The Stoic approach to life and death.

The Stoic approach to life and death.

The Stoic approach to life and death.

“Nobody is born on purpose,” that’s an oft-quoted remark from one of my favourite tv shows at the moment, namely ‘Rick and Morty,’ that underlines a profound truth, that as far as we know, nobody really is born on purpose. The reason why I say ‘as far as we know,’ is that as philosophers we’re only concerned with this life, the one that we are living right now, the life that we didn’t ask for but are nevertheless existing within. We do not know anything about the validity of other lifetimes whether in heaven, a pre-existence in a god-like realm or a never-ending cycle of reincarnation to come.

Life can be joyous particularly when you are young and fully engaged in the world of men, it’s life-affirming to carve out a satisfying career for yourself or to build a family, as well as immersing yourself in all of the things that give you pleasure, yet the spectre of death haunts us all.

“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

There’s a part of ourselves that’s always aware of the fact that one day we will die. What most people do about this is nothing, firmly pushing away this awareness into the backwaters of the mind and keeping it there, but like all good prisoners it will try its best to escape and when it does it will disturb your peace, filling your nights with fear and your days with dread. The only victory is challenging this ‘straight on,’ the best outcome is one in which you make peace with the spectre and welcome it as a humanities oldest friend who in visiting you has bestowed upon you the great honour of a good death.

The Good life

When Azrael knocks the door throw it wide open because in the tradition of best friends everywhere he wants you to succeed in all that you do. Your having lived ‘a good life,’ will certainly make his duties less solemn, turning your death into the satisfying end of a good novel or play instead of a tragedy cut short in the wake of misery.

“It is not death that a man should fear, but rather he should fear never beginning to live.”

Marcus Aurelius

The afterlife may well exist, but we can’t reliably test for it, so it’s wise to assume that this is the only life that we have. My inner mystic disagrees somewhat but for the purposes of this article we’re going to ignore the rumblings of my subconscious mind and crack on with the fundamental point that this life is all that we can be sure of, which is why we love philosophy because it’s the rational answer to one of the oldest questions of all time ‘How do I live well?’

The good life varies for each and every one of us, we’re all different, what is good for me may not be good for you, so it’s good that you understand yourself and seek out the things that give you genuine well being and lasting happiness.

A full life is one that includes fortune and tragedy, it’s important that we experience both whilst it’s the natural inclination of men and women everywhere to embrace one and avoid the other, we shouldn’t do this, but should embrace it all in the stoic understanding that we have very limited control over the things that we experience. Events in life are essentially random inasmuch as they are often unexpected. You may well be doing your best to carve out an enclave of calm and tranquillity but the chaotic happenings of others are sure to disturb your rest. The biggest enemy of the philosopher is the non-philosophical folk, who lacking in wisdom are swept up with events, carried away by their passions and have no choice but to act reactively to whatever happenings plague them.

The beginning of wisdom is the recognition that these too, will impinge upon your island of calm. Only the philosopher is truly ‘free,’ and immune to the effects of determinism that is stoically known as ‘providence.’ Hence the stoic realisation that there are only events that in themselves are neither good or bad.

“But death and life, honour and dishonour, 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

So when the non-philosophical folk are suffering, deep in the grief that comes with the loss of a loved one you can be strong, stoic and in control of your emotions and as such best placed to offer them help and comfort.

It’s my observation from having witnessed the passing of friends and family that death comes ‘like a thief in the night.’ When someone dies it’s shockingly final and it’s always unexpected, even if you are waiting for it, but you should take comfort in the fact that the loss is always the same for everyone regardless of age, infirmity or mental health, we all lose the present moment and that’s that.

“When the longest- and shortest-lived of us dies their loss is precisely equal. For the sole thing of which any of us can be deprived is the present, since this is all we own, and nobody can lose what is not theirs.”

Marcus Aurelius.

The future is not yet formed, the past is already gone and unchangeable, all you have, all that you can lose is the present moment, so use it wisely and live the good life…

About Comicus Muo

Comicus Muo loves dualism, Existentialism, Nihilism, Absurdism and a plethora of helpful philosophies from the ancient world such as Stoicism, not to mention a healthy dose of Cynicism. Comicus is also a reasonable theist, atheistic in his thinking, spiritual rather than religious and keenly aware that it's the Judaeo-Christian heritage of the west and it's enlightenment values that allow him to be this way.

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