Saturday, 29 November 2014

Further Note on Death and Plato


In a previous post I discussed how interesting it would be to compare the various perspectives on death offered in the writings of the great classic thinkers. Of particular interest to me is Plato's idea of death, and its influence on the thinking of men down through subsequent history. Plato's conception of death views it as the soul's "liberation" from the body. In a sense this is true, insofar as death is the separation of soul and body. But the added idea of liberation from the body rests on the assumption that the body is something like a cage within which the true human self, the soul, is trapped and waits to be set free. Plato viewed the human person as essentially spiritual; the body was not an essential part of the man, but a prison in which the soul was contained. Strictly and philosophically speaking, this is an incorrect view of the nature of man. C.S. Lewis once said, if I remember correctly, "I am a soul. I have a body." But in fact, according to a more Catholic and Thomistic philosophy, it would be more properly said that "I am a union of both soul and body." When we die, the soul and body will be separated, and remain awhile in a kind of imperfect state until the Last Judgment, when all the bodies of the death will be resurrected to be rejoined with their souls and glorified in heaven - or punished eternally in hell. In any case, the full perfection of the man requires both the body and the soul, because both are part of the essence of man.

Nonetheless, the Platonic way of speaking does, I think, have a mysterious appeal to the Catholic instinct, and I have seen it used in many contexts in which the Christian approach to death has been described. For example, I remember that in praying the Monastic Divine Office some weeks ago, commemorating a particular saint (whose name escapes me - she was female I know), I found that the collect described the death of the saint precisely in terms of the soul being freed from the body. I found this Platonic way of speaking quite delightful. Even if, in strict and absolute terms, it is incorrect that death is strictly a liberation from the body, in the Christian worldview this way of speaking can take on another significance - and not one entirely disconnected from the Platonic view - which is quite loaded with truth:

In this life, man is subject to the effects of Original Sin, one of the primary of which is concupiscence: the rebellion of the flesh against the spirit. The moral goodness of the human soul is thus limited and impeded - "trapped" and "encaged," so to speak - by the sinful inclinations of the body. Life is therefore a constant struggle between the "law of the members" of the body and the law of the spirit. Happiness or beatitude can only be attained after the liberation from this constant struggle with the body. Hence, in a very real sense death is the liberation of the soul from its enslavement to the concupiscence of the body, provided that the fight has been well fought during life. So the Christian ought indeed to have a vision of life and death that is semi-Platonic, inasmuch as the Platonic vision is "baptized" by the Christian understanding of the body and its concupiscence.

In closing to these reflections, I offer a segment from a long poem by the Anglican priest and "metaphysical" poet, and a fallen-away Catholic, John Donne. The entire poem is titled "On the Progress of the Soul," and the following is a profound segment wherein he speaks to the soul on the nature of death and its desirability. The description is notably Platonic, I find, and for that reason I quite admire it. The Platonic idea seems to have been adopted widely by poets and classic writers; and even if they did not employ with its Christian interpretation in mind, I still find it to be a beautiful and fascinating understanding of death. Donne, however, I would suspect to have intended the Christian understanding, since he wrote a great deal of poetry that was well inspired by his Christian theology (albeit which was Anglican). Here is the excerpt:

Think further on thyself, my soul, and think
How thou at first wast made but in a sink.
Think that it argued some infirmity,
That those two souls, which then thou found’st in me,
Thou fed’st upon, and drew’st into thee both
My second soul of sense, and first of growth.
Think but how poor thou wast, how obnoxious;
Whom a small lump of flesh could poison thus.
This curded milk, this poor unlitter’d whelp,
My body, could, beyond escape or help,
Infect thee with original sin, and thou
Couldst neither then refuse, nor leave it now.
Think that no stubborn, sullen anchorite,
Which fix’d to a pillar, or a grave, doth sit 
Bedded and bathed in all his ordures, dwells
So foully as our souls in their first-built cells.
Think in how poor a prison thou didst lie,
After, enabled but to suck, and cry.
Think, when ’twas grown to most, ’twas a poor inn,
A province pack’d up in two yards of skin;
And that usurp’d, or threaten’d with a rage
Of sicknesses, or their true mother, age.
But think that death hath now enfranchised thee; 
Thou hast thy expansion now, and liberty. 
 Think that a rusty piece, discharged, is flown
In pieces, and the bullet is his own,
And freely flies; this to thy soul allow.
Think thy shell broke, think thy soul hatch’d but now.
And think this slow-paced soul which late did cleave
To a body, and went but by the body’s leave,
Twenty perchance, or thirty mile a day,
Dispatches in a minute all the way
’Twixt heaven and earth; she stays not in the air,
To look what meteors there themselves prepare;
She carries no desire to know, nor sense,
Whether th’ air’s middle region be intense;
For th’ element of fire, she doth not know,
Whether she pass’d by such a place or no;
She baits not at the moon, nor cares to try
 Whether in that new world men live, and die;
Venus retards her not to inquire, how she
Can—being one star—Hesper and Vesper be;
He that charm’d Argus’ eyes, sweet Mercury,
Works not on her, who now is grown all eye;
Who if she meet the body of the sun,
Goes through, not staying till his course be run;
Who finds in Mars his camp no corps of guard,
Nor is by Jove, nor by his father barr’d;
But ere she can consider how she went,
At once is at, and through the firmament;
And as these stars were but so many beads
Strung on one string, speed undistinguish’d leads
Her through those spheres, as through the beads a string,
Whose quick succession makes it still one thing.
As doth the pith, which, lest our bodies slack,
Strings fast the little bones of neck and back,
So by the soul doth death string heaven and earth;
For when our soul enjoys this her third birth
—Creation gave her one, a second, grace— 
Heaven is as near and present to her face
As colours are and objects, in a room,
Where darkness was before, when tapers come.

John Donne, 1572-1631

Friday, 28 November 2014

Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy  Bysshe Shelley, 1792-1822
I have lately been reading a good deal of English poetry, and have found myself experiencing a kind of yearning for the profound grasp of beauty and insight that the poetic masters were able to attain. In the following poem, Percy Bysshe Shelley describes the sentiments of a soul seeking after the Spirit of Beauty but encountering difficulties in the pursuit. Beauty - of a spiritual sort and not merely sensible - is wont to pass to and fro before human vision, sometimes present and sometimes gone; and when gone, its absence fills life with a kind of gloominess. And yet the poet ever remains faithful to his pursuit and worship of Beauty, and entreats her to bestow upon him the joys which he cannot express in words.


The awful shadow of some unseen Power
         Floats though unseen among us; visiting
         This various world with as inconstant wing
 As summer winds that creep from flower to flower;
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
                It visits with inconstant glance
                Each human heart and countenance;
Like hues and harmonies of evening,
                Like clouds in starlight widely spread,
                Like memory of music fled,
                Like aught that for its grace may be
Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.

Spirit of BEAUTY, that dost consecrate
         With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
         Of human thought or form, where art thou gone?
Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,
This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?
                Ask why the sunlight not for ever
                Weaves rainbows o'er yon mountain-river,
Why aught should fail and fade that once is shown,
                Why fear and dream and death and birth
                Cast on the daylight of this earth
                Such gloom, why man has such a scope
For love and hate, despondency and hope?

No voice from some sublimer world hath ever
         To sage or poet these responses given:
         Therefore the names of Demon, Ghost, and Heaven,
Remain the records of their vain endeavour:
Frail spells whose utter'd charm might not avail to sever,
                From all we hear and all we see,
                Doubt, chance and mutability.
Thy light alone like mist o'er mountains driven,
                Or music by the night-wind sent
                Through strings of some still instrument,
                Or moonlight on a midnight stream,
Gives grace and truth to life's unquiet dream.

Love, Hope, and Self-esteem, like clouds depart
         And come, for some uncertain moments lent.
         Man were immortal and omnipotent,
Didst thou, unknown and awful as thou art,
Keep with thy glorious train firm state within his heart.
                Thou messenger of sympathies,
                That wax and wane in lovers' eyes;
Thou, that to human thought art nourishment,
                Like darkness to a dying flame!
                Depart not as thy shadow came,
                Depart not—lest the grave should be,
Like life and fear, a dark reality.

While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
         Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
         And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.
I call'd on poisonous names with which our youth is fed;
                I was not heard; I saw them not;
                When musing deeply on the lot
Of life, at that sweet time when winds are wooing
                All vital things that wake to bring
                News of birds and blossoming,
                Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;
   I shriek'd, and clasp'd my hands in ecstasy!

I vow'd that I would dedicate my powers
         To thee and thine: have I not kept the vow?
         With beating heart and streaming eyes, even now
I call the phantoms of a thousand hours
Each from his voiceless grave: they have in vision'd bowers
                Of studious zeal or love's delight
                Outwatch'd with me the envious night:
They know that never joy illum'd my brow
                Unlink'd with hope that thou wouldst free
                This world from its dark slavery,
                That thou, O awful LOVELINESS,
Wouldst give whate'er these words cannot express.

The day becomes more solemn and serene
         When noon is past; there is a harmony
         In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,
Which through the summer is not heard or seen,
As if it could not be, as if it had not been!
                Thus let thy power, which like the truth
                Of nature on my passive youth
Descended, to my onward life supply
                Its calm, to one who worships thee,
                And every form containing thee,
                Whom, SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind
To fear himself, and love all human kind.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Perspectives on Death

I have lately thought it would be interesting to do a study of the various perspectives on death found in the great writers, philosophers, theologians, poets, saints, and other thinkers. In the reading I have done, which is not quite yet extensive, I have already encountered some interesting ideas. Of particular interest to me is the question of whether, and why or why not, one should desire death. Plato argues in the Gorgias (if I remember rightly) that because the philosophic man seeks to know the truth and thus have wisdom, he should desire death. Knowledge is essentially the attaining of the incorporeal Forms which exist in a separate realm of pure reality. The soul, which is immaterial, is hindered from the perfect attainment of these Forms by its encagement in the body. Therefore the soul, especially of the philosophic man, has a deep desire to be free so that it might be able to attain perfect knowledge. A man should therefore desire death, especially if he wishes to satisfy that highest part of him, the intellect, which is in the immaterial soul.

I find particularly interesting to contrast this with the Epicurean view, as expressed by Lucretius in De Rerum Natura, that man does not have an immaterial soul. The soul is rather composed of tiny invisible atoms which direct and constitute the life of the body. But because both body and soul are composed of matter, it is in their nature to disintegrate; whence it comes that man must die. Lucretius argues that a man who genuinely desires to know and love the truth about the nature of things will accept this truth and be satisfied with it. Indeed, he should even desire its fulfillment, because his non-existence is the only escape from the pain and misery of life. Lucretius does not believe in an afterlife, so he has no concept of a positive reward or happiness to be gained after death. Rather, he argues that the fact of non-existence alone should be comfort to a man who fears pain: non-existence is painless, and he who does not exist cannot regret the miseries of his past life either. The fascinating comparison between Plato and Lucretius is this: Plato argues that man should desire death because he is essentially an immaterial being, that is, a soul contained within a body. Lucretius, on the other hand, argues that man should desire death because he is essentially a material being, in whose nature it is to die.

In the Christian understanding, death is desirable, not in itself, but as the necessary step before everlasting life. Death in itself is not seen as a good; indeed it is one of the consequences of Original Sin. All men must suffer death in the end. But death is conquered by the Redemption through the death of Christ on the Cross, and hence we have nothing to fear from it. We may even look forward to it, as the door to our fully reaping the benefits, in the afterlife, of Christ's work of salvation, provided we cooperate in this life with the graces which God gives us. 

This is in some sense a mean between the extremes presented by Plato and Lucretius, though I tend to think it more closely resembles the Platonic account, insofar as it is only after death that a man can fully rest in the attainment of Truth. But whereas Plato saw death itself as the good wherein the Truth is attained, Christ teaches us that death is merely a necessary step before the attainment of that Truth, and that, at the end of time, we will in fact be resurrected whilst still resting in the fullness of Truth.

The Christian understanding is not altogether unlike Lucretius' idea either, in that the death of a good man does free him from the misery of earthly life. But the crucial difference is that the man must in fact be good; if he has lived a bad life, obviously, he will only encounter worse misery after death. Lucretius denies all this, because he denies the merit of religious belief and the idea of an afterlife. He adheres to a materialistic worldview, in which suicide is altogether acceptable if life is miserable for a man. But the Christian is not permitted to take this path. His belief in an afterlife must give him pause, as it did Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The Christian is certainly permitted to sigh after the next life, to long for death, if he lives in the peace of a good conscience. But he entrusts the time of his death to God, who alone is the Lord and Master of life.

So many more perspectives exist among the great writers of human civilization. The above thoughts are simply an example of how some of those perspectives could be collected and compared...