The Daily Stoic: Meditation on Mortality

Please note: Most of the text in these notes is owned by Ryan Holiday. I am posting them here for purely educational purposes. I condensed the book myself, but I don’t own any of the content. Some of my notes are paraphrased, but most are written verbatim.

You can buy the book ‘The Daily Stoic’ by clicking here.

The book is sectioned into three parts:

  • Part 1: The Discipline of Perception
  • Part 2: The Discipline of Action
  • Part 3: The Discipline of Will

Note: The date following each block of text indicates the source from the book, which is organised into a ‘message a day’ style.

In this post, I will share my condensed version of the most important take-away messages and instructions from:

Part 3: The Discipline of Will

Meditation on Mortality

  • “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. . . . The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” – Seneca
  • “Live each day as if it were your last” is a cliché. Here Seneca isn’t saying to forsake laws and considerations.
  • A better analogy would be a soldier leaving on deployment, not knowing if they’ll return or not. So they get their affairs in order. They handle their business. They don’t have time for quarreling or petty matters. They tell their family they love them. Then they are ready to leave – hoping to come back in one piece, but prepared for the possibility that they might not. (01/12)

  • “Let each thing you would do, say or intend be like that of a dying person.” – Marcus Aurelius
  • The question “What would you do if you were diagnosed with cancer tomorrow?” is designed to make you consider how different life might be if you were given just months to live.
  • But you already have a terminal diagnosis. Everyone does. “Death is one prophecy that never fails.” – Edmund Wilson
  • Everybody is born with a death sentence. Each second that passes is one you’ll never get back. (02/12)

  • “Philosophy does not claim to get a person any external possession. To do so would be beyond its field. As wood is to the carpenter, bronze to the sculptor, so our own lives are the proper material in the art of living.” – Epictetus
  • The purpose of philosophy is to “solve the problems of life, not only theoretically but practically.” – Henry David Thoreau
  • “To philosophise is to learn how to die.” – Cicero (03/12)

  • “Anything that can be prevented, taken away, or coerced is not a person’s own—but those things that can’t be blocked are their own.” – Epictetus
  • We might fight and work to own things, but they can be taken away in a second. The same goes for things we like to think are “ours” but are equally precarious: our status, physical health or strength, relationships.
  • How can these truly be ours if something other than us – fate, bad luck, death – can disposses us of them without notice?
  • So what do we own? Just our lives – and not for long. (04/12)

  • “Don’t behave as if you are destined to live forever. What’s fated hangs over you. As long as you live and while you can, become good now.” – Marcus Aurelius
  • A metaphorical sword hangs over all of us – life can be taken from us at any moment.
  • And that threat can take us in one of two directions: we can fear and dread it, or we can use it to motivate us; to do good, to be good.
  • Because the sword is dangling, and there’s nothing else to be concerned with. Would you rather it catch you in the middle of some shameful, selfish act? Would you rather it catch you waiting to be good in the future? (06/12)

  • “Think of the life you have lived until now as over and, as a dead man, see what’s left as a bonus and live it according to Nature. Love the hand that fate deals you and play it as your own, for what could be more fitting?” – Marcus Aurelius
  • We avoid thinking about our own mortality because we believe it will be depressing. In fact, reflecting on mortality often has the opposite effect – invigorating us more than saddening us. Why? Because it gives us clarity.
  • When, as Shakespeare’s Prospero puts it, “every third thought shall be my grave,” there is no risk of getting caught up in petty matters or distractions.
  • Instead of denying our fear of death, let’s allow it to make us the best people we can be. (07/12)

  • “It’s better to conquer grief than to deceive it.” – Seneca
  • We’ve all lost people. While we were suffering from our grief, some well-meaning person did their best to take our mind off it for a couple of hours. However kind, these gestures are misguided.
  • The Stoics are sterotyped as supressing their emotions, but their philosophy was actually intended to teach us to face, process, and deal with emotions immediately instead of running from them.
  • Tempting as it is to deceive yourself or hide from a powerful emotion like grief – by telling yourself and others that you’re fine – awareness and understanding are better.
  • Distraction might be pleasant in the short-term, but focusing is better in the long-term.
  • That means face it now. Process and parse what you’re feeling. Remove your expectations, your entitlements, your sense of having been wronged. Find the positive in the situation, but also sit with your pain and accept it, remembering that it is a part of life.
  • That’s how one conquers grief. (08/12)

  • “Were all the geniuses of history to focus on this single theme, they could never fully express their bafflement at the darkness of the human mind. No person would give up even an inch of their estate, and the slightest dispute with a neighbor can mean hell to pay; yet we easily let others encroach on our lives—worse, we often pave the way for those who will take it over. No person hands out their money to passersby, but to how many do each of us hand out our lives! We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.” – Seneca
  • “The number of people who stand ready to consume one’s time, to no purpose, is almost countless.” – Booker T. Washington
  • But a philosopher knows that their deafult state shoud be one of reflection and inner awareness. This is why they so diligently protect their personal space and thoughts from the intrusions of the world.
  • They know that a few minutes of contemplation are worth more than any meeting or report.
  • Remember that time is our most irreplaceable asset – we cannot buy more of it. We can only strive to waste as little as possible. (09/12)

  • “I say, let no one rob me of a single day who isn’t going to make a full return on the loss.” – Seneca
  • Why do we treat the days of our lives like we treat money spent via credit card? Because we don’t exactly know how many days we’ll be alive, and because we try our hardest not to think about the fact that someday we’ll die, we’re pretty liberal with how freely we spend our time.
  • Seneca’s maxim is the equivalent of cutting up your credit cards and switching to cash. He says to put real thought into every transaction: Am I getting my money’s worth here? Is this a fair trade? (10/12)

  • “Walk the long gallery of the past, of empires and kingdoms succeeding each other without number. And you can also see the future, for surely it will be exactly the same, unable to deviate from the present rhythm. It’s all one whether we’ve experienced forty years or an aeon. What more is there to see?” – Marcus Aurelius (12/12)

  • “Life is long if you know how to use it.” – Seneca (13/12)

  • “Soon you will die, and still you aren’t sincere, undisturbed, or free from suspicion that external things can harm you, nor are you gracious to all, knowing that wisdom and acting justly are one and the same.” – Marcus Aurelius (14/12)

  • “This is the mark of perfection of character—to spend each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, laziness, or any pretending.” – Marcus Aurelius (15/12)

  • “I tell you, you only have to learn to live like the healthy person does . . . living with complete confidence. What confidence? The only one worth holding, in what is trustworthy, unhindered, and can’t be taken away—your own reasoned choice.” – Epictetus
  • But your own reasoned choice? Well, for now that is in your control. Therefore it is one of the few things you can have confidence in. It’s the only one that remains pristine and never wears down—it’s only the user who quits it; never will it quit the user. (16/12)

  • “Death lies heavy upon one who, known exceedingly well by all, dies unknown to himself.”
    • Seneca
  • Some of the most powerful and important people in the world seem to have almost no self-awareness. Although total strangers know endless amounts of trivia about them, celebrities – because they are too busy or because it hurts too much – appear to know very little about themselves.
  • We can be guilty of the same sin. We ignore Socrate’s dictum to “know thyself” – often realisin we have done so at our peril, years later, when we wake up one day and see how rarely we asked ourselves questions like: Who am I? What’s important to me? What do I like? What do I need?
  • Right now you have time to explore yourself, to understand your own body and mind. Don’t wait. Know yourself. Before it’s impossibly late. (17/12)

  • “Both Alexander the Great and his mule-keeper were both brought to the same place by death—they were either received into the all-generative reason, or scattered among the atoms.” – Marcus Aurelius
  • Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, Might stop a hole to keep the wind away: that that earth, which kept the world in awe, Should patch a wall t’ expel the winter’s flaw! -Shakespeare (18/12)

  • “Think of the whole universe of matter and how small your share. Think about the expanse of time and how brief—almost momentary—the part marked for you. Think of the workings of fate and how infinitesimal your role.” – Marcus Aurelius
  • Consider this the next time you feel self-important, or like everything rises and falls on what you do next. It doesn’t. You’re just one person among many, doing your best among many. That’s all you need to do. (19/12)

  • “Do you then ponder how the supreme of human evils, the surest mark of the base and cowardly, is not death, but the fear of death? I urge you to discipline yourself against such fear, direct all your thinking, exercises, and reading this way—and you will know the only path to human freedom.” – Epictetus
  • “It is the child within us that trembles before death.” – Plato
  • Death is scary because it’s such an unknown.
  • But there’s a reason that the world’s oldest people never seem to be afraid of death: they’ve had more time to think about it than us, and realised how pointless worrying was.
  • Seneca’s famous words to his family and friends, who had broken doen and begged with his executioners is a good resource: “Where,” Seneca gently asked them “are your maxims of philosophy, or the preparation of so many years’ study against evils to come?”
  • There’s another helpful consideration about death from the Stoics. If death is truly the end, then what exactly is there to fear? For everything from your fears to your pain receptors to your worries and your remaining wishes, they will perish with you.
  • As frightening as death might seem, remember: it contains within it the end of fear. (20/12)

  • “Many times an old man has no other evidence besides his age to prove he has lived a long time.” – Seneca
  • It would be nice to be able to say “Hey, I really made the most of it.” Not in the form of achievements, money, or status, but in wisdom, insight, and real progress in the things that all humans struggle against. (21/12)

  • “For it’s disgraceful for an old person, or one in sight of old age, to have only the knowledge carried in their notebooks. Zeno said this . . . what do you say? Cleanthes said that . . . what do you say? How long will you be compelled by the claims of another? Take charge and stake your own claim—something posterity will carry in its notebook.” – Seneca
  • It’s easier to quote, to rely on the wise words of others. Especially when the people you’re defferring to are such towering figures!
  • It’s harder to venture out on your own, and express your own thoughts. How do you think those towering figures wrote such wise words in the first place?
  • Your own experiences have value. You have accumulated your own wisdom too. Stake your claim. Put something down for the ages – in words and also in example. (22/12)

  • “You are afraid of dying. But, come now, how is this life of yours anything but death?” – Seneca
  • Most of us are afraid of dying. But sometimes this fear begs the question: To protect what exactly? For a lot of people the answer is: hours of television, gossiping, gorging, wasting potential, reporting to a boring job, and on and on and on.
  • Except in the strictest sense, is this actually a life? Is this worth gripping so tightly and being afraid of losing? It doesn’t sound like it. (23/12)

  • “You know what wine and liqueur tastes like. It makes no difference whether a hundred or a thousand bottles pass through your bladder—you are nothing more than a filter.” – Seneca
  • As fun and exciting as these pleasures are (fancy wine), it’s worth putting them in their place.
  • You don’t get a prize at the end of your life for having consumed more, worked more, spent more, collected more, or learned about the various vintages that everyone else.
  • You are just a conduit, a vessel that temporarily held or interacted with these fancy items.
  • Remember this if you find yourself lusting over such things. (24/12)

  • “The mind must be given relaxation—it will rise improved and sharper after a good break. Just as rich fields must not be forced—for they will quickly lose their fertility if never given a break—so constant work on the anvil will fracture the force of the mind. But it regains its powers if it is set free and relaxed for a while. Constant work gives rise to a certain kind of dullness and feebleness in the rational soul.” – Seneca (25/12)

  • “It’s not at all that we have too short a time to live, but that we squander a great deal of it. Life is long enough, and it’s given in sufficient measure to do many great things if we spend it well. But when it’s poured down the drain of luxury and neglect, when it’s employed to no good end, we’re finally driven to see that it has passed by before we even recognized it passing. And so it is—we don’t receive a short life, we make it so.” – Seneca
  • Far too often, we’re like the overconfident academics that Petrarch criticised in his classic essay on ignorance – the types who “fritter away their powers incessantly in caring for things outside of them and seek themselves there.” (26/12)

  • “It’s a disgrace in this life when the soul surrenders first while the body refuses to.” – Marcus Aurelius (27/12)

  • “Everything lasts for a day, the one who remembers and the remembered.” – Marcus Aurelius (28/12)

  • “In all things we should try to make ourselves be as grateful as possible. For gratitude is a good thing for ourselves, in a manner in which justice, commonly held to belong to others, is not. Gratitude pays itself back in large measure.” – Seneca (29/12)

  • “To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden.” – Seneca (30/12)

  • “Stop wandering about! You aren’t likely to read your own notebooks, or ancient histories, or the anthologies you’ve collected to enjoy in your old age. Get busy with life’s purpose, toss aside empty hopes, get active in your own rescue—if you care for yourself at all—and do it while you can.” – Marcus Aurelius
  • The purpose of all our reading and studying is to aid us in the pursuit of the good life (and death).
  • At some point, we must put aside our books and take action, so that, as Seneca put it, the “words become works.”
  • There is an old saying that a “scholar made is a soldier spoiled.” We want to be both scholars and soldiers – soldiers in the good fight.
  • That’s what’s next for you. Move forward, move onward. Another book isn’t the answer. The right choices and decisions are. Who knows how much time you have left, or what awaits us tomorrow? (31/12)


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