Dying (every day) with dignity: lessons from Stoicism

death of SenecaI just published my first peer-reviewed paper on Stoicism. (Don’t forget, my actual profession is philosophy of science…) The title is Dying (every day) with dignity: lessons from Stoicism, an obvious take on Seneca, as reflected also in one of his two new biographies, the one by James Romm.

The paper is published in The Human Prospect, a journal devoted to humanist issues, and is part of my concerted effort to bring Stoicism to the attention of the humanist and skeptic communities. (It was originally presented as a talk at a symposium held earlier this year at Columbia University, you can see the slides here.)

I begin with a brief “Stoicism 101,” material that should be familiar to regular readers of this blog. (If not, go here, or here) The second section of the paper tackles the concepts of death and suicide in ancient Stoicism.

The Stoics were very concerned with death, although, given the general gist of their philosophy, perhaps “concerned” is not the best word. All of the major Stoic philosophers wrote about death and suicide and, in a number of documented cases, actually practiced what they preached.

From the general principles of Stoic philosophy, one can derive two generalizable attitudes about death: (i) Death itself is not to be feared, because it is a natural process, and because the individual is not “there” when it happens; and (ii) suicide is the always “open door” (in Epictetus’ famous phrase) that helps making life meaningful and frees us from enslavement.

Here is what Seneca said, in his Letter to Marcia (XIX):

Reflect that the dead suffer no evils, that all those stories which make us dread the nether world are mere fables, that he who dies need fear no darkness, no prison, no blazing streams of fire, no river of Lethe, no judgment seat before which he must appear, and that Death is such utter freedom that he need fear no more despots. All that is a phantasy of the poets, who have terrified us without a cause.… Death is neither a good nor a bad thing, for that alone which is something can be a good or a bad thing: but that which is nothing, and reduces all things to nothing, does not hand us over to either fortune, because good and bad require some material to work upon.

Another of my favorite quotes reported in the paper is by the Neostoic Michel de Montaigne, who penned an essay entitled “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die”:

Life in itself is neither good nor evil; it is the scene of good or evil, as you make it … The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you. It depends upon your will, and not upon the number of days, to have a sufficient length of life.

None of the above, of course, is a counsel to take death and suicide in a facile way. Epictetus provides insight here with his dry, characteristic sense of humor: “I must die. If soon, then I die; whereas if a little later, I will take lunch now, since the hour for lunch has come, and afterwards I will die at the appointed time” (Discourses, I.1.). The Stoics valued life as a “preferred indifferent,” and their Discipline of Action required them to be intimately involved in society, making things better for humanity at large. The Stoics we know through Greek and Roman history were very much bent on making a difference: they were teachers (Zeno, the founder of Stoicism; Musonius Rufus, Epictetus’ teacher; and Epictetus himself), politicians who influenced the course of history (Cato the Younger and Seneca), as well as generals and emperors (Marcus Aurelius).

In the same section I highlight three themes within the Stoic approach to suicide. Good reasons to walk through the open door include: (i) relief of unbearable and pointless suffering for oneself (Zeno); (ii) benefit to one’s friends and family (Seneca); or (iii) benefit to society (Cato, Porcia Catonis, his daughter). All three find obvious equivalents in a modern context. The right to die movement in Western countries, for instance, is precisely about (i) above. Clearly, even the very early Stoics, such as the School’s founder, Zeno of Citium, saw that extreme suffering, especially at a stage in one’s life when one is incapacitated from doing anything fulfilling for oneself or society, is sufficient cause to end one’s own life. In some respects it is puzzling that such an ancient principle is not widely accepted in the contemporary world, likely the result at the least in the West of the Christian concept of the “sacredness” of life.

The following section then goes into an explanation of the “preferred indifferents,” which again should be familiar to my readers, so I will skip it here.

After that, I get into Stoic practice when it comes to facing death, listing five exercises one can use to this effect:

(i) Meditate on the deaths of powerful or famous people. This meditation helps one to gradually internalize that he or she is not exceptional within the lot of humanity. Marcus weighs in here: “Hippocrates, after curing many diseases, himself fell sick and died … Alexander and Pompeius and Caesar, after so often completely destroying whole cities … at last departed from life. Heraclitus, after so many speculations on the conflagration of the universe, was filled with water and died smeared all over with cow dung” (Meditations III.3).

(ii) Read about the good deaths of worthy people. The Stoics were valued as what modern society calls “role models,” though they picked theirs more carefully than we typically do in today’s culture of celebrity worship. This is entirely consistent with the basic virtue ethical idea that practice is just as important as theory; one learns to be virtuous by attempting to be virtuous, and one learns what virtue is by watching virtuous people. Indeed, Marcus begins the Meditations with a list of people he has learned from, detailing what he has learned from them. It famously starts out: “From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper” (Meditations I.1).

(iii) Ponder the endings of entire civilizations. This is a broader version of the previous exercise, and can be thought of as a smaller version of the next. It is not just that people die; entire societies die as well. Athens fell, Rome fell, and so did every other civilization in human history. Reflecting in some detail on these events helps to put human (and a fortiori one’s own) impermanence into perspective. Marcus again: “In like manner view also the other epochs of time and of whole nations, and see how many after great efforts soon fell and were resolved into the elements” (Meditations IV.32).

(iv) Meditate on cosmic conflagrations. One of the standard Stoic meditations is the so-called “view from above,” in which the subject visualizes his or her place in an increasingly vast world and cosmos, again with the objective of helping to put things into perspective. A variant of this is to remind oneself that entire worlds, and even the universe itself, eventually come to an end. Stoic cosmology was close to the modern scientific understanding of the history of the universe: it had a beginning, and it will eventually end. The Stoics believed in a cyclic universe with a series of beginnings and endings, and though some modern cosmological models predict something similar, the essential agreement is that both individual (and personal) worlds and the cosmos will cease to exist. If that doesn’t help someone to take the long view of human affairs, it is hard to imagine what would. Here is how Marcus put it: “All things are changing: and you yourself are in continuous mutation and in a manner in continuous destruction, and the whole universe, too” (Meditations IX.19).

(v) Reflect on individual mortality as a way to renew appreciation of life. Marcus often reminded himself of his own mortality, and I have mentioned above Epictetus’ somewhat sardonic take on the subject as well. Irvine suggests that this sort of meditation, as well as the others mentioned above, may be used not just as a way to put life in a broader perspective and better understand one’s place in the cosmos, but also as a psychological trick to appreciate what one has while possessing it. Although it is true that one’s existence is but a blink in the eye of cosmic history, isn’t it nonetheless amazing to take part in that cosmic unfolding, for however brief a moment?

6 thoughts on “Dying (every day) with dignity: lessons from Stoicism

  1. Dear Massimo, thank you for your blog posts! It was your interview on CBC radio last fall that got me started studying and practicing stoicism. It’s meant a lot to me to find this philosophy and community.
    My comment here is actually out of place. I meant to comment on your past post about your planned work while on sabbatical. My comment is that I’ve come across little mention of the female contribution to or perspective on stoicism. It can be argued that the teachings of the sages are non – gender specific. True, but much of their experience as teachers, rulers, etc are roles that women were excluded from. What were women stoics doing and saying at the time? How about today? Is there room in your upcoming work to address these questions?
    Thank you for the opportunity to comment, Massimo.


  2. Katy,

    thanks for the kind words. Yes, I will address the issue of women in philosophy in my book. One cannot fault the ancient Romans for not living up to modern standards, but no such excuse is available for contemporary Stoics.

    That said, there are a few women Stoic figures in the ancient world, for instance Porcia Catonis, Cato the Younger’s daughter (and wife of Brutus, one of the co-conspirators against Julius Caesar).

    And there is a survey of ancient philosophies I commented on at TPM Online (http://www.philosophersmag.com/index.php/footnotes-to-plato/81-ancient-philosophers-a-statistical-survey) that shows that a significant number of women philosophers were associated with the Stoics.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Massimo, Thank you for your post on the Stoic view of death, much of which has been a great comfort for me.
    I agree that observing how our “role models” have dealt with death can be instructive. A close friend of mine is a pediatric oncology nurse, and she relates stories of enormous courage from the deaths of children, who of course don’t fear death the way adults usually do.
    This past summer my beloved role model, Oliver Sacks, died. But before he died, he wrote the most stunning essay: http://nyti.ms/17u5LNP
    I love the quote: “…I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.”
    And at the very end of the essay: “Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
    How incredibly, beautifully Stoic. What a gift to have such wisdom and courage at any time in one’s life, and even at the end of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hello Massimo, I recently read the book Defiant by Alvin Townley, one of the main individuals told about in the book is the late James Stockdale. What he went through in Vietnam was mind boggling, how he survived has started me on a search to study Stoic Philosophy. Could you, or anyone else here recommend a starting point, aside from this websites Stoicism 101. Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca seem to be foundational, however, is there a primer that you would advise a neophyte to read or is the best way to just jump into the water. Thank you.


  5. mdk,

    this blog has a separate tab with a list of books that you may find good ways to get deeper into Stoicism. As a general overview, I think Irvine’s would be a good start. Becker’s more technical, while Robertson’s aims more directly at practical matters.


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