Yes, the Stoics talk a lot about death. How it’s inevitable. How life is fragile. How it can be taken from us at any moment. It’s in our power to live well, Seneca said, but not in our power to live long.
It’s easy to take from these commentaries that the Stoics were completely fatalistic about their health, and that’s a mistake—one easily disproved by the evidence. Seneca talked about death, but he also talked about the life-giving powers of taking a cold plunge. He experimented with vegetarianism. He exercised. He ate moderately not only because it was part of his philosophy, but because he knew that gluttons rarely live to see old age. Marcus Aurelius was treated by the famous doctor Galen, and one presumes that he did so because he asked Galen to improve his health, not worsen it.
The key exercise in Stoicism, according to Epictetus, was distinguishing what’s in our control and what isn’t. Our genetics are not in our control. But we are not prisoners of them. They are not an oracle. We control our diet and our exercise. We can control how our genetics express themselves and impact our live
Death can be random and cruel—as it was for the millions who died of the plague in Marcus’s time. Nobody controls that. But we do control whether we drive a motorcycle and decline to wear a helmet. You don’t control whether you get drafted and sent to fight in a war, but you do control whether you go around picking fights in bars or walk through the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time of day. We control whether we make smart decisions or dumb ones, whether we take good care of ourselves or not.
We are all mortal. Life is fragile. But that doesn’t mean you kiss all the control up to God or to Fate. You decide whether you’re going to be healthy or not. You decide whether to be stupid or not. You decide the path you walk.