A Secular Stoic Perspective on Death

Massimo Pigliucci

Consider for a moment the following quote:

Reflect that the dead suffer no evils, that all those stories which make us dread the nether world are mere fables, that he who dies need fear no darkness, no prison, no blazing streams of fire, no river of Lethe, no judgment seat before which he must appear, and that Death is such utter freedom that he need fear no more despots. All that is a phantasy of the poets, who have terrified us without a cause. . . . Death is neither a good nor a bad thing, for that alone which is something can be a good or a bad thing: but that which is nothing, and reduces all things to nothing, does not hand us over to either fortune, because good and bad require some material to work upon.

It sounds like something Carl Sagan may have said, except for the somewhat arcane language. If I told you that it is ancient and asked you to guess its source, I imagine you might suggest that it is from Epicurus, who was famous for expressing similar sentiments, or from the Roman poet Lucretius, whose De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) is a beautiful exposition of Epicurean philosophy in verse.

In fact, the quote is from another Roman, the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who was advisor to the young Emperor Nero and who was ordered to commit suicide by the latter when Seneca’s and Nero’s political visions, shall we say, diverged beyond the point of reconciliation.

Stoicism has seen a resurgence over the past few decades. Even though it has not been an active philosophical school since the end of the Roman Empire, it has influenced a number of important Western thinkers, including Rene Descartes and Baruch Spinoza. It has been jolted back into action by the fact that a number of evidence-based psychotherapies—Victor Frankl’s logotherapy, Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, and the increasingly diversified family of cognitive behavioral therapies—have been directly inspired by Stoic philosophy and practice. Meanwhile, Seneca’s philosophical letters and essays have been studied over the centuries, and two of the major extant texts of ancient Stoicism—Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and Epictetus’s Manual—have been in print ever since there has been such a thing as print.

However interesting all of the above may be, why am I writing about Stoicism in Free Inquiry? I have become convinced that Stoicism represents a powerful alternative secular philosophy for modern times, akin to secular humanism (which has taken a lot from Stoicism and other so-called virtue-ethical approaches) and to secular Buddhism. Indeed, the analogies between Stoicism and Buddhism are many and intriguing, and it is not too far off the mark to think of the first one as the Western equivalent of the latter. (There are some major differences too, of course, stemming at the least in part from the fact that, unlike Stoicism, Buddhism has had an uninterrupted history of more than two and a half millennia, during which time it has split into a number of highly divergent branches: some more religious; others mystical; yet others decidedly rationalistic in nature.)

To make my case, and to reconnect it to the theme of death and dying, let me give you a very, very short introduction to Stoicism. The school was started by Zeno of Citium in about 300 BCE in Athens. It moved then to Rome and spread throughout the empire, where for centuries it was the rival of Epicureanism, Platonism, Aristotelianism, and eventually Christianity.

Stoicism is a thoroughly naturalistic philosophy. Even though the Stoics talked about “god” and “soul,” they meant by those terms, respectively, the rational principle permeating the cosmos and the rational principle allowing human reasoning. Both principles corresponded to material things, as the Stoics rejected the idea of the supernatural altogether. Moreover, they were what we would call “determinists”: they accepted that the universe is governed by cause and effect—no miracles are allowed.

The Stoics thought that the point of studying philosophy was to understand “ethics,” by which they meant much more than the modern interpretation of the term. Ethics for the ancient Greco-Romans was the study of how to properly live one’s life while being the best human one could be. In order to do so, however, the Stoics thought one needed to muster two other fields, which they called “physics” and “logic.” By “physics” they meant the whole of the natural sciences, as well as metaphysics; by “logic” they meant a theory of proper reasoning, a theory of knowledge (epistemology), and an account of the ways in which human beings make reasoning mistakes (psychology). In other words, in order to know how to live your life you need to understand both the nature of the universe (so you can judge your place in it) and human nature (so that you can correct what is deficient in yourself and nurture what is good).

As for ethics in particular—which is what concerns us the most in the present context—the Stoics thought that the point of a human life was to live rationally as a social being, or, as Seneca put it: “Bring the mind to bear upon your problems.” This could best be done by cultivating four fundamental character traits called “virtues” (from the Greek word arete, which means excellence): practical wisdom (the ability to successfully navigate complex situations); courage (not just in the physical sense of the term); justice (in the social dimension); and self-control (so that one wouldn’t ruin one’s life by indulging in excesses). I hope you can see why these ideas, translated and updated to modern thought and informed by the intervening progress in philosophy and science, should be very appealing to a secular-minded community.

 

But the topic that we are dealing with here is death, so let us go back to it. As we have seen with Seneca above, the Stoics thought that death is both natural and something not to be afraid of. But it is also something that we do well to keep in mind, as a reminder of who we are and an incentive to take advantage of every moment of our lives. Marcus Aurelius, the emperor-philosopher, put it this way: “A limit of time is fixed for you, which if you do not use for clearing away the clouds of your mind, it will go and you will go, and it will never return. . . . Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.”

Contra popular mythology, the Stoics counseled neither suppression of one’s emotions nor detachment from worldly affairs. They simply thought that everything we do should be assessed in the proper perspective. Contemplating the vastness and age of the cosmos, as Marcus Aurelius often did, is no reason for nihilistic despair. On the contrary: since we have little time to act, we had better act here and now, without postponing things or wasting our time on irrelevancies. After all, the famous Stoics we know of were teachers, politicians, and generals—all people who very much thought that they could change the world by engaging in it. (Most of them, naturally, were men, but historical records reveal that Stoicism had one of the highest adherences of any ancient philosophy among women, a few of whose names—such as Porcia Catonis—have survived.)

There is a second important aspect of the Stoic attitude toward death that, I think, speaks to modern secular sensitivities: suicide. There are many stories about Stoic suicide. The school’s founder, Zeno, was said to have committed suicide once he was so old and frail that he judged that he had nothing more to contribute and was becoming a burden to his friends and family. Cato the Younger (Porcia’s father) was an enemy of Julius Caesar (whom he saw as a tyrant bent on destroying the Roman Republic) and took his own life rather than be captured by Caesar and be exploited for political gain.

Here is an important passage from Epictetus on suicide: “Pain too is just a scary mask: look under it and you will see. The body sometimes suffers, but relief is never far behind. And if that isn’t good enough for you, the door stands open; otherwise put up with it. The door needs to stay open no matter what the circumstances, with the result that our problems disappear.”

The first part of this passage is an example of the famous Stoic attitude toward suffering (both physical and psychological), based on endurance. Few hardships, according to the Stoics, cannot be overcome by the prepared mind; a modern example of this was U.S. Navy Vice Admiral James Stockdale, who credited his readings of Epictetus while at Stanford for his surviving seven years of prison and torture in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War.

But some circumstances really are too much for anyone to bear (for example, the inevitable decline toward the end of one’s life), or there may be instances where it is worthwhile to sacrifice oneself for others or for a just cause (for instance, the first responders to the attacks on September 11, 2001). In such cases, says Epictetus, “the door is open,” meaning that one has the option to leave life if one has determined that it is no longer worth living. Indeed, he says, the door must be open, because it is in part that possibility of a final escape that gives us the fortitude of character to stay and fight another day—against disease, injustice, or whatever it is that we are facing.

I find this philosophy both very powerful (and empowering) and remarkably modern. One sees none of the stigma commonly attached to suicide, fear of death, or longing for an afterlife that doesn’t exist. The Stoic life unfolds hic et nunc, in the here and now, because that is how a human being can best fulfill his or her nature of a social animal capable of reason. It is a message that modern freethinkers are likely to agree with regardless of whether they are willing to accept other aspects of Stoic philosophy.

 

Let me conclude with one more quote from Marcus Aurelius. It addresses one of the aspects of Stoicism that may be at first sight least appealing to modern secularists: the idea that the world is governed by a rational principle, the Logos. Historically, that has been interpreted both religiously (by a number of ancient Stoics, as well as by Christians inspired by Stoicism) and in a secular fashion (as simply the observation that the universe is intelligible by way of reason, the so-called “Einstein God”): “Whether the universe is a concourse of atoms, or nature is a system, let this first be established: that I am a part of the whole that is governed by nature; next, that I stand in some intimate connection with other kindred parts.”

In this and other passages, Marcus Aurelius is saying that whether the metaphysics will turn out one way or the other, our role remains the same: to do the best we can to live a meaningful and productive life. This sort of ecumenism is unfortunately missing from a lot of modern debates, where one side casts the other as evil or stupid, and it is worth meditating on the simple fact that regardless of our opinions, we are indeed part of a whole, and we do have deep connections with other such parts.

Massimo Pigliucci

Massimo Pigliucci is professor of evolutionary biology and philosophy at Stony Brook University. He writes regularly for Skeptical Inquirer and has published Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism and the Nature of Science (Sinauer Associates, 2002).


Ancient Stoic philosophy has much to offer contemporary secular humanists.

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