On Pain and Annihilation

May 3, 1816 – September 3 1816

Once in college, during an often lonely and boring semester abroad, I read The Oxford Book of Death. I can’t say I remember much of it, except that it did nothing to improve my mood. This was not required reading. (Did I mention I was bored?) Class books included Africa Since 1875, Volume 2; How Europe Underdeveloped Africa; Bible and Theology in African Christianity; and Introduction to African Religion. I could go toe to toe with TJ and JA on African history.

Back to the book of death, which I’m worried the final 100 pages of the Adams-Jefferson Letters is turning out to be. I’m not saying this is uninteresting. What is more fascinating than death and what’s on the other side? But through this medium it feels crass to begin a discussion of the most important human question. Maybe I’ll just re-type a few thought-provoking excerpts, like this from JA:

Your life is a Boule de Savon

“Supose, the Cause of the Universe, should reveal to all Man kind, at once a Certainty that they must all die within a Century, and that death is an eternal Extinction of all living Powers, of all Sensation and Reflection. What would be the Effect? Would there be one Man Woman or Child existing on this Globe, twenty Years hence? Would not every human Being . . . be wailing that She had ever been born; grieving that She had ever been dragged without her Consent into being. Who would bear the Gout the Stone the Cholick, for the sake of a Boule de Savon when a Pistol a Cord, a Pond or a Phyal of Laudanum was at hand? What would Men say to their Maker? would they thank him? No They would reproach him; they would curse him to his Face.”

Or, for lighter fare, I could suggest a few icebreakers for when and if parlor games come back into fashion. JA again:

“1. Would you accept a Life, if offered You, of equal pleasure and Paine? E.G. one million of moments of Pleasure and One Million of Moments of Pain? 1,000,000 Pleasure = 1,000,000 Paine. Suppose the Pleasure as exquisite as any in Life and the Paine as exquisite as any. E.G. Stone, Gravel, Gout, Head Ache, Ear Ache, Tooth Ache, Cholick. etc.
2. Would you accept a Life of one Year of incessant Gout, Head Ache etc for Seventy two Years of such Life as you have injoyed?”

Naturally, I wish Adams had listed his definition of exquisite pleasure as well as pain.

And, for the record, to both questions his answer was no. “I would rather be blotted, out.”

Instead, lest I leave you with feelings of anxiety and trepidation about the future, I will simply quote the ever soothing sage of Monticello:

“There is a ripeness of time for death, regarding others as well as ourselves, when it is reasonable we should drop off and make room for another growth. When we have lived our generation out, we should not wish to encroach on another. I enjoy good health; I am happy in what is around me. Yet I assure you I am ripe for leaving all, this year, this day, this hour.”


2 thoughts on “On Pain and Annihilation

  1. Love that final quote. Approaching death, and actually dying, is a difficult business – physically, even if the spirit is ready… Interesting to think about.

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