IV. Death & Decay

~ The Triumph of Death by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Everything must have a beginning; everything has an end. Everything has its seed and everyday of thy life is a leaf of thy history. Time flies[1]. Time and tide waits for no man. Time is, time was, time is past. Time undermines us and time devours all things. No man knows when he shall die, although he knows he must die. All men are mortal and Charon waits for us all[2].

After the period of the Warring States, the province of Qin emerged as the strongest power in Ancient China. Its mountainous borders made it difficult to be attacked and in a series of campaigns, the Qin king Zheng conquered all the other states of China by 221 BC and proclaimed himself Shi Huangdi or ‘First Emperor’. After ordering the construction of the Great Wall of China and forcing everyone to use the same coins, weights, measurements and style of writing, Shi Huangdi ordered doctors to discover a medicine to make him immortal.

Ironic indeed that an emperor who have killed by the thousands and have a low regard of human life should himself be terrified of death. However, opposition to his policies was ruthlessly punished by death and the doctors labored continuously to produce the emperor’s elixir of life. The fear of death constantly hounded the emperor. Three failed assassination attempts made him sleep in a different place every night and travel with two different carriages. He consulted soothsayers and shamans, sacrificed to mountain and river spirits and ate life-giving herbs. He even sent delegations of young men and virgins to contact the immortals in the fabled Isles of Penglai across the Eastern Sea. Some believed that these delegations stumbled upon Japan by accident and decided to settle there to escape the emperor’s wrath.

Shi Huangdi suffered from melancholy in the later days of his life. Obsessed with eternal life, he ordered court poets and musicians to write and play songs about the immortals and he built a spectacular tomb to safeguard his position in the next world. According to the historian Sima Qian, its underground chamber reproduced the cosmos: the stars and planets were set in pearls in its copper-domed ceiling, a magnificent palace with copper pillars was filled with attendants and every imaginary luxury and around it the great rivers and seas of China were reproduced with mercury.

It was mercury, according to legends, that killed the emperor at age 49. Possessed by the possibility of eternal life, he took poisonous mercury pills that his doctors prescribed in a bid to gain immortality. At his death, his son Er Shi succeeded him. However, revolts quickly erupted and the empire that Shi Huangdi built crumbled away in civil unrest within a short period. At the end of the Qin dynasty, neither Shi Huangdi nor the empire he built could achieve the immortality he so desired. But in death, the emperor would not be alone. For to this day, no man has ever cheated death. Death is the great leveler[3] and the end makes all equal.

Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark[4]. Why is this so when dying is as natural as living? It is as natural to die as to be born[5]. As soon as man is born he begins to die; our first breath is the beginning of death. Death and decay should not be feared. Just as sure as we cannot be worried about being born to this world before we are given life so we should not be worried about death when we are alive and in existence. Instead, we should look upon death as a going home[6]. Death should be viewed as the return to the source, to the Earth and to the universe.

But although what is to be should not be feared; it should also not be forgotten[7]. It is prudent advice to think on the end before you begin. Keep death in mind at all times[8] and your character will improve and your virtue would grow. All human life is likened to the evening dew and morning frost, both fragile and ephemeral. Life is here today, it is uncertain tomorrow. Those who understand that death can steal us away from this world at any moment would understand the weight and significance of every word uttered. Every step one takes in a step nearer to death. Everything that one builds would eventually decay. This makes us cherish the things that we have around us no matter how small they are.

Those who understand death understand life. Those who understand death and life are at peace. Those who are at peace are content. And content is the philosopher’s stone that turns all it touches into gold. There is no cure for birth or death save to enjoy the interval[9]. It is not the length of life but the depth of life[10] that matters; for a life well spent is long[11]. And the great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it[12]. Perhaps all things will decay and die in time. But our struggle to achieve continuity would continue. With these thoughts in mind, the education of the next generation should be given the highest priority.

 


[1] Also familiar in its Latin form, tempus fugit. An abbreviated quotation from Virgil’s Georgics (1st century BC).

[2] In Greek mythology, Charon was the ferryman who conveyed the souls of the dead across the river Styx to Hades.

[3] The phrase can be traced back to the Roman poet Claudian (4th century AD).

[4] A quotation from Francis Bacon’s essay ‘Of Death’. (1625)

[5] A quotation from Francis Bacon’s essay ‘On Death’. (1625)

[6] A Chinese proverb.

[7] Memento Mori, Latin phrase which means remember your mortality.

[8] Adapted from the modern translation of Bushido Shoshinshu by Taira Shigesuke

[9] Quotation attributed to George Santayana.

[10] Quotation attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

[11] Quotation attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci.

[12] Quotation attributed to William James.

 

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