Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Respice Finem

Respice Finem: that is to say, in all your actions, look often upon what you would have, as the thing that directs all your thoughts in the way to attain it.

Excerpt from Leviathan (1651) by Thomas Hobbes

Look to the end; consider the final outcome.

After learning of his death, the reader is given a chronicle of Ivan Ilych’s life, which “had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible".  As a young, worldly lawyer, Ivan Ilych acquires a pocket-watch medallion inscribed with the words "respice finem " (think of the end). This medallion, instead of acting as a "memento mori", inspires rather something of the insouciance of which Charles Ryder’s dormroom skull, inscribed with "et in arcadia ego" inspires in him in "Brideshead Revisited ". The invitation to consider one’s end is thus suppressed by Ivan Ilych, as he moves through a life of social pretension, professional dissimulation and moral indifference.

The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886) by Leo Tolstoy

The translation of the phrase "et in arcadia ego" is "Even in Arcadia, there am I". The usual interpretation is that "I" refers to Death and "Arcadia" means a utopian land. It would thus be a "memento mori" (remember you have to die). During Antiquity, many Greeks lived in cities close to the sea, and led an urban life. Only Arcadians, in the middle of the Peloponnese, lacked cities, were far from the sea, and led a shepherd life. Thus Arcadia symbolized pure, rural, idyllic life far from the city.

André Félibien (biographer of classical French Baroque and biblical artist Nicolas Poussin), interpreted the phrase to mean that "the person buried in this tomb lived in Arcadia"; in other words, that the person too once enjoyed the pleasures of life on earth. This reading was common in the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, William Hazlitt wrote that Poussin "describes some shepherds wandering out in a morning of the spring, and coming to a tomb with this inscription, I also was an Arcadian".

The former interpretation ("ego" referring to Death) is now generally considered more likely; the ambiguity of the phrase is the subject of a famous essay by the Art historian Erwin Panofsky. Either way, the sentiment was meant to set up an ironic contrast between the shadow of death and the usual idle merriment that the nymphs and swains of ancient Arcadia were thought to embody.


There's a lot to consider here.  Not just the legitimacy of either take on looking to the future (which at first blush appears to be an uninspiring contest between enjoying life or worrying about what others will think about you after death) but also the question about who exactly is making these competing and binary assertions.  Tolstoy - although born to an aristocratic family in 1828 - experienced a profound spiritual awakening and became a fervent Christian anarchist and pacifist.  Hobbes on the other hand - born to an uneducated father in more modest circumstances - took positions that strongly disagreed with church teachings of his time.  He argued for example that there are no incorporeal substances and that all things, including human thoughts and even God, heaven and hell are corporeal, matter in motion (one of his hot topics generally).  Finally he considered in his crowning treatise how men were moved to enter into society and argued his this must be regulated if men were not to fall back into "brutishness and misery".

What I take from these two theses is the collision of religion and state. Significantly nowhere is there much advanced regarding the advantageous outcome of mankind without the direct influence of either state or religion. Nor seemingly is it sufficient to manage one's life to avoid dwelling upon what an unknown (god) predicts either now or after death; nor what one can possibly accomplish without the direction of government.  I am obliged to remark that these propositions come from two men who spent a good deal of time traveling about Europe and consorting with the rich and famous - not altogether what I would characterize as a Florence Nightingale reality.  Interestingly to me both arguments importantly involve control, either of the church or the polity. It is a patent confession that manipulation is strongly promoted by both elements, putatively for the object of social well-being but more manifestly for the accomplishment of the self-interest of the controlling parties.

Permitting people to conduct their lives without the exterior influence of either religion or government is arguably a threatening proposition.  Perhaps the more useful examination is not the justification of either or both paradigms but rather the extent of their application. It seems to be that the question of what I do before of after death is preposterously removed from the debate surrounding universal health care or income tax. Most philosophies of social conduct are speculative only; and I known of none which succeeds to capture the conviction of all persons. There always prevails the issue that many religions are but a distinction without a difference - pantheism or catholicism? To devote one's life to the fulfillment of constructed regulation on that level of performance is to my mind highly questionable.

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