Transcript of Good Fortune, Episode Thirteen: Death and an Epitaph for Ourselves

"Keep before your eyes day by day death and exile, and everything that seems terrible, but most of all death; and then you will never have any abject thought, nor will you yearn for anything beyond measure." Enchiridion Ch 21

How do you react to those words? Are they sobering? Off putting? Depressing? I could understand any of those responses and more. 

Hi, I'm Matt Van Natta and this is Good Fortune. Today we'll be addressing the Stoic view of death and the Stoic insistence that confronting the fact of death is a useful exercise. Death is a huge topic and this podcast tends to come in at around 15 minutes, so please understand that we'll be covering only a glint of a facet of what the philosophy has to say. Also, this episode rests on the foundation of Episode 12, titled "Frightened of Change?" I'd suggest listening to it first.

Today's questions:

  • What is death, to the Stoic?

  • Why should we continuously confront death?

  • How can we come to accept death?

Alright, let's get started.

[Raven Caw]

What is death, to the Stoic?

You may remember Book 7, Chapter 23 of the Meditations from episode twelve, "Nature takes substance and makes a horse. Like a sculptor with wax. And then melts it down and uses the material for a tree. Then for a person. Then for something else. Each existing only briefly. It does the container no harm to be put together, and none to be taken apart." To the Stoics, death is harmless. The universe, of which we are a part, is in a constant state of change; death is but a word for one of processes that bring about that change. Simple, right?

Of course not. Death shakes the pillars of the earth. The death of a loved one can not only debilitate us through grief but force a complete restructuring of our lives. The ancient Stoics were aware of the impact of death, they lived as closely with it as anyone else. And still, Stoic quotes abound with shrugs towards mortality. It isn't difficult to find seemingly flippant or cold comments; comparing dead loved ones to broken clay pots, for instance. So what gives? Is death completely meaningless to Stoics? No. Death is real. It's a fact. As such, death has to be addressed. However, people can build their entire lives (entire societies) around avoiding the fact of mortality. Both the Greek and Roman Stoics lived in such times. They were willing to question those societal norms. The Stoics asked, "what is a healthy response to death?" With death as a certainty, what is to be done?

The Stoics wanted to shape their understanding of death in a way that accorded with reality. Part of that relearning relied on thoughts like Emperor Aurelius' horse-to-tree-to-human quote. Death is, and death is unavoidable. The other half of their relearning had to do with meaning we attach to death. 

In the Enchiridion, Chapter 5, Epictetus is recorded as saying, "It is not the things themselves that disturb people, but their judgments about those things. For example, death is nothing dreadful, or else Socrates too would have thought so, but the judgment that death is dreadful, this is the dreadful thing..." To pick up Epic's point, people understandably wail at the loss of their loved ones, but they sometimes rejoice at the death of their enemy. They grieve the the loss of a child much differently then the death of their elders, particularly if the final years were painful ("it's a blessing, really"). The Stoic insistence is that we shape our reactions to death, the Stoic challenge is to reshape our judgments in a way that not only accepts, but embraces the fact that everything is mortal. 

[Raven caw]

Why should we continuously confront death?

"Furthermore, at the very moment when you are taking delight in something, call to mind the opposite impressions. What harm is there if you whisper to yourself, at the very moment you are kissing your child, and say, 'Tomorrow you will die'? So likewise to your friend, 'Tomorrow you will go abroad, or I shall, and we shall never see each other again'? --Nay, but these are words of ill omen. --Yes, and so are certain incantations, but because they do good, I do not care about that, only let the incantation do us good. But do you call anything ill-omened except those which signify some evil for us? Cowardice is ill-omened, a mean spirit, grief, sorrow, shamelessness; these are words of ill-omen. And yet we ought not to hesitate to utter even these words, in order to guard against the things themselves."   Discourses Book III xxiv, 85-90

That first advice is harsh, yes? I found it mildly shocking when I first read the Enchiridion, decades before becoming a father. Now, as a father, it's...challenging. Why would a Stoic teacher advise such a potentially off-putting practice? Over the years, wrestling with and returning to the many Stoic admonitions to dwell on death, I've concluded that the hope and expectation of the ancient teachers was that their students, that we, would find the practice freeing.

The act of confronting death provides a scalpel with which we can cut away the extraneous aspects of our life. It can allow us to be our best self now. To fully love now, be attentive now, enact justice now. "Keep before your eyes day by day...death; and then you will never have any abject thought, nor will you yearn for anything beyond measure." What better way to instill an urgency to be better than to remember every morning that we are not promised tomorrow?

I love every moment with my daughter. Still, I've tossed away plenty of experiences with her while staring at a screen, whether it's a TV, laptop, or phone. I've lost out on time with friends by either passing on time together out of laziness or not giving them my attention when I am technically present. Same for my wife. Outside of these close relationships I've also not invested fully in my community for similar reasons. What a waste. I don't have eternity. 

What harm is there if I whisper to myself when kissing my daughter, "tomorrow you will die, Freyja?" I have done this. I've meditated on it. It's quite the splash of cold water to the face. In my own life, the practice snaps my attention right back to my girl. I put the phone down. I listen to and answer her questions. I relate. And in living fully in that relationship, I not only appreciate what I have, but invest in making it even better.

I don't dwell on how any of my loved ones could pass. The practice isn't meant to be some CSI-style voyeurism. I work to internalize a fact. Mortal I was born, to me mortals have been born. I can't spent every minute soaking in the joy of parenthood. There's other stuff to do. But when I choose those other things, which ones make sense?

The Stoic focus on death is not simply meant as "You Only Live Once," advice. But that is part of it, and it's worth taking seriously.

[Raven caw]

How can we come to accept death?

If you, like myself, have been raised to deny mortality, to shun death, and to never speak of the raw fact that we all will die then we have much to unlearn. We have to struggle to uncouple ourselves from the fear of inevitable change. It requires practice, daily practice, or we will never gain an honest perception of the world.  

There are plenty of materials available for the standard Stoic death meditations and practices. I'll link to them on I would like, instead, to look at a simple practice found in Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. Here is Book 10, Chapter 8 in full:

Epithets for yourself: Upright. Modest. Straightforward. Sane. Cooperative. Disinterested.

Try not to exchange them for others.

And if you should forfeit them, set about getting them back.

Keep in mind that ‘sanity’ means understanding things - each individual thing - for what they are. And not losing the thread.

And ‘cooperation’ means accepting what nature assigns you - accepting it willingly.

And ‘disinterest’ means that the intelligence should rise above the movements of the flesh - the rough and the smooth alike. Should rise above fame, above death, and everything like them.

If you maintain your claim to these epithets - without caring if others apply them to you or not - you’ll become a new person, living a new life. To keep on being the person that you’ve been - to keep being mauled and degraded by the life you’re living - is to be devoid of sense and much too fond of life. Like those animal fighters at the games - torn half to pieces, covered in blood and gore, and still pleading to be held over until be bitten and clawed again.

Set sail, then, with this handful of epithets to guide you. And steer a steady course if you can. Like an emigrant to the islands of the blessed. And if you feel yourself adrift - as if you’ve lost control - then hope for the best, and put in somewhere where you can regain it. Or leave life altogether, not in anger, but matter-of-factly, straightforwardly, without arrogance, in the knowledge that you’ve at least done that much with your life.

And as you try to keep these epithets in mind, it will help you a great deal to keep the gods in mind as well. What they want is not flattery, but for rational things to be like them. For figs to do what figs were meant to do - and dogs, and bees...and people.

Here the Emperor has chosen simple adjectives to describe his character. Where does he visualize these words? On his tomb. The Stoic Seneca once said, "if one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable." Aurelius is setting his destination. A moral destination.

One of my favorite epitaphs can be found in the movie The Royal Tenenbaums. In it, the self-centered title character has these words carved on his headstone, "Died tragically rescuing his family from the wreckage of a destroyed sinking battleship." He did not die that way. He simply saw the same words on a different man's tomb and decided to plagiarize that life after death.

Aurelius' Stoic epithet isn't about specific actions or projects at all (real or aspirational). When choosing his destination, he doesn't aim at things he can't control. Expanding the empire further. Turning the citizens and slaves of Rome into Stoics. Outliving his children. He sets a moral destination. Upright. Modest. Cooperative. This is a destination he can reach if he so chooses. This is a destination that can't be taken from him even if the empire is wrested from his hand. On his last day, whenever and wherever that would be, he hoped that the course of his life would lead observers to chisel those words in granite. We can do this as well. We can describe the character we want and aim for it. We can work to live up to our death.

I would challenge us to write our own epithets. To pick a few words that describe our ideal character and meditate on them with mortality on the mind. What must I do in THIS moment to be THAT person. What projects should I begin to aim at the life Stoicism offers? What projects should I end?

We are mortal. Our pasts are already gone. Our future isn't promised. This moment is what we have to work with. As Aurelius admonished, stop arguing about what a good person is and be one.

[Raven caw]