“Ut ait Gregorianus, ‘Valde se sollicat in bono opere qui semper cogitat de extremo fine.’” “As St. Gregory [the Great] says, ‘He who constantly thinks upon [his own] death is concerned in a great work indeed.’” So begins the Ars Moriendi, a treatise devoted to the art of dying, written in the beginning of the 15th century at a time when Europe was still reeling from the effects of the Black Death. The text was meant to prepare the Christian for a good death, mainly by preparing him for the temptations he may face during his hora mortis. The author admonishes his reader to begin preparing now, “while it is still day,” for, when night comes, “no one can work” (John 9:4). Hence the quote from St. Gregory the Great, we should “always” (semper) concern ourselves with and meditate on our end.
No doubt this mediaeval author’s somber preoccupation with the thought of death would have pleased Søren Kierkegaard, who, writing 400 years later, reflected in a short work called At a Graveside on how one might ‘appropriate’ the earnest thought of death, that is, how one might use the thought of death to make time and life “infinitely meaningful.” Kierkegaard’s phenomenological description of what is intended by the thought of death uncovers and prepares one for an earnest relationship to one’s end. Contrary to Epicurus, who, for Kierkegaard, spoke inauthentically and in jest when he said ‘where I am, death is not, but if death is, I am not, [so] why should I fear that which cannot exist when I do?,’ At a Graveside is existentially sober insofar as it tries to think death in relation to the subject for whom death is a concern.
In what follows I would like to think through this extremus finis, taking Kierkegaard’s admonition to heart. If speculation about death is to be earnest, rather than mere mood, it must be from the standpoint of one for whom death is existentially relevant. But I would like to move beyond Kierkegaard’s phenomenological and existential standpoint and into the realm of metaphysics and Christian theology. For the thought of death intends precisely my non-being (to the extent that non-being can be intended at all). Death, in other words, is both an existential as well as a metaphysical problem.
It should be clear that the writers of this blog think that Christian Platonism, however loosely defined, provides the most satisfying perspective from which to address metaphysical and theological issues. Hence, I would like to reflect on the following question. What does it mean to earnestly appropriate the thought of death within the context of Christian Platonism? It seems to me that the Christian Platonist ought to appropriate the thought of death precisely and paradoxically as a Divine gift, as the gift of θέωσις or divinization.
Originally, I intended to argue this in one post. However, it has become clear that this subject is rather large, so I will divide it into three. This first post is concerned with establishing the context and thesis of the argument. In what follows I want to argue that the Phaedo, when read within its liturgical context, reveals that Socrates is the most authentic and ecstatic lover, the true Bacchant, who, as a reward for his lifelong service to god during his philosophical ministry, receives death as a gift, his initiation into Truth. Death, therefore, is the culmination of erotic desire and what fully unites the knower with the known. Insofar as god is Good and Truth itself, it follows that death ought to be appropriated as the means whereby we finally become like god, fully real and perfect.
In the third post, I will argue that Socrates anticipates St. Irenaeus’ statement that God gave bodily death to Adam and Eve as a gift, since He did not want them to remain in sin forever. Thus their expulsion from the Eden and Tree of Life. Moreover, St. Irenaeus’ remark reveals, I think, the true Christian attitude towards death, since through the New Covenant we are enabled to participate in the death of the Messiah, which has become the means by which we participate in the resurrection and life of the Son, in the Tree of Life who poured out His divine life for the Church on Calvary. Death has become the means whereby we participate in Divine life. This creates a paradox for the Platonist, sheer nonsense to the gentiles. Bodily death, which for Socrates and Plato was merely the means by which we become like god, a liminal space that must be traversed, has for the Christian itself become a participation in God’s Divinity, which is nothing other than the kenotic, self-giving life of the Trinity.
Image Credit: The cover image is from Hieronymus Bosch, The Ascent of the Blessed