RIP. A true legend. But why is it always the good ones? why not Mugabe or Gaddafi?
— comment posted on a news site announcing the death of Steve Jobs
Do bad people live longer than the good? Although anecdotal data is often misleading, consider that Fidel Castro is now 85; Robert Mugabe is 87. Mao Tse Tung died at 83 after killing millions of people. Joseph Stalin perished of natural causes at 78 despite a lifetime of smoking and hard drinking and slaughtering more human beings than Adolf Hitler.
Even that not-so-bad appear to benefit from the sheer insatiability of their appetites. Silvio Berlusconi is 75 and still attending bunga-bunga parties. Is being “bad” associated with some potent vitality, some nearly unquenchable life-force which makes its possessor resistant to the Grim Reaper? The idea of the durability of evil and the transience of good has been around for a long time. The proverb, “only the good die young”, may have come not from the Billy Joel but from classical literature.
In Greek mythology, Trophonius was a son of Erginus. According to the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, he built Apollo’s temple at the oracle at Delphi with his brother, Agamedes. Once finished, the oracle told the brothers to do whatsoever they wished for six days and, on the seventh, their greatest wish would be granted. They did and were found dead on the seventh day. The saying “those whom the gods love die young” comes from this story.
Some ancients believed that life was so full of suffering, that death in youth was a gift from the gods. It’s a sentiment echoed in AE Houseman’s To An Athlete Dying Young, which talks about the advantages of dying at the height of fame.
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.
Perhaps Berlusconi is more concerned with the brevity of other things besides his garlands. The desire to keep going, to keep accumulating may explain why we observe so many old men in positions of power. Powerful old men are the outcome of a process of competitive survival. Individuals with a single-minded intensity to survive; who calculate all the angles; cover all the bases, who will do anything, betray any one and pay any cost to survive are likely to outlive those who yield. Wicked old men are the human equivalents of those scarred old predators in the wild who have grown to an enormous size by their sheer skill at shredding all in their path.
People who “look out for number one” are often contrasted to those inclined to sacrifice themselves to a ‘greater cause’. Against the saying “only the good die young” can be set the military warning “never volunteer for nothing”. Showing an aptitude for destroying machine-gun nests usually results in the hero being repeatedly employed in this hazardous undertaking until with statistical inevitability his luck runs out.
Warfare has been regarded by some as a process of ensuring the “survival of the unfittest”. Take a given population, extract those with perfect eyesight and perfectly developed physiques and put them to work storming heavily defended islands fighting hand to hand with busido warriors or parachuting behind enemy-held lines to try consequences with the SS while putting the 4Fs in a position of relative safety will inevitably increase the relative frequency of the 4Fs.
The inverse relationship between longevity and enterprise is captured in the story of Achilles. His choices were to die young on the battlefield or live to a ripe old age at home. The National Postal Museum has an epigram which is the American equivalent of Achille’s choice. “Don’t be a show-off. Never be too proud to turn back. There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots.”
The men who couldn’t — or wouldn’t — stop being bold supposedly became the Lost Generation of World War 1. The “flower of a generation” supposedly died and left only the weeds to carry on. There is a view that Europe killed off its best men in the trenches between 1914-1917 bequeathing the world to leaders who were statistically far below the former norm.
Yet evidence suggests that whenever war does not supervene that it is the “bad” who are more likely to die young. Lisa Berkman and Leonard Syme of Johns Hopkins followed a sample of nearly 7,000 adults in California and found that on average people who were happily married, had lots of friends and went to church lived longer than those who didn’t.
If so then perhaps Steve Jobs lived longer than he would have if he had not been sustained by his vision and his family. He survived a long time against a dread ailment. Disease and mischance are not deflected by malice any more than they are forestalled by virtue. But the good life may make what we have of it more worth living.
Maybe it isn’t that “the good die young” in particular, simply that we notice it more when they do. And we notice it even if they are old. One broadcaster, commenting on the death of Winston Churchill remarked that even though he lived for nearly a century, “I wished this day would never come.” It comes, but when the day dawns for the good man not all the tears of parting will be of sorrow.