James V. Schall, S. J.
David Yost mentioned a famous essay of Robert Louis Stevenson, “Aes Triplex.” He said that it was a favorite of Chesterton and assumed that I had read it. I had not. But the better-late-than-never doctrine certainly holds in this case. It reminds me again of just how great the literary form of the essay is. As in this case, it enables us to talk about things we probably would not otherwise think about, however much we should.
I found a collection of Stevenson’s essays, edited by William Lyon Phelps, from 1906. “Aes Triplex” was in that collection. Originally, it was published in the April 1878 Cornhill Magazine. The reference in the title is to the Latin poet Horace. It refers to a triple-plated brass breastplate. Really it is a symbol for great courage. Courage, as we recall from Aristotle, is the virtue of staying in being, of the control of our fears and pains so that we might do that which is worthy of our doing.
Why is great courage needed? The essay is really about death, the act that requires, no doubt, great courage if it is to be done well. Stevenson even refers to some of Samuel Johnson’s great comments on this unavoidable topic. In a way, I think, “Aes Triplex” should be read along with Cicero’s famous essay, “De Senectute,” on old age, an essay also not to be missed, even if we are young, perhaps especially if we are young.
The Stevenson essay begins with an account of the great separation that death constitutes. It has “no parallel upon earth. It outdoes all other accidents because it is the last of them.” When death happens, many things are closed off. “When the business [of death] is done, there is sore havoc made in other people’s lives, and a pin knocked out by which many subsidiary friendships hung together. There are empty chairs, solitary walks, and single beds at night.” Stevenson is very blunt. Whether we deal with the poor or the powerful, our “ceremonials” try to make death’s reality sensible to us. But, on this solemn topic, the fact is that poets and philosophers have themselves “gone a long way to put humanity in error.” Fortunately, the suddenness of death and burial leaves little time for these erroneous ponderings to break forth.
But the fact is, Stevenson goes on, if we look at the way people act, in spite of its absoluteness, death has little influence on the conduct of their lives. He uses the analogy of the people who live in a Latin American town located on the side of a volcano, which rumbles and may go off at any moment. They hardly give death a second thought. “It seems not credible that respectable married people, with umbrellas, should find appetite for a bit of supper within a long distance of a fiery mountain; ordinary life begins to smell of high-handed debauch when it is carried on so close to a catastrophe; and even cheese and salad, it seems, could hardly be relished in such circumstances without something like a defiance of the Creator.” How odd, in other words, were these Latin Americans who enjoyed the good things of life on the side of an active volcano.
However, Stevenson immediately pointed out, this living on the brink of death, no matter where we live, is the lot of us all. “When one comes to think of it calmly, the situation of these South American citizens forms only a very pale figure of the state of ordinary mankind.” There is danger everywhere including in what we eat. The “dinner table” is statistically closer to death than battlefields. More people in fact die at the former than at the latter. Abstract “ideas of life” will never do.
Stevenson’s advice to old men seems particularly pertinent. “After a certain distance, every step we take in life we find the ice growing thinner under our feet, and all around us and behind us we see our contemporaries going through [the ice]. By the time a man gets well into the seventies, his continued existence is a mere miracle; and when he lays his old bones in bed for the night, there is an overwhelming probability that he will never see the day.” But does the elderly gentleman see it this way? Not at all. When he sees someone his age or even younger die, he takes “a child-like pleasure at having outlived someone else.” He does not change his ways.
“It is a memorable subject for consideration, with what unconcern and gaiety mankind pricks on along the Valley of the Shadow of Death.” Stevenson says that nature acts something like the infamous Roman Emperor Caligula, who, for amusement at his villa, invited crowds of revelers to the bridge over Baiae, when, at his signal, the Pretorian Guard tossed them off into the sea. Nature seems to choose our deaths with the same tyrannical arbitrariness.
What particularly irks Stevenson in all this consideration of death is the philosophers. “We confound ourselves with metaphysical phrases, which we import into daily talk with noble inappropriateness. We have no idea what death is, apart from its circumstances and some of its consequences to others …” We do not much know what living is either. And is there a “Definition of Life?” The best the sages can do, evidently, is found in Mill: “life is a Permanent Possibility of Sensation.” Stevenson is aghast at this definition.
Stevenson makes a distinction reminiscent of Chesterton. “We may trick with life in its dozen senses until we are weary of tricking; we may argue in terms of all the philosophies on earth, but one fact remains true throughout—that we do not love life, in the sense that we are greatly preoccupied about its conservation; that we do not, properly speaking, love life at all, but living.”
And those who are most concerned about merely keeping alive, to go back to the virtue of courage, are likely to miss life altogether in their narrowness. “For surely the love of living is stronger in an Alpine climber roping over a peril, or a hunter riding merrily at a stiff fence, than in a creature who lives upon a diet and walks a measured distance in the interest of his constitution.” Stevenson insists that the “love of living” almost requires a view of life that does not think that just staying alive is the highest good. Aristotle had said, after all, that the purpose of culture and politics was not just keeping alive, but in living well, nobly.
“As courage and intelligence are the two qualities best worth a good man’s cultivation, so it is the first part of intelligence to recognise our precarious estate in life, and the first part of courage to be not at all abashed before the fact.” Stevenson contrasts a kind of selfish “prudence” with courage. Plato somewhere recounts a man, an athletic trainer, I think, who spent his whole life taking care of his health. He never lived for a single moment that was not taken up with curing or caring for himself. Plato thought it a wasted life. Stevenson prefers Thackery and Dickens, who started on monumental writing projects in advanced years
Stevenson can contemplate nothing worse than to “live in a parlor with regulated temperatures” just so we would be healthy. Life needs some risk:
“It is better to lose health like a spendthrift than to waste it like a miser. It is better to live and be done with it, than to die daily in the sickroom. By all means begin your folios; even if the doctor does not give you a year, even if he hesitates about a month, make one brave push and see what can be accomplished in a week. It is not only in finished undertakings that we ought to honour useful labour.… All who have meant good work with their whole hearts, have done good work, although they may die before they have the time to sign it.”
Stevenson sees the energy that life imports. He knows that we will die, but does not see that as a paralysis against doing something while we can. He has a grudging admiration for the Latin Americans on the volcano for carrying out their daily duties and small pleasures even while ignoring death.
Finally, Stevenson cites the famous Greek statement: “Those whom the gods love die young.” Stevenson adds, “For surely, at whatever age it overtake the man, this is to die young. Death has not been suffered to take so much as an illusion from his heart.” That is, he lives as if he will not die, as a child who thinks that his life is always just beginning. Stevenson wants the vivid awareness of our mortality not to paralyze us while we still live.
There is little reference to the revelational view of death in Stevenson. He speaks of what is the condition of man in this world, wherein he can expect only death at the end, whether it come sooner or later. But he does want our spirit, even if it begins a great opus a week before we die, to “shoot into the spiritual land.” Stevenson wants us to “love living,” not the abstraction of life, with its absurd scientific definition.
Yet, Stevenson wants us to die well, even if thrown off the bridge by the local tyrant or blown up by the local volcano. The ice gets thinner under our feet as the years pass. “By the time a man is into the seventies, his continued existence is a miracle.” The fact is, it was always a miracle from his very conception. The “spiritual land” in which he finds his destiny is not hindered by his death, whenever or however it occurs. But the lesson of death that concerned Stevenson does not avoid the question of how we live. This is perhaps why we know not the hour. This is why we still need the aes triplex, the triple shield of courage.