Sunday, January 25, 2009

which is best, life or death, the gods only know

From the Journals of Lord Byron
January 25. 1821.

Received a letter from Lord S.O. state secretary of the Seven Islands — a fine fellow — clever — dished in England five years ago, and came abroad to retrench and to renew. He wrote from Ancona, in his way back to Corfu, on some matters of our own. He is son of the late Duke of L. by a second marriage. He wants me to go to Corfu. Why not? — perhaps I may, next spring.

Answered Murray's letter — read — lounged. Scrawled this additional page of life's log - book. One day more is over of it and of me: — but 'which is best, life or death, the gods only know,' as Socrates said to his judges, on the breaking up of the tribunal. Two thousand years since that sage's declaration of ignorance have not enlightened us more upon this important point; for, according to the Christian dispensation, no one can know whether he is sure of salvation — even the most righteous — since a single slip of faith may throw him on his back, like a skaiter, while gliding smoothly to his paradise. Now, therefore, whatever the certainty of faith in the facts may be, the certainty of the individual as to his happiness or misery is no greater than it was under Jupiter.

It has been said that the immortality of the soul is a 'grand peut- être' — but still it is a grand one. Every body clings to it — the stupidest, and dullest, and wickedest of human bipeds is still persuaded that he is immortal.

Notes to the text:

S.O. ... son of the late Duke of L. by a second marriage - Sidney Godolphin Osborne (1789-1861), son of Francis Godolphin, fifth Duke of Leeds, by his second wife, Catherine, daughter of Thomas Anguish. He was therefore stepson to Lady Amerlia d'Arcy, afterwards Baroness Conyers in her own right, who married (1) the Marquis of Carmarthen, afterwards fifth Duke of Leeds, from whom she was divorced in 1779; and (2) Captain Byron, father of the poet, by whom she was mother of Augusta Leigh. (source of this note: The Works of Lord Byron)

Seven Islands - Malta. The islands became a protectorate of Great Britain following a rebellion against the French in 1799. Malta became a constitutional monarchy, and thus independent of the UK, in 1964.

dished - trans. slang. To ‘do for’, defeat completely, ruin; to cheat, circumvent. From the notion of food being done, and dished. (OED)

Answered Murray's letter - Unknown

which is best, life or death, the gods only know - This is a reference to Cicero's meditations on death in his Tuscan Disputations: 'It Is time that I retire to death, and you to your affairs of life: which of us has the better is known to the gods, but to no mortal man.' He goes on to say:
That God who presides in us forbids our departure hence without his leave. But when God himself has given us a just cause, as formerly he did to Socrates, and lately to Cato, and often to many others in such a case, certainly every man of sense would gladly exchange this darkness for that light : not that he would forcibly break from the chains that held him, for that would be against the law ; but, like a man released from prison by a magistrate or some lawful authority, so he too would walk away, being released and discharged by God. For the whole life of a philosopher is, as the same philosopher says, a meditation on death.
Byron used the concept in verses of Don Juan on which he was working at this time:

They accuse me — Me — the present writer of
     The present poem — of— I know not what —
A tendency to under-rate and scoff
     At human power and virtue, and all that;
And this they say in language rather rough.
     Good God I I wonder what they would be at!
I say no more than hath been said* In Dante's
Verse, and by Solomon and by Cervantes;

By Swift, by Machiavel, by Rochefoucault,
     By Fenelon, by Luther, and by Plato ;
By Tillotson, and Wesley, and Rousseau,
     Who knew this life was not worth a potato.
'Tis not their fault, nor mine, if this be so, —
     For my part, I pretend not to be Cato,
Nor even Diogenes. —We live and die,
But which is best, you know no more than I.

Socrates said, our only knowledge was
     "To know that nothing could be known;" a pleasant
Science enough, which levels to an ass
     Each man of wisdom, future, past, or present.
Newton (that proverb of the mind), alas I
     Declared, with all his grand discoveries recent,
That he himself felt only " like a youth
Picking up shells by the great ocean — Truth.

      - Don Juan 7th Canto, 3rd-5th Verses
Socrates said to his judges - Xenophon summarizes: 'With regard to death, he was no way solicitous to importune his judges, as the custom was with others: on the contrary, he thought it the best time for him to die. And that he had thus determined with himself was still the more evident after his condemnation; for when he was ordered to fix his own penalty, he refused to do it, neither would he suffer any other to do it for him: saying that to fix a penalty implied a confession of guilt. And afterwards, when his friends would have withdrawn him privately, he would not consent; but asked them with a smile, “If they knew of any place beyond the borders of Attica where death could not approach him?”' (source: The Defense Of Socrates Before His Judges by Xenophon)

grand peut-être - Tradition has it that Rabelais died saying, 'Je vais chercher le grand Peut-etre.'

View Larger Map

{Byron's scrawl; source: Jeffrey Hoeper's Byron pages}

Some sources:

Life of Lord Byron, With His Letters And Journals, Vol. 5

The Life, Letters and Journals of Lord Byron By George Gordon Byron Byron, Thomas Moore,

The Works of Lord Byron

Don Juan (Byron)/Canto the Seventh

Full text of "Cicero's Tusculan disputations : also treatises On the nature of the gods, and On the commonwealth"

The Defense Of Socrates Before His Judges by Xenophon

Notes and Queries By William White

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