All is in the course of change; and you yourself are constantly changing and, in a sense, passing away; and so too is the entire universe.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, IX.19
September 2009: Cherry Blossoms, Christchurch, New Zealand
But one common night awaits us all,
and the road to death can be trodden only once.
Horace, Odes, Book I.28
~ ~ ~
This was a common sentiment in the pagan Greco-Roman world. It is all too easy for westerners today to read this phrase of Horace’s—consciously or not, intentionally or not—through a Christian lens. Seneca too deals with the topic extensively. You don’t have to necessarily be religious to say this is a ‘depressing,’ ‘morbid,’ or ‘gloomy’ way of seeing life. Such an attitude reveals just how pervasive Christian thought is in western culture even today. It says more about our own lack of courage today than of any supposed gloom of the pagan world.
But Horace was actually quite the optimist. Understanding the context of these lines dealing with mortality reveals the Horace’s actual intention: it is precisely because we are mortal beings that life is to be lived to its fullest potential. No logic could be more alien to a post-Constantinian world, where mortality is a curse brought about because of some sort of moral weakness. It was not a Greek or Roman who said ‘The wages of sin is death.’ Mortality is made into something shameful—life is rendered weak.
If we really are ‘dust and shadow,’ as Horace says elsewhere, it is not an excuse to cower before death and exclaim ‘Woe is me! Because death ends life, life isn’t worth living! Life is a bitch and then you die!’ Does being an immortal ego really solve this ‘problem’?
An individual’s attitude toward one’s own death and its relationship with one’s own life is perhaps the fundamental philosophical question. Religion rightly confronts the issue of mortality, but promptly addresses it with the wrong attitude. By denying death, or evading it by skipping over it to an imagined afterlife, we actually devalue the life we’re living now. What is worse, the vitality and strength of human beings is squandered—and that power and confidence comes precisely through the magnetically charged poles between one’s own life and one’s own death. Horace’s carpe diem derives its strength by embracing life and death.
Anonymous asked: Can you explain what you meant by this: "Perhaps philosophy is nothing but a form of damage control"?
We’ve already been brought into a world without a choice in the matter in which suffering and death is inevitable. That matter is already settled. All that remains is how to deal with our mortality—hence, ‘damage control.’ Philosophy comes down to a matter of developing effective coping strategies in order to deal with this unavoidable fact (cf. Cicero’s ‘To philosophise is to learn how to die.’).
Consider the Fabii, a single family which took over the whole war on behalf of the state. Consider the Spartans in position in the narrow pass at Thermopylae: they have no hope of victory, no hope of returning; that place will be their tomb… It’s not just the three hundred whose fear of death must be removed, but all mankind. [Epistle 82.20, 23]
The philosopher is in the position of military commander whose task it is to inspire the ranks with courage to perish willingly… ‘What do you say to inflame them so they rush into the midst of perils? By what sort of language do you turn aside this consensus of fear? What kind of talent is able to overcome the obdurate conviction of the entire human race?’ In this context, Zeno’s syllogism sounds feeble and absurd. Seneca contrasts this with Leonidas’ inspiring words to his men:
Will you say, ‘Whatever is evil is not glorious; death is glorious; therefore death is not an evil?’ Oh what stirring words! Who, after listening to that, would hesitate to throw himself against the enemy’s weapons and die defending his ground? But Leonidas, how courageous he spoke to them. ‘Eat your lunch, comrades,’ he said, ‘You’re dining tonight with the dead.’ They didn’t choke on their food; it didn’t stick in their throats or fall from their hands. Eagerly they accepted both invitations, to lunch and to dinner. [Epistle 82.21]
Desperate circumstances call for inspiration, not logic. Juxtaposition of Zeno’s ‘proof’ with Leonidas’ speech to his men accentuates the weakness of the one, the extraordinary power of the other. Through their mortality, Seneca implies, all humans are in such desperate circumstances. There is no time to wait on the outcome of the logicians’ debates.
Marcus Wilson, ‘Seneca’s Epistles to Lucilius: A Revaluation,’ Oxford Readings in Classical Studies: Seneca (edited by John G. Fitch)
I must have been born for more than one life: I cannot help but be interested in too many different things to explore in one lifetime!
‘[T]he unexamined life is not worth living…’
~ Socrates, from Plato’s Apology
This was my very first post a year ago today…
The way that the body cannot help but to be moved by music, just as notes must follow one another in a melody. The body, too, is music. Instruments are extremities of the musical body. Music is the sensory organ of soul, as eyes are the sensory organ of sight.
No one has given man his qualities, neither God, nor society, nor his parents and ancestors, nor he himself. No one is to blame for him.
There is no being that could be held responsible for the fact that anything exists at all, that anyone is thus and thus, that anyone was born in certain circumstances, in a certain environment. It is a tremendous restorative that such a being is lacking.
We are not the result of an eternal intention, a will, a wish: we are not the product of an attempt to achieve an “ideal of perfection” or an “ideal of happiness” or an “ideal of virtue” any more than we are a blunder on the part of God that must frighten even him.
There is no place, no purpose, no meaning on which we can shift the responsibility for our being, for our being thus and thus. Above all: no one could do it; one cannot judge, measure, compare the whole. Why not? Because nothing exists besides the whole.
And, to say it again, this is a tremendous restorative: this constitutes the innocence of all existence.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power
Joshua Sellers: ‘Amniotic Hum’ from Amniosis (2010)
Back in 2010 I released an album of ambient music, Amniosis. The fun aspect of constructing this music was that the sounds are all low-tech. All the sounds here were created on a cheap little Yamaha keyboard for children which I slowed down and processed in a variety of ways.
If anyone is interested, it is available on iTunes, Amazon, and other mp3 downloading sites.
The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning.
— John Dewey, Experience and Education