Death and Philosophy

By Jeff Malpas; Robert C. Solomon | Go to book overview

9

DEATH AND DETACHMENT

Montaigne, Zen, Heidegger and the Rest

Graham Parkes

It is all over.

Montaigne 1

Socrates’ characterization of the philosophical enterprise as ‘practising dying’ epitomizes a major way of understanding the phenomenon of death in the Western tradition. This way, I evade death’s sting by dying to the world in advance, dissociating myself from the body, so that when physical death arrives I am no longer home to receive it. Indeed according to the Orphic strain of thinking, so prominent in Plato’s Phaedo, as soul I am never really at home in the body. Similar strategies are employed by several schools in the Asian traditions, where the idea is to die away from the world and detach from the body in order to identify with the ultimate, transcendent Reality, to be reborn into the world beyond, or cross over to the yonder shore of Nirvana. While this shift in my way of being offers, when well executed, a satisfactory way of dealing with my mortality, it is obvious that the victory over death is Pyrrhic—in so far as it deprives me of the full enjoyment of life.

In both Western and Asian traditions, however, we find ways of understanding death that are opposed to these modes of transcendence, and for which death is to be understood as an integral part of life, an ever-present aspect that is normally kept hidden. What is recommended is a detachment from life that somehow reverses itself, such that one re-enters life with heightened vitality—as in the Zen master’s exhortation to ‘live having let go of life’. The ability to live ‘having let go of life’ (to live, rather than merely exist) turns out to depend on an understanding of the radically momentary nature of human existence. 2

Though it is not immediately obvious how one could be fully in this world having taken one’s leave of it, or live a truly vital life after severing one’s attachments to the body, a number of thinkers have developed such an existential conception (and practice) of death: namely, Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Heidegger in Europe, and Dōgen, Shōsan, and Nishitani in Japan. Comparisons admittedly lose some of their force when the thinkers and ideas are abstracted from their historical contexts, and scepticism is generally justified in cases where

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Death and Philosophy
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface xi
  • 1 - Death and Philosophy 1
  • 2 - My Death 5
  • 3 - Against Death 16
  • 4 - On the Purported Insignificance of Death 22
  • 5 - Death and the Skeleton 39
  • 6 - Death, the Bald Scenario 50
  • 7 - Death as Transformation in Classical Daoism 57
  • 8 - Death and Enlightenment 71
  • 9 - Death and Detachment 83
  • 10 - Death and Metaphysics 98
  • 11 - Death and Authenticity 112
  • 12 - Death and the Unity of a Life 120
  • 13 - The Antinomy of Death 135
  • 14 - Death Fetishism, Morbid Solipsism 152
  • Notes 177
  • References 198
  • Index 203
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