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Reflections on Life, Death, and the Constitution$

George Anastaplo

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780813125336

Published to Kentucky Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813125336.001.0001

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(p.238) Appendix EOn Death and Dying: Ancient, Christian, and Modern

(p.238) Appendix EOn Death and Dying: Ancient, Christian, and Modern

Reflections on Life, Death, and the Constitution
University Press of Kentucky

I. Aristotle: A Fine Death? 

Those who attack rulers on account of love of honor and distinction are different from those talked about before. They are not like those who set upon rulers looking forward to great profits and to great offices as well as to honors for themselves.

Those who attack rulers primarily on account of honor and distinction (p.239) deliberately choose to face danger. They do what they do not in order to gain an office but rather glory. Those who set out for this reason are few in number, for one has to assume they take no concern for their own safety if their action should not succeed.

The seeker of honor should follow the judgment of Dion [of Syracuse], which is not easy for most men to do. He, with few men, attacked Dionysius, saying that in doing whatever they might be able to do, it was sufficient for him to share in the action that much, so that if after making one small step onto the land he should happen to die, this would be a fine death for him.

II. John Mason Neale: Ye Need Not Fear the Grave? 

  • Good Christian men, rejoice with heart and soul, and voice;
  • Give ye heed to what we say: News! News! Jesus Christ is born today;
  • Ox and ass before Him bow; and He is in the manger now.
  • Christ is born today! Christ is born today!
  • Good Christian men, rejoice, with heart and soul and voice;
  • Now ye hear of endless bliss: Joy! Joy! Jesus Christ was born for this!
  • He has opened the heavenly door, and man is blest forevermore.
  • Christ was born for this! Christ was born for this!
  • Good Christian men, rejoice, with heart and soul and voice;
  • Now ye need not fear the grave: Peace! Peace! Jesus Christ was born to save!
  • Calls you one and calls you all, to gain His everlasting hall,
  • Christ was born to save! Christ was born to save!

(p.240) III. William Shakespeare: Does Conscience Make Cowards of Us All? 

  • Hamlet: To be, or not to be, that is the question:
  • Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
  • The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
  • Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
  • And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep—
  • No more—and by a sleep to say we end
  • The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
  • That flesh is heir to. ’Tis a consummation
  • Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;
  • To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,
  • For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
  • When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
  • Must give us pause. There’s the respect
  • That makes calamity of so long life.
  • For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
  • The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
  • The pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay,
  • The insolence of office, and the spurns
  • That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
  • When he himself might his quietus make
  • With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
  • To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
  • But that the dread of something after death,
  • The undiscovered country from whose bourn
  • No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
  • And makes us rather bear those ills we have
  • Than fly to others that we know not of?
  • Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
  • And thus the native hue of resolution
  • Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
  • (p.241) And enterprises of great pitch and moment
  • With this regard their currents turn awry
  • And lose the name of action.—Soft you now,
  • The fair Ophelia. Nymph, in thy orisons
  • Be all my sins remembered.


Sources: This passage is taken from Book 5, Chapter 10, of Laurence Berns’s translation of Aristotle’s Politics (which is to be issued by the Focus Publishing Company). This passage (Politics 1312a21–38) is modified somewhat here in order to be immediately useful as an excerpt.

Professor Berns suggests that it can be instructive to consider as well here both Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum Address of January 27, 1838, and an observation made by Aristotle in the course of his discussion of courage in his Nicomachean Ethics (1117b10–13):

The more a man possesses virtue in its entirety, the more happy he is, and the more will he be pained by death, for life is most worth living for such a man, and he will be deprived of the greatest goods knowingly, and this is painful.

The complications that can attend such actions by Dion as are referred to by Aristotle are suggested not only by the passage quoted from the Ethics but also by the following entry about Dion (in the Oxford Classical Dictionary [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949]), quoted here in its entirety:

Dion (c. 408–354 B.C.) was a relative and minister of Dionysius I; but falling under the spell of Plato, he became opposed to tyranny. He tried to exert a liberalizing influence upon the young Dionysius II [of Syracuse], but like Plato himself he failed, and had to leave Syracuse (366). For many years he stayed in Greece, closely attached to the Academy [of Plato]. But the hostility of Dionysius grew, and Dion decided to attack him. With only a small force he succeeded in winning Syracuse, and other cities joined him. But he had internal enemies, being a haughty aristocrat and not a popular leader like his former friend Heraclides, who outstripped him by gaining a great naval victory over Dionysius’ admiral Philistus. The intrigues against Dion increased, and he and his soldiers were expelled, only to be recalled soon after, when Syracuse was again attacked by Dionysius. Once more the city was liberated, but Heraclides’ intrigues continued, and finally Dion had to allow his assassination. After his rather ideological attempt at a constitution according to Platonic ideas, he became “a tyrant in spite of himself.” In 354 he was murdered by order of Callippus, a supposed friend and Platonist.

Sources: It is reported that “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” was translated into English from the Latin by John Mason Neale in 1853. It is also reported that the music used for this hymn was a fourteenth-century German melody, “In Dulci Jubilo.” It is reported as well that the German mystic Heinrich Seuse revealed that he learned the song from dancing angels.

Sources: This speech is taken from William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, III, I, 57–91. See David Bevington, ed., The Complete Works of Shakespeare (New York: Longman, 1997), 1087.