On April 28, 2022, the news service NewsNation published a story about the commercial use of artificial intelligence to “recreate” the deceased on a virtual level, and permit people to have “conversations” with these electronic reanimations.
Part of the news segment reads: “Thanks to artificial intelligence, people are now having conversations with loved ones who have passed away. In 2016, California journalist James Vlahos’ created a chatbot called Dadbot, after recording conversations with his father who was dying of cancer. Vlahos went on to co-found HereAfter, which uses artificial intelligence to preserve family history and allows others to ‘chat’ with their late loved ones. ‘I think all of us have that craving to hear the voice of somebody we’ve lost, to hear that voice again,’ Vlahos said during a Thursday appearance on NewsNation’s Banfield.”
My immediate thought was, how destestable. Here we have an attempt to make commercial use of people’s memories, and allow them to dwell in the twilight nether-world between the living and the dead. It is in fact a twenty-first century version of the old nineteenth-century seance, where the distraught hold hands in the dark and, for a fee, seek to summon the spirits of the departed. What an insult to life itself! What evidence of an arrogant, pathetic inability to accept the decrees of nature, which tell us when the time has come for someone to pass from one state to another? Anyone who would actually use one of these “apps” marks himself as a vain, selfish fool who has failed to come to terms with the realities of life and death. Such a person is unwilling to accept the judgment of mortality, and to understand its role in the eternal cycle of life. As Cicero says in his Tusculan Disputations:
For we have not been born or created through luck or random happenstance. There surely is some power that looks after human beings. And this power would not have created and nourished a living entity that, after having endured to the end all manner of prodigious hardships, would simply plunge into the eternal evil of death. We should think of it rather as a sanctuary, a shelter that has been prepared for us. If only billowing sails might carry us there! But if opposing winds should push us back, we must still be returned to the same place a short time later. Can something that must happen to everyone possibly be miserable for one person? [I.49]
But let us move on from such offenses against nature to a more mature, balanced perspective. Of course the thought of death brings on an unavoidable sense of sadness and loss. Pliny the Younger says, in a letter to Caninius Rufus (Epist. III.7):
Compassion for human fragility steals in on me when I meditate on this. For what is so short, so brief, as a man’s longest life?
[Quod me recordantem fragilitatis humanae miseratio subit. Quid enim tam circumcisum tam breve quam homini vita longissimi?]
Elsewhere, in another letter (III.16), Pliny provides us the dignified example of a grieving mother named Arria who was able to face with courage the cards that fortune had dealt her. It is a very poignant description. Both Arria’s husband and son had taken sick; the husband survived, but the son died. Arria was deeply stricken by grief, yet she managed to carry on with her responsibilities. Her way of coping in the short term was to pretend that her son was still alive when she entered his room; when she could no longer contain her tears, she would then leave the room, and carry on as before. Then she would compose herself, and wipe the tears from her face. It was as if she permitted herself to compartmentalize her grief, and confine its expression to the walls of her son’s room. We get the impression that these kinds of short-term coping mechanisms can serve an important function, by providing our minds some time to heal and adjust to the new realities placed on our shoulders.
However, the opposite road was taken by a different person. Pliny tells us the story (IV.7) of a vain man named Regulus, who seems to be the kind of fool who would have used one of the artificial intelligence “reanimator” apps that we described earlier. This Regulus lost his son. But instead of mourning him in the normal manner, he descended into a world of attention-whoring delusion and arrogance. Regulus decided to commission statues and portraits of his son, in colored paints, wax, bronze, silver, gold, ivory, and marble. These artifacts he arranged prominently in his house and workshop. He even paid for a “biography” of his son to be written, even though the deceased was only a young boy. This document he had read to uneasy audiences, and he had copies of it distributed “throughout Italy and the provinces.” Regulus essentially used his son’s demise as a way of gaining attention for himself. It was an exercise in selfish vanity. How true is it, then, when Pliny comments:
So shame impairs good character, but reckless effrontery encourages bad character.
[Ita recta ingenia debilitat verecundia, perversa confirmat audacia].
What he means by this is, of course, is that a shameless, arrogant dolt often appears entirely self-assured and confident, while a man of strong moral fiber may be affected by a sense of shame. The shameless and the arrogant have no sense of restraint, no sense of moderation. All of these observations ring true to anyone who has rubbed shoulders with different personality types in our modern era. For my part, as I get older, I am more and more enticed by the picture Pliny gives us of a friend of his named Spurinna. Pliny gives us a warm description of a visit to his friend (III.1), and I will relate it here myself. Before giving the details of Spurinna’s daily routine, Pliny reminds us:
The well-structured life of man pleases me, just as the certain course of the planets. Especially when it comes to the elderly: some confusion and turbulence are not inappropriate for young people, but for the old, things should be placid and appropriately arranged. Ambition is disgraceful for those past the time of public industry.
Spurinna seems to have mastered the art of practical wisdom in his old age. He kept to a very pleasant and disciplined routine. Every morning he would rise an hour after dawn and take a three-mile walk for exercise. If he had friends or family with him, he would converse as he walked; if alone, he would have a book read to him. Having a servant read a book to you as you walk—the original “audiobook”! Then he would get into a carriage (mox vehiculum ascendit) with his wife for a relaxing seven-mile drive around his property. How pleasant is a walk or drive through the Italian countryside in summer, as the birds chirp and flutter about, and the bees jump restlessly from one fragrant blossom to another! Pliny tells us that Spurinna liked to talk of the great deeds and characters of men of ages past, something that I myself consider the perfect topic of conversation.
After his drive, Spurinna would go for another walk—this time only a mile—and then retire to his room to compose poetry in Latin or Greek verse, as educated men of affairs and scholars often did in ages past. He then took a bath; in winter this would be in mid-afternoon, and in summer, around noon. Before doing this, however, Pliny says that Spurinna would disrobe and walk around naked (in sole, si caret vento, ambulat nudus) in the sunshine on windless days! This might also be followed by an exercise session of playing with a ball; this was another way for old Spurinna to keep his body fit and active. After his bath, he would lie down and rest before his evening meal. While eating he would listen while something “light and sweet” was read to him. His dinner would be served on plates of silver or Corinthian bronze. These meals would often linger with leisurely charm, as family or guests would discuss the events of the day.
Spurinna was seventy-seven years old when Pliny so observed him, so he must have been doing something right. Both his sight and hearing were acute, and physically he was agile and full of energy. “And wisdom was the sole product of his old age (solaque ex senectute prudentia).” Pliny so envied Spurinna that he declared the old man’s life to be nearly ideal. The old man had held innumerable offices, judgeships, and positions, and yet had the wisdom to know when it was time to leave such matters for others.
No doubt Pliny himself, as a harried man of affairs, looked longingly on the day when he himself could cast off his professional burdens, and discover for himself the joys of Spurinna’s simple routine. Perhaps wisdom consists not just in knowing the good life, but in knowing when and where to transition one’s life. As noted above, a man of good character will be impaired by modesty and shame; a vile man’s preening confidence will only be encouraged by his reckless effrontery. With different stages and phases of life come different modes of living. He who understands this, and accepts this, will go far in alleviating his mind from life’s mental perturbations and stresses. Where will you choose to be? In what lands will you plant your roots? What mode of life, brother, will be yours? For it was Seneca who asked, in his play Trojan Women (860),
In whose kingdom will you die?
Read more about tranquility of mind in the new translation of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations: