Awareness of Death: Why Are the Stoics Obsessed With It?

Seneca’s take on how awareness of death can affect our daily lives

Death Cemetery
Image by Silviu Costin Iancu from Pixabay

Seneca, like all Stoics, was obsessed with death. His writings are full of reflections on death: how to approach it, how to regard it, and, above all, how to use the awareness of it to help us lead our best life.

Here are three quotes on the subject from Letters from a Stoic:

“This day’s my last or maybe it isn’t, but it’s not so far away from it.”

“Every life without exception is a short one.”

“Death ought to be right there before the eyes of a young man just as much as an old one — the order in which we each receive our summons is not determined by our precedence in the register… no one is so very old that it would be quite unnatural for him to hope for one more day.”

I, for one, wish the concept of death had been more present in my mind when I was younger. I don’t know how it is with other people, but death became a frequent subject of reflection for me in my forties — in a good way.

I can’t say the thought of it leaves me indifferent. I do feel quite sad when faced with the prospect of the death of a loved one. As to my own death, I don’t really fear it, though I do worry I may be missed too much by my family, especially my son with special needs. 

Nonetheless, awareness of death has made me appreciate every minute of my life more and to feel grateful for each new day. It energizes and motivates me to think, feel and do more.

It makes it clear to me that there’s only this day and the hope for another day — and so it will be until I reach my last day.

Whether you were born yesterday or 89 years ago, you’re highly unlikely to be around in 2120. A hundred years is but an instant in the dimension we call time. In this sense, all lives are short. I sometimes ride my bicycle in a cemetery, and the dates on the tombstones always remind me how brief life is.

Awareness of death, without fear or anxiety about when exactly it should happen, helps us appreciate how little time we have and motivates us to use it more wisely.

Day 24 of 30-day writing challenge on a single topic: Quotes from Seneca the Younger’s Letters from a Stoic.

Why this topic? Because I can’t get over how timely and brilliant Seneca’s words are -2,000 years after he wrote them.

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