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Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Death's Thousand Doors

In a previous posting (“Never Trust a Judge to Do a Philosopher’s Job”) I quoted Seneca’s Phoenissae, l. 152: “Anyone can stop a man’s life, but no one his death; a thousand doors open on to it”. The “doors to death” metaphor has been a common one through the ages. The image seems to be most characteristic of the Stoics, though it is to be found in other classical sources.

Among the ancients, it appears in the following sources: Epictetus, Discourses, 1.9: “Slave, if you get it, you will have it; if you do not get it, you will depart; the door stands open” and I.25: “For one ought to remember and hold fast to this, that the door stands open.” There is also Virgil, Æneid, 6.127: “Noctes atque dies patet atri Janua Ditis” (“The Gates of Death are open Night and Day”); and Juvenal, Satires, III.274-275: “adeo tot fata, quot illa / nocte patent vigiles te praetereunte fenestrae” (“As you pass by at night, there are precisely as many causes of death [literally “fates”] as there are open windows watching you”).

Among later authors we have Michel de Montaigne, Essays, II.3 (“A Custom of the Island of Cea”): “She [Nature] has ordained only one entry into life, and a hundred thousand exits”; John Webster, The Dutchesse of Malfy (1623), IV.ii.215-216: “I know death hath ten thousand seuerall doores / For men, to take their Exits”; Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici (1643), Pt. I, §44: “and considering the dores that lead to death [I] doe thanke my God that we can die but once”; Philip Massinger, A Very Woman (1655), V.iv: “Death hath a thousand doors to let out life”; and John Milton, Paradise Lost, XI.466-470:

"Death thou hast seen
In his first shape on man; but many shapes
Of Death, and many are the wayes that lead
To his grim Cave, all dismal; yet to sense
More terrible at th’ entrance then within."

In addition, there is Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub (1704), “Epistle Dedicatory”: “Books, like Men their Authors, have no more than one Way of coming into the World, but there are ten Thousand to go out of it, and return no more”; Lord Shaftesbury, Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), I.179: “But tho there are Doors enow to go out of Life, they find it convenient to keep still where they are”; Joseph Addison, Guardian No. 136 (17 August 1713): “Some of our Quaint Moralists have pleased themselves with an Observation, that there is but one Way of coming into the World, but a thousand to go out of it”; and Addison, Cato: A Tragedy (1713), V.ii.14-18:

"Now, Caesar, let thy troops beset our gates,
And bar each avenue, thy gathering fleets
O’erspread the sea, and stop up every port;
Cato shall open to himself a passage,
And mock thy hopes."

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