After giving a fascinating and instructive account of the noble lives of the founders, lawgivers, statesmen, orators, famous generals and virtuous women of ancient Greece and Rome, Plutarch concludes his work with a story of such a wretched end of life, that all lives seem noble in comparison.
The Wretch in a Boat
A Persian king thus put to death one of his subjects:
Taking two boats framed exactly to fit and answer each other, they lay down in one of them the malefactor that suffers, upon his back; then, covering it with the other, and so setting them together that the head, hands, and feet of him are left outside, and the rest of his body lies shut up within, they offer him food, and if he refuse to eat it, they force him to do it by pricking his eyes; then, after he has eaten, they drench him with a mixture of milk and honey, pouring it not only into his mouth, but all over his face. They then keep his face continually turned towards the sun; and it becomes completely covered up and hidden by the multitude of flies that settle on it. And as within the boats he does what those that eat and drink must needs do, creeping things and vermin spring out of the corruption and rottenness of the excrement, and these entering into the bowels of him, his body is consumed. When the man is manifestly dead, the uppermost boat being taken off, they find his flesh devoured, and swarms of such noisome creatures preying upon and, as it were, growing to his inwards. In this way he, after suffering for seventeen days, at last expired.
How could anyone be so void of human sympathy as to abuse a fellow human being in such a degrading manner?
All human bodies are subject to corruption, whether due to the inexorable process of aging, or infection by germs and viruses. Anyone living with a terminal diseases might feel like the wretch described above, being trapped in his own body and watching in helplessness himself being consumed day by day. And yet, we all live with a terminal disease, since all our lives end in death. It is impossible for a human being to watch another deteriorate without feeling pity, unless he is completely deluded about his own corruptibility and mortality.
In my melancholic mood, the wretch in the boat becomes an image of the world at large. For man seems to be the only species on earth that consumes living things and manufactures nothing but toxic waste, which, accumulating constantly in a closed system, will inevitably destroy him. The waste is not confined to the material and physical realm only, but has its origin in man himself, his intellectual and spiritual production. When man’s mental output is not conducive to his mental life and well-being, it becomes essentially human waste, which, if not purged promptly, would cause the corruption and death of man.
P.S. I suppose the same sentiments led Kierkegaard to write in For Self-Examination/Judge for Yourself: “The present state of the world and the whole of life is diseased. If I were a doctor and were asked for my advice, I should reply: Create silence! Bring men to silence.” And yet he couldn’t be brought to silence but kept on writing, and so I couldn’t resist blogging.