Friday, May 5, 2017

A Time to Die?

Generally speaking, killing another human is banned by most societies and religions.  There are exceptions of course--self-defense or defense of someone else. War also is another exception.  Murder is considered to be one of the most serious crimes or sins one can commit.  However, it is also true that various states and religions have reserved the right to kill another human being for themselves.  Executing someone for various crimes or heresy has been and still is common today, although it is gradually going out of favor among various countries, permanently I hope.

As I mentioned, execution has been prescribed for a variety of crimes and religious unorthodoxy, but so far I have yet to find any society or religion that has decreed age to be a crime requiring execution, except, that is, in literature.    And,  I hope it remains so, for I am nearing 80, and therefore a prime candidate.

Following are accounts of several fictional works in which age becomes a crime.

Thomas Middleton, William Rowley, and Philip Massinger
The Old Law: a new way to please you, a comedy

The Old Law is a seventeenth century English play which is set in a mythic Greece.   Evander, the Duke of Epire, has issued a decree.  Any man reaching the age of eighty and any woman at the age of sixty shall be executed by the state.  The main plot, involving Duke Evander, his decree, and the effect on his court, comes from a story found in  "a version of The Seven Sages or The Seven Wise Masters of Rome translated from the Greek by the medieval monk Jean de Hauteseille" sometime around 1200 AD..

The Law: 
.  .  . that every man living to
Fourscore years, and women to threescore, shall than
Be cut off as fruitless to the republic,
And law shall finish what nature lingered at. 

There were those who argued that this sweeping law mandated the death of many innocent people, while those supporting the law (the young who are awaiting their parents' death and therefore their inheritance) argued in return:

What man lives to fourscore and woman to three
That can die innocent.

The wording of the law:

That all men living in our dominions of Epire in their decayed nature to the age of fourscore, or women to the age of threescore, shall on the same day be instantly put to death, by those means and instruments that a former proclamation had to this purpose, through our said territories dispersed. 

The rationale for the law:

That these men, being past their bearing arms to aid and defend their country, past their manhood and livelihood to propagate any further issue to their posterity, and, as well, past their counsels (which overgrown gravity is now run into dotage) to assist their country; to whom, in common reason, nothing should be so wearisome as their own lives; as, it may be supposed, is tedious to their successive heirs, whose times are spent in the good of their country, yet, wanting the means to maintain it, are like to grow old before their inheritance born to them come to their necessary use.  For the women, for that they were never defense to their country, never by counsel admitted to the assist of the government of their country, only necessary to the propagation of posterity, and, now, at the age of three score, be past that good and all their goodness;  it is thought fit, then, a quarter abated from the more worthy member, [they] be put to death as is before recited; provided that, for the just and impartial execution of this our statute, the example shall first begin in and about our court, which ourself will see carefully performed, and not for a full month following extend any further into our dominions.  Dated the sixth of the second month at our Palace Royal in Epire.


Cleanthes:  a courtier who loves his father,  claims that his father died shortly before his 80th birthday.  He has set up a phony funeral ritual.

Simonides:  a courtier who joyfully handed his father over to the executioner and is now looking forward to enjoying his inheritance.  He also searches around for those who violate the decree.


The cook, the baker, the tailor, and the butler have searched the birth records, looking for rich widows who are very close to their 60th birthday.  They plan to woo and marry them and then wait for their 60th birthday when they will become rich widowers.  Gnotho, the clown,  has a different plan for he is married.  He has persuaded the clerk to change his wife's birth year so that his wife now has only a a very short time instead of a few years of life. The title page of the book that contained this play lists this as a Comedy, so all's well that ends well.

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Several centuries later, also in England, we find the following:

Anthony Trollope:
The Fixed Period, a novel
published in 1882,

Anyone who has read The Old Law and The Fixed Period will recognize a strong similarity between the two, especially in the rationale given for the law.  According to the Introduction, Trollope had definitely read The Old Law in 1776, just six years before his novel was published. 

Anthony Trollope's novel, The Fixed Period, is set on the island of Britannula, a former colony of England which has been granted its independence.  Shortly after gaining freedom, the legislature, under the guidance of  Neverbend, its prime minister, passed a law decreeing the death of men and women who reach the age of  67.

The  rationale for the legislation:

". . . it consists altogether of the abolition of the miseries, weakness, and faineant imbecility  of old age by the prearranged ceasing to live of those who would otherwise become old.  Need I explain to the inhabitants of England, for whom I chiefly write, how extreme are those sufferings, and how great the costliness of that old age which is unable in any degree to supply its own wants.

The arguments presented are the same as those provided in The Old Law.  Old people should be killed to prevent the sufferings and infirmities of being old.  The second reason is the financial burden they pose for society and to their relatives.  Prime Minister Neverbend goes on to argue that the young "should be nourished in order that they may do good work as their time shall come.  But for whose good are the old and effete to be maintained amid all these troubles and miseries?"

"It is self-evident that at sixty-five a man has done all that he is fit to do.  He should be troubled no longer with labour, and therefore should be troubled no longer with life."

At the end, the legislature decreed the construction of comfortable dwellings, called the college.
Those men and women who reach the age of sixty-seven shall go to the college and live there " . . .and that before their sixty-eighth birthday they should have departed."


Years have passed, and now the first person to reach the age of sixty-seven is about to move to the college. It just happens to be Gabriel,  Neverbend's best friend.  Gabriel now has second thoughts about the law and tries to extend the remaining time he has left.  Neverbend is very upset because he believes Gabriel should be proud to be the first one in the world to profit from his forward-thinking  law.   Meanwhile, word has reached England about the legislation and that it is about to be implemented.  England responds by sending its most advanced battleship.  The novel focuses on Neverbend's dismay at the inability of many of his fellow citizens' to see the marvelous advantages of his law.   The battleship has arrived, and those aboard are about to play a role in the drama.   There's also a minor romantic subplot. 

We generally admire those who show persistence in refusing to surrender their beliefs in the face of opposition.  Fortitude is a virtue, and it is honored by most.  However, the downside is that the belief that its holder adamantly holds to can be evil as well as virtuous.  Neverbend himself wonders if his persistence is based more on the need to make a mark that will resound to his honor and glory long after he is dead, but he dismisses such thoughts as being unworthy of him and his grand idea.  Perhaps he should spend more time thinking about his motivation.

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Jack London
"The Law of Life"
a short story published in 1901,

My third example is a short story by Jack London.  Perhaps I should call it a short-short story, for it is only four pages long.   Although much shorter than the previous two works, London makes his point, plainly and simply.   The setting seems to be the far North.   Old Koskoosh is a member of a group of  Inuit or Eskimos.  It is not clear since London provides no clues.  We are told that Old Koskoosh is blind and can no longer help provide food for his group.  He is a drain on their limited resources.  His people are breaking camp now and moving on.  They will leave some firewood there for him.

His son comes to him..

"The tribesmen hurry.  Their bales are heavy and their bellies flat with lack of feasting.  The trail is long and they travel fast.  I go now.  It is well?"

"It is well.  I am as a last year's leaf, clinging lightly to the stem.  The first breath that blows, and I fall.   My voice is become as an old woman's.  My eyes no longer show me the way of my feet, and my feet are heavy, and I am tired.  It is well."

Although the issue, the productivity of the individual, is the same as in the first two works, there are major differences between London's story and the other works.  In the first place, there is no arbitrary set age as in the play and the novel; the decision of the group results solely from Koskoosh's condition.  He is blind; he will require someone to care for him on the trip.  He is unable to bring in food; he reduces the food available for those who can hunt and for the children who will be productive in the years to come.

Secondly, the drain upon the group in the first two stories would not be sufficiently serious  to threaten the group's survival: the increase in taxes for each individual would be minimal, whereas the cost to the group in London's story would be far more threatening to the group's existence.  In the harsh conditions in which they live, every one must provide if the group is to survive.

Thirdly, it is not an arbitrary bit of legislation imposed upon the group.  It is part of the group's traditions that go back many generations.  Koskoosh can remember old men and women who were left behind in the past when they too could no longer work to help the group survive.  This is a part of life, whose only law is to perpetuate the group.  That's why in the previous stories, there were Runners, those who protested against the law.   In this tale,  Koskoosh  says, "It is well." 


William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson
Logan's Run, a novel
first published in  1967

Because of overpopulation,  the legislature passed a law limiting births.  The younger generation revolted, and the result was "the little war" between the generations.   The younger generation won and passed their own law to handle the problem of overpopulation:  death for all on their 21st birthday.  But, as in the first two stories, there were some objected and they became Runners.  An agency was created to handle this problem, the Sandmen.  Their task was to track down and execute the Runners on the spot.

Logan was a Sandman, and he had no difficulty catching and executing with Runners.  However, when he reached 21, the situation became a bit more complicated, and he then became a Runner (perhaps).


Logan is on the run and searching for a mythical place called Sanctuary, the goal for all Runners.  Even after he has left the city, he finds others living outside, something the city dwellers thought impossible.      

This is an action-oriented tale, which the title makes clear.  There is no real discussion of the principles involved.  It is also far more unbelievable than the previous three works.   Machinery will break down, especially if it's unattended.  And essentially, the society in this tale does nothing and knows nothing about the mechanisms which support their idyllic way of life.  The only ones who do work of any sort are the Sandmen, and they are executioners.  I doubt any society could exist for any length of  time on that foundation.

Some General  Comments 

The Old Law and The Fixed Period are satirical: the sometimes arbitrariness of laws and the impatience of the young with the older generation.  Or, so it seems to me.   Greed and desire for power seem to be the main motivation for the actions of most in these two works.  Few come out looking well in them.  In The Fixed Period it seems as though those who voted for the law were looking forward to gaining their inheritance and power earlier than expected, but they didn't look any farther into the future to when they approached their own mid 60s. 

Logan's Run struck me as a typical tale of the "man-on-the-run" genre.  As usual, it features someone who has committed a crime or accused of committing one and who is desperately trying to escape the authorities.  This plot is inserted into the futuristic setting, which makes it an SF story.  I suspect the real interest of the tale lies in its man-on-the-run element, rather than any SF elements it may have. 

Jack London's "The Law of Life" is, by far, my favorite of the four.  It has a reality to it that is inescapable.  It is a harsh rule that's a necessary part of survival in a harsh landscape.  It is not an arbitrary law that is imposed, but a longstanding tradition that goes back generations.  Koskoosh is blind, he is a drain on the meager resources of the community.  Koskoosh knows this: "It is well."   



  1. The Fixed Period is the only one I've read, although I also knew about Logan's Run from the movie.

    1. madamevauquer,

      If you read only one of the others, I would recommend London's "The Law of Life."

      What did you think of the premise of The Fixed Period, an arbitrary end of life?

    2. Thanks, Fred. I just read your synopsis and comments about "The Law of Life." Was it the Eskimos or some other northern culture that sent their old ones (willingly) out to die on the ice? Or maybe I only read it in a story.

      It's been a couple of decades since I read The Fixed Period and about all I remember is that it's one of my least favorite Trollope books.

    3. madamevauquer,

      London doesn't identify the people, but the setting certainly seems to be the Arctic. I have read the same, and it wasn't fiction. However, I have yet to read anything by the Inuit or Eskimo that would confirm that.

      The Fixed Period certainly isn't a typical Trollope novel.

  2. So, defining the situation, where does the acceptable line exist, between individuality and the demands of the state? Factors to take into consideration: population size, environmental resources and availability, organizational requirements, political viability... A long list of qualifiers which ignores subjective angst... And there arises e question of philosophy: basically, the definition of life reality and associated topics...

    A very interesting post, with a wealth of research behind it... Tx for stirring up the old mental corpuscles...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      What did you think of the premise: the setting of an end to life. Is it something of value to society or the oommunity?

    2. it depends on the pov... from the one of the survival of the state, it's a good idea to absolutely control all conditions of human life, from eating to death, in order to maintain the state's viability and to avoid extinction of the species from habitat destruction, over population, resource depletion, and the like...

      from the pov of the individual, freedom of choice and from harassment, along with certain guarantees of security might be the most favorable circumstances...

      of course, what really exists is a mish mash of both scenarios, a situation which doesn't work very well and nobody likes... it'd take a lot smarter person than i am to figure out a workable system...

    3. Mudpuddle,

      Yes, it is a complex and convoluted situation: the right of the group to survive and the right of the individual. What's the difference between leaving an old man or old woman who can no longer help the group survive and sending young men out to die in battle so that the country may survive?

      It reminds me of the following quotation by Hegel:

      "Genuine Tragedies in the World are Not Conflicts Between Right and Wrong. They are Conflicts Between Two Rights." - Georg Hegel

  3. I just discovered that I had left out part of the post--Some General Comments--which I have just now added to the post. Sorry about that.
    Another Senior Moment to savor.

  4. I believe that Christopher Buckley has written a comic novel along these lines.

    1. George,

      I am not familiar with the name. Tell me a little about it.

  5. Good Lord, Fred, this is a lot to ponder. When my mind is right, I will attempt some of your selections. But let me make this point: when a government or regime permits, encourages, or orders human deaths -- war, capital punishment, death camps, abortion, euthanasia, et al -- anything is possible, including selective elimination of old men and women. It all depends upon what people will permit others to do.

    1. Tim,

      Initially it seems to be an impossible concept, something unbelievable. Unfortunately, my definition of what is impossible behavior by governments has been greatly modified.

  6. HI Fred. A very interesting and provocative post. It reminds me of what is going on in some European countries where physician assisted suicide is now legal. It is not only elderly but young people and now, not only people young or old who are old or infirm but who simply have lost the will to live.

    In Holland now, family members are able to make the decision for the person without their consent.

    As our countries become more elderly heavy, as is happening now in Europe, China and Japan and the younger become ever more burdened with financially supporting them through taxes I can see where euthanasia will become an appealing form of legislation to many.

    Abortion is already acceptable, at first because of quality of life, then because it's the mother's prerogative as to whether the baby is wanted.

    How many babies aborted worldwide since Roe vs Wade: 1,454,153,133

    As a Christian, God creates life and He determines life spans. If that's not so you're left with the state deciding whose life has value according to what standard? The best for the state? The individual? When we say state we mean other human beings. And when those human beings say "for the good of the state" do they mean us or what's best for them to stay wealthy and in power?

    And then there's the whole question as to what makes life worth living. What imbues my life with meaning and purpose.

    Thanks for making me think on these things Fred. Always interesting posts from you!

  7. Sharon,

    Thank you for the kind words. Who lives and who dies--and who decides--those issues have a long, complex, and contradictory history.

    And now, as you point out, a new element has been added to the debate--that of quality of life. What's the relationship between life at any cost and the good life, however one defines it?