Correspondence and reprint requests: Constantine J. Falliers, Allergy and Asthma Clinic, 360 South Garfield, Denver, Colorado, 80209
The steady spate of papers about euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide should remind us that death can be approached, as it were, from the opposite direction. Death (Gk. thanatos; Lat. mors, mortis; Goth. dauthus) generally has been viewed as a "failure" (to survive); efforts to prevent--actually only to postpone--death have become a preoccupation of modern medicine that indicates a widespread thanatophobia. Historically, in most societies, death has served as the ultimate penalty for evil and unlawful deeds, even though many have questioned both its deterrent and its ethical aspects, ever since Diodotos' address to the Athenian Assembly--recorded by Thucydides nearly 2500 years ago: (1) national ideals have glorified a readiness to die for patriotic purposes and certain religious movements have promoted death as a way to attain transcendental bliss and eternal redemption. Also, many societies have accepted death as evidence of the fulfillment of principles, prophesy or destiny--Socrates, Jesus Christ and others, and/or, more commonly, as the end of unbearable suffering (euthanasia). From an individual point of view, a "wish to be dead" has been the traditional expression of the lovelorn Sappho, quoted in Lesbos. (2)
This essay examines a conscious preparedness for death not from a sense of duty, or as a response to suffering, or as an attempt at redemption, but as a consequence of the fulfillment of a personal aspiration. The term, prothanasia, has been chosen to indicate such a readiness for or receptivity to the termination of an accomplished or blessed existence. I have selected citations from ancient Greek, Biblical, Asiatic and romantic European traditions that I encountered during literary research connected with the writing of a history of Lesbos (2) and of other transcultural and interdisciplinary studies (3) (4) to demonstrate that, under certain circumstances, individuals anywhere may be ready to die.
Ready to Die Following Lyrical Perfection: Solon of Athens, c640-c560 B.C.
Solon, the Athenian stateman, lawgiver, poet, traveler and one of the Seven Sages of ancient Greece, heard his young nephew recite and sing a melos (poem with melody) of the famous Lesbian poetess, Sappho. (2) This is my translation of the original Greek story, recorded by Aelian (Ailianos) and quoted by Strobaeus (Strobaios) in his Anthology: (3)
When his nephew sang a melos by Sappho while they were drinking, Solon of Athens was so delighted with the melody that he asked the boy to teach it to him. Someone then inquired what was the reason he wanted so much to accomplish that and he replied: "So that after I learn it I may die."
Greek text in: Campbell DA. Greek Lyric, Vol. I, p. 12, 1982 (5).
The expression in Greek ina mathon apothano may also be translated as "so that having learned it I shall die," probably meaning "so that I may die--only--after I have learned it." The it, of course, was one of the hundreds of songs composed by Sappho. (2) Many of these expressed deeply sentimental love for her young female students/companions that provided the basis for the modern term "lesbian."
The Fulfillment of a Prophesy: Simeon and Christ, 1st Century A.D.
In the Christian tradition, the Hebrew elder, Simeon, expressed his readiness to die once the infant Jesus was presented to him in the temple. His words have been rendered in English as "Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace... for mine eyes have seen thy salvation" or "Now let your bondslave depart in peace, Lord..." Closer, perhaps, to the text of the evangelist, Saint Luke, is my translation from the Greek:
The Gospel According to Saint Luke, 1st Century A.D.
And, see, there was a certain person (anthropos, a human being) in Jerusalem named Simeon; and this man was just and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit had been upon him. …