“On Despising Death” by Lucius Annaeus Seneca

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Stoicism is one of those western philosophies of the ancient Roman Empire, created by the philosopher Zeno of Citium. The story goes that he was on a ship holding a cargo for trade and the ship sank and he lost everything. Following the huge loss he suffered, he took refuge in philosophy and found a passion for it and it propelled him to create the foundations of Stoic philosophy that he later taught to his students on the “Stoa” which is a porch of the Roman times where people would sit and listen to learned men.
I have been a fan of Stoic philosophy for a number of years. I am still making my way through the writings of the notable Stoic philosophers Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. I am especially a huge fan of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca from the bits and pieces of their wisdom I have read. I owe a debt of gratitude to two of my favorite authors Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday for the introduction into this world. Ryan Holiday wrote many books inspired by Stoic philosophy that has become a huge part of popular business and sports culture and has a decent following in the circles of the world’s top performers and high achievers. I have managed to successfully create a habit of reading a snippet of Stoic wisdom each morning just because of the wonderful ‘one quote per day’ composition of Ryan’s book “The Daily Stoic” which has 366 stoic lessons and quotes from the Stoics with original commentary and deep reflections by Ryan Holiday. I claim that keeping the habit will be a big part of my life, since there’s still a wealth of more reading to do on the subject, and the original books of the Stoics are out there in print for anyone who wants help on their path toward virtue, wisdom and to cultivate the disciplines necessary to calm and steady their minds.
Tim Ferriss is the host of the outstanding top podcast show in the world “The Tim Ferriss Show” and the author of many brilliant books “The four-hour workweek,” “Tools of Titans,” and “Tribe of Mentors.” He is a huge proponent of the Stoicism and he calls Stoic philosophy his own personal Operating System. Following on his passion for Stoicism, he put together a wonderful three-volume production of the writings of Seneca the younger, one of the pillars of Stoicism and a great Roman philosopher.
The book is “The Tao of Seneca: Letters from a Stoic Master.” You can definitely, for your own pleasure, check out his free PDF format books or enjoy the audio production on Audible (That requires a purchase). Tim has done an amazing job and I must say it is such a joy to immerse oneself in such a world of wisdom each day.
I am sharing here one of the chapters in Tim’s wonderful “Tao of Seneca” Volume One. It is Letter: 24, “On Despising Death.” It is one of Seneca’s letters in the timeless masterpiece “Moral Letters to Lucilius.” I was reading this letter one morning and it suddenly spoke to me and I had to put my thoughts in writing.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a Roman philosopher, statesman, and a playwrite. He was the tutor and advisor to the Roman Emperor Nero. As a direct result of the troubles of being the Roman emperor in a tumultuous time of plots, revolts and treatury, Nero had grown paranoid over the attempt of his assassination and he suspected his own trusted tutor and closest advisor of being a part of it. He ordered Seneca, who was allegedly and most likely to be innocent of taking part in the conspiracy, to take his own life. Seneca’s calm and literal stoic equanimity in the face of death immortalized his legacy.
I was immediately drawn to the deep wisdom in Seneca’s letter to his friend Lucilius. The message seems to be a reply to a previous letter from his protege and friend who seemed to be distressed about a legal matter in which he was being sued. He gently points out to his friend the error of the useless pondering over what has yet to happen. The logic is sound as it is worthless to dwell in a place of misery and sadness over a bad outcome that hasn’t happened yet because if it ever does happen, there will be more than enough time to go through that sadness and unhappiness.
This timeless wisdom has resonated accross all eastern and western philosophies of all ages and cultures. The Taoists speak about living in the present as the one and only path to awareness and enlightenment. Dwelling in the past doesn’t serve much of a purpose if you truly understand that anything that has ever happened to you doesn’t necessarily mean it will ever happen again. You are definitely not the same person who had lived through that painful past and your past failures and shortcomings aren’t necessarily a predictor of your future character because, as an evolved rational human being capable of reasoning you can change your reality with your outstanding creativity. Being a human being, and a member of the dominant and most dangerous species on this planet, requires you to understand the great chasm between you and every other species on earth. Our reasoning makes each and every one of us, the author of his or her own destiny. Your past doesn’t matter at all if you do whatever is in your power and within your knowledge to create a better existence, and it’s all about what you can do at this very moment, right here, right now. Living today as best as you can is actually one of your prime and most noble duties. In one of the most memorable quotes of Marcus Aurelius in “Meditations” he says: “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”
The same message goes double for the future, the great unpredictable unknown. People who anticipate the troubles of the future don’t count for the unlimited number of events that can intervene to change the outcome dramatically. No matter what you’re going through, you can never foresee whatever is going to happen to sway matters to your favor, or inopportunely make worse comes to worst. Fate and fourtune have always been notoriously capricious. The future is never within your control, only the present. Stoicism advocates vehemently about the great wisdom of focusing only on the things you can control and leaving to fate the thing that you can’t control. The most famous prayer by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) puts the concept in a poetic set of verses: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.”
The Mexican Toltec culture made famous by the author Don Miguel Ruiz’s famous book “The Four Agreements” actively advocates one of the main pillars of a serene and happy existence, which is to never make assumptions. Assumptions are basically personal opinions you formulate in your own mind based on your pattern-recognition abilities which are based on the limited input of knowledge and life experience that you currently possess. Your mind deceives you into thinking that your “opinions” are solid and concrete facts without exerting any energy or thought to acertain the validity of such assumptions. The problem is that once you’ve classified something as a fact, it’s literally impossible for you to consider you might be wrong. This is the main reason it is pointless to debate people to try and change their minds and their political stances because people lock their convictions behind three-feet steel bunker doors that can withstand a nuclear blast of facts and statistics. People who make quick assumptions don’t put any sort of effort into the verification and validation of their assumptions, and why should they, it saves them lots of time and energy to have the mind compartmentalized in pre-packaged thought boxes. Therefore, the thing about making asumptions about any future events based on your magnificent premonitions and uncanny abilities to foresee the future, are in no way shape or form guaranteed to ever happen. The lesson is then, why bother!!! It consumes way less mental energy to never think about future outcomes that have a 50% chance of occurance and which are in no way influenced by your own actions. If you can influence the future to your own advantage, please do, it is your sacred duty to do so. Just keep in mind that you can only influence events, but never guarantee them, for whatever happens after you’ve done all that you can is beyond your own power. Consider the decision you have to make when the whether forecast tells you there’s a chance of rain. You don’t have to sit at home and worry whether or not it’s going to rain. What’s in your power and in your control is to arm yourself with an umbrella and walk out on your path, go about your business and forget about it, because no one can control the weather, and you certainly can’t. All you can do is to make the necessary preparations to the best of your ability and let go and let God.
Seneca points out the obvious when he tells his friend that if there is a calamity to befall him, it doesn’t matter one single bit how much he was prepared for it or how much he had to worry about it. You can make every possible preparation for every conceivable contingency and fate can blindside you all the same. Your debtors might go bankrupt, your insurance company might deny your claim on a technicality, the market might crash, your brand new car might breakdown in the middle of nowhere and you might be forbidden from boarding your plane because of a Corona virus worldwide outbreak or a volcano eruption in a country you never heard of. Let go and let God and live in the present and take the umbrella on your way out to live your life with courage and equanimity.
Seneca entreats his friend to have the courage to endure whatever befalls him and he brings up many examples of famous people who had endured terrifying and gruesome misfortunes ranging between exile, imprisonment, and burning with a steadfastness that makes his worries about losing a mere lawsuit a trifling matter. He reminds his friend that such great men endured a whole lot more than what he feared could happen to him and were eternally remembered for their actions and courageous deeds.
Seneca transitions into a discussion of the worst of all fears, the fear of death. He brings up the example of Cato and his ordeal on the night of his death. As a prominent poitical figure in ancient Rome, a senator and a leader, Cato refused defeat and humiliation by his victorious nemesis Caesar and decided to take his own life and die with his honor untarnished. Seneca immediately follows this tale with the one about Scipio, one of Cato’s generals who unsurprisingly chose for himself the same fate upon defeat as something that, with a measure of certainty, can be expected only from a loyal disciple of a brave leader like Cato. Seneca hammers in the point that there is no reason in dwelling in the anticipation of harm, loss, defeat, pain, suffering or even death.
You handle the future only by trying to put your affairs in order to the best of your abilities and let it be what it may. It all stems from living in the moment and in the present time and being the best person you can be at this very minute.
The men of glory, of whom Seneca was writing to his friend, were all men of stature, men of vision and of actions. They were true to their ideals and were true to their convictions. He is encouraging his friend to live a virtuous life and to be true to himself and to live with a clear conscience. Only men of clear conscience and of fierce conviction are free from the fear of death because they always know that if they were to die today, it will be ok because they have lived a good life and did their best to be good men at all times. Even in the face of death, they despise death and look down on it because they lived an honorable life and will depart from it leaving an honorable legacy. They have enough self-respect to be able to even look onto death, torture, and suffering with resolve and shameless disdain because they are men of conviction and they know that the manner in which they face their fates inspires and strengthens all those who come after them and in every sense defines and seals their legacy.
Seneca himself was true to this message when his own time was up. When he was ordered to take his own life by Nero, to whom he was a tutor and later an advisor, he did not try to escape his fate and faced it with strength of character true to his message. Lying in a hot bath, cutting his veins and ingesting poison, he spent his last moments dictating letters and talking to his grieving friends and putting his affairs in order. He was a man who practiced what he preached and his own courage on the hour of his own death was of grand significance.
Seneca reminds Lucilius not to worry too much about even the worst of outcomes because it is all beyond his control and keeping such anxiety is detrimental to the soul. It is best to free oneself of the worry and fear of something that can happen at any time without notice. He tells his friend that he must expect anything and everything to happen as if a certainty, but not to keep a worried soul. Exile, imprisonment, torture, disease, poverty, war, betrayal, and the caprices of fortune can hit every single one of us at any time. We all have the proverbial sword of Damocles hanging over our head by a single thread, but we have no way of knowing when our time will come, so it can come at will and then it won’t matter. Our good and bad deeds will then come to an end and we will no more be bothered by the troubles of mortal men.
Seneca was also trying to advise his friend to practice what he preaches. He quoted him to himself and reminded him of his own interpretation of the significance of the moment of death and what it means to finally die at the end of a long series of small deaths.
The Chinese in ancient times had a painful execution style that was designed to torture those subjected to such a fate, it’s called death by a thousand cuts. As the name implies, the victim of such a fate gets tortured by knowing their death will come at the end of a long period of pain. The executioner administers hundreds of small incision wounds designed to cause a slow and painful loss of blood that causes the convicted person to die very slowly. The physical pain is compounded by the emotional pain and fear of impending death.
The same thing happens in varying degrees to all of us eventually over the span of our own lives if we’re not careful. We get haunted by our own mistakes and faults and gets smothered in our own regrets and what could’ve happened and how we could have changed the course of our lives had we done things a certain way or made or never to had made certain decision. Our souls gets tired and drained by all of those cuts we leave unbandaged and all those worries and heavy baggage we decide to carry on our shoulders willingly.
Another way to think about death is that it follows the law of entropy. As it is simply another law of nature that everything deteriorates slowly until it diminishes into nonexistence. So does the human condition we call life. Nothing lasts in life, good or bad. “This too shall pass.”
Seneca’s advice to all of us is to live life with courage and virtue, be true to ourselves, not to foolishly seek our own death, but when that inescapable moment comes, to face it with courage, determination, and honor.
I have much to learn regarding Stoicism, and I know it is going to be a lifelong passion of mine.
Following is the full letter as published in the book “The Tao of Seneca” by Tim Ferriss.

LETTER 24 – On Despising Death
You write me that you are anxious about the result of a lawsuit, with which an angry opponent is threatening you; and you expect me to advise you to picture to yourself a happier issue, and to rest in the allurements of hope.
Why, indeed, is it necessary to summon trouble—which must be endured soon enough when it has once arrived, or to anticipate trouble and ruin the present through fear of the future? It is indeed foolish to be unhappy now because you may be unhappy at some future time.
But I shall conduct you to peace of mind by another route: if you would put off all worry, assume that what you fear may happen will certainly happen in any event; whatever the trouble may be, measure it in your own mind, and estimate the amount of your fear. You will thus understand that what you fear is either insignificant or short-lived. And you need not spend a long time in gathering illustrations which will strengthen you; every epoch has produced them.
Let your thoughts travel into any era of Roman or foreign history, and there will throng before you notable examples of high achievement or of high endeavour. If you lose this case, can anything more severe happen to you than being sent into exile or led to prison? Is there a worse fate that any man may fear than being burned or being killed?
Name such penalties one by one, and mention the men who have scorned them; one does not need to hunt for them—it is simply a matter of selection.
Sentence of conviction was borne by Rutilius as if the injustice of the decision were the only thing which annoyed him. Exile was endured by Metellus with courage, by Rutilius even with gladness; for the former consented to come back only because his country called him; the latter refused to return when Sulla summoned him—and nobody in those days said “No” to Sulla!
Socrates in prison discoursed, and declined to flee when certain persons gave him the opportunity; he remained there, in order to free mankind from the fear of two most grievous things, death and imprisonment.
Mucius put his hand into the fire. It is painful to be burned; but how much more painful to inflict such suffering upon oneself! Here was a man of no learning, not primed to face death and pain by any words of wisdom, and equipped only with the courage of a soldier, who punished himself for his fruitless daring; he stood and watched his own right hand falling away piecemeal on the enemy’s brazier, nor did he withdraw the dissolving limb, with its uncovered bones, until his foe removed the fire. He might have accomplished something more successful in that camp, but never anything more brave.
See how much keener a brave man is to lay hold of danger than a cruel man is to inflict it: Porsenna was more ready to pardon Mucius for wishing to slay him than Mucius to pardon himself for failing to slay Porsenna!
“Oh,” say you, “those stories have been droned to death in all the schools; pretty soon, when you reach the topic ‘On Despising Death,’ you will be telling me about Cato.”
But why should I not tell you about Cato, how he read Plato’s book on that last glorious night, with a sword laid at his pillow? He had provided these two requisites for his last moments—the first, that he might have the will to die, and the second, that he might have the means.
So he put his affairs in order—as well as one could put in order that which was ruined and near its end—and thought that he ought to see to it that no one should have the power to slay or the good fortune to save Cato. Drawing the sword—which he had kept unstained from all bloodshed against the final day, he cried:
“Fortune, you have accomplished nothing by resisting all my endeavours. I have fought, till now, for my country’s freedom, and not for my own, I did not strive so doggedly to be free, but only to live among the free. Now, since the affairs of mankind are beyond hope, let Cato be withdrawn to safety.”
So saying, he inflicted a mortal wound upon his body. After the physicians had bound it up, Cato had less blood and less strength, but no less courage; angered now not only at Caesar but also at himself, he rallied his unarmed hands against his wound, and expelled, rather than dismissed, that noble soul which had been so defiant of all worldly power.
I am not now heaping up these illustrations for the purpose of exercising my wit, but for the purpose of encouraging you to face that which is thought to be most terrible. And I shall encourage you all the more easily by showing that not only resolute men have despised that moment when the soul breathes its last, but that certain persons, who were craven in other respects, have equalled in this regard the courage of the bravest.
Take, for example, Scipio, the father-in-law of Gnaeus Pompeius: he was driven back upon the African coast by a head-wind and saw his ship in the power of the enemy. He therefore pierced his body with a sword; and when they asked where the commander was, he replied: “All is well with the commander.” These words brought him up to the level of his ancestors and suffered not the glory which fate gave to the Scipios in Africa to lose its continuity.
It was a great deed to conquer Carthage, but a greater deed to conquer death. “All is well with the commander!” Ought a general to die otherwise, especially one of Cato’s generals?
I shall not refer you to history, or collect examples of those men who throughout the ages have despised death; for they are very many. Consider these times of ours, whose enervation and over-refinement call forth our complaints; they nevertheless will include men of every rank, of every lot in life, and of every age, who have cut short their misfortunes by death.
Believe me, Lucilius; death is so little to be feared that through its good offices nothing is to be feared. Therefore, when your enemy threatens, listen unconcernedly. Although your conscience makes you confident, yet, since many things have weight which are outside your case, both hope for that which is utterly just, and prepare yourself against that which is utterly unjust.
Remember, however, before all else, to strip things of all that disturbs and confuses, and to see what each is at bottom; you will then comprehend that they contain nothing fearful except the actual fear.
That you see happening to boys happens also to ourselves, who are only slightly bigger boys: when those whom they love, with whom they daily associate, with whom they play, appear with masks on, the boys are frightened out of their wits. We should strip the mask, not only from men, but from things, and restore to each object its own aspect.
“Why dost thou hold up before my eyes swords, fires, and a throng of executioners raging about thee? Take away all that vain show, behind which thou lurkest and scarest fools! Ah! thou art naught but Death, whom only yesterday a manservant of mine and a maid-servant did despise! Why dost thou again unfold and spread before me, with all that great display, the whip and the rack? Why are those engines of torture made ready, one for each several member of the body, and all the other innumerable machines for tearing a man apart piecemeal?
Away with all such stuff, which makes us numb with terror! And thou, silence the groans the cries, and the bitter shrieks ground out of the victim as he is torn on the rack! Forsooth thou are naught but Pain, scorned by yonder gout-ridden wretch, endured by yonder dyspeptic in the midst of his dainties, borne bravely by the girl in travail. Slight thou art, if I can bear thee; short thou art if I cannot bear thee!”
Ponder these words which you have often heard and often uttered. Moreover, prove by the result whether that which you have heard and uttered is true. For there is a very disgraceful charge often brought against our school—that we deal with the words, and not with the deeds, of philosophy.
What, have you only at this moment learned that death is hanging over your head, at this moment exile, at this moment grief? You were born to these perils. Let us think of everything that can happen as something which will happen.
I know that you have really done what I advise you to do; I now warn you not to drown your soul in these petty anxieties of yours; if you do, the soul will be dulled and will have too little vigour left when the time comes for it to arise.
Remove the mind from this case of yours to the case of men in general. Say to yourself that our petty bodies are mortal and frail; pain can reach them from other sources than from wrong or the might of the stronger.
Our pleasures themselves become torments; banquets bring indigestion, carousals paralysis of the muscles and palsy, sensual habits affect the feet, the hands, and every joint of the body.
I may become a poor man; I shall then be one among many. I may be exiled; I shall then regard myself as born in the place to which I shall be sent. They may put me in chains. What then? Am I free from bonds now? Behold this clogging burden of a body, to which nature has fettered me!
“I shall die,” you say; you mean to say “I shall cease to run the risk of sickness; I shall cease to run the risk of imprisonment; I shall cease to run the risk of death.” I am not so foolish as to go through at this juncture the arguments which Epicurus harps upon, and say that the terrors of the world below are idle—that Ixion does not whirl round on his wheel, that Sisyphus does not shoulder his stone uphill, that a man’s entrails cannot be restored and devoured every day; no one is so childish as to fear Cerberus, or the shadows, or the spectral garb of those who are held together by naught but their unfleshed bones.
Death either annihilates us or strips us bare. If we are then released, there remains the better part, after the burden has been withdrawn; if we are annihilated, nothing remains; good and bad are alike removed.
Allow me at this point to quote a verse of yours, first suggesting that, when you wrote it, you meant it for yourself no less than for others. It is ignoble to say one thing and mean another; and how much more ignoble to write one thing and mean another!
I remember one day you were handling the well-known commonplace—that we do not suddenly fall on death, but advance towards it by slight degrees; we die every day. For every day a little of our life is taken from us; even when we are growing, our life is on the wane. We lose our childhood, then our boyhood, and then our youth. Counting even yesterday, all past time is lost time; the very day which we are now spending is shared between ourselves and death.
It is not the last drop that empties the water-clock, but all that which previously has flowed out; similarly, the final hour when we cease to exist does not of itself bring death; it merely of itself completes the death-process. We reach death at that moment, but we have been a long time on the way.
In describing this situation, you said in your customary, style (for you are always impressive, but never more pungent than when you are putting the truth in appropriate words):
“Not single is the death which comes; the death which takes us off is but the last of all.”
I prefer that you should read your own words rather than my letter; for then it will be clear to you that this death, of which we are afraid, is the last but not the only death.
I see what you are looking for; you are asking what I have packed into my letter, what inspiriting saying from some master-mind, what useful precept. So I shall send you something dealing with this very subject which has been under discussion.
Epicurus upbraids those who crave, as much as those who shrink from, death: “It is absurd,” he says, “to run towards death because you are tired of life, when it is your manner of life that has made you run towards death.”
And in another passage: “What is so absurd as to seek death, when it is through fear of death that you have robbed your life of peace?”
And you may add a third statement, of the same stamp: “Men are so thoughtless, nay, so mad, that some, through fear of death, force themselves to die.”
Whichever of these ideas you ponder, you will strengthen your mind for the endurance alike of death and of life. For we need to be warned and strengthened in both directions—not to love or to hate life overmuch; even when reason advises us to make an end of it, the impulse is not to be adopted without reflection or at headlong speed.
The grave and wise man should not beat a hasty retreat from life; he should make a becoming exit. And above all, he should avoid the weakness which has taken possession of so many—the lust for death.
For just as there is an unreflecting tendency of the mind towards other things, so, my dear Lucilius, there is an unreflecting tendency towards death; this often seizes upon the noblest and most spirited men, as well as upon the craven and the abject. The former despise life; the latter find it irksome.
Others also are moved by a satiety of doing and seeing the same things, and not so much by a hatred of life as because they are cloyed with it.
We slip into this condition, while philosophy itself pushes us on, and we say; “How long must I endure the same things? Shall I continue to wake and sleep, be hungry and be cloyed, shiver and perspire? There is an end to nothing; all things are connected in a sort of circle; they flee and they are pursued. Night is close at the heels of day, day at the heels of night; summer ends in autumn, winter rushes after autumn, and winter softens into spring; all nature in this way passes, only to return. I do nothing new; I see nothing new; sooner or later one sickens of this, also.”
There are many who think that living is not painful, but superfluous. Farewell.

Don’t be put off by the topic. This is an invitation to exercise your thinking mind and not to indulge in superstitious fears and emotional distress. Death is nothing to be feared for it is part of our human story. It was before and it will remain after and whatever small part we have to play on the stage of life is a mere brief interlude in a cosmic dance and play far exceeding our infinitesimal perspective.
I was always fascinated by the mere vastness of existence. We are all sailing through life much like the hero in Gulliver’s Travels. We are Giants to an infinite multitude of creatures and we have yet to comprehend the depth of the rabbit hole of the Atom and what it’s made of. We are on the other end of the scope unbelievably insignificant with regard to the bewildering size of the observable universe around us.
Earth, the planet we call our home, the place where countless civilizations tried to live and thrive and conquer, and the same place where a huge number of creatures perished and gone instinct, is negligible in effect, size, and mass in comparison to the rest of the known universe. The Sun which constitutes 98% of the mass of our Solar System can hardly be seen when compared to the big stars we have observed out there in the emptiness of space. There are Trillions of Galaxies in the observable universe and each Galaxy is home to Trillions of Stars and a great many of them have planets and solar systems. We are unfathomably small in this universe.
“Everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
Mote of Dust
It is through culture, knowledge, and philosophy that we are able to make sense of the whole human experience. The most notable thing you get to understand as you make your way through the ocean of human intellect is that there are certain immutable truths told to the future generations of every culture on earth, each in their own language and each within their own specific context. The same words, maxims, and proverbs are told in every tongue by the Chinese, Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Aztecs, Persians, Arabs, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Suffiests, Taoists, and every and all who ever lived on earth. It seems that all of humanity no matter where or when they lived, were destined to reach the same conclusions and express them in their written text and traditions passed down from generation to generation.
For the best source on Stoicism and Stoic Philosophy, I suggest you check out: The Daily Stoic Website.
Amor Fati - Nietzsche
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