On Death

The recent death of two friends made me think of the other side.


Marianne Stokes, Young Girl and Death

As very recently two friends of mine unexpectedly died, within only a day of each other, I have been reflecting on death and its pleasantness or unpleasantness. If we accept that life has an object – productivity, pleasure, virtuous action – then death, or at least premature death (and both my friends died well before what would be considered a normal age) must be considered harmful, since the object in question can no longer be achieved.

Epicurus, one of philosophy's more handsome gentlemen

One of philosophy’s most famous reflections on why death should not be considered harmful was offered by Epicurus. His main contention, in his famous Letter to Menoeceus, was that since death is nothingness, there is nothing to be afraid of: While we are here, we do not have death, and when we are dead, we do not exist, and therefore death cannot touch us. But I have always found this answer unsatisfactory, because what really bothers us is the passage from life to death, more so, probably, than the state of being dead itself.

Perhaps Epicurus means that the passage from life to death does not really exist, but that only two states are possible: dead and alive. The Epicurean poet Lucretius therefore suggests that since we were nothing before our births, we should not feel aggrieved at being nothing after our deaths, since overall we will have lost nothing, and have had no change in final status. This line of reasoning would seem to validate the assumption regarding Epicurus' view that he considers only one of two states possible (dead or alive). Presumably, Lucretius merely means to say that the state itself of being dead is not bad, but in any case he does not explain why dying (as opposed to being dead) - being robbed of the good of life - is not bad.

Because of what he left behind, John Keats' state of non-existence after his death is not the same as the state of non-existence before his birth. Whenever I am in Rome, his grave is always the first place I go, and when I kneel before his resting place, it is, even though he died long before I was born, like visiting a dear old friend.

But this is not satisfactory either because even if one acknowledges only two possible states, that of being dead and that of being alive, the state we were in before birth was not preceded by another life, and it is therefore not possible to feel concerned about that pre-natal state, because any thought about that state has our subsequent life as its prerequisite. And we are thus left with the fact that it is normal to feel aggrieved at death, or at its prospect, at that which will rob us of our current state, life. The failure of Lucretius' argument is all the more pronounced if we consider that before birth, Person X was a complete non-entity, whereas after death, X, through his actions, products, and effects on other people, is a real identity, even if nowhere to be seen in person. (On the concept of person, self, and identity, see my post of July 31). Since causality can occur in only one direction - there is no such thing as reverse causation - the state of non-being cannot harm us before we have ever existed, but the same does not hold for the state of non-being after we have existed.

Nikolai Ge, Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus

Unless we believe in a Christian paradise, in which case it is easy to come to terms with death, I think the best way of living with death is to return to the earlier Greek view, that which existed even before the Hellenistic Greek Epicurus (4th - 3rd century BC) and long before the Roman Lucretius (1st century BC). This view, which corresponds to the Classical and certainly Archaic Greek mentality, is that human beings find themselves in the constant shadow of death and termination, and that it is to some degree even salutary to view ourselves that way. This is not only because it makes us more grateful for what we have now, but also because it pushes us toward more production, creativity, and love. If death means to be deprived of goods, then the goods we acquire during life should be those upon which death has less of a deleterious effect, things that will remain once we are dead, such as the fruits of artistic and intellectual labor, rather than, say, a beautiful physical appearance. That is to say, death becomes useful if we adjust our desires in accordance with it. The Greeks were productive because they thought that this life is the only one we have. There was no glorious afterlife to look forward to, and so they treasured all the more the actual life here and now, rather than neglecting that life for the sake of a refuge in a supposed afterlife of the soul (a notion which does not gain credence until Plato). And that is the value of death. We can only be open to others, and embrace them and the goodness they offer us, if we know that they one day may disappear. Our love can, in its highest form, be unconditional, but our presence in each other's lives never.