SLRP: LXI. On Meeting Death Cheerfully



What we have of the Stoics seems to present a paradox to the modern reader.  Of course, the Stoics often did (and do) go against the popular opinions of the times, so it’s really not all that surprising.  How is it then, that a school of thought which tells its students to accept what life brings you, not passively, but actively to desire that things are the way they are does not produce herds of slavish followers?  Instead, it seems to produce bold men of action.  Cato, Marcus, Musonius, Epictetus, and (yes, even yourself), Seneca.  All of these either lived boldly and/or died well.

That’s remarkable.

“The man who does something under orders is not unhappy; he is unhappy who does something against his will.”

There is a certain psychological boon to having a mental conception of an outside presence.  For modern monotheists of the Abrahamic stripe this means very specific things.  Theologians may debate the “economics” of the passion, death, and resurrection of their savior and precisely what that means; but it is much harder to doubt the balm that such an “off putting” of responsibility can provide.

Stoics are in a tighter spot.  Of course, the atheists are right out of the frying pan an into the fire:  it’s all on you, best of luck.  But the theist/deist Stoics are not necessarily in a much better position.  The Stoic divinity, Nature, Providence, Logos, what have you, isn’t a personal force there to provide you with some sort of reconciliation or amelioration with the world and your life.

The Stoic divinity will not pull you out of the ground and plop you into a cushy afterlife to hang out and bask in the presence of the one.  Ain’t happening.

In fact, unless you be a Sage, your soul won’t live on after death.  And even if you were a Sage, you wouldn’t make it past the ἐκπύρωσις.  So tough luck there, mate. 

The only chance for Stoic salvation, if I may, is in the here and now.  Heaven or Hell is what we make it, this life.  With every choice we train our moral will, and we produce either virtue or vice.

We may not have the emotional, psychological bandage that others do, but we sure as hell (pun intended) have an urgency, a motivation.


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Seneca’s Letters.

Probability as Stoic Fate, Providence.


Stoicism is made up of several core axioms.  Among them is the idea that the universe is conscious and providential.  I’ve argued for the traditional perspective of the conscious cosmos before, and today I’d  like to examine the idea of Fate a bit more.

moiraiClassically, Fate can be understood in a variety of ways.

1) A general fate  for the cosmos.  A big picture.
2)  A personal Fate for each individual.
–  Either Fated events or
–   A single Fate: the day of one’s  death.
3)  Fate as a personality and divine force, (Zeus. Moirai, Clotho, etc.).

Today, the concept of Fate is out of favor… sort of.  The common western perspective is that we live in a mechanistic universe where specific causes yield  specific effects.  Common sense supports this, if I push a glass off the edge of the counter, it will fall to the ground unless stopped.  Several causes are involved.

  1. Me the pusher, is one cause.
  2. Gravity’s effect on the glass.
  3. Inertia of glass.
  4. Friction of various sorts.

Causal determinism is form of Fate, albeit a very mild one.  There is a Non-Stoic chreia about Fate that I quite like:

A rich and mighty Persian was walking in his garden with one of his servants. The servant cried that he had just encountered Death, who had threatened him. He begged his master to give him his fastest horse so that he could make haste and flee to Teheran, which he could reach that same evening. The master consented and the servant galloped off on the horse. On returning to his house the master himself met Death, and questioned him,
“Why did you terrify and threaten my servant?” he asked.
“I did not threaten him; I only showed surprise in still finding him here when I planned to meet him tonight in Teheran,” said Death.


In Stoic terminology, the glass and the Persian servant both have Fates, but they are co-fated with several causes.  In the case of the glass, if all of these are present except ‘me the pusher’ the glass is fated to rest on the counter top.  If ‘me the pusher’ is present, and I do so, it is fated to fall.dice
We could assign numbers to the liklihood of each of these fates, and to the liklihood of each of the contributing causes.  Because the Stoic doctrine of Fate contains the ideas of “co-fatedness,”  a modern might look at this and say, “We’re discussing probability.”

Additionally, since for the Stoics we have the idea of causa sui, with the rational creature as a ’cause of itself’ we can see something like Conditional Probability in Stoic theory as well.

Personally, I rather like the utility of the mental model of Fate as a challenge or test:  the idea that an unending chain of causes going back to the beginning of the cosmos has been brought about for this particular instance for me to show virtue.  This seems more useful to me on a day by day basis.

My point being, there is a modern trend to cut away seemingly anachronistic parts of traditional Stoicism, but as I continue to argue, the traditional perspective is not usually opposed to the modern one.  How much of what we believe today has parallel, albeit in romantic or poetic language, in the theory and cosmology of the classical Stoics?

I would heartily suggest that one reinterprets those parts of Stoicism which they may have discarded, in favor of this view.  Instead of asking what we can cut away, let us ask, how much of this can we keep?

On Robbin Williams and Suicide


Suicide if undertaken for the right reasons is not an evil in Stoicism. Socrates committed suicide, Seneca also. However, if it’s merely a means of escape from your obligations and trials, it’s not virtuous.

Seneca wrote “The wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can.”

But if your life has ripened, like a fruit, and is best at this moment, then plucking it is reasonable. Or if continued existence would destroy your moral or rational nature, a sagacious person might undertake it.

Epictetus: “The door is always open.”

What Dreams May Come

That being said, most folks are not in that position, and if someone is troubled and suicide is a thought they are entertaining, then they should probably ask for help, as we would be obligated to give it as we were able.  We do not know under what pain he was living, and it’s difficult to “armchair quarterback” his decision.  We can look at the context, and the social roles he had.  His children are adults, his family secure.  He did excellent work, and he struggled (not always, but sometimes successfully) with his demons and flaws.

I don’t think anyone undertakes Robin’s decision easily. I hope he finds some solace and relief in what may come after. I hope he knew the lightness of heart that he brought to many.

This is the advice I gave to some friends on Facebook:

When someone we are attached to leaves us, rather than lament at losing him or her, instead think that he has returned home.

We never possessed them, we merely borrowed them for a time. When the owner of something we’ve borrowed asks for it back, no matter how, we should return it with gladness for having experienced it.

Remember: thou must die.


momentoI was given this chapter selection to read from the International Stoic Forum yahoo-group, and I found it quite interesting.  So much so, that I just ordered the whole book and I quite look forward to reading it when it arrives.


The email and book ask this of us before we begin:


Self-assessment: Stoic attitudes toward death
Before reading this chapter, rate how strongly you agree with the following statements, using the five-point (1-5) scale below, and then re-rate your attitudes once you’ve read and digested the contents.

1. Strongly disagree, 2. Disagree, 3. Neither agree nor disagree, 4. Agree, 5. Strongly agree

1. “Dying doesn’t frighten me very much.” (2.)
2. “It’s more important to have lived a good life than a long life.” (4.)
3. “Life and death are not intrinsically good or bad; it depends how we use them.” (3.)

The question at hand is death.  Not “if” death, but moreso our fear of it.  The ancient Stoics had many exercises and thoughts on death, and it has been suggested that to live virtuously and die well is the whole aim of philosophy in general, and Stoicism in specific.

The first argument for why we should unburden ourselves of the fear of death is teleological.  Every one of us has seen and experienced death.  From that of those close to us, to strangers in foreign lands, and insects, animals, food, etc.  It seems unreasonable to state that man mustn’t die, for everything in our experience points otherwise.  If we then accept, at least intellectually if not yet at the core of our understanding, that man is mortal, and I being man must die, we can begin to handle the fear.

I fear death.  It scares me.  It’s unknown, it’s forever, and I may have very little control over it.  The Stoics would argue that these are the exact reasons one should not fret over them.  There are two spheres of influence in the world, those things which we can control, and those which we cannot.  Wisdom lies, in part, in divining which is which.  The Stoics argue that those things only which we can control are our reactions, thoughts, emotions, and actions in this world, and literally everything else is outside of our realm of influence.

Since we know that death is natural, it follows that things which are natural are neither good nor evil.  The sun, trees, ants, cosmos, man.  The actions of rational beings might be good and evil, however.  Our reactions might also.  So if death is merely an indifferent thing, it behooves us to choose our reaction to it appropriately.

The chapter selection above also makes note that many other men have faced death with equanimity, with courage, acceptance, and honor.  Is it that these are so much greater than I; or is it merely that their thinking is better?  If it is the former, than so be it.  But if it is the later, then there should be something I can do about it.

“Our fears tend to be irrationally selective and when confronted with the stark logic of ‘If you worry about that you might as well worry about everything’, people are often forced to concede that becoming preoccupied with hypothetical catastrophes in general is a waste of time and energy. To be everywhere is to be nowhere, and to fear everything is to fear nothing”.

The purpose of momento mori is not a morbid fascination with death (pun intended), but that we might in fact more appreciate life.  It is only by looking at relative positions and values that we can determine value.  A focus on death gives us an unflinching barometer with which to test life.  It’s purpose is liberty.  If a man always fears death, he might not live.  Death is assured, no question.  So the fear of it is the real enemy!  To shirk that fear, to drop those heavy chains of lassitude and immobility, to wake from its paralyzing effects: that is the goal!

The phrase “live every day as if it were your last” has become so cliche as to lose all meaning for most folks.  Often it is interpreted to be a sort of hedonistic anthem, #yolo !  But in fact, and reading this chapter finally drove it home to me, if one were to wake up and think “Today I will die, or if not today, then surely tomorrow.”  How would that change how I lived?  At least right now, sitting here in the afterglow of these thoughts, I don’t see myself playing on my cellphone while I could be sitting with my family and friends, despite my high score of 41 in Flappy Bird.

If as we lie down to sleep, we think “I may not wake” would we be pleased with how we had conducted ourselves throughout the day?  Most days, for me, this is not so.  I would like to change that.

I very much enjoyed this chapter selection, it is thought-provoking and interesting.  I look forward to reading the rest when it arrives.

And the closing exercise:

Self-assessment: Stoic attitudes toward death (redux)
Before reading this chapter, rate how strongly you agree with the following statements, using the five-point (1-5) scale below, and then re-rate your attitudes once you’ve read and digested the contents.

1. Strongly disagree, 2. Disagree, 3. Neither agree nor disagree, 4. Agree, 5. Strongly agree

1. “Dying doesn’t frighten me very much.” (3.)
2. “It’s more important to have lived a good life than a long life.” (4.)
3. “Life and death are not intrinsically good or bad; it depends how we use them.” (4.)