I’ve always understood that one day I’ll die, and that I live out my life in a journey from the entrance gate of birth to the exit gate of death. When I was a boy, I once asked my father what age I’d live to.
“94,” my father replied, without any hesitation at all, as if he knew with perfect certainty.
I thought he was being slightly optimistic, given that 70 years was the allotted biblical span. But others might have thought that he was being very pessimistic.
Because these days, a lot of people seem to believe that they might just live for ever, if they just stay away from poisons like tobacco and alcohol and sugar and saturated fat and carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide and so on and on and on. Old age and death have come to be regarded as a disease that might one day be cured, or prevented, just like cholera or typhoid. The healthists are essentially people who have not accepted the inevitability of death, and hold onto the faint hope that, if they avoid tobacco and alcohol, they might just manage to cheat death.
I once came across a paper by Sir Richard Doll in which he was discussing the possibility of immortality, or greatly increased longevity. The mere fact that he was considering it at all suggested very strongly to me that he too held onto the hope of greatly increased human longevity. It’s the only measure that matters to healthists. Nothing else matters at all. Everyone must be made to live as long as humanly possible, and then longer still.
But it seems that all living things eventually die. And also all non-living things. Nothing lasts forever. Everything is transient. A river starts out as a trickle of water, and grows into a mighty torrent, and then disperses in a widening delta into the sea. And this also is a cycle of birth and death. It’s not possible for rivers to remain powerful torrents, because sooner or later they reach the sea. Wanting people to live forever is like wanting rivers to flow indefinitely. It can’t be done. And it reveals a radical misunderstanding of the universe to expect that it can be done.
Everything has a beginning and a middle and an ending. Every book has a first chapter and a last chapter. Every song has a first note and a last note. Every meal has a first bite and a last bite. Every romance has a first kiss and a last kiss. For every sunrise there is a sunset. And for every beginning there is an ending. That’s just how it is. You can’t have one without the other.
I’ve remarked before that the modern terror of death has arisen with the decline of the comforting belief in a life after death. Once one’s death becomes a terminal event, with no way out or round or through, it perhaps becomes impossible for some people to ignore. And the healthists are people who spend their lives contemplating this death. They can see it coming a long way off, and they try to defer it as long as possible. Their death is a constant black cloud on the horizon, all through their lives. It has no redeeming features.
It’s not always been seen that way. I’ve been reading A History of Rome by Evelyn Shuckburgh today, and I came to a passage about the reign of Tarquinius Superbus, the brutal last king of Rome. Two princes, Sextus and Collatinus, were boasting of the virtue of their wives, and wondered what they were getting up to while their husbands were away…
It was agreed that they should go secretly to Rome and Collatia and see for themselves. They mounted their horses and hurried away. The wife of Sextus at Rome was found feasting with her friends; but Lucretia, the wife of Collatinus, was discovered at Collatia sitting amidst her handmaidens weaving late into the night a garment for her husband. All agreed that the chief praise was due to Lucretia. But Sextus came away inflamed with an unholy passion. He presently found some excuse for going to Collatia, was hospitably received and entertained by Lucretia as a relation of her husband’s, and in the night forced her to yield to his desires by a terrible threat. He declared that he would slay her, and then killing a slave, would place their dead bodies together on a couch, and proclaim that he had killed her as an adulteress.
Next morning Lucretia sent for her father from Rome and her husband from Ardea; she confessed to them what had been done, and rejecting their offers of pardon for that to which she had been forced, plunged a dagger into her heart. Brutus had accompanied Collatinus, and now, throwing aside his pretence of stupidity, seized the bloody dagger, and swore that none of the accursed race of Tarquin would ever reign again in Rome. The oath was shared by Collatinus and Lucretia’s father, Spurius Lucretius, and by Publius Valerius, who had accompanied him. The dead body of Lucretia was displayed in the forum of Collatia. Amidst the lamentation of the crowd, the bravest of the young men gathered around Brutus, and leaving a garrison to hold Collatia, hastened to Rome. There their tale roused a like storm of indignation….
Tarquinius Superbus was shut outside Rome, and never re-admitted. Rome became a republic, and but for Lucretia this might never have happened.
And for Lucretia, virtue and honour mattered more than life. And once they were lost, it was no longer worth living. But with the death she chose for herself, she ensured that she would be avenged, and that the house of Tarquin, to which Sextus belonged, would fall.
But it’s rather hard to imagine anyone doing something like that these days. Because for the healthists and the hypochondriacs, life matters more than virtue or honour. And this may be why they have neither. Because if truth or justice or honour matter at all, they matter more than death. And people for whom they matter will die fighting for them.
And if we live in a time where everything is sleazy and corrupt and dishonest, and at the same time live in one in which health and longevity have been promoted to become the highest virtues, it’s because the two go hand in hand.