Therefore, how foolish it is to fear it, since men simply await that which is sure, but fear only that which is uncertain! Death is necessarily equitable and unavoidable/undefeatable. Who can complain when one is in the same boat that included everyone? The chief part of equity, however, is equality....[Mors necessitatem habet aequam et invictam: quis queri potest in ea condicione se esse in qua nemo non est? prima autem pars est aequitatis aequalita.]*
We do not fear death; we fear the thought of death. For death itself is always the same distance from us; wherefore, if it is to be feared at all, it is to be feared always. For what season of our life is exempt from death?
But what I really ought to fear is that you will hate this long letter worse than death itself; so I shall stop.--Seneca, Letter 30.
It's hard not to read Seneca's thirtieth letter, which tells us of his frequent visits to his dying friend Bassus Aufidius (the historian, who in the letter is revealed to have a fondness for Epicurus, and who also wrote an account of Cicero's death), who is "cheerful" [alacer animo] in the face of death, and not think of Adam Smith's obituary of the cheerfully dying Hume (who was also a celebrated historian) [see here for my scholarship; and Corsa's correction]. Smith also emphasized (and thereby amplified Hume's own claims) the utmost cheerfulness of his friend in the face of death. The comparison is non-trivial: Bassus Aufidius is said to be "living almost as if he had survived his own death" which is the peculiar rhetorical perspective of Hume's autobiography ("I am, or rather was (for that is the style I must now use in speaking of myself, which emboldens me the more to speak my sentiments)") and both Bassus Aufidius and Hume are praised for the "frankness" in discussing death.
As an aside, Seneca admits to feeling a certain amount of pleasure of witnessing this. In the letter, he even reveals a creepy tendency (anticipating Boswell's visit to Hume) of spying on Bassis Aufidius to see if his friend's cheerful self-presentation was really so constant: "I admit...that I have visited this dear friend of mine more frequently on many pretexts, but with the purpose of learning whether I should find him always the same."**
The main message of Seneca's letter is to offer en exemplar of philosophy's efficacy to promote strength of mind and lack of fear of death in the one dying. Amy Olberding (here; ignore the silly title not chosen by her) and Alexander Douglas (here) have recently reminded us to there is more to death than one's own end. There is also the losses one suffers in other people's deaths (especially loved ones). This loss prompts grief over a lost affective-conceptual world. And if I understand Olberding's philosophical (Confucian) advice such grief has to be acknowledged even if it, simultaneously, inaugurates a new uncertain world with un-charted territories (that will be the conceptual-emotional landscapes of other human connections) that arrives at a certain destination (death). Seneca does not emphasize the significance of grief (perhaps because in this letter he has not felt it yet), but he too (in this letter and recall elsewhere) explicitly understands living a philosophical life in terms of nautical metaphors that are all about navigating uncertainty.
The second key point (and I have quoted the passage at the top of this post) is that death is the ultimate ground for human equality. In fact, Seneca goes on to make the significant moral-political point that when equality is present nobody has grounds for complaint [queri].+ This is even clear in his joke about how fear of (boring) others may be more important than fear of (the thought of) death. One senses here why the recovery of Seneca's thought was so vital for early modern thinkers (perhaps even Hobbes [recall this post on Chris Brooke's book]).
In fact, the conceptual connection with Hobbes is non-trivial because Seneca goes on to claim "But who is not near death? It is ready for us in all places and at all times. Wherefore, if it is to be feared at all, it is to be feared always." This is not entirely true, of course, in a world of unequal resources and unequal protection against natural and political harm. While none of us can prevent our death (yet), we run unequal risks of it at any given time. But Seneca's claim is true in the state of nature. So not unlike, say, Spinoza later, Seneca seems to intimate that in reality the state of nature is never fully absent and will catch up with each of us eventually and, sometimes, quicker than we realize.
On that lovely note: this is my last post of the year. I am planning to take a slightly longer winter break from blogging than I usually do. I do so for two reasons: I need some time to catch up on a long list of outstanding academic obligations; and I feel that my blogging during the past few months showed signs of strain (oddly enough, the evidence for this is the fact that my posts were increasing in word-length and in time to compose.)
In conclusion, I thank this year's guest authors -- including Elizabeth Anderson (here), Daniel Hogendoorn (in a two-part series), Joel Katzav (who had quite a few guest posts this year), Joshua Miller (here), Lisa Shapiro (here), and Krist Vaesen (here) -- for trusting their ideas to this ephemeral site and you, my dear, critical reader, for your ongoing engagement with these digressions.
*My reason for using a nautical metaphor to capture the identity of circumstances will be clear from the post.
**Smith's strategy to allow Hume to keep appearances was to avoid visiting his friend too frequently.
+Insert your favorite Jewish joke to refute the claim.