Seneca to Lucilius: 61, on meeting death cheerfully

[This is the last of three posts in my occasional "Seneca Week" series.]

Despite the title of Seneca's 60th letter to his friend Lucilius, nobody really meets death cheerfully. Not even a Stoic. But in a sense, Stoic philosophy in particular, and any philosophy of life in general, has much to do with preparing ourselves for what Frank Sinatra used to call the final curtain.

When I was younger I was obsessed with my own mortality. As in: I thought a lot about it, every day, and didn't like it a bit. After years of Stoic practice, I still don't like the thought of my consciousness one day being extinguished, but I have become much less fearful of it. More importantly, I have refocused my attention and efforts where they actually matter: what I am going to do between now and that inevitable last moment. This is very much along the lines of what Seneca writes in the letter:

"I am endeavoring to live every day as if it were a complete life. I do not indeed snatch it up as if it were my last; I do regard it, however, as if it might even be my last." (LXI.1)

Nowadays you hear even some modern Stoics saying that we should live every day as if it were our last. But this is too often misinterpreted as trying to act as if today truly were your final one. Well, that being the case, then I wouldn't do a number of things I've done today, like checking my social media! Instead, what it means is what Seneca is explaining to Lucilius: strive to live as full and complete a life as possible, because you never know when it will be over.

I am 56 years old at the moment of this writing. I just checked the actuarial statistics for the state of New York, USA, and my life expectancy is currently 79.1, third ranked in the nation -- I would be better off moving to California, or better yet Hawaii. If I lived in my native country of Italy, that number would go up to 81.9. The 6th highest in the world, surpassed only -- going from lowest to highest -- by Singapore, Switzerland, Macao, Japan, and Hong Kong. Though given the current political situation, I don't think Hong Kong would be my first choice.

All of this is interesting, statistically speaking. But do I really have 23 more years of life? Nobody knows. Depending on genetics, my behavior, and accidental circumstances, I could beat the average by a good chunk. Or I could die today because of a freak accident while crossing the street. Which is Seneca's point: despite reasonable guesses, we just don't know. And that's what makes our choices in life urgent and meaningful.

"Before I became old I tried to live well; now that I am old, I shall try to die well; but dying well means dying gladly. See to it that you never do anything unwillingly." (LXI.2)

This may seem like setting the bar too high. How on earth are we supposed to never do anything unwillingly? But what Seneca, and later on Epictetus, meant by this is to always do what your judgment tells you is good, and never what is bad. Another way to put it is that you should strive to go through life with as clean a conscience as possible.

Sometimes that's going to be hard. Epictetus, in the Discourses, presents several examples of people who were faced with a stark choice: do what the emperor commands, or face death. One of his students pointed out that of course people can be compelled to do what they do not want to do, if the consequences include physical harm or even death. But Epictetus' response is that this simply means that you valued your physical integrity, or your life, more than what was asked of you. The choice, in other words, is always yours, even at gun point.

Epictetus wasn't as naive as to think that it is always, or even often, worth giving up your life in order to stick to your values. But he did point out that the moment you don't, you have just found out the value of your soul. Seneca himself discovered the truth of this point when he was ordered by Nero to commit suicide, because he was suspected of being involved in the Pisonian conspiracy against the emperor. Seneca could have tried to escape his fate, as others did. He may or may not have succeeded. But he decided that that was a good time and a good reason to end his life. Regardless of what we may think of Seneca's well known shortcomings, that takes courage.

"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." (LXI.4)

This is one of the most profound and practical insights in all Stoic philosophy. It is an empirical fact that -- even more so in the 21st century's hyper-consumerist society -- we are never satisfied. We always seek something else, and we even buy into silly notions like "retail therapy," the idea that if something goes wrong with you or your life you can fix it by going shopping.

But demonstrably, the lives of many (though by all means not all) people in contemporary societies do not luck "furnishings," and they are not improved by going out to get more furnishings. Our happiness is in large part the result of our state of mind, and it can, therefore, be lost or achieved by way of our own judgments and choices (modern psychological research supports this conclusion).

This, I hasten to say, is not at all a dismissal of a number of very real, often systemic, problems that people face, and which ought to be addressed. We do live in the most unequal society since the Roman Empire. We are confronted by entrenched racism and sexism. We do live, in the United States and elsewhere, under an increasingly corrupted government that fails not only to address those systemic problems, but also catastrophic ones, like pandemics and the very real danger of climate collapse.

The Stoic answer to all of this is that we can make the very conscious decision of devoting at least part of our lives to do what we can to fight inequality, racism, sexism, and political corruption. It is by way of such socio-political engagement, not by going shopping, that our lives become truly meaningful and worth living -- no matter how long they turn out to be.

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