15 September 2018


Seneca. How to Die - An Ancient Guide to The End of Life. Selected and translated by James Romm. Princeton University Press, 2018.

I didn’t expect to be writing a review of Seneca’s thoughts about dying and be compelled to refer to the ingestion of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Well I am for two good reasons. (a) They are mentioned, in the introduction to How to Die, by editor James S. Romm: the reason being a psychedelic experience where you “stared directly at death…in a kind of dress rehearsal.”
And according to Rohm this mushroom taking, by some terminal cancer patients, was similar to what the philosopher Seneca was saying, in the first century AD, when he spoke of “The interconnectedness of all things.” (b) 40 years ago I took some psilocybin mushrooms, washed down with coffee, put on a recording of Holst’s The Planets (choosing the Uranus movement - the bringer of old age) sat in an armchair and slowly sank into a state that had a tremendously pacific, near-death power. I felt myself slipping away in the most positive and uplifting manner. Throughout this acting out of my death I was relieved to shed my human form.

During my mushroom experimenting youth I didn’t read a word of Seneca on death or anything else by him. Today, opening this admirably chosen collection of Seneca I felt great comfort, rather then fear and apprehension, about departing from life. Death, though not a friend we seek out, doesn’t come across as a fearful enemy. More a right and inevitable force that brings about bodily extinction, though maybe not the soul’s if you believe in a spiritual life (I do: hovering on some atheistic / agnostic crux.) What Seneca does brilliantly is to dispel our fear of death.

“Death is the undoing of all our sorrows, an end beyond which our ills cannot go; it returns us to that peace in which we reposed before we were born. If someone pities the dead, let him also pity those not yet born.”

“He lives badly who does not know how to die well.”

“We ought to take care that we live not a long time, but enough; for we need fate to help us live long but our own minds, to live enough. Life is long if it is full and it gets filled when the mind returns to its own good to itself and passes over into control of itself. In what way were eighty years, passed in sloth, a benefit to someone? He didn’t live but lingered in life, he didn’t die late, but died for a long time.”

“As for myself, I wouldn’t refuse the addition of more years. But if my span of life is cut short, I will say that I lacked nothing that would render that life happy. I did not prepare for that far-off day that my greedy hopes had promised would be my last, but rather I regard every day as though it were my last…”

I could easily continue writing the rest of this review by just quoting more of the shrewdly wise sayings of Seneca: for it’s hard to disagree with his stoicism and unnecessary to paraphrase his eloquent language, here so beautifully translated.

Yet there are two issues round death that should also be mentioned – suicide and euthanasia. Seneca took his own life and basically regarded suicide as a noble end in itself. As for euthanasia he reveals a sensitive ambivalence about degrees of bodily pain, responsibility to others (caring for the dying) and the meaning of a life that’s still endowed with quality.

I think everyone should read Seneca for he makes you reconsider that a life is not worth living you accept that death is an ever-present reality for everybody. Only then we can live with less fear of the end. For ‘our end’ becomes something we ought to comfortably internalise, accommodate as authentically part of us and attempt to live with and accept its coming at us and for us.

“Make your life joyful by putting aside all your anxiety about keeping it. No good thing benefits its possessor unless his mind is prepared to let go of it: and nothing is easier let go of than things which can’t be longed for once they are gone.”

Unpack that final quote and we have a sobering, stoical, matter of fact view of our mortality.

“We are in no one’s power, if death is in our power”

Such containment of death provides us with liberation and freedom. No more quotes required. Or commentary. Read Seneca to be strangely and naturally reassured. – Alan Price.

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