Have Yourself A Tranquil Little Death

Stoic philosopher and essayist Seneca (ca. 4 B.C. to A.D. 65) talks with stirring idealism about how to die tranquilly at Fortune’s apparently arbitrary hand.

The first thing one must do is to cultivate flexibility: “We should also make ourselves flexible, so that we do not pin our hopes too much on our set plans, and can move over to those things to which chance has brought us, without dreading a change in either our purpose or our condition, provided that fickleness, that fault most inimicable to tranquillity, does not get hold of us.”:”(“On Tranquillity of Mind,” in Seneca: Dialogues and Letters, ed. and trans. C.D.N. Costa [New York: Penguin Classics, rep. 2005], pg. 52.)”:

Next, one must focus one’s mind away from the external cruelty of circumstances beyond one’s control: “the mind must be recalled from external objects into itself: it must trust in itself, rejoice in itself, admire its own things,; it must withdraw as much as possible from the affairs of others and devote its attention to itself; it must not feel losses and should take a kindly view even of misfortunes.”:”(Ibid.)”:

Seneca tries to inspire his readers with examples of this Stoic tranquillity in the face of death: “When a tyrant threatened to kill the philosopher Theodorus, and indeed leave him unburied,, he replied: ‘You can please yourself, and my half-pint of blood is in your power; but as to burial, you are a fool if you think it matters to me whether I rot above or below ground.”:”(Ibid.)”: Of another man of exceptional Roman virtue, Julius Canus, Seneca asks, “Will you believe that Canus spent the ten days leading up to his execution without any anxiety at all?” Indeed, having been playing a game with a fellow prisoner, when the moment came for him to be led to his death “he counted his pieces and said to his companion, ‘See that you don’t falsely claim after my death that you won.’”:”(Ibid., 53.)”: To his grieving friends, he said only, “Why are you sad? You are wondering whether souls are immortal: I shall soon know.” The virtue of this remark, says Seneca, is that “He did not cease searching for the truth right up to the end and making his own death a topic for discussion….Just look at that serenity in the midst of a hurricane, that spirit worthy of immortality, which invokes its own fate to establish the truth, and in that very last phase of life questions the departing soul and seeks to learn something nto only up to the time of death but from the very experience of death itself.”:”(Ibid.)”:

Sounding like a pagan version of Solomon, Seneca opines, “Let every man contemplate the individual occurrences which bring us joy or grief, and he will learn the truth of Bion’s dictum, that all the activities of men are like their beginnings, and their life is not more high-souled or serious than their conception, and that being born from nothing they are reduced to nothing.”:”(Ibid., 54.)”: Waxing rhetorical, he continues:

…When good men come to a bad end, when Socrates is compelled to die in prison in Rutilius to live in exile, when Pompey and Cicero have to offer their necks to their clients, when Cato, that living pattern of the virtues, has to fall on his sword to show the world what is happening to himself and the state at the same time; then we have to feel anguish that Fortune hands out such unfair rewards. And what can each of us hope for himself when he sees the best men suffering the worst fates? What follows then? Observe how each of these men bore his fate; and if they were brave, long with your spirit for a spirit like theirs; if they died with womanly cowardice, then nothing died with them. Either they are worthy of your admiration for their courage or unworthy of your longing for their cowardice. For what is more disgraceful than if supremely great men by dying bravely make others fearful? Let us repeatedly praise one who deserves praise and let us say: ‘The braver one is, the happier he is! You have escaped all mischances, envy and disease; you have come forth from prison – not that you seemed to the gods worthy of ill fortune, but unworthy that Fortune should any longer have power over you.’:”(Ibid., 55.)”:

For Seneca, dying bravely and tranquilly, in full rational control of one’s mind and body, is the way to achieve immortality.:”(Ibid., 56.)”: Be virtuous and have yourself a tranquil little death, and you will be remembered forever. Oh, and blogged about 2,000 years later, too.


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