Our Continual Dying, according to St. Thomas More

Jul 4th, 2021 • 5 min

From The Four Last Things, page 41:

And surely me thinketh that in likewise a man is not only dying, that is to say, going in his way out of this life, while he lieth drawing on, but also all the while that he is going toward his end, which is by all the whole time of his life, since the first moment to the last finished, that is, to wit, sith the first moment in which he began to live until the last moment of his life, or rather the first in which he is full dead.

Now if this he thus, as me seemeth that reason proveth, a man is always dying from afore his birth; and every hour of our age, as it passeth by, cutteth his own length out of our life, and maketh it shorter by so much, and our death so much the nearer. Which measuring of time and minishing of life, with approaching toward death, is nothing else but, from our beginning to our ending, one continual dying; so that wake we, sleep we, eat we, drink we, mourn we, sing we, in what wise soever live we, all the same while die we.

So that we never ought to look toward death as a thing far off, considering that although he made no haste toward us, yet we never cease ourselves to make haste toward him.

Now, if thou thinkest this reason but a sophistical subtlety, and thinkest while thou art a young man thou mayest for all this think thy death far off, that is to wit as far as thou hast by likelihood of nature many years to live, then will I put thee an homely example, not very pleasant, but nathless very true and very fit for the matter.

If there were two, both condemned to death, both carried out at once toward execution, of which two the one were sure that the place of his execution were within one mile, the other twenty miles off—yea, an hundred, an ye will—he that were in the cart to be carried a hundred miles would not take much more pleasure than his fellow in the length of his way, notwithstanding that it were a hundred times as long as his fellow’s, and that he had thereby a hundred times as long to live, being sure and out of all question to die at the end.

Reckon me now yourself a young man in your best lust [i.e., vigour.]—twenty years of age if ye will. Let there be another, ninety. Both must ye die, both be ye in the cart carrying forward. His gallows and death standeth within ten mile at the farthest, and yours within eighty. I see not why ye should reckon much less of your death than he, though your way be longer, since ye be sure ye shall never cease riding till ye come at it.

And this is true, although ye were sure that the place of your execution stood so far beyond his.

But what if there were to the place of your execution two ways, of which the one were four score mile farther about than your fellow’s, the other nearer by five mile than his; and when ye were put in the cart ye had warning of both, and though ye were shewed that it were likely that ye should be carried the longer way, yet it might hap ye should go the shorter, and whether ye were carried the one or the other ye should never know till ye come to the place; I trow ye could not in this case make much longer of your life than of your fellow’s.

Now in this case are we all, for our Lord hath not indented [i.e., made a contract. Job xiv.] with us of the time. He hath appointed what we may not pass, but not how soon we shall go, nor where, nor in what wise. And therefore if thou wilt consider how little cause thou hast to reckon thy death so far off by reason of thy youth, reckon how many as young as thou have been slain in the self-same ways in which thou ridest, how many have been drowned in the self-same waters in which thou rowest. And thus shalt thou well see that thou hast no cause to look upon thy death as a thing far off, but a thing undoubtedly nigh thee and ever walking with thee. By which—not a false imagination, but a very true contemplation—thou shalt behold him and advise him such as he is, and thereby take occasion to flee vain pleasures of the flesh that keep out the very [i.e., true] pleasures of the soul.

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