Peter Jones

A matter of life and death | 7 September 2017

The Roman great and good were unmoved by death – can we learn from them?

A matter of life and death | 7 September 2017
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Before he died, the former Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, reassured his diocese that he was ‘at peace and [has] no fear of what is to come’. But surely, as a sinner facing a god of judgment, he should have been terrified out of his wits?

In ancient literature, it was only cowards or second-raters who were terrified of death. Philosophers had no qualms. As Socrates (5th C bc) said: ‘To fear death is to think oneself wise when one is not; for it is to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not even be the greatest of all good things for man, yet men fear it as if they knew well that it was the greatest evil… Here I differ from the rest of men, and if I could make any claim to be wiser than another, it is in this, that not knowing enough about the subject of Hades, I do not imagine that I do.’

The Roman great and good were unmoved by death. The emperor Augustus on his death bed asked for applause if he had acted his part well. The ever witty Vespasian commented: ‘Damn. I think I’m becoming a god.’ Seneca pointed out that fighting the inevitable merely made one miserable, ‘the only chain that binds us to life is love of life’. Marcus Aurelius urged men to ‘go to your rest with a good grace, as an olive falls in season, with a blessing for the earth that bore it and a thanksgiving to the tree that gave it life’. Quintus Metellus (2nd C bc) had won all political and military honours, and so had his four sons. The historian Velleius Paterculus commented on his death: ‘This was not to die but rather to make the transition (migrare, cf. ‘migrate’) from life more happily.’

The Roman poet Lucretius (1st C bc) would have been annoyed that fear of death loomed so large in the cardinal’s thoughts, because he hoped his treatise On the Nature of the Universe would end the need of such an emotion for ever. ‘Atoms to atoms’ (drawn from the Greek philosopher Epicurus) was his version of ‘ashes to ashes’, but it applied to the soul too, as it did to gods, mere atoms who had no interest in humanity. So no after-life. Socrates would certainly have disapproved of such an untestable assumption.