Seneca, Lucretius, and Overcoming Fear of Death

The greatest fear of many is death. They ask, ‘How might death be kept from me, if not forever, then for as long as possible?’ Or, worse, they do not ask at all, but succumb to their unreasoned fear and struggle in every moment of living, even if theirs is a cushy, gentle life. At least in asking, there is the possibility of finding an answer – for asking is the beginning of philosophy, which both the Stoic Seneca and the Epicurean Lucretius assert is the only salve for fearing one’s end. While there are certainly differences in the Stoic and Epicurean conceptions of the cosmos, and of Man within it, both firmly agree that fear of death is foolish and causes suffering, and that how one lives is a far greater concern, which when seen to, will ensure that one dies well.

The differences in the Epicurean and Stoic arguments are on abstract, rather than concrete points. For example, they do not agree on the nature of causation (an abstract conception, because for both the source of causation is essentially invisible), yet they do agree that form is caused to behave how it does (a concrete conception, because the behavior of form is directly observable). In one of his letters to Lucilius, Seneca succinctly explains the Stoic conception of cause:
As you know, we Stoics hold that there are two factors in nature which give rise to all things, cause and matter. Matter lies inert, susceptible to any use but yielding none if no one sets it in motion. Cause, which is to say reason, shapes matter and turns it where it will, to produce various objects. For any object raw material and a maker are requisite; one is matter, the other cause. (Seneca p. 196)

Shortly after this explanation, he clearly identifies “Creative Reason” as divine, calling it God. (Seneca p. 198) The Stoic analog for causation, then, is a reasoned Maker, shaping inert matter into particular things, and setting them all in motion, presumably with some purpose. (Seneca recalls Plato’s assertion that this purpose is simply goodness, though it is unclear if Seneca agrees.) Lucretius in his De Rerum Natura, on the other hand, at great length and with much repetition (for which he may be forgiven on account of his use of dactylic hexameter) faithfully puts forth the Epicurean doctrine of matter and void, which to the modern reader may easily sound like a colorful discourse on contemporary particle physics. As he develops this argument throughout the poem, he explains that all of existence is composed of particulate matter and void, that is, non-matter, which may be found wherever matter is not. These particles, by becoming variously entangled with each other, are capable of forming all the myriad things to be found in the universe, from simple dust to complex organisms like mankind. The only cause Lucretius posits in all this appears essentially random: by chance do particles of matter collide, due to their tendencies to fall (on account of their mass) and inexplicably “swerve” in their motion from time to time.

Though superficially, identification of divine reason or the chance of physics as ultimate cause differ indeed, they need not be opposed, nor even anything other than the same thing. No doubt some enterprising Stoic, with the respect for Epicurus’ wisdom that Seneca had, could conceivably demonstrate that the random swerve and the unlikely collision of particles of matter are the instruments of the Maker which Seneca’s Creative Reason employs.

Stoicism and Epicureanism are also contentious on the point of what constitutes the true self, which they both apparently concede resides as a soul within the body. Seneca makes it quite clear that this self is to the body as God is to the universe, and that harm to the body does not “penetrate though it to myself.” (Seneca p. 200) Lucretius also readily acknowledges the presence of the soul (joined, he insists, with the mind), but goes further, and describes it also in terms of particles: “[The soul] is incredibly fine and is made up of / exceedingly small particles…. that which is so highly mobile must be made up of / exceedingly round particles and exceedingly tiny ones, / so that they are able to be moved when struck by a small impulse, / since it is composed of shapes small and ready to roll.” (Lucretius 3.179-190) Both these conceptions, however, allow for the assertion that death is no harm to the soul.

In Seneca’s case, he admits not knowing what death may be, but posits that it is “Either end or transition.” (Seneca p. 201) Neither of these is to be feared, for ceasing to be “is the same as not having begun to be”, and presumably one cannot be harmed if one does not exist. As for transition, Seneca imagines that any alternative state will not be as much a limit to the reasoned soul as human form. For his part, Lucretius agrees with Seneca, inasmuch as he believes that the particles of the mind and soul will disperse when one dies, leaving one just as nonexistent as before one was alive, and just as beyond harm. Whether the self is dissipated by death, or continues to exist, taking up some other form, both the Stoic and the Epicurean concur that no injury comes to it. Whether one purports to know the fate of the soul after the death of the body or not, both philosophies emphasize that how one lives is what counts.

This assertion is strengthened by the philosophers’ positions regarding suicide. Both at least suggest that nothing keeps one from death, should it be wanted. Lucretius has Nature herself rebuke us:

“What is so troublesome to you, o mortal, that you indulge too much in anxious lamentations? Why do you groan and bewail death? For if your past and former life was pleasing to you and all its blessings have not flowed out and perished thanklessly, as if they were gathered in a vessel full of holes, why do you not depart like a banqueter who is sated with life, and embrace untroubled quiet with a calm mind, you fool? But if those things which you enjoyed have been poured out and perished, and life is hateful, why do you seek to add more, which again will perish badly and pass away thanklessly? Why not rather put an end to life and trouble?” (Lucretius 3.933-943)

Yet even here, the rebuke is not so much that we should kill ourselves if life is hateful, but rather that, having found life good, we should not be resentful at its end. Seneca also speaks for a higher power (his God of Creative Reason, in this case) in a rebuking tone: “‘Above all, I have taken pains that nothing should detain you against your will: the way out lies open. If you do not wish to fight you may escape.'” (Seneca p. 45) To this, he later adds: “This is the one reason we cannot complain of life: it holds no one back. The situation of humanity is good in that no one is wretched except by his own fault. If you like, live; if you don’t like, you can go back where you came from.” (Seneca p. 205) Seneca speaks not, however, of taking one’s life when the going gets too tough, but of doing so in order to choose the manner of one’s end when death seems inevitable. “Just as I choose a ship to sail in or a house to live in, so I choose a death for my passage from life”, since “Nowhere should we indulge the soul more than in dying.” (Seneca p. 204)

While they acknowledge that escape through death is always available, Seneca and Lucretius both also imply, if not outright state, that one ought rather to live. For the Epicurean, because life is preferred to death, as they conceive life allows for the continuation of pleasure and an undisturbed mind, and for the Stoic because living as a challenger to Fortune ennobles the self. Whatever their reasons for preferring to live, the two schools perhaps most strongly agree that fear of death impedes good living. “A man afraid of death will never play the part of a live man” (Seneca p. 95), Seneca tells us; similarly, Lucretius laments “And often through fear of death such a great hatred of life / and of seeing the light grabs hold of human beings, / that they inflict death on themselves with a sad heart, / forgetting that this fear is the source of their cares.” (Lucretius 3.79-82)
Lucretius later goes on, bemoaning the ignorance of men:

If people were able, just as they are seen to sense that there is a weight on their minds because it wears them out by its heaviness, to understand from what causes each thing happens and from what source such a mound of misery exists in their hearts, not at all would they lead their lives as we now usually see them…” (Lucretius 3.1053-1057)

Ever ready to provide advice in practical terms, Seneca suggests how we might lead our lives, having reached such understanding: “Do you want to be free despite your body? Live in it as if you were ready to move. Keep in mind that you will one day lose your quarters, and you will have greater fortitude for the necessary departure.” (Seneca p. 205) This attitude of impending death is the key to living well. Craving life overmuch brings us to harm, for “what destructive desire of life is so great / that it forces us to shake anxiously in times of doubt and danger? / Assuredly there is an unalterable limit of life for mortals, / and it is impossible for us to avoid death and not pass away.” (Lucretius 3.1076-1079)

This being the case, acknowledging and frequently reminding oneself of one’s mortal circumstance will coax one’s mind out of its fear. Thinking the matter over, applying reason, whether one posits a divine causation, a random physical one, or both, and by accepting and getting over the simple truth that one will die, the fear will be banished entirely. Once the fear of dying is gone, how much more at ease will one be in life, and how much more able to die well.

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