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What Is Important in Life? Day 7 – Episode 23


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Prepare for Death to Discover Freedom What is most important? Having your soul on your lips.  This makes you free not according to the law of the Quirites, but according to the law of nature. A free person is one who escapes enslavement to himself, which is constant, unavoidable, oppressing by day and by night equally, without break, without respite. Enslavement to oneself is the most severe enslavement, but it is easy to shake it off if you stop expecting a lot from yourself, if you stop making money for yourself, if you set before your eyes both your nature and your age, even if it is very young, and say to yourself, “Why am I going crazy? Why am I panting? Why am I sweating? Why am I working the land, or the forum?  I don’t need much, and not for long.” (Natural Questions III, praef. 16-17) This week-long meditation with Seneca on the topic of what is important in life ends at the most appropriate place—the contemplation of and preparation for our death. Seneca opens this final passage with the recommendation that we have our soul on our lips. In other words, we must be prepared to die. Why? Because doing so makes us free according to the law of nature. The Stoics did not measure freedom by one’s ability to move freely from place to place, city to city, or country to country. Instead, true freedom is the absence of enslaving desires and crippling fears that consume our life. We are afraid of not getting what we want: a large house, great job, good reputation, wonderful soul mate, retirement account, good health, etc. Likewise, we fear getting that which we do not want: homelessness, poverty, shame, loneliness, sickness, and death. As a result, we spend our time driving ourselves to madness and working ourselves to death for things we believe will make us happy. As Epictetus frequently reminds us, we are slaves to externals. All the while, we neglect to ask “What is most important?” As Seneca notes, It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it’s been given to us in generous measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is well invested. But when life is squandered through soft and careless living, and when it’s spent on no worthwhile pursuit, death finally presses and we realize that the life which we didn’t notice passing has passed away. (On the Shortness of Life 1.3). The Stoic practice of Memento Mori—the contemplation of death—is more than a preparation for our inevitable end. That is the obvious goal of this ancient, widespread practice. The less obvious, but equally important, goal of this practice is the development of true freedom, which is preparation for life. Pierre Hadot writes, In the apprenticeship of death, the Stoic discovers the apprenticeship of freedom.[1] Freedom for the Stoic is the inner freedom that allows us to contemplate and live in agreement with Nature regardless of life’s circumstances. As Hadot notes, For the Stoic Epictetus, the meaning of our existence resides in this contemplation: we have been placed on earth in order to contemplate divine creation, and we must not die before we have witnessed its marvels and lived in harmony with nature.[2] We moderns, especially we westerners, have been trained from childhood to move at a faster and faster pace, so we achieve greater and greater goals, and accumulate more and more possessions. We only half-jokingly repeat the 1980s bumper-sticker slogan, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Stoicism is not a mind hack to be used to overcome external obstacles along the path to fame and fortune. Instead, the Stoic path trains us to overcome the obstacles within our mind that stand between our present state and an excellent character, which is capable of experiencing true well-being. The Stoic path leads toward freedom. We moderns, especially we westerners, have been trained from childhood to move at a faster and faster pace,

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