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Topic #G61

Seneca on Death

4 March 2002
Scribe: Leigh Cunningham


These minutes were spoken on 1 March; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes


The Stoics borrowed elements of style as well as content from the Epicureans.  The Stoics thought that the soul is immortal.  However, this is not a personal survival.  Each soul is released into the “breathy” divine material of the universe, becoming part of the whole.  This is unappealing for most people, who prefer to be individuals.  Also, there is no sense of justice at the time of death since all souls are equally recycled into the cosmic mixture.  This view of the immortal soul is thin consolation for most people because the dissolving of souls may just as well be annihilation.


Seneca had a lot of respect for the Epicureans.  His first thirty letters all have a similar structure.  Seneca always ends the letter by giving a “bonus” or “tip”, by way of a gem of wisdom to Lucilius.  Examples of Epicurean slogans can be found in Letters 16 and 27 (p.65, 75).  Philosophy has previously been represented as a mistress and as a therapist.  Here, we have another metaphor for philosophy: Seneca is acting as a patron to his clients.  In ancient Roman times, a rich patron would invite people in to his house and give out presents.  This was a reciprocal system; the patron was able to secure people to help him and the loyal would receive gifts.  Seneca, however, handed out spiritual wealth rather than material wealth.  This idea of material versus spiritual wealth is an old one, and appears in Aristotle’s Invitation to Philosophy and in the ideas of Socrates.  In Letter 38, Seneca explains that there is no monopoly on truth (p.81).  If something is true, it is common property; wisdom is not copyrighted.  Seneca’s philosophical bonuses are assets that increase in value through sharing.


Regardless of his stern attitude, Seneca still consoles his grieving friend in Letter 63.  Seneca tells his friend that he shares his pain, but that his grief should be minimal.  According to Stoic doctrine, anything external is neither good nor bad, thus, grief is irrational.  The Epicureans, on the other hand, held that grief is both natural and normal, and there is no reason to attempt to minimize something natural.  The Epicureans wanted to eliminate unpleasant things, so they advocated trying to transform grief into something good.  Lucretius used the model of a cow that has lost her calf.  The cow will go mad but by the third day, the cow displays normal behaviour.  Grief is something explosive but something that quickly subsides.  Since all mammals follow this pattern, grief is naturally irrational.  Though Seneca and the Epicureans have different opinions on grief, they both try to use their philosophy to help the dying and the grieving.


It is difficult to know how one will react to death.  The Professor gave a personal example of the death of his brother-in-law who had a troubled life and died young.  Professor Hutchinson shared that when he felt the moment of grief hit him he lost his composure.  Someone remarked to him that they thought philosophers should not cry.  Obviously, this would depend on the philosophy.  Professor Hutchinson did not go mad, but like the Epicureans encouraged, was able to manage his grief to a natural conclusion.  By honouring the good in someone and keeping the memories positive, we are able to turn temporary pain into a permanent asset.  The Stoics felt that this sudden moment of grief is irrational and should be kept to a minimum.  The Professor does not accept this Stoic idea.


Why does someone fear his own death?  The fear comes out of a combination of different emotions that should be disentangled. A person with a serious illness will experience self-pity, physical weakness and pain, elaborate and foolish fantasies about impending death, a loss of confidence in the continuation of life, and anxiety about leaving things undone.  This combination of feelings overwhelms us if we have not practiced dealing with them.  If they have survived a near-death experience, people have often said that they now appreciate each day and that the experience affects their future choices and ambitions.


But how do we prepare for death?  We must practice.  This is obviously a problem, as we get only one chance at dying.  Other experiences show that it is difficult to know how one will react to certain events.  For example, a bride may be a very rational woman but the different emotions she experiences on her wedding day sometimes, and unpredictably, will lead her to cry.


Funerals serve as experiences that can help us practice death.  The Professor stressed the importance of not shielding children from the idea of death.  In a Scottish Presbyterian funeral that Professor Hutchinson attended, and as Jewish tradition dictates, everyone in the family participated in the internment of the deceased by placing dirt onto the coffin.  The Professor stressed that death is a part of life.  This is not morbid, and he uses no euphemisms when talking to his children.  You have to imagine that a living thing will have no experience or sensation when it is dead.  Of course, we must imagine because we cannot actually know this.  Also, the Professor stressed the importance of eating the sandwiches after a funeral because the body has a heightened need for food and the sandwiches will actually make you feel better. 


In his work, the Annals, Tacitus provides accounts of the death of Seneca and a parallel case, that of the nobleman Petronius.  Nero would give out invitations to his favourites when he decided to have them killed.  This way, people could nobly commit suicide instead of being clubbed to death.  In Book 16, Tacitus describes Petronius’ death as leisurely in a self-indulgent way.  Petronius opened his veins and sang with his friends and even continued to reward and punish his slaves.


In Book 15, Tacitus describes Seneca’s own scripted suicide that did not unfold as planned.  The second paragraph is a paraphrase of Plato’s Phaedo (p.243).  Seneca’s wife wanted to commit suicide along with her husband, so they both slit open their arms.  Seneca’s wife lived and Seneca did not immediately die.  He drank a hemlock poison, the same that killed Socrates, but this just made him very sick.  Finally, Seneca entered a sauna and died of thirst.  (This apparently is a very comfortable way to die because of the moisture and warmth.)  In conclusion, Seneca did let go of life, and he remained sincere to his philosophy.