The quality of mercy is not strain’d


Cheiron instructs young Achilles. Fresco from Herculaneum (Museo Archeologico Nazionale) Naples

“You wouldn’t let a dog suffer like that” is a phrase that often comes to mind when witnessing the struggles of someone who, despite the best efforts of palliative care, is in a prolonged and unbearable agony: someone who in some cases is desperately seeking assisted suicide. Why do we let a human being suffer such torture and, against their competent, sustained wishes rather than give such a person their wish?

Some trite phrase is usually rolled out. “Only God gives life and only God can take it away,” or, “If we did it for one person, other people would fear being murdered.” The ancients often tackled such seemingly insoluble dilemmas in stories. Cheiron, for instance, was a centaur: half man, half-beast.He also happened to be “immortal.” One day, Cheiron sustained a terrible wound from an arrow. The pain became unbearable but, being ‘immortal” he was unable to die from it.

Around this time, you will remember that Prometheus had been chained to a rock. His only hope of freedom was if some immortal would give up his immortality. Cheiron, a wise, intelligent and benevolent healer, asked if he could give up his immortality. Hercules pleaded the case to the Zeus, which is the Ancient Greek name for God on High, or “Deus.” Zeus grants Cheiron’s wish and the centaur was thereafter remembered as a beautiful constellation in the night sky (which we now know as Centaurus, the brightest of the southern hemisphere).

There are many interpretations of the story, but you may have already seen the connection to assisted suicide. It was not something Zeus granted lightly, but eventually Zeus did the decent thing. How does it compare with our modern gods? The God of the Christians, at least according to His most vocal priests, would not allow it. Similarly, the God of the Muslims apparently feels that life belongs to God and only God can take it away. No matter how strong a case is made by a modern Hercules, it’s apparently just not on. In spite of the rhetoric, the dominant quality of these modern gods is clearly ownership, not compassion. They “own” the life of mere mortals, not just those of priests who have given their life to God but, by a dictat that seems to say that all men and women do not own their own lives.

The quality of mercy, as Shakespeare so eloquently put it, should not be under duress, and certainly not strained beyond all human endurance.

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1 Response to The quality of mercy is not strain’d

  1. Mary Zeller says:

    You have so eloquently put into words what I believe.
    Thank you.

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