On Decay

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A reflection on Plato’s Critias

Although from a position of comfort and youth it could be remarked by a detractor that I am flippant in my analysis of death. However, I see nothing as more important than beginning to understand the physical processes that limit the conduct of our lives – much like understanding the rules of a game. If I understand the rules I can play the game to the best of my ability – cognicent that I must conform to the rules and that the amusement will eventually come to an end. In this manner I want to investigate another of the inevitable aspects of life and how we should deal with its inexorable progress: decay.

To understand decay, I must examine the start point of its insidious ingress. My first instinct was to state that decay commences with the solidification of opinion and belief, that the acceptance of an idol is the beginning of the end. But this flatters the human spirit too much, putting faith in our agency and ignoring the reality of physical destruction. Decay commences from the moment the biological structure reaches its zenith although the steepness of the descent is somewhat under our influence. We are like a glider at its highest point – sometimes rising on columns of hot air, sometimes stalling and spiraling, but always inevitably collapsing back to the ground from whence we sprung.

With the inevitability of decay, the question arises as to whether it is something that is bad, or something that we should take as neutral. In this sense, we should approach decay by looking at its end state: death. We already have talked about how death is something beyond our control, and which is largely a neutral action, whether it is good or bad entirely dependent on the way in which the individual lived (see on Death). With this in mind, we should handle decay in the same manner: its impact defined by the actions that we take.

If this is our outcome, we should look at the manner in which we deal with decay. The first aspect of decay, being physical, is the simplest to accept – in that we can continue to maintain our sense of self as long as our mind remains within our grasp. We can stall our physical decay for as long as possible, using diet and exercise, but with the understanding that whatever gains we make are temporary – and that physical excellence is but a fleeting benefit.

The more disturbing aspect of decay is the slow destruction of our senses, the creeping decrepitude which leaves our minds and identities mere flitting shadows of their former selves. At first, this may seem evil, depriving us of our capacity to reason, but this is only if we forget that our reasoning comes from the mixed blessing of life – whose commencement entailed the inevitability of this decline and obliteration. I suspect that there may come a stage when, if we are without redemption and our lives have become beyond repair, that death may become more favourable to the life of a wraith – but the difficulty comes in determining the line at which that decision to let slip the anchor of this life.

Original text

Plato’s Critias


John Martin, Ruins of an Ancient City, c.1810


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