Death. It terrorizes. It paralyzes. If it doesn’t keep us up at night, it wakes us up. It is so certain to come for all of us but when and what follows is so uncertain. We know what we have here and knowing is comforting. Not knowing what awaits there, in death, has tortured minds of every era of the human being. The great mystery. The great unknown. The great inevitable. And for most, the great fear.
As it has been feared for as long as life can be traced back, there must be some good answers on how to overcome that fear. There are.
Abundant across the readings of Stoic philosophy is practical advice on living a good life. Central to this philosophy is three disciplines — perception, action, and will. More depth on each will follow, but in a few words: perception is how we see things, action is how we respond, and will is how we endure. Just as they are useful to how we live, together, these three interdependent, interwoven, fluidly contingent disciplines also constitute a comprehensive approach to death.
Perception is our field of vision. It’s the way we see things. It’s our field of thought. And what we see and think shapes what we do. Perception is the discipline behind the Stoic theory of cognition. To understand perception, it is important to understand this theory, because it is a universal order of Stoic philosophy. It is something Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca, Cato, the fathers of Stoicism all write or speak about extensively. The all-pervading force, the logos–termed by the Stoics to explain that which all things are determined–designates, in short, an ability that no other animal was gifted. We have the cognitive capacity to use our perception to see a singular event as either “good” or “evil” based solely on an interpretation imposed by an initial impression. Stoics called it “the faculty of reason” or “the faculty of choice,” and with it, they said there was no such thing as good or evil. Those are simply a product of personal judgment.
In Gregory Hays’s translation of Meditations, he explains this in three parts. Put simply, something happens, it produces an expression in our minds, which we then turn into our perception – how we see that thing, how we interpret its meaning. In this way, we always have the power of choice.
The French scholar, Pierre Hadot, wrote about this Stoic focus on our judgments at length in a brilliant book called The Inner Citadel, his great study on the thoughts of Marcus Aurelius. Marcus stressed the need for keeping a constant watch on our ruling reason. He considered it the critical to the task of maintaining the peace and calm of this inner fortress.
The Stoics spent a considerable amount of time and energy thinking about and trying to master their perception because perception shapes behavior. If our perceptions are clouded, colored with ephemera, with nonsense, or if they’ve simply been subject to, fused by, our circumstances and environments, things like fear, anxiety, lack of confidence, trepidation, and overall unhappiness find their way in. You can think of this process of perceptions forming the same way you would habits. Habits form from hearing, practicing, saying the same thing day after day. Much the same, perceptions become ingrained through repeated thought and practice.
In this way, perceptions can be a powerful source of strength and resolve or a powerful source of weakness and horror. It’s a truth that should comfort. You’re in control. You get to make the choice. The thoughts, the interpretations, the impressions you currently carry can be, with some attention and resilience, flipped upside down to better serve you.
As it relates to death, the disciplining of perception becomes a vital ally in silencing then muting then reversing death’s terror. By taking control of our perceptions and wielding them properly, we can stop cramping in fear. Fearing death evolves from the trained and reinforced impression that life ending, the endless void must be perceived as devastating and tragic. What would it look like with a different perception? Epictetus has an answer,
“Under no circumstances ever say ‘I lost something,’ only ‘I returned it.’ DId a child of yours die? No, it was returned. Your wife died? No, it was returned…Why concern yourself with the means by which the original giver effects its return? As long as he entrusts it to you, look after it as something yours to enjoy only for a time – the way a traveller regards a hotel.”
Ask, How am I looking at death? Can I look at it differently? Can I look at death objectively? The philosopher and pioneer of the essay as a literary genre, Michel de Montaigne, a millennia after Epictetus, wrote one of his 107 essays, titled “That To Study Philosophy Is To Learn To Die.” In Montaigne’s thorough examination of our eternally conflicted relationship with death, he argues the idea that learning to dies is a prerequisite to learning to live and to do so, he makes a reference to this work of Epictetus and the school of Stoicism,
“The Romans, by reason that this poor syllable death sounded so harshly to their ears and seemed so ominous, found out a way to soften and spin it out by a periphrasis, and instead of pronouncing such a one is dead, said, ‘Such a one has lived,’ or ‘Such a one has ceased to live’ …provided there was any mention of life in the case, though past, it carried yet some sound of consolation.”
That’s where we start. As Epictetus said, “Death and pain are not frightening, it’s the fear of pain and death we need to fear.” So we redefine death. With a shift of perspective, a reframing of thought, a new impression cultivated than reinforced of what death looks like in our imagination–the only place we can see it afterall–we’re on our way to no longer fearing death.
Perception is how we reinterpret death. Action is what we do about it. What are you doing about this fear? Are you letting it torment you? Are you pushing it out of you mind until it revisits? Remember, it’s called “conquering your fears.” Conquering! Conquering requires actions. If we’re passive towards death, it does become harrowing, it does grow stronger, it’s shadow does grow darker. Death can be both a polarizing and paralyzing subject matter. We don’t like to think about it. We don’t like to talk about it. We wouldn’t dare imagine it happening to us. But that’s exactly what we should be doing. That’s what we do about it. We don’t let it linger over us. We don’t let deaths torments come and go as they so please. We don’t let it fester. We stare it down. We use it to motivate, not paralyze. And then we live accordingly.
The Stoics made it routine to keep the prospect of death in mind. It wasn’t to be a morbid practice. It was quite the opposite, actually. Death’s torture largely comes from this multi-layered paradox of sorts that though it is life’s great uncertainty, it is too life’s greatest inescapable truth. We’re certain it will happen, we just don’t know when, how, or what follows it. We know it could come at any time, but it’s easy feel it is plenty far away. It’s easy to just say I’ll think about that another time, I’ll worry about that later. That only aids in swelling death’s ambiguity, which is a great way to add to its ability to inflict fear. The Stoics avoid fear by inviting death in. By thinking about it regularly, by making death as common a part of their day as is breakfast, they remove deaths ambiguity to no longer be the great unknown that occasionally stops by. They make it just another part of the day, as Epictetus taught his students,
“Death and pain are not frightening, it’s the fear of pain and death we need to fear…So be confident about death, and caution yourself against the fear of it – just the opposite, in other words, of what we are doing now. Now we shrink from death, whereas our views about death hardly concern us, we hardly give them a thought, and are completely apathetic. Socrates used to call such fears ‘hobgoblins’, and rightly so; just as masks scare and frighten children since they haven’t seen them before, we react to events in much the same way and for much the same reason. What is a child? Ignorance and inexperience. But with respect to what it knows, a child is every bit our equal. What is death? A scary mask. Take it off – see, it doesn’t bite. “
Every day, uncover death, take off the mask, become acquainted.
We’ve written here at Daily Stoic quite comprehensibly about the concept known as Memento Mori. If you’re new here or this idea of Memento Mori, it’s an Ancient Roman practice originated when early Roman generals returned home from battle victorious. Tradition had that the victor be welcomed by a celebration of inexplicable grandeur. On the day of his parade, the victor wore a crown and a purple, gold-adorned toga, otherwise reserved for kings. His four-horse chariot parted the streets lined with thanks-givers chanting in praise. He, in this moment, was as close to the center of the universe as one could come. But what you couldn’t see was the slave behind the general. The slave had one task. The slave whispered in the general’s ear, “Memento Mori, Memento Mori,” echoing, muffling the notwithstanding praise the general enjoyed, reminding him, “Remember, you too are mortal. Remember, you too will die.”
Memento Mori is a reminder to be in the present moment. It’s that jolt of happiness when you realize you can let go of trivial matters. It’s Marcus Aurelius said, “Concentrate on living what can be lived (which means the present)…then you can spend the time you have left in tranquility. And in kindness. And at peace with the spirit within you.” That’s what we’re all after, isn’t it? Meaningful lives free of the stresses and anxieties we too often so easily let in. Take action. Reflect on death. Carry a Memento Mori coin with you in your pocket. Don’t let death linger in the far distance. Bring it closer, make it a practice like Epictetus did, like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Shakespeare, and Mozart, as he explained,
“I have now made a habit of being prepared in all affairs of life for the worst. As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence, I have formed during the last few years such close relationships with this best and truest friend of mankind that his image is not only no longer terrifying to me but is indeed very soothing and consoling, and I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity of learning that death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness.”
Unlock the key to happiness. Fend off the fear of death not by ignoring, but by staring it right in the face every day.
The third discipline the Stoics devoted a tremendous amount of time to is the discipline of will. The Stoics categorized everything into two buckets: internals in one, externals in the other. The internals are simply the things in which we have control over -– things like perception and action, those are both choices we control. The externals are just the opposite. The externals are the things we have no control over. And the will decides our attitude to the things that are not within our control, those things that happen to us.
The discipline of will might at first seem at odds with perception and action. But they are in fact nicely aligned. We are powerless over external events except for the power we hold to determine what they mean and how we will respond. The will holds this power–when properly disciplined in cultivating an indifference to what is beyond our control–to influence perception and decide how we respond. The will offers another answer in the journey of overcoming our fear of death.
Somewhat akin to perception and the redefining how we look at death, the will furthers things with not just a new outlook, but an acceptance that death is what the universe, what nature, intended for us. This is another belief Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca all agreed on, and a belief they came to in their writing, as Marcus Aurelius beautifully composed,
“How is it that the gods arranged everything with such skill, such care for our well-being, and somehow overlooked one thing: that certain people — in fact, the best of them, the gods’ own partners, the ones whose piety and good works brought them closest to the divine — that these people, when they die, should cease to exist forever? Utterly vanished. Well, assuming that’s really true, you can be sure they would have arranged things differently, if that had been appropriate. If it were the right thing to do, they could have done it, and if it were natural, nature would have demanded it. So from the fact that they didn’t–if that’s the case–we can conclude that it was inappropriate.”
The will sees things for what they are and accepts them. This is, Epictetus said, “the art of acquiescence.” It is accepting, surrendering to nature. It’s allowing the cycle of the universe to run its course without fighting it or cursing it. In fact, it is more than just acceptance, it is finding peace in that nature’s is doing what is appropriate. That peace is what Seneca found,
“And I ask you, would you not say that one was the greatest of fools who believed that a lamp was worse off when it was extinguished than before it was lighted? We mortals also are lighted and extinguished; the period of suffering comes in between, but on either side there is a deep peace. For, unless I am very much mistaken, my dear Lucilius, we go astray in thinking that death only follows, when in reality it has both preceded us and will in turn follow us”
Cicero similarly echoed, and in a similar bluntness, that to fear death is quite foolish,
“Wretched indeed is the man who in the course of a long life has not learned that death is nothing to be feared. For death either completely destroys the human soul, in which case it is negligible, or takes the soul to a place where it can live forever, which makes it desirable. There is no third possibility.”
Death, Seneca and Cicero would agree, is not to be feared because it is either not unhappy or happy. If death is indeed a black hole of nothingness, we’ve no consciousness and no pain. We have peace and peace is not something anyone fears. And if eternal life awaits, well, that would also certainly make death nothing to fear.
Perception, Action, and Will. The three seemingly independent but actually interconnected disciples inform how we live, and therefore, teach us how to not fear death.
The last lines of his Meditations deal with how to think about life and death. Marcus Aurelius, in perhaps the last words he ever wrote, so eloquently puts together words hard not to find solace in. We’ll leave you with those,
“You’ve lived as a citizen in a great city. Five years or a hundred–what’s the difference? The laws make no distinction. And to be sent away from it, not by a tyrant or a dishonest judge, but by Nature, who first invited you in–why is that so terrible? Like the impresario ringing down the curtain on an actor: ‘But I’ve only gotten through three acts…!’ Yes. This will be a drama in three acts, the length fixed by the power that directed your creation, and now directs your dissolution. Neither was yours to determine. So make your exit with grace–the same grace shown to you.”