Friday, January 22, 2010

More Lucretius

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


Michael Sims said...

Good heavens, now you're reading Lucretius. You DO get around. On a rational level, I agree with that wonderful man's view of death, too. But the shock of its existence, the notion that consciousness, that MY consciousness, could simply end, is still amazing. And you're right about viewing it from the outside. I think of the parade of people I have known who are now dead, and that every human being who lived has experienced the same parade going by, and I always think of the great poet Stanley Kunitz's line: "How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?"

stella p said...

I think most of us are like you. Reading philosopher's on death, or poetry, doesn't "help" taking away the sorrow (more sorrow than Angst, I think?) one feels when confronted by death (and this we are each day when thinking on the departed ones). But we learn something about the human condition. Wittgenstein's view on this in Tractatus is also quite rational, but shows the mystery also:
6.4311 Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.
If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration, but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.
6.45 ... Feeling the world as a limited whole - it is this that is mystical.

Michael Sims said...

Those are wonderful lines from Wittgenstein, whom I have not read. This seems to be one of the great constants of heretical holistic thinking: "eternal life belongs to those who live in the present." Wonderful line. Wonderful idea: I'm here. This is now. This is reality. This is ephemeral and eternal reality.

BitterGrace said...

Yes, those are wonderful lines from Wittgenstein. Living in an eternal present is quite a trick, though--as difficult as Epicurean detachment. (Maybe one of our Buddhist regulars can chime in on this?)

I am drawn to that second quote, about feeling the world as a limited whole. It makes me want to say "Amen."

Alyssa said...


I love this little corner of the internet. I will always think of this exchange when people who never read blogs complain to me that the interwebs are a wasteland of snark, ignorance and puerile jokes.

Bless you all.

Michael Sims said...

I have to say to Alyssa that I return to this blog for the very same reason, to be reminded that there are people out there enjoying so many parts of life and sharing their thoughts about them.

After I read this post the other day and commented on it, I was in the kitchen, making chicken and rice soup, with the whole world smelling of fresh tarragon, and a hot cup of blueberry tea nearby, and I was thinking, "So death. Dying. The end. Loss." I sipped tea. I stirred soup. "Whatever."