The Shortness Of Life, And The Second Death


There is a passage in Cicero’s treatise Tusculan Disputations I was thinking about today while driving home from work.  The passage begins as a parable, then closes with a glorious invocation to action.  Cicero makes an analogy from nature observed near the River Hypanis, then draws some conclusions from that analogy.  He says:

By the River Hypanis [modernly, Bug], which empties into the Pontus from a part of Europe, Aristotle says that certain little animals are born which live for only one day.  One of these animals that dies in the eighth hour of the day has reached an old age.  One that makes it to sunset is extremely aged; even more so if it happens to be a day of the summer solstice.  Compare our longest human lifespan with eternity:  we may be compared with the same brief flourishing as these little animals.  [Tusc. Disp. I.39.94].

To live for only one day!  It is hard to imagine such a thing.  But for some living things, it is a reality.  It is all a matter of perspective.  If a giant redwood tree (which can live for thousands of years) could speak, it might see us humans in the same way.  We are the little animals, from the redwood’s point of view.


This is certainly true; the idea of the brevity of life was a favorite theme of the ancients, who in some ways were wiser than we.  But while life may be short, the soul could be immortal; and this soaring idea found perfect expression in his short essay “The Dream of Scipio,” which I liked so much I could not resist including it in Stoic Paradoxes.

I am digressing slightly.  What I was thinking about today was what Cicero said in Tusculan Disputations just after the quote that I have presented above.  He says this:

Let us condemn, then, all stupidities–what gentler name may I attach to such nonsense?  Let us place all power of right living in our soul’s strength and greatness, in contempt and disregard for all human affairs, and in all virtue.  For without doubt these days we are made effeminate by soft thoughts to the extent that if death hits us before we achieve the promises of the Chaldean oracles, we see ourselves as having been plundered of good things and as betrayed and robbed men. [Tusc. Disp. I.40]

I love this quote:  it is Cicero at his best.  Readers will by now recognize the reference to the “strength and greatness” of soul (animi robore ac magnitudine), a recurring theme in his writings.  In the second sentence of the quote above, we should remember that when Cicero says “contempt and disregard for all human affairs” (in omnium rerum humanarum contemptione ac despicientia) he is referring to human affairs that are base and worldly.  It is unbecoming for a great man to be obsessed with such trivialities.  And consider the third sentence, which I have highlighted in bold letters.  What does it tell us?  I have translated his phrase Chaldaeorum promissa as “promises of the Chaldean oracles.”  Today we might just say “fortune tellers.”

Cicero is telling us that we are not “entitled” to any assurance of an easy life.  Some people these days, he warns us, have their heads so filled with “soft thoughts” that they consider themselves cheated and betrayed if they don’t get everything they believe they are entitled to.  This is an effeminate impulse, one unworthy of a true man.

The Second Death

I think there is a subject related to this topic, and wanted to mention it here as well.  This is the idea of the variability of our reputations and images even after we die.  We should first realize that during our lives we will be endlessly misunderstood and mischaracterized.  People will do this either deliberately or through negligence:  we should come to expect it.

Why do people misrepresent others?  Envy is one major reason:  it victimizes anyone who tries to undertake great deeds.  The common mob revels in ignorance and venal emotions, and instinctively feels uneasy with talk about talent and virtue.  The person who has a great soul, the one who wishes to achieve great things, is attracted by such talk; but the gutter is deeply afraid of it.

So a man’s fortunes are variable not only in his lifetime, but even after his death.  His reputation may fluctuate over time after his death.  Herman Melville died in utter obscurity in the 1890s.  He was not really “discovered” as a profound writer until the late 1920s.  His books were just not congruent with the mood of his times.  So we die one death:  our physical death.  And then there is this other death, something that the humanist Petrarch called the “second death” (He says in his testament “My Secret Book”:  quam non ineleganter in Africa tua ‘secundam mortem’ vocas).  In his poem Africa, he tells us what this “second death” is:

Soon the tomb will collapse and the epitaph inscribed in marble will die;

And with this, my son, you will suffer a second death. [Africa II.431]

This means that even after death, our reputations and memories will be impermanent.  So we should be prepared to be misunderstood both during life and after it ends.  Once we truly appreciate this fact, we will easily see how pointless it is to waste time on the frivolous and stupid nonsense we believe is so crucial.  It is not.  Once we see ourselves as akin to those little animals scurrying about on the banks of the River Hypanis, living for only one day, we will finally be free; we must, as Cicero tells us, place all power of right living in our soul’s strength and greatness, in contempt and disregard for all petty human affairs, and in all virtue.  This is the hard road to liberation.  It is also the only one.



More on Cicero’s thoughts on greatness of soul can be found in my comprehensive collection of essays, Digest: