The changes wrought by death are in themselves so sharp and final, and so terrible and melancholy in their consequences, that the thing stands alone in man's experience, and has no parallel upon earth. It outdoes all other accidents because it is the last of them. Sometimes it leaps suddenly upon its victims, like a Thug; sometimes it lays a regular siege and creeps upon their citadel during a score of years. And when the business 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. Again in taking away our friends, death does not take them away utterly, but leaves behind a mocking, tragical, and soon intolerable residue, which must be hurriedly concealed. Hence a whole chapter of sights and customs striking to the mind, from the pyramids of Egypt to the gibbets and dule trees of mediaeval Europe. The poorest persons have a bit of pageant going towards the tomb; memorial stones are set up over the least memorable; and, in order to preserve some show of respect for what remains of our old loves and friendships, we must accompany it with much grimly ludicrous ceremonial, and the hired undertaker parades before the door. All this, and much more of the same sort, accompanied by the eloquence of poets, has gone a great way to put humanity in error; nay, in many philosophies the error has been embodied and laid down with every circumstance of logic; although in real life the bustle and swiftness, in leaving people little time to think, have not left them time enough to go dangerously wrong in practice.
The title, if you're not familiar with it (and I certainly wasn't) is explained in the notes: The title, AEs Triplex, is taken from Horace, aes triplex circa pectus, "breast enclosed by triple brass," "aes" used by Horace as a "symbol of indomitable courage."—Lewis's Latin Dictionary.
After addressing the great divide and separation death causes and how reverential we talk about it, Stevenson looks at how little we allow it to influence our "conduct under healthy circumstances." He mentions South American citizens living on the side of volcanos ("fiery mountains") who act as if they are "delving gardens in the greenest corner of England," not impressed by the "mortal conditions" where they live. And then as he thinks about it, Stevenson claims this example "forms only a very pale figure for the state of ordinary mankind" if we consider the many possibilities of wholesale catastrophes that could happen.
As Stevenson contemplates how old people act (for the most part), he uses a beauty and ruthlessness in his imagery, in passages such as
For, after a certain distance, every step we take in life we find the ice growing thinner below our feet, and all around us and behind us we see our contemporaries going through. 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. Do the old men mind it, as a matter of fact? Why, no. They were never merrier; they have their grog at night, and tell the raciest stories; they hear of the death of people about their own age, or even younger, not as if it was a grisly warning, but with a simple childlike pleasure at having outlived someone else; and when a draught might puff them out like a fluttering candle, or a bit of a stumble shatter them like so much glass, their old hearts keep sound and unaffrighted, and they go on, bubbling with laughter, through years of man's age compared to which the valley at Balaclava was as safe and peaceful as a village cricket-green on Sunday.
Death may be knocking at the door, like the Commander's statue; we have something else in hand, thank God, and let him knock. Passing bells are ringing all the world over. All the world over, and every hour, someone is parting company with all his aches and ecstasies. For us also the trap is laid. But we are so fond of life that we have no leisure to entertain the terror of death. It is a honeymoon with us all through, and none of the longest. Small blame to us if we give our whole hearts to this glowing bride of ours, to the appetites, to honour, to the hungry curiosity of the mind, to the pleasure of the eyes in nature, and the pride of our own nimble bodies.
Indeed, it is a memorable subject for consideration, with what unconcern and gaiety mankind pricks on along the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
Stevenson looks at some examples that literature uses to try and explain the human condition after he declares, "We confound ourselves with metaphysical phrases, which we import into daily talk with noble inappropriateness. We have no idea of what death is, apart from its circumstances and some of its consequences to others; and although we have some experience of living, there is not a man on earth who has flown so high into abstraction as to have any practical guess at the meaning of the Word life." Stevenson mocks philosophers if the best definition they can come up with is John Stuart Mill's "Permanent Possibility of Sensation." After all the word tricks that people play, "[O]ne 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." OK, that seems like he's using a little word trick himself, but he uses that distinction to come to his point about the necessity of courage (back to the aes triplex). With courage, we can do more than just stay alive, but truly live:
To be deeply interested in the accidents of our existence, to enjoy keenly the mixed texture of human experience, rather leads a man to disregard precautions, and risk his neck against a straw. 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.
Just because we know we're mortal doesn't mean we should abandon intelligence, though. "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. A frank and somewhat headlong carriage, not looking too anxiously before, not dallying in maudlin regret over the past, stamps the man who is well armoured for this world."
Last month I decided to read some of Robert Louis Stevenson's essays (available at Project Gutenberg), skipping around to different ones depending on how much time I had to read that day. Little did I know that a couple of days after reading "Aes Triplex" my mother would pass away. She was 97 years old and lived a full life. Her health had been in serious decline the past year, so while it wasn't unexpected, her passing still fit many of the descriptions of Stevenson's opening paragraph. I can attest that she lived fully with a triple brass shield of courage.
Despite my liberal use of quotes from the essay, there is much more in this short piece. Do make the time (in the "hot-fit of life") to have a look at the essay. And if you like what you read, be sure to check out the others. There's a lot of enjoyable writing in these pieces.