Not to mention the question that a street corner proselytizer is most likely to ask you: “Do you know that if you die tonight you will go to heaven?”
The Bushido Shoshinshu, a guidebook on the Samurai code from the early eighteenth century, even starts out with a discussion of the importance of being ready to face death at any time, and of always bearing death in one’s mind.
So why do all these diverse traditions all make such a big deal about how death might be right around the corner? This is because of one truth that all these preachers, writers, and other authority figures understand. You really never do know for sure that you will be alive tomorrow.
Furthermore, it is inevitable that the day will eventually come that the answer will be no, you won’t be alive the next day. And there’s a very tangible possibility that you won’t even know it at the time – that the possibility of you dying within the next 24 hours will be as far from your mind on that day as it is on any other day. Not to scare you or anything – but for all you know, today might be that day.
This issue of the uncertainty of being alive tomorrow is also something that Stoics deal with. However, perhaps none write so eloquently on the subject as Seneca the Younger.
Toward the end of his life, Seneca began to write letters to his friend, Lucilius, instructing him in Stoic philosophy. These letters, known as the “Moral Epistles,” survive to this day. In the twelvth epistle, he advises Lucilius to regard each day as the completion of his existence – going to bed with the words: “I have lived; the course which Fortune set for me — Is finished.”
He goes on to write: “And if God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts.”
The idea is that no matter how many times you survive the night and wake up in the morning to greet a new day – you should never take it for granted. Instead of seeing it as the basic course of how things ought to go, each new day that you live to see should be seen as a bonus.
Seneca also counsels Lucilius to constantly look death in the face. This is part of a Stoic practice known as “Meditatio Malorum”, or meditation on adversity – also known in modern times as “Negative Visualization”. Only, unlike some subject-matters of this meditation, death isn’t just a fate that may befall us – but one that eventually will befall us.
The advice to constantly stare death in the face is not unlike the instructions to do exactly that in the Bushido Shoshinshu – which, despite coming from a very different culture, presents many ideas in common with Stoic philosophy. The Samurai instruction book even goes so far as to prescribe that every time you interact with a parent, with a friend, or even with your employer – you should always do so with full awareness that you may be interacting with them for the last time.
The Samurai writer goes on to promise that constantly looking death in the face will result in a longer life, as someone constantly aware of their own mortality is less likely to be reckless. Furthermore, he also promises that this mindset will result in a life of greater virtue – an assessment that Marcus Aurelius would no doubt agree with. After all – very clearly in his meditative journal, Aurelius reminds himself of how his mortality is one of the reasons why he has a limited amount of time in which to cultivate virtue.
But another point that Aurelius makes is that all lives, long and short alike, are less than even a blink in the timescale of the Universe. Scientists estimate that the Universe is over 13-billion years old – and by conservative estimates will keep on going for over a trillion years to come. Of the 13-billion plus years that the Universe has been around so far – for all but the insignificant last few decades of it, I wasn’t even born – not even conceived. And no matter how well I take care of myself, and no matter how lucky I am – the years that I have left to live are nothing compared to the over-a-trillion years that the Universe has left. I’m going to be dead for pretty much all of it.
And this is true whether I drop dead as soon as I finish scheduling this piece for release, or whether I live to what, by human standards, is an extremely old age.
The amount of time I am given to exist is very limited. Rather than bemoan the fact that I do not have longer to exist, I would do best to appreciate every day as it comes – and use each day to cultivate virtue as best as I am able. Because I may have another sixty years to cultivate virtue – but for all I know, I may only have five more minutes.