I seem to have gotten you to swallow the greater portion of my last mail, but you have spit out my suggestion that ill health is no barrier to the happiness of a wise person. “We are far removed from ancient Greece and Rome, where death and destruction lay in wait around every corner,” you say. “If they had great cause to reconcile themselves to nasty deaths, that is no longer the expectation or reality for people living in modern times.”
We do live much longer lives, I grant you, and are much less likely to be cast into slavery or exile or put to premature death by a tyrant’s hand. Too, we have conquered many of the ailments and diseases that plagued our ancestors. But though we have vanquished tuberculosis, AIDS, and measles in most places, still there are countless means by which we are escorted from the world’s stage. And now that the play numbers several more Acts for most of us, how should we think about those who depart in the early Acts versus those who linger long past intermission to the final curtain call?
I am reminded of a remark attributed to Abraham Lincoln, and for our purposes it does not matter whether he actually said it or not. In discussion about the proportion of the torso and legs to the body, Lincoln was asked to comment on the proper length of a person’s legs. His reply: “Long enough to reach from his body to the ground.” It is a gift to be witty when speaking of profound things, Deuteros. I make claim to neither wit nor profundity but only truth when I tell you that a person’s life should be as long as it lasts.
Is the world a better place when we extend the lives of wicked people? Would we have wanted more of Stalin, Mussolini, or Pol Pot? We need not make examples only of mass murderers to see the validity of this point. “But this is no argument in favor of cutting short the lives of the good,” you say. True, and you know by now what I will say back to you Deuteros, be patient with me a moment more.
We hold that the highest attainment a person can reach is to master their reason and live according to the judgment of their well-ordered mind. This wise person knows what is valuable and what is not, and acts accordingly. They are not troubled by superficial things, but see beneath the surface. That which is in their control, including their judgment, decisions, and actions, they do control. That which is beyond their control, such as fate, fortune, and external things, they do not let disturb their emotions.
The wise leave these things in peace so that their reason may be left in peace. And because they know their death is inevitable the wise person is not burdened when it comes. If they are not bothered, who are we to be bothered on their behalf? If we were wise ourselves, we would come to the same conclusion.
“So far you have dealt with the extremes – the evil and the good. What of the great middle, who are neither irredeemable nor perfect?” I will reward your patience with this answer: the great majority of us knowing that our time is limited seek to extend life when what we should be seeking is greater understanding. Would you rather live a hundred years in confusion and pain or a week in contented contemplation, knowing the meaning of sufficient?
If the ticking of the clock spurs us to a frenzy of activity it should not be to prolong our lives but to start living them meaningfully. So I will amend my saying above to be this: people’s lives should be as long as it takes for them to start living. For as soon as they have achieved this milestone, they will be satisfied with the length of their lives no matter how much longer they play out their parts.