Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Life of the World to Come

These are, of course, the final words of the Nicene Creed (not counting the obligatory "amen").  Lately, I've found myself wondering how this life beyond the world in which we live came to be of such concern to so many of us.  Reading about concepts of the afterlife in Roman paganism has prompted this speculation.

I find it interesting that so many managed to live without this concern, long ago.  The Romans seem to have had no opinion on the subject up until the first century C.E., judging from funerary inscriptions, and sometimes urged those still living to live it up while they can, so to speak.  The Epicureans and Stoics didn't seem to believe in any afterlife, or if so believed in one in which we simply merged with Nature or the Universal Reason.  Things began to be different in the Roman world with the onset of the eastern religions and cults, e.g. that of Isis, Cybele and Christ.

This is not to say that those who did not believe in an afterlife were indifferent to immortality of a sort.  In the ancient west, it was considered important to to have achieved such glory in life that one would be remembered for long years after death.  I was somewhat disappointed to learn that Epicurus apparently decreed that his followers should celebrate his birthday after he dispersed into atoms.  If it was his desire that he be regularly honored after his death, this seems to diminish him, somehow.  Still, this is something different from the desire to have a continuous, personal existence.

It's interesting that many of the ancients found a way to live, and even do great things and think great thoughts without a belief that they would live on or be punished or rewarded after death.  One must wonder why it is so difficult for us to do so now.  I think of the near-hysteria which gripped so many of the romantics of the 19th century, especially, at the thought that there may be no God or no life beyond this world, and the contrast with these ancients is astonishing.  Did we simply grow so weak, so cowardly, so craven that we quiver in fear at the thought of our dissolution, questioning the meaning of our lives and the use of doing anything while they lived and fought and thought and worked and achieved regardless of their fate?

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