What’s to be learned from Chrysippus’ death? I’m not sure that I can tell you; but I need to try. Chrysippus was a great logician–one of the most important analytic thinkers in western history, in fact. But it’s the way he died that brings me such joy. When I first heard this story, it made me so happy, I actually got a little misty eyed. Chrysippus died my favorite death.
This is the story as I heard it: Chrysippus, esteemed philosopher and logician, was drinking with a bunch of his friends and having just, well, a gay ol’ time. Revelry gave way to fatigue eventually–after all, Chrysippus and his friends were old men by this point–and his friends, drunk and in fine moods, excused themselves to sleep. Chrys (can I call you Chrys?), however, was not at all ready to retire. Determined to keep the good feeling going, Chrys took his wine jug out to the fields and sat down with his favorite young goat*. He shot the shit with the goat for a while, feeding it figs and wine, until the goat, drunk, tried to eat more figs and began comically stumbling around.
Chrys found this so funny, he began laughing uncontrollably. And when I say “uncontrollably” I mean he laughed so hard he burst something in his brain and died instantly, with a smile on his face. That’s how his friends found him the next morning.
During a recent bout of depression, this story kept flashing in happy images across my mind. But when I retold the story to some people, they just gave me a blank stare.
“Ramsin, that is an intensely sad story.”
B-but…what a way to go, right?
This had me second guessing. What was it about this story about instant death and nothingness that made me smile?
Death as Relief
As a kid I was terrified of death because I could see hell when I closed my eyes to say my nightly prayers. My dad would flip off my light after tucking me in and I would shut my eyes tight and say the Our Father prayer and beg for protection for my family and for forgiveness of my many mental sins. But even as I prayed, horrible thoughts filled my head: sexual thoughts, lies, hates, all the things that the big guy who Art in Heaven reads in our thoughts and judges us for. Sometimes, I’d panic. It was so real. I knew what the devil looked like; my Children’s Illustrated Bible, which I still have, helpfully provided a visualization.
I would lay in bed, terrified that all my many sins would be repaid on my family. Sometimes I would sneak in a little radio and put it under my blanket so that the sound would drown out my sinful thoughts, keep me from dwelling on them.
In middle school and high school, though, I fell in with a bad crowd: Greek and Roman philosophers. Through Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy, which I got for Christmas in 8th Grade, I met Democritus, Epicurus, Chrysippus, and my favorite at the time, Seneca. It was Epicurus who articulated a vision of death that finally released me from my fear of divine retribution for my thoughts: he said that the condition of death was no different from the condition of pre-birth. Nothingness complete and utter, and thus nothing to fear. In Epicurus’ view, anxiety was the foundation of human misery. “Fear not death,” Epicurus said, “Fear no god.”
The release this offered was too tempting. Forget the pretension of the godless who claim to have arrived at it by syllogism. There’s no question that my disbelief originated from revelation. Disbelief meant relief from the crushing anxiety of death. I grasped onto it gratefully. It felt like mercy. Uncertainty is the denominator common to belief and disbelief; the former may be the less reasonable approach to uncertainty, but the latter is probably the less charitable.
If death is not to be feared, then at times of trouble it can seem like the relief itself. If death is painlessness, isn’t it preferable to pain?
Yikes. Sounds almost suicidal. But there’s another, happier consequence of adopting a world view from these Ancients.
Once, while working downstate, I came across a family–more like a clan–cemetery. It was tiny, perhaps three meters by five meters. A low garden wire “fence” maybe a foot high was all that separated it from the field around it. The grass was unkempt. A couple of the rough-hewn gravestones had fallen over in the harsh prairie hawk. When I bent down to read one of them, I saw that the name and dates had been so severely eroded that I couldn’t make out the dates and names to any degree of certainty. One day, I realized, I’d be as gone as these people, within three generations my name and accomplishments wholly absent from any single consciousness on Earth. Utter finality.
One lifespan is so short, a mere lightning bug flash, so delicate and fragile and fleeting. Every one of our ancestors successfully reproduced, which makes them a minority of all beings, which makes the odds of our own existence and self-awareness infinitesimally likely. My sense of urgency to see, experience, and learn as much as possible heightened acutely. Forget posterity; forget the afterlife; everything you ever want to see and feel and accomplish must be gotten to inside this lightning bug flash.
Chrysippus was lost in a moment of pure, abandoned joy. Just joy completely. After a night of conversation and revelry, he sat down with his friend the baby goat and they both had a blast; and his end came in an instant, no one to witness it and mourn. Lost forever in a perfect moment. It was a perfect moment because it lacked pretense, or self-awareness, or reflection; pure, harmless, ecstatic id. A numinous moment, transcending the human condition which can’t resist looking forward and backward, and being totally present.
So? I mean, we all have moments like these with not unreasonable regularity. Sexual ecstasy. The runner’s wall. Hell–a few months ago, my friend, unable to remember Guy Fieri’s name, called him “Food Smashmouth” and I laughed so hard I fell to my knees and was inconsolable for a full five minutes. (I call this phenomenon a “Pop Culture Kenning.”)
Yet something made this story stand out to impressionable young me; it must have been the contrast of that moment of escape from self, of pure joy, with the final “relief” of death.
Should We Envy Chrysippus?
Consider then Aeschylus, who, deep in thought, died when a bird of prey dropped a turtle on his head. Aeschylus was bald you see, and the bird, trying to crack open the turtle’s shell to get at delicious turtle meat, mistook him for a rock. Unlike Chrysippus, Aeschylus didn’t participate in his own end; and his last instant was filled with inward reflection. Add on top of that that the guy wrote tragedies about fate, and you have to add “ironic” to the description his death. Nobody wants to die ironically. Like if John Denver had died on a country road or if William Tell had choked on an apple with an arrowhead in it.
Should we envy Chrysippus? Certainly, it’s a pretty good way to die, of all the known ways to die. “Laughing at a drunk baby goat” is right up there with “eating a Dagwood Sandwich” and “Inflagrante Dilecto” for ways to go.
I don’t want joy to derive from its contrast with death. That’s hollow comfort. This would usually be the part where I’d make a middlebrow historical or literary analogy or possibly a whimsical pop culture reference to provide some clever comfort. This time around, I don’t think one is available that is worth more than a self-indulgent flourish. If belief and unbelief hinge on uncertainty, they have in common a certainty: death. The thing to take away from Chrysippus and his goat may just be to get as much laughing and revelry in as possible before something important goes pop.
*This is not the official version; in the official version, it is an ass, not a goat, and Chrysippus may or may not have gotten it drunk. Also it may not have been a baby. But this is the story as I heard it originally.