Interview on Aeon magazine on death and Stoicism

Aeon videoThe wonderful Aeon magazine (for which I published one of their early essays, on the unity of knowledge), just released an interview Nigel Warburton (of the Philosophy Bites podcast) did with me on the topic of death and Stoicism.

The 5-minute video is here. And here is the brief accompanying description:

Founded in Athens during the 3rd century BC, Stoicism flourished for some 500 years throughout Greece and then Rome, and was shaped by the teachings of such philosophers and leaders as Zeno of Citium, Seneca, Cato the Younger, and Marcus Aurelius. Preceded and inspired by the Cynics, the Stoics valued reason, virtue and an acceptance of circumstance. More than just a mental exercise, Stoicism was intended as a practical tool for shaping its adherents’ approach to the many challenges of life and the inevitability of death. In this Aeon Video original interview, the City University of New York professor of philosophy – and practising Stoic – Massimo Pigliucci discusses how the Stoical view of death still carries meaning in a modern context, from questions of suicide to how to engage in the world and appreciate the good things in life.

5 thoughts on “Interview on Aeon magazine on death and Stoicism

  1. Seosamh Plowman

    Just watched it; I’d love to see a longer discussion with Nigel asking some questions.

    It’s a coincidence that it’s on death, since I’ve posted in the FB Stoicism group Francis Bacon’s very short essay on death (just waiting for it to be approved). In it, he gives an empirical argument that death is actually not that fearful, stating that the Stoics made too much of death. His argument is that if death were so fearful, why is it that it is so easily overcome by myriad emotions: anger; honour; sadness; etc.? I think it’s quite a good argument, since if we run to death due these these emotions or passions, then death can’t be so terrifying. Empirical observation, Bacon says, shows that the fear of death is overpowered in many different ways.

    Montaigne on death also thinks that the ancients made too much of death; he actually seems to say it produced more fear in him, perhaps due to a morbid focus or obsession. But when he had his near-death experience in a riding accident, he felt himself float on the edge of death – and it was blissful. After, Montaigne thought that the ‘peasant’ had the right attitude, as he believed they didn’t concern themselves with the thought of death.

    I think that since we fear the process of dying, rather than death itself, suicide as an option is defensible. We might fear suicide, though, if we don’t have easy ways to achieve it. (The thought of cutting my wrists like Seneca makes me shiver!) Part of the stigma against suicide is perhaps the accessibility (in our minds) of such gory images regarding the manner of carrying it out. Elizabeth Kubler Ross thought that we had lost the ‘naturalness’ of death in the West, and the dignity of death, in our hospitals. Perhaps we’ve also lost the naturalness, and dignity, of suicide?


  2. Massimo Post author


    yes, Nigel has been pretty critical of Stoicism, hopefully I’ll change his mind over time… 😉

    As for Bacon and Montaigne, they were both strongly influenced by Stoicism, especially the latter. I don’t think the Stoics made “too much” of death, and they would certainly have agreed with your summaries above. But they did live in violent times, so the thought was always nearby, especially for exposed politicians like Seneca.

    Yes, we have certainly lost a culture of dying in the West, and perhaps we need a culture of suicide. It’s slowly happening in a few Western countries, with the idea of medically assisted suicide.


  3. labnut

    I enjoyed the interview. It was professionally done. I think you made a very important point about contrasts. Happiness only exists by contrast with sadness. We must feel sadness to be aware of happiness. We must feel despair to be aware of joy. One must feel loss to value what we have. We must approach death to feel the joy of life. I don’t mean really approach it, I mean to discuss it, to prepare for it, to consider all its implications, to really think about it. I liked your point about an open door. Strangely enough that was exactly my experience –

    You then carried on to talk about exposing oneself to things like cold, fatigue and other extremes. Once again it is a case of exposing oneself to extremes so that one can savour or enjoy its polar opposite.

    Exposure to contrasts serves four functions:
    1. It sensitises us to deeper and more intense appreciation of the positive experience.
    2. One learns to to savour the negative experience by extracting oneself and becoming an observer of oneself.
    3. One develops emotional strength, hardiness and resilience.
    4. One learns to understand the suffering of others and thus feel empathy for them.

    The most important thing it has taught me is the importance of memory. An event exists for a brief moment in time but the memory accompanies us always. Thus the memory of the event is more important than the event itself. By acquiring hardiness we take control of the memory instead of being victim of the memory. By transforming the memory into something good we colour our life in a positive, life affirming way.

    I suggest this is the real value of Stoicism, that we can embrace all events, knowing they can be transformed into new ways of flourishing. At the heart of this is the strangely three dimensional experience of learning to be a reflective observer of oneself’s experience as one experiences.

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  4. labnut

    Yes, we have certainly lost a culture of dying in the West

    That is an interesting observation. It has happened because we have isolated the process of dying, confining it to hospitals and hospices so that no child is exposed to death and few adults are. In times past people died in our homes and every child would have seen an elderly relative in the extended family die. And of course mortality rates were then much higher so that the experience of death was not infrequent.

    And the nature of dying has changed. Today most deaths are of the elderly from degenerative diseases. Then they were often sudden and premature deaths, which are naturally felt more keenly.

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