Socrates philosophised as the hemlock kicked in, Vespasian quoted verse – but of all the ideas we have inherited from the classical world, the very worst, writes Mary Beard, is the myth of a ‘good death’
The last words of the Roman emperor Vespasian were a joke. “Damn,” he is supposed to have said on his deathbed in AD79, “I think I’m turning into a god.” This was not merely a wry reflection on the peculiar Roman custom of turning dead emperors – the good ones, at least – into divinities. (And, sure enough, before the year was out, Vespasian really had become a god, with his very own temple and priests.) His words also served as a reminder to family, friends, courtiers and subjects that this famously down-to-earth, no-nonsense ruler had remained down-to-earth and no-nonsense even unto death. The old man had died with his wits, and his wit, still about him. It was a “good death”, Roman style.
There are plenty of other stories of Roman notables handling their last moments with similar aplomb. The first emperor Augustus, for example, is said to have stage-managed his own end in AD14, with memorable efficiency. He asked for a mirror, had his hair combed, then called in his friends and asked them whether he had “played his part well in the comedy of life”. And just to emphasise the point, he quoted some well-chosen last lines from a comedy by the Greek playwright Menander:
“Since the play has been so good, clap your hands / And all of you dismiss us with applause.”
Then, to complete this well-choreographed finale, he made tender inquiries about the health of a young relative, embraced his wife – and died, mid-kiss, right on cue.
The Romans, of course, didn’t invent this idea of a controlled, tidy, well-planned and witty exit. It goes back to ancient Greece and the philosopher-guru Socrates, who was put to death in Athens in 399BC for a variety of crimes, including corrupting the young and introducing new gods. His pupil Plato recreated that death in a best-selling essay, known – after one the characters at the bedside – as the Phaedo. It inspired philosophers, intellectuals and martyrs ever after.
Here we read of Socrates drinking the hemlock (the execution method-of-choice in classical Athens), and continuing to philosophise – with apparently effortless calm – while his body grew gradually numb from the poison. As the numbness neared his heart, just in time, he reminds his grieving friends to do their religious duty by making an offering to the god Asclepius. They were obviously liable to forget, but not the dying philosopher, who still had his mind on the job:
“‘Crito,'” he says, to one of those present, “‘we owe a cock to Asclepius. Pay it and do not forget.’ Crito said, ‘It will be done. But see if you have anything else to say.’ To this question, he made no reply … These had been his last words.”
Some Romans were so enamoured of this particular scene of dying that they tried to replicate it – with all the theatrical showmanship that they could muster, but not always happy results. Seneca, the Roman philosopher who had once held the unenviable job of tutor to the young emperor Nero, killed himself in AD65. He aimed for a Socratic death, and had even arranged for a secretary to be on hand to take down his last, philosophical, words, for future publication – and immortality. The secretary did his job, but Seneca’s attempts to open his veins were repeatedly botched until eventually he had to fall back on some hemlock. When even that failed, he was dipped in a hot bath to encourage the blood to flow. It worked in the end, but Seneca – the Roman Socrates – had turned out to be very bad, and slow, at dying, where Socrates himself had proved the expert.
This failure of Seneca to replicate Socrates hints at a bigger problem with the ancient view of death and of the processes of dying. The ancient Greeks and Romans have given us many of the tools with which we still understand the world, from democracy to dictatorship, philosophy to pornography. There is much we can learn from them, even now. But one of the very worst ideas we have inherited from the classical world is the idea of the “good death”, in which the man (and, in these stories, it usually is a man) remains in charge of his destiny right until the very end – joking with his friends, planning his exit strategy, and never once losing control, or his distinctive, individual character.
For a start, most of those ancient stories cannot possibly be true. We cannot now check out what Vespasian or Augustus really did say on their deathbeds. But the chances are that their reported last words and actions were a combination of wishful thinking, convenient propaganda, rumour and outright invention. It was certainly in the interests of the scheming empress Livia, Augustus’s widow, that the world should picture the old emperor passing away with a kiss for his wife still lingering on his lips.
We do, however, know the effects of drinking hemlock, as Socrates did. It’s not, in fact, a nice or a dignified way to go, with a gradual numbness creeping gently up the limbs, and all the faculties left intact until almost the last minute, when the heart stops beating. True, it depends a bit on the precise species of hemlock that you take (some varieties are nastier than others). But you could normally expect agonising cramps, vomiting and terrible convulsions – which not even the most single-minded philosopher could manage to think, or talk, his way through. The myth of the sage, philosophising his path to death, unmoved by the disintegration of the body, is just that – a myth.
But, to press this a bit further, these stories of “good” ancient deaths, true or not, have bequeathed to us a version of dying that we can never live up to in real life (or in our real dying). It may be a different matter in the movies. Remember Ali MacGraw, dying of leukaemia at the end of the film Love Story. In a way that would have delighted even Socrates’s friends, she stayed just as beautiful as she had been at the beginning, even if she got gradually paler as she reached her last breath. The same may be true for novels, where death is often reached with Roman – and utterly implausible – dignity. When Oscar Wilde quipped about Charles Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop that “it would require a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell”, he was not simply pouring scorn on a certain type of Victorian sentimentality. He was reminding us of something we all know already: that death never actually comes pretty; that no matter how we choose to represent it to ourselves, it can’t ever be “good”.
For the truth is that dying is nasty, undignified and uncontrolled. Or so my limited observation of it has suggested. The human body is, after all, designed to be tough. The price we pay for surviving minor accidents, for our capacity to fight routine infection and disease, and – let’s not forget – for the miraculous advances of modern pharmaceuticals, is a heavy one: that is, it takes a major, or horribly sustained, onslaught to kill us off for good. It is, in other words, very, very difficult for a human being to die. We may be lucky and get speedily dispatched by a well-aimed bullet or by a big enough heart attack. But the likelihood is that we will take a long time to leave this world, as the cancer works its way through to our most vital organs, or as the brain, the lungs and the heart gradually shut down. We might choose to see the bright side of this, and mutter gamely about “getting our affairs in order”. But we would be kidding ourselves if we thought that, in the end, our addled bodies would be able to seize the opportunity for some witty last words, as the ancient myth suggests. There will be no cleverly choreographed deathbed scene; almost certainly we will be in pain, and not in control.
Personally, I am hoping for one of those massive heart attacks (not the little sort that merely leave you an invalid). So too are most of the doctors that I know. Going out with a bang on the golf course is the physicians’ preferred exit route. Though quite why they persist in prescribing for the rest of us pills that will make such an event less likely and consign us to far less desirable forms of death, is a bit of a mystery. I’m still waiting to meet a medic who greets my high blood pressure and raised cholesterol with a smile and a warm prediction of a premature but speedy end.
If I can’t go quickly, then all I can realistically hope for is a hospital regime that doesn’t ration the morphine. But on that model, I am very unlikely to “be myself” in my last days and weeks; I shall be in some medicated limbo, halfway out of the living world. Either way – whether the swift or the lingering exit – there is not going to be much of a chance of uttering those characteristic last words for the family and friends to carry away in their memories. There will be only moans and groans. Let’s be realistic.
As is the case for most people, the deaths I have observed at closest quarters – too close, perhaps – are those of my parents. My father’s death ran more or less according to my own Plan B. He was in hospital for several weeks, drugged up to the eyeballs, incapable of normal communication, and stripped of most of his dignity. It’s not pleasant to see your elderly parent lying partly covered by a single sheet, naked and catheterised. But if the choice is between pain and loss of dignity, most of us, when it comes to it (whatever we like to think in advance), would choose loss of dignity. In Dad’s case the medicated limbo lasted for some time, and it wasn’t actually clear to me when he died; it certainly wasn’t when the hospital rang one night to say that, in their terms, he was now gone.
My mother did it quite differently, and I’m sorry to say that there was more than a touch of the Socratic about it. She, too, had had cancer for some time, but was still living semi-independently in sheltered housing, while having a course of palliative radiotherapy. It was palliative only; a cure was not in prospect. One night, alone, she had a horrible haemorrhage. Getting up, she called an ambulance, which came to take her on what she must have known was her last journey to hospital. She was, in fact, dead within a couple of hours. But, bleeding as she was, she did not leave her flat without putting out a note for the milkman. “No milk today; will let you know when to start deliveries again.”
I know she did this, because I found the note. I didn’t manage to get to the hospital in time to see her alive (or even half alive). So I went round to her flat and saw it there, still sticking out of the bottle.
My first reactions went along the old Roman lines. How reassuring, I thought, that she was compos mentis almost up to the end. Even in her last hours and bleeding, she still had the domestic chores well organised. That was my mum …
But my second thoughts were, and remain, rather different. How strong was the grip on her of that ancient myth of a well-presented death, that even as she bled her way out of life, she was forced to put on this display of control. Couldn’t she have just let go and died? There was something almost pitiful in that need she must have felt to live up to the image of good and organised dying.
For the note was, after all, just a display. What on earth was the point of cancelling the milk? The milkman hadn’t even picked the message up. And would it have mattered anyway if a few full bottles had stood out on the doorstep for a while?
Or even, to go back to Socrates, would it really have mattered if that cock hadn’t been offered to Asclepius?
Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/mar/21/philosophy