How to Die: What Author James Romm Learned From Seneca’s Writings on Death

We first interviewed author and scholar James Romm back in 2016 after his review of The Daily Stoic in the Wall Street Journal, but in that interview we focused primarily on James’s great biography of Seneca, Dying Every Day. This year, James is back with another book, this time translating and collecting Seneca’s various thoughts on death, which are featured in How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life. (You should also read this Wall Street Journal review of the book.) In the below interview, we discuss philosophy and mortality, how Seneca viewed suicide, Seneca’s own death, and much more! Enjoy our interview with James Romm below!

And if this is the first time you are discovering his work, aside from being an an author and reviewer, James is also the James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Classics at Bard College. He also specializes in ancient Greek and Roman culture and civilization. His reviews and essays have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the London Review of Books, the Daily Beast, and other venues.

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How To Die might seem at first like a rather unappealing, or at least uninviting, title for a book. Why did you decide to put this collection of thoughts from Seneca together and when you think of who your ideal reader of it is, who is that?

The Princeton marketing people asked on a questionnaire who my target audience is and I wrote “Mortals.”  I really think this topic is relevant to everyone since everyone will face death, and Seneca‘s whole point is that one needs to prepare for it well before it looms on the horizon.

I’ve been contemplating this book for some years, ever since I got immersed in Seneca’s writings while working on Dying Every Day. It seemed odd to me that no one had ever put together Seneca’s many thoughts on death into a single volume, when they are so pervasive and so central to his thought. The average reader has a hard time wading through lots of Seneca’s prose, in part because, like the politician he was, he always went on too long.  By boiling away some of the excess and getting to a high concentration of Seneca’s ideas, I hope to make his works easier to approach.

It’s rather remarkable how constant death is as a theme in the ancient world compared to today when we just don’t talk about it. If we do talk about death, it’s mostly in how to avoid and prevent it. Which of these attitudes is better in your eyes? What does the Stoic approach have to teach us?

Stoicism was rather remarkable in that it did not regard life as an absolute good. That goes against Judeo-Christian views about the sanctity of human life, but Seneca would say there is also a sanctity of death. Many deaths that take place today, amid a medical culture determined to prolong life at any cost, are terrible ordeals.

Seneca teaches us that if we cease to fear death, we can live a nobler and more virtuous life, even if it’s a shorter one.

Perhaps the most controversial themes in Stoicism and particularly in the writings of Seneca is the idea of suicide as an option—even an honorable or courageous option in some cases. Can you walk us through Seneca’s view on suicide and how you would translate it today?

Seneca lived at a time when the emperors of Rome had the power to torture or kill members of the political class. Caligula, whose reign Seneca lived through, specialized in the humiliation and degradation of his opponents, often as a prelude to execution. So suicide, under a cruel autocracy, became a means of reclaiming personal freedom and autonomy. We know of nothing like it in our own society, with its constraints on power, but in many parts of the world, this view of suicide as an escape from oppression still rings true.

The form of suicide most relevant in this country is self-euthanasia, for example by terminally ill patients. The “right to die” is vigorously debated in many legislatures, and a few states have adopted laws to guarantee it. But Seneca was curiously agnostic on this issue.  At times he extols the courage of sufferers who chose to die, but at other times he admires those who stuck out a painful illness to the bitter end. He had no particular dogma but did take a great interest in the ethical dilemma.

Related to that, it seems that one thing missing from Seneca’s view on Stoicism is the idea of mental illness and depression. Today, we have laws against suicide and various protections because we know that people often come to regret attempts to take their own lives and we also have evidence, for instance, that making suicide just a bit more difficult (like barriers on bridges) saves lives. Do you think this was something he addressed? Do you think he might even glorify suicide unintentionally?

Interestingly, Seneca never deals with cases of suicide that result from mental anguish. Ancient mythology certainly had plenty of examples, but he never paused to consider them. Suicide in Seneca is always a rational decision, taken by those who had weighed the pros and cons and found that dying held more benefits than prolonging life.

Seneca’s own death ends up being a test of his philosophy in that he is forced to commit suicide, as you write in the book. Our account of Seneca’s death comes mostly from Tacitus, who chose not to include the direct accounts of Seneca’s followers, saying that their views were more or less obvious. What do you think those who were in the room with Seneca as he died saw and thought? Would they have found him brave and inspiring? Selfish and scared? What’s your ultimate read—did he live his words or did he fall short as he had in other places in his life?

The witnesses to Seneca’s suicide seem to have had very different reactions, given that the accounts in the works of Tacitus and Dio Cassius — both seemingly derived from first-hand reports — are opposite in tone. It seems that Seneca’s pious gesture of sprinkling bloody bathwater as an offering to Jupiter the Liberator — as though death were a kind of self-liberation — was imitated by Thrasea Paetus just a few months afterward, so it had a kind of “fan club.”

My book contains Tacitus’ account of the death and makes clear that the tone is ambiguous.  Tacitus was of very divided mind about Seneca, and about his death. He invites us to form our own responses, and I must say my own are decidedly mixed.

We’ve been somewhat blown away by the responses to the memento mori coins that we made here at DailyStoic.com. Do you know if there was anything similar that Seneca or other Stoics practiced in terms of physical totems about their mortality?

I don’t know of any such objects. “Memento mori” was a phrase spoken by a general’s slave during a triumphal procession. It was never discussed by Seneca in the extant works, to my knowledge, but one does find the phrase “Meditare mortem” — “Rehearse death” — used several times. That to him was the more important concept.

Having now studied Seneca deeply and specifically edited and published his writings on death, are there any practices you’ve taken away and use in your own life? Is there something you would like readers to begin to practice?

There are so many mental habits Seneca wants to instill in us, it’s hard to know where to start!  Death is only one part of a much larger system of thought, as you know well. Look for my next volume of Senecan wisdom, “How to Manage Anger,” next year!