Ruth Bader Ginsberg

"In my beginning is my end," chanted T.S. Eliot in his second quartet, "East Coker"

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

It is certainly true that we can see, in a man's childhood and early youth, the seeds of what he was to become, but it is equally true that we can also perceive, in the final chapter of a human life, the culmination of of a life's work, of things done and things left undone, of loves and hates, and of joys and sorrows.

When Plato was found dead, so the story goes, he was toying with the word-order of the first sentence of The Republic. What could have been more fitting than that the great philosopher was still polishing a masterpiece or that one of the greatest prose writers in any English should be still fiddling with the cadences?

Saints often die in prayer or in totting up the wrongs they have done or in forgiving their enemies, and their great Exemplar expired forgiving the evil men who had crucified him.

Drunkards die breathing in their own vomit with their curses, and some musicians have died hearing new music in their heads.  A world-weary lover may think back on all the conquests made and all that will not be made.  "When I was seventeen, it was a very good year...."

An ambitious general, who has fallen short of Alexander and Napoleon, might go out lamenting his failures, while a decent father, however dissatisfied with his children, will give them his blessing.

A philosophical atheist like David Hume spent his last painful weeks setting his friends a good example of dying like a Stoic, indifferent to the good and evil that the world could bring, while a mere secularist, who has rejected all the highest things in life, not out of rational conviction but in conformity to fashion and in pursuit of success, may, alas, remained fixated on the machinery of wealth and power and think only of the party that enabled her to fulfill her ambitions. Disdaining the good of the country, she will conceal her condition in order to prevent the inevitable demands for her retirement, and still serving the party of crime, infanticide, servility, and perversity, will hope that the President respects her wish to have anyone but him appoint her successor.

Eliot held out a finer and deeper understanding of the human possibilities even as life draws to a close:

Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

10 Responses

  1. Ben says:

    Just curious: How do you know some musicians have died hearing new music in their heads?

    May she Rest In Peace

  2. Frank Brownlow says:

    Ben –Bach dictated a final chorale prelude on his deathbed, “I step before thy throne, O Lord.”

  3. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    How do we know that Ginsberg said what her family claims she said? Perhaps she is being slandered by her own family. Never let a crisis go to waste, regardless of the cost.

  4. Robert Reavis says:

    And even if she made the request it’s a vain and arrogant claim on the United States government. Cheney’s last request of his President was to pardon Scooter Libby. Denied by Bush. Goethe’s last request was “more light” either for his soul or his tea, we may never know which for sure. Wills and last testaments are for what one owns, what one has power to direst and dispose of or in short, what is theirs. The Supreme Court vacancy was not and is not RBG’s to direct and order in any sense although there is nothing wrong with expressing her personal and wishful thinking in the privacy of her own family.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    How do I know that she’s dead or, for that matter, that I’m still alive? To narrow down the range of skepticism a bit, I may often be fairly certain that I “know” certain things I have learned or experienced or have concluded about good friends, while having to profess ignorance about strangers.

    In the case of RBG, I made two mutually reinforcing claims: that she delayed announcing her demise and made a last request, both with the intention of rigging a political outcome in favor of her party. If her family made the latter up, it nonetheless is consistent with her silence and expressive of the ethical culture she helped to create around herself. A dying man, some 50 years ago, told his grandson (a fellow-student of mine) that he did not so much regret the wrong things he had done as the good things he had failed to do. The only other thing I was told about the old man was that he kept a copy of Tennyson’s “Idylls” at his bedside. This is not enough to draw any conclusions, certainly, but enough to suggest an old-school American who was probably no kind of Christian but a man who had attained to some degree of moral seriousness.

    The surprising thing about Cheney is that he wanted to help the flunky who had taken the fall for him. The unsurprising thing about any Bush is that he should be immune to any appeal to kindness or basic decency.

    I’m not sure what one means in saying RIP to an anti-Christian who promoted the murder of children and the ruin of souls. That is why I left it out of the title. It would probably wrong to pray for her punishment, not only because that is not my business but also because such a prayer would be an act of hypocrisy for someone who never cared if she lived or died.

  6. Robert Reavis says:

    She was also encouraged to retire during the Obama administration so they could nominate her replacement which she willingly refused which was her prerogative evidently. But then why should her followers complain a few years later when staying too long ran its course like it does and will for all of us ?

  7. Josh Doggrell says:

    Thank you for pointing this out. I’m not for walking on any graves, but I get pretty disgusted at “conservatives” and others who should know better making something noble out of her legacy as a result of misplaced sentimentality.

  8. Vince Cornell says:

    It’s part of the American religion to worship any public figure who dies as some sort of saint. With few exceptions, any actor, politician, musician, or sports athlete who dies, regardless of how they died (i.e. suicide, drug overdose . . .etc.) is immediately canonized by everyone involved with the Media. Perhaps it’s a sort of “Circle the Wagons” reaction so that popular figures look out for their own? (i.e. when they die they can hope for the same treatment) Or perhaps it’s the popular turning of Christ’s teaching on its head. When He said, “Judge not, lest ye be judge” many believe He meant “So long as you don’t judge anyone, I won’t judge you.”

    I bet this tradition is cast aside, though, when Donald J. Trump goes to his reward (may it be a long way or at least a good five years from hence). Once again, he will prove to be a force of creative destruction when it comes to rotten American rituals.

  9. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Mr. Cornell – that is true only for leftists.

  10. Ben says:

    I couldn’t say I was praying, rather I was wishing that BadGirl rest in peace – as my naive way of expressing my love for my enemy.