Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 102 - On the Intimations of Our Immortality

On the Intimations of Our Immortality

Many fear dying as well as dying as a 'nobody.'  Therefore, to alleviate this fear, they will either pursue fame or becoming a legend, or they may seek a path to immortality, or, perhaps they don't see how these two paths are possible, if so, then they pivot to telling themselves a story that they will resurrect and become immortal in heaven.  Even Seneca seems to take this final path as we will read in the letter.

Seneca addresses the above human problems.

The first half of the letter gets into the minutia of the difference between glory and renown.  While glory "depends upon the judgments of the many, ... renown [depends] on the judgments of good men."

Earlier, Seneca writes,

we believe that nothing is a good, if it be composed of things that are distinct. For a single good should be checked and controlled by a single soul; and the essential quality of each single good should be single.

Good men will all say the same thing about other good men.  In this way, the good is 'controlled' singly.  But glory and fame depend on the varied opinions of many, and therefore is not good.

All this seems a bit obscure and I didn't have much patience to detangle all the nuances which Seneca argues.  Half way through the letter, he admits this type of discussion is all 'petty quibbles.'

But it should not be our purpose to discuss things cleverly and to drag Philosophy down from her majesty to such petty quibbles.

He then pivots and gets into what Hadot calls 'spiritual exercises' which lead us to live with the gods and to think nothing of fame and death (externals and indiffernts).

Seneca writes,

Tell me rather how closely in accord with nature it is to let one's mind reach out into the boundless universe!


The soul's homeland is the whole space that encircles the, height and breadth of the firmament, the whole rounded dome within which lie land and sea, within which the upper air that sunders the human from the divine also unites them, and where all the sentinel stars are taking their turn on duty.


"All the years," says the soul, "are mine; no epoch is closed to great minds; all Time is open for the progress of thought.

Letting your soul imaginatively explore time and space, is a spiritual exercise.  It has the effect of diminishing our fears and anxieties surrounding the pursuit of fame and immortality.  If we contemplate the Whole sufficiently, we will reason that we are a part of an enormous, complex Whole, which is the Stoic God.  Fame and death are nothing when view from the perspective of the Whole.  Why would we waste our most rare and precious resource (time), on worrying over such matters?

If you are still hung up on the idea of no immortality, then contemplate how your soul will become part of the eternal Whole.  Just as it was difficult, at first, for us as newborns, so too will our death be difficult, but later we adjust and settle into our new state.

These delays of mortal existence are a prelude to the longer and better life. As the mother's womb holds us for ten months, making us ready, not for the womb itself, but for the existence into which we seem to be sent forth when at last we are fitted to draw breath and live in the open; just so, throughout the years extending between infancy and old age, we are making ourselves ready for another birth.

We must never lose sight of the reality of our situation.  We were born with nothing and we die with even less.

Survey everything that lies about you, as if it were luggage in a guest-chamber: you must travel on. Nature strips you as bare at your departure as at your entrance.  You may take away no more than you brought in; what is more, you must throw away the major portion of that which you brought with you into life: you will be stripped of the very skin which covers you – that which has been your last protection; you will be stripped of the flesh, and lose the blood which is suffused and circulated through your body; you will be stripped of bones and sinews, the framework of these transitory and feeble parts.

And if we are forced, in the end, to let go of all this, what stops us from preparing now for that day?  Nothing!   We should prepare for and be comfortable with our own death.

let go your already useless limbs with resignation and dispense with that body in which you have dwelt for so long. It will be torn asunder, buried out of sight, and wasted away. Why be downcast? This is what ordinarily happens: when we are born, the afterbirth always perishes. Why love such a thing as if it were your own possession? It was merely your covering. The day will come which will tear you forth and lead you away from the company of the foul and noisome womb.  Withdraw from it now too as much as you can, and withdraw from pleasure, except such as may be bound up with essential and important things; estrange yourself from it even now, and ponder on something nobler and loftier.

Having thought of your own death, move on to consider grander and nobler things: the Whole.  Nature.  And as you do so, your fears and anxieties will diminish.

Picture to yourself how great is the glow when all the stars mingle their fires; no shadows will disturb the clear sky. The whole expanse of heaven will shine evenly.


Such thoughts permit nothing mean to settle in the soul, nothing low, nothing cruel. They maintain that the gods are witnesses of everything. They order us to meet the gods' approval, to prepare ourselves to join them at some future time, and to plan for immortality. He that has grasped this idea shrinks from no attacking army, is not terrified by the trumpet-blast, and is intimidated by no threats.  How should it not be that a man feels no fear, if he looks forward to death?

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