Friday, June 12, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 4 - On the Terrors of Death

On the Terrors of Death

Plato said, “In truth, those who practice philosophy correctly practice dying.”

Seneca, continues that tradition with this letter.  In a word, memento mori.

A few points from this letter.

In the following passage, Seneca expounds a bit on the thought: this too shall pass.
All you need to do is to advance; you will thus understand that some things are less to be dreaded, precisely because they inspire us with great fear. No evil is great which is the last evil of all. Death arrives; it would be a thing to dread, if it could remain with you. But death must either not come at all, or else must come and pass away.
The sooner we come to grips with the reality and inevitability of our own death, the sooner we will be at peace.  And we can live the remainder of our days, at peace with death.  Thus Seneca writes,
No man can have a peaceful life who thinks too much about lengthening it ... Rehearse this thought every day, that you may be able to depart from life contentedly; for many men clutch and cling to life, even as those who are carried down a rushing stream clutch and cling to briars and sharp rocks.
And then there are the trials and difficulties of life (the indifferents).  People in a "wretched" state are those who are either worrying about death or worrying about the next flood, theft, sickness, layoff, bad grade or breakup.
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.  For this reason, make life as a whole agreeable to yourself by banishing all worry about it. No good thing renders its possessor happy, unless his mind is reconciled to the possibility of loss; nothing, however, is lost with less discomfort than that which, when lost, cannot be missed. Therefore, encourage and toughen your spirit against the mishaps that afflict even the most powerful (emphasis added).
That last part of the quote is advice Seneca gives to those who wish to practice Stoicism.  He is advocating the practice of memento mori as well as the practice of hardships.  Today's moderns will take a cold shower.  But to truly make practicing hardships meaningful to yourself, you must first ask yourself what you fear.  If you fear poverty, the live like a pauper every so often.

Now, we can't practice death.  But we can think about our death.  We can observe the deaths of others.  This is why Marcus' writings, in his Meditations, are full of such thoughts.  Death is nothing to fear.  In this very letter, Seneca goes on to discuss the sundry ways death claimed the powerful.

Never forget where you are being lead, day after day.  In the end - at the end of our journey - we die.
Take my word for it: since the day you were born you are being led thither. We must ponder this thought, and thoughts of the like nature, if we desire to be calm as we await that last hour, the fear of which makes all previous hours uneasy.
The last part of his letter, he ends with a thought about poverty: "Poverty brought into conformity with the law of nature, is great wealth."  And, just as we learned from Henry David Thoreau, very little is needed to sustain life.  Seneca said as much in this letter:
In order to banish hunger and thirst, it is not necessary for you to pay court at the doors of the purse-proud, or to submit to the stern frown, or to the kindness that humiliates; nor is it necessary for you to scour the seas, or go campaigning; nature's needs are easily provided and ready to hand. (emphasis added)
Much of our worry and sweat is for "superfluous" stuff - stuff that is not important (indifferents).
It is the superfluous things for which men sweat, – the superfluous things that wear our togas threadbare, that force us to grow old in camp, that dash us upon foreign shores. That which is enough is ready to our hands. He who has made a fair compact with poverty is rich. Farewell.
Now, go practice.

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