Death and Philosophy

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

14

DEATH FETISHISM, MORBID SOLIPSISM 1

Robert C. Solomon

I have often heard people say that death is the ultimate tragedy. This seems to me to be trite but also false. One might well fear (and rightly) that the death of his or her spouse or the death of one’s child would be much more of a tragedy than one’s own death (restricting the field to just one’s own immediate tragedies and ignoring, for instance, mass murders, nuclear accidents and holocausts). I suppose that one might hold out that it is the last (and in that sense ultimate) tragedy that happens to one, but even this seems to me to be false without trivializing qualification. Aristotle, in a famous passage quoting Solon, argued that ‘no man should be called happy until after his death’. At first glance, this seems like nonsense to the modern reader, both as a statement about happiness and as a statement about death. What sense could it possibly make to speak of a person’s happiness after his or her death? And what would it mean to call a dead man happy? But Aristotle’s argument, rendered in full, makes good sense. Once we have given up our modern hedonistic sense of ‘feeling happy’ and taken up Aristotle’s much more embracing sense of ‘living and having lived a good life’, then we realize that tragedy is by no means limited to the living. Humiliation and scandal that affect a person’s ‘good name’, even after death, nevertheless reflects back on that life and the way it was lived. ‘X must be rolling over in his grave’ is but one of several poor poetic allusions to this obvious fact, which has nothing whatever to do with any more ambitious belief in immortality, reincarnation or life after death. 2 One’s own death is not the ultimate tragedy. There may be much worse, whether before or after one’s death, even from the perspective (vicarious though it may be) of the dead.

It is also said, equally unthinkingly, that death is the ultimate punishment, and this, of course, is the justification typically given for ‘capital’ crimes, ‘heinous’ enough to deserve the death penalty. But death is by no means the ultimate punishment, except, again, in that trivial sense that it is the last punishment. (In fact, even this is not so. When Israeli soldiers bulldozed the houses of the Palestinian family of a deceased terrorist, this was supposed to be further punishment of the terrorist. When posthumously awards and honours are stripped, death is not the last punishment but, one might say, one of a series of

-152-

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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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