In Gladiator, Russell Crowe playing the Oscar-winning role of Maximus Decimus Meridius, utters:
Death smiles at us all, but all a man can do is smile back.
But those incisive words weren’t his.
“Do you think I am afraid?” asks Commodus, the worthless son of the great Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
“I think you have been afraid all your life,” replies the gladiator Maximus, captured by the Praetorian guards for plotting to murder Commodus.
“Unlike Maximus, the invincible, who knows no fear?” retorts Commodus.
Maximus chuckles and says, “I knew a man who once said, ‘Death smiles at us all, but all a man can do is smile back.’”
The man Maximus was alluding to was the dead king Marcus Aurelius, father of Commodus. While that quote is not a direct quotation from the book Meditations that Marcus wrote, it tells us in a terse sentence how the Stoic king saw death.
Marcus was the last of the Five Good Emperors who reigned ancient Rome from 96 to 180 CE.
Stoicism is a school of philosophy that arose in the 3rd century BCE in Athens, Greece, and had a glorious run for about 500 years before declining and fading away. Till it revived as Modern Stoicism in the late 20th century.
Zeno of Citium was the founder of Stoic school of philosophy. He wasn’t a philosopher to begin with, but a merchant who landed in Athens when his ship sank.
From Athens, Stoicism moved to Rome and flourished under the slave Epictetus, the senator Seneca, the emperor Marcus. The philosophy rose and stayed as the ideology of the kings until the death of Marcus Aurelius.
The 21 Most Unforgettable Stoic Quotes On Death
Now, here are the 21 memorable Stoic quotes on death:
1. 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, Meditations, 2.14
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2. I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.— Epictetus
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3. That man lives badly who does not know how to die well.— Lucius Annaeus Seneca
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4. Given that all must die, it is better to die with distinction than to live long.— Musonius Rufus
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5. 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
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6. You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.— Lucius Annaeus Seneca
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7. No evil is honorable: but death is honorable; therefore death is not evil.— Zeno of Citium
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8. Death is not an evil. What is it then? The one law mankind has that is free of all discrimination.— Lucius Annaeus Seneca
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9. Choose to die well while you can; wait too long, and it might become impossible to do so.— Musonius Rufus
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10. You may leave this life at any moment: have this possibility in your mind in all that you do or say or think.— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.11
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11. 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
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12. 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.— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.17
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13. 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
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14. 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, Meditations 7.56
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15. No evil is great which is the last evil of all. Death arrives; it would be a thing to dread, if it could remain with you. But death must either not come at all, or else must come and pass away.— Lucius Annaeus Seneca
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16. Let death and exile, and all other things which appear terrible be daily before your eyes, but chiefly death, and you will never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything.— Epictetus
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17. Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.— Lucius Annaeus Seneca
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18. 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
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19. Accept death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from which each living thing is composed. If it doesn’t hurt the individual elements to change continually into one another, why are people afraid of all of them changing and separating? It’s a natural thing. And nothing natural is evil.— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.17
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20. Death is neither a good nor a bad thing, for that alone which is something can be a good or a bad thing: but that which is nothing, and reduces all things to nothing, does not hand us over to either fortune, because good and bad require some material to work upon. Fortune cannot take a hold of that which Nature has let go, nor can a man be unhappy if he is nothing.— Lucius Annaeus Seneca
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21. You can discard most of the junk that clutters your mind — things that exist only there. And you will immediately make vast space for yourself by grasping the whole universe in your thought, by contemplating the eternity of time, and by reflecting on the speed with which things change — each part of everything, the brief gap from birth to death, the infinite time before, and the equally infinite time that follows.— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9.32
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Videos: Stoic Quotes On Death
The Stoics On Death
Two questions every philosopher battles with are:
- How should I live while I live?
- How should I prepare best to die?
The Stoic philosophers had found answers to both. In short, to live as a Stoic was to live with virtue (what were their four virtues?). And to die was to attend to the inevitable without worry or complaint.
Even though Stoicism takes many cues from the Socratic school of ethics, it differs in the concept of death. Socrates, who died by suicide, felt death frees the soul so it returns to its former immortal self.
But the Stoics held death is a final, inevitable, natural event. All must die, and with dying, both the body and the soul end their journey. They also advised no one needs to be afraid of death.
The ancient Stoics preached and wrote a lot about death. On the inevitability of death, they practiced the principle of memento mori.
Memento mori is a Latin phrase that means remember you have to die. This is not to instill the fear of death, but to inspire living a life worth living with immediate effect. It is to remind us of the shortness and fragility of human life.
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, Meditations 7.56
Another of their thought-provoking ideas was that death claims us every day. Seneca wrote “We are dying every day,” and all the days we have lived up to now are “already in the hands of death.”
Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations. 10.29
Yet another was to be never afraid of death or how we die. There is no good or bad death; only our judgments about it are what is good or bad. Once we are not afraid of death, no fear or judgment related to our mortality can detract us from living a virtuous life.
Very well, what further concern have I? For my part has been fulfilled. The business belongs to someone else, that is, the helmsman. But, more than that, the ship goes down. What, then, have I to do? What I can; that is the only thing I do; I drown without fear, neither shrieking nor crying out against God, but recognizing that what is born must also perish.—Epictetus, Discourses, II.5.13-14
Also, they felt we should not mourn the death of a loved one, but rather celebrate the life they lived and shared with us. Death is not a loss, but a return of the soul to the cosmos.
Never say about anything, “I have lost it,” but instead, “I have given it back.” Did your child die? It was given back. Did your wife die? She was given back.—Epictetus, Handbook,11
The Stoics kept reminding us that death is an equalizer — it brings the king and the pauper to the same level. This brings to our mind a quote famous among the chess players: After the game, the king and the pawn go into the same box.
Death has no degrees of greater or less; for it has the same limit in all instances, the finishing of life.—Seneca. Letters from a Stoic. Letter LXVI
Unlike the followers of Socrates and Plato, the Stoics believed there was no afterlife. They held souls could not exist without bodies, and each soul ceased to exist when the body was dead.
Stoics hold humans are animals with a capacity for reason. And it’s exactly this, they felt, that should drive us to control our thoughts and responses for living our lives according to nature. All Stoic philosophy comes from this core concept of living in accord with nature.
And what is more natural than death?
For Stoics, accepting death was in accordance with nature. We should not remove the fear of death with promises of an afterlife. Instead, when death arrives, we should be able to say we lived a good and virtuous life.
What Did Marcus Aurelius Say On Death?
All that you see will soon perish; those who witness this perishing will soon perish themselves. Die in extreme old age or die before your time — it will all be the same. You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.
What Did Epictetus Say On Death?
I must die. Must I then die lamenting? I must be put in chains. Must I then also lament? I must go into exile. Does any man then hinder me from going with smiles and cheerfulness and contentment?
What Did Seneca Say On Death?
The final hour when we cease to exist does not itself bring death; it merely of itself completes the death-process. We reach death at that moment, but we have been a long time on the way.
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Author Bio: Sandip Roy is psychology writer, happiness researcher, and medical doctor. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related topics.
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