“Study Death Always” Reply

I enjoyed this.

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By James S Romm

Why Seneca’s advice for living centered on dying.

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The Death of Seneca, by Manuel Domínguez Sánchez, 1871. Prado Museum

Recent experiments have shown that psilocybin, a compound found in hallucinogenic mushrooms, can greatly reduce the fear of death in terminal cancer patients. The drug imparts “an understanding that in the largest frame, everything is fine,” said pharmacologist Richard Griffiths in a 2016 interview. Test subjects reported a sense of “the interconnectedness of all people and things, the awareness that we are all in this together.” Some claimed to have undergone a mock death during their psychedelic experience, to have “stared directly at death…in a kind of dress rehearsal,” as Michael Pollan wrote in a New Yorker account of these experiments. The encounter was felt to be not morbid or terrifying, but liberating and affirmative.

“In the largest frame, everything is fine.” That sounds very much like the message Lucius Annaeus Seneca preached to Roman readers of the mid-first century, relying on Stoic philosophy, rather than an organic hallucinogen, as a way to glimpse that truth. “The interconnectedness of all things” was also one of his principal themes, as was the idea that one must rehearse for death throughout one’s life—for life, properly understood, is really only a journey toward death; we are dying every day, from the day we are born. In his works of ethical thought, Seneca spoke to his addressees, and through them to humankind generally, about the need to accept death, even to the point of ending one’s own life, with a candor nearly unparalleled in his time or ours.

“Study death always,” Seneca counseled his friend Lucilius, and he took his own advice. From what is likely his earliest work, the Consolation to Marcia (written around AD 40), to the magnum opus of his last years (63–65), the Moral Epistles, Seneca returned again and again to this theme. It crops up in the midst of unrelated discussions, as though never far from his mind; a ringing endorsement of rational suicide, for example, intrudes without warning into advice about keeping one’s temper, in On Anger. Examined together, Seneca’s thoughts organize themselves around a few key themes: the universality of death; its importance as life’s final and most defining rite of passage; its part in purely natural cycles and processes; and its ability to liberate us, by freeing souls from bodies or, in the case of suicide, to give us an escape from pain, from the degradation of enslavement, or from cruel kings and tyrants who might otherwise destroy our moral integrity.

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