Learning how to die

A Sunday Sermon for The Idler Academy.

Drear nighted. That’s how Keats described December. Grey light. Brief days. Wind whistling through empty trees. Water frozen and forgetful of “Apollo’s summer look”. It’s the month in which time slows to the still point of the solstice as if it dies.

Philosophy was about learning how to die, according to the ancient Greeks. The cycle of the seasons at this time of year offers support in the task. Crunch a stiff leaf underfoot. Watch the sun sink at teatime. Dying is all around. But can this be more than a depressing pause and the key to a flourishing life?

The philosophers’ point, in part, is that, obviously, death is a fixture that awaits us all, like the end of the year. Instead of avoiding it, in the hopeless attempt to possess and grip onto life, they promise that a fruitful embrace of death is possible. The trick is to see that “life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements, if it were all well invested,” explains the Stoic, Seneca, in his marvellous essay, “On The Shortness Of Life”.

His fellow Stoic and Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, put it pithily: “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” That’s the hope behind New Year’s resolutions: the desire to begin again follows on closely from a foretaste of the end and a recollection of what’s been wasted.

But the philosophers are not just interested in advice and therapy. They go further, much further. They argue that death is a pathway. Yes, learning how to die can show you how to live more fully. But it also opens the eye of the soul to an experience of life that exceeds all mundane goals and hopes.

Stoics and Platonists, Epicureans and Sceptics, sensed themselves to be composed of three parts. The first – the body – is one’s manifest presence in the world. It’s the part that rises and falls like the seasons. It’s unfailingly obedient to the determined course of natural life. It’s born, it lives, it dies.

The second part – the soul – is the dynamic that affords living creatures a life that is not solely determined by the rule-bound body. Human beings have a particularly rich soul-life. We experience it when we imagine, when we long, when we act, when we love. The soul means we not only depend upon but can work with nature. The soul loves to hear lines from Keats’ poem and it expands when it understands December is not only grey and cold but, more evocatively, drear nighted.

And that soulful sense can awaken a perception of the third part – the nous or mind. That’s known when we become aware that we are aware of the depth of experience. And then, with that self-awareness, can come a sense that is radically unexpected: we realise we are not simply enfolded in the drear nighted month but can step back inside, and know the cycles of life from a place that is beyond their passing. To put it another way, nous detects eternity. It can contemplate as well as be immersed in life. It’s what Aristotle called our immortal part; the Stoics our divine seed; the Platonists our kinship with the good, beautiful, and true.

Many feel they occasionally glimpse this dimension of existence. It’s called a peak experience, an oceanic feeling, a moment of egolessness. But philosophers taught that, with practice, it’s possible to know it permanently. Life can be lived with a steady consciousness of the ground of being that sustains life. The Roman poet, Lucretius, described how his philosopher-guru, Epicurus, had reached this state: “The keen force of his nous conquered, and he advanced far beyond the blazing walls of the universe and traversed the immense whole with his mind and soul, whence, a conqueror, he brought back to us the account of what can arise and what cannot.”

What it involves is a kind of dying – dying to a life obsessed with the anxieties of the fragile body; dying to the dreams and hopes of the aspiring soul. With that death a shift of perspective arises and we can know ourselves as we truly are: “You are a fragment of God; you have within you a part of Him. Why, then, are you ignorant of your own kinship? Why do you not know the source from which you have sprung? You are bearing God about with you, and know it not!” as Epictetus the Stoic put it.

It’s why Socrates, on the last day of his bodily life, told his followers that he did not fear death. Death is presumably a passing fully into the life that he spent his bodily life seeking. “It would be absurd if a man who had been all his life fitting himself to live as nearly in a state of death as he could, should then be disturbed when death came to him,” he wittily explains.

But it’s still a death. The fears of the body are tenacious, often unconscious. The longings of the soul are powerful. To complicate things further, they are not bad in themselves and are often pretty good. What leads us astray is when we identify with them and lock onto them and mistake them for the fullness of life. With that, we lose awareness of the best we can know. Philosophy is learning to die to that attachment. It’s realising, even in December, that we are already astonishingly alive.

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