Let’s Talk about [Death] Baby: #DeathAndClassics

Roman Epitaph, B808

“[Hey,] you who are reading this epitaph, remember that you too will be dead.”

Qui legis hunc titulum, mortalem te esse memento.

A few days ago I posted the following tweet.

Aelian, Fragment 187/190 (from Stobaeus 3.29.58)

“Solon the Athenian, the son of Eksêkestides, when his nephew sang some song of Sappho at a drinking party, took pleasure in it and asked the young man to teach it to him. When someone asked why he was eager to learn it, he responded: “So, once I learn it, I may die.”

Σόλων ὁ ᾿Αθηναῖος ᾿Εξηκεστίδου παρὰ πότον τοῦ ἀδελφιδοῦ αὐτοῦ μέλος τι Σαπφοῦς ᾄσαντος, ἥσθη τῷ μέλει καὶ προσέταξε τῷ μειρακίῳ διδάξει αὐτόν. ἐρωτήσαντος δέ τινος διὰ ποίαν αἰτίαν τοῦτο σπουδάσειεν, ὃ δὲ ἔφη ‘ἵνα μαθὼν αὐτὸ ἀποθάνω.’

There were lots of interesting answers–it would be annoying to post all the tweets here, but I have added some to give an idea of the range of responses.

Simonides, Fragment 15

“Human strength is meager
Our plains incomplete
Toil follows toil in our short lives.
Death looms inescapable for all—
People who are good and bad draw
of that an equal portion.”

ἀνθρώπων ὀλίγον μὲν
κάρτος, ἄπρακτοι δὲ μεληδόνες,
αἰῶνι δ’ ἐν παύρωι πόνος ἀμφὶ πόνωι·
ὁ δ’ ἄφυκτος ὁμῶς ἐπικρέμαται θάνατος·
κείνου γὰρ ἴσον λάχον μέρος οἵ τ’ ἀγαθοὶ
ὅστις τε κακός.

Fragment 16

“Since you are human, never claim what tomorrow might bring.
Nor, if you see a fortunate man, how long it will last.
For not even the time of a tender-winged fly
Is not as fast.”

ἄνθρωπος ἐὼν μή ποτε φάσηις ὅ τι γίνεται 〚αὔριον〛,
μηδ’ ἄνδρα ἰδὼν ὄλβιον ὅσσον χρόνον ἔσσεται·
ὠκεῖα γὰρ οὐδὲ τανυπτερύγου μυίας
οὕτως ἁ μετάστασις.


Here are the tweets I sent to try to contextualize the question:

I ask the #deathandclassics question in all seriousness because it is a question I actually consider often (1/8)

I actually have been memorizing the opening lines of the #Odyssey to recite to myself in times of agitation. And I think, if I know I am going to die, I will recite it to myself. (2/8)

Why the #Odyssey? I think the #Iliad is the poem of death and the Odyssey is the poem of life. Both poems are at some level about what it means to be a person, but the Odyssey is about how life is lived. #deathandclassics (3/8)

In a way, it will be like a replaying of my life through a story I have read many times. There is also the ancient allegorical tradition that the Odyssey is about the transition from one realm to the next, the movement of a soul from one plane to another #deathandclassics (4/8)

Even without the allegory, the Odyssey is about the journey of a person and the journey that IS the person. #deathandclassics (5/8)

I think that this might be nice to think about in the final moments—that even though I individual am passing on, I am drifting away on words that have moved through a thousand years #deathandclassics (6/8)

Also, epic is long. If death doesn’t kill me, the #telemachy might. (7/8)

Also, I have some Viking blood in me and I grew up in Maine. Somehow, drifting away on the Odyssey’s sea of words will be like a burial in a dream longboat.

From the Gnomologium Vaticanum:

160 “Biôn used to say that [we have] two teachers for death: the time before we were born and sleep.”

Βίων ἔλεγε δύο διδασκαλίας θανάτου εἶναι, τόν τε πρὸ τοῦ γενέσθαι χρόνον καὶ τὸν ὕπνον.

446 “Plato said that sleep was a short-lived death but death was a long-lived sleep.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἔφησε τὸν μὲν ὕπνον ὀλιγοχρόνιον θάνατον, τὸν δὲ θάνατον πολυχρόνιον ὕπνον.

Plato in the Phaedo (67e) has Socrates declare that “those who practice philosophy correctly practice dying” (τῷ ὄντι ἄρα, ἔφη, ὦ Σιμμία, οἱ ὀρθῶς φιλοσοφοῦντες ἀποθνῄσκειν μελετῶσι). Cicero presents a similar idea (Tota enim philosophorum vita, ut ait idem, commentatio mortis est, Tusc. Disp. 30.74-31.71.5). And Montaigne uses both to start a famous essay.

I bring up death enough in class that I have had students ask me if I am “ok”. The answer to this question is complicated. I am absolutely ok—I am generally a happy person with a lot to be thankful for. At the same time, I have suffered from a nearly paralyzing fear of death since I was 10 years old or so. I say “nearly” paralyzing because it does not impact me as much as it used to when at times thoughts of death and the futility of life could send me into tailspins of depression.

What changed? Apart from life circumstances and just getting older, actively engaging this fear and thinking about it. One of our serious problems as a culture, I think, is our unwillingness to talk about things that really matter. In fact, one of the things that has consistently drawn me back to the classics are those texts that address what we treat as nearly a taboo subject now.

Ancient authors write eloquently and persuasively about death. Pliny reminds us to think about death in order to live. Erik has found sympathy with Horace (and Frosty the Snowman). Seneca and Lucretius provide deep and lasting encouragement not to fear death—and these passages are beautiful and consoling, even if they are not convincing. Plutarch writes movingly on the difference between living with a fear of death or a love of life.

Seneca, Epistles to Lucilius 3.5 

’Think upon death.’ He who orders you to do thus, orders you to think upon freedom.”

‘meditare mortem’: qui hoc dicit, meditari libertatem iubet.

The passages that first moved me come from the Iliad, in particular Sarpedon’s comments to Glaukos on their obligation to risk their live (12.310-332) and Achilles’ stark and bitter ‘sympathy’ with Lykaon before he kills him. And over the years I have actually found statements like those of Marcus Aurelius, that we should always act as if we are going to die.

Others over time have found similar comfort—Petrarch, for example, writes beautifully about aging. I think we can hear echoes of Classical contemplations in C. S. Lewis too. Often these conversations can take us in different directions. Many a reader has turned more religious over the years. If anything, I have thought more deeply about Stoic and Epicurean responses to death. And let me tell you, though I do find comfort in Epictetus and his peoples, I have found Epicurus pretty persuasive over the years.

Seneca, Moral Epistle 65

“Let us be brave in adverse fortune. Let us not fear injury, wounds, chains, or poverty. What is death? It is either the end or a transformation. I do not fear ending, it is the same as never having begun. Nor do I fear transformation, because I will not ever be as constrained as I am now. Farewell.”

Fortes simus adversus fortuita. Non contremescamus iniurias, non vulnera, non vincula, non egestatem. Mors quid est? Aut finis aut transitus. Nec desinere timeo, idem est enim, quod non coepisse, nec transire, quia nusquam tam anguste ero. Vale.

I started the #deathandclassics hashtag for several reasons. First, I actually think it is interesting to ask this question because it tells us something about the texts we love and ourselves. Second, I think we should have these conversations and that studying the Classics can help to do so both because of the perspective of time that ancient texts force upon us and because of their content. Living in fear of death keeps us from living well; but living without acknowledging death’s importance can do this too.

Also, there’s this:

“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.]

Image result for medieval manuscript death
“Denise Poncher Before a Vision of Death,”� an image of the Christian view of death displayed at the Getty Museum’s exhibit. (Courtesy of the Getty Museum)

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