On Living and Dying Well is a collection of writing by the Roman politician Cicero. He was a prominent figure in Rome during the time of Caesar before his death under the reign of Antony.
Not only was Cicero a politician but he dabbled in philosophy. This book focuses on a selection of his pieces which touch upon how to live better and how to approach death.
As is the case with Seneca’s Letters From a Stoic, Cicero’s writing is still relevant today. The themes he talks about are still relevant and ones we still encounter.
The book presents a way of looking at death which is at odds with how many of us think of it, that it isn’t the evil we perceive it to be.
His thoughts on friendship, justice and public life are important to consider and can help all of us lead better lives.
Cicero was held in high regard by many of his peers and came to be venerated after his death. He was by no means a perfect human being, none of us is, but his writings offer profound insights into the human condition.
On Living and Dying Well is only a short book, which makes it accessible to many people. If you want a useful guide to on how to live better, this book is as good a place as any to start.
On Living and Dying Well summary
Takeaway 1 – Death is not evil
The modern world does not look kindly on death. We see it as a great evil, an event that if we could, we should prevent.
But is that wise? Is death as bad as we think.
The thing is, we all know what the bargain of life is: that at some point it will end. None of us come into life with the possibility of living forever. That might change in the future if Silicon Valley entrepreneurs get their way, but for the time being we will all die one day.
The problem with death is that it’s a great unknown. We have no idea what stands on the other side of the void.
No one has managed to cheat death and no one has managed to communicate what happens when we die. It’s this uncertainty that creates a lot of the anxiety we experience in regards to death.
Cicero’s advice is simple: before we were born, we felt nothing and after we die, we will feel nothing again.
Therefore, if not being born is not evil, then by definition, death cannot be evil either.
The truth is, we suffer more in life than we ever will in death. Eternal life would be filled with misery and suffering, whereas death provides respite from all of this.
Death is an uncomfortable thought, it’s something we will all experience and changing our view of it would help to ease the anxiety surrounding it a great deal.
Takeaway 2 – Friendship should not come in the way of doing what is right
The bonds of friendship. It’s often said that you should do whatever you can for your friends. But there are limits to this advice.
These limits refer to those things that are immoral. It’s important to cultivate relations with our friends but there are times when these relations can drag us down.
We should look out for each other, as friendship makes life bearable. The highs are more pronounced with friends around, while the lows become more bearable.
However, we shouldn’t let friendship superseded everything. Friendship should stand in the way of living a just life.
If your friend was going to rob a bank and asked you to join in, what would you do? You’d feel uncomfortable saying yes, but then you might also feel uncomfortable saying no to a close friend.
The right thing to do would be to say no and report your friend to the police for his intention to commit a crime. We would do this for any other member of society, but the bonds of friendship cloud our decision making from time to time.
As Cicero states, we should seek only good from our friends and do only that which is good when they ask us for a favour.
Friendship is important, but when it starts to cross moral boundaries, it’s time to reassess whether the friendship is one of virtue or not.
Takeaway 3 – We all have a responsibility to be just
The world in which we live is more polarised than any period since the 1930s. Friends disagree over trivial matters. Societies are split down the middle on issues, as evidenced by-elections around the world.
How do we respond when times are like this? Cicero’s advice was to be just no matter what.
By being just, he means acting with virtue and honour regardless of what is occurring. It’s only through people acting just that we can have a fair and tolerant society.
If everyone was only looking out for themselves and not for others, the result would be a chaotic society where no one trusted anyone and the bonds that hold society together would fall apart.
This is what happened in totalitarian states such as Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. People were encouraged to act in an unjust manner, and as a consequence, the moral fibre that held society together fell apart.
The responsibility for a well-functioning comes from the top. Our leads inform our decision making and many of us take our cue from them.
But this responsibility also comes from ourselves. It’s our personal duty to act in a fair and just manner when we interact with others.
Injustice in society causes it to break and splinter. People begin to lose trust in it if they feel they are the victim of an injustice and it’s not met with justice.
When injustice becomes commonplace it’s the sign of a broken society. We must endeavour to be as just as we can, otherwise, the world we live in will decay to our worst impulses and promote those with the worst temperament.
It’s incumbent on us all to look out for one another. There is nothing more just than that.
On Living and Dying Well review
This On Living and Dying Well summary has looked at an underrated book and philosopher, Cicero.
He isn’t as well-known as Seneca or Marcus Aurelius, but his ideas are just as profound and applicable to modern life.
The beauty of this book is that the advice given in it is simple and easy to understand. The title of the book is not misleading in any way, this really is a book that will help you live better.
I took away a lot of useful tidbits and I’m only disappointed that I didn’t read it sooner!
It’s remarkable that despite the passage of time, the human condition has barely changed. we still face the same worries and concerns that Cicero and his contempoarries faced in ancient Rome.
In Nassim Taleb’s book, Antifragile, he refers to the Lindy effect, which states the longer a book remains in print, the more value it has.
This is certainly true of On Living and Dying Well. While books such as The Obstacle Is The Way are great, you can’t beat books that have stood the test of time.
Cicero’s advice has helped many people throughout the ages and it can help you too!
Who should read On Living and Dying Well?
Anyone who is interested in philosophy will enjoy this book. Although Cicero was not strictly a Stoic, he was influenced by them.
If you’re looking to ease your worries about death or looking to live a better life, the book has a lot of valuable advice that you can put to good use!