Recent experiments have shown that psilocybin, a compound found in hallucinogenic mushrooms, can greatly reduce the fear of death in terminal cancer patients. The drug imparts “an understanding that in the largest frame, everything is fine,” said pharmacologist Richard Griffiths in a 2016 interview. Test subjects reported a sense of “the interconnectedness of all people and things, the awareness that we are all in this together.” Some claimed to have undergone a mock death during their psychedelic experience, to have “stared directly at death…in a kind of dress rehearsal,” as Michael Pollan wrote in a New Yorker account of these experiments. The encounter was felt to be not morbid or terrifying, but liberating and affirmative.
“In the largest frame, everything is fine.” That sounds very much like the message Lucius Annaeus Seneca preached to Roman readers of the mid-first century, relying on Stoic philosophy, rather than an organic hallucinogen, as a way to glimpse that truth. “The interconnectedness of all things” was also one of his principal themes, as was the idea that one must rehearse for death throughout one’s life—for life, properly understood, is really only a journey toward death; we are dying every day, from the day we are born. In his works of ethical thought, Seneca spoke to his addressees, and through them to humankind generally, about the need to accept death, even to the point of ending one’s own life, with a candor nearly unparalleled in his time or ours.
“Study death always,” Seneca counseled his friend Lucilius, and he took his own advice. [Continue reading…]