Will Durant wondered if there is something suggestive about the cycle of a human life which sheds light on its meaning, a theme explored in his 1929 book The Mansions of Philosophy. (Later retitled The Pleasures of Philosophy.) He admits that “life is in its basis a mystery, a river flowing from an unseen source; and in its development an infinite subtlety too complex for thought, much less for utterance.”[i]
Still, we seek answers. Undeterred by the difficulty of his task, Durant suggests that reflection on the microcosm of a human life might yield insights into the meaning of all life and death. Thus he looks at a typical human life cycle for clues about cosmic meaning.
In children, Durant saw curiosity, growth, urgency, playfulness, innocence, and discontent. In later youth, the struggle continues as we learn to read, work, love, and learn of the world’s evils. In middle age, we are often consumed by work and family life, and for the first time, we see the reality of death. Still, in family life, people usually find great pleasure and the best of all human conditions.
In old age, the reality of death comes nearer. If we have lived well we might graciously leave the stage for new players to perform a better play. But what if life endlessly repeats its sufferings, with youth making the same mistakes as their elders, and all leading to death? Is this the final realization of old age? Such thoughts gnaw at our hearts and poison aging.
So Durant wonders if we must die for life. If we are not individuals but cells in life’s body, then we die so that life remains strong, death removing the rubbish as the new life created defeats death. This perpetuation of life gives life meaning. “If it is one test of philosophy to give life a meaning that shall frustrate death, wisdom will show that corruption comes only to the part, that life itself is deathless while we die.”[ii] Durant describes this idea with one of the most poignant and yet hopeful passages in all of world literature.
Here is an old man on the bed of death, harassed with helpless friends and wailing relatives. What a terrible sight it is – this thin frame with loosened and cracking flesh, this toothless mouth in a bloodless face, this tongue that cannot speak, these eyes that cannot see! To this pass youth has come, after all its hopes and trials; to this pass middle age, after all its torment and its toil. To this pass health and strength and joyous rivalry; this arm once struck great blows and fought for victory in virile games. To this pass knowledge, science, wisdom: for seventy years this man with pain and effort gathered knowledge; his brain became the storehouse of a varied experience, the center of a thousand subtleties of thought and deed; his heart through suffering learned gentleness as his mind learned understanding; seventy years he grew from an animal into a man capable of seeking truth and creating beauty. But death is upon him, poisoning him, choking him, congealing his blood, gripping his heart, bursting his brain, rattling in his throat. Death wins
Outside on the green boughs birds twitter, and Chantecler sings his hymn to the sun. Light streams across the fields; buds open and stalks confidently lift their heads; the sap mounts in the trees. Here are children: what is it that makes them so joyous, running madly over the dew-wet grass, laughing, calling, pursuing, eluding, panting for breath, inexhaustible? What energy, what spirit and happiness! What do they care about death? They will learn and grow and love and struggle and create, and lift life up one little notch, perhaps, before they die. And when they pass they will cheat death with children, with parental care that will make their offspring finer than themselves. There in the garden’s twilight lovers pass, thinking themselves unseen; their quiet words mingle with the murmur of insects calling to their mates; the ancient hunger speaks through eager and through lowered eyes, and a noble madness courses through clasped hands and touching lips. Life wins.[iii]
This is stirring prose, but we remain forlorn. Perhaps we should give up our ego attachment, and leave for the sake of the species. But why? What’s wrong with loving life so much that one never wants to let go? What’s wrong with loving others so much as to never want them to go either? Besides, it is wasteful for life to start over each time, having to relearn old truths and unlearn old falsehoods. As for his claim that life wins in the end, it may destroy itself instead, and even if it doesn’t we will not survive as individuals. Thus nothing in Durant’s portrait soothes our worries about the futility of an infinite repetition of life’s trials and tribulations. I wish I felt differently.
[i] Will Durant, The Mansions of Philosophy: A Survey of Human Life and Destiny (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1929) 397
[ii] Durant, The Mansions of Philosophy: A Survey of Human Life and Destiny, 407.
[iii] Durant, The Mansions of Philosophy: A Survey of Human Life and Destiny, 407-08.