Judging by how many of his sayings focus on death, it’s clear that Marcus Aurelius made a special effort to train his mind to face this inevitability. It’s not surprising—mortality would have haunted any person living in the ancient Roman Empire, but it was especially pressing for Marcus, as he led armies into battle, survived plague outbreaks, and faced the dangers of high-profile public service. It’s also not surprising that Marcus’s basic Stoic principles—living reasonably and according to nature—shaped his thoughts about mortality and death. In fact, these principles helped him to consider death as just another challenge: like everything else in life, death is a part of nature; therefore, a person can reason about it. Based on these principles, Marcus argues that dying is a natural process, and since dying in harmony with nature and the gods don’t deprive a person of anything that’s ultimately important, death shouldn’t be feared or resisted.
Dying is natural, and therefore, like anything else in life, a person can use their reason when considering death. Like anything else in life, Marcus writes, dying can be considered logically: “if you look at it in the abstract and break down your imaginary ideas of it by logical analysis, you realize that it's nothing but a process of nature, which only children can be afraid of. (And not only a process of nature but a necessary one.)” By looking at dying rationally, rather than being controlled by imagination, one can see that dying isn’t a fearful thing.
Not only is death necessary, dying is as natural to the soul as birth to the body: “So this is how a thoughtful person should await death […] simply viewing it as one of the things that happen to us. Now you anticipate the child's emergence from its mother's womb; that's how you should await the hour when your soul will emerge from its compartment.” Because death is such a natural part of life—other natural processes even prepare a person for it—it shouldn’t create undue anxiety.
Death is part of the gods’ governance of the whole world, so one can react to it reasonably. Marcus explains, “The time and stopping point are set by nature […] [Death is] a good thing—scheduled by the world, promoting it, promoted by it. This is how we become godlike—following God's path, and reason's goals.” By recognizing that nature governs life, and that death is part of nature’s harmonious goals, one can maintain a reasonable attitude about death. Acting reasonably (in accordance with nature) means that no matter what, one is staying on a divine path.
Not only is death natural and therefore subject to human reason, it’s also inevitable, so a person can only control one’s reaction to its arrival. A person can’t control the predetermined length of their life, but they can anticipate its eventual end and prepare for it. “Five years or a hundred—what's the difference? […] the length [was] fixed by the power that directed your creation, and now directs your dissolution. Neither was yours to determine. So make your exit with grace—the same grace shown to you,” Marcus writes. A person cannot determine their length of life, but no matter the timing of their “exit,” they can choose to react to death with “grace,” thankful for the time they’ve been granted.
In the end, death’s inevitability doesn’t stop a person from pursuing what’s most important—acting in harmony with God: “What is it you want? To keep on breathing? What about feeling? desiring? growing? […] But if you can do without them all, then continue to follow the logos [the divine reason within a person] and God. […] To prize those other things […] is an obstacle.” Marcus suggests that though people get hung up on living, desiring indefinite life (in its current form) isn’t necessarily reasonable. He further implies that death doesn’t end a person’s ability to follow God by following reason, so it’s short-sighted to focus on the things that do end with death.
Marcus repeatedly comes back to the subject of death in Meditations. Though one could read this as a sign of Marcus’s personal anxiety, it also makes sense that for him, death was simply the ultimate example of the daily battle everyone faces—to control one’s thoughts in order to act, as much as humanly possible, in harmony with nature.
Mortality and Dying Well ThemeTracker
Mortality and Dying Well Quotes in Meditations
The body and its parts are a river, the soul a dream and mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion.
Then what can guide us?
Only philosophy. Which means making sure that the power within stays safe and free from assault […] And making sure that it accepts what happens and what it is dealt as coming from the same place it came from. And above all, that it accepts 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.
Hippocrates cured many illnesses—and then fell ill and died. The Chaldaeans predicted the deaths of many others; in due course their own hour arrived. […] Heraclitus often told us the world would end in fire. But it was moisture that carried him off; he died smeared with cowshit. Democritus was killed by ordinary vermin, Socrates by the human kind.
You boarded, you set sail, you've made the passage. Time to disembark. If it's for another life, well, there's nowhere without gods on that side either. If to nothingness, then you no longer have to put up with pain and pleasure, or go on dancing attendance on this battered crate, your body—so much inferior to that which serves it. One is mind and spirit, the other earth and garbage.
29. You can live here as you expect to live there.
And if they won't let you, you can depart life now and forfeit nothing. If the smoke makes me cough, I can leave. What's so hard about that?
Until things reach that point, I'm free. No one can keep me from doing what I want. And I want what is proper to rational beings, living together.
22. To feel affection for people even when they make mistakes is uniquely human. You can do it, if you simply recognize: that they're human too, that they act out of ignorance, against their will, and that you'll both be dead before long. And, above all, that they haven’t really hurt you. They haven't diminished your ability to choose.
36. Don't let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don't try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, "Why is this so unbearable? Why can't I endure it?" You'll be embarrassed to answer.
Then remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present—and even that can be minimized. Just mark off its limits. And if your mind tries to claim that it can't hold out against that. . . well, then, heap shame upon it.
29. The design of the world is like a flood, sweeping all before it. The foolishness of them—little men busy with affairs of state, with philosophy—[…]
Do what nature demands. Get a move on—if you have it in you—and don't worry whether anyone will give you credit for it. And don't go expecting Plato's Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant.
36. You've lived as a citizen in a great city. Five years or a hundred—what's the difference? […]
And to be sent away from it, not by a tyrant or a dishonest judge, but by Nature, who first invited you in—why is that so terrible?
[…] This will be a drama in three acts, the length fixed by the power that directed your creation, and now directs your dissolution. Neither was yours to determine.
So make your exit with grace—the same grace shown to you.