Reading Poems at the End of the World

I have been taking the end of the world seriously, but not really that seriously, for a while now. Last fall, I wrote an essay on Nicola Gardini’s Long Live Latin, called “Loving Latin at the End of the World“. Last Spring, I tried to think about the fate of Classical Studies in some kind of an apocalypse, sketching out ideas for “The Future of the Past.” Eidolon has had the market cornered on Classics and the end of the world, with Nandini Pandey’s article “Classics in a time of Quarantine” hard on the heels of their End of the World Edition. But, then things jumped off the screen into the real.

For the past few weeks the best adjective I can use to describe my general feelings is “elegiac”—and  I mean this in the rather modern reception of the word which emphasizes its funereal tone, its use in epitaphs, rather than its metrical/generic use. Being part of a slow-motion disaster, a horrendous and at times horrifying transformation of our human communities, is in some ways indescribable, ineffable. In emails and with others I find myself trying to calm with the same phrases we all use about being in “unchartered territory” and how we need to be patient and reserve judgment for later.

But the refrain in my head is this:

T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

As I have talked about on Scott Lepisto’s Itinera podcast, my formative years were spent reading, in the isolation that living in a rural area before the dawn of the internet can bring you. I started graduate school at NYU a few weeks before 9/11 and my primary coping strategy—apart from drinking too much—was throwing myself into Homer.  And for this disaster, I am a professor. 

So, in a way, I should be really well-prepared emotionally for COVID-19’s brand of slow-motion destruction. I think this is probably true, on an intellectual level; on an emotional one, however, I am probably a wreck. And part of my particular brand of being a wreck is (1) I sleep even less well than usual and (2) fragments of poems fill my waking hours and sleep.

These are not fragments of my own, but poems ancient and modern that have been part of my life, either in education or from reading. I have engaged with the world through written words for nearly as long as I can remember—they are comfort, paradigms for guidance, distraction, etc. But poetry has a special place in my heart. Long before I poorly translated Latin and Greek for twitter, I spent time trying to write poetry (and was quite limited at it). These years gave me practice reading, memorizing, and keeping poetry close to heart.

And in the heart, there’s no timeline, there’s no catalog to separate things. So, when Langston Hughes jumps to mind with his Advice:

Folks, I’m telling you,
birthing is hard
and dying is mean-
so get yourself
a little loving
in between.

I can’t help but thinking of Catullus’ Vivamus mea Lesbia (Carm. 5) and his “We must sleep a lonely endless night” (nox est perpetua una dormienda) summoning to mind 11th grade’s Andrew Marvell’s great beginning, from To His Coy Mistress “Had we but world enough and time” eventually receding into what I still find ridiculous in his “vegetable love should grow.” Poems join me when, like Billy Pilgrim, I come unstuck in time.

There’s no shortage of poems exhorting us to live. There’s Ashurbanipal’s famous epitaph, dishing out the wisdom straight: “Know well that you are mortal: fill your heart / By delighting in the feasts: nothing is useful to you when you’re dead.” (εὖ εἰδὼς ὅτι θνητὸς ἔφυς σὸν θυμὸν ἄεξε,/ τερπόμενος θαλίῃσι· θανόντι σοι οὔτις ὄνησις). For every serious injunction to memento mori or carpe diem with Horace there are humorous ones too, like Martial’s poem 5.58 which ends, “Postumus, even living today is too late; / he is the wise man, who lived yesterday” (Cras uiues? Hodie iam uiuere, Postume, serum est: / ille sapit quisquis, Postume, uixit heri.)

Is that toilet paper or a manuscript in his hand? Smiling skeleton, from Ars bene moriendi, France, 1470-1480

Ending the World in a Poem

The problem is that I don’t know many poems about the end of the world. There is not too much about the world ending in the modern sense in ancient Greek and Roman texts that I know of prior to the period that gives us the Biblical Revelation. Greek and Roman Cosmogony tends towards the cyclical and not the epoch-ending stuff we see in Norse Ragnarok. There are certainly a lot of disasters and they tend to reflect natural disasters like the flood which appears inset in the Gilgamesh Narrative, as part of the Sumerian Atrahasis, in the Biblical Genesis, or in the tales we have of the Greek Deucalion who survived a flood too. 

Ovid’s version of this flood in the Metamorphoses is an unmaking of the creation that begins his poem. In the creation, everything which before was all mixed together and “compressed because of its own weight” (et pressa est gravitate sua, 1.30) is reorganized when ‘some god’ “separated the mass and apportioned the portion into parts” (congeriem secuit sectamque in membra redegit, 1.33). In anger over Lykaon’s sacrifice of human flesh, Zeus attacks the land until “the land and sea were showing no difference” (Iamque mare et tellus nullum discrimen habebant, 1.291). Of course, humans and their cities rise again, under the threat/promise that destruction is always imminent for hubristic and impious souls.

It is not that ancient authors are not concerned with death, but rather not with species death, with the eradication of humans as we know them. Perhaps this is because such an act prior to our anthropocene era of extinction was unthinkable, beyond the ken of the ancients. Perhaps, it is really too big for most of us to handle. (Which helps to explain our rapid, even if wildly imperfect, response to COVID-19 and our absurd denial about climate change.)

The end of a single life functions as easily as a metaphor for the end of humankind as the end of humankind does for the end of an individual life. (And this later function, I think, is important in popular, modern eschatology which uses civilization ending narratives to force us to think about mortality.) Mediterranean thought does show some evidence of the metaphor of one life as all of humankind, Philo sees the death of the individual as of no consequence to art “unless unless we believe that the death of one individual person in turn visits ruin upon humankind” (εἰ μὴ καὶ ἀνθρώπου τινὸς τῶν ἐν μέρει θάνατον φθορὰν ἐργάσασθαι φήσομεν ἀνθρωπότητι, The Worse Attack the Better 206). In this, he echoes lines in the Qu’ran and the Talmud making similar interrelational claims.

 

Living and Dying in Poems

My point is that while the ancients do not talk about civilization-ending plagues, they do talk a lot about death, and that is, for better or worse, part of what has drawn me to ancient poetry. In modern poetry on death, we get ruminations like Hektor’s in the Iliad: just as he says “may I not die ingloriously,” so too Mary Oliver writes (in When Death Comes):

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world

I first read Oliver with the poet Olga Broumas when I was an undergraduate at Brandeis. Olga encouraged us to read a book of poetry a week and I kept that up through my first semester of graduate school until Hektor took over completely.

Is there any reason for poetry to exist beyond the contemplation of life and death? I am sure there is, but many days I might be unable to hear it, searching instead in its words for that reflection of what I fear and seek myself. Modern poetry can differ from the major themes of ancient death in contemplating in how it communicates its stark simplicity: poets like Ibykos and Mimnermus acknowledge death is all around us while a modern talent like Gwendolyn Brooks turns our ear to the deaths of the unknown in The Boy Died in my Alley:

Without my having known.
Policeman said, next morning,
“Apparently died alone.”
“You heard a shot?” Policeman said.
Shots I hear and Shots I hear.
I never see the dead.

Greek poetry often celebrates the infamous and the famous alike, leaving forgotten the passing of most. (Although there are memorials of even minor figures if you look hard enough.) Brooks remarks on the momentous deaths that fail even to bring us pause. (And in this I shudder to think of the humanitarian disaster being prepared in our American prisons and on the streets for the homeless and unknown.) 

But many poems home in on our personal relationship with death. Death’s coming is unexpected, as Pablo Neruda writes in Nothing But Death  “Death arrives among all that sound / like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it.” Yet, of all things in life it should be fully expected, fully anticipated. We know it is coming: we can prepare.

Perhaps we cannot. Perhaps the end of the life of an individual is ultimately unthinkable. We cannot see our way out of our bodies because they are all we have and no matter how many times we read Plato’s Phaedo the basic assertion—that because we think and exist now we must always have existed and just don’t remember it—does not square with the intuitive knowledge that I did not exist before so I will not exist again. Sometimes, we can embrace this, or at least make it more concrete as F. G. Lorca does in Gacela of the Dark Death, when expanding on the image of death as sleep:

  I want to sleep the sleep of the apples,
I want to get far away from the busyness of the cemeteries.
I want to sleep the sleep of that child
who longed to cut his heart open far out at sea.

But this peace, this sense of surrender is beyond me. When wading into the news these days, I am too often reminded of the words Dylan Thomas wrote for his father in is final years:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Rage in/Against Poems

Can a Homerist think of rage without thinking of Achilles? If I think back to the notion of the death of the individual as a metaphor for humankind (and the reverse), the Iliad itself is something different for me Everyone knows that Achilles has two choices: he can live a long life, without fame; or he can die young with glory.  But the choice he does not have at all is about whether or not he has to die.

The Rage the poem sings from line 1 is variously anger over Agamemnon’s slight to his honor or his anger at Patroklos’ death. This second cause is his more famous rage, that which kills Hektor and drives much of the action of the poem. On the other side of that rage, as my friend Emily Austin emphasizes in her work, is longing, a desire for what is lost in the form of Patroklos. And Patroklos, like Enkidu for Gilgamesh, is a stand in for the hero himself.

There are 16 books of the Iliad before Patroklos dies. Perhaps a unifying feature of Achilles’ rage is anger over death and life itself? When we find Achilles in book 9, contemplating his own life, he insists “The coward and the noble man are held in the same honor / the lazy man and the one who does a lot die the same.” (ἐν δὲ ἰῇ τιμῇ ἠμὲν κακὸς ἠδὲ καὶ ἐσθλός· / κάτθαν’ ὁμῶς ὅ τ’ ἀεργὸς ἀνὴρ ὅ τε πολλὰ ἐοργώς, Il. 9.320-321). This is typically taken as indicating Achilles’ existential issue with the “heroic code” or Achaean society. But if we take the Achilles from the Odyssey more seriously, the one who tells Odysseus not to  “sweet-talk me about death” (μὴ δή μοι θάνατόν γε παραύδα, 11.488), Achilles’ rage is more like Thomas’. It is that deep, fundamental incredulity that I who am now alive must one day be dead.

And in giving in to rage, Achilles lost much of the time he would have had to be alive—this, is, perhaps one of the lessons of the Odyssey. Perhaps Achilles would have benefited from reading Audre Lorde’s A Litany for Survival:

And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid

So it is better to speak
remembering
we were never meant to survive.

 

Creating Something with Poems

One of the more amusing memes to circulate over the past few weeks has been about the accomplishment of some famous people during plagues. Newton invented Gravity! Shakespeare wrote King Lear! The least we can do is put on pants!

The call to use this time of isolation well is predictably met by the objection that such expectations are a little bit unreasonable. (And also conditioned by some of the very dysfunctional aspects of capitalism central to our problems.) The desire to read something long and complex is understandable, but the reality is that our attention spans are fragmented. Why not start small? Why not read a poem?

Now, for me, a ‘poem’ is an expansive term: a song is a poem.  This is especially true in Ancient Greece where song culture was a pervasive part of all life. No one ‘read’ Homer and Sappho in early Greece: they listened, they recited, they returned to it. (So listening is equal to if not better than reading in some ways). Modern high and low culture distinctions have obscured this; they too often deny the title “poem” to creations that do what poems do.

A poem should be defined not by some external aesthetics but by the internally sensed impact of what a poem does in the world: it creates. Our word poem comes from Greek poiêma, related to the verb poieô, “to make”. The Greek noun poiêtês, then, can be seen as “maker, creator”. This is an important meaning to me because poetry creates space, it creates worlds. A poem’s space is that of communion between its audience and others; it helps us see ourselves in humanity through that Aristotelian “identification” and it helps us develop humanity in ourselves, by seeing the world through other perspectives. Poetry should invite us, challenge us, and encourage us to see more than ourselves. And this, for me, is the goal of all reading, to bridge the gaps between our subjective consciousnesses, to help us see others as real and worthy of our attention, worthy of our regard, and worthy of our love.

Poetry in this sense is an act of creation, a reaffirmation of creation, by constituting and then providing access to the commonwealth of human understanding. My favorite metaphor for this from the ancient world is that passage from Plato’s Ion where Socrates describes poetic inspiration as being like a magnet imbuing successive links of metal with its force. The last link in the chain is the audience, the middle link is the performer/medium, the penultimate is the poet/creator and the source is “god/the muses”. For me, that source, that deity, is the human collective, the grand and sometimes random total sum of our shared memory (the Muses!), the shared wisdom and experience that helps us to define ourselves, to situate ourselves within a larger whole.

So I guess what I’m saying is that you should read a poem. Feel something, remember it. Share it with others. Carry it around in your head, in your heart. In these days of uncertainty and isolation, this is one way to be less alone. Or, in a way, even when alone, to be more together.

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.’

We will be putting up a call in the next few days for people to send in their own passages, favorite poems, and even posts for the site during the next few weeks. In the meantime, if you want something posted or would like to write a guest post, email me or Erik.

A random list of poets whose work was in earlier versions of this:

Franz Wright, James Wright, Nikki Giovanni, Mark Strand, Linda Gregg, Jack Gilbert, Maya Angelou, Rainer Maria Rilke, W. S. Merwin, Louise Gluck, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, e. e. cummings, Adrienne Rich. At some point I just started keeping only American poets of the 20th century, ignoring way too much from the rest of the world but, for what it’s worth, keeping true to my own education. Happy to have further suggestions.

Also, Patrick Stewart is reading sonnets online:

Reader Suggested Poems:

William Dunbar’s Lament for the Makaris

 

The Original Virgin Suicides

Here’s an anecdote that is chilling and a bit upsetting. CW: it contains misogyny as well as reference to suicide clusters. In general, this reminded me of the suicide clusters in Silicon Valley discussed widely a few years ago. But–and I think this is more important–it also points to groups of suicide as an attempt to wrest agency in response to desperation, a lack of agency, and marginalization.

Aulus Gellius, Varia Historia 15.10

“In his first of the books On the Soul, Plutarch included the following tale when he was commenting on maladies which afflict human minds. He said that there were maiden girls of Milesian families who at a certain time suddenly and without almost any clear reason made a plan to die and that many killed themselves by hanging.

When this became more common in following days and there was no treatment to be found for the spirits of those who were dedicated to dying, The Milesians decreed that all maidens who would die by hanging their bodies would be taken out to burial completely naked except for the rope by which they were hanged. After this was decreed, the maidens did not seek suicide only because they were frightened by the thought of so shameful a funeral.”

Plutarchus in librorum quos περὶ ψυχῆς inscripsit primo cum de morbis dissereret in animos hominum incidentibus, virgines dixit Milesii nominis, fere quot tum in ea civitate erant, repente sine ulla evidenti causa voluntatem cepisse obeundae mortis ac deinde plurimas vitam suspendio amississe. id cum accideret in dies crebrius neque animis earum mori perseverantium medicina adhiberi quiret, decrevisse Milesios ut virgines, quae corporibus suspensis demortuae forent, ut hae omnes nudae cum eodem laqueo quo essent praevinctae efferrentur. post id decretum virgines voluntariam mortem non petisse pudore solo deterritas tam inhonesti funeris.

Suicides of public figures cause disbelief because of our cultural misconceptions about depression and about the importance of material wealth and fame to our well-being. While some clusters of suicide can be understood as a reflex of the “threshold problem”, we fail to see the whole picture if we do not also see that human well-being is connected to a sense of agency and belonging. Galen, in writing about depression, notes that melancholy can make us desire that which we fear.

Galen, De Locis Affectis 8.190-191

“But there are ten thousand other fantasies. The melancholic differ from one another, but even though they all exhibit fear, despair, blaming of life and hatred for people, they do not all want to die. For some, fear of death is the principle source of their depression. Some will seem paradoxical to you because they fear death and desire death at the same time.”

ἄλλα τε μυρία τοιαῦτα φαντασιοῦνται. διαφέρονται δὲ ἀλλήλων οἱ μελαγχολικοὶ, τὸ μὲν φοβεῖσθαι καὶ δυσθυμεῖν καὶ μέμφεσθαι τῇ ζωῇ καὶ μισεῖν τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ἅπαντες ἔχοντες, ἀποθανεῖν δ’ ἐπιθυμοῦντες οὐ πάντες, ἀλλ’ ἔστιν ἐνίοις αὐτῶν αὐτὸ δὴ τοῦτο κεφάλαιον τῆς μελαγχολίας, τὸ περὶ τοῦ θανάτου δέος· ἔνιοι δὲ ἀλλόκοτοί σοι δόξουσιν, ἅμα τε καὶ δεδιέναι τὸν θάνατον καὶ θανατᾷν.

In thinking about the impact of agency and belonging on our sense of well-being and relationship to death, I have been significantly influence by this book:

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

Related image
Picture found here

If you or someone you know feel alone, uncertain, depressed or for any reason cannot find enough joy and hope to think life is worth it, please reach out to someone. The suicide prevention hotline has a website, a phone number (1-800-273-8255), and a chat line. And if we can help you find some tether to the continuity of human experience through the Classics or a word, please don’t hesitate to ask.

Obligatory Ides of March Post: Caesar Wanted to Go Out With A Bang, Not A Whimper

Suetonius, Divus Julius Caesar 86-7

“Caesar left certain of his friends the impression that he did not want or desire to live longer because  of his worsening health. This is why he ignored what the omens warned and what his friends revealed. Others believe that he dismissed the Spanish guards who accompanied him with swords because he was confident in the Senate’s recent decree and their sworn oath. Others report that he preferred to face the plots that threatened him at once rather than cower before them. There are those who assert that he used to say that his safety should be of more importance to the state than to himself: he had acquired an abundance of power and glory already, but the state, should anything happen to him, would have no rest and would suffer civil war in a worse condition than before.

The following is generally held to be the case, however: his manner of death was scarcely against his desire. For, when he read Xenophon’s account of how in the final days of illness Cyrus gave the plans for his own funeral, Caesar expressed disdain for so slow a death and wished that his own would be sudden and fast. And on the day before he died during dinner conversation at the home of Marcus Lepidus on the topic of the most agreeable end to life, Caesar said he preferred one that was sudden and unexpected.”

 

Suspicionem Caesar quibusdam suorum reliquit neque uoluisse se diutius uiuere neque curasse quod ualitudine minus prospera uteretur, ideoque et quae religiones monerent et quae renuntiarent amici neglexisse. sunt qui putent, confisum eum nouissimo illo senatus consulto ac iure iurando etiam custodias Hispanorum cum gladiis †adinspectantium se remouisse. [2] alii e diuerso opinantur insidias undique imminentis subire semel quam cauere … solitum ferunt: non tam sua quam rei publicae interesse, uti saluus esset: se iam pridem potentiae gloriaeque abunde adeptum; rem publicam, si quid sibi eueniret, neque quietam fore et aliquanto deteriore condicione ciuilia bella subituram.

illud plane inter omnes fere constitit, talem ei mortem paene ex sententia obtigisse. nam et quondam, cum apud Xenophontem legisset Cyrum ultima ualitudine mandasse quaedam de funere suo, aspernatus tam lentum mortis genus subitam sibi celeremque optauerat; et pridie quam occideretur, in sermone nato super cenam apud Marcum Lepidum, quisnam esset finis uitae commodissimus, repentinum inopinatumque praetulerat.

By Vincenzo Camuccini – Own work, user:Rlbberlin, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77355355

Worse off at Death than At Birth

Your periodic reminder from Seneca: we are all going to die.

Seneca, Moral Epistle 22.12-13

“If you desire to be free of this and freedom seems truly attractive to you, and if you seek help for this reason alone—that it might be allowed for you to do this without constant trouble—how would the whole gang of Stoics fail to approve it? Every Zeno and Chrysippus will advise you about your moderation and honor. But if you keep turning your back so you can try to see how much you carry with you and how much money you need for leisure you will never find an end to it.

No one can swim to safety with their bags. Emerge to a better life with divine favor but let it not be in that way in which they are favorable to those people to whom they grant great evils with pleasant and pleasing glances—and they are excused for doing so because those things which burn and torture are given to those who beg for them.

I was already closing this letter with a seal, but it had to be opened again so that it may come to you with the dutiful contribution and bring some great saying to you. And look, here is something that comes to my mind which I don’t know if it is truer or more well-put. “Whose saying?” you ask? It is Epicurus, for I am still sewing my quilt from other people’s fragments. “Everyone leaves from life just as if they just had entered it”.

Grab anyone suddenly—a youth, an old man, someone in the middle—and you will find them equally afraid of death and without understanding of life. No one has finished anything, because we keep postponing everything we do to tomorrow. Nothing makes me happier in that quotation than the fact that it calls old men out for being babies.

“No one”, he says, “leaves the world differently from the way in which they were born.” This is false! We are worse when we die than when we are born. This is our fault, not nature’s. Nature ought to criticize us, saying, “What is this? I produced you without desires, without fear, without superstition, without treachery and these diseases! Leave as you were when you got here!”

Sed si deponere illam in animo est et libertas bona fide placuit, in hoc autem unum advocationem petis, ut sine perpetua sollicitudine id tibi facere contingat, quidni tota te cohors Stoicorum probatura sit? Omnes Zenones et Chrysippi moderata, honesta, tua suadebunt. Sed si propter hoc tergiversaris, ut circumspicias, quantum feras tecum et quam magna pecunia instruas otium, numquam exitum invenies. Nemo cum sarcinis enatat. Emerge ad meliorem vitam propitiis dis, sed non sic, quomodo istis propitii sunt, quibus bono ac benigno vultu mala magnifica tribuerunt, ad hoc unum excusati, quod ista, quae urunt, quae excruciant, optantibus data sunt.

13Iam inprimebam epistulae signum; resolvenda est, ut cum sollemni ad te munusculo veniat et aliquam magnificam vocem ferat secum, et occurrit mihi ecce nescio utrum verior an eloquentior. “Cuius?” inquis; Epicuri, adhuc enim alienas sarcinas adsero; “Nemo non ita exit e vita, tamquam modo intraverit.” Quemcumque vis occupa, adulescentem senem medium; invenies aeque timidum mortis, aeque inscium vitae. Nemo quicquam habet facti, in futurum enim nostra distulimus. Nihil me magis in ista voce delectat quam quod exprobratur senibus infantia. “Nemo,” inquit, “aliter quam qui modo natus est exit e vita.” Falsum est; peiores morimur quam nascimur. Nostrum istud, non naturae vitium est. Illa nobiscum queri debet et dicere: “Quid hoc est? Sine cupiditatibus vos genui, sine timoribus, sine superstitione, sine perfidia ceterisque pestibus; quales intrastis exite.”

Image result for ancient greek death mosaic

The Value of Living, Overcome

Pliny, Letters 1.12 [CW: Suicide]

My Dear Calestrius Tiro,

“I have suffered the deepest bereavement, if it can be called bereavement when such a great man is gone. Corellius Rufus died and it was by his own will, a fact which hurts me even more. It is truly the most painful kind of death when it appears neither natural or according to fate.

When someone is overwhelmed in sickness and death carries them off too quickly, then there is some solace from the fact there was a reason for it. Deep logic—that force which replaces compulsion for the wise—certainly compelled Corellius, even though he still had many reasons to live: great fame and conscience, considerable authority, in addition to a daughter, wife, sister and grandchild and many real friends among them. Yet he was overwhelmed by such a long, unfair sickness that the value of living was overcome by the reasons for death.”

    1. Plinius Calestrio Tironi Suo S.

1Iacturam gravissimam feci, si iactura dicenda est tanti viri amissio. Decessit Corellius Rufus et quidem sponte, quod dolorem meum exulcerat. Est enim luctuosissimum genus mortis, quae non ex natura nec fatalis videtur. Nam utcumque in illis qui morbo finiuntur, magnum ex ipsa necessitate solacium est; in iis vero quos accersita mors aufert, Corellium quidem summa ratio, quae sapientibus pro necessitate est, ad hoc consilium compulit, quamquam plurimas vivendi causas habentem, optimam conscientiam optimam famam, maximam auctoritatem, praeterea filiam uxorem nepotem 4sorores, interque tot pignora veros amicos. Sed tam longa, tam iniqua valetudine conflictabatur, ut haec tanta pretia vivendi mortis rationibus vincerentur.

The Younger Pliny Reproved, colorized copperplate print by Thomas Burke (1749–1815) after Angelica Kauffmann; c. 39 x 45 cm

The Proverb Behind Silenus’ Wisdom

According to Plutarch, this conversation is taken from a lost dialogue ascribed to Aristotle, entitled, On the Soul. This passage also shows up in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy chapter 3.

Plutarch Consolation to Apollonius [Moralia, 115a-c]

“There is also the saying you know has been passed around the mouth of many humans over the years.” “what is that?” he asked. The other one, interrupted, “that it is best of all not to exist and then second it is better to die than to live. This has been demonstrated by many examples from the divine.

For certainly they say this concerning Midas after the hunt when he caught Silenus and was asking him and finding out from him what is best for mortals and what should be most preferred. But Silenus was willing to say nothing, but remained stubbornly silent.

After he tried nearly every kind of approach, he persuaded him to provide some answer—so compelled, he said, “brief-lived offspring of a laboring god and harsh fate, why do you force me to tell you what it is better not to know? A life lived in ignorance of your most intimate griefs is the least painful.

But for humans it is not at all possible to have the best thing of all or to have any share of the best nature—since the best thing for all men and women is not to be born. But the second best thing after this and the first available to mortals, is to die as soon as possible after being born.” It is clear that he said this because the way that exists in death is better than the one in life.”

τὸ διὰ στόματος ὂν τοῖς ἀνθρώποις ὁρᾷς ὡς ἐκ πολλῶν ἐτῶν περιφέρεται θρυλούμενον.” “τί τοῦτ᾿;” ἔφη. κἀκεῖνος ὑπολαβών “ὡς ἄρα μὴ γενέσθαι μέν,” ἔφη, “ἄριστον πάντων, τὸ δὲ τεθνάναι τοῦ ζῆν ἐστι κρεῖττον. καὶ πολλοῖς οὕτω παρὰ τοῦ δαιμονίου μεμαρτύρηται. τοῦτο μὲν ἐκείνῳ τῷ Μίδᾳ λέγουσι δήπου μετὰ τὴν θήραν ὡς ἔλαβε τὸν Σειληνὸν διερωτῶντι καὶ πυνθανομένῳ τί ποτ᾿ ἐστὶ τὸ βέλτιστοντοῖς ἀνθρώποις καὶ τί τὸ πάντων αἱρετώτατον, τὸ μὲν πρῶτον οὐδὲν ἐθέλειν εἰπεῖν ἀλλὰ σιωπᾶν ἀρρήτως· ἐπειδὴ δέ ποτε μόγις πᾶσαν μηχανὴν μηχανώμενος προσηγάγετο φθέγξασθαί τι πρὸς αὐτόν, οὕτως ἀναγκαζόμενον εἰπεῖν, ‘δαίμονος ἐπιπόνου καὶ τύχης χαλεπῆς ἐφήμερον σπέρμα, τί με βιάζεσθε λέγειν ἃ ὑμῖν ἄρειον μὴ γνῶναι; μετ᾿ ἀγνοίας γὰρ τῶν οἰκείων κακῶν ἀλυπότατος ὁ βίος. ἀνθρώποις δὲ πάμπαν οὐκ ἔστι γενέσθαι τὸ πάντων ἄριστον οὐδὲ μετασχεῖν τῆς τοῦ βελτίστου φύσεως (ἄριστον γὰρ πᾶσι καὶ πάσαις τὸ μὴ γενέσθαι)· τὸ μέντοι μετὰ τοῦτο καὶ πρῶτον τῶν ἀνθρώπῳ ἀνυστῶν, δεύτερον δέ, τὸ γενομένους ἀποθανεῖν ὡς τάχιστα.’ δῆλον οὖν ὡς οὔσης κρείττονος τῆς ἐν τῷ τεθνάναι διαγωγῆς ἢ τῆς ἐν τῷ ζῆν, οὕτως ἀπεφήνατο.”

This comment seems proverbial–split in similar attributions in hexameter and elegiac poetry.

In the Contest of Homer and Hesiod

“Son of Meles, Homer who knows the mysteries of the gods,
Tell me foremost what is best for mortals?”
Homer answered:

“First, it is best for mortals to not be born.
If born, to pass through Hades’ gates as soon as possible.”

ἀρ υἱὲ Μέλητος ῞Ομηρε θεῶν ἄπο μήδεα εἰδὼς
εἴπ’ ἄγε μοι πάμπρωτα τί φέρτατόν ἐστι βροτοῖσιν;
῞Ομηρος·
ἀρχὴν μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον,
φύντα δ’ ὅμως ὤκιστα πύλας ᾿Αίδαο περῆσαι.

The passage floats around some. Stobaeus (4.52.22) attributes it to Alcidamas’ Mousaion but the most widely cited source is Theognis. It is listed without attribution by the paroemiographer Michael Apostolos, with the explanation that this is a proverb “[attributed] to people living in misfortune”  (ἐπὶ τῶν δυστυχῶς βιούντων, 3.85.3)

Theognis, 425-428

“First, it is best for mortals to not be born.
Not to see the rays of the piercing sun
If born, to pass through Hades’ gates as soon as possible.
And to lie with a great pile of earth heaped above you.

πάντων μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον,
μηδ᾿ ἐσιδεῖν αὐγὰς ὀξέος ἠελίου,
φύντα δ᾿ ὅπως ὤκιστα πύλας Ἀΐδαο περῆσαι
καὶ κεῖσθαι πολλὴν γῆν ἐπαμησάμενον.

The Loeb note to this passage suggest that Theognis is merely adding to the hexameter lines, since the pentameter lines add nothing. But I think this is problematic. Consider the similar doublet to the first 2 lines above in Bacchylides.

Bacchylides 5.159–161

“And answering him, he said:
“It is best for mortals not to be born
Nor to see the sun.”

καί νιν ἀμειβόμενος
τᾶδ᾿ ἔφα· ‘θνατοῖσι μὴ φῦναι φέριστον
μηδ᾿ ἀελίου προσιδεῖν

Note how Bacchylides acknowledges the proverbial–or at least ‘other’–status of these lines by putting it into the mouths of one of his characters. Notice the stability of the infinitive construction μὴ φῦναι with the mobility of the dative θνατοῖσι and the lexical variations of θνατοῖσι instead of ἐπιχθονίοισιν and φέριστον instead of ἄριστον.

Sophocles, Oedipus Colonos 1225–1227

“Not being born conquers
every argument. But, then, if someone does emerge,
to return where you came from as fast as possible
is second best by far.”

Μὴ φῦναι τὸν ἅπαντα νι-
κᾷ λόγον· τὸ δ’, ἐπεὶ φανῇ,
βῆναι κεῖθεν ὅθεν περ ἥ-
κει, πολὺ δεύτερον, ὡς τάχιστα.

Sextus Empiricus (Outlines of Pyrrhonism 3.230–231) compares the Theognis passage to this fragment from Euripides (fr. 449)

“We should have a gathering to mourn
Someone when they are born, when they come to so many evils
And when someone has died and found a break from evils,
We should be happy and bless them as we carry them from their homes.”

ἐχρῆν γὰρ ἡμᾶς σύλλογον ποιουμένους
τὸν φύντα θρηνεῖν, εἰς ὅσ᾿ ἔρχεται κακά,
τὸν δ᾿ αὖ θανόντα καὶ κακῶν πεπαυμένον
χαίροντας εὐφημοῦντας ἐκπέμπειν δόμων.

Valerius Maximus claimed that Thracians actually did mourn births and celebrate funerals.

A clearer reflection on the proverb is Euripides fr. 235 (from Bellerophon):

“I agree with the thing reported everywhere,
That it is best for a mortal not to be born.”

ἐγὼ τὸ μὲν δὴ πανταχοῦ θρυλούμενον
κράτιστον εἶναι φημὶ μὴ φῦναι βροτῷ·

Note the different superlative at the beginning of the phrase and the singular βροτῷ. Based on the flexibility of the expression and the riffing on it, I would suggest that this is a broadly dispersed cultural idea that has proverbial status at a very early period. Note how Euripides, in another fragment, toys with the more broadly used phrase:

Euripides, fr. 908

“Not existing is better for mortals than being born.”

Τὸ μὴ γενέσθαι κρεῖσσον ἢ φῦναι βροτοῖς.

Epicurus (Diogenes Laertius, 10.127) thinks that anyone who believes this and says it is a fool since “if he says it because he believes it, how is it he does not just stop living? For this is ready for him to do, if it is completely believed by him.” (εἰ μὲν γὰρ πεποιθὼς τοῦτό φησι, πῶς οὐκ ἀπέρχεται τοῦ ζῆν; ἐν ἑτοίμῳ γὰρ αὐτῷ τοῦτ᾿ ἔστιν, εἴπερ ἦν βεβουλευμένον αὐτῷ βεβαίως).

And there is, of course, the Ancient Near Eastern context to consider!

Statue of Silenus

Natural Logic and the Nature of Death

Cicero, Tusc. Disp 1.30

“Moreover, this seems to be the strongest point to offer on why we believe that there are gods—the fact there is no people so savage, no one in the world so bestial, that no though of the gods touches his mind. While it is true that many people believe silly things about the gods—which customarily happens because of corrupted customs—still all people believe in divine power and divine nature. Furthermore, human conferences and consensus do not create this, nor is the idea affirmed by practices or laws, but in every matter the shared belief of all peoples must be considered a natural law.

Is there anyone who does not mourn the death of their loved ones because he believes that they have been deprived of life’s pleasures? Remove this belief and you will remove mourning. No one mourns for their own discomfort. People do feel pain, but the mourning and tears of sorrow come from that fact that we believe that a person whom we love has lost access to life’s pleasures and are aware of this. We are led by nature to believe this, not by any teaching or act of reason.”

Ut porro firmissimum hoc adferri videtur, cur deos esse credamus, quod nulla gens tam fera, nemo omnium tam est immanis, cuius mentem non imbuerit deorum opinio—multi de dis prava sentiunt, id enim vitioso more effici solet, omnes tamen esse vim et naturam divinam arbitrantur, nec vero id collocutio hominum aut consensus effecit, non institutis opinio est confirmata, non legibus, omni autem in re consensio omnium gentium lex naturae putanda est—quis est igitur qui suorum mortem primum non eo lugeat, quod eos orbatos vitae commodis arbitretur? Tolle hanc opinionem, luctum sustuleris. Nemo enim maeret suo incommodo: dolent fortasse et anguntur: sed illa lugubris lamentatio fletusque maerens ex eo est, quod eum, quem dileximus, vitae commodis privatum arbitramur idque sentire. Atque haec ita sentimus natura duce, nulla ratione nullaque doctrina.

File:New England death Head (c).jpg
Puritan death head in New England