Seneca to Lucilius: on the terrors of death

Anonymous. 'Pendant with a Monk and Death,' 1575-1675

Anonymous. ‘Pendant with a Monk and Death,’ 1575-1675

[see here for a brief introduction to this ongoing series]

The fourth letter to Lucilius by Seneca concerns the recurring Stoic theme of death and how to think about it. It begins with a charming reminder of a Roman rite of passage, which Seneca uses to reassure his friend that things are only going to get better with age, from the point of view of wisdom:

“You remember, of course, what joy you felt when you laid aside the garments of boyhood and donned the man’s toga, and were escorted to the forum; nevertheless, you may look for a still greater joy when you have laid aside the mind of boyhood and when wisdom has enrolled you among men.” (IV.2)

And one of the things that age and wisdom bring is a more proper understanding of death:

“No evil is great which is the last evil of all. Death arrives; it would be a thing to dread, if it could remain with you. But death must either not come at all, or else must come and pass away.” (IV.3)

This is not quite the same, but bears strong resemblances to Epicurus’ take on the same subject, which is not surprising since Seneca often cites the founder of the rival school, especially in the early letters to Lucilius: “Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.” (Letter to Menoeceus)

Both philosophers are essentially arguing that people’s fear of death (which is distinct from the process of dying, during which we are very much present) is predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding: we keep thinking of the experience as, well, an experience. But this is a mistake, since by definition there will be no one there to experience it: that’s what death is, the cessation of experience.

Seneca goes on to talk about a related issue, that of the quality of one’s life: “No man can have a peaceful life who thinks too much about lengthening it … Most men ebb and flow in wretchedness between the fear of death and the hardships of life; they are unwilling to live, and yet they do not know how to die.” (IV.4 & IV.5). This is something that I wish enthusiasts of Singularitarianism would understand (beside the many other issues I have with that particular idea), and which has been fictionalized in countless books and movies about people who waste their time in search of a fountain of eternal youth. (See also this classic paper on immortality by philosopher Bernard Williams.)

Finally, Seneca shifts his gaze again, this time warning Lucilius not to trust Fortune, thereby implicitly advising him to make the best of every moment he’s got:

“No man has ever been so far advanced by Fortune that she did not threaten him as greatly as she had previously indulged him. Do not trust her seeming calm; in a moment the sea is moved to its depths. The very day the ships have made a brave show in the games, they are engulfed.” (IV.7)

Do not fear death, focus on the quality of your life, and do not trust Fortune. Hard to imagine more good advice packed into a shorter essay.