Within Stoicism there seems to be a healthy focus on death. Seneca, Aurelius, and other Stoic philosophers constantly reminded themselves that each day they were drawing closer to their death, and that before their death both their bodies and minds would atrophy. The focus on death was meant to be a reminder, that time on earth for any one of us is short, and if we don’t use the time accordingly, we will fail to do the most with the opportunities we have.
Seneca writes, “No man can have a peaceful life who thinks too much about lengthening it.” Recognizing that we are mortal is scary. Knowing that we will die, we will no longer experience the world, no longer engage in relationships, and that the earth will keep spinning whether we are here or not is terrible. It is hard to imagine a world without us and the fear of missing out on amazing new things in the world is enough to keep one up at night. But striving to stay alive forever and being afraid of death at every moment is also terrible. The constant worry that one might die is likely to elevate stress hormones and bring death a little closer. Trying in vain to do nothing but extend ones life creates an unhealthy focus on death, rather than a focus that helps us engage meaningfully with our loved ones, friends, and community.
Seneca continues, “Rehears this thought every day, that you may be able to depart from life contentedly; for many men clutch and cling to life, even as those who are carried down a rushing stream clutch and cling to briers and sharp rocks.” We should try to live a fulfilling and meaningful life so that if we die at any moment, we can die proud of what we have done in the last 24 hours or over the course of our life. This sense brings an awareness of our actions and how we are spending the moments of our lives. Are we on autopilot meandering around through the world, or are we truly present with our friends and loved ones? Have we just been trying to accumulate more stuff, take the coolest Instagram photos, and drive the most fancy car? Or have we tried to find ways to give back, to encourage those who are close to us, and to improve some tiny piece of the world not just for ourselves but for others as well? We all want the first set of things I mentioned, the ones that feel good and make us look cool, but we know the second set will help us sleep better at night. Remembering our death will help us shift our priorities and do more so that we can one day pass one with content instead of fear.
Reflections on our mortality are common in Marcus Aurelius’ collection of thoughts, Meditations. He takes a very stark approach to the reality that we are not going to live forever, and the fact that our time on this planet is very short compared to the life cycle and existence of nature and the Earth. Beyond simply acknowledging our mortality Aurelius looks at what our temporary existence truly means, and how we should act during our lifetime given that we will one day be gone.
He writes, “How strangely men act. They will not praise those who are living at the same time, and living with themselves; but to be themselves praised by posterity, by those whom they have never seen or ever will see, this they set much value on. But this is very much the same as if though shouldst be grieved because those who have lived before thee did not praise thee.” In this quote he focuses on the desire that humans have to make a lasting impact on this planet and to live on in the memory and reverence of those who will follow after them. He criticizes this idea and says that it is foolish to be so focused on the future rather than the present. Living to impress those who will never know you, and being so focused on creating a reputation to impress future generations is a poor focus for our lives. Aurelius did not believe such a focus was worth our time, especially if it limited our ability to make true connections with those living with us now.
What Aurelius wrote about 2,000 years ago is still a struggle for many people today. Rather than worrying about how we can be great people now and make a real impact in the lives of those who are around us, we focus on what we can do to build a reputation to impress those we will never know in future generations. We would all find it absurd to think that people who lived before us should have honored us, but we seem to desire that we are honored after our death by those who we will never meet. We will not be around to feel the warmth of their support or praise, and living solely to be impressive in posterity leaves out the present and diminishes your ability to truly enjoy living and change the world.
In his common place book, published after his death with the title Meditations, Marcus Aurelius continually returned to the idea of our death and the short period of time that we spend on Earth. He had a very realistic sense for how short our time here is, and how we should think about that time. Our mortality can be a difficult subject to think about and focus on, but Aurelius was in many ways fascinated by the recognition of his mortality and what that meant for the life he lead.
Aurelius wrote, “Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.” In his quote he is showing that not only is our life short, but the lives of those who will remember us are also short. Not long after we have passed away, those who follow us will pass away. Living for legacy and trying to live to be remembered and venerated for eternity is a wasteful approach to life because you will never be able to control what is remembered and exactly how you are remembered.
Throughout meditations Aurelius writes about living in the present and being content with the life that you have. By focusing on our thoughts and changing the perspectives we foster, we can better understand our place in the world and our motivations. Accepting that we will have an end, and that our memory will be forgotten is difficult, but it is an honest reality that we should embrace. When we accept our mortality and the brevity of our lives, each moment can become more important and special, helping us better use our time to improve the direction and focus of our actions.
In Meditations a reoccurring theme is the acceptance and awareness of death and the end of our time on Earth. While writing down his thoughts and collecting his ideas, Aurelius returned over and over to death and our recognition of death. He did not have a morbid view of our passing, and he did not have a negative view of our death, but he approaches it with humility and realism. The emperor writes, “We ought to consider not only that our life is daily wasting away and a smaller part of it is left, but another thing also must be taken into the account, that if a man should live longer it is quite uncertain whether the understanding will still continue sufficient for the comprehension of things … We must make haste then, not only because we are daily nearer to death, but also because the conception of things and the understanding of them cease first.”
In the emperors view of death we find an understanding that we don’t only expire in a physical form, but in a mental form as well. He is well accepting of the aging process and recognizes that our physical form will break down along the path to death, and that before we do reach our end, our mental faculties will also experience a state of decline. Aurelius, throughout his book, never seems to be worried or concerned with death and generally approaches it as a welcome experience at the end of our lives. Since everyone faces death he sees it more as an equalizing force in humanity, and as it affects everyone he sees no point in trying to hide from it or fear it. This mindset transforms Aurelius’ views on death from pessimistic to optimistic. He is excited about the time he has on earth and is compelled to take advantage of the time he has.
I think you could compare the way that Aurelius views death and our time on this planet to the way that many view school in the United States. Whether you look at high school or college, for many people in our country school life is a limited time period with a beginning and an end. Continuing on in this metaphor I will focus more on college because it can be easier to comprehend the end of college and of the lives we lived throughout college. From my experience in college everyone approaches their time at school with a different lens. Some are excited about every day, some dread each day, some simply want to reach the end, many fear what the end of college will bring, and many students fill the gaps between or occupy multiple states at once. You can see the end of college as a reward and as the end of your life(style) all at the same time, which creates a wide range of approaches to college for students. In my metaphor Aurelius would be a student who recognizes that his time in school will end, and works to fulfill his time at his university before he runs to the eventual end. He accepts that it cannot last forever, and he strives to find ways in which he can constantly improve and gain knowledge that will make each day richer.
This is truly the approach Marcus Aurelius brought to his life and implemented over the long run. He saw death and his eventual end as a welcome part of life, even if he did not want to face it. His message about remembering death is not morbid or fear inducing, but rather a message encouraging us to focus on the present and take advantage of the time that we have.
Roger Scruton wrote a letter to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation From People Who Know a Thing or Two, and in his letter he discusses living a life that is meaningful. In a thought experiment Scruton asks the reader to imagine their death with one of two scenarios. In the first, you imagine that you have a lived a life full of instant pleasures, but you have not made a deep impact on the lives of others. In the second you have left a legacy not of instant pleasures, but of character and deeds that are treasured by those who were close to you. Scruton writes, “you will come to see that there are worse things than death, and that, in the end, death is not the most grievous of your losses. Far worse is to live too long, clinging to a life that has lost its enchantment.” This quote caps off the thought experiment, and leaves us at a place where we can consider exactly what the value of our lives should be.
This quote speaks to me about the importance of putting others first to develop meaningful relationships that will last longer than my life. Scruton is encouraging us to make difficult decisions that will lead others to trust us, feel more open and closer to us, and want to build meaningful relationships with us. I believe that this is the first step in living a life that is not monotonous and bland. By actively involving others in our lives, we will open new doors and possibilities for ourselves. In turn this will lead to building lives that remain interesting and exciting as we age.