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Memento Mori, The Love That Lays the Swale in Rows, Wait But Why?

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Memento Mori

Philosophy has a thing for death.

The image above? That’s Jacques Louis David’s The Death of Socrates, depicting Socrates—sentenced to death by his fellow Athenians for impiety and for corrupting the youth—arguing and teaching even as he reaches out to drink the poisonous hemlock that will bring a swift and sure death.

Note how Socrates is the only one in the scene in control of his emotions.

Note, further, how comfortable he is, how relaxed.

And why shouldn’t he be relaxed? After all, from Socrates’ perspective, he is living his best life: surrounded by friends, clinching a syllogism about the immortality of the soul, tunic all askew to reveal abs to die for (not that he even notices, mind you: he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t pay attention to his body at all, but still manages somehow to have a stellar physique.)

David’s depiction of Socrates’ death, based on Plato’s dialogue the Phaedo, is meant to dramatize for us a singularly astonishing and heroic accomplishment: the facing of certain death with perfect equanimity, even with a kind of welcoming embrace.

But from Socrates’ perspective, there is nothing unusual or astonishing about his death at all. In fact, as he often said, he spent his whole life practicing for death. Philosophy, he would say, is nothing other than a preparation for death.

“The moment has arrived? Very well. I’ve been working for precisely this my whole life!”

For Socrates, the astonishing thing would be to find oneself unprepared for death. What could be more certain than the fact that each of us will die?

To be surprised by what is an absolute and certain necessity? For a philosopher like Socrates, this is the very height of foolishness.

And yet, and yet …

It is one thing to acknowledge in a vague and general way that I am a biological organism subject to natural limits entropy.

It is another thing to really internalize this knowledge; to live my death each day; to feel it in my bones, so to speak.

All human beings are mortal
Socrates is a human being
Therefore Socrates is mortal.

Yes, a perfectly valid syllogism. I assent. The conclusion follows with logical certainty from the premises. … But what does it have to do with me?

Yet the long philosophical tradition has always had a thing for death.

For, whatever it is that we fear most to face, whatever it is that we would prefer to avoid at all costs—that is just where we are most likely to be blind to the distinction between appearance and reality.

And a life spent blinded to reality, no matter how long it takes refuge in comfortable appearance, is ultimately a life that is no life at all.

It is, in fact, a kind of death, a death-in-life. It is worse, even, than natural death, lurking as it does in the midst of our attempts to avoid the inevitability of biological death. It is a spiritual death, a death of honesty, courage, dignity, and freedom.

Memento mori: “remember that you will die”. This has long been the rallying cry of philosophy.

Why? Because, while death is not the only truth, it is an absolute truth of an unavoidable reality. It is a truth that I share with all those who live, and one that I cannot wish away, no matter how unpleasant it is to face.

Far from a morbid, life-denying obsession, however, philosophy’s concern with death is ultimately a concern with truth.

For when we begin to learn how to acknowledge and to face the unavoidable reality of our own immanent deaths, we start to learn how to love the truth more than we love our own sheltering illusions.

It is a precious freedom, this living in the truth.

One that makes life very much worth living.

The Love That Lays the Swale in Rows

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

“Mowing”, by Robert Frost
A Boy’s Will (1913)

Frost’s poem is a gentle ode to proportion in human craft, a hymn to the fittingness of labor and accomplishment.

I was introduced to “Mowing” this week by way of an essay written by Nicholas Carr on his blog Rough Type.

The essay is worth a read (yes, this a bonus reading recommendation) for two reasons.

First, because Carr offers insightful commentary on the poem. Reflecting, for instance, on the line

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows

Carr writes:

There are mysteries in that line. Its power lies in its refusal to mean anything more or less than what it says. But it seems clear that what Frost is getting at, in the line and in the poem, is the centrality of action to both living and knowing. Only through work that brings us into the world do we approach a true understanding of existence, of “the fact.” … Labor, whether of the body or the mind, is more than a way of getting things done. It’s a form of contemplation, a way of seeing the world face-to-face rather than through a glass. Action un-mediates perception, gets us close to the thing itself. It binds us to the earth, Frost implies, as love binds us to one another. The antithesis of transcendence, work puts us in our place.

Second, because Carr, who became famous for his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brians (first published in 2010, updated in 2020), uses the poem as an occasion to reflect more widely on how we use technology in all our labor, and how technology’s immediate boon—it’s extension of power beyond our bodily limits—subtly shapes our perception of self, society, and world, and not always to our individual or collective good.

Find some time to read Carr’s essay, “The love that lays the swale in rows”, this week.

Cultural Event

Wait But Why?

Wait But Why is a quirky website featuring occasionally-published thought experiments accompanied by poorly-drawn stick-figures.

I’ve dipped in and out of the site’s essays over the years, and while I haven’t always been bowled over, there’s enough thoughtfulness and whimsy there to keep me circling back every few weeks.

In short, I recommend the site, with the caveat that you’ll know if Wait But Why is for you after skimming through a few of the essays.

But even if you pass on the site, take five minutes to read The Tail End. Consider it a modern take on the memento mori.