I 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.