All summer in the Northern hemisphere the world has been under water or on fire. In the United States, where I live, our political establishment stays ground to a halt, either incapable of acting to save our future or unwilling to accept that we are outpacing any reasonable forecasts for climate change. All of us slipping ever farther into what once would have been considered apocalyptic science fiction. Oh, I also turn 45 this month.
The combination of the steady normal march of age and the constant anxiety that our children’s generation’s best hope is mere survival to middle age has me wool-gathering more than usual. I wonder constantly how I have lived wrong, how the study of the vaunted ‘wisdom of the ancients’ has brought us to this place, and whether it has anything left to teach us. (Spoiler alert: it might still.)
What’s the use of received wisdom if it does not lead to a better life? On days of celebration from birthdays to New Year’s Eve I like to recall a fragment found in the margins of texts of Plato’s Gorgias, ascribed to either Simonides or Epikharmos, usually labeled as Carmen Covivialia 890. It is a drinking song, riffing on the archaic Greek subject of what is best in life.
The song declares: “The best thing for a mortal is to be healthy / And second, to be pretty. / Third is to be wealthy without deceit. / And fourth, is to be young with friends.” As far as drinking songs go, this probably improves on Chumbawumba’s “I get knocked down / but I get up again”. And, while there’s little in it anyone could disagree with, it rings more of an elegy than a celebration in my middle age. I do (currently) have my health, so maybe that’s enough.
To stick with my elegiac mood, one of my favorite instances of the memento mori (remember you are mortal) motif is the epitaph for Sardanapallos–the Greek version of Ashurbanipal–preserved in the 8th book of Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists. The short poem tells the reader to “fill your heart / By delighting in the feasts: nothing is useful to you when you’re dead.” This is a good reminder! It continues by declaring “I am ash, though I ruled great Ninevah as king. / I keep whatever I ate, the insults I made, and the joy / I took from sex. My wealth and many blessings are gone.”
As far as advice for human life goes, this seems at first pretty good. If even a great king like Ashurbanipal tells us that wealth, accomplishment, and glory are no more significant than the other pleasures we have experienced in the end, why shouldn’t we mere common folk take comfort in the same?
Not for one alone
Yet, the epitaph leaves me with discomfort. It is one thing to enjoy what life has to offer, but the pleasures mentioned here seem personal and cut off. Where the drinking song at least mentions being young with friends, Ashurbanipal doesn’t bring up other people or families at all. What of parents, spouses, siblings, and children? What of the world that continues after we’re gone?
At its best, Ashurbanipal’s epitaph may sound Epicurean; at its worst, it rings of a kind of destructive selfishness. In recent years it has reminded me of an anonymous epigram preserved in the Greek anthology, an apocryphal quote attributed to the Roman Emperors Tiberius and Nero by some: “When I’ve get, the earth can be immersed in fire; I don’t care at all–I’ll be totally fine.” In its end, the self-interest of a king like Ashurbanipal is about one’s own experience.
There’s something about the ‘fire’ epigram that sticks with me every day: it is not the willful, and somewhat understandable, denial of death we might expect, but a nihilistic insistence that all that matters is your individual life. For me, this is the animating spirit of corporations and politicians that refuse to do anything about climate change and make plans for their survival and maybe some profits along the way.
Live an examined life – with others
When I look around at Greek philosophy in popular culture–especially the contemporary use of Stoicism as a kind of self-help–I find myself deeply depressed by its regressive individualism. For the most part, this is not philosophy; it is the appropriation of the past to make us more comfortable with our current ways of living.
Philosophy should make us uncomfortable! It should help us see ourselves as part of a world, where our actions and inactions have consequences for other people. Nothing in excess, know thyself–I cannot help but imagine that the Socratic injunction to live an examined life is not merely an individual choice about personal experience–life is lived with others!
Nothing in excess, know thyself–I cannot help but imagine that the Socratic injunction to live an examined life is not merely an individual choice about personal experience–life is lived with others!
What we say about ancient wisdom today largely depends on which words and voices we raise. We are already at a disadvantage because we did not preserve the words and thoughts of most women, children, and enslaved people from antiquity. But different ideas and counter-lives are available if we listen closely. The poet of victory hymns, Bacchylides, long and probably rightly seen as second rate to the more well-known Pindar, has left us a few lines that I think of almost every day now in his third Epinician: “Since you are mortal, you need to cultivate / two ideas: that tomorrow is the only day / when you will see the light of the sun / and also that you will live fifty further years, with overwhelming riches.”
These lines ring truer to me the older I get. They also have something to teach us about the years to come. Climate change is an extinction-level event. It is nearly impossible for us to fully comprehend this. We were always going to die, as individuals and as a species. Yet living only for us and the moment deprives us (and those we love) of future days in the light.
It is an oft-spoken truth that knowledge of life and death is that unique human condition. But we need nuance to this: we must struggle to live well despite or despite the fact of death. If living well includes preserving the opportunity for all children and their descendants to do the same, then we need to follow the words of Bacchylides, to accept that we may die tomorrow, but make provisions for all the years to come.
Joel Christensen is Professor and Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs at Brandeis University. He has published extensively and some of his work include Homer’s Thebes (2019) and A Commentary on the Homeric Battle of Frogs and Mice (2018). In 2020, he published The Many-Minded Man: the Odyssey, Psychology, and the Therapy of Epic with Cornell University Press.