Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Every two weeks, I go to philosophy class here at Terwilliger Plaza. The class is taught by Hugh Harcourt, an elegant, erudite, eloquent retired professor of philosophy who encourages class discussion of philosophical topics by giving us snippets of famous philosophers to read and by being graciously willing to take any side of any argument to keep class conversations going. He is generous with his deep understanding of the people he introduces to the thirty or so of us who gather very fortnight. The class, titled "Inquiring Minds", is one of the highlights of my time here.

I joined the class as we were discussing Thucydides. We've done several weeks on Plato (whom I liked and am reading "Plato at the Googleplex" to get more about) and several more on Aristotle (whom I found rather distasteful with his "take everything apart" approach and "ethics as community median" ideas of how to live).

But today's class was exceptional. We are talking about the Stoics, reading Cleanthes' Hymn to the Sun and a couple dozen excerpts from Epictetus. Toward the end of the class, we started talking about the Stoics and death. Epictetus compared life to the experience of a ship's passenger who has debarked for a bit to wander around on land. He advised the passenger to keep always one eye on the ship, awaiting the Captain's call to reboard, lest the passenger be trussed up like a wayward sheep and carried back against his will when the ship again set sail.

The underlying idea was to keep the idea of death always before you so that when your time comes, you are ready to accept it. Someone in the class cited "Thanatopsis", the poem by William Cullen Bryant, as agreeing with the Stoic view:

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which move
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

Someone else cited Dylan Thomas on the other side:

Do not go gentle into that good night. 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And someone asked, "If we're going to end up dead in either case, what difference does it make?"
This led to a discussion of the idea of a "good death", which in turn led to remembrances of the recent
death of someone many people in the class had known, and how his death had been a good death.

This is a wonderful place, where people for whom aging and death are not mere theory can talk 
about what it means to have a good death, citing great literature amid consideration of great thought.
This is a place where I can learn how to age and how to die without the lessons being in the least
morbid or sentimental. Moving here was definitely a good move.


  1. Enjoyed hearing about that wonderful conversation your group is having! And I especially enjoyed the last sentence of your post.

  2. One of my favorite William James quotes:

    This sadness lies at the heart of every merely positivistic, agnostic, or naturalistic scheme of philosophy. Let sanguine healthy-mindedness do its best with its strange power of living in the moment and ignoring and forgetting, still the evil background is really there to be thought of, and the skull will grin in at the banquet.