On the Sarcophagi

by Mark Anthony Signorelli (June 2010)

In Florence there is a chapel, and in that chapel stand two grand sarcophagi fashioned by Michelangelo. They are placed on opposite walls. Each bears a notable figure atop its structure.

The one man is stamped with an air of command. His contest is with men, – with their strength, with their excellence; his purpose is to be stronger than they are, to be more excellent than they are. His accomplishment is to rise by virtue, by prudence, by vigor, and by daring, to that position in the respect of his peers which begets authority, so that he need not obey the dictates of other men, but himself may propagate those laws which other men must obey. His code is the code of Diomedes, to excel all men in all things. He knows that the glory of man is freedom, and the perfection of freedom is rule, for only when we have power over others may we act at liberty, so every weakness constitutes an impingement upon our liberty. He hates cunning and cruelty, and the debased chicanery of intrigue, but he seeks power in order to more ably pursue justice.


The other man is marked by reflection. He has no contest with men; his struggle is the struggle of Jacob, who wrestled with the divine. He too desires freedom, but he knows that his soul is imprisoned most securely by his false reasoning, by his inordinate passions, and by a thousand vain desires, and it is against these enemies that his face is set. His triumph is over himself; to subject the passions to his understanding, to grasp truthfully the causes of things, to rest content in his fortunes, – these to his mind are victory and empire.

This one desires vigor of body, in order to convince men of his worth, and in order to sustain his soul through its many endeavors. He also wants grace, in form and in deed, because this makes men amenable to one’s will without force. He desires courage, in order to look steadfastly upon the many dangers and impediments into which his designs will carry him; he desires fortitude, because it is this virtue that allows a man to attain what he wills to attain. He wants the intellectual virtue of prudence, in order to determine which designs are conducive to fame, and how they may be best accomplished.
This other has no use for the excellencies of the body. He cares not at all for his appearance, or how others judge him according to his appearance. He desires temperance, so that he may be content with little, so that his wants are few, so that his desires are not inflamed or dissipated. He wants patience, to possess his soul in quietness in the face of the mental tribulations which must ever follow him into his retirement. Most of all, he desires wisdom, but there is no cause for this desire outside of itself; it is of his existence the last end.
The one man is content with the faults of the world, and takes them in his way. He understands that to possess any mortal thing is to possess its corruption with its excellencies, but to his mind, the excellency of things in fruition has an infinitely stronger claim upon his soul than the remorse for their corruption. He will relish success and joy, however qualified, for however brief a span, and give no thought to their passing. A man must build, he thinks, and must employ what materials are at hand, and certain it is that man in the world must find his materials defective. He knows perfectly well that the world is beset with decay, and that even the grand frame of things must one day be annihilated, but he perceives that a brief and substantial moment has been allotted to him, to devise in the waste, and he grasps this moment with an intensity made a thousand times greater by his knowledge of its transience. So he no more thinks to turn his heart from the world that must perish than the artist thinks to forsake his paints, that must fade, or the lover his beloved, who must die.
The other man is eternally suspicious of worldly fruits on account of their corruptibility. He thinks a man content to dwell with the fine things of mortality is like a man who dwells in a house of broken columns, which he knows must fall down and destroy him at last. He does not think that joy is well purchased at the price of its dissolution, for he senses, with Burke, that our souls are far more attuned to the strokes of pain, than to the caresses of pleasure. Most importantly, he apprehends a sphere where joy is not qualified, where beauty is not blemished, where glory is not brief, and where faith is not disappointed; it is to this realm that his aspirations have ascended. The earth has the smell of a corpse; he looks about him upon the land of the living, but what he sees is death.
The one, as he is satisfied with the demerits of the world, is satisfied with his own. He will take his place in the world through his deeds, and he recognizes that to act is to act imperfectly, and therefore, in a manner, to sin. But he is not deterred from his designs on this account, since he believes his successes plead a justification for any errors commissioned in their pursuit. The world is all flawed, and he himself is flawed, but he knows this is the lot of all things taking their place in the created frame; he does not war with his condition. He can only avoid culpability by standing still, but he is impelled forward by his nature. He is under no misconception; he knows that he sins, he knows he is blemished in the sight of Heaven, but he trusts that God forgives.
The other, as he is wary of the world’s corruption, is horrified by his own. When he reflects upon the days of his life, he sees every transgression, every wayward desire, every impure motive, has carried him far from the clean wholeness of his youth; he fears to wander further. He perceives the imperfection of the world, but it does not console him; rather, it drives him to great sorrow, and he seeks with something almost like desperation to rise above the world. His existence as it is always presents his mind with an impediment to his existence as it might be. He thinks that it is difficult to improve the soul amid the welter of man, a devious creature, so he stands aloof. The remembrance of his sins that were, and that must be, overwhelms him with the sharpest grief that he knows; he often weeps for it. He too trusts that God forgives, but so ardent is his desire for salvation, he is always in great fear of proving unworthy of that forgiveness.
This man forms himself through accomplishment; he will become what he has done. He pines with painful but noble envy when he considers the feats his predecessors have accomplished, which are his standard of glory, and it is this aching desire to remain unsurpassed by any man, living or dead, which is the hot fuel of his motivation in all things. Glory only comes by endeavor, and endeavor only comes to fruition by labor, so he cultivates endurance. He too believes that “only restlessly active is a man.” He is always in motion; he has a hundred purposes, for it is his aim to allow no species of human merit to remain unattained by himself. Every role that a man can occupy in society, every action he undertakes, burdens him with limitations, but this man will live without limitations, and therefore he strives to fill every role, in the abundance of his stations transcending the boundaries of each. It is these roles which grow his personality, – he is a soldier, so brave; a general, so capable of command; he is a prince, so just; an orator, so eloquent; he is a lover, so graceful. It is this last station, through which he gains the true and faithful love of a woman, which constitutes his highest felicity.
This other man forms himself through purity; he becomes himself by maintaining a consistency in all things with himself. He also knows that purity of heart is to will one thing. The designs of a man shatter his personality into a hundred competing desires, but this man has only one desire, to render up a blameless soul at the end. As far as he performs any tasks, they are the tasks of the mind, and it is these tasks which give shape to his personality. As a scholar, he is patient; as a poet, possessed of a sweet humaneness of soul; as a historian, a compassionate friend of his race; as a philosopher, he is thirsting for wisdom; as a theologian, he is content with the disposition of things. He too desires freedom, but he gains it by avoiding all stations in the affairs of men, and thereby avoiding all their limitations; in his solitude is his liberty. That station which he is most scrupulous to avoid is the station of a lover, since the furious passions of love rock the stability of the soul, and open up a thousand avenues to despair; therein lies the greatest threat to purity.
To the one, death is a goad; it is ever in his mind, infusing an urgency into every one of his manifold plans. It sets the boundary to everything he might accomplish in this earthly sphere. It frustrates him; other adversaries he can overcome, this one he cannot. Sometimes it exhilarates him, lending a unique sweetness to every experience, like the last flowers culled before the frost. But it is the fact that spoils his striving, rendering him at last, in spite of a lifetime of effort, no better than the clay. It offends him; he does not fear death, but it is true to say that he resents it.
To the other, death is the reality. All his abhorrence towards ambition, towards pleasure, towards prestige, emanates and finds its ultimate justification in his acknowledgment of this truth: man dies. He has studied to know himself, and this is what he knows. Death is the fact that ruins all standards of success not resting ultimately on heaven. Through long search, he has convinced himself that, though there are mysteries, there are also answers, but those answers cannot be adjusted to our finite minds. It may be that death provides the transformation necessary for rendering our minds apt to comprehend the great truth. This is his hope.
This man understands God as a Creator; the characteristic which he recognizes as essential to the divine nature is omnipotence for goodness Therefore, in striving towards divinity, he desires for himself the power for excellence. He comes to recognize the nature of God by the things that are seen; it is the beauty of the valley, the immensity of the ocean, the might of the thunder on the mountainside, that reveal to him the character of his Maker. It is the grace of the lily that speaks to him of the grace of heaven. What he apprehends when he surveys this constructed frame is that all things are in motion; therefore, he too is ever in motion, emulating that sacred energy infused through all things by the first cause. He participates in the creation, acting upon the substance of the world to arrange it in closer proximity to the forms; he considers the world rather as a collection of materials awaiting their proper compositions, than as a work finally accomplished. He is ever forming, planning, building, just as his God is ever forming, planning, building. But what he is at greatest pains to construct is himself.
This other man understands God as existence. He knows that before the creation was the logos, the reason, which served as the pattern of the creation, and it is for the least admittance to that eternal intellect that he longs night and day. In God, he perceives constant unity and inviolable passivity; these qualities, in imitation of his Lord, he most desires, believing that in serenity is sanctity. He asserts that God is neither glory nor light, neither domination nor goodness, nor anything in the category of existence, being existence itself. He comprehends the divine by what is not: by justice untainted, by goodness unchecked, by love unending. It is by way of this negative path, through the regions of the ideal, that he enters into a cloud of darkness, in order to arrive at last in the light of the one truth. That is where he hopes to dwell.
This man desires to embrace the world. He is flung through the world by the relentless enthusiasm of his will, now overcoming some foe, now wrestling with some dilemma, now tasting some delectable pleasure, never checked in his way, never dismayed, never turned remorseful. He wants to grasp experience, the totality of it, to flesh his soul upon the flesh of reality, and he is not deterred by the prospect of loss, of disappointment, of injury, which are implicit in the notion of experience, convinced that these things also contribute efficaciously to the building up and perfecting of a man. He longs to clasp the lightning-like mane of circumstance, and ride her wildly for the margin, to shake the laden boughs of life till they are bare, to drive his bow into a thousand alien ports, in spite of the strangeness and dangers of the waters. He makes his soul the substance of a thousand actions, so that before the last of his earthly hours arrives, he may become the man that has witnessed all things, possessed all things, conquered all things.
This other man desires to renounce the world. He sees into its demerits; he sees into its corruption, and he wants no part with it. Perhaps in his youth he might have been beguiled by the outward charms of pleasure and ambition, but the heart soon grows weary with the pursuit of these things, and he has come to a better way of understanding. He tends no more to the delusive sway of the world’s blandishments; his purposes are not here. The world is but an illusion of shadows; he desires the true light. The world is to be overcome, and it is in overcoming the world that he becomes strong and he becomes free, rising above the boundaries of his mortality, and casting his soul out through all things visible and invisible, possessing all essential truth by means of his intellect. Thus, while he sits quietly alone in his room, he becomes lord of himself, and of the universe.
Thus these two, poised in constant significance, confront the observer. Each occupies a rival niche, and no man who stands within that chapel can take in both figures at once. They are not antagonistic, but they are two, distanced by a separation that endures with the perpetuity of stone.

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