The Inevitable End

THE BIG QUESTION

By: Alain de Botton

The idea of meting one’s end “philosophically” evokes images of composure, of serenity, and, of course, courage. Not for the philosopher, the terror or self pity of less rational mortals; instead, a mature resignation in the face of the inevitable.

No one has done more to propagate the image of the philosopher’s death than the father of philosophy. In his Phaedo, Plato give us a dramatic account of the last days of Socrates, in the jail to which he has been committed by the rulers of Athens. Everyone is grief-stricken: his wife, Xanthippe is wailing so hysterically that Socrates has to ask her to leave his cell. His friends break into more muted sobs.

Life will never be the same without him, they say; some even offer to commit suicide just to keep him company. But, in the midst of this, Socrates himself remains wholly serene. Don’t pity me, he tells his friends; don’t feel sorry that I will no longer be with you. “I want to explain to you why it seems natural to me that a man who has devoted his life to philosophy should be so cheerful in the face of death.”

Why should someone stay serene when faced with their own extinction? Because of Socrates’ notion that a human being is divided into a mortal body and an immortal soul. During life, the body and soul are forced together, but death creates a separation: the body disintegrates, leaving the soul free to rise to heaven. But the soul can only do this if a person has done much philosophy during their lifetime.

It is the task of philosophy to loosen the soul from the body, so that, when death comes, it will be light enough to rise. There is nothing to worry about if, as Socrates puts it, “the soul is pure when it leaves the body and drags nothing bodily with it, by virtue of having no willing association with the body in life but avoiding it.......Practicing philosophy in the right way is a training to die easily.”

The debt that Christian thinkers owe Plato is apparent. In the Christian framework, we find the same soul/body distinction and the same consoling approach to out final hour. St.Augustine tells us that we should even look forward to death for, if we have been faithful on earth, the rewards of the next life will be unimaginable great: “Such blessedness as this life affords proves to be utter misery when compared to the final bliss.”

Epicurean philosophers have greeted the idea of death no less serenely, for they cultivate a frame of mind that makes them indifferent to external influences; it is their goal to free themselves from bodily passions and accept events with quiet fatalism. In the works of Lucretius, we find two reasons why we shouldn’t worry about death. If you have had a successful life, Lucretius tell us, there’s no reason to mind its end. And, if you haven’t had a good time, “Why do you seek to add more years, which would also pass but ill?”

It sounds so logical, it’s a wonder why anyone would have ever had a nervous moment thinking about it. What explains those that we usually have ? Perhaps the shallowness of the arguments outlined above.

Just take Lucrfetius’s line that death is merely the cessation of existence, which cannot in itself be bad. As the philosopher Thomas Nasel points out, this is to misrepresent why we don’t like dying. We don’t just fear the act of dying, we are also pained by the idea of missing out on earthly life. If we are to make sense of the view that to die is bad, it must be on the ground that life is god and death is the corresponding deprivation or loss, bad not because of any positive features but because of the desirability of what it removes.

Lucretius argues that no one finds it disturbing to contemplate the eternity preceding his own birth and hence that it is irrational to fear death, since death is merely a mirror image of the darkness before. But, Nagel rejoins that the periods before we are born and after we die may both be dark, yet the time after is a deprivation of something wed did once have. It is a time in which, were it not for death, a person would have lived. Therefore, it is a loss, and a lamentable one..

A more balanced and realistic approach to death is to be found in Montaigne’s Essays. Montaigne starts by admitting the full terror of death. When he was younger, at parties, surrounded by women, fine food, and wine, he frequently fall into real dark mods. People would imagine that he was digesting some jealousy by himself, but, in fact, he would be thinking of someone who had caught a cold and died after just such a feast a few days before, while his head is full of idleness, love and laughter.

It might have been a morbid way to spend a party, but Montaigne tells us that these melancholy moments are vital, for they are a chance to recall the fragility of our hold on life-----emperors have been killed by the scratch of combs; Aeschylus was killed by the shell of a tortoise dropped by an eagle; some people have died after being hit by a mere tennis ball.

The omnipresent danger of death gives us a responsibility to think about it; not in order to say it doesn’t matter (Plato, Augustine, Lucretius), but rather to prepare ourselves mentally for it because it is so horrible and so foreign to us. “Let us rid death of its strangeness.” urges Montaigne, “Let us come to know it, get used ti it. At every moment let us picture it in our imagination in all its aspects. At the stumbling of a horse, the fall of a tile, the slightest pin prick, let us promptly chew on this: Well, what if it were death itself.”

Montaigne does not offer simple consolations. Life is too important to him to deny that its end constitutes a loss. Beside him, Plato and Lucretius seem like those maniacally cheerful friends, who feel they must always, whatever the gravity of the situation, say something optimistic and redemptive and end up depressing us all in the process. Whereas it seems that more solid consolation is to ne found in a sympathetic delineation of the truth.

In these thoughts, Montaigne displays a key characteristic of good philosophers: a bracing intellectual honesty. Burt he also displays the hallmark of the most appealing, readable philosophers: the ability to console without being sentimental, to be redemptive and yet still true.

Alain de Botton is the author of
How Proust Can Change Your Life
(Pantheon Books)
Source: London Daily Telegraph.

Editors note:

Plato (428-348 BC) Greek philosopher, author of the Phaedo
Which outlines his theory of the immortal soul, and the Apology, which is Plato’s version of Socrates speech at his trial.

Epicurus (341-270 BC) Epicureans, followers of the Greek philosopher,
Believed it was better to avoid pain than seek pleasure.

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) Native of Carthage, became a follower of Christ
After a dissolute youth. Author of The Confessions And The City of God.

Michel De Montaigne (1533-1592) Erudite, self-deprecating author of the Essays.
Three volumes covering, among other things, Life, death, love, and impotence.

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