Why Should It Be Feared?

A dusky sundown at Taipei 101

I have reason to quote at length from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius but wasn’t entirely satisfied with the translations I found online. What follows is an original synthesis of Book II, Passage XV, translated by George Long (the same version I read when I was younger) and Meric Casaubon, blown apart and put back together again.

The time of a man’s life is like a singular point, the substance of it ever-flowing, the sense obscure, the whole composition of the body tending toward corruption and putrefaction. His soul is restless, fortune uncertain, and fame doubtful. As a stream so are all things belonging to the body; as a dream, or as a vapour, so are all that belong to the soul. Our life is a warfare, a mere pilgrimage, and fame after life is no better than oblivion.

What is that which is able to conduct a man? One thing and only one: philosophy. And philosophy consists in keeping the spirit of man free from violence and injury and above all pains and pleasures; doing nothing without purpose, nor falsely or hypocritically; wholly depending on himself and his own proper actions; embracing and accepting all things that happen as originating from the same place from whence he himself came; and, finally, with all meekness and a calm cheerfulness, to expect death, as being nothing else but the resolution of those elements of which every creature is composed.

And if the elements themselves suffer nothing by this, their perpetual conversion of one into another—that dissolution, and alteration, which is so common unto all—why should it be feared by any man? For it is according to nature, and nothing is evil which is according to nature.

I went out riding through the mountains of Nangang District 南港區 yesterday. This ride was, in part, to provide some time for me to work through important decisions that need to be made. Unbeknownst to me, right around the time light was seeping through my camera lens to capture the photograph above, another kind of light was seeping out from the body of someone dear to me, someone who expressed many of the virtues described in the passage quoted above. This was not unexpected.

Having somehow survived to this age without ever feeling the brush of death has left me doubtful about how I should be feeling. I am aware of the social expectations, of course, but do not feel like conforming to any of the usual patterns of grieving and mourning. I look for sadness but find mostly acceptance and admiration. Growing up with influences from both Stoic and Buddhist philosophies seem to have equipped me for moments like these.

So: it is time to attend to matters of import, to make plans and put wheels in motion, to endure long flights and longer periods of idleness and uncertainty, to reconnect and provide support, to eulogize and celebrate a life well-lived. Please, no messages of condolences—but if I seem absent or distracted you’ll now have some idea why that might be.