Stoic guide to learning how to die
Updated: Feb 17
A whole lifetime is needed to learn how to live, and — perhaps you’ll find this more surprising — a whole lifetime is needed to learn how to die.
— Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, thought to be 68 or 69 when he died by a sloppy suicide ordered by implacable Roman emperor Nero in CE 65.
Acerbic literary memento mori abound here in the Stygian sluice room. You know the drill:
Because I could not stop for Death —
He kindly stopped for me
— Emily Dickinson, dead in 1886 at age 55 of what her physician diagnosed as Bright’s disease, an archaic term for what is now known as nephritis, an inflammation of the kidneys caused by toxins, infection or autoimmune conditions.
If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.
— Michel de Montaigne, who died at age 59 in 1592 of what was then called quinsy, an accumulation of pus due to an infection behind the tonsil.
That tonsillectomy you had in 1957 doesn’t seem so pointless now, does it?
I could go on, but pointlessness taken. In the long run, none of us will need assistance — medical or otherwise — in dying.
On the other cold, dead hand, there is no long run.
“We are born astride of a grave,” says imperious traveller Pozzo in Samuel Beckett’s searing Waiting for Godot, the 20th-century version of Shakespeare’s unsurpassed Hamlet. “The light gleams an instant and then it’s night once more.”
For all but a select few, time hath, my lords and ladies, a wallet at his back wherein he puts alms for oblivion.
Still, the names of those chosen ones are spoken aloud for millennia against the susurrus of generations passing like traffic in the rain. Seneca’s, for example.
Reflections on death and dying are prominent in the Moral Epistles, a collection of letters Seneca addressed in the first century CE to his good friend Lucilius when they were in their 60s and approaching what Hamlet would famously describe as “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.”
A bourn (I know you’re wondering) is a small stream, especially one that flows intermittently or seasonally.
As for Pozzo’s acute observation about the infinitesimal brevity of human life against the pitiless black maw of eternities on either side of the twilight’s fast gleaming, Seneca — a Stoic philosopher of ancient Rome, dramatist, statesman, satirist and contemporary of Christ — got there first.
This is from the Consolation to Marcia, Seneca’s earliest surviving work, in which he endeavours to persuade a mother not to be unduly grieved by the loss of a young son:
“He died too soon, still a youth.” Suppose he had still had ahead of him — well, reckon up the longest that’s allowed to a human being to keep going. How long is it? We are born into the briefest space of time, soon to make way for the next arrivals.
Am I speaking of only our life spans, which, (we know), roll on with incredible speed? Consider the ages of cities: you’ll see how even the ones that take pride in their antiquity have stood only a short time. All human affairs are short, transitory, bounded in negligible space of bounded time. We consider this earth, with its cities, peoples, and rivers, enclosed by a circle of the sea, as a tiny dot, if it’s compared with all of time. … What difference does it make to extend something, if the amount of time is little more than nothing? There’s only one way we can say that the life we live is long: if it’s enough.
You can name for me vigorous men, men whose old age has become legendary; you can count off their sets of a hundred and ten years; when you let your mind roll across all of time, there’s no difference between the longest and shortest life, if you survey how long a person lived and compare it with how long he didn’t live.
We might well doubt whether mother Marcia took much solace from this. Spoiler alert: The prospect of an eternal, ecstatic life after death purportedly advanced by another man from Seneca’s time — the man Christians consider their Redeemer and God’s “only begotten son” — proved a much easier sale.
But Seneca — revered as a sort of proto-Christian saint by early writers like Saint Jerome, Augustine of Hippo and such church leaders as Tertullian, notwithstanding the fact that apocryphal correspondence between the sober Stoic and the excitable Paul the Apostle that turned up in the middle of the fourth century is a blatant forgery — retains a certain appeal among those of us with more secular outlooks.
An excerpt from a letter to his buddy Lucilius:
No one is so naïve as not to recognize that he must die at some point, yet when he approaches that point he turns back, trembles, pleads. But wouldn’t a man seem the greatest of fools, if he wept because for a thousand years previously, he had not been alive? He’s just as great a fool if he weeps because he won’t live for a thousand years to come.
It’s just the same: you won’t exist, just as you didn’t exist; neither past nor future is yours. You were thrust into this brief moment; how long will you prolong it? Why weep? What are you looking for? Your efforts are wasted.
Seneca pauses here to throw in a bourn ultimatum from Virgil’s Aeneid, in which Sibyl tells the ghost of the unburied Palinurus that it cannot cross the Styx, the river that forms the boundary between our side of the cobblestone and the Underworld:
Stop hoping to bend the fates of the gods by prayer.
Futile then. Unavailing now. And then the coup de grâce:
Those fates are determined and fixed, guided by a great and eternal necessity. You’ll go to the same place that all go. What’s so strange about that? You were born under this law; it happened to your father, your mother, your ancestors, everyone before you, everyone after you. An unbreakable sequence, which no effort can alter, binds and tows all things. How great a throng of those yet to die will follow your footsteps! How great a crowd will accompany you!
You would bear up more bravely, I imagine, if many thousands of things were dying along with you. In fact, many thousands — both men and animals — are giving up the ghost in all kinds of ways, at the very moment when you are hesitating to die. Don’t you think you are going to arrive someday where you were always headed? No journey is without an endpoint.
And so far as Seneca was concerned, life’s but a walking shadow and death the ultimate endpoint. If there’s no rock’n’roll heaven, you know there’s no hell of a band. No hell below us. Above us only sky:
Consider that the dead are afflicted by no ills, and that those things that render the Underworld a source of terror are mere fables. No shadows loom over the dead, nor prisons, nor rivers blazing with fire, nor the waters of oblivion; there are no trials, no defendants, no tyrants reigning a second time in that place of unchained freedom. The poets have devised these things for sport, and have troubled our minds with empty terrors.
Death is the undoing of all our sorrows, an end beyond which our ills cannot go; it returns us to that peace in which we reposed before we were born. If someone pities the dead, let him also pity those not yet born.
Those not yet born would have been us when those words were written. And our parents. And theirs. And theirs. And theirs. Given an average of 25 years per generation, Seneca’s bus stop rang 80 stops back on the Great Mandala of Human History.
Pretty garbled metaphor. And pretty modern thinking for a guy writing in an era in which insanely paranoid tyrants like Caligula and Nero (not so very different from the insanely paranoid leaders of today), with the amoral compliance of sycophantic senators (not so very different from, well, you know), were gleefully ordering the executions of anyone who incurred their displeasure.
Indeed, the Marcia whom Seneca was trying to console over the death of her teenage son had lost her father to suicide years before; he starved himself to avoid persecution and an execution ordered by the emperor Tiberius.
Seneca, who became Nero’s prudent adviser in CE 54 after serving as his tutor upon returning to Rome in the wake of being exiled to Corsica by crazed emperor Claudius, gradually lost influence over his increasingly erratic, despotic former student. (I trust you’re taking notes. There’s going to be a pen-on-papyrus spot quiz worth 40 per cent of your total mark at the end of this dissertation; scratches on wax tablets or thin pieces of wood will not be deemed acceptable.)
In 65 (when Jackson Browne was 17 and running on empty), Seneca was forced to take his own life for his alleged complicity in the so-called Pisonian conspiracy to assassinate Nero. Modern scholars say Seneca was almost certainly innocent, but his calm suicide — the subject of many rousing paintings, including 1871’s iconic Death of Seneca by Manuel Domínguez Sánchez that I’ve filched for this article — was a good career move in terms of cementing a claim to fame that has endured for 2,000 years.
Notwithstanding all his sage advice on how to die well, mind you, Seneca’s suicide was a bit of a gong show. Here’s the account in his Annals by Tacitus, a Roman historian who was only nine when Seneca perished but as reliable a reporter as we have:
(Nero) dispatched to Seneca a centurion to announce the final necessity. Seneca, unafraid, asked for his will to be brought in; but the centurion forbade this, so he turned to his friends and said that, since he was barred from leaving them a reward suited to what they deserved, he would leave them a single but most beautiful thing, the template of his life, and that if they bore it in his memory, they would win the reputation of good morals as the reward of their friendship with him. …
He embraced his wife, and softened a bit, in contrast to the fortitude he was then displaying; he asked and beseeched that she moderate her grief and not cling to it forever, but soothe her longing for her husband by thinking about the virtuous conduct of his life. She, however, insisted that death had been decreed for her as well, and demanded the blow of the executioner’s hand.
Seneca, not opposed to her having a share of his glory, and also out of love — lest he abandon to injuries a woman who had been so singly devoted to him — said, “I’ve shown you the delights of life, but you prefer the honour of death; I won’t begrudge your good example. Let the resolve of this brave exit be equal between us both, though let your death have a greater share of renown.” After he said this, they opened their arms with the same stroke of the sword.
Seneca’s body was old and reduced by his meagre diet, and allowed his blood only a slow release, so he slashed the veins of his shins also and inside his knees. Exhausted by cruel sufferings, and fearing lest his pain break his wife’s spirit or lest he himself lose his grip and become unable to bear the sight of her torments, he persuaded her to remove herself into a separate room. Then since his eloquence still held out as each moment passed, he dictated a number of things to the scribes who had been summoned. …
As his death was continuing its long, slow course, Seneca asked of Statius Annaeus, a man who had proved himself a loyal friend and skilled doctor, to produce the draught of poison he had prepared long before, the poison by which those condemned in Athenian state trials were executed. It was brought and he drank it, but to no purpose, for his limbs were cold and his body was not receiving the force of the poison.
Finally he entered a pool of hot water and, sprinkling the nearest of his slaves, he said that he was making the liquid a libation of thanks to Jupiter the Liberator. Then, after he’d been dragged into a bath and suffocated by steam, he was cremated without any funeral ceremony. That was what he had instructed in his will, when, while still a very wealthy and powerful man, he had planned out his last rites.
Note to self: If ever ordered by a crazed, bloodthirsty autocrat to pull the pin, best follow the Socratic method and knock back a good stiff concoction of hemlock before slashing the arms, shins and knees. Also, send the wife on a nice Roman holiday with Gregory Peck, resist the urge to sprinkle the slaves with any kind of hot libation of gratitude (WTF?), and above all, remember to dramatically remove a cloth from my face at the last minute and deliver a memorable exit line such as: “Crito, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius.”
I guess you had to be there.
So far as celebrated bathwater deaths go, Jean-Paul Marat’s was quite a bit more efficient 1,700 years later. Mind you, Marat had the benefit of precision surgical assistance from a helpful young woman from Caen. But the point is, I’m digressing again. Could somebody please pass the soap?
Today, stoicism typically refers to the quiet endurance of pain or hardship without whinging. That’s dumbing it down and a distortion, akin to the egregious conflation of Epicureanism with hedonism.
Founded as a school of Hellenistic philosophy in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early third century BCE, imported to Rome several generations later, capital-S Stoicism was more complicated than just toughing it out and sucking it up, buttercup.
This is James Romm’s quick sketch of the philosophy from How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life, a 2018 book with Romm’s translations of Seneca’s Latin that I’m employing here:
The Stoics taught their followers to seek an inner kingdom, the kingdom of the mind, where adherence to virtue and contemplation of nature could bring happiness even to an abused slave, an impoverished exile, or a prisoner on the rack. Wealth and position were regarded by the Stoics as adiaphora, “indifferents,” conducing neither to happiness not to its opposite.
Freedom and health were desirable only in that they allowed one to keep one’s thoughts and ethical choices in harmony with Logos, the divine Reason that, in the Stoic view, ruled the cosmos and gave rise to all true happiness.
If freedom were destroyed by a tyrant or health were forever compromised, such that the promptings of Reason could no longer be obeyed, then death might be preferable to life, and suicide, or self-euthanasia, might be justified.
Two things we know for sure about Seneca:
Unus: Whatever he believed about wealth and position being irrelevant to happiness, he took the trouble to amass quite a lot of both, as Tacitus observed, during his three score and almost ten. He had properties, villas and estates all over the Roman world.
In an essay titled “Seneca Multiplex” in the 2015 edition of The Cambridge Companion to Seneca, Susanna Braund quotes Roman historian Cassius Dio as reporting that our hero provoked an uprising in Britannia (after its conquest by Claudius’s forces, much of Britain was a Roman province from CE 43 to 410) by forcing large loans on the indigenous British aristocracy and then aggressively calling them in.
Seneca’s De Vita Beata (“On the Happy Life”) offers a defence of wealth along Stoic lines, arguing that properly gaining possessions and spending capital is appropriate behaviour for a philosopher. This would have come as quite a surprise to ostentatiously impoverished predecessors like Diogenes of Sinope, I suppose, but hey, everyone’s a cynic.
Duo: Far more than his Greek Stoic predecessors and such prominent Roman followers as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, Seneca was deadly serious about the legitimacy and even potency of suicide. (Not all that surprising, perhaps, considering how often he had witnessed Julio-Claudian emperors require perceived political enemies to take their own lives or face execution and the seizure of their estates.)
Here’s a passage from Seneca’s early work De Ira (“On Anger”) that follows his castigation of two Near East tyrants, Cambyses and Astyages, who had punished their chief ministers by using the son of one as an archery target (cf. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part VI VI VI) and feeding a stew of his butchered children to the other. The latter party trick was a popular trope in hoary horror stories, from the Greek myth of rival brothers Thyestes and Atreus to the tasty dish unknowingly devoured by Tamora, Queen of the Goths, in Shakespeare and (likely) George Peele’s dark tragedy Titus Andronicus:
We will not urge our readers follow the commands of torturers; we will show instead that, in every kind of enslavement, the road to freedom lies open. If one’s mind is ill and wretched from its own failings, it can make an end of its own sufferings.
I will say to one who has fallen in with a king who fires arrows into the chests of his friends, or to another whose master gluts fathers on the guts of their children, “What do you groan for, senseless man? What hope do you have that some foe will liberate you — by destroying your whole family — or some king will wing his way to you, extending power from afar?
Anywhere you cast your glance, the end of your troubles can be found. You see that high, steep place? From there comes the descent to freedom. You see that sea, that river, that well? Freedom lies there, at its bottom. You see that short, gnarled, unhappy tree? Freedom hangs from it. Look to your own neck, your windpipe, your heart; these are the paths out of slavery.
Are these exits I show you too laborious, demanding of resolved strength? Then, if you ask what is the path to freedom, I say: any vein in your body.”
Exeunt Romeo and Juliet. Exit … stage left, Brutus and Cassius. And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death.
Does any of this have any bearing on the current debate over whether the assisted dying law passed in Canada in March 2021 should be expanded to include people whose sole condition is a mental disorder?
After all, with all our checks and balances, there’s no danger of lunatic dictators running amok in modern, civilized democracies. It’s not like any U.S. presidential candidates are advocating televised hangings of racial-justice protesters and bringing back firing squads or “possibly even the guillotine.” Certainly nothing barbaric. Just good old American panem et circenses. Maybe even a little Super Bowl halftime show damnatio ad bestias if the Dems and Mike Pence get out of control again.
That’s entertainment, and nothing says “you’re fired!” quite like a head rolling across the floor.
But let’s set batshit crazy autarchs aside for the moment and focus on a problem we all face if we stick around long enough: becoming feeble old gaffers and biddies nodding in chairs. Maybe preferable to the alternative, as the old saw has it, but for how long?
“As Seneca aged and his physical condition deteriorated,” writes Romm, “he increasingly confronted the question of self-euthanasia. His feelings on the subject were conflicted, and not always consistent.
“Whereas in Epistle 77 (part III), Seneca seemed to approve of the suicide of (Roman statesman) Tullius Marcellinus, who had been plagued by a painful but temporary illness, he says in Epistle 58 … that only in the case of an incurable condition would suicide be justified. Then in the letter that follows (Epistle 70) … Seneca explores both sides of the problem of self-euthanasia and decides that the choice is contingent on the circumstances.”
Hic est Epistle 70:
On this question, whether one ought to disdain the exigencies of old age and not wait for their end but make an end with one’s hand, I’ll tell you what I think. The man who lingers and awaits his fate is near to being a coward, just as the drinker who drains an entire amphora, and even sucks down the dregs, is too much devoted to wine. But that raises the question whether the end of life is the dregs of something very clear and fluid, if, that is, the mind stays free of damage, the senses stay intact and gives delight to the spirit, and the body is not worn out or dead before its time; it makes a great difference whether what one prolongs is life or death.
But if one’s body becomes useless for performing its functions, is it not fitting to draw the struggling mind out of it? And, perhaps, the deed must be done a little before it ought, lest, when it ought to be done, you’re no longer able to do it.
And when the danger of living badly is greater than that of dying soon, only a fool would not buy his way out of a great risk at the price of a small moment of time. A very long old age has brought few men to death’s threshold without debilities, whereas for many, life lies there motionless, unable to make use of what makes it life. Do you think there is anything crueller to lose from life than the right to end it?
Don’t begrudge me a hearing, as though my opinion were meant for your own case; take the full measure of my words. I won’t depart from old age as long as it leaves me intact, or at least whole in that better portion of myself. But if it begins to destroy my mind and tear away parts of it, if what is left to me is not life but mere breath, I’ll jump out of a rotten and collapsing building.
I won’t use death to escape illness, so long as the illness is curable and does not occlude my mind. I won’t use my hand against myself merely on account of pain; to die for that reason is to admit defeat.
But if I know my condition must be endured forevermore, I’ll leave, not because of the pain itself, but because it will cut me off from everything that gives one a reason to live. It’s a weak and idle man who dies on account of pain, but it’s a fool who lives for pain’s sake.
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