Why facing death, rather than fearing it, will lead to a better life

As a young father and a self-proclaimed “radically assimilated immigrant,” New York Post opinion editor SOHRAB AHMARI realized that when it comes to shaping his young son’s moral fiber, today’s America comes up short. Our society is riven by deep conflict and individual lives that, for all their apparent freedom, are marked by alienation and stark unhappiness. In response to this crisis, Ahmari has written a new book, “The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos,” (Convergent Books), out now, from which the following essay is excerpted: 

“Do you mind if I jump in?” 

So asked one of my Manhattan neighbors recently, as I pressed the elevator button to my floor. Up to two strangers are allowed in the elevator on any trip under our apartment building’s rules, so she was within her rights to ride up with me. But to put her at ease, I replied, “Of course! I’m the least COVID-paranoid resident here.” 

My attempt at affability backfired. Chuckling nervously, she used her elbow to press the button to her floor. I stood well within my corner, but that apparently wasn’t enough distancing. For extra protection, she turned away from me to face her own corner, bowing deeply, almost like a Muslim at prayer. And she stayed like that, half-prostrate, till we reached her floor. When the doors opened, she bolted like an Olympic sprinter at the starting gun. 

It is the certainty of an end to life that allows us to appreciate heroism, love, beauty, and the self-sacrifice of frontline health workers at the height of the pandemic, Sohrab Ahmari argues in his new book.
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We were both wearing masks (she double), mind you, and this woman was no older than 30, at minuscule risk from a virus that harms mostly the elderly and the infirm. Yet it was clear that she was passing her days in a permanent state of utter terror. 

Scenes like this betray a society yearning for total safety, which, at bottom, means conquering death: To seek to eliminate all risk is to seek immortality. The pandemic threw this desire into especially sharp relief, but it also finds expression in various ongoing scientific projects to artificially extend the human life span using drugs and genetic enhancements. 

But even if we could remove all risk and technologically defer our reckoning with decrepitude and death, would it be wise to do so? 

Seneca the Younger was a Stoic who suffered from a pulmonary illness all his life. On death, he reasoned, there is no point in fighting our mortality, so what’s to be gained from struggling?

As the past year’s anguish shows, a life lived in constant fear of death isn’t a good life. Barring a spiritual revival that opens up a transcendent horizon for people in the West, we desperately need a saner ethic for coming to terms with death. There is no better one to be found in all of Western thought than the work of Seneca, the 1st century Roman statesman and philosopher. 

Seneca spent his whole life thinking and writing about death, teaching Romans to live each day as if it could be the last and, in this way, to make peace with mortality. As he advised a friend, “make your life joyful by putting aside all your anxiety about keeping it.” 

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in 4 B.C. in Cordoba, Spain. When he was a boy, his father moved his family to Rome, to ply his trade as a teacher of rhetoric, training would-be politicos and lawyers. Seneca the Elder knew firsthand the dirty, dangerous world of Roman politics, and he warned his sons to keep to “the strictest limits of honor” should they pursue political careers. 

Seneca the Younger did just that, even as he also studied philosophy in the Stoic school. Stoicism taught its followers to tame their passions and appetites and to calmly contemplate nature, even and especially amid adversity. 

Many today associate Stoicism with renouncing earthly goods like wealth and honor, but that isn’t how Seneca thought about it. Indeed, he grabbed the political life by the horns, winning a seat in the Senate and later rising to chief imperial adviser. And he became fabulously wealthy in the bargain, though he did continue to practice some of the Stoic’s austerities: He avoided decadent foods such as oysters, didn’t use fragrances, didn’t go to the hot baths, didn’t touch wine. 

Our obsession with looking young or even finding ways to live forever reflects an unhealthy fear of death, Ahmari argues.
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All his life, Seneca suffered from a pulmonary illness, which seems to have sent him into fits of breathlessness so severe, he felt like he was on the verge of death. “This is not illness,” he wrote to a friend, “that’s something else entirely.” His disease felt more like “the loss of life and soul.” 

This constant proximity to death lent his writings on the subject a calm sobriety and objectivity very nearly unrivaled in all literature, ancient and modern. Three lessons on dealing with death stand out: 

First, those who prepare for death can overcome the indignity of being forcibly expelled from the land of the living. Whereas those who cling to life in a base, desperate manner compound their indignity — and eventually end up getting expelled anyway. 

Early in his career, while serving as a senator under Caligula, Seneca witnessed a searing illustration of this principle. The senator Julius Canus was widely respected for his personal dignity. One day, in a public debate with Caligula, he utterly bested him. When the senator turned to take his leave, the emperor held him back. “Just so you don’t take comfort from an absurd hope,” Caligula said, “I’ve ordered you to be led away for execution.” 

As New York City returns to normalcy, we should remember that death gives meaning to life.
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To which Julius Canus calmly replied: “Thank you, best of rulers.” Everyone knew that Caligula was a cruel tyrant, very far from the “best of rulers.” 

But to Seneca, there was more to Julius Canus’ sarcasm than a desire to have the last word. It suggested also that the condemned was “embracing the sentence joyfully, like a grant of freedom.” When the time comes to die, Seneca observed, it is going to happen anyway — so what’s to be gained from struggling? 

By contrast, those who desperately fear death often sacrifice their dignity: Think of the vaccinated person who continues to stay locked inside in her apartment for long stretches against common sense and, yes, science. That pathetic state is neither true living nor worthy of a rational creature. 

Second, fear of death is not only pointless, it prevents us from keeping the right perspective on our lives. Seneca certainly didn’t advise that we should live like foolhardy jackasses; if he were around today and knew about the germ theory of disease, he would take reasonable COVID precautions. 

After Emperor Caligula (pictured) sent a fellow senator to death, Seneca noted how the condemned was “embracing the sentence joyfully, like a grant of freedom.”

We shouldn’t fear death, he rather contended, precisely because death stalks us at every turn. To live fearlessly we need to make peace with the fact that death is ever-present. At one point, Caligula threatened Seneca with execution for the same reason he sentenced Julius Canus to death: being bested in oratory. But one of the emperor’s mistresses saved Seneca’s life, by persuading her lover that Seneca’s lung illness would kill him soon anyway. 

If one potential cause of death had rescued Seneca from the jaws of the other, what point was there in fearing any single mortal threat? This is an especially important observation for our age. Yes, COVID-19 can be perilous. But so can loneliness, joblessness, depression and the failure to educate children, all caused by prolonged lockdowns. 

To live fearlessly we need to make peace with the fact that death is ever-present.

We shouldn’t have allowed the one source of mortal fear (the coronavirus) to irrationally blind us to other dangers. 

The third lesson is the most profound: namely, that death gives meaning to life. It is a destination without which life’s path meanders to the point of intolerableness. An excess of life, Seneca thought, is a kind of curse, giving rise to the confusion we associate with tales that have no clear beginning, middle and end. 

“No journey is without an endpoint,” he argued. And “just as with storytelling, so with life: It’s important how well it is done, not how long.” 

This is the lesson most out of tune with the spirit of our age, with its quest for medications that might reverse our biological clock, not to mention the profusion of physical exercises, barely edible concoctions, plastic surgery, skin creams and other supposed aids to living longer or masking the physical symptoms of aging. 

Emperor Nero (left) sentenced Seneca the Younger (right) to death. Faced with the usual choice — suicide or execution — Seneca preferred to take his own leave.
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Those who long for natural immortality, he argued, should beware of what they wish for. Because at some point, earthly life just gets tiresome — and boring: “There is nothing you would find new, nothing with which you’re not sated to the point of disgust. You know the taste of wine and of mead . . . You know very well the taste of the oyster and the mullet; your self-indulgence has set nothing aside, untried, for coming years. Yet these are the things you are torn away from only against your will.” 

The state of being alive — fully alive — is possible only in relation to an endpoint, death. It is the certainty of an end to life that allows us to appreciate sacrifice, heroism, love, beauty, the kind of virtuous life of a man like Seneca and the self-sacrifice of the frontline health worker at the height of the pandemic. 

So did Seneca embrace his own death with the courage he demanded from his friends and family members? Did he practice what he spent a lifetime preaching? 

The Unbroken Thread

By the end of his career, Seneca had emerged as one of two chief advisers to the emperor Nero, whose name to this day remains a byword for misrule. The philosopher did all he could to promote the common good before the young emperor’s degenerate impulses took over and Seneca was sidelined. 

Then, in the year 65, Seneca was (falsely) implicated in a conspiracy to assassinate Nero. Faced with the usual choice — suicide or execution — Seneca, of course, preferred to take his own leave. He used a knife to open the veins in his arms. Failing to bleed much owing to old age, he next slashed at the veins in his knees. But that, too, failed to do the trick. He took poison, to no effect. Eventually, he entered a hot bath, and the steam, combined with the tedious loss of blood, put an end to the Stoic’s misery, about a year or two before he managed to reach the age of 70. 

The great procession of the dead counted in its rank a new and illustrious member. 

From the book “THE UNBROKEN THREAD: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos” by Sohrab Ahmari. Copyright © 2021 by Sohrab Ahmari. Published by Convergent Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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