Memento mori is Latin for remember that you must die. A scary thought at first – contemplating the inevitability of death can make you desperate, frustrated and anxious.
To be Stoic is to accept things as they are, to use your mind to understand the world and play your part in nature’s grand plan. It means to refuse to be affected by things outside of your control. And what is more natural and out of our control than death itself?
By reading the Stoics you get a different, less grim perspective on death. First, you realize that everyone dies. So will you. The scary thing about it is the fear itself.
Second, you should be scared of life more than death. You can’t change your death but you can and should change your life to live the most out of it. Seneca would say – “It is not important at what point you stop. Stop wherever you will – only make sure that you round it off with a good ending.”
Third, grief is painful. Deaths of loved ones are likely harder to cope with than your own death. If you manage to accept the Stoic perspective, you may find relief, and in Seneca’s words – see to it that the recollection of those we have lost becomes a pleasure to us.
Below you can find quotes from Seneca and Marcus Aurelius on facing our own death, on shortness of life and coping with grief.
‘It is a very good thing to familiarize oneself with death.’ You may possibly think it unnecessary to learn something which you will only have to put into practice once. That is the very reason why we ought to be practising it. We must needs continually study a thing if we are not in a position to test whether we know it. ‘Rehearse death.’ To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom. A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Letter XXVII
“Well, we should cherish old age and enjoy it. It is full of pleasure if you know how to use it. Fruit tastes most delicious just when its season is ending. The charms of youth are at their greatest at the time of its passing. It is the final glass which pleases the inveterate drinker, the one that sets the crowning touch on his intoxication and sends him off into oblivion. Every pleasure defers till its last its greatest delights.Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Letter XII
It’s only when you’re breathing your last that the way you’ve spent your time will become apparent. I accept the terms, and feel no dread of the coming judgement. That’s what I say to myself, but assume that I’ve said it to you as well. You’re younger than I am, but what difference does that make? No count is taken of years. Just where death is expecting you is something we cannot know; so, for your part, expect him everywhere.”Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, LETTER XXVI
My own advice to you – and not only in the present illness but in your whole life as well – is this: refuse to let the thought of death bother you: nothing is grim when we have escaped that fear. There are three upsetting things about any illness: the fear of dying, the physical suffering and the interruption of our pleasures. I have said enough about the first, but will just say this, that the fear is due to the facts of nature, not of illness. Illness has actually given many people a new lease of life; the experience of being near to death has been their preservation. You will die not because you are sick but because you are alive. That end still awaits you when you have been cured.Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Letter LXXVIII
Death you’ll think of as the worst of all bad things, though in fact there’s nothing bad about it at all except the thing which comes before it – the fear of it.Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Letter CIV
Death is not an evil. What is it then? The one law mankind has that is free of all discrimination.Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Letter CXXIII
You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
If there were anything harmful on the other side of death, [Gods] would have made sure that the ability to avoid it was within you.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Don’t look down on death, but welcome it. It too is one of the things required by nature. Like youth and old age. Like growth and maturity. Like a new set of teeth, a beard, the first gray hair. Like sex and pregnancy and childbirth. Like all the other physical changes at each stage of life, our dissolution is no different.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Keep this constantly in mind: that all sorts of people have died—all professions, all nationalities. Follow the thought all the way down to Philistion, Phoebus, and Origanion. Now extend it to other species.
We have to go there too, where all of them have already gone:
. . . the eloquent and the wise—Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Socrates . . .
. . . the heroes of old, the soldiers and kings who followed them . . .
. . . Eudoxus, Hipparchus, Archimedes . . .
. . . the smart, the generous, the hardworking, the cunning, the selfish . . .
. . . and even Menippus and his cohorts, who laughed at thewhole brief, fragile business.
All underground for a long time now.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
And what harm does it do them? Or the others either—the ones whose names we don’t even know?
The only thing that isn’t worthless: to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don’t.”
On the Shortness of Life
You want to live – but do you know how to live? You are scared of dying – and, tell me, is the kind of life you lead really any different from being dead?Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Letter LXXVII
As it is with a play, so it is with life – what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is. It is not important at what point you stop. Stop wherever you will – only make sure that you round it off with a good ending.Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Letter LXXVII
It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
Why do we complain about nature? She has acted kindly: life is long if you know how to use it. But one man is gripped by insatiable greed, another by a laborious dedication to useless tasks. One man is soaked in wine, another sluggish with idleness.Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
“My friend Serenus is younger than I am, but what difference does that make? He should die later than me, but it is quite possible he will die before me.’ It was just because I did not do so that fortune caught me unprepared with that sudden blow. Now I bear it in mind not only that all things are liable to death but that that liability is governed by no set rules. Whatever can happen at any time can happen today. Let us reflect then, my dearest Lucilius, that we ourselves shall not be long in reaching the place we mourn his having reached. Perhaps, too, if only there is truth in the story told by sages and some welcoming abode awaits us, he whom we suppose to be dead and gone has merely been sent on ahead.”Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, LETTER LXIII
Let us see to it that the recollection of those we have lost becomes a pleasure to us. Nobody really cares to cast his mind back to something which he is never going to think of without pain. Inevitable as it is that the names of persons who were dear to us and are now lost should cause us a gnawing sort of pain when we think of them, that pain is not without a pleasure of its own.Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, LETTER LXIII
Thinking of departed friends is to me something sweet and mellow. For when I had them with me it was with the feeling that I was going to lose them, and now that I have lost them I keep the feeling that I have them with me still.
What I am about to go on to say is, I know, a commonplace, but I am not going to omit it merely because every one has said it. Even a person who has not deliberately put an end to his grief finds an end to it in the passing of time. And merely growing weary of sorrowing is quite shameful as a means of curing sorrow in the case of an enlightened man. I should prefer to see you abandoning grief than it abandoning you.Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, LETTER LXIII