Death and Philosophy

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

12

DEATH AND THE UNITY OF A LIFE

Jeff Malpas

‘Eternity is a terrible thought,’ says Rosencrantz in Tom Stoppard’s alternative view on Hamlet, ‘I mean, where’s it going to end?’ And Guildenstern adds a little later ‘Death followed by eternity…the worst of both worlds. It is a terrible thought.’ 1 Death, as they say, is forever, but if the same were true of life—if one could live a life without end—would this be any less terrible? Some philosophers have argued that life in the absence of death would indeed be terrible—it would be a life, according to Bernard Williams, for instance, devoid of interest, devoid of meaning. 2 I think there is something important, and right, about this view. If it is flawed it is only so, I will argue, in so far as it does not give enough weight to the importance of death in giving meaning and significance to life. For it is not merely that a life without end would be a life of tedium—of endless ennui—but to have a life, and this is not the same as merely to live, is indeed to be capable of death. 3

What do I mean by distinguishing the having of a life from merely living? As a characteristic of the living, life is ubiquitous. We find it exemplified in all things that are capable of sustaining themselves in existence, of nourishing themselves, of reproducing themselves. But in the sense that I intend it here, the having of a life is something much more specific—rather than mere continued, self-sustaining existence, the having of a life involves the grasping of one’s life as indeed one’s own, as something that one lives, as something for which, to a greater or lesser degree, one takes responsibility. In this sense my cat asleep on the sofa, while undoubtedly alive (as any attempt to displace her will soon make clear), cannot be said to have a life. This does not mean that she lacks ‘interests’ or desires or has no strong attachments to places and people (for she certainly has all of these) or indeed that she has no ‘personality’, but that the having of a life is more than this, for it involves the ability to grasp one’s life as, in some sense, one’s own. And this is something of which, notwithstanding her many other accomplishments, my cat is quite incapable.

It is the having of a life in this sense that is one of the things that marks out creatures such as ourselves from other living things. This is not a biological difference between ourselves and others (although it is a difference that is certainly not independent of biology) but a difference that is, let us say, ontolog-

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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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