Remember Death

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.”

Early Buddhist texts use the term maranasati, which translates as “remember death”, which became the mantra of medieval Christian societies following the devastation of the bubonic plague.

Some adherents of Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam, are known as the “people of the graves” for their practice of visiting graveyards to ponder death, as Mohammad himself had once advised.

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.

Still Life with a Skull, by Philippe de Champaigne, which depicts the three essentials of existence: life (the tulip), death (the skull), and the time (the hourglass). The original painting is part of a 17th century artistic genre called Vanitas, which encouraged reflection on the meaning and fleetingness of life.

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.

Premeditatio Malorum

The Stoic philosophers of the ancient Greco-Roman world had a meditative practice called Premeditatio Malorum, or “premeditation of evils”, which consists of imagining and thus preparing ourselves for the misfortunes, obstacles, and suffering we can encounter every day or while pursuing a goal.

This technique of “negative visualization” forces us to confront undesirable things we would rather not think about, even though they are entirely possible, if not inevitable. Losing your job, being the victim of a crime, falling gravely ill, getting injured or killed in an accident, or getting that dreaded phone call about these things happening to someone you love. We all know these things happen—thousands of people fall victim to at least one of them every day.

It seems depressing and counterproductive for one’s mental health to dwell on these things. But for the Stoics—and for that matter, other practitioners of this idea worldwide, from Muslim Sufis to Buddhists—this mentality guarantees a healthier and happier life. It keeps you vigilant and as ready as possible for the bad things that come your way. It makes you appreciate every second you and your loved ones are alive. It challenges you to not sweat the small stuff, and to try to build healthier relations or interactions while they last.

Making it home safe from work is something to be grateful for, as thousands of Americans are not so lucky. Being able to call a loved one and hear their voice is something to cherish. Even waking up to see another day is something too easy to take for granted, even though millions worldwide wish they could have done the same. In short, it really is the little things that are, well, the big things, if you think about it.

Of course, like most efforts to improve one’s attitude and behavior, all this is easier said than done. But that is why it is called a practice.

Living the Stoic Life

Over at the New York Times, noted Italian philosopher Massimo Pigliucci shares his experiences with stoicism, an ancient philosophy and way of life that has deeply impacted him, as well as myself.

The foundational view of the stoic mindset and approach can best be summarized by a quote in the article:

What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.

Like many philosophies, stoicism is timeless in its wisdom and application, especially in a modern world rife with overstimulation, business, and subsequent stress and turmoil. No wonder it is getting renewed attention over 2,000 years after it was first propagated by the Greek Zeno of Citium.

Thousands of people, for instance, participated in the third annual Stoic Week, a worldwide philosophy event cum social science experiment organized by a team at the University of Exeter, in England. The goal of Stoic Week is twofold: on the one hand, to get people to learn about Stoicism and how it can be relevant to their lives; on the other hand, to collect systematic data to see whether practicing Stoicism actually does make a difference to people’s lives.

Stoicism was born in Hellenistic Greece, very much as a practical philosophy, one that became popular during the Roman Empire,and that vied over centuries for cultural dominance with the other Greek schools. Eventually, Christianity emerged, and actually incorporated a number of concepts and even practices of Stoicism. Even today, the famous Serenity Prayer recited at Alcoholic Anonymous meetings is an incarnation of a Stoic principle enunciated by Epictetus: “What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” (“Discourses”)

From there, Pigliucci cites his own inspiration for pursuing stoicism, which is not all different from own.

As a scientist and philosopher by profession, I always try to figure out more coherent ways to understand the world (science) and better choices for living my life (philosophy). I have for many years been attracted to virtue ethics — a core of Stoic philosophy — as a way to think about morality and a life worth living. I have also recently passed the half century mark, one of those arbitrary points in human life that nonetheless somehow prompt people to engage in broader reflections on who they are and what they are doing.

Lastly, Stoicism speaks directly to a lifelong preoccupation I’ve harbored that is present in nearly all forms of religion and philosophical practice — the inevitability of death and how to prepare for it. The original Stoics devoted a great deal of effort and writing to what Seneca famously referred to as the ultimate test of character and principle. “We are dying every day,” he wrote to his friend Marcia in consolation for the loss of her son. Because of this confluence of factors, I decided to take a serious look at Stoicism as a comprehensive philosophy, to devote at least a year to its study and its practice.

Although not a scientist myself, I came to stoicism following my drift from religion and the subsequent search for new ways to seek truth, purpose, and moral living. I turned to science and philosophy as my guides to the world and the foundations of my ethical framework, and stoicism was among the schools of thought that most stood out to me as both relevant and useful.

And like Pigliucci, for as long as I can remember, I have always had both a fascination and fear of death, which only worsened with time regardless of my religiosity. So stoicism (among other philosophies, like Epicureanism), helped me come to terms with this reality and how to cope with it. I found comfort and solidarity in the fact that humans the world over have historically struggled with and reflected upon these same issues, devising all sorts of solutions grounded in both secular and spiritual thought. (Buddhism, which shares many parallels with Stoicism, emerged in the East around the same time, while various other world religions have developed particular doctrines or lifestyles that take a similar approach to moral living.)

After reflecting on the empirical results of Stoic Week — namely that participants saw a significant increase in their positive mood and overall life satisfaction — Pigliucci weighs in with his own approach to living stoically. It is an informative model to consider.

Nonetheless, I think it is worth considering what it means to “be a Stoic” in the 21st century. It doesn’t involve handling a turbulent empire as Marcus Aurelius had to do, or having to deal with the dangerous madness of a Nero, with the fatal consequences that Seneca experienced. Rather, my modest but regular practice includes a number of standard Stoic “spiritual” exercises.

I begin the day by retreating in a quiet corner of my apartment to meditate. Stoic meditation consists in rehearsing the challenges of the day ahead, thinking about which of the four cardinal virtues (courage, equanimity, self-control and wisdom) one may be called on to employ and how.

I also engage in an exercise called Hierocles’ circle, imagining myself as part of a growing circle of concern that includes my family and friends, my neighbors, my fellow citizens, humanity as a whole, all the way up to Nature itself.

I then pass to the “premeditatio malorum,” a type of visualization in which one imagines some sort of catastrophe happening to oneself (such as losing one’s job), and learns to see it as a “dispreferred indifferent,” meaning that it would be better if it didn’t happen, but that it would nonetheless not affect one’s worth and moral value. This one is not for everybody: novices may find this last  exercise emotionally disturbing, especially if it involves visualizing one’s own death, as sometimes it does. Nonetheless, it is very similar to an analogous practice in C.B.T. meant to ally one’s fears of particular objects or events.

Finally, I pick a Stoic saying from my growing collection (saved on a spreadsheet on DropBox and available to share), read it to myself a few times and absorb it as best as I can. The whole routine takes about ten minutes or so.

Throughout the rest of the day, my Stoic practice is mostly about mindfulness, which means to remind myself that I not only I live “hic et nunc,” in the here and now, where I must pay attention to whatever it is I am doing, but, more importantly, that pretty much every decision I make has a moral dimension, and needs to be approached with proper care and thoughtfulness. For me this often includes how to properly and respectfully treat students and colleagues, or how to shop for food and other items in the most ethically minded way possible (there are apps for that, naturally).

Finally, my daily practice ends with an evening meditation, which consists in writing in a diary (definitely not meant for publication!) my thoughts about the day, the challenges I faced, and how I handled them. I ask myself, as Seneca put it in “On Anger”: “What bad habit have you put right today? Which fault did you take a stand against? In what respect are you better?”

As Pigliucci cautions (and I concur) Stoicism is not for everyone: it can be demanding to put into practice, and for some lifestyles and personalities, it may seem untenable or even undesirable. Plus, given its ancient origins, some Stoic concepts are dated or fail to take into account the findings of modern science or psychology.

Of course, no philosophy is intended to be a catch-all on all matters and concerns of human existence. Stoicism still offers a lot of salient quotes, perspectives, and ideas well worth taking into consideration, at the very least. It can be tweaked, added upon, or altered to suit our own individual goals and worldviews. As Pigliucci rightly observes:

In the end, of course, Stoicism is simply another path some people can try out in order to develop a more or less coherent view of the world, of who they are, and of how they fit in the broader scheme of things.

I think just about anyone who is concerned with living a just and purposeful life would share in that sentiment. This philosophy has greatly influenced my life, not only in giving me purpose and ethical grounding, but  in helping to minimize my anxiety and depression. Of course, applying it correctly and consistently is a continuous process, but one that is well worth pursuing.

If you are interested in learning more about Stoicism, read the works of Marcus Aurelius (namely Meditations, which I have written about here and here), founder Zeno of Citium (what little of it survives), Seneca the Younger, and Epictetus. Best of luck on your journey to a stoic life.