Roman Calendar

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"Mortality and Meaning" (from "Everything Has Two Handles")

I apologize for the long delay in my posts . . . life has a way of intervening even when you set yourself a blogging schedule . . .

From Pies' Everything Has Two Handles:

"Chapter Two: Mortality and Meaning

'Since it is possible that you may depart from this life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly'
~ Marcus Aurelius (Long, 25)

'[T}he one who lives longest and the one who will die soonest lose just the same.'
~ Marcus Aurelius (Long, 29)"

     The chapter begins with the observation that "[o]ur American culture does not deal very well with the issue of death" - the fact that our culture is permeated with the "denial of death" (even to the point of euphemisms like "passed on" or "passed away" to avoid saying that someone has died. The ancient Stoics, on the other hand, "recognized that a keen awareness of death gives us the opportunity to create meaning in our lives."

     The need to "create" meaning in life has only grown as Western society has grown more secular, leaving behind medieval Judaeo-Christian thought in order to return to more a more classical understanding of our place in the cosmos, which does not reassure that there is a meaning to life, and that meaning is the service of the Judaeo-Christian god. Some see this as a negative thing, while others see it as a return to a better understanding of the true nature of the universe. Either way, it has left a bit of a void in Western thought, even among those who remain devout Judaeo-Christians. Stoicism offers a system of thought upon what to create to fill that void. Anyway . . .

     Pies observes that "although it often strikes us as 'cruel' when a young and promising life is cut short, the Stoics remind us that - in the larger scheme of eternity - there is little difference between 'the one who lives longest' and 'the one who will die the soonest.' This is a hard concept for many of us to accept, since we are conditioned to think in terms of longevity rather than depth and quality of life. But a hundred or thousand years from now, it will make little difference whether you or I lived to an age of 35 or 95. On the other hand, it might make a considerable difference if, in our lives, we performed many acts of kindness, or left behind a cure for cancer, or a book of poems that comforts generations to follow." I have heard people object to this line of thought that "in a thousand years, it won't matter whether I was a good or bad person any more than it will matter whether I lived to be 35 or 95". But that is manifestly untrue - the repercussions of good and evil deeds live on infinitely after in linear time, and besides, think of how the achievements of great people live on, regardless of the length of their life. One of my favorite poets, Gaius Valerius Catullus, only lived to be about 30, yet his collection of poems can still be found in bookstores more than 2000 years later . . .

"'A life is never incomplete if it is an honorable one. At whatever point you leave life, if you leave it in the right way, it is a whole.
~ Seneca (Letter LXXVII; Campbell, 125)"

     There is a lot of good analysis in this chapter on the roots of human suffering in attachment and demanding that the nature of things be other than what it is, noting this idea is not unique to Stoicism, but is also found in Buddhist, Hindu, and Judaic traditions, as well as in modern psychology.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the nice analysis! And yes...a good deed lives forever and often changes the world. --Best regards, Ron Pies