This article originally appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of Tidings.
THE LATIN TAG respice finem can be understood to exploit the rich ambiguity of the English concept of “end” just as fully as the Latin finis of which it speaks. Respice finem suggests that each of us must “take care for,” “remember” or “consider” the end, whether this is to be understood, as the goal and purpose for which something is undertaken, or the end term in a series, which, in our case, is the days, months and years of a human lifetime.
To praise the human condition for having an end seems to suggest a kind of modernist descent into hell. This praise appears at such variance with our common hopes and aspirations as to put us in mind of a bleak play by Samuel Beckett, or an even bleaker example of his prose:
One moment more. One last. Grace to breathe that void. Know happiness.
(Ill Seen Ill Said, 1982). Beckett’s final prayer for obliteration, published in the very year of his death, is majestic in its simplicity:
…oh to end. No matter how no matter where. Time and grief and self so-called. Oh all to end.
(Stirrings Still 1989).
The ancients were able to articulate many of the same thoughts, without thereby eliminating the ambiguous character of life’s end, and without leaving behind only the potsherds of despair. As readers will know from an earlier column, I am not convinced that any writer in the whole of our literary history has ever surpassed the supreme images employed by the anonymous Egyptian poet of the 12th Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom. This ancient poet recorded a dialogue (or dispute) that he had with his Ba (or soul) well over 3,500 years before our time. Death, this poet argues, is like coming up for air, like recovering from a prolonged illness; death is like sitting on your porch enjoying a summer breeze, death is like “a clearing sky” after inclement weather, and finally death is like a homecoming after many years of wandering, or long years incarcerated in a dungeon.
Death is then, in this lavish antiquity, to be welcomed with the same enthusiasm that our modern nihilism also requires – but there is, of course, a vast distinction: for the archaic Egyptian, death is to be embraced because it is “the night of going forth to life” (Spell 178 of The Book of the Dead), death is the entrance to the “house of eternity.”
The ancient Greeks were just as clear as their Egyptian forerunners that the outstanding distinction of human life was in its tragic finality. For them, the human soul did not have its origins in nature, and therefore, at the time of death, this soul could not be dissolved back into nature; but equally, since the soul was the form of the body, any existence, independent of the body was at best a half-life, lived in shadow, without pleasure and without purpose.
The fact that the human soul would in every case eventually be consigned to Hades made every moment of human life both glorious and precious. Human existence was a rich treasure which the Olympian gods could only enjoy vicariously in the lives of their mortal heros and favourites.
Ancient literary criticism understood this principle perfectly: Homer’s genius in his great epics (Iliad and Odyssey), the ancients declared, was to turn the humans into gods and the gods into humans. Nothing the gods undertook was of any consequence: their pettiness, their infidelity, their squabbles were all (paradoxically) ephemeral, whereas every human act of heroism, every human passion, every human exploit and adventure was of eternal significance. Nothing of this human world would ever be repeated in recognition of its total finality.
Marcus Aurelius (who died 180 CE) makes a magnificent contribution to this ancient theme: his Meditations (ll.14) remind us that all of us are only capable of living the life that each of us is individually losing, and that each of us is only capable of losing the unique life that each of us happens to be living. Marcus Aurelius asks how it is possible for us to spend our time being envious for something that was never ours (viz. the future), and furthermore will never be ours in any case?
Each of us, the Roman Emperor reminds us, has no more and no less of the present than any other; so there are no grounds for regret, jealously and envy. All we have is the present, and no one can have any less present than any other.
This preliminary ancient survey concludes with the Confessions of St Augustine of Hippo (died 430 CE). His unflinching record of his “past foulness” is bitter in his memory, but he can keep this record since he has been given the grace to understand his past as a “living death” by means of which he was “coming to life.” In Henry Chadwick’s translation, we almost have a repetition from that ancient Egyptian poet. Augustine describes his early manhood as a life of madness that would soon bring him sanity; it was “part of the process of recovering health.”
Everything I want to say here has, of course, been summarized more pithily by Shakespeare. In the 3rd Act of Measure for Measure, Claudio has apparently lost his stomach to plead (to sue) for his life, and thus declares:
To sue to live, I find I seek to die;
And, seeking death, find life;
Let it come on.
Let it come on indeed!
FYP Texts originally appeared in Tidings magazine, published on behalf of the University of King’s College Alumni Association. View the archive.