Homer: Men are as leaves that drop at the wind's breath

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What are the children of men, but as leaves that drop at the wind's breath? 

or

Even as are the generations of leaves, such are those also of men. As for the leaves, the wind scattereth some upon the earth, but the forest, as it bourgeons, putteth forth others when the season of spring is come; even so of men one generation springeth up and another passeth away.

  –Homer in the Iliad, VI, 147. The first translation seems to be by Maxwell Staniforth, as he translated Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, which were written in Greek. The second one is from Oxford University Press's translation of the Iliad by A.T. Murray (1920).

οἵη περ φύλλων γενεὴ τοίη δὲ καὶ ἀνδρῶν.
φύλλα τὰ μέν τ᾽ ἄνεμος χαμάδις χέει, ἄλλα δέ θ᾽ ὕλη
τηλεθόωσα φύει, ἔαρος δ᾽ ἐπιγίγνεται ὥρη:
ὣς ἀνδρῶν γενεὴ ἣ μὲν φύει ἣ δ᾽ ἀπολήγει.


Plutarch: We should not be ungrateful for what was given

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The messenger you sent to report the death of our little child seems to have missed me on the way as he travelled to Athens; but when I reached Tanagra I learned of it...

Only, my dear wife, in your emotion keep me as well as yourself within bounds....I know what great satisfaction lay in this, that after four sons the longed-for daughter was born.... Our affection for children so young has, furthermore, a poignancy all its own: the delight it gives is quite pure and free from all anger or reproach. She had herself, moreover, a surprising gift of mildness and good temper, and her way of responding to friendship and of bestowing favours gave us pleasure while it afforded an insight into her kindness.... But I do not see, my dear wife, why these things and the like, after delighting us while she lived, should now distress and dismay us as we take thought of them. Rather I fear on the contrary that while we banish painful thoughts we may banish memory as well...But rather, just as she was herself the most delightful thing in the world to embrace, to see, to hear, so too must the thought of her live with us and be our companion, bringing with it joy in greater measure, nay in many times greater measure, than it brings sorrow...and we must not sit idle and shut ourselves in, paying for those pleasures with sorrows many times as great.

Try to carry yourself back in your thoughts and return again and again to the time when this little child was not yet born and we had as yet no complaint against Fortune; next, try to link this present time with that, as though our circumstances had again become the same. For, my dear wife, we shall appear to be sorry that our child was ever born, if our conduct leads us to regard the state of things before her birth as preferable to the present. Yet we must not obliterate the intervening two years from our memory; rather, since they afforded us delight and enjoyment of her, we should credit them to the account of pleasure; and we should not consider the small good a great evil, nor, because Fortune did not add what we hoped for, be ungrateful for what was given. For reverent language toward the Deity and a serene and uncomplaining attitude toward Fortune never fail to yield an excellent and pleasant return; while in circumstances like these, he who in greatest measure draws upon his memory of past blessings, and turns his thought toward the bright and radiant part of his life, averting it from the dark and disturbing part, either extinguishes his pain entirely, or by thus combining it with its opposite, renders it slight and faint....

...That she has passed to a state where there is no pain need not be painful to us; for what sorrow can come to us through her, if nothing now can make her grieve? 

...Consider then that the soul, which is imperishable, is affected like a captive bird:...whereas the soul that tarries after its capture but a brief space in the body, before it is set free by higher powers, proceeds to its natural state as though released....

...The laws forbid us to mourn for infants, holding it impiety to mourn for those who have departed to a dispensation and a region too that is better and more divine....

  --Plutarch (ca 46-120), in a letter to his wife Timoxena, after the death of their two-year-old daughter, also named Timoxena. Translator unknown. If you have the original Greek, could you please send it? 



Callimachus: The house beheld a two-fold woe

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At morn we buried Melanippus; as the sun set the maiden Basilo died by her own hand, as she could not endure to lay her brother on the pyre and live; and the house beheld a two-fold woe, and all Cyrene bowed her head, to see the home of happy children made desolate.

   --Callimachus and Lycophron CXLII. From The Greek Anthology (1852), George Burges. A 1917 translation is here.

If you have the original Greek, could you send it in?

Thank you to Ande and the Perseus Project for the Greek.

Ἠῶιοι Μελάνιππον ἐθάπτομεν, ἠελίου δέ
     δυομένου Βασιλὼ κάτθανε παρθενική
αὐτοχερί: ζώειν γὰρ ἀδελφεὸν ἐν πυρὶ θεῖσα
     οὐκ ἔτλη. δίδυμον δ᾽ οἶκος ἐπεῖδε κακόν
5πατρὸς Ἀριστίπποιο, κατήφησεν δὲ Κυρήνη
     πᾶσα τὸν εὔτεκνον χῆρον ἰδοῦσα δόμον.


Pindar: Dream of a shadow is a human

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One-day creatures-- what is someone? what is no one?-- A human
is the dream of a shadow. But when a God-given ray alights,
brightness glows, and a honeyed age.

    --From the eighth ode of Pindar (ca 522 BC-443). It was written to celebrate the victory of a young wrestler named Aristomenes.

I don't know Greek; this is a translation after consulting English and French translations. Please write to me if there is a mistake in either the English or the Greek.

Έπάμεροί τί δέ τις; τί δ' οῠ τις; σκιᾶς ὄναρ
ἄνθρωπος. άλλ' ὃταν αἴγλα διὀσδοτος ἔλφη
λαμπρὀν φἑγγος ἔπεστιν άνδρῶν καἰ μείλιχος αἴών....


Socrates, according to Plato: To fear death is to think one knows what one does not

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To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest blessing for a man, men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils. And surely it is the most blameworthy ignorance to believe that one knows what one does not know.

       --Socrates (469-399 B.C.), quoted by Plato in the Apology, translated by G.M.A. Grube. From Plato, Complete Works (1997)


Ancient Greek: Unforeseen fate scattered all that great affection

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I Homonoea, who was far clearer-voiced than the Sirens, I who was more golden than the Cyprian* herself at revellings and feasts, I the chattering bright swallow lie here, leaving tears to Atimetus, to whom I was dear from girlhood; but unforeseen fate scattered all that great affection.

   --Anonymous ancient Greek poem, tr by J.W. Mackail; cited in The Portable Greek Reader, ed. W.H. Auden. If you have the original Greek, can you send it to me?

Translated also by H.D.: her version includes these lines:

        The golden one is gone from the banquets;
        She, beloved of Atimetus,   
        The swallow, the dear Homonoea;
        Gone the dear chatterer.

* Aphrodite/Venus


Cavafy: In the Evening

In the evening

By no means could those things have lasted long.
The experience of the years has shown it me.
Still, it was somewhat hurriedly that fate
stopped them. The enraptured time was quickly gone.
But how the perfumes did inebriate —
What a transcendent bed we lay upon,
what joy voluptuous our bodies knew!

A resonance of the voluptuous days,
a resonance thereof comes close to me,
some glow of the two of us in our young days:
a faded letter I take up anew
and read and read it till the daylight drops.

And I go out upon the balcony
to quit my thoughts — to change them while I gaze
at the dear old town, at the quick life along
the darkening street and by the lighted shops.

        --C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933), translated by John Cavafy in Poems by C. P. Cavafy (Ikaros, 2003)

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Εν Εσπέρα    

Πάντως δεν θα διαρκούσανε πολύ. Η πείρα
των χρόνων με το δείχνει. Aλλ’ όμως κάπως βιαστικά
ήλθε και τα σταμάτησεν η Μοίρα.
Ήτανε σύντομος ο ωραίος βίος.
Aλλά τι δυνατά που ήσαν τα μύρα,
σε τι εξαίσια κλίνην επλαγιάσαμε,
σε τι ηδονή τα σώματά μας δώσαμε.

Μια απήχησις των ημερών της ηδονής,
μια απήχησις των ημερών κοντά μου ήλθε,
κάτι απ’ της νεότητός μας των δυονώ την πύρα·
στα χέρια μου ένα γράμμα ξαναπήρα,
και διάβαζα πάλι και πάλι ως που έλειψε το φως.

Και βγήκα στο μπαλκόνι μελαγχολικά —
βγήκα ν’ αλλάξω σκέψεις βλέποντας τουλάχιστον
ολίγη αγαπημένη πολιτεία,
ολίγη κίνησι του δρόμου και των μαγαζιών.

Another translation:

It wouldn’t have lasted long anyway—
the experience of years makes that clear.
Even so, Fate did put an end to it a bit abruptly.
It was soon over, that wonderful life.
Yet how strong the scents were,
what a magnificent bed we lay in,
what pleasure we gave our bodies.

An echo from my days given to sensuality,
an echo from those days came back to me,
something of the fire of the young life we shared:
I picked up a letter again,
and I read it over and over till the light faded away.

Then, sad, I went out on to the balcony,
went out to change my thoughts at least by seeing
something of this city I love,
a little movement in the street and the shops

        --translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard in C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (ed. George Savidis; revised edition,  Princeton University Press, 1992)


The Iliad: Hector's wife Andromache hears of his death at the hand of Achilles

Hector's wife had as yet heard nothing, for no one had come to tell her that her husband had remained withoutAndromache_hector_de_chirico_1940 the gates. She was at her loom in an inner part of the house, weaving a double purple web, and embroidering it with many flowers. She told her maids to set a large tripod on the fire, so as to have a warm bath ready for Hector when he came out of battle; poor woman, she knew not that he was now beyond the reach of baths, and that Minerva had laid him low by the hands of Achilles. She heard the cry coming as from the wall, and trembled in every limb; the shuttle fell from her hands, and again she spoke to her waiting-women. "Two of you," she said, "come with me that I may learn what it is that has befallen; I heard the voice of my husband's honoured mother; my own heart beats as though it would come into my mouth and my limbs refuse to carry me; some great misfortune for Priam's children must be at hand. May I never live to hear it, but I greatly fear that Achilles has cut off the retreat of brave Hector and has chased him on to the plain where he was singlehanded; I fear he may have put an end to the reckless daring which possessed my husband, who would never remain with the body of his men, but would dash on far in front, foremost of them all in valour."

Her heart beat fast, and as she spoke she flew from the house like a maniac, with her waiting-women following after. When she reached the and saw Hector being borne away in front of the city- the horses dragging him without heed or care over the ground towards the ships of the Achaeans. Her eyes were then shrouded as with the darkness of night and she fell fainting backwards. She tore the tiring from her head and flung it from her, the frontlet and net with its plaited band, and the veil which golden Venus had given her on the day when Hector took her with him from the house of Eetion, after having given countless gifts of wooing for her sake.

Hectorsdeath copy

Her husband's sisters and the wives of his brothers crowded round her and supported her, for she was fain to die in her distraction; when she again presently breathed and came to herself, she sobbed and made lament among the Trojans saying, 'Woe is me, O Hector; woe, indeed, that to share a common lot we were born, you at Troy in the house of Priam, and I at Thebes under the wooded mountain of Placus in the house of Eetion who brought me up when I was a child- ill-starred sire of an ill-starred daughter- would that he had never begotten me. You are now going into the house of Hades under the secret places of the earth, and you leave me a sorrowing widow in your house. The child, of whom you and I are the unhappy parents, is as yet a mere infant. Now that you are gone, O Hector, you can do nothing for him nor he for you. Even though he escape the horrors of this woful war with the Achaeans, yet shall his life henceforth be one of labour and sorrow, for others will seize his lands. The day that robs a child of his parents severs him from his own kind; his head is bowed, his cheeks are wet with tears, and he will go about destitute among the friends of his father, plucking one by the cloak and another by the shirt. Death_of_Astyanax Some one or other of these may so far pity him as to hold the cup for a moment towards him and let him moisten his lips, but he must not drink enough to wet the roof of his mouth; then one whose parents are alive will drive him from the table with blows and angry words. 'Out with you,' he will say, 'you have no father here,' and the child will go crying back to his widowed mother- he, Astyanax, who erewhile would sit upon his father's knees, and have none but the daintiest and choicest morsels set before him. When he had played till he was tired and went to sleep, he would lie in a bed, in the arms of his nurse, on a soft couch, knowing neither want nor care, whereas now that he has lost his father his lot will be full of hardship- he, whom the Trojans name Astyanax, because you, O Hector, were the only defence of their gates and battlements. The wriggling writhing worms will now eat you at the ships, far from your parents, when the dogs have glutted themselves upon you. You will lie naked, although in your house you have fine and goodly raiment made by hands of women. This will I now burn; it is of no use to you, for you can never again wear it, and thus you will have respect shown you by the Trojans both men and women."

In such wise did she cry aloud amid her tears, and the women joined in her lament.

        --The Iliad of Homer, translated by Samuel Butler (1835-1902), online at the Internet Classics Archive. Achilles' son killed Hector's little son Astyanax by throwing him over the walls of Troy, and took Andromache as his slave.


Socrates on Death

  Let us reflect in another way, and we shall see that there is great reason to hope that death is a good; for one of two things, either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another. Gisante_esprit_de_sel_flickr Now if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by dreams, death will be an unspeakable gain. For if a person were to select the night in which his sleep was undisturbed even by dreams, and were to compare with this the other days and nights of his life, and then were to tell us how many days and nights he had passed in the course of his life better and more pleasantly than this one, I think that any man, I will not say a private man, but the greatest king will not find many such days or nights, when compared to the others. Now if death be of such a nature, I say that to die is gain; for eternity is then only a single night. But if death is the journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead abide, what good, O my friends and judges, can be greater than this?

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If indeed when the pilgrim arrives in the world below, he is delivered from the professors of justice in this world, and finds the true judges who are said to give judgement there . . . that pilgrimage will be worth taking. What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus  and Hesiod and Homer? Nay, if this be true, let me die again and again! . . . Above all, I shall then be able to continue my search into true and false knowledge; as in this world, so also in the next; and I shall find out who is wise, and who pretends to be wise, and is not. . . . In another world they do not put a man to death for asking questions: assuredly not. For besides being happier than we are, they will also be immortal, if what is said is true.

    Wherefore, O judges, be of good cheer about death, and know of a certainty, that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death. He and his are not neglected by the gods; nor has my own approaching end happened by mere chance. But I see clearly that the time had arrived when it was better for me to die and be released from trouble. . . .

   The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our separate ways, I to die, and you to live. Which of these two is better only God knows.

    --Socrates (ca 470 BC- 399 BC), cited by Plato (ca 427-347 BC). Translated by Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893) in The Dialogues of Plato, Volume 2, translated by Benjamin Jowett, 3rd Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1892), pages 109-135.