This one quote, “Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back,” misattributed to Marcus Aurelius, can teach you five powerful lessons from Stoicism.
“Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back” was not uttered or written by the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, but by Maximus The Gladiator.
At first glance, the quote may sound somewhat dark and morbid. However, upon closer inspection, it reveals essential lessons in Stoicism that can help us live happier, more resilient lives.
Explore these timeless Stioc lessons and learn how to smile back at death with courage and equanimity.
Lesson 1: Accept The Inevitable
The Stoics were quite clear that only some of the things in this world are within our control, while the vast majority are not. They called it The Dichotomy of Control.
They argued that we should keep our focus on the things we can control.
And accept those things that we cannot.
Death is one such inevitable aspect of life that is almost never under our control.
Instead of fearing death, we should choose to accept it and focus on living our lives to the fullest.
Epictetus, the slave who became a Stoic master, famously said,
“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”
So, if we are to have peace in life, and not feel disturbed, we must accept the unpredictability of death and focus on doing our moral duties.
Lesson 2: Live In The Present
Another critical lesson from the quote is the importance of living in the present moment.
The Stoics believed that we should not worry about the past or the future, as they are both beyond our control.
The past makes us overthink what we cannot change, while the future makes us anxious about its uncertainties.
But by focusing on the present and enjoying the current moment, we can experience genuine happiness and fulfillment.
By acknowledging the impermanent nature of life, Stoics strive to make the most of the present moment, living fully and mindfully, without being consumed by anxiety or fear about the end of life.
Remember also that each man lives only the present moment: The rest of the time is either spent and gone, or is quite unknown. It is a very little time which each man lives, and in a small corner of the earth; and the longest surviving fame is but short, and this conveyed through a succession of poor mortals, each presently a-dying; men who neither knew themselves, nor the persons long since dead.— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.10
Seneca, a prominent Stoic philosopher, once said,
“We are more often frightened than hurt, and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.”
Lesson 3: Build Your Resilience
Stoicism teaches us to be resilient in the face of adversity.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back after setbacks and grow from hardships.
By recognizing that death is a natural part of life that no one can escape, we can develop a sense of courage and inner resilience.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” remarked Friedrich Nietzsche, the famous 19th-century German philosopher. That quote perfectly reflects Stoic resilience.
This strength can help us overcome obstacles and face difficult situations with grace and composure.
Marcus Aurelius wrote,
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
Lesson 4: Practice Gratitude
Instead of dwelling on the inevitability of death, we can choose to be grateful for the time we have.
Stoicism encourages us to practice gratitude and appreciate the small joys of life.
“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”
By appreciating what we have, we can live more contented lives and be better prepared for life’s challenges.
Lesson 5: Be Ready for Death, Unafraid
The fifth and final lesson from the quote is to face death with courage and without fear.
The Stoics believed that we should prepare ourselves for death by practicing virtue and wisdom throughout our lives.
By doing so, we can approach our final moments with confidence and peace.
As Seneca said,
“The day which we fear as our last is but the birthday of eternity.”
Do Stoics think about death?
Yes, Stoics do think about death, as it is an essential aspect of their philosophy. Stoicism emphasizes the importance of recognizing and accepting the things we cannot control, which includes death. Understanding that death is an inevitable part of life, Stoics do not fear, avoid, lament, or hate it. Instead, they focus on living virtuous lives and cultivating wisdom, courage, and inner strength to face death with equanimity.
Did Marcus Aurelius actually say death smiles at us all?
No. The quote “Death smiles at us all” is a line from the movie Gladiator, spoken by the protagonist Maximus, who attributes it to Marcus Aurelius. There is no evidence that Marcus Aurelius actually said or wrote that exact quote, but it seems like a paraphrased version of his thoughts on death. A quote that comes close to “Death smiles at us all..” appears as the last line in his Meditations, “Pass on your way, then, with a smiling face, under the smile of him who bids you go.” — Meditations 12.36 (trans. Hans Urs von Balthasar).
What did Marcus Aurelius say about death?
Marcus Aurelius wrote extensively about death in his work “Meditations.” Here are five quotes from him that reflect his thoughts on death:
1. 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. — Meditations, 7.56
2. You may leave this life at any moment: have this possibility in your mind in all that you do or say or think. — Meditations 2.11
3. Don’t behave as if you are destined to live forever. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good. Now. — Meditations 4.17
4. 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. — Meditations 2.14
5. Accept death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from which each living thing is composed. — Meditations 2.17
What is Latin for death smiles at us all…?
The Latin translation for “Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back” is “Mors palam nos irridet; homines autem ridendo castigant mortem.” It may also be translated as, “Death openly mocks us; but people, by laughing, chastise death.”
“Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back” can remind us to embrace the Stoic values of acceptance, mindfulness, resilience, gratitude, and showing courage when facing death, ready when it comes.
The wisdom of Stoic philosophers like Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca will help you see death, and life, in a way that you may have never thought before.