Indifference to death is the supreme claim of a successful moral theory. Mortality, the biblical threescore and ten years we are given on this earth, is and was the human condition for the ancients and the moderns. Transcendence of mortality therefore becomes a categorical imperative for any moral theory to attain success.
At a recent alumni dinner where there were a number of attorneys, i asked some of my colleagues around the table if they had given any thought to the afterlife. Most of the people at the table looked at me as if I had landed from another planet. I pressed the point, and asked, you get ready for trials, but what about the ultimate trial, the final trial, the final judgment in the life to come? Don’t you want to be ready for that? Again, blank faces and almost no thought given to the concept in the slightest. I found this interesting, and wanted to give it some thought. This essay was the result.
Maybe this is what is wrong with the legal profession today. Lots of ethics courses, but no courses as to the essence of ethical thought–the soul and its salvation. And yet Plato and Aristotle, especially Plato, write about the soul, about lawyers and the salvation of the soul in the life to come, and about ethics, almost to the exclusion of all else. And of course, Christianity absorbs Plato through neo-Platonism, and a lot of Aristotle too. So have we forgotten everything we learned back at the dawn of Western thought? Have we forgotten that you can’t take it with you, to paraphrase a famous play we used to read in prep school? That a rich man will find it harder to get into heaven than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle? That Lazarus will be by God’s side while the rich man will be burning from thirst in hell? Have we forgotten all of this in our search for worldly rewards?
I assume we all agree here that Bernie Madoff is definitely going to hell, but we’re not sure what level of Dante’s Inferno he’s being assigned at present.
So here are a few comments on four ethical systems that have given plenty of thought on this matter, and incidentally, most every lawyer in the greco-roman world was at the very least, a stoic or a christian.
Characteristically convergent in the three moral systems of Stoicism, Spartanism and Samurai/Bushido is the conquest of death through roughly parallel means. Christianity in its neo-platonic formulation through the Hellenistic church fathers, starting with Clement of Alexandria and running through the Greek Church Fathers, St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nazianzen, St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. John Chrystostomos, and finding its eventual final expression in St. Augustine, a much later Latin church father, also conquers death as well.
As St. John Chrystostomos so memorably puts it, “Death, Where is Thy Sting?” However, Christian eschatology and cosmology sharply distinguish it from the Stoic, Spartan and Samurai traditions. There will be a second coming, and a second judgment, a final judgment, but so long as the Christian adheres to the seven sacraments and worships through the Church, his salvation is ordained, and he or she will be saved in the life to come. Here, we are speaking of the early Eastern Christian church, 100 AD – 1000 AD, as opposed to the later Western church, 1000 AD – present, which was split by the east-west schism, the Albigensian Crusade, the 4th Crusade, the Crusades in general, the Protestant movements, and so on. The early Church, by contrast, was relatively unified (setting aside the Arian, Manichean and Nestorian and other heresies, which are not material here) and was constituted by its seven ecumenical councils as a unified and generic whole. Even as to the schismatic churches of the Near East, the churches of Nestorianism and so forth, which had millions of adherents up through around 1400 AD in Syria, Iran, China and many other areas where the majority religion was either Muslim or other, the message was the same, that death could be overcome by salvation through the Church.
By Stoicism we refer to the ancient Greek philosophy which emerged in Athens at the stoa, which is best known by the work of greek philosophers such as Epictetus, and follow it to its most perfect expression in the Roman philosophies of such writers as Cicero and Marcus Aurelius. The Roman/Latin followers of stoicism, of whom there were many, were comfortable with stoicism, since it was perfectly suited to a milititaristic society ruled by capricious and arbitrary imperial factions which could change suddenly and without warning, often with drastic policy implications. Because conditions were constantly volatile at the micro level, even though there was an overall “pax Romana,” stoicism was an ideal philophy.
We note in this introduction the essentially dual character of stoicism, as both a military and an ethical philosophy, one ideally suited to the greek or roman warrior or pacific citizen alike. The warrior at peace in stoic tranquility could perform his military assignments with a minimum of moral concern either for his enemy’s or his own death; likewise the citizen going about his tasks was also able to work hard, indifferent to illness, suffering or the exigencies of mortality, and to the machinations of politics and the state.
Turning to the Spartan way of life, which was essentially a philosophy and ethical system, again we see a military and ethical system in place. First, we define the Spartan system as that system in place in Ancient Sparta from roughly 700 BC to approximately 350 BC, when the Spartan State began to lose its military supremacy to Thebes, and lost its martial character and started to blend shortly thereafter into the larger Hellenistic World created by Alexander the Great and his Successors.
During their time of glory, the Spartan method of training and educating their men and women was legendary throughout the ancient world, and it has come down to us even in the present day. The very word “spartan” connotes sparse, spare, lean and other similar adjectival synonyms. That a spartan soldier would fight to the death was a given; that he was happier to die gloriously in battle than to die and old man in his village was well-known. Thus even Pericles was known to quote the Spartans in saying that a good death in battle could wipe out a lifetime of evil deeds. But the Spartans virtue was a sort of corporate virtue, not the individual Achaean virtue or heroism of Achilles or Ajax; Spartans fought as a team. Their methods were legendary; their morality their code.
Finally we have the samurai, who lived by the code of bushido. In this moral code, elaborated on many occasions by learned samurai, the samurai warrior, who was always a learned man fluent in poetry, calligraphy and the arts, as well as the martial arts and the sword, was to consider himself at all times as if he was already dead. This core, bedrock principle of bushido, along with the zen Buddhist principles of “no mind” or “empty mind”, encapsulate bushido’s essential qualities—the clear-minded warrior, ready to strike, unafraid of death because in his mind, he has already died, and thus is already prepared for death. Such an adversary must have been dangerous indeed.
That there are parallels between these three systems with regards to their attitudes towards death and mortality is self-evident from our brief discussion. A longer exegesis would examine all of these systems in greater detail, but this brief review suffices to carry across the general motive and ethical points.
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