Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Undiscovered Country

All people are mortal.
Lawyers are people.
Therefore, all lawyers must die.

The classic syllogism:

Major Premise: A is B.
Minor Premise: C is A.
Conclusion: Therefore, C is B.

Aristotle taught us that certain syllogisms will produce an airtight conclusion—as reliable as any math theorem—if the variables in the two premises are correct. 

Ah, but there’s the rub, as Hamlet says.

Too many blathering politicians, talk-show-radio hosts, and sloppy lawyers exploit the syllogism’s form, offering up any old premises as if they were in fact comprised of facts when they really aren’t. The form without solid content is but the trappings of logic.

But what I am thinking about today is mortality, not syllogisms per se. Mortality is a fact that the syllogism above proves with apodictic certainty (in case you still had your doubts). I will not cheapen the particular event that prompted me to turn to this topic by discussing it here. I will just say that it is the kind of event that invariably prompts such thoughts and questions about our fundamental priorities.

That questioning is a motif that Hamlet explores through many variations without ever becoming too maudlin or whiney. At one point—a point when he seems to be past caring—he even pursues this theme in a humorous vein. At this point, he is returning home after having dodged an assassination attempt. He pretty much knows that by returning home, he is sealing his fate—since he has just lived through rather tangible proof that the step-father who has already killed Hamlet’s father is eager to see Hamlet, Jr. occupy an early grave. As Hamlet reaches his old royal stomping grounds, he comes upon a gravedigger busy preparing the ground for a fresh deposit. Hamlet marvels at the man’s jocular attitude—he sings a bawdy song as he works and blithely tosses human remains into the air. As a skull lands at Hamlet’s feet, he picks it up and muses to his old pal Horatio:

               Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer?
Where be his quiddities now, his quillities, his cases, his tenures,
and his tricks? Why does he suffer this rude knave now to knock
him about the sconce with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him
of his action of battery? Hum! This fellow might be in's time a
great buyer of land, with his statutes, his recognizances, his
fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries. Is this the fine of
his fines, and the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine
pate full of fine dirt? Will his vouchers vouch him no more of
his purchases, and double ones too, than the length and breadth
of a pair of indentures? The very conveyances of his lands will
scarcely lie in this box; and must th' inheritor himself have no
more, ha?

Hamlet could see that death was the great equalizer. He knew that lawyers, like everyone else, are eventually reduced to dust despite their armor of logic, learned authorities, rules, procedures, justifications, social power, and personal wealth. And even with his own end rendered more tangible and immediate by circumstances, Hamlet can joke about the matter—until the human remains become even more particularized. The next skull presented to him is one to which the gravedigger assigns a name, a precise identity: Yorick, the court jester, whom Hamlet knew as a boy. On a dime, the joking stops—until a few moments later, joking is necessary:

Dost thou think Alexander look’d a’ this
Fashion i’ th’ earth?
And smelt so?
To what base uses we may return, Horatio!
Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of
Alexander, till ‘a find it stopping a bunghole?

But when the joking again wears thin, Hamlet resorts to an almost childlike rhyme:

            Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
            Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
            O that that earth which kept the world in awe
            Should patch a wall t’ expel the winter’s flaw!

Somehow, the simple music of a nursery rhyme seems to capture this most painful fact about human destiny best. At least grown-ups’ tortured attempts to talk artfully about the subject may strike a child, as it recently did the wise young son of an ailing doctor, as “just things people say to make people feel better that may not be true. . . .”

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