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Should Death Concern Us?
How can we deal with the inevitable... before the inevitable deals with us?
Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
All around the world, and all throughout time, folks have dealt with one of life’s inevitables in different ways.
Ancient Zoroastrians erected their sky funerals, letting the deceased return to nature, while the Greeks and Romans carved stunning sarcophagi. Beehive tombs marked ancient Mycenaeans’ final resting places, inspired by the Minoan tholoi.
In our modern era, practical Scandinavians make their own coffins, and use them as benches until necessary, quite sensibly… and the Indians still offer up their dead on burning ghats on the side of the Ganges. Here in Argentina, full Necropoli, replete with angels, saints, and more crosses than you can shake a stick out, are built out of marble both above and below ground visited tourists in the hordes.
But surely it’s the Mexicans who do it best. Literally dancing with death, they take the fearful… and make it fun.
Nowhere is this more evident than last week’s Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). Folks dress up, they decorate the town, they build elaborate alebrijes, pay their respects at the cemeteries (complete with flowers, food and of course mariachi bands) and make peace with death.
This familiarity with death can do us a lot of good, at least according to the ancients.
In fact, not only should we acquaint ourselves with the concepts of death, we should steep ourselves from time to time in the philosophical approaches to dealing with the inevitable... before the inevitable deals with either ourselves or our loved ones.
It was a practice advocated by Cicero and employed at the death of his daughter... and likewise Marcus Aurelius and Seneca wrote at length on the necessity of remembering that we will all give up the ghost.
Memento mori and all that…
Indeed, many important, thought-provoking philosophies have been constructed around death, such as Stoicism and Epicureanism. Classics lovers may recall Epicurus’ words on the subject, "Death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved, is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us."
From this doctrine arose the Epicurean Epitaph: Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo ("I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care"), which is inscribed on the gravestones of his followers and seen on many ancient gravestones throughout the Roman Empire.
Their idea was that the experience of death is not so bad.
"The most terrible evil, death, is nothing for us, since when we exist, death does not exist, and when death exists, we do not exist." - Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus.
But Death is inevitable, and so being scared of it can make for a lifelong burden. It is only through reading, discussion and personal introspection that we can face our fear of death, allowing us to be truly alive and free.
So how do we do that, dear reader?
Should death concern us? How can we deal with the inevitable... before the inevitable occurs? And if we can make peace with our own death, can we do likewise for others?
As always, please write in to firstname.lastname@example.org or reply below. We’ll post your responses next week...
And in the meantime, I would like to invite your to our upcoming event, co-hosted by Plato’s Academy Centre on The Art of Dying: Philosophy and Death to truly understand this assured topic.
Taking place on Saturday, Nov 18th at 12 pm EDT, we will explore the complex, deeply personal terrain of death through the illuminating lens of philosophy.
Featuring leading authors and compassionate psychotherapists, we will discuss coping with loss, ancient philosophical approaches to death from Seneca and Socrates to Lucretius and Aristotle, as well as how to accept death to better make use of our time alive....
If you can’t join us live, don’t worry! As long as you register in advance, you will receive the recording afterwards.
Make sure to register here:
Now, onto a selection of extremely thoughtful replies to our previous Mailbag question, How Should We Treat Our Enemies? Taking inspiration from Homer himself, your fellow classics lovers have penned their thoughts on the question... and its modern consequences, below.
All the best,
Founder and Director
P.S. Don’t worry, dear readers, we aren’t all doom and gloom here at Classical Wisdom. While the topic of death is essential, so is the topic of love... and to that end we’ve been taking a bit of deep dive into Plato’s Symposium, surely the greatest philosophical work ever written on the subject.
Members have already received the Ebook (which they can download here) in anticipation for this Wednesday's Podcast with Professors. This month we invited Dr. Priou to discuss the Symposium. What resulted was a delightful delving into the dialogue, with a fresh perspective on this ancient text.... It will be best enjoyed with a reading or re-reading of Plato’s extremely enjoyable and remarkably accessible work.
If you aren’t a member, there’s still time to sign up for the Ebook before we release the podcast, so you too can enjoy this love imbued discovery:
Thank you for asking this important question.
My favorite passage in the Iliad is when Priam visits Achilles' tent, and the two men weep together for their respective losses. Achilles has not only killed Priam's son, but (perhaps even worse for the ancient Greeks) desecrated his body and refused to return it for burial. Priam has every reason to call Achilles a savage, a barbarian, a human animal, fit only for slaughter. But he doesn't. He recognizes that Achilles' rage is motivated by a grief as deep as his own. So the two men sit together and weep.
I wish that we still had this ethos. I wish that the people with their fingers on triggers in Israel and Gaza, and those giving them orders, could recognize each other's grief, and not wish to multiply it.
I think about this change in our attitude toward enemies in terms of the kind of stories we tell.
In Ancient Greece, the two main dramatic genres were tragedy and comedy. In tragedy, conflict comes from a hero with a tragic flaw (such as Oedipus' temper), or a conflict between two people with good reasons for what they are doing (Antigone's devotion to family against Creon's devotion to country). In comedy, everyone is flawed and confused, but they manage to reconcile their differences and muddle along together anyway.
Now, most stories we tell are melodramas. The conflict is between a hero, representing what is good in the world, and a villain, representing evil. The proper resolution for a melodramatic conflict is the elimination of the villain. Problems are solved by figuring out who needs to be gotten rid of. We can see the disastrous results of this way of thinking in the headlines every day.
I would like to see us cultivate a more tragic view of the world, in which we recognize our enemies as flawed humans like ourselves, who (most of the time) genuinely believe what they're doing is right. Yes, sometimes we still have to fight them. Sometimes it ends badly. But we don't have to dismiss our opponents' humanity, and in so doing cauterize our own. And occasionally we might, as in comedy, be able to find a way to work it out.
Indeed, noble Hector was a sympathetic figure in the Iliad, the good son to his parents and his community, an empathic husband and father to his family, and the best of all Trojan warriors. But he came in second, and for this reason is less remembered than the famous fleet footed Achilles.
A flawed human that he was, nonetheless, Achilles showed greatness of heart in returning Hector’s corpse to Priam for burial. For Achilles the decision to forego a long and wizened life for the glory of eternal fame is what made him the greatest warrior of all time.
My mother Thetis a moving grace,
Tell me two fates that sweep me to my death.
If I stay here and fight, I will never return home,
But my glory will be undying forever.
If I return home to my dear fatherland
My glory is lost but my life will be long.
Homer, The Iliad, 1970 (Robert Fitzgerald trans)
George P. Z.
Loved it. Zeus supported his team in war, but did he ever ORDER his followers to start war?
My prophet is not Campbell but Lennon: “Just imagine, nothing to kill or die for, no religion too”
Very interesting question. I am inclined to think that both aspects referred to, the spiritual distancing (monotheism in place of a more universal 'animism') and technological distancing both play their parts.
To expand a little, psychological distancing allows othering to be more easily achieved and more complete. The industrialisation of warfare and oppression allows this psychological distancing to become very pronounced, dehumanizing 'the enemy' and allowing it to become the repository of the shadow (individual and collective). What is abhorred in the self is placed on the enemy and distancing allows denial to go unchallenged.
Similarly the ability to spiritually 'other' is enhanced by a monotheistic view whereas an animist view places the same spiritual value on all things, undermining the notion of moral high ground.
What is meant by an enemy is probably the key to the question. I define ‘enemy’ as anyone that seeks your destruction. So in that case, an enemy should be seen in the prism that only one of us survives by destroying the other.
Moral people and wise nations understand no other nation or people can ever be their friends. The goal is to keep them from becoming enemies if at all possible. America loves to run all over the world seeking monsters to combat and destroy. They have become the very monster they were founded in opposition to.
These foreign entanglements are directly counter to the Founding Fathers’ admonitions that our role was to avoid such and strive to live in peace, unless there was no other way but to take up the fight when someone comes against the nation and people. This then creates a terrible resolve to save the country and people by unconditionally defeating the attackers.
However, causing the attack through a false flag or foreign policy damaging another country is not consistent with this action. Regrettably enemies are now created and merchandise for profit, straight out of 1984. The Founding Fathers weep.
Become a Classical Wisdom Member and join the life of the mind… This week we’ll explore Plato’s Symposium and discover the riches (and humor) found in this pivotal work: