Better Souls Than We Have Died

Today’s non-Classical reading:

Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski. The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. London: Allen Lane, 2015.


9: “The twin motives of affirming the correctness of our worldviews and demonstrating our personal worth combine to protect us from the uniquely human fear of inevitable death.”

14: “When confronted with reminders of death, we react by criticizing and punishing those who oppose or violate our beliefs and by praising and rewarding those who support or uphold our beliefs.”

26: “[Children’s] diversionary tactics are strikingly similar to what happens when adults think about themselves dying. They react by trying to stop thinking about death and distracting themselves with mundane concerns.”

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 3.1034-1053

“You may on occasion say this to yourself:
Noble Ancus* loosed the light from his eyes,
A man who was better than imperfect you in many ways.
And from there, many other kings and luminaries
Died too, men who ruled over great nations.
That very man* who once laid a great road across a vast sea
To provide a path for his armies upon the deep
And taught them to dance across the crescent salt
As he pranced with his horses and dismissed the sea’s roar—
He poured out his soul when his body died and he was robbed of the light.
Clan Scipio’s son, the bolt of war, the scourge of Carthage,
Gave his bones to the earth just as a humble servant would.
Add to these men the inventors of theories and beauty,
Add as well the friends of the Muses whose single Homer,
the sceptered lord, has been quieted in sleep like the rest.
Democritus, too, when advanced age finally warned him
That the moving memories of his mind were fading,
He freely offered his own head to his end.
Epicurus as well departed when the light of his life ran its course,
He surpassed the race of man with his genius, who overshown
The light of all men the way the sun washes out the stars—
And now you will hesitate and be angry to die?
You whose life is already nearly dead, though you live and see,
You who squander the greater part of life in sleep
And snore wide-awake, never breaking from seeing dreams,
As you carry a mind tortured by empty fear.
You can’t figure out what ails you, you poor drunk,
When you are oppressed by so many anxieties everywhere
As you wander adrift on the uncertain compulsions of your mind.”

Hoc etiam tibi tute interdum dicere possis.
‘lumina sis oculis etiam bonus Ancus reliquit,
qui melior multis quam tu fuit, improbe, rebus.
inde alii multi reges rerumque potentes
occiderunt, magnis qui gentibus imperitarunt.
ille quoque ipse, viam qui quondam per mare magnum
stravit iterque dedit legionibus ire per altum
ac pedibus salsas docuit super ire lucunas
et contempsit equis insultans murmura ponti,
lumine adempto animam moribundo corpore fudit.
Scipiadas, belli fulmen, Carthaginis horror,
ossa dedit terrae proinde ac famul infimus esset.
adde repertores doctrinarum atque leporum,
adde Heliconiadum comites; quorum unus Homerus
sceptra potitus eadem aliis sopitus quietest.
denique Democritum post quam matura vetustas
admonuit memores motus languescere mentis,
sponte sua leto caput obvius optulit ipse.
ipse Epicurus obit decurso lumine vitae,
qui genus humanum ingenio superavit et omnis
restinxit stellas exortus ut aetherius sol.
tu vero dubitabis et indignabere obire?
mortua cui vita est prope iam vivo atque videnti,
qui somno partem maiorem conteris aevi,
et viligans stertis nec somnia cernere cessas
sollicitamque geris cassa formidine mentem
nec reperire potes tibi quid sit saepe mali, cum
ebrius urgeris multis miser undique curis
atque animo incerto fluitans errore vagaris.’

This passage reminds me in part of Achilles’ famous vaunt to Lykaon (a man he had previously ransomed) in the Iliad (21.106-113)

“But you die too, friend. Really, why are you grieving thus?
Patroklos also died, and he was much better than you.
Don’t you see how handsome and large I am?
I come from a noble father and a goddess mother bore me—
But, even now, death and compelling fate await me.
The time will come at dawn, dusk, or the middle of the day
When someone rips the life even from me with Ares’ power
As he strikes with a spear or an arrow from its string.”

ἀλλὰ φίλος θάνε καὶ σύ· τί ἦ ὀλοφύρεαι οὕτως;
κάτθανε καὶ Πάτροκλος, ὅ περ σέο πολλὸν ἀμείνων.
οὐχ ὁράᾳς οἷος καὶ ἐγὼ καλός τε μέγας τε;
πατρὸς δ’ εἴμ’ ἀγαθοῖο, θεὰ δέ με γείνατο μήτηρ·
ἀλλ’ ἔπι τοι καὶ ἐμοὶ θάνατος καὶ μοῖρα κραταιή·
ἔσσεται ἢ ἠὼς ἢ δείλη ἢ μέσον ἦμαρ
ὁππότε τις καὶ ἐμεῖο ῎Αρῃ ἐκ θυμὸν ἕληται
ἢ ὅ γε δουρὶ βαλὼν ἢ ἀπὸ νευρῆφιν ὀϊστῷ.

*Ancus was the fourth king of Rome

*Xerxes (who built pontoon bridge across the Hellespont to bring an army into Greece c. 480 BCE)

36: “Maybe we should stop writing and you should stop reading”

Compare with the epitaph recorded by Athenaeus (attributed to Chrysippus):

“Know well that you are mortal: fill your heart
By delighting in the feasts: nothing is useful to you when you’re dead.
I am ash, though I ruled great Ninevah as king.
I keep whatever I ate, the insults I made, and the joy
I took from sex. My wealth and many blessings are gone.
[This is wise advice for life: I will never forget it.
Let anyone who wants to accumulate limitless gold.]

εὖ εἰδὼς ὅτι θνητὸς ἔφυς σὸν θυμὸν ἄεξε,
τερπόμενος θαλίῃσι· θανόντι σοι οὔτις ὄνησις.
καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼ σποδός εἰμι, Νίνου μεγάλης βασιλεύσας·
κεῖν’ ἔχω ὅσσ’ ἔφαγον καὶ ἐφύβρισα καὶ σὺν ἔρωτι
τέρπν’ ἔπαθον· τὰ δὲ πολλὰ καὶ ὄλβια πάντα λέλυνται.
[ἥδε σοφὴ βιότοιο παραίνεσις, οὐδέ ποτ’ αὐτῆς
λήσομαι· ἐκτήσθω δ’ ὁ θέλων τὸν ἀπείρονα χρυσόν.]


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