Stoic Q&A: how is non-existence ever preferable?

Philosophy as a Way of Life
4 min readSep 17, 2019
[Memento mori, remember you will die]

R. writes: I’ve been reading some Stoic philosophers recently, and I came upon this quote by Seneca:

“Death is a release from and an end of all pains: beyond it our sufferings cannot extend: it restores us to the peaceful rest in which we lay before we were born. If anyone pities the dead, he ought also to pity those who have not been born. Death is neither a good nor a bad thing, for that alone which is something can be a good or a bad thing: but that which is nothing, and reduces all things to nothing, does not hand us over to either fortune, because good and bad require some material to work upon. Fortune cannot take ahold of that which Nature has let go, nor can a man be unhappy if he is nothing.” (Consolation to Marcia, 19)

In that quote, he says “good and bad require some material to work upon.” In short, I agree with that; yet I know that the Stoics also thought that suicide could be permissible in certain situations, and this raises an odd question about comparisons for me. So to use an example to motivate my question, let’s say there’s someone who’s at the end of their life. The doctors say that this person could live for another year on life support, but the quality of their life will be poor. It doesn’t seem to be irrational for that person to say that they do not want to live that last year of their life.

So this person may choose to say “I do not want to live this final year of my life.” When they say that though, it seems like they’re making an odd comparison. They’re saying that this one bad year of their life is worse than non-existence. But that sounds odd because, going off the part that I quoted earlier, “good and bad require some material to work upon.” My question then is: how could non-existence be “preferable” in this case? That seems to be assigning “good” in this case to something that’s immaterial. It’s saying that non-existence is “better” than a

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Philosophy as a Way of Life

by Massimo Pigliucci. Practical philosophy, science, pseudoscience & good reasoning. Complete index of articles at https://massimopigliucci.org/essays/