In the last post, I quoted a passage from Thomas Browne's Urne Buriall in which the author alluded to that ancient euphemism for dying, 'to go unto the greater number' (abiit ad plures: 'he went over to the majority').
'To go to the greater number' is an expression whose antiquity stretches at least as far back as (or 'as high as', to use the formulation favoured by Browne – interesting, isn't it, how time is conceptualized differently depending on one's perspective: the Renaissance man's modest deference to the greatness of the past, versus our own arrogant belief that we live at the vanguard of history) Plautus, whose play Trinummus, written in the third or second century BCE has the line 'quin prius me ad plures penetravi?' ('Why haven't I yet gone over to the greater number?'). Apparently Homer uses a similar expression in the Odyssey, but I haven't been able to track down the reference.
Now, I'm slightly embarrassed to confess this, but I did vaguely believe something I remember reading (a claim I have tentatively repeated to others) that there are as many people living today as have ever lived. This is the sort of thing that sounds so implausible, such a violation of common-sense assumptions, that we half-believe it might be true. It's not, of course.
But that said, I don't find it remotely plausible that the world population has grown from around 1.7 billion to around 6.5 billion (or 'billions' if you prefer the Gordon Brown method of reckoning) within the last hundred years; and yet it is the case. There are people alive today who have seen in their lifetime an ear-bleedingly rapid multiplication of human lives on a scale unimaginable to those that lived in the forty-odd centuries since the first work of literature (we might as well postulate that as a pis aller starting point for human civilization). We certainly seem to live in 'interesting times', as the old Chinese curse had it (or didn't have it, as the case may be; I personally doubt that this was ever a popular saying: it's too witty for that).
We've all seen versions of that minimalist artwork that shows the rate of change in the world population since the beginnings of humanity. And a mind-boggling sight it is too: witness, for example, this graph of world population growth between 10000BCE and 2000CE. That diagram, as a visual representation of the way we live now, is a more appalling monument to human folly than any Bosch painting or Hogarth print.
Browne says that for the ancients, the idea that the dead outnumbered the living might have been, for them, a misinterpretation of the facts. This is, of course, a literary conceit (and a very nice one at that); but it cannot possibly be true. The ancients surely shared with the rest of humanity the strong conviction that their population did not exceed that of the realm of Pluto (who was, after all the god of wealth and plenty, and who got the lion's share of things when they were divided three ways between him, Jupiter and Neptune). And they probably didn't give much thought to the notion (not being a forward-thinking bunch, as a rule) that more people might live in the future than had lived in the past. The Romans, it is clear (or, at least, the official discourse of the Empire), had little regard for the future except in terms of their own persistence: they couldn't really imagine a time when their dominion would end, when other peoples would overwhelm their civilization, and bring it to naught. But the end was not long in coming, and things escalated from there.
The Romans, being a superstitious lot, didn't like to say 'he is dead', preferring instead the euphemistic periphrasis 'he has lived' ('vixit'). I think I read that in Montaigne, or somewhere. This is quite nice; although I would guess that it's more of a grammatical peculiarity than a matter of cultural sensibilities: after all, the Romans also liked to say 'he has spoken' ('dixit') when they really meant 'he's finally shut the fuck up'. The way we're going now, won't the greatest distinction be due to those of whom we might say 'he has died', rather than 'he has lived'? After all, any old idiot can live: it's dying that's a rarity these days.