Are you ready to die? I’m not, which means my philosophical training is not yet complete. I’m not a sage. As Seneca says:
“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.” (Letters to Lucilius, IV.5)
I have always been “willing to live” in Seneca’s sense, meaning to do things in life that I found worthwhile and meaningful. From very early on, when I was in middle school, I resolved that I would become a scientist, because the human quest for knowledge and understanding seemed to me to be paramount. I was lucky enough to actually have a successful academic career as an evolutionary biologist, and it seemed like that was going to last me for a lifetime.
But then my mid-life crisis came, and I (re)discovered philosophy, both as an academic pursuit and as a way of life. In the first sense I was lucky once again, being able to switch fields and find a full time position in my new chosen vocation. In the second sense, it took the accidental discovery of Stoicism a few years back to finally provide me with a workable alternative to the Catholicism I grew up with and the secular humanism I had initially chosen to replace my religion with.
And yet, going back to Seneca, I still don’t know how to die. This thought came to the forefront of my consciousness a few days ago, when I attended the funeral of a friend’s mother. She was in her 90s, and had been suffering from a neural degenerative disease for a few years. And she had been in pain for much of that time. So death came as a release to both her and her close family and friends.
My friend’s mother was a teacher, and it was moving to see several of her students — including the officiant at the funeral — to pay tribute to the impact she had on their lives. By all accounts, she was also a loving mother and wife, so that her long life was what the ancients would call eudaimonic — worth living. In an important way, I’m hoping that my funeral will be something like hers: a moment of remembrance of the good she did in life, attended by people who knew her and cared for her. I’m working on it.
But what about this Stoic notion of being ready to die? One reason I know I’m not a sage is because I am not truly prepared for that moment. I still think of it, as most people do, as something that is going to happen in the distant future, maybe two or three decades down the road. While statistically that’s a reasonable expectation for a white man in his mid-fifties, it spectacularly missing the point from a Stoic perspective.
I could die today, for all I know. Or within the month, or before the end of the year, or nowhere near that psychologically conveniently “distant enough” future I keep imagining (and, implicitly, counting on). What precludes me from taking the next step in my philosophical training is, of course, a certain degree of fear of death. This, mind you, is a healthy attitude ingrained in us by natural selection. But philosophy helps us see that it may also hinder us. In two crucial passages Seneca dispatches of any fear we may harbor about death itself. The first one presents the so-called argument from symmetry: you don’t seem to have suffered from non-existence before you were born, so why worry about entering a similar situation after you die?
“Death is non-existence, and I know already what that means. What was before me will happen again after me. If there is any suffering in this state, there must have been such suffering also in the past, before we entered the light of day. As a matter of fact, however, we felt no discomfort then.” (Letters to Lucilius, LIV.4)
The second passage sweeps away all the fantasies that poets and priests have been conjuring for millennia, mostly — in the case of the priests at least — with the goal of controlling us:
“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.” (To Marcia, In Consolation, XIX)
Fear of death warps the way we think about life itself, and makes it more difficult for us to focus on what really matters: the here and now. While we are preoccupied with the final exit, we may actually mislive the only life that the cosmic web of cause-effect has granted us:
“Life is well enough furnished, but we are too greedy with regard to its furnishings; something always seems to us lacking, and will always seem lacking. To have lived long enough depends neither upon our years nor upon our days, but upon our minds.” (Letters to Lucilius, LXI.4)
To be clear, I have made a lot of progress on this. When I was young I was thinking about my own death very frequently, almost daily. And the notion really bothered the hell out of me. Now I think of it only from time to time, and with significantly more detachment. And I’m still working on it, not just by reading and re-reading Seneca, and by writing about it (what you are reading here is essentially one of my public meditations), but also by occasionally doing a memento mori (remember, you have to die) exercise, consisting in taking a slow, deliberate walk through a cemetery.
If you have never done it, give it a try. Stop by a number of graves, read the names and the dates, pay attention to the ages of the people who are buried there. Far from an exercise in morbidity, it is a liberating instance of the view from above, the notion that we should train ourselves to look at things in perspective, in this case by bringing to mind the obvious but otherwise usually discounted fact that we are all mortal, that we will all go, one day or another. Which means that what makes the difference is what, exactly, we are going to do between now and then.
But of course one could reasonably argue that it isn’t death itself that is the problem, but the way we will die. While the Stoic sage is not bothered even by that, I have to admit that aspect of the issue is more worrisome to me than the notion of a permanent extinction of my consciousness. This is something that Seneca wrote quite a bit about, especially in his Letter LXX, which some translations entitle “On the proper time to slip the cable.” He says:
“It is not a question of dying earlier or later, but of dying well or ill. And dying well means escape from the danger of living ill.” (Letters to Lucilius, LXX.6)
Seneca directly confronts those who argue about the “sanctity,” as some modern religious people would put it, of life, scoffing at their argument:
“You can find men who have gone so far as to profess wisdom and yet maintain that one should not offer violence to one’s own life, and hold it accursed for a man to be the means of his own destruction; we should wait, say they, for the end decreed by nature. But one who says this does not see that he is shutting off the path to freedom. The best thing which eternal law ever ordained was that it allowed to us one entrance into life, but many exits.” (Letters to Lucilius, LXX.14)
The last sentence is one of many examples of Seneca’s beautiful turn of phrase and use of metaphors. We don’t choose to enter life, but we have a choice of how to exit it. And we should take full advantage of that choice, by thinking carefully about when and how we want to exercise that last crucial choice in our lives. That is why I have always — even before my discovery of Stoicism — been in favor of assisted suicide and the right to end one’s life. Seneca very clearly explains the rationale for this:
“Must I await the cruelty either of disease or of man, when I can depart through the midst of torture, and shake off my troubles? This is the one reason why we cannot complain of life; it keeps no one against his will.” (Letters to Lucilius, LXX.15)
Sure enough, Seneca did end his life once Nero accused him of being part of a conspiracy against him. Nero demanded Seneca’s death, but it was Seneca that was in charge of his last moments, as his role model Socrates had been centuries earlier. I am hoping for a less dramatic exit than either Socrates or Seneca, and I certainly cannot aspire to their endurance as philosophers. But I am determined to keep my training going, to prepare for the exit exam as best as my imperfections as a human being allow.