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The Daily Stoic

They Felt This Weight | Don't Make Things Harder Than They Need To Be

The Daily Stoic
The Daily Stoic

It’s easy for academics and critics to dismiss the Stoics as depressing or dark. They’re not wrong, exactly, because it’s true: There are some dark and depressing passages in Meditations. Seneca is not always cheerful. Both writers seem to dwell on death, they paint life as something that can be painful and tragic, they speak of Fortune as something not to be trusted—that the ground beneath your feet can shift in a moment, shattering everything around you.

But what’s unfair about this criticism, insensitive even, is that it totally ignores the context and the experience of these men—of all the Stoics. Marcus Aurelius buried six of his children. Six! Seneca lost a child and was exiled to a distant island on trumped up charges all at once. Can you imagine what that must have been like for them?

“Grief from the loss of a child is not a process,” a mother is quoted as saying in the fascinating book Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe which examines the opioid crisis. “It’s a lifelong weight upon one’s soul.” Marcus Aurelius and Seneca bore that weight—of course it shaped what they wrote and thought. There was an exchange between Marcus and his teacher Fronto about how he felt “suffering anguish” in his bones from the loss of Fronto’s grandchild. When we interviewed the philosopher and translator Martha Nussbaum on the Daily Stoic podcast, she spoke quite movingly about the loss of her own daughter. She pointed out that Cicero, a philosopher who wrote extensively on the Stoics and buried his daughter Tullia, was transformed by grief. It changed him. How could it not have?

One book on this topic we’ve recommended over the years has been Death Be Not Proud by John Gunter, who was similarly trying to make sense of the short but inspiring life of his son Johnny. Paul Kalanithi’s book When Breath Becomes Air is also worth reading. And Seneca’s writings on death have been collected in an interesting edition called How To Die.

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