June 14, 1755
I read your last with great Pleasure, and I most heartily concur in the Sentiment express’d therein. Too often the Flights of Philosophers soar too far from Safety when not tether’d to the firm Bedrock of a virtuous Way of Life.
I was of late reading LUCRETIUS (though it shou’d be made plain I am no Partisan of the Epicurean School). There is a Passage in the third Book of the De Rerum Natura that I affirm to be an Example of just such a loose Argument. I do not claim to blame this Failure on the Man’s lack of virtuous living. However, although I cannot swear to the illustrious Poet’s Virtue, ST. JEROME wou’d have it believ’d that he died after being driven mad from a love Potion he had imbib’d, a Circumstance which, if true, wou’d discover a certain Licentiousness in his Character.
In any event, Lucretius advances his Argument in support of the Proposition that we ought not to dread the Prospect of our impending Mortality. Here are his lines:
Nil igitur mors est ad nos neque pertinet hilum,
Quandoquidem natura animi mortalis habetur;
Et, velut anteacto nil tempore sensimus aegri,
Ad confligendum venientibus undique Poenis,
Omnia cum belli trepido concussa tumultu
* * *
Sic, ubi non erimus, cum corporis atque animai
Discidium fuerit, quibus e sumus uniter apti
Scilicet haud nobis quicquam, qui non erimus tum,
Accidere omnino poterit sensumque movere,
* * *
Respice item quam nil ad nos anteacta vetustas
Temporis aeterni fuerit, quam nascimur ante.
[“Therefore death is nothing to us, it matters not one jot, since the nature of the mind is understood to be mortal; and as in time past we felt no distress, while from all quarters the Carthaginians were coming to the conflict, when the whole world, shaken by the terrible tumult of war… so, when we shall no longer be, when the parting shall have come about between body and spirit from which we are compacted into one whole, then sure enough nothing at all will be able to happen to us, who will then no longer be, or to move our senses… Look back also and see how the ages of everlasting time past before we were born have been to us nothing." De Rerum Natura, III.830-834,838-841, and 972-973 — Ed.]
Lucretius’ Argument is thus: Just as we do not bother ourselves over the vast stretch of Time when we did not yet exist, so we ought likewise to feel no dread of the coming stretch of Time wherein we shall have ceased to be. From this I can teaze out two different strands of Argument, the first of which has too little Import to merit our Admiration. The second, though more interesting, depends on a verbal Trick which, when discover’d, makes the philosophical Victory slip through the Author’s fingers.
Lucretius might intend the following: our not existing during the Time before our Births was no Evil, because we were not there to suffer it; likewise, we will not exist after we are dead; therefore, our being dead is likewise no Evil. Now, if this be his Meaning, and further granting him that which is plain Pagan Error, namely that there is no Existence after Death, then the Argument is plainly true. But we are concerned with the Attitude towards his own Death of that Person who yet lives. Plainly such a Man would not obviously be mistaken in mourning the loss of that which he is now in Possession, namely his Life. Therefore, the Argument is of limited Utility.
Perhaps Lucretius intends the following: I do not now dread the time before my Birth, in which I did not yet exist; so likewise I should not now dread the time to come when I shall not exist. Now here is an Argument of more Import. It is nonetheless erroneous for at least two Reasons. First, the time of my Birth is an Event unalterably fixt in the Past. Because I can do nothing to Shift that Event, it can make no sense to mourn or fear it. But the Time of my Death is not yet fixt (or not yet known, which is much the same); therefore, it makes sense to dread that unknown Time when I shall lose what is of utmost Importance to me, which is my very Life. ‘Tis true that all must succumb to Mortality, the common Lot of all Men. Therefore, it boots us little to dread the fact that we must die. But we may yet dread the dying before we have sufficiently savoured of Life. Which is why we mourn for those who pass early but not so much for those who have spent their allotted fourscore and ten.
But there is yet another Way in which the Argument errs. The two Stretches of Time, the one before Birth, and the one after Death, are not enough of a kind to bear such comparison, and not only because — as we have seen — the one is fixt and the other is not. It is patent Nonsense to be told we ought not dread that which is to come because we do not dread that which passed; for it makes no sense to say that “I do (or do not) dread the Flood, or the invasion of HANNIBAL.” To say such a thing is to misemploy the very word “dread”, in such a way that the utterer must put himself in jeopardy of Bedlam. We may, of course, regret that which is past, but to dread it is incomprehensible. But when we substitute Terms, we derive a Conclusion which is invalid: from the Premise “I do not regret not existing in the Time before my Birth,” it does not follow that therefore “I ought not to dread the time when I shall cease to be,” for we are missing a Middle Term.
Such an absurd construal of the term “dread” makes evident the Observation of TULLY, that sed nescio quo modo nihil tam absurde dici potest quod non dicatur ab aliquot philosophorum [“somehow or other no statement is too absurd for some philosophers to make.” Cicero, De Divinatione, Bk. II, ch.119 — Ed.].
We may derive more Comfort from a Saying of the witty Monsieur BRUYÈRE, that if some Men died while others did not, then Death would truly be a terrible Affliction [Jean de La Bruyère, Characters, “Of Mankind”, §43 — Ed.].
I remain, Sir,
Your humble Servant, etc.
Jos. Darlington, Esq.