Sunday, January 30, 2011

29th January 2011

So everyone is going to live much longer and will therefore have to work much longer to pay for their pensions. But what is so wrong with dying, Greeks and Romans would ask?

They came at the problem from different angles. Homeric heroes sought to compensate for death with eternal heroic glory (and got it, judging from the number of people who still read Homer). Plato argued that the soul was immortal. The Roman poet Lucretius thought that was the problem. For him, life was an incipient hell because of man’s eternal desire for novelty. So as soon as he had fulfilled one desire, he was immediately gawping after another. What satisfaction could there be in that? The soul was mortal, he argued, and death, therefore, should be welcomed as a blessed relief.

This tended to be the general response. Cicero, for example, thought in terms of a time and season for everything. ‘Boys have their own typical pursuits, but adolescents do not hanker after them because they have their own interests. These in their turn cease to attract mature grown ups because they too have their special interests – for which, when their time comes, the old feel no desire since they again, finally, have interests peculiar to themselves. Then, like earlier occupations, these activities fall away; and when that happens, a man has had enough of life and it is time to die.’ A character in one of Euripides’ tragedies put it more succinctly: ‘I can’t stand people who try to prolong life with foods and potions and spells to keep death at bay. Once they’ve lost their use on earth, they should clear off and die and leave it to the young’.

For Seneca the question was whether ‘one was lengthening one’s life - or one’s death’. A terrifying myth made the point: Eous (‘Dawn’), divine wife of mortal Tithonus, wanted her husband to live forever and her wish was granted. But she forgot to ask for eternal youth at the same time, and he just faded away, quite unable to die.

Marcus Aurelius put it beautifully: ‘Spend these fleeting moments as Nature would have you spend them, and then go to your rest with a good grace, as an olive falls in season, with a blessing for the earth that bore it and a thanksgiving to the tree that gave it life’.

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