Have you ever looked upon the faces of men waiting to die? Yes. How did it make you feel? Like I was in good company. What’d you do then? I lost my patience. — Prometheus
Ars Vitae — Art Of Life
There’s never enough time is there? Just when you think you’re getting the hang of things… it’s almost over. Take comfort in the knowledge that you’re not the first nor the last to contemplate their own mortality. It’s a tradition going back as far as Hippocrates and certainly beyond even that. The eternal paradox of our unrealized potential and the futility of trying to reach it. Yet in that impossible dream are birthed the ideas that change the world. While art goes on the artist is forgotten. We’re all consumed eventually and though we stoically march on only a few of us find any sense of peace with our dilemma. Misunderstanding a common inheritance enjoyed by all mortals.
Years into a good life you’ve laughed more than most, smiled as much as any, and loved more than you expected. You’ve suspected you aren’t so important and the truth isn’t so far away. No one gets to stay long, but you’ve seen enough to know it’s good to move on.
Yet even that uneasy truce with our expectations is easily broken through self doubt and fear. The narcissism of believing we’re owed an explanation when the mystery will have to suffice unexplained. We don’t ever really know why something is the way it is. We might know how, but why is a fiction of moments long past enjoyed by producers who have since fossilized in the verisimilitude of yesterday. Third party memories corrupted beyond reason. Not even the original artist can reproduce the primordial at will such is the serendipitous nature of creativity. Do what you can, when you can, while you can, cause soon you can’t so you won’t ever again.
Ars longa, vita brevis
Life is short,
and art long,
and judgment difficult.
For clarity read the word art to mean craft or technique; not high art as is painting or sculpting. The purview of our celestial father Prometheus, Titan god of foresight, creator of mankind and giver of fire through which we built civilization. Craft work in the pursuit of reliable capital production. Long and prosperous contributions to the zeitgeist. The means… the practiced skills and the will to succeed where others have failed.
“The physician must not only be prepared to do what is right himself, but also to make the patient, the attendants, and externals cooperate.” — Hippocrates. Thus in plainer language “it takes a long time to acquire and perfect one’s expertise (in, say, medicine) and one has but a short time in which to do it”.
“Life is short, Art eternal” — Ancient Greek aphorism
Though we struggle vainly against the passing of the hours we must accept that time limits our accomplishments. If we try to measure our life’s worth by the work we’ve done we quickly discover a race we’ve already lost before we’ve even begun. However, once we start to identify our unique contributions the truth is revealed. Our ideas… our original point of view stands apart from all else in this Universe. This is what our mortality has bought us. That which is focused through our eyes like a lens refracting a colour no-one has ever seen before.
Consider this simple message left on a 19th century grave.
“He sleeps wrapped in the cold vestments of death. He left life’s brightening scene for the soft gloom of this earth walled grass covered little room. Where sorrow comes not. Where he ne’er can know again life’s life devoted to the doom of death. The bright sun which once illuminated his way now throws its glance on his cold turf alone and the life inspiring air which he once breathed now only lifts the green grass near his grave. The place which knew him shall know him no more forever. Reader, he has tasted death as thou must. And shortly, too. He is launched on the boundless ocean of eternity. Prepare, to meet thy certain doom.” — John, loving brother of Dr. Samuel Brewster II. Circa 1835.
We pay the river man with the currency earned by our ideas. The gold coin placed in our corpse’s mouth represents all that we have produced in our life. We give it freely; satisfied we’ve gotten our money’s worth. Death is a metaphor for the complete consumption of the commodity which represents our capital value. In practice we’re always dying until we’ve died our last death. Pieces of ourselves passing back and forth across the veil with every breath we give and take.
Recognize that our living body is just currency. Just another mechanism for trade. Just another gold coin. We consume our life marker so our capital can reach its fullest potential… so our society can grow and prosper and offer similar opportunities to those who will soon arrive in our absence. This is the secret of Styx. We die out of love just as we live.
“The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne”, the first line of the Parlement of Foules. — Chaucer (c. 1343–1400)
With maturity we can eventually come to understand that our limits are a blessing. We settle on a form and therefore accomplish something today because to us today matters. Where gods see only infinitude we see something less, yet in that very absence of potential we create more. Without constraint we’d be cursed like a common deity. Petty immortal beings who can neither change nor matter beyond the role dictated by the Fates at the beginning of all time. Playing out the inevitable. Spent. Determined. Never granted the peace of death because a creature like this has never known life and therefore “lives” only vicariously through us.
The gods listen to us for while they might personify the elemental notes it takes a mortal being to compose music.
As the stoics realized the world has its own nature and when we live in accordance with it we prosper. By recognizing the opportunities around us all the time we can contribute something meaningful. Add new ideas to this world never before considered. Something neither god or titan can conceive. Mankind is unpredictable, unmanageable, and all through history those who have tried to control her destiny quickly falls beneath the unstoppable march of progress we provoke.
Mortality is a gift. It frees us from the enduring prison of our own success. Decades of grooming our behaviour to work in our environment. At first we’re nimble, flexible and malleable. Happy to embrace knowledge. Youthful ambition. We know so little there’s nothing to forget. No conflicting notions from production past… but then we know stuff. We’ve built great things. A reputation… a legacy which gets harder and harder to live up to.
We create our own talent stack divided across our unique motivators. Maybe it’s nostalgia or pride, but as we get older it gets harder, too. The potential return of starting something from scratch so late in life looks scary. It’s easy to forget that any day might be THAT day. That any moment might be THAT moment. Where it all ends… or it all truly begins if I’m correct. So what have you got to lose that you won’t lose anyway? You could literally produce the greatest work of your entire life a few minutes from now. Making all the pain and boredom worthwhile. Something so important you’d happily give up your own life to preserve it. No matter how many days you’ve failed before… tomorrow is entirely open to every possibility. The art of your life has led you here.
The first-century CE rabbi Tarfon is quoted as saying “The day is short, the labor vast, the workers are lazy, the reward great, the Master urgent.” (Avot 2:20)
So as you form your philosophy for coping with our inevitable doom remember that we are so very lucky to be alive. That pain is a tool, loss is a measurement. Love is a purpose and art is the way. You want salvation? You want pleasure? Beauty? Quietude and serenity? Consider faith in what’s right in front of you. Embrace your mortality for through it we are forgiven. Not by the gods, but by ourselves as we grow past our childish expectations. Live forever and destroy your legacy or build your legacy and die for it. Be grateful this choice was made for you.
You paid Charon in advance and in return you’ve become a world unto yourself. New ideas expand destiny. Stories become books and books become libraries. Death publishes the stories, but to fully benefit from that we must eat our manuscripts so new books can be written compounding upon what we wrote during our time. The point where all our work is saved is the same point where our primordial capital becomes common currency trapped on this plane… while we move on free of the responsibility we once carried.
The only thing that can destroy your past accomplishments is you. It’s your reputation to protect or not until you die. A book can be burned, but it can’t be unwritten. Anything beyond your doom is to someone else’s account. For all his flaws in life, Shakespeare has been and will always be the bard in death. A character unchanging like the gods who are also still trapped in this place by literature and prayer.
Though William moved on happy to leave his works in our hands; eternal beings enviously watched him leave… picturing a world beyond their limited imagination. Where you go in death they cannot follow so celebrate! We have what the gods don’t… a reason for living and choice in how we conduct ourselves.
So what comes next? Only time will tell… one thing for certain is you won’t be the only one finding out. Though, there is every possibility your death will be as unique as your life.