YOLO*, 13th century style

The other day I came across this text written by Dutch monks in the 13th century. One of the chapters deals with death. To put things in perspective, this was the world of the Black Death, where most people didn’t make 30. In 1662 when life expectancies had improved dramatically (and were recorded for the first time), out of 100 we could expect the following number of people to survive to a given age [1]:

Age

0

6

16

26

36

46

56

66

76

86

London, 1662

100

74

40

25

16

10

6

3

1

US, today

100

100

99

98

97

95

92

83

66

38

This was also the world without anaesthesia, and yet we find a remarkable absence of the fear of pain. Back then they also connected piety with isolationism in a way that we don’t believe in today (I edited the extract slightly), nevertheless I find their paradoxical reasoning of thinking of tomorrow and thus living for today, incisive and fascinating:

VERY soon your life here will end; consider, then, what may be in store for you elsewhere. Today we live; tomorrow we die and are quickly forgotten. Oh, the dullness and hardness of a heart which looks only to the present instead of preparing for that which is to come!

Therefore, in every deed and every thought, act as though you were to die this very day. If you had a good conscience you would not fear death very much. It is better to avoid sin than to fear death. If you are not prepared today, how will you be prepared tomorrow? Tomorrow is an uncertain day; how do you know you will have a tomorrow?

What good is it to live a long life when we amend that life so little? Indeed, a long life does not always benefit us, but on the contrary, frequently adds to our guilt. Would that in this world we had lived well throughout one single day. Many count up the years they have spent in religion but find their lives made little holier. If it is so terrifying to die, it is nevertheless possible that to live longer is more dangerous. Blessed is he who keeps the moment of death ever before his eyes and prepares for it every day.

If you have ever seen a man die, remember that you, too, must go the same way. In the morning consider that you may not live till evening, and when evening comes do not dare to promise yourself the dawn. Be always ready, therefore, and so live that death will never take you unprepared. Many die suddenly and unexpectedly, for in the unexpected hour the Son of God will come. When that last moment arrives you will begin to have a quite different opinion of the life that is now entirely past and you will regret very much that you were so careless and remiss.

How happy and prudent is he who tries now in life to be what he wants to be found in death.

You can do many good works when in good health; what can you do when you are ill? Few are made better by sickness. Likewise they who undertake many pilgrimages seldom become holy.

Do not put your trust in friends and relatives, and do not put off the care of your soul till later, for men will forget you more quickly than you think.

The present is very precious; these are the days of salvation; now is the acceptable time. How sad that you do not spend the time in which you might purchase everlasting life in a better way. The time will come when you will want just one day, just one hour in which to make amends, and do you know whether you will obtain it?

See, then, dearly beloved, the great danger from which you can free yourself and the great fear from which you can be saved, if only you will always be wary and mindful of death. Try to live now in such a manner that at the moment of death you may be glad rather than fearful. Learn to die to the world now, that then you may begin to live with Christ.

Ah, foolish man, why do you plan to live long when you are not sure of living even a day? How many have been deceived and suddenly snatched away! How often have you heard of persons being killed by drownings, by fatal falls from high places, of persons dying at meals, at play, in fires, by the sword, in pestilence, or at the hands of robbers! Death is the end of everyone and the life of man quickly passes away like a shadow.

*You Only Live Once

[1] Ian Hacking, The emergence of probability, p.108 and World Health Organisation data. Taken from The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow

Quotations from Book 1, Chapter 23 of The Imitation of Christ, translated into Latin by Thomas à Kempis in ca. 1418-1427

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