Nothing Goes As Planned

The line from Cicero was that “to philosophize is to learn how to die.” It’s important and it’s true. This is what philosophers, particularly the ancient ones, thought about most. Seneca, for his part, talked endlessly about the shortness of life and the inevitability of death. He studied Socrates and held the man’s brave end up as a model. He talked about dozens of others who had been put to death by tyrants across Roman and Greek history. He knew how fragile life was himself, having been exiled, having lost a son, and working for such a capricious emperor. Tota vita discendum est mori, he said, all of life is a preparation for death.

Needless to say, Seneca was as prepared for death as just about anyone. Yet when the time came and Nero’s soldiers were at the door, all those plans failed—almost comically so, had it not been so sad and serious. It wasn’t his fault. They forced him to slit his wrists but his veins were too hard to find. When he tried to take poison, it didn’t work. Ultimately, he ended up suffocating in the hot steam of the bath. It was an all day affair and according to some writers, not exactly a dignified one.

As Emily Wilson, his biographer, later observed,

“When juxtaposed with the death of Socrates, Seneca’s death looks like a failed version of the philosophical end. This Roman philosopher cannot manage to die easily, even after a long life devoted to preparing for it.”

The point is that nothing goes as we expect. Not even the thing you’ve thought about your whole life. Not even the one thing the philosophy had prepared you for. There is humility in this. The best laid plans…

Remember that today. Big and small. It’s not going to go how you expect.

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