Sunday, July 31, 2016

Thoughts on Death and Dying

Philosophy as the Art and Practice of Dying

"While I thought I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die."  (Leonardo Da Vinci, Notebooks, p. 65)

Are we all learning how to die as we learn how to live?  This is one of the questions discussed in a course I recently took on "Philosophy as the Art and Practice of Dying".  The view expressed by Leonardo is not too dissimilar from that of Plato as demonstrated in his dialogue, The Phaedo, about Socrates's death.  He argued that the best life is one where we practice the art of dying for we will be going to a better place.  This view was rejected by the poet Lucretius who expressed a more natural view in his poem On the Nature of Things.  He claimed that death was the end for both the body and the soul.
"you must concede, still, that the soul is mortal:  what matter whether it's lost, dispersed in air, or drawn in, crushed, contracted into nothing?  In the whole man, the senses more and more are failing, and less and less is left of life." (Lucretius, p 69)
Yes, for Lucretius, the world of nature and that of man were one and there was no soul that could depart upon the death of the body and continue on eternally.  But so what?  What difference does it make whether there is a soul that outlasts the body?  Apparently this means a lot to many thinkers, not to mention the religious whose faith in the afterlife is a dogma that is fundamental to their belief.

What do these differing views of death and dying suggest to us?  What follows are some of my disparate thoughts upon reading what several authors had to say about this.  While contemplating the death of Socrates I considered the importance of judging.  That is judging what kind of life one should live and whether it depended on your notions (or Socrates) of whether there is an afterlife.  Can we "free our minds" in any literal or physical sense?  It seems that metaphorically this would help us develop some objectivity towards ourselves and others.  Perhaps we could develop empathy for others.  This is certainly possible for thinkers like Adam Smith who argued for a natural sense of empathy in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.  In Socrates case he demonstrated his teaching by the conduct of his own life up to and including the final act of taking the hemlock.

Why should we live a life of reflection and examination?  Some later thinkers like Rilke and Heidegger argue for developing an authentic life through developing a life that is lived for oneself.  Here is what Rilke says:
"Who is there today who still cares about a well-finished death?  No one.  Even the rich, who could after all afford this luxury, are beginning to grow lazy and indifferent;  the desire to have a death of one's own is becoming more and more rare.  In a short time it will be as rare as a life of one's own." (Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, trans. Stephen Mitchell, pp. 8-9)
This suggests that an authentic death is connected with living an authentic life and one must care to live a life filled with desire for living to expect such an authentic life, much less a death of one's own.  Berthold Brecht put it more succinctly, "Do not fear death so much, but rather the inadequate life." (Brecht, The Mother, p 117)  And in his film The Seventh Seal Ingmar Bergman demonstrates through the actions of the Knight and his squire the importance of a meaningful act for one to have an authentic or adequate life.

Modern thinkers have managed to add to the complications surrounding these issues in their attempts to provide some answers or at least ways to frame the issues.  In literature Tolstoy seems to provide the most complete portrait of a death in The Death of Ivan Ilyich.  Yet Iris Murdoch takes another view of this: "It is not easy to portray death, real death, not fake prettified death.  Even Tolstoy did not really manage it in Ivan Ilyich, although he did elsewhere(Murdoch, Iris, "The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts", in Existentialists and Mystics, p. 385)  Perhaps she was referring to the death of Prince Andrei in War & Peace.  The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein suggested an altenative explanation when he said, "Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death." (Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Tractatus).

Some final thoughts on the art and practice of dying:
Paul Tillich had this to say about Socrates:  "The courage of Socrates (in Plato's picture) was based not on a doctrine of the immortality of the soul but on the affirmation of himself in his essential, indestructible being.  He knows that he belongs to two orders of reality and that the one order is transtemporal.  It was the courage of Socrates which more than any other philosophical reflection revealed to the ancient world that everyone belongs to two orders (The Courage to Be, p. 169)

Some of us are not convinced of these two orders and would turn to a view described by Paul Ricoeur in his criticism of Heidegger, "If it is true that the banalization of dying at the level of the "they" amounts to flight, does not the anguished obsession with death amount to closing off the reserves of openness characterizing the potentiality of being?  Must one not, then, listen to Spinoza: "Free man thinks of nothing less than of death and his wisdom is a meditation not on death but on life" (Ethics, part 4, prop. 67)?  Does not the jubilation produced buy the cow--which I take as my own--to remain alive until . . . and not for death, put into relief by contrast the existentiell, partial, and unavoidably one-sided aspect of Heideggerian resoluteness in the face of dying?"(Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, p. 357)

While this view is complicated by the reference to Heideggerian concepts the central comment by Spinoza is one that resonates with this reader.  I think it is a point on which to end this brief discussion and a point on which to begin a continuation of thinking about these ideas.


Brian Joseph said...

Superb post James.

It is a stark reminder that so much literature and philosophy centers upon death and people coming to terms with it. I wonder how the literature and philosophy of immortals would be like. It would surely be profoundly different.

James said...


Thanks. Your comment is well taken in that the perspective of or from immortality surely would be different. The belief or non-belief in immortality is one of the key differences among many of those who have written about death and dying. The wealth of this literature suggests to me that I may write more about these ideas.