To Die Contented: Hume, Smith, and Lucian on the Final Journey

October/November 2023

with Dan Kapust

Pre-registration is required, and we ask you to register only if you can be present for ALL sessions. Participants will receive a PDF version of some of the readings to read in preparation for our discussion.  Participants who successfully complete ALL sessions will be eligible to receive an Amazon e-gift certificate.

In Adam Smith’s famous letter to William Strahan on November 9, 1776, Smith describes his dear friend David Hume’s character and behavior as death drew near:
“His cheerfulness was so great, and his conversation and amusements run so much in their usual strain, that, notwithstanding all bad symptoms, many people could not believe he was dying.”
In addition to seeing friends and preparing his works for a new edition, Hume was also busy reading works including what Smith identifies as Lucian’s Dialogues of the Dead (although some scholars think Hume was actually reading Lucian’s The Downward Journey). Why did Hume turn to Lucian as his death drew near? What, if anything, did he read in Lucian’s work that prepared him to (as he puts it) “die contented”? What does Lucian tell us about the role of philosophy in facing mortality?

Session I: Tuesday, October 31, 2023, 5:00-6:00 pm EDT, The Katabasis in Classical Literature
In this first session, we will read and discuss two classic depictions of a katabasis, or a journey into the underworld, in Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid, along with Socrates’ invocations of katabasis in the Apology and Gorgias. We will also read and discuss Smith’s November 9, 1776 letter to William Strahan, in which he describes Hume’s behavior and demeanor as he faced his mortal illness.

Homer, Odyssey, Book XI
Virgil, Aeneid, Book VI
Plato, Apology, 40c-42a (starts with “Friends, who would have acquitted me”)
Plato, Gorgias, 523a-527a (starts with “Under the rule of Cronos”)
Smith, Letter to Strahan (November 9, 1776)

Session II: Tuesday, November 7, 2023, 5:00-6:00 pm EDT, On Wisdom and Letting Go: The Downward Journey, or the Tyrant
In this second session, we will read and discuss Lucian’s short dialogue, The Downward Journey, or The Tyrant, to explore the ignorance of the tyrant Megapenthes and his trial before Rhadamanthus, the judge of the dead in Greek mythology. We will contrast Megapenthes with the figure of Micyllus, a cobbler, and Cyniscus, a philosopher.

Lucian, The Downward Journey, or The Tyrant (PDF provided)

Session III: Tuesday, November 14, 2023, 5:00-6:00 pm EST, On Learning you Can’t Take it With You, I: The Dialogues of the Dead I-XVIII
In this session, the first of two focusing on Lucian’s The Dialogues of the Dead, we will  explore philosophy’s relationship to dying contented and, in particular, the Cynic philosopher Menippus. Why does Menippus face death with such good cheer? 

Lucian, The Dialogues of the Dead I-XVIII (PDF provided)

Session IV: Tuesday, November 21, 2023, 5:00-6:00 pm EST, On Learning you Can’t Take it with you, II: The Dialogues of the Dead XIX-XXX

Lucian, The Dialogues of the Dead, XIX-XXX (PDF provided)