Stoicism and death

essentialI recently gave a talk at a conference on “Dying without Deity” organized by the Institute for Science and Human Values, and held at Columbia University in New York. I was asked to provide a Stoic perspective on death and dying as the final talk in the conference. The full set of slides can be downloaded here.

As you can see, the talk starts with a very brief introduction to Stoic doctrines, providing an overview of the three disciplines (Desire, Action and Assent), their relations to the three basic fields of inquiry (Physics, Ethics and Logic), and to the four cardinal virtues (Courage, Temperance, Justice and Wisdom).

After that I talk about death as a natural phenomenon not to be feared, as well as of suicide as Epictetus’ “open door,” to be used (with wisdom!) when things become unbearable.

I explain the counterintuitive concepts of “indifferents” and why they may without contradiction be classed as either preferred or dispreferred, then illustrate some of the basic ideas with a series of examples of famous Stoics’ suicides.

The last part of the talk gives a few pointers on how to meditate on death in order to achieve the twin goals of: i) decrease our instinctive fear of it; and ii) use it as a positive reminder of why it is good to be alive and able to pursue a eudaimonic life.

3 thoughts on “Stoicism and death

  1. Daniel Mann

    While the prospect of death might invest life with a warm glow, the prospect of annihilation robs even the sun of its light. It’s a dark cloud that never vanishes.


  2. Wm. Burgess

    Hi Daniel,
    The eternal finality of annihilation can bring an absolute value to every moment we have with our lives and those we love. Whenever I am angry or discontent with my wife or son, I only have to imagine a moment that will almost certainly happen; she will be beside my death bed as I die or I beside hers. Whatever angered me melts away as infinitely petty in that moment and nothing is left but love. Even death is unable to take away that moment of love; it happened, and in a way, that’s all that matters.


  3. Massimo Post author

    Daniel, I’m with Wm on this one. I never understood the concept that just because something is finite it therefore has no value. On the contrary, it acquires value precisely because it will not always be there.


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