by David Fideler
In Stoicism, remembering death is a way of practicing gratitude and being grateful for every day we are alive with those we love.
Because we cannot be sure how long we will have our friends, let us eagerly enjoy them now.—Seneca
A couple of days ago, on September 23, 2020, a headline flashed around the world, proclaiming a milestone: 200,000 Americans, according to officials, had died from Covid-19. Since the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in the United States was reported on January 20, 2020, those 200,000 deaths took place in an eight-month period.
To make things worse, nearly 50 percent of Covid deaths in the United States took place in nursing homes. Those deaths could have been easily prevented by simply not sending infected elderly patients back to nursing homes, where they mass-infected others. Based on that mistake and the inadequate testing of healthcare workers, the death rate doubled needlessly.
And while it might not be comforting to anyone who lost a loved one to Covid-19, it’s worth noting that earlier pandemics were far worse:
- The Antonine Plague of 164 to 180 AD, named after the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius Antonius, is estimated to have killed 5 million people in Europe. (It eventually killed Marcus Aurelius too.)
- The Black Death, which peaked in Europe between 1347 and 1351, is estimated to have killed at least 75 million people worldwide, and as many as 200 million. In Europe, it is estimated to have killed 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s population.
- More recently, the Spanish flu of 1918–1920, is estimated to have killed between 17 and 50 million people worldwide.
While I feel confident that we’ll get Covid-19 under control with the development of vaccines and better therapeutics, death itself is here to stay. And for the Roman Stoics, how we acknowledge and respond to death is a major test of a person’s character.
Even in Paradise, Death Is Present: “Et in Arcadia ego”
Nicolas Poussin’s painting Et in Arcadia ego or The Arcadian Shepherds is a memento mori, a meditation on the presence of death in even life’s most beautiful settings.
In ancient Greece, the region of Arcadia represented a pastoral paradise or utopia, a place where the light of the mythical Golden Age could still shine through. In Poussin’s painting, several young shepherds are gathered around a tomb and looking at the inscription on it. The inscription is a reference to death, and it reads, Et in Arcadia ego. That means, “Even in Arcadia, I am there.”
The shepherds look naive and don’t seem to fully understand the reality that death is even present in Arcadia’s utopia. Maybe, like my seven-year-old son, they are just naive and inexperienced. Perhaps, like him, they don’t yet grasp the reality of death in a firsthand or existential way, because they never lost a close friend or a family member. Based on their expressions, it looks like death has captured their curiosity, but they still don’t sense its gravity or finality.
While we should use care and caution with Covid-19, and do what we can to battle it, the desire of the news media and its pundits to politicize death from the virus resembles, at least in my opinion, the immature naivety of the shepherds in Poussin’s painting. Unlike other countries today and earlier times and places, America has accomplished a world-class disappearing act when it comes to keeping older people and death out-of-sight and out-of-mind. Because of that, it seems that many people feel an underlying need to politicize Covid-19 deaths. Because American society has difficulty acknowledging death, it seems like there should be someone to blame for this, even though we’re all destined to die.
Stoic Perspectives on Death and Pandemics
When I spoke with the modern Stoic writer Donald Robertson back in March 2020, when the pandemic lockdown was getting underway in North America, he made an interesting point. As Donald said:
The main way the Stoics would recommend that we learn to be more resilient in a pandemic is to prepare for it in advance. In some respects, the horse has already bolted, and in the middle of the situation, we can start working on ways to respond to it. But what the Stoics would tell us to do is to prepare long in advance. Seneca would have said, “Imagine that you might get old, imagine your own death, imagine things like a pandemic,” way before it’s even on the news or on the horizon because these things are part of life.
All of the Roman Stoics stressed the importance of reflecting on our mortality. They advocated memento mori—or remembering death on an ongoing basis—not in a morbid way, but in a realistic way.
Death, as they realized, is just the final stage of life. As Epictetus said, there is nothing terrible about death: otherwise, Socrates would have thought it to be terrible, too. Instead, what makes death terrible is the incorrect opinion we hold about it in our minds (Handbook 5).
Seneca wrote that all the past years we have already lived are “already in the hands of death.” He also tried to live life fully, as if each day was his last. Consequently, each night when he went to sleep, he wanted to feel that he had no unfinished business in life. Also, if he was lucky enough to wake up alive the next morning, he’d view each additional day with gratitude, as being a wonderful gift from the universe.
Seneca wrote that life is like a play: it’s not how long it lasts, but the quality of the performance that matters. What he meant is that it’s not the length of being alive that makes a person’s life good but the quality of one’s character. In that sense, someone with a good character, who died young, at age twenty-five, would have lived a much better life than someone with a vicious, inhumane, and cruel character who lived to be seventy-five.
Until fairly recently, the average human lifespan was only around thirty-five years of age, due, in part, to a high childhood mortality rate. This is something that we modern people take totally for granted, along with many other things.
Another reason to remember death is so we don’t take the gift of life, in the present moment, for granted. As Epictetus told his students, when you look upon your wife and child, remind yourself that they are mortal (Handbook 3). That way, you’ll never be entirely surprised if one of them dies, but you’ll also experience gratitude for whatever remaining time you have together. Similarly, Seneca wrote, “Because we cannot be sure how long we will have our friends, let us eagerly enjoy them now” (Letters 63.8).
In the end, for a Stoic, remembering death is a way of practicing gratitude. It’s a way of being consciously grateful for each day we are alive with those we love, which ultimately is beyond our personal control. Marcus Aurelius, who himself died from the plague, nonetheless lived fearlessly and with a deep sense of gratitude, despite the tragic fact that only four of his thirteen children survived to adulthood. Despite those terrible losses, Marcus was still able to write these beautiful lines, which might be the ultimate expression of Stoic gratitude:
Every thing that is harmonious with you, oh Universe, suits me also. Nothing is too early or too late for me that is timely for you. Everything that your seasons bring is fruit for me, oh Nature. All things are from you, in you, and all things return to you (Meditations 4.23).
David Fideler holds a PhD in philosophy, is the editor of Stoic Insights, and the author of Breakfast with Seneca, published by W. W. Norton, which is the first clear and faithful guide to the practical teachings of the Stoic philosopher Seneca. You can read more about his work here.