Seneca to Lucilius, 30: death of an Epicurean

(Death playing chess in Ingmar BergmanBergman's The Seventh Seal)

The ancient Stoics were not the only ones to be concerned with death. So were the Epicureans, and letter 30 of the series written by Seneca to Lucilius is concerned with the approaching departure of their mutual friend Bassus, a practicing Epicurean. The first reason this is interesting lies in the very fact that Stoics and Epicureans could be close friends, which should be a lesson in mutual tolerance of different ideas.

Seneca begins by saying that at some point the body becomes like a leaking vessel that is about to sink: you close one hole here and another one immediately opens up over there. It’s barely possible to slow down the decline, but not to stop or reverse it, which means that the time has arrived to make peace with death itself, to look around for the exit, as Seneca puts it.

The letter comments on how well Bassus is taking all of this, which - Seneca comments - is a major benefit of philosophy: it enables us to be serene, even cheerful, in the face of the last test of our character, our own demise. Stoics and Epicureans, incidentally, were certainly not the only ones to take this attitude. Many centuries later, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume gave yet another excellent example of how to leave life in a cheerful and congenial mood. Philosophy teaches us to do this over the course of many years, but it is a lesson well worth learning.

“A person would be crazy to fear something that’s not going to happen to him, and it is equally crazy to fear something you won’t feel. Or does anyone believe that he will feel death, when in fact it is through death that he ceases to feel anything else?” (XXX.6)

Invariably, when I quote this or similar passages, someone is going to say: how do you know? What guarantees that you won’t feel anything after death, that there won’t be any “you” to feel anything? The question always struck me as rather odd, a desperate attempt to deny the obvious, if you will. Of course there is no guarantee of certain knowledge in this like in so many other things. But everything we know about existence, not to mention physics and biology, tells us that Seneca and Bassus are correct in their assessment. And they got that point already two millennia ago. To deny it would be like insisting that we don’t know for sure that the sun will rise tomorrow. True. But - other than to make a purely logical and contrarian point - do you really think it isn’t going to?

Seneca explicitly tells Lucilius, who might have raised a similar objection, that our best “informants” on death are those - like Baccus - who have come very near it and are daily experiencing its approach. This is an interesting point, and still today we are fascinated by what dying people are thinking and saying, from which we have much to learn - mostly about what we regret if we don't live a fulfilling life.

“He who is unwilling to die never wanted to live, for life is given to us with death as a precondition. Death is where we are headed, and for that reason one would be mad to fear it. It is uncertainty that frightens us; when things are certain, we simply await them.” (XXX.10)

This is a point on which both Stoics and Epicureans agreed. So much so, that even though I practice Stoicism, I long thought that the urn that will contain my ashes should have this epitaph, attributed to Epicurus:

I was not

I have been

I am not

I do not mind

Seneca goes on to say that we have nothing to complain about death, since it is a natural process, and it is an equal requirement for every living beings. It’s the ultimate in fairness and equality. So why are we so bothered by the very thought of our demise?

“The torment we feel comes about through our own agency, because we become alarmed when we believe that death is close at hand. But isn’t it close to everyone, ready in every place and every moment?” (XXX.16)

The letter concludes with two reminders for Lucilius, and for us all. The first is that it isn’t death that we fear, but the thought of death. That’s of course in line with the fundamental Stoic (and Buddhist) teaching that it isn’t externals that cause our suffering, but our opinions about externals, and our unreasonable attachment to them. The second one is that if we want to overcome our fear of death, paradoxically, we need to think about it often, since familiarity - as we say today - breeds contempt.

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