» N.S. Books
September 6th, 1998.
All that tread
The globe are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom.
- Bryant's Thanatopsis.
To die -- to sleep --
No more; and, by a sleep, to say we end
The heart ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to; -- 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd.
- Shakspeare's Hamlet.
Death is better than disease.
- Longfellow's Christus.
One can imagine himself in another time and in another place, like England this spring or the beach this summer -- But death! Life, no matter the time and setting, the normal person can picture -- for there we are: whole, thinking, and partaking of life. But death! To be no more! It is a repulsive thought. Really, how can one possibly fit themselves into a situation in which they have no role, not even as an observer. How can one possibly contemplate a time when one is no more. To the whole idea of death our mind is like a repelling magnet. Most people -- more so when we are young -- do not believe that they will die. Freud found that "every man in his subconscious is convinced of his own immortality." But, believe it or not, death is the certain end for all of us. "We are," as Victor Hugo wrote, "All under sentence of death, but with a sort of indefinite reprieve." Death, to borrow words from Shakespeare, is a necessary end; it will come, when it will come.
"It is as natural to die as to be born." (A process, Bacon might have added, which is no prettier nor more dignified.) And, though it be described as natural, death is something that we all worry and fuss about during our quiet times. What is it that we should think of as the "Dumb Hour" approaches.
"You lean from the window, your last pipe reeking whitely in the darkness, your body full of delicious pains, your mind enthroned in the seventh circle of content; when suddenly the mood changes, the weathercock goes about, and you ask yourself one question more: whether, for the interval, you have been the wisest philosopher or the most egregious of donkeys? Human experience is not yet able to reply; but at least you have had a fine moment, and looked down upon all the kingdoms of the earth. And whether it was wise or foolish, to-morrow's travel will carry you, body and mind, into some different parish of the infinite." (Robert Louis Stevenson.)
The Epicurean doctrine is that life is of a natural origin, and, therefore; death, its necessary end and is not to be feared. Thus, like the true followers of Epicurus, death should mean nothing to us. Simply: to think of death -- means we are alive, and, as such, we are able to partake of all the joys of life -- and when death comes: we are not. We come into being as a result of confederated elements taken from the universe and disassociated we shall return. There is no reason to think that the period after ones' death is somehow going to be different from that period before one's birth, no matter what our egotistical thoughts might be on the subject during the intervening period. We did not exist, and, it follows, we could not at that time appreciate our non-existence; this proposition holds true upon our death. Edward Gibbon had the same view of things -- "the silent vacancy that precedes our birth" -- and so did William Hazlitt:
"Perhaps the best cure for the fear of death is to reflect that life has a beginning as well as an end. There was a time when we were not: this gives us no concern - why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be?
There is nothing in the recollection that at a certain time we were not ... -- why should we revolt at the idea that we must one day go out of it? To die is only to be as we were before we were born; ... It is rather a relief and disburthening of the mind: ... And the worst that we dread is, after a short, fretful, feverish being, after vain hopes, and idle fears, to sink to final repose again, and forget the troubled dream of life!
We do not leave so great a void in society as we are inclined to imagine, partly to magnify our own importance, and partly to console ourselves by sympathy. ... People walk along the streets the day after our deaths just as they did before, and the crowd is not diminished. ... We are hand and glove with the universe, and think the obligation is mutual. This is an evident fallacy." ("On the Fear of Death.")
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September, 1998 (2011)