September 4, 2021 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Don't Fear Death
Seneca wrote a series of letters to his young friend Lucilius on various topics. Taken together these letters can be considered as an exposition of Stoicism and how to apply it to our daily lives. This plain English version of the Letters closely follows the original. However, I have deleted some superfluous references, summarized Key Ideas and added subheadings to make it easy for the modern reader to follow.
- Childishness stays with people, long past their childhood.
- We fear death instead of despising it. When we despise death we do it for the wrong reasons.
- But we can make ourselves tough. Neither poverty nor death can harm us.
Continue doing what you have started. Hurry up as much as you can so you will have more time to enjoy an improved mind, one that is at peace with itself. You will surely enjoy improving your mind. But there is quite another pleasure that comes from the contemplation of the mind that is so cleansed from every stain that it shines.
Childhood vs. childishness
Surely you remember the joy you felt when you set aside your boy’s clothes and put on a man’s toga for your first visit to the forum. A greater joy awaits you when you set aside your childish mind and when wisdom registers you as a grown man.
It is not childhood that stays with us. It is childishness, which is far worse. Worse still, we have the authority of old age but the faults of children. And yes, even the faults of infants. Children fear trivial things, infants fear shadows, we fear both.
All you need to do is move forward. You will understand that we should fear some things less, precisely because they look frightening. No evil is great if it is the last one. Death is on its way to you. You would have reason to fear it if it would remain with you. But death either does not come at all or it comes and passes away.
We despise death, but for the wrong reasons
“It’s difficult,” you say, “to bring the mind to despise life.”
But, don’t you see, what trivial reasons drive people to despise life? Someone hangs himself outside his girlfriend’s door. Another jumps from the rooftop to avoid being bullied. A runaway kills himself to avoid capture. Don’t you think that courage could be as effective as excessive fear in achieving its end?
No one can have a peaceful life by prolonging it. Or by believing that living through many high offices is a great blessing. Remember this thought every day and you will happily let go of life. Many people cling to life like those caught in a downstream who grasp at sharp rocks and briars.
Most are tossed about between fear of death and the hardships of life. They don’t want to live, but don’t know how to die. So, get rid of all worries about life and make it enjoyable for yourself. Nothing can bring you joy unless you are mentally prepared to lose it. Of all losses, this is the easiest to accept – once life is gone, you can’t miss it.
Make yourself tough
Encourage yourself. Make yourself tough against things that can happen even to the most powerful. Pompey’s fate was sealed by a young boy and a eunuch and the fate of Crassus by a cruel and brazen Parthian]. Gaius Caesar ordered Lepidus to bare his neck to the axe to the tribune Dexter and then gave his own to Chaerea [Cassius Chaerea was a Roman soldier and officer].
No one has ever reached the point where fate does not threaten us as much as it has indulged us in the past. The sea seems calm, but don’t trust it. A storm will come in a moment. Ships that were displayed proudly in the games earlier in the day are now sunk.
Think. A highway robber or an enemy can put a knife to your throat. He is not your master and yet he holds the power of life and death over you. So, I tell you this. Anyone who despises his own life is a master of yours. Think of those who were killed in their own homes, either by stealth or in broad daylight. You will see that there are as many victims killed by angry slaves as by angry kings.
When then should you fear those who are powerful? Doesn’t everyone have the power to do what you are afraid of?
"But," you say, "if I should fall into the hands of the enemy, the conqueror will order me to be put to death."
Yes, death where you were headed anyway. Why do you freely deceive yourself? Why do you have to be told now for the first time what fate has been up to all along?
Take my word for it. From the day you were born, you have been moving towards your end. We must think about this and thoughts of this nature if we want to be peaceful as we await our final hour. The fear of the final hour makes all our other hours uneasy.
We don’t have to fear anything – even death
But I must end my letter. Let me share with you the saying which pleased me today. It, too, is culled from another man's garden:
Poverty is great wealth, when it conforms with the law of nature.
Do you know the limits that the law of nature imposes on us? Not to be hungry, thirsty, and cold. To satisfy hunger and thirst, you don’t have to hang about the doors of the rich and proud. You don’t have to put up with the scorn of those whose kindness is humiliating. You don’t need to brave the seas and follow army camps. Nature’s needs are close at hand and easy to get. It is for superfluous things that people sweat – wear fine clothes, grow old in camp, and travel abroad.
What is enough is already at hand. Anyone comfortable with poverty is rich.
Think about this
Nature’s needs are close at hand and easy to get. It is for superfluous things that people sweat – wear fine clothes, grow old in camp, and travel abroad.