Another somewhat morbid entry for you today, my friends. If it’s any comfort, though, this one is a little less directly personal than “Having Lived a Good Life.” Here, I’ll be giving my thoughts on death again, so it’s personal in that sense, but I won’t be discussing the prospect of my own death. Rather, I hope to illuminate some philosophical questions about death by explaining my *general* and *intellectual* stance towards it. Hopefully it’ll be more educational than depressing!
I used the word “philosophical” in particular because this entry was inspired by another one written by my old rival (completely unaware of my existence), Dr. Edward Feser. Here’s his post:
Quick rundown: Feser believes there are two attitudes towards death which represent undesirable extremes, with his Christian position occupying a reasonable middle ground. The first is excessive fear of death resulting from materialism. In Feser’s view, materialists who don’t believe in the existence of a soul that persists after death consequently believe death is horrible and ought to be feared because death represents the end of*everything* for the individual given that assumption; Feser says that’s wrong because Socrates, Plato, and other Greek philosophers had already proven via logical–metaphysical, specifically–argument that rational beings like humans must possess an immaterial and therefore immortal element of thought, the soul. The arguments for this are very complex and I can’t go into them here, but check out this entry for more.
The other extreme is that of Socrates himself, who thought that death was no big deal at all and indeed ought to be welcomed by a true philosopher–in other words, Socrates thought that death was *not* horrible and should *not* be feared. Feser is much more sympathetic to this extreme, but still holds it to be an undesirable extreme. This is because, in metaphysical terms, he believes the “flesh” is an important *part* of the soul even if the soul can exist without the body, so its loss is an actual, genuine loss, not merely the passing away of an illusion as Socrates believes.
The middle ground position of Christianity, Feser says, is that death *is* horrible, but still should *not* be feared. While death really is the genuine loss of something important (along with all the sufferings we endure in life, for that matter), that is precisely why it shouldn’t be feared, because when we die and go to heaven, the loss we endured in life and at the end of life is what makes the afterlife so glorious. Of course, if you go to hell rather than heaven, the opposite is precisely what obtains, but that’s yet another topic we can leave for a different post.
Now, before I begin my response, I should note here that I have a very, very dim view of Socrates; if he actually did found the “Western philosophical tradition,” so much the worse for that tradition, I say. However, that’s a topic (a third one) I felt prudent to leave for another time, since this week has been pretty good and I didn’t want to jinx it by being too negative. Thus, this entry won’t deal extensively with people or ideas I disagree with, but will provide a positive, maybe even uplifting account of my own beliefs and how I’ve squared myself with the inevitability of death.
I’ve never said as much directly, but as most of you can probably tell from my posts on the subject, I’m no longer really religious–although I’d still call myself more of an agnostic than an atheist. However, ironic as it may sound, despite having grown very sympathetic to atheism and also the materialism Feser decries, I personally retain the attitude towards death he calls Christian. I don’t at all look forward to it or embrace it, but I don’t fear it either. At least not as I am now.
How can this be? According to Feser, the “wise” theist, whether a Christian or a pagan like Socrates, knows that there is a “perpetuity beyond our three score and ten. Death ends only our time in the waiting room. Some waiting rooms are excruciatingly boring and uncomfortable. Some are so filled with entertainments that you’re disappointed when it’s time to leave. Either way, they’re just waiting rooms, and so is this life.” For the materialist who doesn’t believe in existence after death, life is certainly not just a waiting room, but the whole thing. If death really is the end of all things, shouldn’t a materialist look at it with the utmost terror? How could I, or a more devoted materialist, possibly evade that conclusion?
You could say that old habits die hard and I’m still bound by some of the beliefs I held as a Christian, and I wouldn’t argue too much with you there–I’d be lying if I said I had absolutely no fond memories of my old faith at all. Still, I do believe it’s possible for a materialist to regard death with the same equanimity as Socrates did. Here’s why.
There is, in my view, a third position aside from the ones of the dichotomy Feser gives us–regarding life as either just a mere waiting room (whether a happy or miserable one) or the absolute sum of everything, the cessation of which should therefore be regarded with terror. This third position is that life really is everything, *but* the end of it is also not necessarily the worst thing that can happen, even if there is no persistence beyond that end. Rather than Feser’s analogy to a waiting room, I would make an analogy to a concert.
Concerts are a great time, even more so than the most wonderful waiting rooms Feser might be thinking of. It’s much easier to imagine a concert you’d never want to end than a waiting room you’d never want to leave, right? But if you think about it, a concert that literally never ended would actually be a bad concert. Concerts, or music recitals, or whatever need a beginning, middle, and end to maintain their coherency, make their “point” (so to speak, in musical terms), and thus maintain their quality and what makes them compelling to the listener. Even if one feels dismay at the conclusion of a great Beethoven concerto or Miles Davis recital, the joy you felt during the recital itself would not be there if the music did not have an end (by end I mean completion or termination, not as in teleology), because it’s just the nature of composition that a good, compelling piece of music reaches an appropriate conclusion in whatever manner (finishing with a booming crescendo, a fade-out, whatever).
So, too, I say, with life. Even if one thinks nothing persists beyond its end, the fact that it does end is arguably part of its meaning while it persists. Therefore its end (death) is something to be accepted rather than feared, even if you would not embrace it, just as you do not eagerly await a concert to be over even if you know it must, and even if it doesn’t last beyond the final chords. It is at least plausible–at least not self-contradictory–to consider the stages of growth one passes through, the triumphs and tragedies one encounters, to serve as building blocks in the narrative that is your life. So when it concludes and you are lying on your deathbed, you can look at the whole thing as an organic whole and derive some satisfaction that your ‘story’ (to use that example, rather than music) was a good one, all in all, and that it began, progressed, and ended well, or at least fittingly. There is, therefore, no reason to fear the end excessively.
This may certainly be a cold comfort compared to the unlimited, unimaginable joy of the Beatific Vision, at least as described by Catholics like Feser. But it’s better than nothing. And that’s all the materialist needs, in my view, to avoid what Feser calls the “pathetic” fear of death as the worst thing imaginable. It’s good enough for me, at any rate.