“Moralia: II. Consolation of Grief” by Plutarch

The Stream of Time

What is there cruel or so very distressing in being dead? For what wonder if the separable be separated, if the combustible be consumed, and the corruptible be corrupted? For at what time is death not existent in our very selves? As Heracleitus says: “Living and dead are potentially the same thing, and so too waking and sleeping, and young and old; for the latter revert to the former, and the former in turn to the latter.” For as one is able from the same clay to model figures of living things and to obliterate them, and alternately to repeat these operations without ceasing, so Nature, using the same material, a long time ago raised up our forefathers, and then ourselves, and later will create others in a never-ending cycle; and the stream of generation, thus flowing onward perpetually, will never stop, and so likewise its counterpart, flowing in the opposite direction — which is the stream of destruction, whether it be designated by the poets as Acheron or as Cocytus.

Life is a Debt to Destiny

It is said that life is a debt to destiny, the idea being that the loan which our forefathers contracted is to be repaid by us. This debt we ought to discharge cheerfully and without bemoaning whenever the lender asks for payment; for in this way we should show ourselves to be most honourable men.

We keep and care for that which is the gods’,
And when they will they take it back again.

We ought not to bear it with bad grace if the gods make demand upon us for what they have loaned us for a short time. For even the bankers, when demand is made upon them for the return of deposits, do not chafe at the repayment, if they be honourable men. Quite parallel is the lot of all mortals. For we hold our life, as it were, on deposit from the gods, who have compelled us to accept the account, and there is no fixed time for its return. (cf. The Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25)

The Nature of Mourning

But do those who mourn for the dead, mourn on their own account or on account of the departed? If on their own account, because they have been cut off from some gratification or profit or comfort in old age, which they might have expected from the dead, then is their excuse for grieving wholly selfish; for it will be plain that they mourn, not for them, but for their services. But if they mourn on account of the dead, then if they will fix their attention on the fact that the dead are in no evil state, they will rid themselves of grief.

Hear this story: At the time Zeus was distributing to the deities their honours, he gave Mourning that honour which is paid in the case of those who have died — tears and griefs. Just as the other deities, therefore, are fond of those by whom they are honoured, so also is Mourning. Therefore, if you treat her with disrespect, she will not come near you; but if she is constantly honoured by you with the honours which were conceded to her, namely griefs and lamentations, she will love you and affectionately will be ever with you.

Wherefore men of good sense ought not to be carried away by sorrow beyond the natural and moderate limit of grief, which so affects the soul, into useless and barbarian mourning, the result of which is that they terminate their own lives in misery. “While they were weeping and wailing black darkness descended upon them.”

But affection and love for the departed does not consist in distressing ourselves, but in benefiting the beloved one; and a benefit for those who have been taken away is the honour paid to them through keeping their memory green. For no good man, after he is dead, is deserving of lamentations, but of hymns and songs of joy; not of mourning, but of an honourable memory. As Cicero writes in Philippics, “The life of the dead is set in the memory of the living.”


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