Death is the Good Guy?
By Karl Schudt, Seminar Host
Are you ever annoyed by the powerful? Are you ever resentful? There seems to be lots of people who go through life without much effort, but have means and money to do whatever they want without care. I know that I sometimes feel offended, resenting the high and mighty. I also know it’s not the best way to feel. I’ve found, in the Great Books, all while using the lost tools of learning, some ways to deal with that resentment.
In Alcestis, Euripides presents an argument between Apollo and Death. After offending Zeus, the god Apollo was forced to serve a mortal man as punishment, and found the rich Admetus a good host. As a result, Apollo brokers a deal where Admetus can trade his death for someone else’s. Death objects to the deal, pleading his case, and I was surprised to find myself agreeing with him against Apollo:
“It is unfair to take for your own/ and spoil the death-spirits’ privileges.”
In what way could Death have privileges? Isn’t Death a monstrous god who ruins everyone’s happiness, eventually? Could he have justifiable rights? Maybe he could have legal claims, but could Death also be a sympathetic character, someone wronged? I wanted to know more:
“What you propose, Phoebus, is to favor the rich.”
“Those who could afford to buy a late death would buy it then.”
It seems that Death is egalitarian. He demands the same thing from everyone, rich and poor. Death is a leveler. I think Death is right. If a late death could be purchased, the rich would do it. The gap between the powerful or lucky ones and the rest of us would grow. It isn’t hard to imagine what would happen if immortality could be purchased. Those who could, would, thus becoming gods to the rest of us.
But Death has rights, at least so far. He hasn’t been conquered. We have not yet conquered mortality through technology. Everyone still dies. It’s the one thing that every human being shares. No matter how rich you are, no matter how powerful, no matter how favored by fortune, you’re still going to die. All great powers have expiration dates, because all humans expire. Sic transit gloria mundi: thus passes away the glory of the world.
Apollo’s attempt to cheat death for his friend bothers me. It’s unfair. It offends my sense of justice. But the magical way in which Hercules, like a deus ex machina, fixes the story and gives Admetus and his wife a happy ending doesn’t really happen. Death will have his rights. Tyrants die, poor men die, everyone dies, and remembering that everybody has to die moderates my resentment. I don’t feel so bad. Admetus and his ilk will come to the same state in the end, as will I, and it makes all of us equal, eventually. I don’t feel so bad.
This reflection is presented for edumacational and infotainment purposes only. Taking this to be an authoritative interpretation will likely lead you to make many bad choices, corrupt your virtues, multiply your vices, and lead into the life of a tyrant. The writer was probably using a triple Platonic-Socratic-Kierkegaardian irony, and may not mean a word that he or she wrote. If, that is, the writer actually exists. This essay is probably just an emanation of the weltgeist or a bit of a spark of the eternal Heraclitean flux. Don’t take it too seriously. Join the discussion at Online Great Books.