Death and What’s Best

A post from Sententiae Antiquae caught my eye a few days ago due to Apollon, and eerily, I kept thinking about it while reading the Platonic Theology due to several passages.

Plutarch, Consolatio ad Apollonium 108-109: “Pindar says of Agamedes and Trophonius that they built a temple of Apollo and asked the god for a reward. He responded that he would give it to them on the seventh day, and told them to enjoy themselves during that time. They did as instructed, and on the seventh day, they fell asleep and died.

“The story goes that Pindar was sent by the Boeotians to ask Apollo what was best for mortals. The priest responded that Pindar himself could hardly be ignorant of the answer, if he had really written the story of Trophonius and Agamedes. Yet, he was told that if he wished to experience it directly, it would all be made clear in a short time. When Pindar heard this, he reasoned that all of this foretold his own death, and after a short period of time, he died.”

What Is Best? Impending Death! — SENTENTIAE ANTIQUAE

I think that this comes from a consolation piece after someone’s death, which I haven’t read in full, so we are going in full free mental association mode here. 😁 The first passage it made me think of is from Proclus’ Cratylus commentary, translated and appended into Book VII by Thomas Taylor to supplement the Platonic Theology of Proclus.

[Apollon] likewise orderly disposes souls and bodies through harmonic reasons, using their different powers as if they were sounds; and he moves all things harmoniously and rhythmically by his demiurgic motions. The whole of the celestial order too, and motion, exhibit the harmonious work of the God; on which account also, partial souls are no otherwise perfected than through an harmonic similitude to the universe, and abandoning the dissonance arising from generation; for then they obtain the most excellent life, which is proposed to them by the God.

Platonic Theology, Book VII, p. 521

The idea of death as a gift and the bestowal of gifts and perfections from Apollon reminds me of the above passage, specifically the emphasis on perfecting partial souls (us), who have fallen into generation. Praying for the best, in the Sententiae Antiquae passage, is taken literally as the best, a retreat from generation. Of course, in the Phaedo, Socrates spends a lengthy amount of time arguing for the importance of carrying out a just period of one’s life according to the allotment of said life’s time — not leaving it earlier, and not being rueful when time runs out.

In the book that Taylor appends to the Platonic Theology, he also translates some of Hermias’ lecture notes on the Phaedrus:

But if Orithyia was hurled from a precipice, this also is appropriate. For such a soul dies a philosophic, not receiving a physical death, and abandons a proairetic, at the same time that she lives a physical life. And philosophy, according to Socrates in the Phædo, is nothing else than a meditation of death.

Platonic Theology, Book VII, p. 578

This quotation comes from a longer section in which Hermias is unfolding the myth of Orithyia and Boreas, ultimately positing that Orithyia may be a soul “aspiring after things above” who becomes receptive to the power of the God Boreas. The language above reminds me of reading about yogic efforts and the burning of saṁskāras, where due to immense effort they wither and die.

One thing that struck me a lot about the Platonic Theology, incidentally, was the treatment of Hades. I rarely think about Hades. Sometimes, I light pomegranate-scented incense for Persephone. However, the text is very thorough in relating Zeus to Being and to essence; Poseidon to Life and to power; and Hades to Intellect and to activity. It was softening, and endearing, because most of what I think about when I think about death are the laments from Greek tragedies about shades being sad and the repulsion (in myths underscored by ritual taboos) that the Ouranic Gods (whom I love) feel for the dead.

In the fourth place, therefore, in the whole of generation, Jupiter indeed is allotted the summits, and the parts which are raised above others, in which also are the allotments of happy souls, as Socrates says in the Phædrus, because they then live under Jupiter, beyond generation. But Neptune is allotted cavities, and cavernous places, with which generation, motion, and the incursion of concussions are conversant. Hence, they call this God, the earth-shaker. And Pluto is allotted the places under the earth, various streams, Tartarus itself, and in short, the places in which souls are judged and punished. Whence also, of souls themselves, they say that such of them as have not yet proceeded into generation, but abide in the intelligible, are Jovian; but that such as are conversant with generation, are arranged under Neptune; and that such as are purified and punished after generation, and wander under the earth, according to a journey of a thousand years, or which are again converted and led back to their principle, are perfected under Pluto.

Platonic Theology, Book VI, p. 421

Although, to be fair, the part that really made me feel fuzzy was the bit about Persephone several pages later.

For the rumour of theologists who delivered to us the most holy mysteries in Eleusis, says, that above indeed, Proserpine abides in the dwellings of her mother, which her mother had fabricated in inaccessible places, exempt from the universe, but that beneath she governs terrestrial concerns in conjunction with Pluto, rules over the recesses of the earth, extends life to the extremities of the universe, and imparts soul to things which are of themselves inanimate, and dead. Where also you may wonder that Proserpine associates with Jupiter indeed and Pluto, the former, as fables say violating, but the latter ravishing the Goddess, but is not connected with Neptune. For he alone of the sons of Saturn, is not conjoined with Proserpine. [The reason, however, of this is,] that Neptune possessing the middle centre in the triad, is allotted a vivific dignity and power, and is characterized according to this. From himself, therefore, he has the vivific cause, animates the whole of his proper allotment, and fills it with middle life from his own peculiarity. For Pluto indeed is the supplier of wisdom and intellect to souls according to Socrates in the Cratylus. But Jupiter is the cause of existence to beings, as the father of the triad. Proserpine, therefore, being coarranged with the extremes, and prior to the world, with Jupiter indeed paternally, but in the world with Pluto, according to the beneficent will of the father, in the former case she is said to be violated by Jupiter, but in the latter, to be ravished by Pluto, in order that the first and last of fabrications may participate of vivification. For as the whole fountain of life [Rhea] being conjoined with the whole, according to one impartible cause, illuminates all things with life, thus also Proserpine, weaving in conjunction with the leaders of the universe, things first, middle, and last, illuminates them with the vivification of herself.

Platonic Theology, Book VI, p. 423

The reason I was thinking about this so intensely is that I often pray to the Gods for what is best, especially to Apollon. The pandemic is changing how many of us prioritize our time and the projects we want to do, and for many, it has made the question of how long we have stressful in ways it often isn’t when we are ignoring the future. I think a lot of us would like to die after we have positive things to leave behind, and in Pindar and the temple-builders’ cases, they had completed great works that sowed the beauty of the Gods into auditory and physical spaces respectively — do what one means to do, followed by rest.

2 thoughts on “Death and What’s Best

  1. Thank you for these beautiful reflections!

    Continuing the Apollonian connection, I’m reminded of the tight interconnection between the two definitions of philosophy that Plato gives us in the Phaedo: philosophy is at once “a preparation for death” (64a) and “the greatest kind of music” (61a), because of how it brings harmony to the soul.

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    1. Yes, there are such Apollonian overtones to that dialogue. Edward Butler posted this paper to Twitter a short while ago (maybe late December?): Harrison, Jane E. 1908. “Helios-Hades.” The Classical Review 22 (1): 12–16. — and while I don’t identify Apollon with Helios (beyond due measure) or either with Hades (and I think that identification is overly simplistic), it is interesting to think about the hidden chthonic associations that each of them has.

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