A lesson from the Greeks and Romans
“Life is made up of meetings and partings. That is the way of it,” says Kermit the Frog in The Muppet Christmas Carol. We spend so much of life coming and going, saying hello and goodbye. It is a routine part of our existence that most of us probably do not stop to think about. We just do it. But even this routine can provide the opportunity for a profoundly personal encounter with other people. Let us consider the example of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
The ancient Greek formal greeting was “Χαῖρε” (HIGH-reh), where the first syllable begins with a soft guttural kh sound. It is usually translated “Hail!” but it literally means “Rejoice!” Similarly, the Romans greeted each other with “Salve!” (SAHL-way) or “Ave!” (AH-way), which both literally mean “Be well!” Whether or not the Greeks and Romans thought about it each time they used these words, they were literally wishing each other joy and good health. That is not a bad way to approach another person—by first wishing him well and happy.
The same is true for ancient farewells. The Greeks used “Χαῖρε” for parting as well as meeting, whereas the Romans had several options for leave-taking. First, one could say, “Vale!” (WAH-lay), which literally means “Be strong!” or “Be well!” Second, one could use “Ave!” as a parting wish. Third, one could combine “salve” with “vale”: “Vale atque salve!” (“Farewell and good health!”) Thus, the Greeks and Romans ended their personal encounters as they began them, wishing each other health and good cheer.
Perhaps more importantly, all of these words could be used for the final goodbye, death. “Salve aeternum” (“Farewell forever”), says the hero Aeneas to the dead Pallas (Aeneid 11.97). “Χαῖρε,” says the unlucky servant who comes to tell imprisoned Socrates that he must drink the hemlock; and Socrates returns, “Χαῖρε” (Plato, Phaedo 116d). What better way to spend our final moments than by wishing each other health, strength, and joy?
When Kermit the Frog said, “Life is made up of meetings and partings. That is the way of it,” he was really talking about the death of Tiny Tim. He was talking about first meetings and final partings. If death is a final parting, then every routine goodbye is a miniature death, a preliminary farewell, a dress rehearsal for the grave. If that’s true, then let us take our cue from the ancient Greeks and Romans. Let us embrace each meeting and parting as the occasion to wish another person good health and joy, so that we might be well rehearsed for the end of life and wish each other health and joy as we part for the last time.
Who knows? Our wishes might come true.