Monday, September 1, 2014

The Irritating Bite vs. the Sting Which Kills

It's been hard to blog with the start-of-the-semester madness, but finally, I can get back to my previous post on Philodemus' treatise On Death (Book IV). 
   There I wrote about how the Epicurean sage manages grief and fear by cutting out from a person's natural aversion to death whatever wrong ideas or superstitions he or she has attached to it. Philodemus is especially critical of associating with death the idea of divine judgment according to the myths of his day (κατὰ τοὺς μύθους); he would not be very receptive to the idea of that we are all assigned a place in Hades (πρὸς τὸν ἀποδεδειγμένον αὐτοῖς καθ' Ἅιδου χῶρον) in the afterlife where furies torture the wicked (IV.27.8-14; Henry ed.). Thus, Epicurean philosophical therapy is the process of rationally dispelling such myths concerning death, with the result that the great pain (μεγάλην... λύπην; 25.11-12) fueled by false ideas is reduced to a natural bite or sting (φυσικὸς ὁ δηγμός; 25.36). 
   Apparently, this remainder which is left over, the natural bite, after myths and superstitions have been cut out, is actually useful for the philosopher. For one thing, it humanizes the Epicurean since it is unnatural for a person to feel nothing when one's loved ones have passed away (you can see Philodemus taking a jab here against the Stoics who argued that the sage is "apathetic" to grief). A natural aversion to death (= death's bite) can also encourage a person to live well and wisely in the present (37.12-38.25; see Armstrong, 45-49*), much in the same way natural anger without false ideas about vengeance helps a person to seek justice for wrongs done (cf. Philodemus, On Anger, col. 67). 
Silver Tetradrachm (Greek: τετράδραχμον) coin from Ephesus
featuring a bee and stag (ca. 390-130 BC)
image credit:
So the key to Epicurean therapy is reducing great pain to a manageable, useful, and natural bite. Death is nothing but an irritating sting or bite that should not be feared. 
    But Paul's understanding of personified Death (θάνατε) and its sting (τὸ κέντρον) is that the latter is no small bite or peck like that of a mosquito. Rather, like some ancient species of wasps, bees, and scorpions of Paul's day, a sting can kill you (1 Cor 15:54-55; cf. Aristophanes, Wasps 403-407). There is a double entendre here. Paul's use of κέντρον refers to both the torturing device of personified Death (click here for details) and also the (insect's) sting which kills and ends life. In contrast to the Epicureans, Paul does not think the reality of divine judgment and justice is a false myth but part of the eschatological reality which frames the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is a divine law to which all must answer. While Paul's vision of the afterlife is nothing like Virgil's description of Hades (Aeneid, Book 6), he nevertheless does not discount the idea that God does exact justice for all humanity at the resurrection of the dead. Nor does Paul think any rationalization process could ever remove the agony which death brings. 
   Instead, the only solution is to remove the sting altogether. Death has no power over Christian believers because God will raise them up on the day of Jesus' return. Why settle for a bite, when God, through Christ, has conquered death's crippling effect on human life once and for all?! 

* See David Armstrong, "All Things to All Men: Philodemus' Model of Therapy and the Audience of De Morte," in Philodemus and the New Testament World (NovTSup 111; Leiden: Brill, 2004), 15-54. 

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