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A Matter of Life and Death

by Dr David, Editor / Publisher

I took a good book out of the library just before the city shut down; a good fat book, The Last of the Wine, a historical novel by Mary Renault. I've enjoyed other of her books. I don't know how I didn't see this one on the shelf earlier.

It's about ancient Athens. It took me about 40 pages to get into it, to adapt to the rhythm of language that they spoke, but now I feel that I am there, defending the city from the Spartans, listening to Socrates define beauty and truth.

Knowing a bit of history already, I have an idea where the story is going. The war in Sicily turns out badly. Socrates drinks the hemlock. Socrates was accused of "corrupting the youth of Athens." At the trial when they asked him why the oracle at Delphi pronounced him the wisest man in the world, he pleaded ignorance: "Unless it is because others think they know and don't, while I know that I don't know." He made a career out of successfully arguing against others, against what others thought they knew. He made a career and more than a few enemies. The court was unimpressed. They gave him a choice, exile from Athens or death by hemlock.

My father mentioned to me when I was a boy, while we were visiting New York, that some people never leave the City their whole lives. Some people never leave Brooklyn. Some people never go above 14th Street. But how many people would choose to die rather than live in, say, Boston or Philadelphia? There were other cities in the Greek world. They were not like Athens (there's no place like New York), but they were still civilized. Socrates could have carried on his academy in anyone of those.

These were my considerations in high school when I first read Plato's Trial. Here, now, gray-bearded, 45 years later, I have other thoughts on the matter.

Socrates had an abiding faith in another world, a world of ideals. Our beauty and truth were only imperfect reflections of Beauty and Truth as they exist as ideals in this other, superior dimension. Socrates had lived a good, full, truthful life. He had been true to his ideals in this world and, in leaving it, was going to the perfect world of Ideals.

Or maybe he wasn't. Maybe he wasn't going anywhere. Maybe Socrates was just coming to an end... no continued existence in a world of Ideals... lights out.

Myself, I'm not ready to extinguish. My life hasn't been so exemplary or full. I'm still arguing for a few things. I've got something I'm still trying to prove. But now, with my gray beard, I can better understand Socrates' choice. He was full. He was complete. And he was probably a little tired of it all. The things of the world are fascinating: bird-song, color, the starry night, the breeze in the very early morning... "Humanity," on the other hand, to quote Bukowski, "is disgusting." Don't get me wrong, I like people individually . It's just taken as a whole that I am disappointed in our species.

These viral days "I don't get around much anymore." Mostly sheltering in place, I am following the Civil List more than usual. Without television, largely disconnected from media of all types, I see reflected there the mood of America. That mood is fear, understandably so. Life sequestered (the Spanish word for "kidnapped"); living under house-arrest; disinfect the change you receive from the man who delivers your groceries. I get it. It is a reasonable course of action. More power to you. It might save your life, or at least a lot of suffering.

I contrast this with the life I see going on around me on my daily bicycle ride or on my infrequent trips to the grocery store or ATM. There I see Mexicans, fewer of them, yes, going on with their lives. Without savings, many of them have no choice. But, we know, Mexican culture has a different attitude towards death. Most markedly we witness this on Dia de los Muertos (Day, really days, a whole mini-season, of the Dead).

My ex-wife, who moved to San Miguel before me, commented once about Mexico's party culture, the fiesta. She said, "They party harder because they understand they might not stay alive. It is fatalistic." Quoting another authority, "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die."

My landlady, yet a third source, told me a story from decades ago when she was the accountant for the Hotel Real de Minas. She related that when departing Anglos paid to reserve the same room for the same time the following year, the staff, after receiving their deposit, would laugh at them, "How do they know that they will still be alive?"

Fatalism comes in several varieties, all of which involve resignation. This acceptance of destiny is more common among all poorer classes, not just here in Mexico.

I spend time regretting some chances I didn't take, some life I left unlived. I look back from my now ambitious perspective at many years more or less idled away. It seems, though not afraid of death, I was afraid of life. Mexico has taught me better how to live and with that how better to die. I hope that when I go, I go like Socrates, full and confident.

No one in Mexico is in a rush to die, but there seems to be a prevailing rush to live.

Modern science agrees with Socrates. There is a world of Ideals. There is something eternal and universal about the mind or, might we say, spirit? Fear accompanies our obsession with our individual existence, making it difficult to live and difficult to die.

It may be hard to swallow, but the remedy for this dread, this mania for control, is all around us, good, old-fashioned, Mexican fatalismo. Just be careful how much you take.

Please stay well.


Dr David is looking for authors to contribute to San Miguel Sunday. He is also looking for people who want to add more meaning to their lives. See his new website below.

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