King George IV was a notorious glutton. His breakfast supposedly consisted of two pigeons, three steaks, a near full bottle of wine, and a glass of brandy. In time, he grew so fat he could no longer sleep laying down, or the weight of his own chest might asphyxiate him. The gout in his hands made it difficult to sign documents — he eventually had his attendants make a stamp of his signature to use instead. Still, he managed to father several illegitimate children while generally neglecting the business of being a king.
King George was the type of person who apparently believed that he was exempt from the rules of health and humankind. That his body could and would endure unlimited abuse without consequence. Indeed, his last words, when years of bad habits and lethargy finally caught up with him at 3:30am in 1860, were:
“Good God, what is this?”
Then he realized what it was.
“My boy,” he said as he grasped the hand of a page, “this is death.”
It was almost as if he was surprised to find out that he was mortal...and that treating his body like a garbage can for four decades had only hastened his fate.
While the Stoics practiced the art of memento mori—and knew that death was something that could randomly visit anyone, at any time—they still took pains to maintain their health. Marcus Aurelius’s doctor was Galen, one of the most famous physicians of antiquity, and presumably Marcus didn’t keep him around to shorten his life. No, he wanted to survive and be as healthy and strong as possible while he was alive. Seneca, for his part, flirted with vegetarianism, and his letters are filled with mentions of various cures he was seeking for his health. The sports metaphors in Epictetus and Marcus’s work also hint at the idea of active, strenuous lives.
Health is wealth. Taking care of yourself is important. What good can you do in this world if you feel like shit all the time? Or if you lack the physical and moral strength—or in George’s case, even the basic mobility—to be of good to anyone?
We are on this planet for a short amount of time. But if we practice bad habits, if we let our urges run wild, we will surely shorten that time. That’s not Stoic, that’s stupid.