Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Modernity, Mortality, and Mystery

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Modernity, Mortality, and Mystery

Article excerpt

Fear no more the heat o' the sun Nor the furious winter's rages: Thou thy worldly task hast done, Home art gone and ta'en thy wages: Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o' the great, Thou art past the tyrant's stroke; Care no more to clothe and eat; To thee the reed is as the oak: The sceptre, learning, physic, must All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning flash Nor the all-dreaded thunder-strone; Fear not slander, censure rash; Thou hast finished joy and moan: All lovers young, all lovers must Consign to thee, and come to dust.

William Shakespeare

Death and/as Life Strategy

This essay is primarily a reflection on the notion of death. Lest this should seem a morbid, stale or hackneyed enterprise, let me indicate from the outset what is not attempted here. I am not concerned with the psychology of the dying or the process of grieving over the dying.' I am similarly not going to concern myself about the possibility of life after death, nor with the extent to which even the idea of life after death makes any sense or not. In particular, I would not want to attempt an explanation of what the "death experience" might entail. Even to talk about the "experience of being dead" seems to represent a contradiction in terms. Death, by definition, means the end of all experience, the termination of all life processes which make experience of any kind possible. Similarly, I shall not embark on the difficult and age-old philosophical problem as to whether death is a "good" or "bad" thing, and whether we should therefore fear it or not.

Epicurus is recorded as the first thinker to express himself categorically on this topic, and for him it was incomprehensible why people fear death. His famous statement asserts:

Become accustomed to the belief that death is nothing to us. For all good and evil consists in sensation, but death is deprivation of sensation. And therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not because it adds to an infinite span of time, but because it takes away the craving for immortality.... So death, the most terrifying of all ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist death is not with us, but when death comes, then we do not exist.

(Epicurus in Oates 1940: 30-31)

It is of course the case that in spite of Epicurus' logical argument, people-probably most of us-are afraid of death, so afraid that an expression such as "the fear of death" has acquired idiomatic status in virtually all languages.

Death is the most authentic characteristic of life.2 No one experiences life just as a continuing, unending "given." We all experience or find ourselves involved and immersed in a life/my life. Because it is precisely death which makes of a/my/her/his life a totality which is bounded or finite, the mere fact that we speak of" a/my/her/his life," incorporates the notion of death in what we say about life. Moreover, it is death that lends to life its urgency and gravity insofar as any life entails urgency and gravity. Our life is important, both for ourselves and others` especially those closest to us because it is finite and does not continue forever, i.e., because we are mortal.3

We fear death because our (that is, each individual) life is not available in abundance, and is subject to scarcity, because life itself is a scarce commodity, a unique event, a flame that can be snuffed out at any moment, We also fear death because it confronts us with that which is both radically unknown and radically incomprehensible. Each exposure to death-e.g. the death of someone we knew well-confronts us with the incomprehensibility of the fact that there was at one instant someone with a body like our own, characterized by personality traits and experience, someone who spoke, laughed, cried, loved, cared, someone like myself-and the next moment, it ceased. …

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