Free Life 46, 14th May 2003, Editorial: On Time’s Winged Chariot, by Sean Gabb

From Free Life No 46, 14th May 2003
ISSN: 0260 5112  

Editorial: On Time's Winged Chariot
Sean Gabb

About 18 months ago, Mrs Gabb noticed a lump on my chest – a hard projection from my sternum – that was visible when I breathed in, and that hurt when pressed. I was filled with alarm for a while, but then decided to ignore the thing. I had lost some weight. Perhaps this was a normal part of my skeleton that I had previously overlooked. Two months ago, having moved house, I went for a medical examination at my new general practitioner. The nurse who examined me pulled a face, and said she did not know what the lump was. She urged me to make an appointment to see a doctor.

I immediately decided it was bone cancer and that I was dying – this despite being in otherwise excellent health, and despite my not showing any of the more general symptoms of bone cancer. I revised my will, and prepared to face death with a stiff upper lip, if with a rather queasy stomach.

A few days ago, I had back the result of the hospital tests. The lump was indeed a normal part of me. It seems that I shall be around for the foreseeable future. I am told that people who believe they are dying and then learn they are not often take greater pleasure in being alive. They find the impressions of their senses to be more vivid, and appreciate more the common things of life. For myself, I can only report a certain complacency tinged with relief. I am not, so far as anyone can tell, dying at the moment, and that is it.

This being said, I have now reached an age that would once have been regarded as advanced; and while vitamin pills and reasonably clean living can be expected to keep me in this world for some time yet, there will inevitably come an encounter with the doctors from which I shall not emerge so well. When this will happens I cannot say. But it will surely come. And so I have decided to dwell in this editorial on the awful fact of mortality.

It would be nice to believe that I shall at the latter day stand before One who will judge me for my conduct in this life. Apart from the usual pride, gluttony, sloth, envy, lust, and so forth, I do not think, according to my own theological views, that I have committed any unpardonable sins. I see no reason why I should not be allowed to pass into a future life of everlasting bliss. I see no reason, that is, except I am not usually able to believe that it will happen. I suspect that nothing exists but matter in various kinds of motion, and that the atoms of the soul are dispersed at death with those of the body. This need not be cause for despair. If there is nothing after death, there is no reason to fear death. It is but a long and untroubled sleep. Just as I felt nothing before I was born, when Britain and Germany went to war, and shook the world with the power of their armaments, and put all mankind in doubt of which would be the victor, so when I am dead, nothing then can disturb me – not even if the earth is cast into the sea and the sea is merged with the sky.

On the other hand, though I am impressed by Lucretius, I am not satisfied. I do not accept any of the rational arguments put forward to justify the existence of God and an afterlife: they are all formally defective. Neither, though, do I wholly reject the proposition. Even if I do not believe, I can hope.

But, whatever may happen to us after we are dead, it seems undeniable that we are here only once in our known personalities. It therefore seems reasonable to pay some attention to the use we make of our time. When the news of my reprieve loses its ability to please me – as it surely will in the next few days – I shall find myself invaded again by the usual doubts; and I may find the force of these magnified in proportion to my present relief. Have I really achieved anything of which to be proud in my life to date? Am I on a course that will let me achieve anything in the future? Is my writing for the Internet a waste of time? Should I not be working more actively on my demographic history of the Roman Empire? Should I not at least be gathering materials for my study of the economics of ancient slavery? How about the project, conceived in 1987 and ignored since, to analyse the impact of sexually transmitted diseases on the change of sexual attitudes after the third century? And how about the work, actually begun last year, on the best modern sounding of the Greek accents? I am full of bright ideas for research. I know the ancient languages well enough. I can write well enough. I could without punishing effort achieve recognition as a good classical scholar. Instead, I am writing weekly philippics against Tony Blair.

Of course, Mr Blair is an evil man, and I believe I have a duty to do what little I can to assist in his political destruction. He is a liar and a traitor and a bloodthirsty psychopath. If there is a Hell, he deserves to go there for at least a very long time. But "Nothing too much" is a fine motto. If then the flow of writing for the Internet is diminished over the next few months, my dear Readers, do not be disappointed. At the same time, though, do not be relieved.

© 2003 – 2017, seangabb.

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