The Stoics on Death (Walking Through a Cemetery)

(This is my 1000th post.)

I take regular walks through a cemetery in my neighborhood and recently noticed a new grave for a twelve-year boy who had been killed in a car accident. Coincidentally, on one of my walks, I encountered the parents of the young boy who were visiting the gravesite. I told them that I had passed the grave before and expressed my condolences. They thanked me but the mother was inconsolable and her heartfelt weeping moved me.

Walking home I naturally thought about death, a topic about which I’ve often written about. Having recently read Brian Earp‘s essay, “Against Mourning,” I wondered if it could provide solace. Here is a brief summary of the piece.

The essay inquires into the extent to which we should grieve over the death of loved ones. The answer, according to the ancient Stoics, is that we shouldn’t grieve, at least not much. Instead, we should accept what we can’t change and move on. I suspect this sounds as cold to you as it does to me. Parents cry at the death of their child and why shouldn’t they?

The key here is the Stoic distinction between what we can and cannot control. Since we can’t change the fact, for instance, that a child has died we should accept it. But this seems crazy. In fact, failing to mourn long enough suggests psychological dysfunction and may even deserve condemnation.

Earp asks us to imagine a race of ‘Super-resilient’ people who are just like us but who don’t mourn when their loved ones die; they are super Stoics. But isn’t that grotesque? Doesn’t our moral intuition suggest that moving on too quickly is unseemly? For if you truly love someone isn’t it psychologically impossible to quickly move on? And if you don’t sufficiently lament their passing isn’t this a sign that you didn’t really love the deceased?

On the contrary, the Stoics claim it is possible to truly love someone and yet be relatively unmoved by their death, arguing that you can refrain from grieving for them if you have spent your life preparing for their death. But if you haven’t trained for your loved one’s deaths, writes Earp, then there probably is something wrong with you if you don’t grieve. In that case, perhaps you really didn’t love the deceased.

To be clear the Stoics didn’t maintain that we should “be unfeeling like a statue” as Epictetus said. We are social animals and we naturally love our family. So it is acceptable to experience some grief on the death of loved ones but much less than we usually suppose. It isn’t a matter of denying all feelings and emotions but to resist being controlled by them and thereby to determine what is appropriate. As Seneca said:

… Tears fall, even when we try to suppress them, and shedding them is a relief to the mind … Let’s allow them to fall, but not summon them up. Let what flows be what emotion forces from us, not what is required to imitate others. Let’s not add anything to our genuine mourning, increasing it to follow someone else’s example.

And here is Epictetus:

What you love … has been given to you for the present, not that it should not be taken from you, nor has it been given to you for all time, but as a fig is given to you or a bunch of grapes at the appointed season of the year. But if you wish for these things in winter, you are a fool. So if you wish for your son or friend when it is not allowed to you, you must know that you are wishing for a fig in winter.

But how do we train or prepare for the death of a child? For the Stoics, this is a matter of recognizing that even your little child will die. As Marcus Aurelius said: “In all your actions, words, and thoughts, be aware that it is possible that you—and by extension the ones you love most dearly—may depart from life at any time.” Or as Seneca wrote: “Let us continually think as much about our own mortality as about that of all those we love … Now is the time for you to reflect … Whatever can happen at any time can happen today.”

And from Epictetus:

… remind yourself that what you love is mortal … at the very moment you are taking joy in something, present yourself with the opposite impressions. What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die, or to your friend similarly: Tomorrow one of us will go away, and we shall not see one another any more?

Peter Adamson has called the above “the most chilling single passage in all of ancient philosophy.” But remember, argues Earp, “Epictetus is not counseling that we should take no joy in our children, much less that we should cultivate an attitude of cold indifference to protect ourselves emotionally in case they go before their time.” Instead, he is reminding us of the preciousness of the moment, reminding us to treat others well and to enjoy their companionship … now.

Stoics then grieve “as little as Nature will allow” because they have ridden themselves of false beliefs and prepared themselves for the inevitable. When the worst happens they cope well, not because they didn’t love, but because they prepared. We could say their love was richer than most because by reminding themselves love wouldn’t last they were able to more thoroughly relish the moment. They experience loss but also fondly recall the deep love they experienced. According to Seneca: “Let us see to it that the recollection of those whom we have lost becomes a pleasant memory to us.”

Nonetheless, can we really avoid despair when we lose someone we truly loved? “[T]here is a lot of empirical evidence that people do, as a matter of fact, ‘move on’ from even great personal losses much more quickly than they would predict.” Still, does this mean something is wrong with them for moving on too quickly?

On the contrary, “resilience to losing those we love plays a deep and systematic role in making us the kinds of creatures that can overcome the frequent and inevitable setbacks that we must suffer over a lifetime.” Adapting to loss may then be as much a part of our nature as the experience of grief. Our adaptive capacity explains “how someone could be willing to risk her life for her husband while failing to be significantly traumatized by his death … It just … [is]a remarkable trait of our species that caring very deeply about someone is compatible with a strongly muted reaction to their death.”

This is essentially the Stoic position.

Brief Reflections

On re-reading the article, I felt a disconnect between its academic tone and the subjective experience of grieving. It is easy to say that I should react stoically if my wife or one of my children or grandchildren died before me, but if that is strength, I’m weak. No doubt that’s what Descartes had in mind when he remarked,

But I confess there is need of prolonged discipline and frequently repeated meditation to accustom the mind to view all objects in this light; and I believe that in this chiefly consisted the secret of the power of such philosophers[The Stoics] as in former times were enabled to rise superior to the influence of fortune, and, amid suffering and poverty, enjoy a happiness which their gods might have envied.

Simply put, it is hard to be a practitioner of Stoicism.

Turning to another issue, I agree with Earp that remembering that we will die can spur us to treat others better. (Even if science eventually defeats death we should still treat each other better.) I also think that people often adapt to their circumstances, which is both good and bad. Good because it helps them endure, bad because they become complacent and don’t’ try to change things for the better—especially by making death optional.

Now Plato called philosophizing “practicing death.” If that’s true I’ve had a lot of practice. Still, thinking about death isn’t the same as experiencing it—a rehearsal isn’t the actual play. Analogously, words just don’t capture the experience.

However, walking through cemeteries is at least a bit of a rehearsal. I typically proceed slowly, looking at the tombstones and any available photos, and reading the epitaphs. I focus on the dates inscribed and relate them to my grandparents, parents, or children’s lives. I place the lives of the dead in a historical context. They were of my grandparents, parents, my own, or even my children’s generation. I’m not sure why I find it comforting to go there but by the time I return home, I tend to treat my wife better.

Walking through the cemetery also reminds me of how trivial my life is in the big scheme of things. All these people had their hopes, their dreams, their loves, their triumphs, their tragedies, and now, for them at least, that’s all gone. Mine will be too.

And when I encounter someone who has lost a loved one in the cemetery, which has happened on more than one occasion, I’m struck by the tragedy of life and death. The Stoics may help us cope, but it is a somewhat cruel world if adaptation is our best option.

Perhaps the young boy’s mother should have prepared better; perhaps she should have cried less; perhaps she should adapt quicker. But she has heartbroken, and I couldn’t blame her.

As I walked home I almost cried.

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5 thoughts on “The Stoics on Death (Walking Through a Cemetery)

  1. A charming article and so accurate.
    I was never able to rehearse the death of my toddler son and grieved massively for years.
    The deaths of parents and grandparents were well rehearsed and so my grief was so much less debilitating……
    ……but I loved them all.

  2. This is just right. Must appreciation for the existence of this 1000th post.

  3. Just wanted to tell you how much I love your very thought provoking posts and how much pleasure I take from reading them. Thank you very much, sir.

    A Portuguese fan.

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