A time to die

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Every week in the Spectator magazine Peter Jones takes an occurrence or development in contemporary society and politics and considers it in the light of what the ancients did when faced with the same circumstances. This week he considers the art of dying. I’d now bung you a link but I can’t: the Speccie does not unleash its content online til it has gathered some dust. The joy of the Spectator lies in the quality of its writing (sadly not its politics). It’s almost worth the cover price for Mr Jones alone. I hope he won’t mind a quote-strewn precis.

He begins:

“So everyone is going to live much longer and will therefore have to work much longer to pay for their pensions. But what is so wrong with dying, Greeks and Romans would ask?

“Homeric heroes sought to compensate for death with eternal heroic glory … Plato argued that the soul was immortal. The Roman poet Lucretius thought that was the problem. For him, life was an incipient hell because of man’s eternal desire for novelty. So as soon as he had fulfilled one desire, he was immediately gawping after another. What satisfaction could there be in that? The soul was mortal, he argued, and death, therefore, should be welcomed as a blessed release.”

Cicero concurred. We run out of things to interest us and are glad to go. “A character in one of Euripides’ tragedies put it more succinctly: ‘I can’t stand people who try to prolong life with foods and potions and spells to keep death at bay. Once they’ve lost their use on earth they should clear off and die and leave it to the young.’

“For Seneca the question was whether ‘one was lengthening one’s own life — or one’s death.’ “

Jones concludes: “Marcus Aurelius put it beautifully: ‘Spend these fleeting moments as Nature would have you spend them, and then go to your rest with a good grace, as an olive falls in season, with a blessing for the earth that bore it and a thanksgiving to the tree that gave it life.'”


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