We’re all going to die and we all know it. This can be both a burden and a blessing.
In the heart of every parent lives the tightly coiled nightmare that his child will die. It might spring at logical times—when a toddler runs into the street, say—or it might sneak up in quieter moments. The fear is a helpful evolutionary motivation for parents to protect their children, but it’s haunting nonetheless.
The ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus advised parents to indulge that fear. “What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die?” he wrote in his Discourses.
Some might say Epictetus was an asshole. William Irvine thinks he was on to something.
“The Stoics had the insight that the prospect of death can actually make our lives much happier than they would otherwise be,” he says. “You’re supposed to allow yourself to have a flickering thought that someday you’re going to die, and someday the people you love are going to die. I’ve tried it, and it’s incredibly powerful. Well, I am a 21st-century practicing Stoic.”
He’s a little late to the party. Stoicism as a school of philosophy rose to prominence in the 3rd century B.C. in Greece, then migrated to the Roman Empire, and hung around there through the reign of emperor Marcus Aurelius, who died in 180 A.D. “That Stoicism has seen better days is obvious,” Irvine, a professor of philosophy at Wright State University, writes in his book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. He stumbled across the philosophy when researching a book on Zen Buddhism—“I thought I wanted to be a Zen Buddhist,” he says, “but Stoicism just had a much more rational approach.”
Though the word “stoic” in modern parlance is associated with a lack of feeling, in his book, Irvine argues that the philosophy offers a recipe for happiness, in part by thinking about bad things that might happen to you. The big one, obviously, is death—both yours and that of people you love.
“We can do it on a daily basis, simply by imagining how things can be worse than they are,” he says. “Then when they aren’t that way, isn’t that just wonderful? Isn’t it simply wonderful that I get another day to get this right?”
For Irvine and the Stoics, thoughts of death inspire gratitude. For many others, thinking about The End inspires fear or anxiety. In fact, the latter may be the natural human condition.
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“We are different from other animals in that we are uniquely aware of our own mortality,” says Ken Vail, an assistant professor of psychology at Cleveland State University. “Certainly other animals recognize they can die—if a cheetah chases an impala, or chases us, both us and the impala are going to run away. We recognize that as an immediate threat of mortality. But the impala doesn’t sit in the safety of its office aware of the fact that it will eventually die. And we do.”
This is the price we pay for the nice things consciousness has given us—self-reflection, art, engineering, long-term planning, cooking our food and adding spices to it instead of just chomping raw meat straight off the bones of another animal, etc. We’re all going to die and we all know it.
But we’re not always actively thinking about it. When people are reminded of death, they employ a variety of strategies to cope—not all of which are as well-adjusted as Stoic gratitude. That many kinds of human behavior stem from a fear of death is the basis of one of the most prominent theories in modern social psychology—terror-management theory.