Stoicism can help you get a better grasp on death. Stoics don’t shy away from this inevitable aspect of life. It shows up in several texts and is a red line throughout the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. He refers to this as change and at certain points, he talks about knowing that it’s imminent. Dying is a part of life and therefore we must not run away from it. However, it has become a taboo topic in many societies. It has turned into something we shouldn’t talk about and aim to avoid as long as we can. Yet, if we wish to live in accordance with Nature and the Logos, then we too must die. And then we will be able to find peace in accepting this ultimate change.
“Death. The end of sense-perception, of being controlled by our emotions, of mental activity, of enslavement to our bodies.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 6.28
“There is nothing bad in undergoing change – or good in emerging from it.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 4.42
We see here how Marcus Aurelius explains death. It is a change from our current state into a new state. What that is we don’t know for sure. There are enough ideas about what it does look like, but no one knows for certain. At least I don’t and Marcus Aurelius didn’t either.
“The world’s cycles never change – up and down, from age to age. Either the world’s intelligence wills each thing (if so, accept its will), or it exercised that will once – once and for all – and all else follows as a consequence (and if so, why worry?). One way or another: atoms or unity. If it’s God, all is well. If it’s arbitrary, don’t imitate it.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 9.28
Death and Change
Marcus believes it is all order in line with the Rational Universe, thus it being cause and effect that sets everything in motion or keeps it going. He does touch on the Epicurean idea of random atoms. If that is the case, then there is nothing to worry about either. Because then we will be gone. Death is, however, an important topic for philosophers. I touched on this in a previous article called, To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die, based on the essay by Michel de Montaigne. A wonderful piece that I truly recommend reading. And in a post called Why Death Needs Rebranding. Showing that it is also an important topic to me. Keeping in mind that the goal of Stoicism is to achieve peace of mind and to live virtuously, knowing how to deal with death is a vital part of the process.
“We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. Knowing how to die gives us freedom from subjection and constraint. Life has no evil for him who has thoroughly understood that loss of life is not an evil.”Michel de Montaigne, The Essays, Book 1, Chapter 20
To live a life of freedom, we need to come to terms with the fact that we will die. Death has been written in our fate the moment we were born. This is the one part of life we all share. We don’t know when or how, but that it will happen is a fact. How is it then that we are still so fearful of it? Not everyone is afraid of it, but some try to negotiate with it by saying that whenever they achieve certain goals or standards of living, then it’s ok to go. Forgetting that life, and thus death can have different plans. There is no negotiating with death, therefore remember the following words by Seneca.
“A whatever point you leave life, if you leave it in the right way, it is a whole.”Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Letter LXXVII
Death: the Ultimate Test
Leaving life the right way, that’s the ultimate test of philosophy. It is great to talk about it, but putting it to practice in the moments when it counts is what matters. And what bigger moment than letting go of our life? That’s where Stoicism and death come together, in that peaceful acceptance of what was, what is, and what will be.
The Stoics teach us that we share a part of Nature, the Logos, Universal Reason, God, however, you wish to call it. This part is our rational mind, reason, and logic. The rest is mortal and not under our control.
“‘A little wisp of a soul carrying a corpse.’ – Epictetus”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 4.41
Epictetus managed to capture it in one sentence. That corpse is what we must learn to let go of when our time comes. And those who can, will find peace as they depart. The Stoics also remind us not to go looking for it. Our time is already marked and it will come when it does. In the meantime, we need to make sure we live well. Like an actor in a play. The script is written, the curtains raised, it’s our duty to perform the best way we can. But when it is time to depart, take a bow and leave the stage. That’s how we should approach life. And as long as we have given it our best, then what is there to be sad about?
Others too shall die
Death doesn’t encompass our own, we have people dying around us as well. That is another aspect of life we have to learn to deal with. Which is more difficult than saying goodbye to our own. When we think about being ill, the people around us often struggle more with it than we do. We know there is no choice but to face it, while they stand by helplessly. The death of others brings about a whole lot of emotions, such as sadness, grief, and anger. These are now for us to deal with and learn to give a place. Keanu Reeves, who shows a lot of Stoic traits in what we know from his life, worded it beautifully after he was asked what happens when we die.
“I know that the ones who love us, will miss us.”Keanu Reeves, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, 2019
“No one is so ignorant as not to know that some day he must die.”Seneca, Letters From a Stoic, Letter LXXVII
A peaceful Acceptance
Although Seneca put it in a rather direct manner here, he is right. We all know this fact, it’s coming to terms with it where the problem lies. Stoicism can help us accept death in a more peaceful way. But this requires a lot of work. We can’t brush this topic to the side and ignore it. There are three options with every person around you, you either die before them, at the same time, or after them. Acknowledging these facts and the uncertainty of which one will happen, can help you on your way to find more peace. But when we discuss these topics, remain mindful of the people around us. Make sure you talk to someone if it weighs on you, either, death or life. Only then can we learn to give it a place and find that peaceful acceptance.