Birthdays usually are pretty ok.
Birthday presents and Facebook happy birthday comments are all well and good.
One can never get tired of someecards.
But with each passing year I commemorate my birth I just can’t get over the one thing that really sucks about getting older – the knowledge that all things end.
And by end, I mean I’m gonna die.
In the end everybody dies.
The inevitable cost of years of Facebook birthday notifications is that family, friends, people we see on TV, and eventually ourselves, will shrug off this mortal coil and join the choir invisible.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, this post is going to be about death.
Did you know there’s more than one kind of death?
Clinical death, as defined by Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary (13th edition) is as follows:
Permanent cessation of all vital functions. [defined by]
1) total irreversible cessation of cerebral function of the
respiratory system, spontaneous function of the circulatory
system. 2) the final and irreversible cessation of perceptible
Legal death, according to Wikipedia, is:
A government’s official recognition that a person has died. Normally this is done by issuing a death certificate. In most cases, such certificate is only issued either by a doctor’s declaration of death or by an identified corpse.
The idea of death (clinical death), in particular, our own death is unsettling to many people. The late Elizabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004), author of On Death and Dying (1969), writes:
In our unconscious, death is never possible in regard to
ourselves. It is inconceivable for our conscious to imagine
an actual ending of our own life here on earth, and if this
life of ours had to end, the ending is always attributed to
malicious intervention… therefore death in itself is
associated with a bad act, a frightening happening…
The philosopher Thomas Nagel (1937- ) writes that the problem with death is that death interferes with our ability to enjoy all the goods of life. According to Nagel, the mere fact that we are alive and able to experience what life has to offer is good.
So, as Nagel writes, “If death is an evil at all, it cannot be because of its positive features, but only because of what it deprives us of”.
Nagel argues, if our lives were not interrupted by death, we would continue to live long and prosper and to partake of whatever good there is to derive from living. For Nagel, the objectionable thing about death is the loss of life. No matter how old a person is, even if we live to be a thousand years old, death is still an evil because death limits what we could have experienced.
Unfortunately for us, Nagel says, grow attached to the goods and experiences of life that death will eventually deprive us of. Although the average human lifespan is generally no more than one hundred years, we see our lives and life’s opportunities as limitless; we can’t imagine our own death.
Viewed in this way, Nagel writes, death is seen as an abrupt end to our limitless possibilities. Nagel writes:
But the time after his death is time of which his death deprives
him. It is time in which, had he not died then, he would be alive.
Therefore any death entails the loss of some life that its victim
would have led had he not died at that or any earlier point.
So… our minds cannot conceive of our lives ending.. It is especially difficult to accept our own inescapable demise in light of the fact that there are cells in the human body that can live indefinitely. It seems unfair that a single cell can live forever while our whole is condemned to die.
The trouble is, we have to realize that someday we’re going to die
And that sucks.
Still, a problem with some people is not that death itself is a bad thing (as Nagel suggests) but what they fear is what happens after we die. After all, there aren‘t too many folks around who can tell us about that.
Some people believe that we go to Heaven or Hell, where we are either rewarded for our good deeds or doomed to eternal damnation. Other people believe in reincarnation. Some people think we return to earth as spirits. Some think that after death, we rejoin the universal consciousness.
And some people think that we die and that’s it.
If that’s the case then there’s nothing to be afraid of.
The ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE) argued that we have no need to be afraid of death. Epicurus believed that our fear of death is irrational in that believing that death is to be feared means that we think that death is a bad thing.
But for death to be bad, Epicurus claims, we would actually have to experience death.
Epicurus argues that we do not fear death but the experience of dying. Epicurus states:
So that the man speaks but idly who says that he fears death not
because it will be painful when it comes, but because it is painful
in anticipation. For that which gives no trouble when it comes, is
but an empty pain in anticipation.
Epicurus claims that dying is not the same as being dead, merely the end of all experience. And since death is the end of all experience, Epicurus argues that we don’t actually experience death.
Despite what John Lennon may have sang, no one knows what it’s like to be dead.
So according to Epicurus, death is neither good nor bad. Epicurus says that we should think about death like this:
Become accustomed to the belief that death is nothing to us. For all
good and evil consists in sensation, but death is deprivation of
sensation. And therefore a right understanding of death is nothing
to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not because it adds to it
an infinite span of time, but because it takes away the craving for
We need not worry about death, Epicurus tells us, because “that which is dissolved is without sensation; and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us”.
Epicurus says the world is made up of atoms and the atoms that make up our bodies merely dissolve into separate atoms after we die. In other words, Death is not painful or to be feared because our atoms will be busy dissolving back into the stuff of the universe. In the end, our deaths will be the ultimate no biggie. It will be over before we know it.
Likewise, in Phaedo (which is all about the death of Socrates), Socrates tells his companions that he does not fear death. For Socrates, death is merely the separation of the soul from the body. Socrates says death should not be feared
Because as we have a body and our soul is fused with such an
evil we shall never adequately attain what we desire, which we
affirm to be the truth. The body keeps us busy in a thousand
ways… It fills us with wants, desires, fears and all sorts of
illusions and such nonsense… it is impossible to attain any full
knowledge with the body…either we can never attain knowledge
or we can do so after death.
Socrates tells his companions he does not fear death because he believes in the immortality of the soul.
Socrates argues that the body is a prison for the soul and that our earthy, flawed bodies keep us from attaining the Truth. The worst kind of imprisonment, Socrates says, is due to the bodily desires that force us to see the world through a cage, and while we are caged our soul “wallows in every kind of ignorance”. Socrates says we should desire our souls to join the invisible, the divine and immortal, where our can be happy “having rid itself of confusion, ignorance, fear, violent desires and the other human ills.”
Socrates maintains that philosophers should want their (our) souls to be in its purest state. Lovers of wisdom should want to die to attain Truth and to seek the release of the soul from the body. Socrates says to Cebes when philosophy is practiced in the right way, philosophy trains lovers of wisdom for death.
Socrates declares philosophers should look forward to death!
Ok. So, Epicurus says that we shouldn’t fear death because we don’t actually experience death, and Socrates argues that the philosophically correct thing to do is to look forward to the end of life.
But if we should look forward to death, why do we dread it so? What about what Elizabeth Kübler-Ross said about not conceiving of our lives ending?
Is it wrong to want to live forever?
You know the answer is yes, right?
The ancient Greek myth of Eos demonstrates a problem of immortality.
The goddess Eos fell in love with the mortal Tithonus. Eos, not wanting her love to die, asked Zeus to grant Tithonus eternal life. Eos, however, forgot to ask Zeus to also grant Tithonus eternal health. Tithonus eventually grew old and sick, but because he was immortal he could not die. Tithonus’ immortality was not a blessing but a curse.
On the philosophical side, the late philosopher Bernard Williams’ (1929-2003) tells us in his essay “The Makropulos Case: The Tedium of Immortality” (1972) that the primary problem with immortality is that we would become so bored with living forever that life would become intolerable.
Williams’ example is the case of Elina Makropulos, a woman who drank a life-extending elixir and lived to be 342 years old. According to Williams‘ account of the life of the immortal woman, Makropulos had lived so long that she no longer experienced any joy in her existence and soon became indifferent to experience. The reason why Makropulos found no joy in life is because Elina Makropulos had simply lived long enough to do everything there is to do. Williams describes Elina Makropulos’ life:
Her unending life has come to a state of boredom, indifference, and
coldness. Everything is joyless: “In the end it is all the same,” she
What do we do, Williams asks, when we’ve had all the time in the world to do everything and have already done it?
The short answer is: be bored out of our minds and praying for death.
Williams states that we have only a limited amount of time to enjoy the goods that life has to offer and the fact that life is finite creates an appreciation for our lives and experiences.
In short, it is the inevitability of death that makes life livable.
Just like the poem says, we want to “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” because we know our time is fleeting.*
Right now, you may be thinking, I’ve seen a movie about this very thing. You’re right.
Williams predicts an immortal would soon grow indifferent to life and that life becomes meaningless simply because he has run out of things to do; there is no longer anything worth living for.
An immortal does not derive pleasure from overeating, partying, or having sex because he knows that it ultimately whatever he chooses to do makes no difference. The next day he will do the exact same thing all over again… and again.
After we’ve done everything (and had an eternity to do it) the question we inevitably ask ourselves is “now what?” – what is there to make life worth living? An immortal would eventually be overcome with the desire to end the tedium of immortality and that death offers the only permanent solution to the problem.
It takes an eternity to realize the truth of what Bernard Williams wrote, “It can be a good thing not to live too long”.
If Socrates, Epicurus and Bernard Williams are right, then death really isn’t such a bad thing. Instead of fearing death, we should thank out lucky stars that even the most unpleasant death is preferable to an eternity fulfilling our desires.
We should be satisfied to know that we die to appreciate life.
The fact that we cannot imagine our own death or that we may, in the future, develop the means to prevent death does not give us the license to live forever. And even if we could live forever, we shouldn’t want to. If you think about it, death doesn’t sound half bad. When we die we either: 1) return to the cosmic dust of the universe, 2) go to an idyllic Heaven, where every day is like Christmas, or 3) we’re released from the bonds of our flawed earthly bodies.
More importantly, the real reason why we shouldn’t want to live forever is because, as Elina Makropulos warns us, there is indeed a fate worse than death – boredom.
As modern science continues to redefine what death is, we’re left to ask more questions about the nature of death both medically and philosophically, and there’s plenty of discussion and definitions going on out there to have us talking about death for an eternity, which really, is exactly what philosophers want us to do; to never stop asking questions about everything, including death.
In the end, this is how I choose to think about death: Some people say we experience more than one death. Our physical death is just the first death that we experience. Our final death, some say, comes the last time someone speaks our name. If this is true, then Epicurus, Albert Einstein, Anne of Cleaves, Socrates, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Whitney Houston, even Bernard Williams, truly are immortal.
That’s the kind of immortality I think even Bernard Williams would be ok with.
*“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” is the oft quoted first line of the Robert Herrick (1591-1674) poem “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time” (1648).
Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary. 1977. 13th edition. Ed. Clayton L. Thomas, M.D., M.P.H. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company. p. D-4.
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have To Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, and Their Own Families. 1969 [First Touchstone edition, 1997]. NY: Touchstone. pp. 16-7.
Great Treasury of Western Thought: A Compendium of Important Statements of Man and His Institutions by the Great Thinkers in Western History. 1977. Eds. Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren. NY: R R Bowker Company. p.131.
Thomas Nagel. “Death”. Mortal Questions. 1979. NY: Cambridge University Press. pp.3, 7-10.
Epicurus. “The Pursuit of Pleasure”. Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy. 1988. Eds. G. Lee Bowie, Meredith W. Michaels, Robert C. Solomon, and Robert J. Fogelin. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. p.491.
Richard Schoch. The Secrets of Happiness: Three Thousand Years of Searching for the Good Life. 2006. NY: Scribner. pp.52-3.
Fred Feldman. Confrontations With the Reaper: A Philosophical Study of the Nature and Value of Death. 1992. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press. p.128.
Plato. “The Death of Socrates”. Twenty questions. pp. 448, 450.
Bernard Williams quote: http://www.unc.edu/~jfr/RI-TMCR1.htm.
Bernard Williams. “The Elina Makropulos Case”. Life, Death, and Meaning: Key Philosophical Readings On the Big Questions. 2004. Ed. David Benatar. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Litttlefield Publishers, Inc. p.331.