Jumping off my post some days ago about the Stoic “premeditation of evils“: Virtually every society since ancient times understood that we should always be aware of death.
Socrates said that good philosophy is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.”
The ancient Egyptians, already so well known for their obsession with death, had a custom of bringing out a skeleton during festivities and cheer, “Drink and be merry, for when you’re dead you will look like this.”
Mexico’s globally iconic Day of the Dead fuses both the Catholic and indigenous fascination with death, putting a more optimistic spin on our ability to remain connected to departed loved ones while appreciative of our time on Earth.
Perhaps the most famous proponents of this idea were the Stoics I quoted last time, who emerged in the Roman Empire the third century B.C.E. In his private journal known as the Meditations, Emperor Marcus Aurelius advised to himself that “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” Roman statesman and orator Seneca advised that we go to bed thinking “You may not wake up tomorrow” and start the day thinking “You may not sleep again”. He also recommended that we:
…prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day…The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.
All this probably sounds pretty morbid and depressing, not to mention counterintuitive: Thinking about death all the time is no way to live and would probably paralyze us with fear (take it from someone with chronic anxiety). But as another famous Stoic, the slave Epictetus, explained:
Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terribly doing so, you’ll never have a base thought, nor will you have excessive desire.
Extrapolating from this, some modern Stoics advise that we remember that the people we fight with will die; the strangers cut us off on the road or in line will die; that every time we say goodbye to a loved one, we keep in mind they may die before we see or speak with them again. Again, the point is not to be depressed, clingy, or nihilistic, but to help put things in perspective and value each finite second we have.
The people we hate will end up just like us one day, which both humanizes them and reminds us not to waste precious little time occupied by them. The people we love will end up the same way, so better that we make the most of our time and fill it with happiness. Of course, all this is easier said than done: It’s every culture and society has been trying to refine this advise for as long as our species has been aware of its own mortality.