I spent four years writing a PhD on philosophical definitions of time in the 16th century. Most of my research revolved around the subject of death. Every day I read discussions about the nature of the afterlife, suicide, pain, mortality, and of course — fear of death. With all this philosophical study under my belt, I would have been a prime candidate for facing death, as Cicero puts it, “in security and ease.” In reality, when I thought I was about to die, I felt absolute terror.
On Christmas Day 2022 at 1:30 p.m. I gave birth to my son, Rua. A few minutes later, I started to hemorrhage blood. At first, I didn’t know what was happening to me, but as the room filled with medical staff and my husband grew paler and paler, I realized it must be something serious. I felt very weak and asked somebody to take the baby from me so I didn’t drop him. Soon after that, I began to believe I was dying. I grew panicked and my mind filled with the kind of thoughts people have in their final moments.
Of course, the fact that I’m able to write this means that the story has a happy ending. But it may not come as a surprise to most people that in those moments where I could feel myself fading away, I was completely and utterly terrified. It’s hard to recall all of the thoughts and feelings that overwhelmed me during what I fully believed to be my final moments of existence. But I do remember that fear of dying was by far the dominant emotion.
Some of philosophy’s most famous thinkers argue that philosophy can teach us to die without fear. In his Letters to Lucilius, the Stoic sage Seneca observes how fear of our last hour on Earth “makes all previous hours uneasy.” He argues that to philosophize is to banish this uneasiness and learn “how to die.” Cicero, the Roman lawyer and statesman, echoes this belief when he argues that practicing philosophy accustoms one to death. A diverse range of thinkers from Lucretius to Michel de Montaigne have all made a similar claim: that philosophy provides us with the tools we need to eradicate fear of death.
Are Seneca, Cicero, and their peers wrong, then? Since last Christmas, I have reflected on what some of history’s most significant thinkers have to say about philosophy as a tool in eliminating fear of death. I still believe their advice contains much that is useful and sensible. But when it comes to practical value, philosophy is in the midst of a crisis: it is hardly ever practiced in public anymore, it rarely speaks to people outside of academia. The perception of philosophy’s everyday practical use has diminished in society at large. Even for those of us who were inside the academy, at least at a junior level, cultivating our own philosophical practice is often less important than jumping academic milestones (writing conference papers, journal articles, etc.). I felt disappointed that studying the likes of Montaigne and Seneca for over four years yielded so little reward in my time of need. I then felt confused when I re-read their words, only to think once again how sensible it all sounded. I have come to believe that these texts can indeed be of practical use to people who fear dying. But we need to think carefully about how to adapt the advice of ancient and early modern philosophers to the needs of modern readers so that it really works when death, however it chooses to appear, becomes a real possibility.
First let us clarify what living without fear of death looks like, and how philosophy is supposed to help people achieve this happy state. In his fourth letter to his friend Lucilius, Seneca advises that setting aside time to improve one’s mind and contemplate the nature of our existence is a sure path to inner peace. Engaging in philosophy can eliminate anxiety over the things that torment human beings the most, including death itself. Through contemplation, we can train ourselves to accept the fact of dying in a better state of readiness: unafraid, accepting, passive in the face of our own mortality. Rather than living in “wretchedness” we may “depart from life contentedly.” This was an appealing prospect in ancient Rome, and remains so today to the millions of people who suffer from anxiety over death. In the United Kingdom alone, 41% of people report being scared of dying. Almost a third of those people admit that this fear affects their enjoyment of life. Philosophy can help to restore this enjoyment by eliminating the fear of death.
How exactly does philosophy do this? The most significant source texts often use a lengthy series of arguments to identify all the various reasons why people may fear death and explain why these reasons are, in fact, irrational. In Book Three of his didactic poem On the Nature of Things, the Roman philosopher Lucretius provides us with a majestic and blistering takedown of the “folly” of fear of death, which is often used as a template by later philosophers. Lucretius questions why it is that we fear no longer existing when we didn’t exist for so long before we were born. He asks why we recoil at the thought of our physical bodies decaying when we won’t possess consciousness after we die so won’t be able to feel what is happening anyway. He attacks common concerns about dying in pain by pointing out that in many circumstances, death can actually be a release from pain. Lucretius uses his philosophy (in this case, Epicureanism) to explore every possible reason we might have to fear death and persuade the reader that death is not only nothing to worry about, but it may actually be a welcome event in some cases.
Often the authors in question present themselves as the best evidence that philosophy really can eliminate fear of death. There is a calmness and surety that permeates the writing of Seneca, Cicero and Lucretius as they systematically belittle a fear that plagues so many of us. They argue confidently and calmly when discussing things that they well know may horrify their readers – the idea of our bodies rotting into the ground, for example, or the possibility of a painful end. Their tone becomes accusatory as they direct question after question towards the fearful reader. Lucretius asks “Why dost thou not retire like a guest sated with the banquet of life, thou fool, a rest that knows no care?” Cicero asks if death means the end of physical sensation, why should it concern us at all? We aren’t scared to go to sleep every night, and that carries no sensation either. This rhetorical technique invites us to reflect on our own foolishness in fearing something seemingly so mundane. Anxiety is merely the sign of a mind that hasn’t set aside sufficient time to contemplate death, in stark contrast with the authors who talk about death as if it were nothing at all.
Two well-known examples from the ancient world illustrate the fearless philosophical death in action: Cato the Younger’s suicide and the death of Socrates. Cato was a politician and Stoic philosopher who was celebrated for his commitment to living a principled and virtuous life. He was a fierce defender of the Roman Republic and reportedly committed suicide by disemboweling himself after deciding that he couldn’t live under Julius Caesar’s dictatorship. Montaigne presents Cato’s death as evidence of a man who practiced philosophy so diligently that not only did he shed fear of death, but he actually grew impatient and killed himself in such a horrific manner in order to experience it as quickly as possible. The Greek scholar Socrates, arguably Western philosophy’s most famous thinker, receives similar praise for his approach to death. Amid rising political tensions in Athens, Socrates was accused of corruption and impiety by an Athenian jury. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by swallowing hemlock. Faced with this situation, Socrates did not succumb to fear. Instead, he spent the thirty days between his sentencing and execution contemplating death calmly, “with an assured hope, without dismay or alteration.” In doing so, Montaigne argues that Socrates reaped the benefits of a lifetime devoted to philosophical contemplation.
Philosophers encourage us to eliminate fear of death by spending time contemplating it instead. They ridicule all the things we might fear about dying (dying in pain, dying alone, dying suddenly, etc.) as illogical and absurd when we consider the nature of death itself. They frequently extol the virtues of individuals who have died without such fears. Reflecting on these ideas consistently will teach us how to die. But if reading and re-reading these arguments for years didn’t appear to help my own approach to death, how useful is this advice really? Much of what we have seen above sounds sensible enough. Why worry about something that we won’t be conscious of? We should appreciate the life we have lived, rather than look forward with dread at what will happen next. Many of the arguments I encountered during my research actually aligned with the cognitive behavioral therapy I underwent after giving birth: the need to acknowledge, rather than avoid, the fact of dying; that time spent worrying about something we can’t control is unproductive. Arguably the key philosophical texts themselves need further clarification if readers today want to benefit from the exhortation to learn how to die. What follows are some of the mistakes I identified in my own interpretation of the texts, and how I felt their advice might be usefully adapted from the written word into everyday practice.
First, there is a fundamental difference between being able to think about death in general without fear and being able to think about your own death without fear. This is an important distinction. Many people today cringe at the mere mention of death: at least in many Western societies, talking about death openly is considered morbid and strange. This is not a new problem, and philosophers have been ridiculing this particular human tendency for centuries. Writing in the 16th century, Montaigne points out how strange it is that we can’t say “he died” but instead “he has lived”, as if even the word death itself should not be uttered out loud. My PhD quickly helped me to say the d-word confidently, and talk openly about how the likes of Cicero and others critique fear of death. I thought this meant I had succeeded in learning how to die.
In reality, I was only learning how to discuss death in general. The thought of my own death actually moved further away from my mind the more I read. Through no fault of the authors, I was inhabiting source texts written centuries ago by people living in very different societies to my own. Their arguments are often backed up with examples that tend to fall into two broad categories: glorious military deaths or philosophical deaths (e.g. Socrates, Cato). Cicero recalls King Leonidas, of Spartan fame, when he wants to illustrate the bravery of people who hold death with so little regard that they greet it with “a cheerful and pleasant countenance”. Leonidas is more concerned with dying for his country than what death means for him personally. The sources are full of similar examples — men fighting on ancient battlefields, or drowning on wooden ships, or dying in mythical source texts, or stabbing themselves to death to avoid a worse fate. And it is almost always men who take center stage. This is unsurprising, given the inferior status of women in ancient and early modern European societies. If they are mentioned at all, women are usually on the sidelines, weeping and tearing out their hair in the aftermath of a heroic death.
Death begins to sound more like something that used to happen to men in togas or chainmail a long time ago, not young women lying on hospital beds. Most of the texts address the reader in the second person ‘you’, but this ‘you’ had difficulty imagining herself in the kinds of situations that the authors regularly draw upon. How many of us will be sentenced to death by swallowing hemlock? How many of us will drown on the deck of a galleon? Although the advice itself is sound, we may find ourselves learning how to die in the manner of an ancient philosopher or a medieval Italian mercenary, without remembering to make the effort to learn how to die for ourselves. Therefore, when Montaigne tells us, “let us converse, frequent, and acquaint ourselves with [death], let us have nothing so much in minde as death”, we must equally remind ourselves that he is telling us to acquaint ourselves with our own death.
This is something we are told that we must do constantly. Preparing for such a unique and unpredictable event as death is not the work of a few years or even a decade. It requires a constant philosophical practice to maintain readiness for death. The Stoics in particular are well-known for their obsession with death and their deep-rooted faith in the power of time spent meditating over it as much as possible. It is little wonder then that Seneca tells us “it takes a whole life to learn how to die.” Not four years of a PhD, but an entire lifetime, however long that may be, devoted to the regular and sustained philosophical study of death. Montaigne echoes these sentiments in his Essays when he tells the reader to assume we might die whenever we have some kind of accident or suffer some sort of injury: “It is uncertaine where death looks for us; let us expect her everie where.” After my graduation ceremony, I stopped reading many of the texts I pored over during my research, and let my familiarity with death grow rusty as a result.
After all, how practical is it for most people to think about death on a day-to-day basis in such a manner? In his treatise On the Shortness of Life, Seneca writes about the need to practice philosophy while withdrawing from the demands of society and spending lots of time alone with only wisdom for company. After all, “the mind, when its interests are divided, takes in nothing very deeply.” We should also note that Seneca was a high-ranking Roman (he tutored the emperor Nero) with slaves at his disposal and the freedom to withdraw from household responsibilities (usually left to the woman of the house). Much the same can be said for Montaigne, a nobleman writing in the 1500s, who lived in a chateau filled with servants and a library tower to use for his own contemplation. It is little wonder that to the average time-poor citizen, philosophy often seems to be a quaint kind of privilege. Perhaps if we are lucky enough to have time and space enough to devote to such contemplation, we can follow this advice to the letter. If we are among the small minority of people who work as full-time philosophers, this is a doable practice. But for those us of us with jobs and family responsibilities, spending what little free time we do have reflecting on death is probably a non-starter.
Instead, we may find it useful to intertwine reflections on death with practicing gratitude for the present moment. Living in the present moment and appreciating its beauty can be a useful tool in combatting fear of death. Gratitude for the present is powered by an acceptance that the present moment is temporary, but it is also everything we have. Appreciating the present moment aligns with Cognitive Behavioral therapy and common mindfulness techniques, but it has strong philosophical roots as well. Lucretius criticizes those people who regret the past or worry about future ills as fools who “crave what’s absent” and “scorn what is present.” Seneca calls worry about the future the greatest impediment to present satisfaction: “What are you aiming at? What’s your goal? All that’s to come lies in uncertainty: live right now.” We can find a way into philosophical practice by reflecting on the beauty of the present moment whenever possible. This could mean becoming more aware of our five senses at any given moment — the sun shining on our face as our feet hit the ground during a walk, for example. It might mean simply focusing on our breathing for a few seconds. However, we choose to express gratitude for the present moment, we are acknowledging that our time on this Earth is finite, and focusing on what is arguably most important to us: the time directly at hand. If we can find time to supplement this practice with reading, even better. But at least we have made an effort to remember our own mortality, however fleeting that remembrance might be.
Finally, I have had a chance to reflect on the philosophical significance of living through a near-death experience. For several months I struggled to think about what happened to me without becoming deeply upset. The mere idea that I might have died and left behind my husband and newborn son made me feel tense, anxious and upset. While some people with similar experiences seem to gain a newfound gratitude for life after a brush with death, I felt nothing but fear at realizing how fragile life really is. This is hardly surprising — such emotions are part and parcel of a trauma response. But through philosophical study I have begun to appreciate that there are benefits to such an episode.
In his essay “Of Exercise or Practice” Montaigne famously recounts how he nearly died after a horse accident. He lost consciousness and was carried home, where he lay bleeding so heavily that his household believed him to be “dead and past all recoverie.” Montaigne describes how he felt physically and mentally at a junction in-between life and death, as though he were actually “practicing” death itself. He uses this episode, as the essay title itself suggests, as a practical tool in his approach to dying well, which stems from his firm belief in the power of personal experience. Montaigne argues that the bookish authority of ancient philosophers like Seneca must be balanced out by what we learn from our own everyday lives, and so Montaigne chooses to think about this traumatic episode as a “practice” attempt at something nobody ever normally comes back from: death itself. He views what happened to him as a positive encounter since it gave him the chance to inhabit some of the mental and physical sensations that he might experience when he does eventually die.
Sometimes life grants us the rare opportunity to experience what we believe to have been our final moments. Reconsidering my own near-death event in this way has started to help me remember not only what was negative in those moments (terror, panic) but also the positives: I did actually feel calm at one point when I realized there wasn’t much I could really do except trust the medical staff to do their job. If this was a dress rehearsal, then I can hold onto this sentiment and remember it in the future. I can also go back and think about why I was scared, and identify which philosophical arguments might help with these feelings.
This is all very well and good, but the majority of people who haven’t found themselves in a similar situation may wonder how this serves them. Unfortunately, it only highlights the final irony of death. Only when we believe death is imminent can we really assess how ready we are. We may study every day in quiet contemplation but we don’t know for certain how we will die until we actually do. This is a frustrating fact which I do not believe Seneca, Lucretius, and others are brave enough to admit in their haste to brand fear of death a foolish human emotion. We don’t really know how Cato and Socrates felt in the moments before death. Cato may have felt utter terror once he realized the gravity of what he had done to himself. The death of Socrates has always been reported by other people and used to emphasize their particular philosophical leanings. Perhaps Socrates was also scared. Only he knew once he swallowed the hemlock whether his life of wisdom proved useful in death. This is one more thing we must learn to accept about our own practice.
One of Cicero’s interlocutors in his Tusculan Disputations asks: “We that are alive, are we not wretched, seeing that we must die?” Fear of death is an old problem. For thousands of years, philosophers have argued that philosophy teaches us how to eliminate this fear. I have wrestled with this argument, given my own experience and response to it. I still believe that their arguments are sound, and that it is far better in life to accept our mortality and work through what drives our fear. How we choose to read and follow their advice today is important, though. All the while, we have to learn to accept the kind of conundrum that makes philosophy such a difficult sell to the wider public in the first place. When it comes to death, there are no straight answers. We will only learn if we reap the benefits of philosophy in the last few moments before death. And then what? Socrates’ most famous declaration is probably most appropriate here: “I only know one thing, and that is I know nothing.” Reading this sentence is one thing, accepting it is surely the work of a lifetime.