Friday, January 22, 2010
One of the best-known passages of De rerum natura is "Folly of the Fear of Death" in Book III. Lucretius makes a very persuasive case for a rational attitude to death.
Nothing to us was all fore-passed eld
Of time the eternal, ere we had a birth.
And Nature holds this like a mirror up
Of time-to-be when we are dead and gone.
And what is there so horrible appears?
Now what is there so sad about it all?
Is't not serener far than any sleep?
And, verily, those tortures said to be
In Acheron, the deep, they all are ours
Here in this life. No Tantalus, benumbed
With baseless terror, as the fables tell,
Fears the huge boulder hanging in the air:
But, rather, in life an empty dread of gods
Urges mortality, and each one fears
Such fall of fortune as may chance to him.
His words are perfectly sensible. Who can argue with him? And yet, who can actually muster this detachment? Not me. Death shocks me. Thoughts of my own death overwhelm me--not with fear, but with painful amazement. When I think of people I love who have died, even the ones who have been gone for decades, I'm astonished and sickened that they are gone, utterly lost to this earth. The sadness and grief soften over time, but the truth of death never loses its power to shock. The eloquent reasoning of Lucretius can't disarm it.
Burial of St Lucy, Caravaggio, 1608