Meditating on death might not be your idea of a good time, but you'd be surprised how confronting the inevitability of death can actually help to enrich and enliven your life. In a culture that seems to avoid talking about death like the plague, engaging with the concept of memento mori (Latin for "remember that you will die") can seem like a morbid, pessimistic, and downright strange thing to do. In the following collection of Stoic quotes on death, you'll see that contemplation of death can relieve your sense of fear around the subject and allow you to connect with what you want out of life.
In fact, one could argue that what is actually strange is not thinking or talking about death. After all, it is something that will impact you through the loss of loved ones, friends, pets, coworkers, and acquaintances. And then, someday, it will come for you, too.
So what did the Stoics think about death? And which other great authors, thinkers, and artists seem to have a Stoic outlook when it comes to checking out of the earthly realm?
The notion of dying well might be the most important thing that we aren't talking about as a culture. After all, modern medicine has created the miraculous reality where people who would, without question, die from an illness or injury not terribly long ago now don't necessarily have to. At least, not right away.
In fact, we can even bring people back from the dead in certain instances. In the case of clinical death (versus biological death,) there is a brief window of time where CPR or an AED can get a person's heart pumping again after both their heart and breathing have stopped.
You'd think that these modern realities would cause us to talk about death more, but that really isn't the case. We seem to have a quantity over quality mindset when it comes to death, which is a big part of why 27-30% of Medicare spending each year goes towards the six percent of patients that will pass away that same year.
In this section, we look at how the Stoics (and one Sufi poet) deal with the notion of dying well. What if the point, after all, isn't simply to live as long as possible?
"That man lives badly who does not know how to die well."
— Lucius Annaeus Seneca
"Before I became old I tried to live well; now that I am old, I shall try to die well; but dying well means dying gladly."— Lucius Annaeus Seneca
"Given that all must die, it is better to die with distinction than to live long."
— Musonius Rufus
"Choose to die well while you can; wait too long, and it might become impossible to do so." — Gaius Musonius Rufus
"At the end of my life, with just one breath left, if you come, I’ll sit up and sing." –Rumi
Some of our favorite ancient Stoics are here to help us remember that dying well is more important than living a long life. If we are able to live a truly full and deep life, perhaps we will be able to sing with our final breath just as described by our favorite Sufi poet, Rumi.
When you dive into the texts of Stoic philosophy, you'll find that the ancient Stoics were very concerned with how to live a good, virtuous life. An essential ingredient to this is understanding that you have control over your own perception of your life and the things that happen to you.
The Stoics understood that the way we perceive life has a tremendous impact on our actions and our experience. The fear of death doesn't have to be a given, and overcoming the fear of death can be a tool that helps you actually live.
"I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it."
"It is not death that a man should fear, but rather he should fear never beginning to live."—Marcus Aurelius
"Only those are fit to live who do not fear to die; and none are fit to die who have shrunk from the joy of life and the duty of life. Both life and death are parts of the same Great Adventure." — Theodore Roosevelt
"Our fear of death is like our fear that summer will be short, but when we have had our swing of pleasure, our fill of fruit, and our swelter of heat, we say we have had our day." – Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Too busy with the crowded hour to fear to live or die." –Ralph Waldo Emerson
"How much more suffering is caused by the thought of death than by death itself."
― Will Durant
“I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” – Woody Allen
"Healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death." –Erik Erikson
"Do not fear death so much but rather the inadequate life." –Bertolt Brecht
"When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home." –Tecumseh
"He who doesn’t fear death dies only once." – Giovanni Falcone
"The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time." – Mark Twain
"The fear of death is the most unjustified of all fears, for there’s no risk of accident for someone who’s dead." – Albert Einstein
"Even death is not to be feared by one who has lived wisely." – Buddha
"The art of living well and the art of dying well are one." – Epicurius
"If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve." – Lao Tzu
The Stoics aren't the only ones that have chimed in about the fear of death. While Woody Allen provides a bit of levity to the topic with his classic neuroticism, you can see that the rest of our quotes here take the topic quite seriously even though they hail from a wide variety of times, places, and cultures. Everyone from Buddha and Emerson to Einstein and Tecumseh has a thing or two to say about overcoming the fear of death and the secretly more important task at hand: living a life worth living.
How can you overcome the fear of death? One way is to understand that it is a part of the natural process that will impact absolutely everyone. When you accept that death is inevitable, it can actually help you tap into the moment and appreciate what you have in life now. It can motivate you to make the most out of your life.
When the time does come for you to pass on, what will you want to look back on your life and see? What would you regret not having done? Recognizing that you will die and that there's no getting around it can help you connect with what you really want to do with your life, and remind you that there actually really isn't any time to waste.
"No evil is honorable: but death is honorable; therefore death is not evil."
— Zeno of Citium
"The act of dying is one of the acts of life." – Marcus Aurelius
“Death is not an evil. What is it then? The one law making has that is free of all discrimination.” — Seneca
“Don’t behave as if you are destined to live forever. What’s fated hangs over you. As long you live and while you can, become good now.” — Marcus Aurelius
"Death is beautiful when seen to be a law, and not an accident. It is as common as life." – Henry David Thoreau
"If you don't know how to die, don't worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don't bother your head about it." – Michel de Montaigne
Along with Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Zeno of Citium, Thoreau and Montaigne join in to remind us that death is actually a beautiful and natural process.
When a person knows they are going to die, there is something fascinating that happens. Oftentimes, they are no longer ruled by their fears and anxieties surrounding death in a way that completely transforms how they live for the remainder of their life. The Stoics as well as a number of other prominent figures have urged us to remember that we are going to die, and to use that information to inform how we live.
"Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly. What doesn’t transmit light creates its own darkness."
— Marcus Aurelius
"You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think." — Marcus Aurelius
“Let each thing you would do, say, or intend, be like that of a dying person.” —Marcus Aurelius
"It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure on the world." – John Steinbeck
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." – Henry David Thoreau
"I learned that every mortal will taste death. But only some will taste life." – Rumi
"When a man comes to die,
No matter what his talents and influences and genius,
If he dies unloved his life must be a failure to him
And his dying a cold horror." – John Steinbeck
"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important." – Steve Jobs
"Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death." – Albert Einstein
"Before death takes away what you are given, give away what there is to give." – Rumi
"Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily." –Napoleon
"If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live." – Martin Luther King, Jr.
"It is not length of life, but depth of life." – Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Some people die at 25 and aren’t buried until 75." – Benjamin Franklin
"I shall not die of a cold. I shall die of having lived." – Willa Cather
"To be idle is a short road to death and to be diligent is a way of life; foolish people are idle, wise people are diligent." – Buddha
"There’s something about death that is comforting. The thought that you could die tomorrow frees you to appreciate your life now." – Angelina Jolie
"It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, our concern must be to live while we're alive - to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a facade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are." – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
"A culture that denies death inevitably becomes shallow and superficial, concerned only with the external form of things. When death is denied, life loses its depth." – Eckhart Tolle
As you can see, the Stoics weren't the only ones who took their acceptance of death and turned it into a prescription for how to live their best life.
Marcus Aurelius very eloquently argues for letting the knowledge of death inform what you choose to think, say, and do. Ben Franklin chimes in to remind us that it's possible to live for decades without really living, and Steve Jobs shares his insight about how the knowledge of imminent death can make all of the less important things dissipate.
As explained by Eckhart Tolle, the reason that our culture is shallow and superficial is that we are constantly in denial of death. What this means, though, is that our individual lives become shallow as well. If we want to tap into the "depth of life" as described by Emerson, it is essential that we don't deny the reality of death.
One of the common threads we find that is shared between the ancient Stoic philosophers is the idea that there are some things we can control in life and there are some things that are out of our control. If we can accurately understand where the line is drawn between those two camps, we might just be able to live a good, virtuous, and happy life.
According to our old friend Epictetus, there are very few things that are actually within our control. The things that we do have control over include our "opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions." The things that we don't have control over include our "body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions."
Taking control of your perception of death is kind of the final boss of controlling what you have control over. You cannot control the fact that you will die, unless, of course, you have some kind of secret spring tucked away on your property à la Tuck Everlasting. You can, however, control how you view death, and if you are successful in this pursuit, you'll likely find that it will entirely change your life.
"What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things. For example, death is nothing dreadful (or else it would have appeared dreadful to Socrates), but instead the judgment about death that it is dreadful—that is what is dreadful. So, when we are thwarted or upset or distressed, let us never blame someone else but rather ourselves, that is, our own judgments. An uneducated person accuses others when he is doing badly; a partly educated person accuses himself, an educated person accuses neither someone else nor himself." — Epictetus
"What is death? A scary mask. Take it off – see, it doesn’t bite. Eventually, body and soul will have to separate, just as they existed separately before we were born. So why be upset if it happens now? If it isn’t now, it’s later."— Epictetus
"Ordinary people seem not to realize that those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death." – Socrates
"I have no choice of living or dying, you see, sir– but I do have a choice of how I do it." – John Steinbeck
"It is necessary to be strong in the face of death, because death is intrinsic to life. It is for this reason that I tell my students: aim to be the person at your father’s funeral that everyone, in their grief and misery, can rely on. There’s a worthy and noble ambition: strength in the face of adversity." – Jordan Peterson
"Everyone is so afraid of death, but the real sufis just laugh: nothing tyrannizes their hearts. What strikes the oyster shell does not damage the pearl." – Rumi
In all of the above quotes, you can see how profound minds across the ages have dealt with the control that they have over the perception of death.
In the first two from Epictetus, we are presented with the reality that we do not have control over the fact that we will die (nor much else other than our opinions and our actions, for that matter.) What we can change is our perception of death.
Rumi shares Epictetus's view here: that death is just a separation of the body and the soul. In this beautiful quote, he displays how you not only don't have to fear death but you can, in fact, laugh joyfully at the thought of it.
Jordan B. Peterson eloquently expresses his idea on how best to deal with the death of a loved one. When someone you love dies, you might reasonably be completely overcome with grief. You might even feel like being immobilized with grief is the right thing to do. Here, though, he makes an argument for understanding that death is a part of life so that you can be a reliable shoulder for those that your loved one left behind.
Where do we go when we die? If you pose this question at a party, you'll likely find that there isn't a total consensus on the topic. The same is true if you were able to poll the ancient Stoics, who seem to have varying degrees of agnosticism on the topic.
For example, Marcus Aurelius takes an outwardly agnostic attitude in our first quote. He recognizes that there is a giant question mark hanging over the occurrence of death and that there are a number of possible outcomes that boil down to either a state change or complete extinction.
Seneca, on the other hand, speaks of death as "the birthday of eternity." While there are certainly a number of different potential interpretations of this quote, it does seem to point to the idea that our souls continue on elsewhere in some form.
If you're turning to the Stoics in order to find a definitive answer on whether or not there is an afterlife, you might be disappointed. However, what you can find in the writings of the Stoics is a willingness to accept the inevitability of death no matter what it means for our experience.
"About death: Whether it is a dispersion, or a resolution into atoms, or annihilation, it is either extinction or change." —Marcus Aurelius
"The day which we fear as our last is but the birthday of eternity." – Lucius Annaeus Seneca
"Our death is our wedding with eternity." –Rumi
"I've told my children that when I die, to release balloons in the sky to celebrate that I graduated. For me, death is a graduation." – Elizabeth Kubler Ross
"Nothing real can die. When you see a dead body, you realize that this is no longer who you knew. This is only a shell. So nothing real can be threatened. There is no such thing as death." – Eckhart Tolle
"The world is a playground, and death is the night." –Rumi
"Dying is a wild night and a new road." – Emily Dickinson
Here you can see that thinkers as varied as Rumi, Elizabeth Kubler Ross, and Emily Dickinson seem to share in Seneca's outlook of our last day being the birthday of eternity. Whatever you think happens after you die, it can be useful to engage with these poetic reflections on what happens when you die. You might find that you really connect with one of them and that it helps you to move past your fear of death so that you can truly engage with life.
Thinking about death isn't just about contemplating the end of our own lives, but dealing with the grief that comes along with losing those that are near and dear to us.
“It’s better to conquer grief than to deceive it.” —Seneca
"Excess of grief for the dead is madness; for it is an injury to the living, and the dead know it not." – Xenophon
The above quote from Seneca is a particularly important one when it comes to incorporating Stoicism into our modern lives. When you google the definition of "stoic," the first thing that comes up is "a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining." This can then get equated with not feeling pain or hardship, which is ultimately just a recipe for repression.
Seneca here expresses that you will not gain by trying to convince yourself that you aren't grieving. What you will actually do is push your feelings down in a way that is unhealthy and will eventually bubble back up to haunt you. Instead, you have to confront your feelings of grief head-on and let yourself experience it, and, in the words of Seneca, proceed to conquer it.
Our second quote here is from Xenophon, who isn't technically a Stoic philosopher. However, it was his Memorabilia that inspired Zeno of Citium to start the stoic school of philosophy. Here he puts forward an argument against too much grief. When you won't allow yourself to accept the death of a loved one and move on after a healthy grieving process, you don't just make it hard for you to live your best life, but you likely hurt those around you. In Xenophon's view, this is particularly crazy considering that the dead aren't here to see you grieve their loss.
One of the most refreshing outcomes that can come out of contemplating the reality of death is that it can help you connect with the present moment. When you fully accept the inevitability of death, it allows you to see just how precious life is right now.
"When the longest- and shortest-lived of us dies, their loss is precisely equal. For the sole thing of which any of us can be deprived is the present, since this is all we own, and nobody can lose what is not theirs. – Marcus Aurelius
"Your entire life only happens in this moment. The present moment is life itself. Yet, people live as if the opposite were true and treat the present moment as a stepping stone to the next moment – a means to an end." – Eckhart Tolle
In the first quote, Marcus Aurelius expresses that the loss of life is inherently equal regardless of how long a person lived. He goes on to say that the only thing we truly have is the present moment, which means that the present moment is the only thing we have to lose. As our only possession, we must learn to connect with the present and embrace it, and, in doing so, we will be able to die well when the time comes.
Our second quote here is from the German-born spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle. If you find yourself constantly bouncing between thoughts of the past and the future, you might find his philosophy on the present moment useful. As displayed in this quote and much of his other writing, Tolle agrees with Aurelius that the present moment is all we have and that we therefore must learn to harness the "power of now."
The way of thinking about death proposed by the Stoics can be seen in the words of countless other wise men and women from various parts of the world and moments in history. In the modern world, it is easy to go through life entirely distracted from the inevitability of death. However, as explained by the Stoic philosophers and other great minds on our list of Stoic quotes about death, if you want to live a life of depth and meaning, you must contemplate death and overcome your fear of it.
While the Stoic school of philosophy began thousands of years ago, its teachings are still incredibly relevant to our lives today. If you're searching for more relatable quotes from the world of Stoic philosophy, be sure to check out the rest of our posts at StoicQuotes.com.