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Thomas International Center
September 2007


Ralph McInerny


Becoming Mortal



All 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.

Poets 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.

With 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.

Scoffers 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?

Artists 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.                          

Albert 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 sense.

It 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.


Ralph McInerny