Over the summer, I embarked on a deep dive in the esoteric discipline of philosophy—more heavily skewed to antiquity vs. modern/contemporary. The motivation behind picking up books in this discipline was driven by curiosity with my interest being sparked by one of my favourite stoic authors: Ryan Holiday.
I’ve always loved history growing up and excelled at it in school. There wasn’t one period in history that I found overtly dry— it was all so fascinating. I liked my history courses in high school so much that I even contemplated doing my undergraduate degree in this discipline, but quickly realized that the career path might be a bit precarious. So naturally, I opted for a business degree.
However, throughout my 4 years of university, most of the electives I chose were in history or the arts. I took my first (and only) philosophy course in my fourth year and recall struggling hard. Even though it was just a second-year course, the thinking was so abstract from what I was used to. Business is straightforward—linear, if you will. Philosophy, on the other hand, stretches the mind and forces you to think in new ways. At the time, I regretted taking the course. I felt like I was going to do poorly and that it would bring my overall GPA down. However, I wanted to challenge myself a bit, so ended up sticking with it.
I struggled throughout the entire course, finding myself going slightly cross-eyed during most lectures. However, what I lacked in skill, I made up for in effort. I went to see my professor in his office hours on numerous occasions and he graciously helped me craft my essays and prepare for the final exam. Let me tell you, I’ve never studied so hard for an exam in my life—I remember sitting in a coffee shop writing out study notes line by line on what is it like to be a bat?, a paper written in the 1970’s by philosopher Thomas Nagel. Here’s the Cole’s Notes version of Nagel’s argument: while we could imagine what it is like to be a bat, it’s impossible to really know what it’s like to be a bat without actually being a bat. Good call, Nagel. Nagel’s main argument is on what he calls, “the subjective character of experience.” In more philosophical terms, he writes, “fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism.” After years of training myself to study for business exams: creating balance sheets, cash flow statements, and running regression models, I had to adjust my study habits a tad leading up to this philosophy exam.
While I hadn’t really thought about philosophy since that class, I was drawn to the discipline from Ryan Holiday’s work (books and articles) and the practical application of these ancient teachings in a modern context. My reading materials over the several few months have included Plato, Plutarch, Seneca, Epictetus, Confucius, Cicero, and Aristotle. I also read some work by more modern philosophers including Nietzsche (late 19th century) and Montaigne (Renaissance). Dipping my toe into these ancient (and challenging) teachings definitely shifted my perspective on life. In my opinion, ancient philosophy is the best “self-development” genre out there. While some of the material is of course abstract, much of it is very practical and relevant to our lives today. Getting used to the style of writing was the toughest part, but my brain slowly acclimatized; the more I read and studied, the more benefits I derived.
Across all these philosophers, there were some reoccurring themes that kept emerging—motifs that make us stop and question the meaning of life, truth and knowledge. To start, let’s tackle one of the most grim topics: death.
The stoics are pretty blunt with their perception of death—they don’t waste time fearing it, but rather, view it as an inevitable part of our existence and completely outside of our control—why then, try to resist? Momento mori is a latin phrase originating in ancient Rome that means remember you must die. The phrase isn’t meant to be used as a morbid reminder, but instead, using this phrase as a daily practice can help us derive more meaning in our lives. Realizing the brevity of life; that our existence is the tiniest fragment of time here on earth puts menial issues and challenges we face in perspective. Memento mori helps us foster gratitude for the life we have right now. Death sharpens our focus on what’s really important—it helps us detach from externals and ego-centric, materialistic goals (money, fame, status). “Ignoring death leaves us with a false sense of life’s permanence and perhaps encourages us to lose ourselves in the minutiae of daily of life,” writes Jeff Mason, Philosophy lecturer at Middlesex University. Realizing our impermanence of our time here on earth can help us live our best lives—sharpening our joie de vivre.
The Body Is the Source of All Our Problems
Caring for the ‘soul’ (consciousness) should be our top priority in life; the ongoing, lifelong quest for self-growth through gathering wisdom and truth that feeds the soul. An interesting perspective I picked up from Epictetus and Socrates was observing the body as a burden. In The Last Day of Socrates by Plato, Socrates argued that it’s the body’s desires that are the cause of all our issues. “We’re forced to acquire money for the sake of the body because we’re slaves to its service. It’s the body’s fault we have no time for philosophy.” He further explains that even when we tend to the body and have a bit of time for philosophy, we’re distracted once again by hunger, sleepiness, and other biological needs—preventing us from “[getting] a sight of the truth.” It’s only when we are dead, when our soul is separated from the body, that we are able to obtain the elusive “pure knowledge” we seek. Socrates says that we can only get close to this true knowledge by “having as little to do with the body as possible.”
While we need our body as a vehicle to live out our lives here on earth, by acknowledging the body as being burdensome (especially as we age), we’re able to let go of it when death approaches. It’s in death when we become closer to a more divine purpose, what the stoics view as ‘pure knowledge.’
In a similar vein, death releases us from our responsibilities here on earth. Epictetus says that death is something that we should be grateful to the gods for granting us. He writes,
The gods have released you from accountability for your parents, your siblings, your body, your possessions—for death and for life itself. [So] why take on the burden of matters which you cannot answer for? You are only making unnecessary problems for yourself.
In my view, these arguments help with our de-attachment—avoiding what Sogyal Rinpoche calls “grasping.” In the Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying, Rinpoche writes:
Grasping is the source of all our problems. Since impermanence to us spells anguish, we grasp onto things desperately, even though all things change. We are terrified of letting go, terrified, in fact, of living at all, since learning to live is learning to let go. And this is the tragedy, and the irony of our struggle to hold on: not only is it impossible, but it brings us the very pain we are seeking to avoid.
Learning to let go, to surrender to our circumstances, and realizing the impermanence and ever-changing nature of life, can help put us at ease when death approaches. Grasping or holding on to our externals is also what the stoics believed to be the root cause of all our problems and anxieties.
The Absurdity of the Fear of Death
While we all know we can’t escape death, most of us still haven’t come to terms with our mortality—at some point in time, we too will be a rotting corpse in the ground. Sorry to be morbid and graphic, but it’s true. The stoics made us question the absurdity of thinking that death won’t happen to us. Seneca writes:
Wouldn’t you think a man an utter fool if he burst into tears because he didn’t live a thousand years ago? A man is as much a fool for shedding tears because he isn’t going to be alive a thousand years from now. There’s no difference between the one and the other—you didn’t exist and you won’t exist—you’ve no concern with either period.
Yet we still tend to put off thinking about our own mortality, despite how absurd it is to think we’ll remain here forever. Death is a natural part of life—it’s cyclical and there’s no escaping it. As humans, we fear the unknown and no one really knows what happens after we die, despite how much we “study” the topic of death or invest into our spirituality.
Death is One of Life’s Duties
Dying, Seneca says, “is one of life’s duties.” We are obligated as a human to die. We will all stop living at some point. No one knows how much time on earth we’ll have and while it is in fact cliché, it’s important to live each day fully as if it’s your last; enjoy it moment by moment to the best of our ability.
Although death is a whopper of a topic, my biggest takeaway I learned from studying philosophy over the last several months—and hope you’ll take with you—is that you shouldn’t resist or fear death. Use death as a tool to provide more meaning in our lives instead of thinking about it as a thief—stealing away our family, friends, and possessions (including the body). Death frees us of our responsibilities, stresses, and hardships here on earth. The stoics wrote a lot about not caring for anything external or outside our control—only what’s in our control is important.
Philosophy commands us to have death always before our eyes, to foresee it and to reflect upon it in advance; and it then gives us rules and precautions to prevent the foresight and reflection from harming us. -Michael du Montaigne