Shelf Life

How to Die

An excerpt from James Romm’s compilation of Seneca’s writings on death

By Charlotte Salley | February 2, 2018
The Death of Seneca by Manuel Domínguez Sánchez, 1871
The Death of Seneca by Manuel Domínguez Sánchez, 1871

When it comes to dying, Seneca is always the man to consult. For example, according to the ancient Stoic philosopher, the death of an emperor can go one of two ways. The first is an apotheosis or deification, which turns the ruler into a god. The other option roughly translates as gourdification—man into pumpkin. Either way, however, death is death, and Seneca counseled all (emperor or everyman) to come to terms with the harsh truth. Classicist James Romm has translated and compiled Seneca’s meditations on dying into a pocket-size book for those in need of a memento mori. In this excerpt, Seneca enjoins Polybius, a freedman grieving the loss of his brother, to see the universality of death as a consolation.

You may complain, “But he was snatched away when I didn’t expect it.” Thus all are deceived by their own trust and a willed forgetfulness of mortality in the case of things they cherish. Nature promised no one that it would make an exception to necessity. Every day there pass before our eyes the funerals of the famous and the obscure, yet we are busy with other things, and we find a sudden surprise in the thing that, our whole life long, we were told was coming. It’s not the unfairness of the fates, but the warped inability of the human mind to get enough of all things, that makes us complain of leaving that place to which we were admitted as a special favor. How much more just was he who, having learned of his son’s death, spoke a word worthy of a great man: “I knew then, when I fathered him, that he would die.” … His son’s death came as no news to him; for what news is it that someone has died whose whole life was nothing else than a journey toward death? “I knew then, when I fathered him, that he would die.” Then he added something of even greater sagacity and insight: “And it was for that that I raised him.” It’s for that that we are all brought up; whoever is brought into life is destined for death. Let’s rejoice in what will be given, but let’s return it when we’re asked for it back. The fates will seize hold of one person now, another later, but they will overlook no one. Let the soul stand girded for battle; let it never fear what must be, let it always expect what’s unknown. … There’s no single end fixed for all; for one, life departs in mid-course, but abandons another at its very beginning, and barely dispatches a third who is already worn out with extreme old age and longing to go. Each in his or her own time, we all bend our course to the same place. Is it more stupid to ignore the law of mortality, or more impudent to reject it? I don’t know.

Excerpted from HOW TO DIE: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life by Seneca. Edited, translated, and introduced by James S. Romm. Copyright © 2018 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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