Seneca part 4: Death comes for us all

Note: this is the fourth part of a weekly series, discussing Seneca’s Moral letters to Lucilius. A new post will be released every Thursday morning (GMT).


We had a fairly cheerful topic last time we read one of Seneca’s letters, but today is different. The fourth letter is about what seems to be one of the favourite subjects of stoics: death. The upside is that Seneca explains to us that there is no need to fear death.

Death arrives; it would be a thing to dread, if it could remain with you. But death must either not come at all, or else must come and pass away.

Death happens to all of us. Seneca reminds us that even the great Pompey, Crassus and Caesar could not escape it. But it is only an instant. Either we live, or we are dead. So really, it’s nothing to bother about, so Seneca argues. Besides, thinking about living longer only impedes our tranquility:

No man can have a peaceful life who thinks too much about lengthening it

He even says we should not cling too much to our life. I assume he means that death can bring some kind of tranquility too. This is an argument that is also brought up by modern-day euthanasia proponents. The word euthanasia, by the way, is derived from Greek, and means ‘good death’.

many men clutch and cling to life, even as those who are carried down a rushing stream clutch and cling to briars and sharp rocks. Most men ebb and flow in wretchedness between the fear of death and the hardships of life; they are unwilling to live, and yet they do not know how to die. For this reason, make life as a whole agreeable to yourself by banishing all worry about it

Personally, I believe we should cherish life as long as we can. But perhaps, this is best done when we are aware of our mortality. Perhaps even, we should follow Seneca’s advice and not worry about our death, since worry only disturbs us. As he says in the first letter: we are dying daily, whether we like it or not. Death is a natural part of life, and it’s best to accept this. And death may come from any direction, negligent of human power.

though he is not your master, every slave wields the power of life and death over you. (…) just as many have been killed by angry slaves as by angry kings.

Seneca ends his letter with an off-topic statement that is not as grim. As a true stoic, he advises us to only want what is natural. And on top of that:

nature’s needs are easily provided and ready to hand. It is the superfluous things for which men sweat (…) That which is enough is ready to our hands. He who has made a fair compact with poverty is rich.

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