In the Hall of Mourning, There are Many Mansions

Elmer Sprague in His Prime

In the Hall of Mourning, There are Many Mansions 

A friend got in touch Sunday evening a week ago to tell me he’d been scheduled for the gravest kind of surgery in the morning.  My friend has been a colleague and witness to many of my life’s twists and turns, the rough and the smooth. The report after surgery?  If the medical experts are to be credited, he is looking at about a year of “heroic” treatment, postponing but not preventing the end.

Medical verdicts do not negate collegiality.  I feel that we are going through this life-and-death tunnel together, as we went through so much else.

What is death?  And btw, what do we aim for in life?  I think one hopes to have a certain degree of integration of mind and body.  The way a painter, when he paints, doesn’t ask, what part’s my mind and what part is my body.  Since life is not a painting, the real-life “integration” is achieved when what I say is what I really think and a fair guide to what I will do, on fitting occasions.  One wants to get body – or field of action — and mind together in one package.

It takes a good while before one begins to learn how to do that.  But – if such are the great lessons of life — death seems to ask one to undo all the work one has expended to get on good terms with one’s body.

There is a rabbinic midrash [story or lesson drawing out the meaning of a Biblical text] that captures my point.  In the story, God comes to Moses to inform him that it’s time for him to die.  Moses protests.  They go back and forth, Moses advancing one reason after another why it’s a bad idea, and God still insisting that it’s time.  Finally, Moses comes to his last argument:

“I will never have a body as beautiful

as the body of Moses!”

God can only answer with a kiss on the mouth of Moses.  In God’s kiss, the soul of Moses is lifted from his body!

What does the story mean?  We don’t think of Moses in aesthetic terms.  That’s not because the Bible glosses over the plain fact that some people are lookers.  Like Sarah as a bride, the young Joseph or the young David.  All those characters were good to look at.  But Moses is not young by the time he has his last argument with God.  It’s not the beauty of youth that he’s trying to defend.  What then?

He’s trying (my guess is) to protect the beauty of a put-together, grownup life.  It’s a life where he has sought the truth.  His word is good.  You can depend on it.  He will do what he says, so far as he is able.  You can see that at a glance.

Ideally, philosophy should help one get into that condition. Yet Socrates said that all philosophy is the study of how to die.

I am truly puzzled.  If philosophy (or whatever method one finds) enables one to integrate thought and action and thus achieve “the body Moses had,” then philosophy is what helps one to live.  How can it also help one to die?  Wouldn’t death, from the vantage point of such an achievement, be the hardest job you could give to a philosopher?  A nearly impossible, always unwelcome job?

I’m talking about what a dear and close philosophical colleague is facing.  What we all must face.

Wasn’t Socrates wrong?

It’s like going to be hanged when you’re innocent of the crime for which sentence has been passed.  Wouldn’t you think, this shouldn’t be happening!

There are theological doctrines that deem none of us innocent.  Okay, I mean relatively innocent.  Innocent of cynicism, of deliberate wickedness, of not being who you say you are.  Sufficiently innocent so that you can say, “I’ll never have a body this beautiful” – no matter how you look cosmetically.

No.  A body/mind harmony like that cannot possibly want to separate body from mind, or think such a tearing-apart anything other than premature.

If God wants such a person to quit this life without further argument, He will have to spirit him out of it

                          with a parting kiss.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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