17 April 2012

On the Folly of Fearing Death

Morley Roberts, in his thinly disguised biography of George Gissing, The Private Life of Henry Maitland (London: Eveleigh Nash, 1912), p. 291:
For ever on looking backwards one is filled with regrets, and one thing I regret greatly about Henry Maitland is that, though I might perhaps have purchased his little library, the books he had accumulated with so much joy and such self-sacrifice, I never thought of this until it was too late. Books made up so much of his life, and few of his had not been bought at the cost of what others would consider pleasure, or by the sacrifice of some sensation which he himself would have enjoyed at the time. Now I possess none of his books but those he gave me, save only the little "Anthologia Latina" which Thérèse [i.e., Gabrielle Fleury, Gissing's French translator and later his companion] herself sent to me. This was a volume in which he took peculiar delight, perhaps even more delight than he did in the Greek anthology, which I myself preferred so far as my Greek would then carry me. Many times I have seen him take down the little Eton anthology and read aloud. 
I assume this was the anthology compiled by the Rev. Francis St. John Thackeray (1832-1919), since he was assistant master at Eton. Flipping through the fifth edition on Archive.org (London: George Bell & Sons, 1889), I found a passage from the third book of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura under the heading On the Folly of fearing Death. As I noted earlier, it was in this spirit that Gissing faced his own end:
Denique si vocem rerum natura repente
mittat et hoc alicui nostrum sic increpet ipsa:
'quid tibi tanto operest, mortalis, quod nimis aegris
luctibus indulges? quid mortem congemis ac fles?
nam si grata fuit tibi vita ante acta priorque                 935
et non omnia pertusum congesta quasi in vas
commoda perfluxere atque ingrata interiere;
cur non ut plenus vitae conviva recedis
aequo animoque capis securam, stulte, quietem?
sin ea quae fructus cumque es periere profusa            940
vitaque in offensost, cur amplius addere quaeris,
rursum quod pereat male et ingratum occidat omne,
non potius vitae finem facis atque laboris?
nam tibi praeterea quod machiner inveniamque,
quod placeat, nihil est; eadem sunt omnia semper.     945
si tibi non annis corpus iam marcet et artus
confecti languent, eadem tamen omnia restant,
omnia si perges vivendo vincere saecla,
atque etiam potius, si numquam sis moriturus',
quid respondemus, nisi iustam intendere litem            950
naturam et veram verbis exponere causam? 
John Selby Watson's translation, from On the Nature of Things (London: George Bell & Sons, 1893), p. 139:
Furthermore, if Universal Nature should suddenly utter a voice, and thus herself upbraid any one of us: "What mighty cause have you, O mortal, thus excessively to indulge in bitter grief? Why do you groan and weep at the thought of death? For if your past and former life has been an object of gratification to you, and all your blessings have not, as if poured into a leaky vessel, flowed away and been lost without pleasure, why do you not, unreasonable man, retire, like a guest satisfied with life, and take your undisturbed rest with resignation? But if those things of which you have had the use have been wasted and lost, and life is offensive to you, why do you seek to incur further trouble, which may all again pass away and end in dissatisfaction? Why do you not rather put an end to life and anxiety? For there is nothing further which I can contrive and discover to please you; everything is always the same. If your body is not yet withered with years, and your limbs are not worn out and grown feeble, yet all things remain the same, even if you should go on to outlast all ages in living, and still more would you see them the same if you should never come to die." What do we answer to this, but that Nature brings a just charge aguinst us, and sets forth in her words a true allegation?
Thomas Charles Baring's translation, from The Scheme of Epicurus (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, & Co, 1884), pp 152-3:
Moreover, if the gift were ours to hear and understand
The voice of Nature suddenly thus scolding one of us;
"What, mortal, is so much amiss, that so lugubrious
To sickly grief thou yieldest ? Why bemoanest thou in tears
Thy death? If joy companioned thee in all the bygone years,
If thine advantages in life were never found to fail,
Nor perished thankless, run to waste as through a riddled pail,
Why art thou such a fool as not, like some well-plenished guest,
To make thy bow to life, and hie content to careless rest?
But if thy life be but offence, if all thy garnered store
Of weal be spent and finished, why yet seekest thou for more,
To end again in evil case, like seed on thankless soil?
Were it not best to shorten life, and with it shorten toil?
For I have nothing left unused, nor any scheme can frame,
Or find, to give thee pleasure. All things always are the same.
Yea, though with years thy body did not wither, even though
Thy limbs grew never faint nor weak, all things would still be so;
E'en if thy life should be prolonged to see go rolling by
Age after age, nay even if thou never wert to die!"
What should we have to answer, save to own that Nature's laws
Were just, and her indictment showed a true and rightful cause?