In the year A.D. 138, the great Roman emperor Hadrian lay dying in a villa overlooking the Bay of Naples. For many years he had been the mighty ruler of the Western world, governing an empire that stretched for thousands of miles. In the course of his eventful life as soldier/statesman, he encountered diverse peoples of many customs and faiths. From these people he had perhaps heard various ideas on the supreme challenge that now faced him as he gazed out onto the bay.
He was, of course, familiar with the civic cults of Rome and Greece and also with the metaphysical speculations of the Greek philosophers. He had seen how the religion of the Mediterranean peasant had eschewed such speculations in favor of the more immediate numina of the fields and hearth. He knew of the savage gods of the Germanic tribes to the north and west of the civilized world. He had had to face and forcibly solve the problems with the Jews, a people who, unlike the rest, were fiercely loyal to their jealous God. He must also have marked the spread within his empire of the new, secretive Christian sect, whose adherents worshiped as God a Galilean carpenter executed a century earlier by a Roman procurator.
All of these faiths, though, were of no comfort to Hadrian now, as he lay tossing with pain and wrestling with his thoughts. Just before life slipped away, he took his pen and wrote a five-line poem. It is inscribed on a tablet in a ruined mausoleum in Rome, where the urn holding his ashes once stood:
Animula vagula blandula,
Hospes comesque corporis,
Quae nunc abibis in loca
Pallidula, rigida, nudula
Nec ut soles dabis iocos!
This celebrated poem, which became known as “Hadrian’s Address to His Soul”, has been translated hundreds of times.
One version comes from the famous Romantic poet Byron:
Ah! gentle, fleeting, wav’ring sprite,
Friend and associate of this clay!
To what unknown region borne,
Wilt thou now wing thy distant flight?
No more with wanton humor gay,
But pallid, cheerless and forlorn.
Душенька, бродяга нежная,
Гостья - попутчица тела,
В какие неведомые места уходишь -
Бледные, холодные, голые,
Где не будет веселья...
With this mournful lament for his mortality, Hadrian voiced the dread and doubts of everyman. We may live to old age, but all of us must confront death directly, first when it comes for our friends and relatives, finally when it comes for us. We can expect to grieve for loved ones, endure the devastation and emptiness of loss, and be progressively weakened by the assault of old age and infirmity, which prepare the ground for our eventual end.
All these crises of life raise questions that are not merely speculative but urgently practical and personal. Is my existence coming to a meaningless end? What is to become of my consciousness, through which I experience all my hopes, joys, and fears? Although in my mind I can span the universe looking for values and truths that transcend matter, am I after all nothing more than a temporary aggregate of material elements? What happens at that mysterious moment when life ceases? All these questions arise naturally in the mind of a thoughtful person facing death. They reflect an instinctive clutching for survival, a sense perhaps that there is a spiritual component whose nature is foreign to the decaying shell it inhabits.
There is something overwhelmingly appalling in the thought that the “I” upon which my experience rests will no longer be. The sun will rise, my family will make new friends and think up new plans for enjoyment, the human drama will play inexorably on—but I won’t be there. In the face of this looming certainty, all the efforts of life seem futile.
Consider the young mother who has painfully brought life into a dangerous world. She lovingly cares for her child and protects him from a host of dangers. The child is fed, clothed, and sheltered, vaccinated against disease, taught how to safely cross the street, and told not to talk to strangers. But even so, the mother’s fragile charge can easily, instantly be destroyed. An automobile accident perhaps, when death screeches in and in one pitiless impact reduces to nothing all that loving care. Then the poor mother’s attempts to delay death are revealed as just that and in a moment rendered meaningless.
Death yanks us out of a network of comforting relationships that, in some inscrutable way, give us a sense of protection from the inevitable. Bound up in thoughts of this world, in our endless aspirations for pleasure, we are never prepared for the unwelcome intruder. It taps on our shoulder when we are planning our next summer vacation or painting the extension to the kitchen. It ignores our pleas to finish incomplete business. It is deaf to our rage at the incomprehensible injustice we think has befallen us. It pays no heed to the putative advances of material science. It takes us from a place of apparent security to an unknown realm, the prospect of entering which, as the mournful Hadrian noted, leaves us “pallid, cheerless, and forlorn.”
Death remains the greatest challenge to our understanding and enjoyment of life. Yet it is remarkable that, despite mankind’s supposed development since the time of Hadrian, little progress has been made in solving this fundamental enigma. Indeed, the wistful agnosticism Hadrian displayed has generally been replaced by a kind of Epicurean philosophy, whose founding preceded Hadrian by hundreds of years.
The followers of the Greek philosopher Epicurus scoffed at any pretensions to immortality and frequently adorned their graves with this brave epitaph:
"I was not, I was, I am not, I care not.”
Clearly, for the Epicureans life now is the all-important consideration. Useless speculations on immortality should not distract us from appreciating the only thing we can know for certain: that we are alive, that we exist now. This view increasingly prevails the more we come to believe that the body represents the sum total of our being. We then understand life and consciousness to be no more than results of complex chemical interactions, and we re-reject metaphysical yearnings for immortality as aberrant biological phenomena. Once freed from the superstitions of less enlightened times, our evolving intellect can absorb itself in the only thing that matters: the pursuit of worldly goals.
These ideas, once held solely by an intellectual elite, are now the common property of all. They have even penetrated the great religious institutions, which now more than ever are joining forces with the giant edifice of scientific and liberal humanism. Humanism brazenly announces its ability to solve the problems of man while quietly fostering the hedonism at the problems’ core. Humanists regard Hadrian’s question as a relic of the fanciful myths to which the human race has too easily given credence in the past. The naive notion of the soul going forth somewhere is irrelevant to the social and ethical concerns of human welfare and the progress of man.
The influential existentialist writer John Paul Sartre expressed this viewpoint, al-biet from a slightly different perspective, in the following words: “It is absurd that we should be born, it is absurd that we shall die. Life, so long as it lasts, is pure and free of any death. For I can conceive of myself only as alive. Man is a being for life, not for death.”
Do I hear you protest at this point, having detected a critical tone in my presentation? Are you perhaps saying, “Well, what’s wrong with living life to the full? These thinkers have done a great service to humanity by liberating us from the stultifying, morbid preoccupation with questions that are impossible to answer. They have allowed us to concentrate on the real issues affecting us in the here and now.”
Certainly, to want to lift the burden of humanity is a noble sentiment, but there is no denying that the greatest problem we face is death, which is an inescapable dashing of all our hopes. Humanism proposes to solve all our problems by totally relying on the abilities of man, but its response to the greatest problem of all—death—is to ignore it, submerging its significance in the frenzied search for pleasure.
Direct results of this affectation of indifference toward death are the triumph of trivia and the virtual disappearance of death in a cloud of euphemism.
The Belgain poet Maurice Maeterlinck lamented:
“We deliver death into the dim hands of our instinct,
and we grant it not one hour of our intelligence.”
No one dares speak its name. We now have “long illnesses,” “tragic circumstances,” and finally we just “pass away.” The constant intrusions of death into our orderly existence are seen almost as a social gaffe — what another poet, Yeats, called “the discourtesy of death.” But no matter what genteel urbanities we use, the horrifying reality remains.
The original posting was made at http://hojja-nusreddin.dreamwidth.org/7012.html