In this series of blog posts I attempt to translate the Moral Letters to Lucilius by Seneca into modern English. In letter 30 Seneca suggests helpful ways of thinking about how to die.
When you get old you, no matter how fit and healthy you think you are, you’ll find that you start to have aches, pains and illnesses. Your body is just like a boat springing a leak. As soon as you plug one leak, another will start. Old age takes life from you little by little. You die, bit by bit. You’ll try to deal with each health issue as it happens. But at some point it’ll become too much. And at this point the whole thing collapses!
Now, sometimes your body fails before your mind. Look at people like Stephen Hawking, for example. His mind is strong and he uses this to stay resilient in the face of a severe disability. This is important as it highlights how Stoicism works. It works from within. It starts with what we are thinking and questioning our desires. Be willing to try to replace unhelpful old ideas with more beneficial now ideas. You can then we can cultivate a healthier, more beneficial mindset.
Two aspects are important for psychological resilience. These are practicing a cosmic viewpoint and developing a “sense of gratitude” for everything that happens. Both help you to understand the nature of human existence and reality. Start to limit your concern to what is in our control: you judgments of events. By using this approach then you can stay indifferent and develop a love of fate (amor fati). You’ll view your fate in a detached way, as you would the fate of another person. Acquiring this skill doesn’t happen over night. You’ll need to practice this. And through practice you’ll learn to remain calm, no matter what like brings. This includes thinking about how you will die.
In some ways when you die, it could bring closure. Getting older and older with more and more health issues just means that you’ll linger on, maybe in pain. And this may not have a definitive end point. If you can mentally prepare yourself for when you die, then it shouldn’t be anything to fear. Death is inevitable and any fear springs only from your own thoughts. Thinking about our own death has a power to forcefully remind us that we only have a limited stretch of time alive. This makes sure we concentrate our minds on the best way to live. It seems that most people reflect on dying from time to time. What usually emerges are fears. So the easiest option seems to be to suppress all thoughts of death. Trying to lead a busy life, pushing these thoughts out of their minds. So, perhaps a person is bravest at the moment of death? At that point you can give up any thoughts of delaying what is inevitable and just accept what will happen.
Being able to talk about death shows character and courage. Of course, this isn’t easy. But this builds an ability to remain calm and serene during your last moments. In some ways, the way you handle dying says a lot about how you have lived your life. Perhaps it would help people believe what I say if someone who had died came back to life! Then they could declare that death isn’t evil. That is can be seen as a good thing, as an end to suffering. Death follows old age, just as old age follows being young. If you spend time wishing you aren’t going to die, then you’re wasting the time you have to enjoy and make the most of life. But like I’ve said that’s not to say you shouldn’t contemplate death. Because when you do, you’ll appreciate life more. At least death believes in equality, it affects everyone. And nobody is exempt.
I think that is enough for one letter. In signing off I’ll say please consider death from time to time. When you do you’ll never be afraid of it.
I recommend you read all of the most influential Letters in this new Penguin Classic book. It is the best translation, in my opinion, because it captures Seneca’s humour and style. It is also the easiest to read. My copy is full of highlighted lines, margin notes and tabs. A treasure chest of profound, practical advice which you can apply immediately.
Warning: this is not an academic text; it describes a hands-on philosophy of life. Discover powerful, instantly helpful wisdom. The complete guide to improving your day-to-day activities, thoughts and actions.