Sunday, March 16, 2014

To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die

Death on the Barricades, Alfred Rethel

Death can surprise us in so many ways:

Quid quisque vitet, nunquam homini satis
Cautum est in horas.

[No man knows what dangers he should avoid from one hour to another.] 
Leaving aside fevers and pleurisies, who would ever have thought that a Duke of Brittany was to be crushed to death in a crowd, as one was during the state entry into Lyons of Pope Clement, who came from my part of the world! Have you not seen one of our kings killed at sport? And was not one of his ancestors killed by a bump from a pig? Aeschylus was warned against a falling house; he was always on the alert, but in vain: he was killed by the shell of a tortoise which slipped from the talons of an eagle in flight. Another choked to death on a pip from a grape; an Emperor died from a scratch when combing his hair; Aemilius Lepidus, from knocking his foot on his own doorstep; Aufidius from bumping into a door of his Council chamber. Those who died between a woman’s thighs include Cornelius Gallus, a praetor; Tigillinus, a captain of the Roman Guard; Ludovico, the son of Guy di Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua; and – providing even worse examples – Speucippus the Platonic philosopher, and one of our Popes. [...] 
To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness; let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death.  
At every instant let us evoke it in our imagination under all its aspects. Whenever a horse stumbles, a tile falls or a pin pricks however slightly, let us at once chew over this thought: ‘Supposing that was death itself?’ With that, let us brace ourselves and make an effort. In the midst of joy and feasting let our refrain be one which recalls our human condition. Let us never be carried away by pleasure so strongly that we fail to recall occasionally how many are the ways in which that joy of ours is subject to death or how many are the fashions in which death threatens to snatch it away.  
That is what the Egyptians did: in the midst of all their banquets and good cheer they would bring in a mummified corpse to serve as a warning to the guests:

Omnem crede diem tibi diluxisse supremum.
Grata superveniet, quæ non sperabitur hora.

[Believe that each day was the last to shine on you. If it comes, any unexpected hour will be welcome indeed.] 
We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practise death is to practise freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. Knowing how to die gives us freedom from subjection and constraint. Life has no evil for him who has thoroughly understood that loss of life is not an evil.

Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays.

Death as a Friend, Alfred Rethel

In an old tower just below the belfry, in the place where they ring the bells: there is Death again in his pilgrim's dress, tolling for one who is just dead, the Sacristan of that Church; this Death is draped tenderly down to the feet; there is no maddening horror about him, awe only; he is not grinning as in the other picture, but gazes downward, thoughtfully, almost sadly, thinking of the old man's life that has been. And he, with his hands laid together and his eyes closed, is leaning back in his chair: many a time these latter years has he leant back so; then needs must that he rise stiffly and wearily to go about his duties; but now he need never rise again; his lips, parted a little now, need never again be drawn together close, at sight of weary injustice and wrong; he will soon understand why all these things were. The dragons on the spire eaves lean forward open-mouthed, disappointed because he has got quit of all that now; near the head of him against the wall is a figure of Christ on the Cross, a Bible is open by the side of him; near the stairs is a horn hanging, a huntsman's horn, and through the window, on the sill of which a bird is singing, you can see the fair sunset-country stretching away for leagues and leagues (for we are high up here, just under the spire). 
They say he was a hunter in the old time, this man; that he heard the north wind sing about his ears, as he dashed over the open spaces; that the young beech-leaves in the early summer quivered at the blasts of his horn; that many a time he rode into that village you can see down there, wherein he was born, where his father and his father's father lived, weary with riding; that some one used to look out for him when he rode in, in the evenings. But that too is all gone by—only in memories perhaps—yet he had other hopes then perhaps than this, a mere old sacristan dying lonely in the old belfry.
What matter? for the setting sun is bright over all that country, and the bird sings still in the window sill—not afraid of death.

William Morris, "'Death the Avenger' and 'Death the Friend'," 
Oxford and Cambridge Magazine (August 1856) via Laudator Temporis Acti

Death the Avenger, Alfred Rethel

In 1844 Rethel visited Rome, executing, along with other subjects, an altar-piece for one of the churches of his native land. In 1846, he returned to Aachen, and commenced his Charlemagne frescoes. But mental derangement, attributed, it is believed, to an accident that he suffered in childhood, began to manifest itself. While he hovered between madness and sanity, Rethel produced some of the most striking, individual, and impressive of his works. Strange legends are told of the effect produced by some of his weird subjects. He painted Nemesis pursuing a murderer across a flat stretch of landscape. A slaughtered body lies on the ground, while in front is the assassin speeding away into the darkness, and above an angel of vengeance. The picture, so the story goes, was won in a lottery at Frankfurt by a personage of high rank, who had been guilty of an undiscovered crime, and the contemplation of his prize drove him mad. 
Another design which Rethel executed was "Death the Avenger," a skeleton appearing at a masked ball, scraping daintily, like a violinist, upon two human bones. The drawing haunted the memory of his artist friends and disturbed their dreams; and, in expiation, he produced his pathetic design of "Death the Friend." Rethel also executed a powerful series of drawings "The Dance of Death" suggested by the Belgian insurrections of 1848. It is by such designs as these, executed in a technique founded upon that of Albrecht Dürer, and animated by an imagination akin to that of the elder master, that Rethel is most widely known.

Nemesis, Alfred Rethel

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