“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.”
Of late, the number of events that send us reeling and looking for comfort, solace, and, too often, just distraction seem to be increasing and intensifying. I will leave it for future generations to debate whether or not this is objectively true-the feeling of being under siege is enough to require some type of response.
I was in my first semester of graduate school in lower Manhattan on September 11th, 2001. I am uncomfortable claiming any sort of trauma as my own since many others lost loved ones and many more saw their worlds overturned. Nevertheless, the first weeks after were surreal. I can say without a doubt that when I decided to stop reading for my classes and just read-the Iliad from opening to close in Greek—I found some solace and comfort in a ragged world.
I still turn to Classical texts for context and understanding. The comfort they bring, however, is not a warm one. A twitter friend today asked for some classical topoi on solace in a time of suffering and I am embarrassed at the poverty of my offerings when I can rattle off words for excrement and flatulence with no effort. Here are some meager words for a mean world. I will happily post better ones when they are offered.
From the Suda
“Pharmakon [medicine]: conversation, consoling, it comes from pherein [bringing] akos [relief/cure]. But it is also said to come from flowers.”
“If you want a private passage at hand to soothe your heart, the knowledge of the world around you will give you some solace at death, the world you leave and the kind of people your soul will no longer be associated with…..”
“Hope is indeed a comfort in danger: it may harm people who use it from abundance it does not destroy them. But for those who risk everything on one chance—since hope is expensive by nature—they will only know her nature when they suffer…”
This last bit reminds me of Thetis’ words to Achilles (24.128-132)
“My child, how long will you consume your heart
Grieving and mourning, thinking little of food
Or of sleep? It is good too to join a woman in love—
For you will not live with me long, but already
Death and strong fate loom around you.”
Whether we accomplish a little or a lot–as Achilles complains in book 9–we still will die. The modern horror of mass killings is especially disorienting and terrifying because it seems to strip us of agency over what happens between birth and death. And though it may be hard to remember it, the words Athenaeus attributes to the epitaph of Ashurbanipal are still not untrue:
“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.]
“Conversation [ or ‘reason’] is the doctor for suffering in the soul”
Λόγος ἰατρὸς τοῦ κατὰ ψυχὴν πάθους.
Euripides, fr. 1079
“Mortals have no other medicine for pain
Like the advice of a good man, a friend
Who has experience with this sickness.
A man who troubles then calms his thoughts with drinking,
Finds immediate pleasure, but laments twice as much later on.”