition and morality are undeniable.

In Letters, he wrote at length about a variety of stoic staples; morality, ethics, greed, envy, emotions, and death.

Seneca’s passages on death were the most comforting I have read. He describes life and death with extreme polish and presents his passages in a calming tone. Seneca views death in simple terms; we cannot control when we die, so instead, focus on what we can control. 

Below I have listed a few of Seneca’s passages on death. I’ll expand upon his words with my commentary (in blue) on how we can think about Seneca’s words in today’s world. 

[ON DEATH]

You are younger; but what does that matter? There is no fixed count of our years. You do not know where death awaits you; so be ready for it everywhere.

This speaks to procrastination and the tired saying – “I’ll do it tomorrow.”

We take time for granted, assuming it will always be there tomorrow. Haven’t we seen enough to know that life is not guaranteed? Accidents, attacks, disease, you name it; thousands upon thousands of people die prematurely every day.

“There is no fixed count of our years,” as our final day is unknown. We are not guaranteed any amount of years. Thus, it’s imperative we do not waste time on frivolous ventures, difficult spouses, or the labors of unsatisfied work. Chose yourself now, stop procrastinating. Tomorrow might never come.

“What?” I say to myself; “does death so often test me? Let it do so; I myself have for a long time tested death.” “When?” you ask. Before I was born. Death is non-existence, and I know already what that means. What was before me will happen again after me. If there is any suffering in this state, there must have been such suffering also in the past, before we entered the light of day. As a matter of fact, however, we felt no discomfort then. And I ask you, would you not say that one was the greatest of fools who believed that a lamp was worse off when it was extinguished than before it was lighted? We mortals also are lighted and extinguished; the period of suffering comes in between, but on either side there is a deep peace. For, unless I am very much mistaken, my dear Lucilius, we go astray in thinking that death only follows, when in reality it has both preceded us and will in turn follow us. Whatever condition existed before our birth, is death. For what does it matter whether you do not begin at all, or whether you leave off, inasmuch as the result of both these states is non-existence?

This is my favorite passage on death. Seneca’s brilliance shines through, as he compares death to the time before we were born. At both points, we are non-existent. Both are essentially “death.”

Between birth and death, we live our lives, comprising peaks, valleys, and suffering. We are “lighted and extinguished” with peacefulness on both ends. This passage is superbly written and thought-provoking. Store it away somewhere. 

There are times when we ought to die and are unwilling; sometimes we die and are unwilling. No one is so ignorant as not to know that we must at some time die; nevertheless, when one draws near death, one turns to flight, trembles, and laments. Would you not think him an utter fool who wept because he was not alive a thousand years ago? And is he not just as much of a fool who weeps because he will not be alive a thousand years from now? It is all the same; you will not be, and you were not. Neither of these periods of time belongs to you. You have been cast upon this point of time; if you would make it longer, how much longer shall you make it? Why weep? Why pray? You are taking pains to no purpose.

In this passage, Seneca calls out to those who worry about death, “neither of these periods of time belongs to you.” We cannot choose when we die, just as we cannot choose to be born earlier or later in time.

The only time we own is the time in which we are alive.

Don’t worry about the past or future, but focus on the present. Bust your ass towards achieving your goals and strive for peak happiness with every decision you make. 

And, on the other hand, if death comes near with its summons, even though it be untimely in its arrival, though it cut one off in one’s prime, a man has had a taste of all that the longest life can give. Such a man has in great measure come to understand the universe. He knows that honourable things do not depend on time for their growth; but any life must seem short to those who measure its length by pleasures which are empty and for that reason unbounded.

Seneca is brutally honest; “a man has had a taste for all that the longest life can give.” Our life should be judged, not by length, but by achievement. We must live with a purpose and not give in to easy temptations.

We are surrounded by unhappy people who have no sense of purpose. 

Obesity, debt, and mental gluttony are commonplace. It’s easy to fall prey to laziness, but always be mindful that our existence is finite. We only get one crack at this thing called life. 

‘Time goes,’ but ‘Time flies,’ because the latter is the quickest kind of movement, and in every case our best days are the first to be snatched away; why, then, do we hesitate to bestir ourselves so that we may be able to keep pace with this swiftest of all swift things?” The good flies past and the bad takes its place. Just as the purest wine flows from the top of the jar and the thickest dregs settle at the bottom; so in our human life, that which is best comes first. Shall we allow other men to quaff the best, and keep the dregs for ourselves?

Seneca is baffled by how most people waste away their best years. I’ve seen this first-hand, people in their prime living boring, routine lives. As Seneca states, “the good flies past.”

It’s criminal to waste away our youth. Our best years are quickly behind us and we are left with nothing but uncertainty.

Health problems can crop up before we feel “old.” In 2014, over 585,000 people died from cancer in the United States. Rewind a few years back, and none of these people probably saw death coming. You never know. 

Because in our youth we are able to learn; we can bend to nobler purposes minds that are ready and still pliable; because this is the time for work, the time for keeping our minds busied in study and in exercising our bodies with useful effort; for that which remains is more sluggish and lacking in spirit —nearer the end.

We should be taking risks and working hard during our young, healthy years. It’s a time for experimentation; to find out what we enjoy, where we want to live, who we want to spend our time with. We should be reading and working out daily. Ignorance is not an excuse. 

It is low and mean to live in the usual and conventional way. Let us abandon the ordinary sort of day. Let us have a morning that is a special feature of ours, peculiar to ourselves!” Such men are, in my opinion, as good as dead. Are they not all but present at a funeral —and before their time too —when they live amid torches and tapers?

Seneca blasts those who choose an ordinary existence. Following societal norms is easy and safe. Seneca calls these people “as good as dead.” Straying from this path is dangerous and unknown, so most people don’t attempt extraordinary feats. Original thought is no longer encouraged and conformity is expected of the masses because it ensures the survival of current societal hierarchy.

Our span of life is divided into parts; it consists of large circles enclosing smaller. One circle embraces and bounds the rest; it reaches from birth to the last day of existence. The next circle limits the period of our young manhood. The third confines all of childhood in its circumference. Again, there is, in a class by itself, the year; it contains within itself all the divisions of time by the multiplication of which we get the total of life. The month is bounded by a narrower ring. The smallest circle of all is the day; but even a day has its beginning and its ending, its sunrise and its sunset.

Seneca breaks down life into a series of stages. We are born and we die, that is the largest circle. Smaller circles include the years, months, and individual days. Most of us use years as our life’s compass. Instead, try estimating your remaining life in days, minute, seconds. It puts a different spin on things and makes you view life with greater appreciation.

Fear Only What You Control 

Stoicism teaches to focus on the things within our control. Seneca’s words on death are comforting and his perspective is logical.

Death is not something we can control. It will happen and we do not know when it will happen. Thus, thinking of our demise is a poor use of one’sour

Thoughts of death are crippling, as are other damaging emotions such as greed, anger and jealousy. It is up to you to develop a strong mindset and to learn self-control. Be one with your mind (and body) and you will never fall victim to irrational thoughts.

Stoicism has a permanent place in my life. It helps to govern my world and keep me focused on what I can control. We end up angry and frustrated when we overreach with our thoughts and emotions. Stay grounded and always be aware of the pitfalls of our human condition.

>>Click here to Buy Letters from a Stoic<<

Talk soon,

Axel

Do you often think about your own death? Does it hold you back? Does it drive you?

Let me know below!

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  • Oliver

    http://freedompowerandwealth.com

    Senecas
    work “on anger” was one of the most enlighting books I have ever read. There is
    little which helped me more in my life.

    • Yes, Seneca is the rare writer who is able to transcend thousands of years with his teachings. Almost all of him concepts can be applied nowadays, and this will remain so long into the future as well. Thanks for the comment.

  • Smokingjacket

    I often had to read Seneca through Latin when I was in school and I can’t say the years have necessarily improved my appreciation of him.

    With Seneca, I often feel his wisdom is a little too refined and detached for it to have been written by a man who actually practiced what he preached and instructed. Additionally, his wisdom is largely impracticable for the majority of humankind that are too concerned with the trails of daily existence to have the liberty to arrange each day on ones own terms. For a wealthy aristocratic gentleman “Philosopher” like Seneca that may have been a possibility, but, not for the rest of humanity.

    I prefer Plutarch’s maxim which applies to all men:-

    “All men whilst they are awake are in one common world: but each of them, when he is asleep, is in a world of his own”

    The same applies to our lives as well as to our deaths- pre birth and post death existence have more in common with sleep than with Senaca’s rather limited notion of non-existence at both ends. To use his notion of non-existence it would equally apply to sleep in which we exist but in a different state, and, this is the point Senaca misses.

    • Great in-depth post, thanks for the feedback. Philosophy intrigues me a great deal and I’m still discovering new personalities and views all the time.

      Seneca was a man who enjoyed wealth which seemingly went against what he preached. We’ll never know the extent in it’s entirety. I focus more-so on his views concerning emotions, and how such things as jealousy, greed, anger, etc. can really set someone back, for years even.

      Thanks again for the comment.

      • Smokingjacket

        My pleasure. It’s a very well written article. I would highly recommend Plutarch’s essays too. His essay on anger for example is a very insightful piece of work.

        Regards

  • The Mind Overcomes

    I recommend the book “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” – William B. Irvine.

    You will learn of the only three things in life that matter are:
    (1) those that you have complete control over, which are your own goals and ambitions;
    (2) those that you have no control over, which are the goals and ambitions of others; and
    (3) those you have some, but not complete control over – which is that you can either
    (a) want a specific outcome (like winning a game), or
    (b) detaching yourself from the result per say and rather focusing on doing your best, something that will inspire self-improvement as opposed to anger at the objective truth of a result.

    I enjoyed the post, I’ve read Letters and Meditations as well – good food for thought and fertilizer for actionable steps.

    • Thanks for the comment! I’ll add it to my collection for sure, that is an excellent way to break it down. By working on our mindset (and as an extension) our control, we are instantly aware when something is out of our hands and thus should not be worried and stressed over.

  • Great article thanks for this.

    I was recently thinking about fear and death. Why should we fear death at all? It’s inevitable and out of our hands. When it comes, it comes. If I die tomorrow, well, it was out of my control.

    By taking that attitude, it will in all actuality probably extend my life because I’m not stressed out about it.

    Another quote on death by Seneca: “Rehease death. To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom. A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”

    Cheers,
    Ben

    • Hi Ben,

      Thanks for the great comment.

      It is indeed out of our hands. If we sit and dwell, it will lead to stress, fear, and sadness – all negative, damaging emotions.

      “Rehearse death” is a powerful statement – by living a full life free of the constraints of modern society, we live a purposeful life, so that when it comes time for our end, we know we gave life everything we had.

  • Hooray for the great excerpts and your thoughts on them.

    Death seems to be amongst the most prominent ideas which occupied the minds of the stoics. Some more than other. Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were indeed amongst those who contemplated or wrote about it the most.

    The thing about death is that it makes things so immediate, one is compelled to cut back on the redundancies of ones projections. I personally can vouch for this and I can really understand why it was so attractive for the stoics. Death simply had, has and always will have a undeniable power to strip us down and make us face reality as it is and not as we wish it to be.

    http://iperceptive.com/quotes/stoicism.html

    Powerful stuff!