Change and Continuity in History. 1

Cathédrale Marie-Reine du Monde. Montreal. Click for credits

Cathédrale Marie-Reine du Monde. Montreal. Click for credits

This conversation between Paul Costopoulos, a Canadian of French and Greek descent, and Man of Roma, started from the noble death of the Stoicists and landed on many themes such as religion, the Old and the New World and change and continuity in history.

Paul
As for Antiquity as much respect as I may have for that era and it’s people I pretend that the mores then current are not relevant today.

MoR
Well, I don’t know Paul. Here in Europe religion is waning, people are trying to understand what their values are and sometimes do embrace weird beliefs (have you ever heard of the Temples of Damanhur in northern Italy?)

Personally, I prefer to get back to our Greco-Roman roots, which is not a barren exercise, ancient thought being totally incorporated in modern thought. As for Stoicism, human equality and brotherhood or natural law are elements of its legacy. And I wish I had a better knowledge to tell you how much of the American constitution is ‘ancient’.

Even in my curious for-fun exploration of science I recently discovered this connection between Pythagoras and the modern theories of the universe. We can ‘make sense’ of the universe, stated both Pythagoras and Einstein. Is there an affinity between our rationality (math etc.) and the universe? Fascinating theme.

I mean, WE are the ancients Paul …

The Majestic Sombrero Galaxy (M104). Click for credits

The Majestic Sombrero Galaxy (M104). Click for credits

Paul
I was steeped in classicism and Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy. A potent mix. However over the years I have taken leave of organized religions but not of the values I got from that environment. As many seem to have done, I have not thrown the baby with the bath water. This being said I have not reversed to Paganism.

As for the Stoicists, I respect their opinions like I respect other point of views but suicide is not my cup of tea to solve any problems whether of honor or health or a way to escape execution…let the tyrant kill me, I will not give him the pleasure of doing it for him.

As for being “Ancient” that notion is intriguing. I guess some of the values I still adhere to may make me Ancient, but I also feel modern and with my time. I’m sure you do too, otherwise what would we be doing here.

MoR
I feel modern too and I also feel that we basically agree. Although I think there are at least 2 differences between us:

1) I am agnostic, I don’t much imagine somebody superior up there (although how can I know) and I think that if this Being exists there’s no evidence that He really cares for us;

2) belonging to the 2 opposite sides of the pond we might have a different perception of what is change & continuity in history.

As for point 1) I confess I feel some void since I used to sincerely pray Jesus and my guardian angel before going to sleep until I was 12. Then I stopped. I attribute to this imprinting – not to Jesus’ power – the fact that when I go to bed I often need to read valuable books, and I found that classics, poetry etc. work fine for me, they give me peace and help me counter today’s superficiality.

Am I a neo-pagan? No Paul, I am not. Art and thought suffice. I am well aware I’m not such a great intellectual, but my approach suits me. I’m content with it.

[As for point 2 see the next post]

Paul
We are not so different. Yes, I believe in a God … but I cannot be sure there is one, this is called faith.
As for continuity well on this side of the pond, as you say, we keep on speaking European languages, we learn European history since our roots are out there. Even our monuments are, very often European inspired, for instance the Catholic cathedral in Montreal, Marie-Reine-du Monde, is St-Peter Basilica redux even to Bernini’s torsados over the Altar [see the image at the top of the page, MoR.]
We may look at diversity and development with less apprehension than Europeans though and we question the past maybe more easily, it is less heavy on us, what is 600 years compared to Rome’s over 3000? We cannot say as Serbia’s foreign minister during the most recent Balkan’s war: “My country has too much History!”

(The conversation continues within this post and its comments section.)

Eluana, or Man’s Ultimate Freedom. Ending One’s Life. 2

Lucretia stabs herself after rape. Joos van Cleve, Flemish artist, 1485 - 1540. Click for credits

Rape and death of Roman Lucretia

To her husband’s question, “Is all well?,” Lucretia replied:

“Far from it; for what can be well with a woman when she has lost her honour?
The print of a strange man is in your bed. Yet my body only has been violated;
my heart is guiltless, as death shall be my witness.” …

Taking a knife which she had concealed beneath her dress, she plunged it into her heart,
and sinking forward upon the wound, died as she fell.

(Livy Book I. 57-60)

Ψ

A discussion about the acceptable reasons for ending one’s life (see our previous post) can profit from the opinion of our forefathers, the Ancients, and from that of the Renaissance men, who channelled ancient thought into modernity.

This post is not a paean to suicide. I am sure Eluana Englaro and Terry Schiavo loved life: was theirs an acceptable life though?

Most of the quotes are taken from the French Renaissance writer Montaigne (II:3), whose Gutenberg English text is available in the translation of Charles Cotton (1630 – 1687). See also the original French text.

Note to readers

To many, old writings are a terrible bore.
They are wrong in my view.
Ancient writings, actual time machines connecting the past to the present, are mind expanding and one of the pleasures of life.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

“The wise man lives as long as he should, not as long as he can” said Seneca, who nobly committed suicide when accused of an attempt on emperor Nero’s life. And Cicero said that while “life depended upon the will of others, death depended upon our own.”

Greco-Roman writers like Plutarch expressed great appreciation for anyone who showed this kind of ultimate dignity.

Tacitus admires Boiocalus, a German chief, “who said to the Romans that he and his tribe might lack enough land to live upon, but land sufficient to die upon could never be wanting.”

Plutarch tells us of this Spartan boy “sold as a slave and by his master commanded to some abject employment, who said: ‘You shall see whom you have bought; it would be a shame for me to serve, when freedom is at reach,’ and having so said, threw himself from the top of the house.”

Ancient thought didn’t always condone suicide. Plato didn’t accept it and the Roman poet Virgil (Aeneid, IV, 434-437) destined those who committed suicide to a region of the afterlife where they were overwhelmed by sadness (tenent maesti loca).

But the prevalent Roman ideal was that of the stoic sage who counted on reason and self-control and who was not afraid of pain or misfortune (see our post ‘On solitude‘). Should life become unbearable, or should one face great dishonour, the Romans of both sexes were not hesitant to commit suicide.

Death was considered an act of ultimate freedom and this was deeply ingrained in the Roman tradition. “Nature has ordained only one entrance to life – said Cicero – but a hundred thousand exits.”

Death was less important than the way of death, which had to be decent, full of dignity, rational (and sometimes theatrical,) while to the Christian mind, self-killing being a sin, suicide is often a desperate, irrational action fruit of depression.

Among famous examples of suicide are Lucretia, Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony (and Cleopatra,) Cato the younger (see picture below), Seneca, Lucan, Petronius Arbiter etc. plus a good number of emperors, Nero, Maximian, Otho, Quintillus etc.

Common people as well considered dignity more important than life in many cases.

Cato of Utica reading the Phedo before comitting suicide. Jean-Baptiste Romand & François Rude (1832). Photo by M. Romero SchmidkteRoman stoicism deeply influenced the West despite the victory of Christianity. “For much of modern Western history, Stoic ideas of moral virtue have been second to none in influence” (Ecole Initiative, Early Church On-Line Encyclopedia.)

We see examples of noble death in Shakespeare, who, like all his contemporaries from Renaissance, felt the influence of ancient thought. The imagination of the Victorian British was captured by Cato’s death (see image on the right), «clawing out his own entrails to avoid Caesar’s despotism — as a courageous and noble death.”

Montaigne, imbued with Roman stoicism, refers how “Alexander laying siege to a city in India, those within, finding themselves very hardly set, put on a vigorous resolution to deprive him of the pleasure of his victory, and accordingly burned themselves together with their city, despite his humanity.” He seems to praise that the Indians preferred a death with honour rather than a life without it.

Montaigne adds a moving example:

“Nothing can be added to the beauty of the death of the wife of Fulvius, a good friend of Augustus. Augustus having discovered that his friend had vented an important secret he had entrusted him withal, one morning that he came to make his court, received him very coldly and looked frowningly upon him. Fulvius returned home full of despair, where he sorrowfully told his wife that, having fallen into this misfortune, he was resolved to kill himself.
To whom she frankly replied, ‘Tis right, seeing that having so often experienced the indiscipline of my tongue, you could not take warning: but let me kill myself first,’ and without more ado she ran herself through the body with a sword.”

Montaigne, quoting Pliny the elder, observes that the mythical Hyperboreans, “when weary and satiated with living, had the custom, at a very old age, after having made good cheer, to precipitate themselves into the sea from the top of a certain rock, assigned for that service” (see our series on the Hyperboreans.)

“Unbearable pain and the fear of a worse death seem to me the most excusable incitements for suicide” is Montaigne’s conclusion.

He was a sincere Christian. But he found inspiration and solace in the teachings of antiquity.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 123 other followers