How Stoic Philosophy Teaches Us to Live
If nothing else, death is a constant reminder of the fragility of life. It is a reminder of our existence and the time we have. Through death, we are reminded of why life is so valuable. But the hardest pill to swallow is that we, like everything else in life, must pass.
This is an abstract concept, we’re here one moment and then in the blink of an eye we’re not. There is no escape, no avoidance, no prevention. We will die. And on the face of it, that is extremely bleak. It leads some to live a hedonistic lifestyle while others turn to existential nihilism, asking what is the point in anything if we’re just going to die? The Stoics, however, viewed death as a natural succession to life, an event like any other which must occur and cannot be denied.
In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius reminds himself:
“Death, like birth, is just a natural process, material elements combining, growing, decaying and finally separating and completely dispersing.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations IV.5
ACCEPT THE UNACCEPTABLE
The Stoics knew to accept what life was. They understood that we are born into this world and will one day leave it. But it is through our actions, what we do between birth and death, which is most important. And in this time, we have the ability to live what the Stoics referred to as a virtuous life.
The Stoics defined virtue within four characteristics known as the Four Cardinal Virtues of Stoicism. A simplified view of the cardinal virtues provides that a virtuous life consists of:
- Prudence (Wisdom): The practical wisdom we possess.
- Justice (Morality): Our ability to be moral in our actions.
- Temperance (Moderation): Our self-control over our actions.
- Fortitude (Courage): Being courageous to life’s adversities.
These in combination represented living a virtuous life to the Stoics. But they can be summarized even further by stating that living a virtuous life means living a life worth living. This does not mean sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. It means living a life of meaning, creating good within the world and impacting those around us.
The Stoics knew that there was no point in arguing or fighting against the aspects of life for which we have no control. In his moral letters to Lucilius, Seneca explains that while we all travel different paths throughout our lives, death is the unifying act which reunites us:
“The act of dying is equal in all… Death has no degrees of greater or less; for it has the same limit in all instances, the finishing of life.” Seneca. Letters from a Stoic. Letter LXVI
By knowing that death is imminent for all, we can learn to view death as a reminder of life. While death is scary and unknown, it is not yet here for us, and this means we still have today. By keeping this in mind, we have supreme power and control over our lives, our actions, and the direction we wish to go in. We have gratitude for our existence and the existence of those close to us. Every day that we wake is another opportunity to take action on our lives and walk a path of virtue.
UTILIZE YOUR MOST VALUABLE RESOURCE
The time we have in this world is finite and it is our most valuable resource. With each passing day, we lose another breath, and inch closer to death. But that does not mean our lives are meaningless. On the contrary, one could view this with excitement and understand that because life is not infinite, because there is an expiration date, it provides meaning to our existence and our actions. And this means that we can take action to do things that create purpose for our lives. It could be as simple as being a great friend to someone in need, or as extreme as curing cancer. But it is through our actions and how we live our lives that we provide value not only to our time on this earth but also to those around us, and in turn, the world.
Understand, what you do today reverberates throughout time with a compounding effect. The things you teach your son and daughter will be carried on through their lives by them, and in turn they will pass their experiences on to their own children, and so on and so forth. Think of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. The first book of Meditations consists of 17 entries devoted to the individuals who helped teach and build Marcus into the person he became. This is life. It is about us, all of us, having relationships, working together, sharing our stories and experiences, teaching others what have learned, and impacting the world. We are all teachers regardless of whether or not we stand up in front of a class full of children and speak about math or science. Creating impact in the world, leaving it a better place than what we found it, being the best version of ourselves that we can be, that is a life worth living. That is a virtuous life.
UNDERSTAND, IT IS ALL NATURAL
The reminder of death brings our lives into a complete picture. We understand that we will one day meet this fate, but are unsure of when that day will be. So in order to properly live, we must learn to accept death as a natural process of life. The Stoics viewed death as natural, a return to Nature. It is the value-judgments we place on death which makes it as terrible as it is.
In book nine of Meditations, Marcus Aurelius reminds himself:
“Think not disdainfully of death, but look on it with favor; for even death is one of the things that Nature wills.” Marcus Aurelius. Meditations IX.3
As hard as we try, we cannot escape death. In the Pulitzer award winning book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker, Becker argues:
“The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.” Ernest Becker. The Denial of Death
This is the existential dilemma we all will face at one point or another in our lives. It often appears after the passing of a loved one or someone close. How easily we all forget our own mortality as we go throughout our lives until something like death or the possibility of it shakes our foundation and awakens us to the transient nature of life. Yet, it is unfortunately a natural part of life, something we all will, and must, experience, something which cannot be avoided, something we must accept. Choosing not to accept this does not mean we can somehow change or avoid it, it means we are denying the inevitable and being ignorant to the truths of life.
But how do we embrace something which is so scary and painful? Which is so unknown?
By living today. By realizing we have this moment. Right now.
We have control over our time, over our actions. We cannot predict the future. We can only be reminded of the value of today and embrace it as fully as possible. If death is to come, we should, according to the Stoics, face it with dignity.
It is a natural part of human nature to fear and run from death, it is literally built into our entire being from birth — survival at all costs — fight or flight. We do not have the same fears of survival which our ancestors did, but death still lingers over us. The average individual will live to be 79 and that number continues to rise with each generation due to medical advances. What does not improve, what will ultimately never change, is that death will come for each and every one of us. It is what brings about our fight or flight response, this fear that our lives could end. But in today’s world, it is not brought about by a lion chasing us, but rather, a near-fatal car crash, a negative post on social media, or even a fight with a loved one.
But this does not have to be the case.
In Donald Robertson’s book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, he quotes a story by Aulus Gellius and his work, The Attic Nights, which smoothly articulates this dichotomy between our involuntary reactions (propatheiai — proto-passions) which we cannot control, such as fight or flight, and the ones which we can control, such as our emotional response to an event.
The story is of a Stoic teacher who was caught at sea during a storm. When the weather turned terrible, and the crew feared for their lives, even the Stoic teacher expressed concern for his own life, his face taking on an expression of fear as it drained of color. Once the storm passed, the crew mocked him and said, “What does this mean, Sir philosopher, that when we were in danger you were afraid and turned pale, while I neither feared nor changed colour.” Once at safety, the Stoic teacher replied, “Since you are desirous of knowing, hear what our forefathers, the founders of the Stoic sect, thought about the brief but inevitable and natural fear, or rather, read it, for if you read it, you will be the more ready to believe it and you will remember it better.” The Stoic teacher then pulled out a copy of Discourses by Epictetus.
As Donald Robertson writes:
“The proto-passions are here described as “brief but inevitable and natural”, precursors of full-blown emotions and desires. They are classed as morally indifferent by Stoics. I would add that the Stoics perhaps viewed them as comparable to the primitive feelings experienced by other animals, as a sort of reflex-like antecedent of full-blown human emotion.”
Understand, our natural responses will inevitably kick in as a survival mechanism, but while we cannot escape the fight or flight response as it is a biological reaction to external events, we can learn to harness when this reaction comes about — but it starts with our outlook and understanding of death. As Donald Robertson writes in his book, Stoicism and the Art of Happiness:
“The Stoics also argued that it is irrational to judge something “evil” once we accept that it is inevitable because calling something evil is tantamount to saying that it must be avoided at all costs.” Donald Robertson, Stoicism and the Art of Happiness
OUR TEACHERS ARE GONE BUT THEIR LESSONS REMAIN
We all must pass, and it is up to us to decide how we wish to do it. All of the Stoics passed in different ways, yet when each did depart, they did so accepting their fate and leaving on their own accord.
Marcus Aurelius was extremely ill with what historians today believe to be ulcers. He refused to eat or drink in his final days, all to speed up the process of death.
Seneca was forced to commit suicide after he was accused of playing a role in an effort to overthrow Nero (something which was never proven). But Seneca, even after his veins were slashed and he said goodbye to his weeping wife, continued to live. He requested poison from a friend to help speed the suffering since he was not bleeding fast enough due to his aged veins, yet, he still did not die after ingesting the poison. It wasn’t until he was placed in a bathtub, veins severed, poison in his stomach, that he died from suffocating on the steam of the bath.
Cato, an outspoken statesman and Stoic, balked at the reign of Caesar and refused to live under the oppressive tyranny which ruled the country. A sage-warrior, he took his sword from his bedside and thrust it into his chest in an attempt to take his own life before Caesar could. But still, he did not die. Cato, intestines hanging from the self-inflicted gash, “plucked out his own bowels, and tearing open the wound, immediately expired.”
Each of these men knew of, and was comfortable with, death. They accepted their fates, they did not fight against them, they did not run. On the contrary, they turned towards death, embracing the fate they saw, and living as virtuously as possible in their final hours. Or simply put, they exemplified amor fati, an acceptance of their fates.
But how can we become as comfortable with death as the Stoics? How can we embrace the fragility of our lives and live in accordance with Nature, knowing that with each and every passing breath, our days become shorter and shorter?
EQUIP YOURSELF FOR THE INEVITABLE
We must learn to accept the fact that we live and die. We do not know when it will come. We do not know how. But a guarantee is that it will one day come for us all. It’s scary and depressing at times. But by accepting our fate, we can embrace it and lean harder into the present moment. Instead of worrying about what’s on social media, we can embrace our ability to read, grow, and create the lives we want. We can cherish the times we have with friends and family. As it is, we are all on borrowed time. But in that time, we can pursue a life of virtue rather than of empty and fleeting dopamine hits.
In Robert Greene’s latest book, The Laws of Human Nature, he ends the book with a meditation on death. He speaks to the importance of death and the Stoic art of visualizing our last day on earth. Through this conclusion, he reiterates the Stoic value of needing to remember death as being ever present:
“With this continual awareness we can see what really matters, how petty squabbles and side pursuits are irritating distractions.” Robert Greene. The Laws of Human Nature
Or as Seneca reminds Lucilius:
“Imagine this is your last day of life; or if not the next to last.” Seneca, Letters from a Stoic. Letter XV
Greene provides five key strategies from the Stoics which anyone can use to meditate on death and overcome the fear that is so intrinsically built into it:
Make the Awareness Visceral
“Out of fear we convert death into an abstraction, a thought we can entertain now and then or repress. But life is not a thought; it is a flesh-and-blood reality, something we feel from within… we need to experience it this way.”
Awaken to the Shortness of Life
“When we unconsciously disconnect ourselves from the awareness of death, we forge a particular relationship to time — one that is rather loose and distended…We must think of our mortality as a kind of continual deadline…”
See the Mortality in Everyone
“The more we can create this visceral connection to people through our common mortality, the better we are able to handle human nature in all its varieties with tolerance and grace.”
Embrace All Pain and Adversity
“Life by its nature involves pain and suffering. And the ultimate form of this is death itself…There is much in life we cannot control, with death as the ultimate example of this…our task is to accept these moments, and even embrace them, not for the pain but for the opportunities to learn and strengthen ourselves.”
Open the Mind to the Sublime
“Think of death as a kind of threshold we all must cross. As such, it represents the ultimate mystery… When we turn this around, becoming more aware of our mortality, we experience a taste of true freedom.”
REMEMBER, YOU DIE IN THE END
As a reminder of the inevitable death which we all eventually meet, the ancient Romans would have a slave whose sole responsibility was to walk alongside a military leader and whisper into their ear, “Memento Mori” which roughly translates to “Remember thou must die.” This reminder was to help center the leader, a way to remind them of the fact that they are alive today, but can leave life at any moment. This is one reason why people like Ryan Holiday carry a Memento Mori coin in their pocket, a reminder of life’s shortness and the possibility of it all ending.
Marcus Aurelius similarly reminded himself of the ephemeral nature of life, writing:
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. II.11
If nothing else, we must remember that there is no escape from this truth: we will die. But we shouldn’t run from it, instead, lean in, embrace this fragile life, live a life you’re proud of. Live for yourself, for your family, for your virtues. Live to see another day, because there will come a time when the last card in the deck is pulled, and there’s nothing left to play; there’s no more books to read or friends to call, no more smiles to share or photos to take, no more kind words or kisses to be shared. What will remain will be the impressions you have left on those around you, and possibly even the world.
As Seneca writes in On the Shortness of Life:
“It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing.” Seneca. On the Shortness of Life
Time is finite. Virtue is not. You have today. You still have time to live a virtuous life, to make that impact you want to make, to bring joy into this world, even if it is just for yourself. Use it to your advantage.
Marcus Aurelius writes in Meditations:
“…look to the immensity of time behind thee, and to the time which is before thee, another boundless space. In this infinity then what is the difference between him who lives three days and him who lives three generations?” Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. IV.53
Understand, by learning to embrace the inevitable, we are able to provide greater value to the present moment. We are able to better focus on the here and now, on what is most important. We are able to better connect to our friends, loved ones, and colleagues. We are more equipped to create an impact. We are better able to remember we have time to make the most out of our lives and still go after and achieve the things we wish to achieve.
“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.” Marcus Aurelius. Meditations VII.56