men are mortal but few give it much thought. The round of
daily tasks, diversions of various sorts, keep the thought
at bay. So much so that the death of another can come almost
as a surprise and seem a breach in the natural order of things.
We have to put our minds to it really to think that we shall
some day die.
and philosophers seem to relish this task. Death in Homer
is a vast subject but the abiding theme is that death is a
gloomy disaster. It would be better if it were an utter end
because the afterlife looms as a cheerless place. Descent
into the underworld is fraught with sunless menace and danger.
In the sixth book of the Aeneid, Aeneas is permitted
a glimpse at the shades of the departed and reunion with his
beloved father. The descent provides Virgil with the experience
necessary to be Dante's guide in his pilgrimage through the
first two kingdoms of the next world. Dante's Inferno
retains many of Virgil's mythical figures but the Elysian
Fields pale before the promise of paradise.
the philosophers, the examined life leads to a meditation
on death. Plato tells us that philosophizing is learning how
to die. There is an acquired acceptance of mortality. Aristotle
too provides proof that the human soul does not cease at death,
but unlike Plato he does not speculate on what awaits
us. All that changed under the influence of Christian revelation.
have dismissed an eternal reward as pie in the sky, a promise
that cannot be kept but which, if entertained, culpably eclipses
the real problems of this world. The Marxist version of this
dismissal smuggles in a surrogate, the eventual classless
society. But that can only mean the happiness of some future
unimaginable group of people, not of those living here and
now. Why should people think that the point of their lives
is a future happiness of others, a happiness they themselves
will never know?
and others have dreamed of immortality. Non omnis moriar,
Horace wrote, and he meant that his poetry would be read in
future ages, as it is. He lives on in the memories of later
generations and in their keen pleasure in the odes. For him
that was a hope; its realization he could not know. Can fame,
whether enjoyed while living or anticipated after death, be
the point of life? Both Plato and Aristotle showed what thin
gruel this is.
Camus said that the first philosophical question is whether
or not I should commit suicide. To ask the question is already
to have answered it negatively. It is like the old joke. A
man asks a lawyer if he can ask him two questions. "Certainly.
What is the second?" For Camus, the question is not answered
negatively because one has grasped the meaning of life. Life
has no meaning, it is absurd. The pursuit of a Sisiphyean
task is all Camus can offer us. There are moods when that
appeals: not making any sense can seem the way that life makes
is our limited understanding of the meaning of our life that
is a requirement for learning how to die. The glass through
which we now darkly see calls out for the satisfaction of
our innate desire to understand. That is not an abstract desire.
It is personal. The most fundamental question remains: how
can I be fulfilled, how can I become happy? There are
signs along the dusty back roads of the Southern states that
tell us. Christ is the answer. By his stripes we are healed.
Because he has triumphed over death, our faith is not in vain.
It is because death is not the end that life makes sense and
mortality is tolerable.