We come to the last conclusion of this series, the fourth objection:
“We must finally consider the fourth objection to growing old – an objection that seems especially calculated to cause worry and distress to a man of my years. I speak of the nearness of death”
I will draw upon the philosophy of later stoicism which are relevant to this subject and more updated. This also touches upon whether there’s an afterlife of not, which as I usually do throughout the work, I’ll give my own evaluation.
Death is not to be feared
From Cato’s point of view, If a man has not learned that death is nothing to be feared then he will live a wretched life indeed. Though I think sometimes that people fear not death itself, but rather they fear that transitional phase from life to death; they fear dying. Dying is unpleasant, but is short and guaranteed to pass because those that are dying pass.
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” – Marcus Aurelius
The youth are not exempt from death
“… Who even among the young would be foolish enough to believe with absolute confidence that he will be alive when evening come?”
Back in antiquity anyone of any age was susceptible to causes of death other than natural causes, such as war. In the Republican Roman army the bulk of the soldierly were made up of young men, probably in their teens and early twenties, called Hastati who were often inexperienced and poorly equipped and so they were likely to be more often killed in battle.
Contrast them to the Triarii a class of infantry recruited from the oldest and most experienced men. The men making up the Triarii survived their youth and were the best fighting men in the legion, able to afford the best equipment.
“In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war, fathers bury their sons” – Herodotus
In your life, how often do you imagine that the way you will die would be along the lines of dying peacefully in a deathbed at age 85? Just because someone is young does not mean they are fated to carry on living into their later years. When we give it a moment’s thought we know that death is something that can happen to anybody no matter what age.
As then as it was now, one could die from untreated infections. If a youthful athlete suffered a lesion and should bacteria infect it even he would become completely helpless and succumb to his infected wounds if not given antibiotics.
Nothing to hope for in old age?
“You might also say that an old man has nothing at all to hope for. But he in fact possesses something better than a young person. For what youth longs for, old age has attained. A young person hopes to have a long life, but an old man has already had one.”
More can be drawn from this passage, we know that the youth have yet to attain whatever adult goals there is because they’ve just started their journey; like budding flowers. And yet, as was mentioned, there is no guarantee that any young person will not die today. Death will end all their activities, including those activities just starting to bud will instead be nipped in the bud!
It will cut short their plans to travel the world, graduate university, their pursuit of desired hedonistic experiences and to those few youth that are philosophically minded, it will interrupt their continued reading of the complete works of Plato; permanently. Yet at least you could say that they were ‘forever young’.
Contrast this to the elderly who have attained their goals and had their fill of lived experiences, they’ve checked their boxes on the bucket list of life. Inspired by this say to yourself:
‘The reason why I have nothing to hope for is because I’ve already lived my life. Knowing I’ve lived a long enough life, the things I did hope for have already been achieved my tasks, my experiences, my adventures, my deeds are all stored up like grain in a granary.’
“Spring is like youth with the promise of fruits to come. Our later years are the seasons of harvesting and storing away.”
“Good gods, what in our human world ever lasts a long time?…to me nothing that has an end seems long. For when that end comes, all that came before is gone. All that remains then are the good and worthy deeds you have done in your life. Hours and days, months and years flow by, but the past returns no more and the future we cannot know.”
When the end of one’s life does arrive then that which ‘came before’ means here the person’s body, his/her character and all the information stored in those memories will be lost; if not recorded on paper beforehand.
But I ask Cato, what is it that enables us to know about these ‘good and worthy deeds?’ The answer is memory, which is our personal record of the past, which keeps those ‘good and worthy deeds’ alive. Only you can rewind and play those lived experiences, like a sole projector operator watching the movies. Your memories of lived experiences are only a concatenation of encoded sensations, those sights and sounds and maybe smells and tactile sensations formed a meaningful event to be stored in your memory but the actual event the memory represents is destined to be lost to time out there in the real world:
That in the past which existed, but now in the present moment no longer exists, is the same as that which never existed at all.
Life as one big theatre
Cato compared our lives to actors. In a play, the actors on the stage visible to the rest of the audience, only remain on it until their performance is done. The world is our stage and we are its actors. Seneca, as a playwright himself, said ‘one day is its own stage along life’s journey’ and do you know what I agree with him on that. We don’t just take on to one stage, but instead, we perform on many stages. When we go to sleep for the next day, the curtains draw and we leave that stage only to mount an entirely different stage with its own spectacles and capers.
Every day is different and a new day may come with new drama, new emotional flavours, spectacles, life changing events, the forging of new relationships or the severing of existing ones. The Stoic advice for us starting out our new day is delivered no better than by Marcus Aurelius:
“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.
Nature built us to be temporary
“The best end of life comes with a clear mind and sound body, when nature herself dissolves the work she has created.”
I’ve always taken the view that the body is but borrowed material from the Earth. The proteins, the fats and carbohydrates e.g. that make up your body are from the plants and animals which you’ve ingested and are now carrying around with you right now.
Cato never denied that the old are not more susceptible to die, while is revealed in this metaphor:
“nature best brings an end to a person she has so skilfully put together. A new building is hard to destroy, but an old house comes down easily.”
With these sorts of reasons, Cato advises those that are old that:
- We have had enough time to live well.
- We should not cling greedily to whatever bit of live we have left without good reason.
“Counting even yesterday, all past time is lost time; the very day which we are now spending is shared between ourselves and death.” – Seneca
Old or not though, there are many ways that a human can die and it will always be untimely, especially to those undergoing personal projects in their lives, they may still have a lot to live for, living for family, living for friends, living for that promotion, living for owning a desired property etc. It would not be a delay but an abrupt cessation of whatever was being done; death is the great interrupter.
The Nature of the soul &
what happens after death?
The older he got the more he seemed to understand death he told his fellow younger listeners that he will look forward to seeing their late fathers in the afterlife. You see, Cato believed in having souls and believed that the Gods animated human beings by planted souls in them so that they can care for the Earth and contemplate the divine order.
Cato argues that the soul is of a single substance, pure and indivisible. He could never be persuaded that the souls which dwell in human bodies perish when they leaving the body. He believed the soul to be immortal:
“The soul alone remains invisible both when the body is alive and when it has passed away”
There’s more to it than that, not only is the soul imperishable but when freed from its earthly frame, Cato believed
“…true life would begin only after my death. If the soul were not immortal, why would our finest men strive so hard for glory”
Though earlier he said he could never be persuaded he said this:
“And if I’m wrong in my belief that souls are immortal, then gladly do I err, for this belief which I hope to maintain as long as I live, makes me happy.”
If some God offered Cato the chance to relive life all the way back to crying from his cradle he said he would ‘vehemently refuse’, because there comes a time in life when we have had enough. He doesn’t regret living life, but feels the need to move on like a traveller staying at an inn departing the day after.
As for what happens after death, ancient wisdom says that death can only have two outcomes:
“For death either completely destroys the human soul, in which case it is negligible, or takes the soul to a place where it can live forever, which makes it desirable there is no third possibility” – Cato (really Cicero)
That death has but only two outcomes was also stated earlier by Socrates in Plato’s apology:
“Let us reflect in this way, too, that there is good hope that death is a blessing, for it is one of two things: either the dead are nothing and have no perception of anything, or it is, as we are told, a change and a relocating for the soul from here to another place.”
For there to be an afterlife, implies a continuation of consciousness and if so, can that really be called death? In this supposed afterlife you are relocated to, whatever it’ll be, you will come across new surroundings presented to your conscious experience. Here’s what I want you to meditate on: If we still have this sense of ‘I’, still having this awareness of self; then how can we say we’ve stopped living!?
The epicurean conception of death
The other outcome is there’s no afterlife, no continuation of consciousness, meaning death is final. This is the epicurean conception of death, to which is likened to an eternal dreamless sleep or the state of non-existence before birth and as Cato said ‘ it is negligible ‘ and should not cause us further worry. This is also the naturalist/materialist or modern atheist position towards death because the mind and body is viewed as one and the same thing; all physical. If the bodies biological function cease so does everything of the mind.
The bottom line
Empirically we will never know which is right so long as we still carry on living, we cannot know death because we only know living. You can set up reasons and argue for either case. As for me, I’m on fence on this one but if I had to choose either, my guess leans towards death is final.