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Considering our life, would it have been better for us if we had never been born? Maybe you wondered about that. You weren’t alone, though it may have felt that way. The question is very old. In fact, it was debated almost two thousand years ago between the followers of two Jewish philosophers, the rabbis Hillel and Shammai. Both men were learned scholars and each established a schools of thought on Jewish law, but they differed greatly on certain points.
In general, Hillel was flexible and generous, liberal in his views. Shammai, on the other hand, took a strict, narrow view in deciding issues and was zealously conservative. Their followers, like the sage Hillel and Shammai, frequently differed with each other. For over two years these two opposing groups, the house of Hillel and the house of Shammai, debated the question: Would it have been better never to have been born? Surprisingly, these opponents agreed: It would have been better never to have been born.
Now that’s a desolating answer.
We aren’t rabbinic sages. Far from it. And if we were to choose a school of thought it might be the house of the skeptic Michael Montaigne. (We’ll sum up Montaigne for you: The human mind is limited and contradictory. Get used to it.) For solace, we’ll leave you with this stanza from William Butler Yeats’ poem, “Sailing to Byzantium.”
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.