Death is one of the biggest philosophical problems. In Stoic philosophy, death is considered to be an inevitable part of the natural cycle. Let’s have a closer look at how Stoics thought about this eternal enigma.
The example of Socrates’ tragic fate, where he clung to his principles and chose death, rather than freedom, provided the ancient Stoics with inspiration on how to perceive our relationship with death. Socrates’ commitment to his principles left no Stoic indifferent. Like Socrates, Stoics believed that death is not the final word. However, their philosophy on death is metaphysical, making it different from that of Socrates, because they believe that death is part of a natural circle of life.
When it comes to death, the first feeling that occupies our mind is usually fear. Fear of death is somewhat natural, because we fear the loss of loved ones and we fear our own death. Due to this common association, Stoics devised a strategy to overcome this feeling of anxiety and fear. The main weapon against the fear of death is our reason or mind.
“I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.”Epictetus
Stoics understood death as a natural phenomenon, and as such it can’t be characterized as evil or good; it simply symbolizes the decomposure of the body. Death belongs to the natural cycle and it is an inevitable part of life.
Once we are dead, our soul returns to the universe and to nature as pure energy and waits to inhabit another body. However, souls are not immortal either, as they are also composed out of different kinds of matter. All souls and matter are consumed back into the universe in the moment of world fire, which is the ultimate process of recreation of the new universe. It is worth noting that souls, when divided from the body, lose their personal nature and become a form of pure energy.
A Stoic’s Perception of Death
Stoics didn’t see this event as tragic and final because it has happened many times before, and will continue to happen for infinity. Death is inevitable and certain, but we can choose how to perceive it. It is in our power to refuse the fear of death.
“Death is not an evil. What is it then? The one law mankind has that is free of all discrimination.”Seneca
Our fear of death stems from the uncertainty of this event. We become troubled by the time that is given to us, which can invoke lamentations, worry, regret, devaluation of life, and of course, the fear of death. Thinking about death is particularly hard when we think of our loved ones and how they will eventually be lost to time. However, we will inevitably join them one day, as a natural death is prepared through life. Stoics achieved an objective view on death that was separate from emotions and fear, which allowed them to embrace its certainty.
“Before I became old I tried to live well; now that I am old, I shall try to die well; but dying well means dying gladly.”Seneca
“Death smiles at us all, but all a man can do is smile back.”Marcus Aurelius
Responding to Troublesome Thoughts
Of course, there are sudden and unanticipated deaths that we perceive as tragic and are hard to handle. These kinds of thoughts can be tormenting, because we mourn over the things the deceased hadn’t experienced or achieved yet. But this shouldn’t be cause for our own fear; in fact, it should do quite the opposite. By acknowledging the uncertainty of life, we should be motivated to do all we can right now and to not put anything off for another day.
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”Marcus Aurelius
If you have troublesome thoughts on death that trap you into a void of existentialism, you should reflect on the thoughts of the Stoics and avoid those thoughts of dread. Our lives are wasted on these negative thoughts, because they can do no good for us and only serve to waste the time we have.
Think that you may soon be dead, and continue to do things the best way possible, without looking back and without regrets. We should stand with dignity as mortal beings gifted with reason, and honour every moment we are alive with action. By accepting death as a natural event of discomposure, one is able to truly appreciate life.
“Accept death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from which each living thing is composed. If it doesn’t hurt the individual elements to change continually into one another, why are people afraid of all of them changing and separating? It’s a natural thing. And nothing natural is evil.”Marcus Aurelius
The death of our loved ones is traumatic and can leave scars for life. But these scars are purely emotional and based on our negative perception of death. According to Epictetus, nothing is simply “gone”; it continues to exist in another form, before returning to its original and pure state.
“Never say about anything, “I have lost it,” but only “I have given it back.” Is your child dead? It has been given back. Is your wife dead? She has been returned.”Epictetus
What is taken from us is not our wife or child, but our perception of possession. Nothing lasts forever. Nature provides us with life, parents, siblings and partners, but nature also takes those things back. Nothing can escape the eternal circle of nature, not even ourselves. The only way to overcome our fear is to look at death from an objective view as nothing more than change. Acknowledging death as change helps us overcome the fear of it, while also bringing mental stability, tranquility, and the drive to accomplish something with our lives.