CURRENT READING – GIORGIO VASARI (end)

In concluding my vacation and the excellent thoughts of Giorgio Vasari in his biography of great Renaissance artists, we come to Gozzoli who becomes for Vasari a model of how contentment follows purpose despite personal suffering: “He who pursues the path of excellence in his labors, although it is, as men say, both stony and full of thorns, finds himself finally at the end of the ascent on a broad plain, with all the blessings that he has desired …deliver men from poverty, and bring them to that secure and tranquil state in which, with so much contentment…”9

Vasari reminds one of Confucius when he gets to the three Bellinis:  “Who does not feel infinite pleasure and contentment, to say nothing of honor and adornment that they confer, at seeing the image of his ancestors, particularly if they have been famous and illustrious for their part in governing of republics, for noble deeds performed in peace of in war, or for learning or any other notable and distinguished talent? And to what other end… did the ancients set up images of their great men in public places, with honorable inscriptions, than to kindle in the minds of their successors a love of excellence and of glory?”10

Vasari counsels us that poverty need not be an obstacle to personal purpose and accomplishment with the example of Perugino: “How great a benefit poverty may be to men of genius, and how potent a force it may be to make them become excellent – nay, perfect- in the exercise of any faculty whatsoever, can be seen clearly enough in the actions of Pietro Perugino…Riches, indeed, might perchance have closed the path on which his talent should advance toward excellence…”11

But Vasari cautions us to remain humble and seek purpose within our own talents and abilities when he describes Raphael, (know best by philosophers for his immortal School of Athens, one of the most reproduced paintings in history) with this  “…no man should aim at super-striving, merely in order to surpass those who, by some gift of nature or by some special grace bestowed on them by God, have performed or are performing miracles in art ; for the reason that he who is not suited to any particular work, can never reach, let him labor as he may, the goal to which another, with the assistance of nature has maintained with ease.”12 Who can deny that we cannot all achieve the height of human creation of this Renaissance master?

I stop here omitting the ultra-famous artists Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti, as well as many others, simply to tease the inclination of the reader to check out Vasari for himself. We are awed that not only did he personally know so many great individuals, a thing most of us will never experience, but that he was able to transform that knowledge into an enduring masterpiece full of perceptive observations on how genius reinforces the meaning of life for us mere mortals.

Thank you for obliging me on my love for art, history, and philosophy.

And yes, it is good to be home…

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9 Vasari, Giorgio, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptor, and Architects. The Modern Library. New York, 1959. Page 125.

10Ibid., page 136.

11Ibid., page 177.

12Ibid., page 266.

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CURRENT READING – GIORGIO VASARI (continued)

Continuing now both my trip abroad and my current reading of Giorgio Vasari the biographer of great Renaissance artists, we come to his refreshing perspective on competition among persons within a company or field. Speaking on Massacio and Masalino (“big Thomas” and “little Thomas”) who often combined efforts: “It is the custom of nature, when she makes a man very excellent in any profession, very often not to make him alone, but at the same time, and in the same neighborhood, to make another to compete with him, to the end that they may assist each other by their talent and emulation; which circumstance, besides the singular advantage enjoyed by the men themselves, who thus compete with each other, also kindles beyond measure the mind of those who come after that age…”5

Speaking of Brunelleschi, designer of the great il Duomo of Florence, we learn not to underestimate those of apparent diminutive stature perhaps including ourselves and how purpose leads to contentment: “Many men are created by nature small in person and in features, who have a mind full of such greatness and a heart of such irresistible vehemence, that if they do not begin difficult- nay, almost impossible – undertakings, and bring them to completion to the marvel of all who behold them, they have never any peace in their lives; and whatsoever work chance puts into their hands, however lowly and base it may be, they give it value and nobility.”6

Vasari confirms our earlier conclusions on contentment and legacy vis a vis wealth and material goods with the example of Fra Angelico. “ He might have been rich, but to this he gave no thought; nay he used to say that true riches consist only in being content with little…he sought no dignity save that of seeking to avoid Hell and draw near to Paradise. And what dignity, in truth, can be compared to that which all churchmen, nay, all men, should seek, and which is to be found only in God and in a life of virtue?”7

He uses Alberti as his model for the symbolic immortality of virtuous personal creation: “…with regard to name and fame, it is seen from experience that writings have greater power and longer life than anything else; for books go everywhere with ease, and everywhere they command belief, if only they be truthful and not full of lies.”8

The life of Fra Filippo Lippi becomes for Vasari an example of how even the least fortunate can become great. This remarkable artist went from an orphan in a monastery who tore up his school books to prisoner and slave of Moorish pirates to greatness as one of the one of the most excellent painters of his time.

(finished next post)

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5 Vasari, Giorgio, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptor, and Architects. The Modern Library. New York, 1959. Page 41.

6 Ibid., page 49.

7Ibid., page 108.

8Ibid., page 120.

 

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CURRENT READING – GIORGIO VASARI

“He was not a great artist but he was a good man, and industrious investigator,… a generous as well as intelligent critic. In simple, racy, almost colloquial Tuscan, and occasionally with the vividness of the novelle, he gave us one of the most interesting books of all time… It will remain for centuries to come one of the classics of  the world’s literature.” – Will Durant, describing Giorgio Vasari.1

On this particular vacation through Italy, I brought my 1959 Modern Library version of Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptor, and Architects by Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574). To my great surprise his writing on Renaissance artists includes perspicacious observations on humanity and life, and also many pearls of practical wisdom, which I thought I would share with readers. I will go in chapter order so his philosophical perspectives may appear random though they can be arranged more systematically.

Vasari was born in Arezzo Italy and spent most of his life in nearby Florence. He was a middling painter and architect who obtained lasting fame for this book undertaken at the suggestion of Cardinal Farnese in 1546 and published in 1550. It was he who established the term Rinascita for this period, later morphed into Renaissance by the 18th century French encyclopedists.

The first of his observations occurs while speaking of Luca Della Robbia, “…no one ever became excellent in any exercise whatsoever without beginning from his childhood to endure heat, cold, hunger, thirst, and other discomforts; wherefore those men are entirely deceived who think to be able, at their ease and with all the comforts of the world, to attain to honorable rank. It is not by sleeping but by waking and studying continually that progress is made.”2 Vasari reminds us that purpose requires endurance and sacrifice, and perhaps that suffering is built into it.

And still with Robbia, Vasari describes a version of Laozi’s wu wei: “…whosoever know that all the arts of design, not to speak only of painting, are similar to poetry, know that even as poems thrown off by the poetic fire are the true and good ones, and better than those made with great effort, so, too the works of men excellent in the arts of design are better when they are made at one sitting by the force of that fire, than when they go about investigating one thing after another with effort and fatigue. And he who has from the beginning, as he should have, a clear idea of what he wishes to do, ever advances resolutely and with great readiness to perfection.”3

His comment on Ghiberti sounds like something we might expect to find in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations:  “Since it is seldom that talent is not persecuted by envy, men must continue to the best of their power, by means of the utmost excellence, to assure it of victory, or at least to make it stout and strong to sustain the attacks of the enemy…”4

(continued next post)

 

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1 Durant, Will, The Renaissance. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1953. ISBN 0-671-61600-5, pages 704-705.

2 Vasari, Giorgio, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptor, and Architects. The Modern Library. New York, 1959. Page 12.

3 Ibid., page 15

4Ibid., page 29

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CURRENT READING – JEROME

“True contentment is a thing as active as agriculture. It is the power of getting out of any situation all that there is in it. It is arduous and it is rare.” – G.K. Chesterton.

Still traveling, I return to A Loeb Classical Library Reader referenced in the last post where we find one other thinker who addresses contentment – Jerome (c342- 420 C.E.). His Latin name was Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus but he is better known as Jerome of Stridon or Saint Jerome. His translation of the bible into Latin was the first and came to be known as the Vulgate. He was also a Christian philosopher known for his teachings on moral life mainly to city dwellers and especially to women.1 Today’s selection is from a letter to Marcella written in 385 C.E.

He starts by recounting how Origen2 and his followers spent their time either in prayer or in reading, while in contrast we are easily bored by these activities and soon return to worldly affairs. He has particular scorn for heavy meals, gossip, showy clothing, and the pursuit of wealth, all of which cause conflict in the mind. He explains, “…as today we have traversed a great part of life’s journey through rough seas, and as our barque has been now shaken by tempestuous wind, now holed upon ragged rocks, let us take this first chance and make for the haven of a rural retreat. Let us live there on coarse bread…and on milk, country delicacies, cheap and harmless.”3 Each of the seasons  offer in turn privacy, a place for rest, and escape from the cold unlike in the city where we find an unsettling bustle, fury, madness, and profligacy. Contentment comes from cleaving to God and hope in a future in heaven, not the “poor passing pleasures here on earth.”4

Though separated by 300 years and opposite views on the existence of God, Lucretius and Jerome seem to profess similar paths to contentment. Both urge us to abandon material goods and luxury. Both discount the benefit of society and encourage a return to nature or at least a more natural existence. Their main area of difference appears to be on ultimate reality where Lucretius believes we should contemplate the cosmos and Jerome asks us to seek for the divine. There is much to consider as we reconcile these two with each other and with our cavalcade of other great thinkers.

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 1Wikipedia, Jerome.

2Origen (c. 185–c. 253) was a Christian theologian who contributed to the foundations of church doctrine using classical philosophy to create an exegesis and harmonization of scripture (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Origen [on-line]).

3A Loeb Classic Library Reader. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2006. ISNB 0-674-99616-X, page 231.

4Ibid.

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CURRENT READING – LUCRETIUS

“Who is calm and quiet becomes the guide for the universe.” – Laozi.

On my current vacation to Europe I have with me a treasure I purchased at After-words in Chicago four years ago, A Loeb Classical Library Reader. This small paperback (234 pages) published in 2006 by Harvard University Press contains selections from 33 classic works spanning twelve centuries from Homer to St. Jerome and covering history, philosophy, poetry, drama, and satire in their original Greek or Latin although thankfully accompanied by an English translation. Given our current subject matter on contentment, I was drawn to the selection from On the Nature of Things by Lucretius subtitled The Epicurean ideal: peace of mind.

Lucretius begins by noting the wistful pleasure experienced in seeing another person’s tribulations such as in battling a storm on the sea from a place of safety on the shore, not because of the other’s misfortune, but by virtue of knowing oneself is free from it.1 But, he tells us, there is a greater pleasure in possessing “lofty sanctuaries serene, well-fortified by the teachings of the wise, whence you may look down upon others and behold them all astray, wandering abroad and seeking the path of life – strife of wits, the fight for precedence, all laboring night and day with surpassing toil to mount upon the pinnacle of riches and to lay hold on power.”2

According to Lucretius, Nature sanctions a simpler way focused on the avoidance of pain and a mind free of care and fear. Pain is easily removed by meeting physical needs; luxuries are neither natural nor necessary. Neither beautiful tapestries nor royal robes cure one of sickness. Treasure and noble birth offer little of value to the body or to peace of mind. No army can relieve us of fears, superstition, or the terror of death. Can we doubt “that this power wholly belongs to reason, especially since life is one long struggle in the dark?”3 This kind of darkness is dispelled, not by light, but “by the aspect and law of nature.”4

Lucretius is unambiguous in these passages; peace of mind is the result of reason in harmony with nature not the trappings of society. A contented life we learn requires one to remain above the fray and in touch with the cosmos.

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1 We might think of the pleasure we experience watching storms on The Weather Channel from the comfort of our family room sofa.

2A Loeb Classic Library Reader. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2006. ISNB 0-674-99616-X, page 145.

3Ibid., page 149.

4Ibid.

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CURRENT READING – ON DEATH by MILTON MAYER – PART V

HOW TO DIE

In the concluding segment, Mayer suggests there are three ways to prepare for death – denial, gritty determination, and self-reassurance that everything will be all right afterwards. He hypothesizes that mundane virtues which carry us through life may carry us through death as well, and persons with the four cardinal virtues (fortitude, temperance, justice, and wisdom) in life are unlikely to lose them at death. It is childish to mitigate the fear of death with the hope of eternal bliss; the mature person can accept life’s ending as such.

Besides the horrors of damnation make the believer dread death more than the agnostic. He notes Pierre Teilhard de Chardin doubts God would create a useless hell of eternal suffering; rather nonexistence or simple separation from God is more reasonable. Paul Tillich argues there is little scriptural evidence for an afterlife at all. Resurrection seems untenable, but mere spiritual persistence seems too intangible for orthodox Church dogma. In contrast, he reminds us that William James thought we believe in immortality because we believe we are fit for it and deserve it. Science with its pointless view of life and death fails to meet human needs, so. Carl Jung concludes, “As a physician, I think it is hygienic…to discover in death a goal to which one can strive; and that shrinking away from it is something unhealthy and abnormal that robs the second half of life of its purpose. I therefore consider the religious teaching of a life hereafter as consonant with the standpoint of psychic hygiene.” 19

Mayer arrives at last at his synthesis: ‘If Death cannot be cheated, maybe he can be talked into making it a little easy…Nearly everyone is agreed that the best way to die is not to shuffle and lag, but to be hurrying to do something useful (or something else useful), or at least something urgent that preoccupies the putative victim.”20 And if we die of natural causes and not suddenly, we experience one of life’s supreme experiences. Since it cannot be prevented one might as well view it as an opportunity. By suffering the “sense of dying” one learns about “the conduct of life and the demeanor of its close.”21 He offers two examples: Oliver Wendell Holmes who said “To live is to function. That is all there is in living.” and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu “It has all been very interesting.”22 Since we must die, we should practice it in the death of others and by seeing ourselves as dying.

He closes, “We do not know that there are no worse things than dying. We do know that it would be nice to be rid of the blemishes of this life…Death takes us down a peg or two, too, and cuts us and our furnishings to size; probably not a bad thing for most of us, and maybe the best thing that ever happened to us. Who knows?”23

Seneca could not have said it better!

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19The Great Ideas Today 1965, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1965. Page 147.

20Ibid.

21Ibid., page 148.

22Ibid.

23Ibid.

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CURRENT READING – ON DEATH by MILTON MAYER – PART IV

THE LOVE OF DEATH

In this section Mayer demonstrates how the negatives of life produce a desire for death. “That living should grow no more perfect with our practice of it – and, unlike in all our other undertakings, be most difficult when we have had the most practice of it – is enough to touch every satisfaction with conscious or unconscious unease, every joy with evanescence.”12 Life is indeed universally seen as difficult, full of sorrows, increasing pains exceeding any pleasure, the grind of labor, and worst perhaps, a weary monotony. He quotes an unnamed university president, “The aim of life is to get through it.”13 Even a life of delight looks forward to one incapable of it. Still nearly all hold on for dear life instinctually so it seems.

Death in his view is the failure of a system of systems, not ultimately natural as proved by unicellular organisms; nonetheless human immortality is “untenantable in no time”14 “It is the prospect of death that gives life its form and meaning.” 15 Time is essential to the movement of our lives; it is within us; we, not time, march on. It isn’t even clear we need more time given our tendency to ‘kill time’ or concede we have ‘spare time.’ Freud considered the death instinct (the need, not the desire, to die) stronger than the life instinct and claimed it as the reason for death’s eventual success. “Death is the only cure for what ails us all.”16

THE FEAR OF DEATH

However Mayer recognizes a universal fear of death which he suggests is not in fact the fear of dying, particularly for modern individuals where science eases the suffering of it. And yet we are still afraid. He notes Epictetus thought death was not terrible, only our thoughts about it. Santayana saw a positive in this, “The radical fear of death…is the love of life.”17 Plutarch disagreed seeing the fear of death as just that. Mayer thinks this remains debatable, but we can agree that the source of our dread is our conceptualization of death as eternal night, unimaginable incorporeality and nonsensitivity, and the knowledge one will exist no more. “While I am, reality is. The world began when I was born. It ends when I die. And die I do, and this is unbearable, and I shall bear it.”18

(final continuation next post)

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12The Great Ideas Today 1965, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1965. Pages 134.

13Ibid.

14Ibid., page 137.

15Ibid.

16Ibid., page 139.

17Ibid., page 142.

18Ibid., page 143.

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CURRENT READING – ON DEATH by MILTON MAYER – PART III

THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY

In this section, Mayer grasps at a hodgepodge of items in trying to understand death. He notes all people want to live on in some way, through their children, the memories of friends, or fame. In fact they will die to feel they will live on in these ways. Fame is problematic however; by how many people and for how long? It is uncertain both in occurrence and value, and worst of all, one gets no enjoyment of it after death. Also infamy may be more enduring: “There is more immortality in burning Rome than in saving it.”10

Supposed communication with the deceased and stories of ghosts offer limited evidence of survival of the dead, though a surprising number of people believe in them even in our time. Some think life can be extended through frozen storage though there are few healthy takers. Physicians tell us dying is at last easy – similar to falling asleep – often preceded by a willingness to die. Still there is no returning, so falling asleep every night is no practice at all, and everyone is a novice in dying.

There are two kinds of mysteries in this world – the Unknown and the Unknowable – and death seems to be the latter. However we are reasonably sure being dead entails no physical pain or pleasure. In the absence of resurrection, death should be “eternal rest.” Still most of us would delay death even for a day. Death we know is also the end of all change. He ends with a paradox; life is most devalued in societies with the greatest levels of comfort – perhaps we are bored to death by luxury. But if we risk life we should know “the value of the end and the choice of the means”11

 THE LOVE OF LIFE

In a secular world, life should be dearer given its brevity and the disavowal of an afterlife. Still life requires an objective valuation, presumably based on its meaning or one’s happiness.  Mayer notes this merely pushes back the appraisal to what makes life meaningful or happy. A separate calculus  assesses the value of another person’s life versus that of our own. In this vein we come across a paradox; we are all unavoidably killers (through commission or omission), but we go to great length to deny it. Perhaps this explains sanctions against euthanasia and suicide.

Then there is the matter of the value of the life of an old individual compared to that of a young one. Older people have no less desire to continue to exist while young people are so unconcerned about distant death that comparative valuation is moot – rather life simply bubbles forth in the young. It is not until perhaps age 45 that the reality of death sinks in and life is consciously valued. Nonetheless while life expectancy has increased over time, prolongation comes at increasing cost with advancing age. Moreover the human life span seems fixed, and the rapid speed of human progress has diminished the value of the wisdom of the elderly due to unavoidable obsolescence.

(concluded next post)

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10The Great Ideas Today 1965, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1965. Pages 121.

11Ibid., page 126

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CURRENT READING – ON DEATH by MILTON MAYER – PART II

IMMORTALITY

Mayer believes death has a different meaning for us if we survive it versus if we do not; but this difference is an empirical problem for which we have no empirical evidence at all. There simply are no probabilities either way; we either do or we don’t and even an agnostic view imposes some risk for our understanding on life and death. One’s opinion is in effect an extension of one’s worldview; that is, a sensible universe holds a promise of immortality while a purposeless one does not.  He concludes “Death, and death alone, is at once a totally objective and a totally subjective reality.”5

He then examines various perspectives. Our ancestors hoped for salvation in a then unchallenged matrix of religious belief. In contrast Paul Tillich, the modern Protestant theologian, argues the tragic consequences of truth revealed by science do not justify its denial, transforming the question into whether humanity can find sufficient meaning in a diminished place in the cosmos or will turn to newer ‘theologies’ such as Fascism or Communism. Erich Fromm thinks that psychoanalysis can reconnect us to the unconscious which in turn is associated with religious feelings and frees us from individuation in favor of the All. The great existentialists such as Jean Paul Sartre think each person must seek on their own “freedom-toward-death” and liberation from terror in order to achieve “authentic existence” as an individual.

Instead of modern pessimistic notions of life as absurd we may choose instead to circle back to ancient pre-Christian philosophies of happiness in harmony of the soul, virtue, and the secular ‘blessedness’ touted by Aristotle. If these possibilities are real, then death “even as the end of the ‘biological entity’ may still crown something more than a farce.”6

BURY THE DEAD

Man, thinks Mayer, is defined by his burying of the dead – as opposed to our reaction to the deaths of thousands, or millions – but by the seriousness symbolized in the funeral procession. But humans also the only animals to celebrate death, seeking splendor in the deceased through ritual. He quotes Patrick O’Donovan on funeral rites, “It is a gesture made over and over again…a proud, half-conscious assertion that man is not an animal that dies alone in a hole.”7 Moreover he notes a paradox; supernaturalists and naturalists agree on this ‘half-conscious assertion’ – whether one believes in immortality or not, one believes in the ritual; even though neither should logically attach significance although for opposite reasons.

Bereavement is another feature of humanity. As         Freud tells us, we assume a special attitude to the dead, suspending criticism and recalling only that which is favorable to their memory. Freud tells us “consideration for the dead, who no longer need it, is dearer to us than the truth, and certainly for most of us, is dearer also than consideration for the living.”8 This attitude towards death according to Freud impacts our own lives. Life is impoverished and uninteresting when life itself may not be risked, but when death occurs “not one by one, but many at a time…Life has, in truth, become interesting again; it has regained its full significance.”9

(further continued next post)

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5The Great Ideas Today 1965, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1965. Pages 113

6Ibid., page 115

7Ibid., page 116

8Ibid., page 117

9Ibid.

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CURRENT READING – ON DEATH by MILTON MAYER – PART I

“Immortality is the hinge on which death hangs. – Milton Mayer.1

 

 

Several years ago my wife gave me The Great Books series as a birthday gift, and shortly thereafter I was at a local charity’s fundraising book fair where a collection of the annual updates, The Great Ideas Today (1961-1993), was for sale for $1.00 per volume. These precious books offer an immense amount of traditional and contemporary writing filling over 10,000 pages, including this 40-page essay in the 1965 issue.

Milton Mayer (1908-1986) was a journalist by trade, reporting on executions, murder and suicides in Chicago. By age 30 he was teaching at the University of Chicago and by 1965 was a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts. He claimed “in all modesty to know as much about death as any man alive.”2 While I cannot confirm the validity of that statement, his thoughts seemed worth a few hours of reading and three or four blogs.

He divides his essay into eight parts: an introduction, Immortality, Bury the Dead, The Undiscovered Country, The Love of Life, The Love of Death. The Fear of Death, and How to Die.

Is your interest piqued yet?

INTRODUCTION

He starts, “Death is the one idea that has no history…Only death stands unmoved by man’s relentless compulsion to know.”3 In fact, he believes we don’t even know what death is other than as the negation of the idea of life and as such “an irremediable deprivation, possessed of no trace of existential reality”4 There is no report of the experience of death, but he thinks poets understand it best. Three aspects of modernity impact contemporary thinking on death – longevity, secularization, and total war. On the one hand, we may be able to extend life with science, however we remain certain death cannot be prevented. The demise of religion is likewise the downfall of the afterlife, and as such humanity turns from God’s work of ‘Life and Death’ to man’s work of ‘A Better Life.’ In opposition are recent historical events such as the carnage of the first World War, the mass exterminations in Nazi concentration camps, and the annihilation of entire human populations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki – events which suggest that death instead is the work of humanity and deprive it of individuality. In the end, death, and so life, are seen as absurd leaving only the futile hope of  a modicum of dignity in our dying.

(continued next post)

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1The Great Ideas Today 1965, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1965. Pages 113.

2Ibid., page 109

3Ibid., page 107

4Ibid.

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