Book Review — How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life

Living is not a great matter; all your slaves do it, and all the animals.  To die honorably, prudently, bravely — now that is great. 
— Seneca

How to Die:  An Ancient Guide to the End of Life


How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life by Seneca and edited by James S. Romm is a collection of letters concerning death and dying. Seneca was a stoic philosopher and tutor and advisor to Nero. It was under Nero that he was sentenced to take his own life for a plot that he was not likely a participant. Romm is the James H. Ottaway Jr. Associate Professor of Classics at Bard College. He received his B.A. from Yale and Ph.D. from Princeton, and has been the recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships.

Death presents many questions and in itself can be incomprehensible. What death is and what happens when one dies baffles the human mind. It’s like thinking about what is on the other side of the edge of space. Nothing really doesn’t seem like a good answer. Throughout time man has worked to explain what happens after death. The Vikings had Valhalla where they could fight on forever. Christians and others have an afterlife where one continues to exist with their creator. Some believe that we come back, and keep coming back, in reincarnation. Seneca didn’t know what was on the other side but to him, it was important not to fear it. In one place he describes the experience of death as the experience before birth.

Religion uses the promise of an afterlife to celebrate funeral rites as in the Catholic Church. Mourners should be consoled in the fact that the loved one is in a better place. Seneca took a more logical approach to death. This work is divided into five sections:

Prepare yourself
Have no fear
Have no regrets
Set yourself free
Become part of the whole

Prepare yourself is simple enough to Seneca.  Unlike the things we do in life, we only die once.   It is not something that we must be prepared for so that we may die with honor.  If one lives without honor that is the opportunity to change.  That is not the case in death.   Having no fear is the realization that death is part of life.  It is as natural as breathing.  Everything in the universe rises and falls; it is the same with life.

No regrets is the knowledge that one cannot judge the length of life as the quality of life.  There is no set length for life The most complete life is one that wisdom is attained.  The feeling of living to “finish one’s work” is not valid to Seneca either; death is as important as one’s work.  Setting oneself free is seen as leaving a situation that would create more pain:

Death gives release from slavery to a hated master; it lightens the chains of prisoners…

Do you think there is anything crueler to lose from life that the right to end it?

Becoming part of the whole is a summary of the previous topics.  It reinforces the topics and completes the circle.  One may question the thoughts of suicide in the previous topic and Seneca addresses that.  One must consider obligations one has to others even if suicide seems to be the proper answer.  Seneca considered suicide for his illness in his younger days because of his respiratory problems.  He did not follow through because his elder parents counted on him for their survival.  In the end, though, Seneca does take to his life at the command of Nero.  Seneca indeed walked the walk.

Rommer provides a detailed introduction and introduces and comments on each of the sections.  He uses eight treatises written by Seneca and provides the original Latin text for all the works he uses as well as cited sources for his explanations.  How to Die is a quick but very deep read on a subject we have been trained to avoid or simply become desensitized to through movies, video games, and the news.  Seneca considers death a part of life equal or even greater than living.  An interesting and enlightening study of the one thing in life no one has survived to tell about.

Available January 16, 2018



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