What is Important in Life – Day 7
What is most important? Having your soul on your lips. This makes you free not according to the law of the Quirites, but according to the law of nature. A free person is one who escapes enslavement to himself, which is constant, unavoidable, oppressing by day and by night equally, without break, without respite. Enslavement to oneself is the most severe enslavement, but it is easy to shake it off if you stop expecting a lot from yourself, if you stop making money for yourself, if you set before your eyes both your nature and your age, even if it is very young, and say to yourself, “Why am I going crazy? Why am I panting? Why am I sweating? Why am I working the land, or the forum? I don’t need much, and not for long.” (NQ III, praef. 16-17)
Day 7 – The Shortness of Life and the Contemplation of Death
We conclude this week-long mediation at the appropriate place—the contemplation of our own end. Seneca opened this passage with the recommendation that we have our soul on our lips. In other words, we must be prepared to die. Why? Because it makes us free according to the law of nature no matter what the ‘law of the Quirites’ (Roman law) does to us. Seneca points out that a Stoic can be ‘free’ according to nature even if the law of the land binds them and imprisons them. We find this form of freedom within the inner citadel of our mind, and it empowers us to act boldly in the world. The realization that nothing can harm our Self is empowering.
Socrates assented to a higher law and lived with his soul on his lips. He did not fear death, nor did he fear the powerful men of Athens he openly challenged. When they brought him to trial on trumped up charged, he mocked their sense of justice. After being sentenced to death, Socrates had an opportunity to escape but he did not. Socrates understood that the Athenians could kill him, but they could not take away his freedom to choose the good. The life and courageous death of Socrates inspired the Stoics in ancient times, and Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. more recently. The message of Seneca is not limited to those exceptional people. The contemplation of death is for everyone because death is part of Nature’s process. The philosophical practice of contemplating death is not unique to Stoicism, nor was it invented by the Stoics. In fact, as Pierre Hadot points out, the Stoics appear to have taken it right from the pages of Plato’s Republic (604b-d). It should not come as a surprise that contemplating death is part of philosophical practice; as Hadot suggests,
If it is true that philosophy subjugates the body’s will to live to the higher demands of thought, it can rightly be said that philosophy is the training and apprenticeship for death.
Contemplation of death is a common philosophical practice because death is truly ubiquitous. Seneca opens his work On The Shortness of Life with this common complaint about death:
Most of mankind, Paulinus, complains about nature’s meanness, because our allotted span of life is so short, and because this stretch of time that is given to us runs its course so quickly, so rapidly— so much so that, with very few exceptions, life leaves the rest of us in the lurch just when we’re getting ready to live. And it’s not just the masses and the unthinking crowd that complain at what they perceive as this universal evil; the same feeling draws complaints even from men of distinction. (1.1)
Benjamin Franklin echoes Seneca in his famous quote:
Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late.
How does the Stoic prevent this regret? By contemplating death as an inevitable end which may occur at any moment, and then living each moment in the present through the practice of prosoche (attention). Marcus admonishes us to,
Let your every action, word, and thought be those of one who could depart from life at any moment. (Meditations 2.11)
As Pierre Hadot points out, death is a continuous and frequent theme in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Death was a constant companion of Marcus at home and on the battlefield. Of his fourteen children, only six lived to adulthood. Additionally, Marcus started writing his Meditations while he was encamped on the Danube river, with his army, during a time of war. The transient nature of life was ever-present for Marcus and Meditations reflect that:
All that you now see will very swiftly pass away, and those who have watched it passing will swiftly pass away in their turn, and he who dies in extreme old age will be brought to a level with one who has died before his time. (Meditations 9.33)
Death is the great equalizer; none can avoid it. Alexander and his stable boy may have lived quite different lives; however, in death, they are equals (Meditations 6.24). Epictetus offer us the following advice about praemeditatio malorum (contemplating misfortune and death):
Day by day you must keep before your eyes death and exile and everything else that seems frightening, but most especially death; and then you’ll never harbour any mean thought, nor will you desire anything beyond due measure. (Enchiridion 21)
For the Stoic, there is nothing to fear in death; it is simply a process of Nature. Life entails death; it is as simple as that. The Stoics did not fear any form of punishment, nor did they expect any reward in an afterlife. Death is the sensation of life as we know it and the return of its constituent parts to Nature, from which our life arose. Therefore, death is not an evil.
Seneca wrapped this sequence of inquiries into what is most important in human life with the following passage:
For these reasons it will be useful for us to investigate nature: first, we shall leave behind what is sordid; next, we shall keep our mind, which needs to be elevated and great, separated from the body; next, when our critical faculty has been exercised on hidden matters, it will be no worse at dealing with visible ones. And nothing is more visible than these remedies which are learned in order to counter our wickedness and madness, things we condemn but do not forsake. (NQ III, praef. 18)
Seneca points us to the Stoic measure of all things—Nature. It is through our investigation of and meditation on Nature that we learn what is most important in life. This was Seneca’s purpose in writing Natural Questions. Stoics should not be surprised that the preface to a book examining the physical world (terrestrial waters, clouds, rain, hail, snow, wind, earthquakes, comets, fire, lightening, etc) opens by repeatedly asking, “What is most important in life?” This is an expression of the connection between physics and ethics found throughout the surviving Stoic texts. To live according to nature, as the Stoics prescribe, requires the study and contemplation of nature. For Seneca, like the other Stoics, nature (physics) provides us with an answer to the perennial question—how should we live our lives.
[Seneca] assumes that the world is controlled by a rational deity, who can be identified with reason, nature, providence, and fate. There are no chance or random events in the world, for everything is controlled by the divinely ordained chain of cause and effect.
It was their trust in the providential nature of the cosmos that gave the Stoics their confidence that death is nothing to be feared.
Have you every genuinely contemplated your death? I have. My profession, as a law enforcement officer, brings me face-to-face with death on a regular basis. Frequently, those circumstances inspire me to face the fact that my life could end, unexpectedly, with the flash of a muzzle. Most people do not work in inherently dangerous professions. As a result, many people ignore the inevitability of their death until it is upon them. However, all life is fragile and tragedy can strike anyone in the blink of an eye. Philosophy teaches us to face our mortality and prepare for the inevitability of our death.
Unlike the previous six posts in this week-long meditation, this post was completed late in the evening on day seven because I chose to spend a few hours that day contemplating my death. I sat alone and imagined I had just received a terminal diagnosis and only had a short time to live. I tried to imagine the thoughts and feelings I would experience. A good portion of my meditation was done while sitting in my car, waiting for my youngest son who was taking a proctored exam at college. I imagined I would not see him grow into adulthood, fall in love, and have children of his own. I wondered how my wife would take the loss of her husband. I questioned how my family would survive financially without me. I could lie and say that meditation did not disturb me at all; however, the tears that welled up in my eyes several times tell another story. I am human; I am not a statue.
Nevertheless, here is what I learned from meditating on my death. Because of my Stoic practice, I feel confident that I can maintain my equanimity when death comes. I also believe I can face death courageously. Probably not without a few tears for loved ones, but courageously nonetheless. I am also convinced that rehearsing my death will make facing that inevitability easier. Moreover, I believe my wife and children will be better prepared to face death if I face it courageously. Most importantly, my wife and children will have a better chance to live virtuous and happy lives if I live each and every moment allotted to me, in the present, with my soul on my lips.
My challenge to you at the end of this week-long meditation is to take some time and seriously contemplate your death. Rehearse it in your mind. Now is your opportunity to practice for the inevitable. Meditating on your inevitable death can change your life in the present.
As fate would have it, one of my Stoic friends brought this to my attention of Facebook today and thought it was an appropriate addition to this post.
 Hadot, P. (1995) Philosophy as a Way of Life, Malden, MA: Blackwell, p. 94
 Hadot, P. (1998). The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 275-6
 Seneca, L. A., & Hine, H. M. (2010). Natural questions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 2-3