On Sudden Death

“Rehearse this thought every day, that you may be able to depart from life contentedly; for many men clutch and cling to life, in the same way that those who are carried down a rushing stream clutch and cling to briars and sharp rocks.”   —  Seneca, Letter 4

“A free man thinks of death least of all things; and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life.”  — Spinoza, Ethics 4P67

“One would require a position outside of life, and yet have to know it as well as one, as many, as all who have lived it, in order to be permitted even to touch the problem of the value of life; reasons enough to comprehend that this problem is for us an unapproachable problem.” — Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

It’s been more than ten years, but the memory is very much alive of the night my stepmother called to tell me that my father had died, suddenly, while on a run the day before he was to race in the L.A marathon. Of the many overwhelming thoughts and emotions that came upon me that night, one of the first was the realization that everything had suddenly and irreversibly changed; things, I realized, will no longer be the same. This thought was much more than an intellectual grasp and insight; it felt much more real than that. Within 24 hours I was on a plane and back home in Laguna Beach. Walking in town that beautiful March night I couldn’t help but think of how, despite the fact that my father was no longer walking the streets of Laguna, the moon and stars that lit up the night sky were the same as the night before and will continue to be the same long after I succumb to the same fate as my father, the night sky being implacable and unaffected by the changes that affect our lives. It is no wonder the Ancients referred to the night sky as the heavenly sphere, the eternal realm distinct from the earthly sphere of changing human affairs.

I know that my thoughts and feelings regarding my father’s death are not unusual – it is from what I can tell a very common reaction to the loss of a significant person in one’s life. My reaction is also probably not unique to sudden deaths either. I had a similar reaction to my stepfather’s death from colon cancer. Although we knew his death was coming, the actual event of his death left me with a similar feeling of the transformative nature of what had happened. But there is something about sudden deaths that accentuates, or brings to an extreme, an important truth about our relation to death.

It is this truth about our relation to death that motivates, I would argue, the claims made in the quotes that lead off this post.

The most obvious feature about sudden death that makes it stand out is, well, its suddenness, the fact that we were not prepared for it and didn’t see it coming. We are going about our day and suddenly, out of the blue, our day and every day henceforth has become transformed. But has it really? This is Seneca’s point. No death, Seneca argues (in Letter 4 [for my discussions of Letters 1, 2, and 3 see herehere, and here]), ought to come as a complete surprise. For the sake of “improving [our] mind and setting it at peace with itself,” we need to stop deceiving ourselves and realize, deeply realize, that “since the day [we] were born [we] are being led thither” – that is, to death. It is the assumption that we have a special claim to this life, and that if we cling to it and protect it we can somehow avoid this fate that leads us to the surprising, sudden realization that despite these efforts we may be surprised by what befalls us. “No man,” Seneca reminds us, “has ever been so far advanced by Fortune that she did not threaten him as greatly as she had previously indulged him.” A highwayman or a slave, although they may appear peaceful, innocent, and entirely harmless one minute, “may cut your throat” the next. The key to a contented, peaceful mind, therefore, is to recognize that our however much we cling to our individual lives our fates all converge in the end.

This is where Spinoza and Nietzsche pick up on the thread of Seneca’s Stoic arguments. Most notably, what Seneca encourages us to no longer cling to is the individuality of our life and embrace, instead, the place of this life within nature itself, or as the Stoic motto has it: “Live according to Nature.” Nature is understood here not as our nature, the nature of our individuality, but nature writ large, the implacable nature that is indifferent to our individual lives. With this Stoic advice in mind, Spinoza’s claim that the “free man thinks of death least of all things” follows naturally if we consider that what one is freed from, according to Spinoza, is the bondage to our individuality, to our existence as finite mode, and rather than think of the death of this finite existence the free peson considers and thinks instead of the nature this mode expresses, the nature sub specie aeternitatis (E2P44Cor.) which is achieved most completely with the intellectual love of God (E5P33: “The intellectual love of God which arises from the third kind of knowledge is eternal”).

As for Nietzsche, his criticism in Beyond Good and Evil of the faith in the ego is well known. In arguing that we need to “declare war, relentless war unto death, against the ‘atomistic need’” that Christianity has helped to satisfy with its teachings regarding the most “calamitous atomism”—namely, “the soul atomism.” In its place we ought instead consider alternative hypotheses such “as ‘mortal soul,’ and ‘soul as subjective multiplicity,’ and ‘soul as social structure of the drives and affects’” as offering a better account of our subjective lives. With the explosion and displacement of a “soul atomism,” along with the attendant “metaphysical need” for an either/or reality (i.e., good or evil), we are left with a metaphysics of multiplicity—a multiplicity of drives, affects, powers, etc.—or, as Nietzsche puts it, we are left with will to power, which is Nietzsche’s principle of sufficient reason: “The world viewed from inside, the world defined and determined according to its ‘intelligible character’—it would be ‘will to power’ and nothing else.” (BGE §36)

Since all is will to power, or all is a multiplicity of drives, affects, and powers, one cannot get outside this will to power; one cannot get outside life. When confronted with a sudden death, the grief and shock may be overwhelming but the grief and shock would be lessened Nietzsche argues, and in a manner consonant with Spinoza and Seneca before him, if we were to adopt his “alternative” hypothesis and stop clinging to our soul atomism. But as Spinoza was quick to point out, the road “leading to this goal seems very difficult,” and “what is so rarely discovered is bound to be hard [and] if salvation were ready to hand and could be discovered without great toil, how could it be that it is almost universally neglected?” It is indeed difficult and almost universally neglected; after all, despite what I have written here, I still miss my father.

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