Death is never a fun subject. Nearly all of us know what it feels like to be overwhelmed with grief or to fear what will happen to our loved ones when we are no longer here. Despite the fact that we will all experience it at one point or another, few things elicit as much uncertainty and fear as death. However, anxiety surrounding the end of our lives is unproductive and can distract us from enjoying the time that we have.
While Stoicism is concerned with mastering our emotions, it’s important to realize that the Stoics do not encourage us to suppress our feelings or ignore grief. In fact, it would be quite concerning if you never experienced grief. In Stoicism, grief is viewed as one of the primary examples of the universal human motive to care for other people. In short, your emotional responses to death are part of what makes you human.
That being said, the Stoics still had a lot to say concerning death. We must care for others while accepting that the inevitability of their death is out of our control. The same can be said for our own deaths. This juxtaposition between caring deeply for life while fully embracing and accepting death is complicated. The following quotes offer some insight regarding Stoic views on the subject. Strive to master your emotions surrounding death, focussing on what is actually in your control rather than what is inevitable.
“Were all the geniuses of history to focus on this single theme, they could never fully express their bafflement at the darkness of the human mind. No person would give up even an inch of their estate, and the slightest dispute with a neighbor can mean hell to pay; yet we easily let others encroach on our lives—worse, we often pave the way for those who will take it over. No person hands out their money to passersby, but to how many do each of us hand out our lives! We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.” —Seneca
While it may be hard to acknowledge, the inevitability of death is something the Stoic philosophers wanted all of us to keep in mind. Rather than living in fear of it, however, they encouraged us to use death as motivation. When we keep death on our minds, we can focus on what truly matters and work to master both our beliefs and emotions. Embrace taking control of your life, refusing to let it control you. Build mental boundaries and avoid letting time pass through your fingers. Become grounded in death to make the most of your life.
“Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?” —Marcus Aurelius
Being afraid of death is a natural feeling, even if it is one we should work to overcome. That being said, it can be valuable to ask yourself why you’re afraid of death. Is it because there is so much you have yet to do or because you are enjoying your life so much you are afraid to see it end? That answer to that question can say a lot about your current quality of life. Strive to live a life that encourages the latter. In addition to being more fulfilled, the fear of losing what you already have is far easier to master than the fear of losing what has yet to come.
“No evil is honorable: but death is honorable; therefore death is not evil.” —Zeno of Citium
If we can learn anything from ancient Greek mythology, it is that there is honor in death. The Greeks would argue that it is far braver to die in battle than to die of old age after spending a lifetime running from your fears. And if death offers this unique path to righteousness, it certainly cannot be evil. We should embrace it with open arms when our time comes, and accept that a meaningful death is ideal compared to a dishonorable life.
“Brief is man’s life and small the nook of the Earth where he lives; brief, too, is the longest posthumous fame, buoyed only by a succession of poor human beings who will very soon die and who know little of themselves, much less of someone who died long ago.” —Marcus Aurelius
The finality of death can offer both comfort and assurance. When you die, you will quickly fade into oblivion. Eventually, memories of you will cease to exist. While that may seem concerning for those of us concerned with our legacies, there is a certain level of peace in knowing that any mistake you make in this life will soon be forgotten. Recognizing this will allow you to live with a greater level of authenticity and to embrace the risks of life.
“I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.” —Epictetus
Once you understand your fear of death, you should do everything you can to overcome it. Being afraid of death is being afraid of reality. Focusing your time and mental energy on something that is out of your hands is a waste. You should instead focus on what you can control, such as your emotions. In time, you’ll find that you are calmer and have a clearer head. You can live life more freely when you are not shackled by the fear of its loss.
“Let each thing you would do, say, or intend, be like that of a dying person.” —Marcus Aurelius
If you haven’t noticed yet, there’s a common theme here. Namely, the Stoics believed that you should make the most of your life. While this advice may seem cliche, it’s no less true. Countless people turn their lives around when faced with illness, the death of a loved one, or some other tragedy. Often, it seems as if we need to be shocked into accepting our mortality. Rather than waiting on a major life change, choose to live life to the fullest now. Embrace authenticity and shed any false pretenses that may be holding you back.
“It’s better to conquer grief than to deceive it.” —Seneca
Stoicism is not about repressing your emotions and neglecting the truth of a situation. If anything, understanding human emotion and conquering it is a central tenet. While grief may be pointless to a Stoic, it is far better to recognize that you feel it than to pretend that you don’t. Learning to be in charge of your emotions rather than letting them control you is a powerful experience that grief can provide. Lean into your sorrow, but refuse to sulk.
“It is not death that a man should fear, but rather he should fear never beginning to live.” —Marcus Aurelius
A short, meaningful life is far more worthwhile than a long, insignificant one. While all life has value, what you do with your time is certainly important. This doesn’t mean that you need to cure cancer or end climate change to be important. However, you should live up to whatever metric works for you. Whether that is quality time with family, professional success, or something else, eliminating distractions and focusing on living your life will ensure you find meaning in it.
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” —Seneca
The underlying message here is that death is not something to be feared. A race is pointless without a finish line. Mortality provides us with a scorebook in which to mark our successes. We are quite literally racing against a clock. Each day, you should ask yourself if you’re being the most productive, successful version of yourself possible. If not, you’re failing to balance your life’s books properly and are falling victim to the folly of living like you will never die.
“But death and life, honor and dishonor, pain and pleasure—all these things, equally happen to good men and bad, being things which make us neither better nor worse. Therefore they are neither good nor evil.” —Marcus Aurelius
Death is often characterized as something negative or evil. We imagine the grim reaper as someone waiting around the corner, prepared to torment us at any time. When someone passes away, we talk about how they were taken far too soon. However, it is unfair to characterize death in this way. Rather than being good or evil, it is simply natural. It happens to each of us and is a stage of our life that we should accept, just as we embrace the transition from youth to old age. Changing your relationship to the concept of death can help you master your feelings related to it.
Choose to die well while you can; wait too long, and it might become impossible to do so. —Gaius Musonius Rufus
While we know it will never be impossible to actually die, there is a lot to be learned from this warning. Many of us spend our lives running from death, searching for medicines that will prolong both our youth and life. Considering that what comes after death is unknown, this is an entirely valid response. After all, the enemy you know is far better than the enemy you don’t. That said, death is no enemy. While you shouldn’t run after it, you also shouldn’t run from it. Focus on living your life rather than being preoccupied with when it will end. You’ll find yourself far happier.
“About death: Whether it is a dispersion, or a resolution into atoms, or annihilation, it is either extinction or change.” —Marcus Aurelius
Part of what makes death so scary is that we know nothing about it. What comes after we die? Is there an afterlife, or is everything simply over? Countless philosophers have focused on this question, yet no one will ever be able to say what happens for certain. It can help to recognize that there are only a few options, as highlighted by the quote above. When you realize you are limited to either extinction or change, it begins not to matter which you experience. After all, it’s all out of your control.
“Death is not an evil. What is it then? The one law making has that is free of all discrimination.” —Seneca
In many ways, life can be unfair. Many of the circumstances that are out of our control affect each of us differently. You may be born into a family with more or less money, in a country with more or less resources, and so on. However, death is the great equalizer. It comes for each of us and keep us reminded of our humanity. Viewing death in this equalizing way can help you conquer some of your concerns regarding it.
“Don’t behave as if you are destined to live forever. What’s fated hangs over you. As long you live and while you can, become good now.” —Marcus Aurelius
If the Stoics believed in anything, it was the finality of death. Any good philosopher is concerned with questions of morality, and the permanence of death poses a great threat. If you live an immoral life, there’s no telling how long you have to atone and change your ways. You should never put off doing the right thing, because it’s impossible to know you’ll ever have the chance to. You certainly don’t want to end life on a bad note, so adjust accordingly.