My interest in the topic of this blog arose several years ago from a conversation with a scholar visiting from China. She had studied Christianity in China and was interested in meeting Christians in the United States and learning more about their beliefs and culture. She admitted to me that she felt some disappointment to learn that a promise of a blissful eternity did not seem to decrease the fear of death for most American Christians. If life is filled with pain and challenges, why would Christians not welcome a release to a joy of eternity?
Lucretius would not be surprised by their fear. He noted that those who boast of fearlessness in the face of death will react to death in pretty much the same way everyone else does. He says:
“These same men, exiled from their country and banished far from the sight of their countrymen, stained with some foul crime, beset with disease heralding approaching death, keep going all the same. To whatever situation they come in their misery, in spite all their talk, they sacrifice to the dead, slaughter black cattle, and lay out offerings to the gods of the dead.”
Of course, we also know some turn to suicide, which may or may not reflect a loss of fear of death. It may only mean a fear of the misery of life has overtaken a fear of death, but I will return to that idea later.
On the other side, I can remember discussions with Christians describing the attitude of suicide bombers in armed conflict. I have heard at least a few people who equate a willingness to die for a cause with a lack of respect for the value of life rather than a lack of fear in the face of death. If we value our lives, must we fear death? Is there a greater moral advantage to reducing the fear of death or to emphasizing death as a loss of something of great value, life?
Epicurus, who inspired Lucretius, felt our lives would be enhanced if we could extinguish, or greatly reduce, our fear of death. Epicurus said, “Death, the most dreaded of evils, is nothing to us, because when we exist, death is not present, and when death is present, we do not exist.” Death is a harm because it robs us of the good of life, but it is a harm that is impossible to experience. Some will say that they don’t fear being dead but fear the process of dying, but Thomas Nagel points out succinctly and convincingly that we “should not really object to dying if it were not followed by death.” Both Nagel and Epicurus argue that death is bad because it deprives us of life, but no amount of life is sufficient to eliminate the harm. No matter how long we extend life expectancy, we will view death as a harm to us.
Of course, some of us face death with more equanimity than others. Scottish author James Boswell visited Scottish philosopher David Hume on his deathbed and was impressed by Hume’s serenity. Boswell mentioned Hume’s calm to Samuel Johnson, but Johnson refused to believe Hume was not covering his fear. In response, Boswell tells us, “The horror of death which I had always observed in Dr. Johnson, appeared strong tonight. I ventured to tell him, that I had been, for moments in my life, not afraid of death; therefore I could suppose another man in that state of mind for a considerable space of time.” Johnson responded, “The better a man is, the more afraid of death he is, having a clearer view of infinite purity.” Our fear of death may, indeed, aid our moral development.
While he doesn’t have much in common with Samuel Johnson, German philosopher Martin Heidegger also sees some advantages to our uneasiness with death. When we contemplate our own annihilation, he says, we are filled with dread, which forces us to confront what is authentic. When we are projected into Nothing, we are transcendent. If we were not “projected from the start into Nothing,” we could not relate to “what-is” or have any self-relationship. Only through confronting annihilation do we have any hope for authentic existence.
It may be that our dread gives both our life and our actions meaning. Suicide, which is often seen as a failure to negotiate life, is not necessarily so. Indeed, Simone de Beauvoir sees suicide a possible way to will ourselves free, even in the most horrific situations. She says, “Freedom can always save itself, for it is realized as a disclosure of existence through its very failures, and it can again confirm itself by a death freely chosen.” If we do not fear our own death, however, this act of defiance and control has little meaning. Willing ourselves free through suicide is only meaningful if it is a triumph over something, and this is not to be taken lightly.
Fear of death propels us forward through life, even in the face of injury, disease, and extreme hardship, and as it propels us forward it also gives meaning to our struggle. By working to overcome our fear, we establish ourselves as free beings capable of making meaning of our own suffering. And if we will ourselves free and full of meaning, we will strive for others’ freedom as well. Indeed, Beauvoir says we extend our own freedom through the freedom of others.
As a final note, let me say that part of willing freedom for others is an effort to remove obstacles that make suicide seem like a triumph. It is for this reason we should work to promote human capabilities and, specifically, to relieve the pain and suffering of depression.
- The Art of Living and the Art of Dying are the Same (vinitadhondiyal.wordpress.com)
- Life after Death (lisalyonsx.wordpress.com)
- Politics of Ambiguity (venitism.blogspot.com)
- The Ethics Of Ambiguity (undergrounddiary.wordpress.com)
- The Proper Way to Grieve for a Child: Cicero’s Example (ethicsbeyondcompliance.wordpress.com)
- Choosing Death A Humboldt man’s journey to attend his parents’ double suicide (josephinejohnson.wordpress.com)