Episode 26: The Ideal and the Art of Dying, Part 2

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That we do not have a right to those we love.

One of the characteristics of the Idealists we’ve studied is that for the most part they are not ascetics, withdrawing from the world to seek unity (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  While Plato, Plotinus and Ficino never married or had children, they did have a large and active circle of friends and worldly responsibilities.  Socrates, Taylor and Emerson had wives and children, although in the case of Socrates it could be said that his students were his real children.  In short, they all were surrounded by people they loved, and who loved them, and they experienced the death of some they loved.  How they handled these deaths says a lot about them, and about the Ideal from which they drew their strength.

Giambettino Cignaroli (1706- 1770) The Death of Socrates

Giambettino Cignaroli (1706- 1770) The Death of Socrates

The death of Socrates has of course become the stuff of myth.  We have already quoted (Episode 25)  extensively from Plato’s account of his death in the Phaedo, and it is evident that he did not fear death, consistent with his expressed belief in the immortality of his soul.  But it is the very human reactions of the disciples in his cell that evoke the sympathy of those of us who are disciples after 2500 years.  He has “convinced” us all that “Then, Cebes, beyond question, the soul is immortal and imperishable, and our souls will truly exist in another world!”  And yet when the poison is spreading through his body and he remains calm and still, the disciples break down in grief anyway.

And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept, not for him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having to part from such a friend.

That’s really the crux of it, isn’t it?  Based on what Socrates has taught, there should be rejoicing in the cell, but we weep; we weep for ourselves, for our own loss, our own deprivation, our own calamity.  We know the world is transient, but we wish it to endure; we know that everything and everyone in it is leased, but we wish to possess.  Learning that we do not have a right to those we love, that in believing so we limit ourselves and the loved one, is one of the most profound lessons we can learn from philosophy.

There is perhaps no better example of one who did learn this lesson than Emerson.  Long-lived himself (he died at 79), he experienced many premature deaths, starting with three siblings who died in childhood, and his father who died when Waldo was eight.  Two other brothers, Edward and Charles, with whom he was very close, died a couple of years apart in their twenties.  But none of these deaths in his early years affected him as deeply as did that of his first wife Ellen Louisa Tucker.

Emerson had met her while preaching in Concord, New Hampshire when he was 24 and

Ellen Tucker Emerson, 1811-1831

Ellen Tucker Emerson, 1811-1831

she was 17.  They were married in 1829.  Emerson had been appointed to be pastor of the Second Church of Boston, a prestigious position that also brought him more money than he had ever known.  He was on his way to being a respected and respectable minister like his father.  Ellen was delicate and already suffering from tuberculosis, but they both prayed that she would be cured.  When she died on February 8 1831, Emerson went numb.  Five days later, writing in his journal, the entry is painful to read.

Never any one spake with greater simplicity or cheerfulness of dying.  She said, ‘”I pray for sincerity & that I may not talk, but may realize what I say.”  She did not think she had a wish to get well, & told me “she would do me more good by going than by staying; she should go first & explore the way, & comfort me.”  ….One of the last things she said after much rambling and inarticulate expression was “I have not forgot the peace & joy.” And at nine o’clock she died.  Farewell blessed spirit who hast made me happy in thy life & in thy death make me yet happy in thy disembodied state.¹

The  passage in its entirety represents a struggle between his wanting to hold onto her and his realization that she had her own mission to fulfill.  He grieved, obviously, but he is remarkably free of self-pity, anger, or bitterness.  He continued to address her in his journals, and as time went on he seems to have realized that her death was meant to free him from the path of convention and respectability on which he had embarked.  Ten years later, in his essay Compensation,  he wrote:

And yet the compensations of calamity are made apparent to the understanding also, after long intervals of time. A fever, a mutilation, a cruel disappointment, a loss of wealth, a loss of friends, seems at the moment unpaid loss, and unpayable. But the sure years reveal the deep remedial force that underlies all facts. The death of a dear friend, wife, brother, lover, which seemed nothing but privation, somewhat later assumes the aspect of a guide or genius; for it commonly operates revolutions in our way of life, terminates an epoch of infancy or of youth which was waiting to be closed, breaks up a wonted occupation, or a household, or style of living, and allows the formation of new ones more friendly to the growth of character.

So death is not a loss to the one who dies, and it need not be a loss to the ones who live.  In everyone’s life there seems to be someone, personal or public, who “volunteers” to die in order to end an epoch and to force us to confront the transitory nature of the world.  Otherwise we just coast along, fat and happy, thinking we will live forever.

But this lesson must be continuously learned.  By the time Emerson wrote “Compensation,”  having stepped off the path of convention he was treading in his twenties, he was becoming famous again as a writer, lecturer on the Lyceum circuit, and the most public face of what was being called “Transcendentalism.”²  He had bought his capacious house in Concord, remarried, and had three children.  Then on Jan. 27 1842, his firstborn, five-year-old Waldo, died of scarlet fever, and again Emerson was plunged back into a kind of free-fall.  “Sorrow make us all children again, destroys all differences of intellect.  The wisest know nothing.”³

Grave of Waldo Emerson, 1836-1841

Grave of Waldo Emerson, 1836-1841

At these times the loss seems to outweigh all that we still have–we cannot see past it.  And when we fall into the personal and separate, it puts to the test our faith in and even knowledge of the Good.  We see only injustice, privation, sorrow, calamity.  Emerson certainly felt this too, as seen in his poem on Waldo’s death, Threnody.  It begins with a vivid account of his grief:


The South-wind brings
Life, sunshine and desire,
And on every mount and meadow
Breathes aromatic fire;
But over the dead he has no power,
The lost, the lost, he cannot restore;
And, looking over the hills, I mourn
The darling who shall not return.

and goes on to describe Waldo’s angelic nature.  But just as he begins to lose himself in self-pity, “the deep Heart answered,” and tells him:

But thou, my votary, weepest thou?
I gave thee sight–where is it now?
I taught thy heart beyond the reach
Of ritual, bible, or of speech; …

Wilt thou not ope thy heart to know
What rainbows teach, and sunsets show?
Verdict which accumulates
From lengthening scroll of human fates,
Voice of earth to earth returned,
Prayers of saints that inly burned,–
Saying, What is excellent,
As God lives, is permanent;
Hearts are dust, hearts’ loves remain;
Heart’s love will meet thee again.

So although there is still the sense of separation, Emerson realizes that Waldo has not died, that there is always the Unity beyond the physical body.  And some ten years later, he seems to address both the death of Ellen and Waldo in his poem Brahma4, using a Sanskrit term for the One, acknowledging the Unity beyond the manifestations and dissolutions of our forms. We can know this Unity, but only if we let go of all our limitations, even the wish for immortality.

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near,
Shadow and sunlight are the same,
The vanished gods to me appear,
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.

¹Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson in His Journals,  selected and edited by Joel Porte, Harvard University Press, 1982, p. 74-75

²As we’ve seen, although wary of any “ism,” he preferred the term Idealism.

³Ralph Waldo Emerson, op. cit, p. 277

4The reference to the “red slayer” has been seen as a symbol for the blood from Ellen’s tuberculosis as well as the scarlet fever that took Waldo.  The third verse is quoted in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.