Death: III. Western Philosophical Thought

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For both humankind generally and each living person individually, the recognition of the universality and inevitability of death is but the beginning of the problem of death. Indeed, recognizing death as the individual and collective fate of human beings, and of all living creatures, creates the problem of death: Why does it happen? What does it mean? Is death final? Is death a good thing or a bad thing? At least as often these questions emerge for us in their mirror image, still provoked by death: What is the meaning of life, its purpose? Can life be meaningful if it ends in death? What purposes could outlast the inevitability of my death?

Philosophers have struggled with a human fear of death. Recognizing the inevitability of death is very different from supposing death is final. At a very general level, philosophical reflections on death divide those who deny the finality of death and suppose there is ongoing, usually individual, self-consciousness after death, and those who regard bodily death as final, as the destruction of consciousness, but who offer consolation meant to assuage fear of the inevitability of personal extinction. A very few philosophers have found death to be inevitable, final, and horrible. What binds all together in a recognizably Western tradition are the analytically and argumentatively philosophical approaches each group takes and the exclusively human-centered character of their views.

Probably the single most persistent theme in Western philosophical reflection on death is the view that death is not the annihilation of the self but its transformation into another form of existence. The conviction that individual human beings survive death, perhaps eternally, has been very differently grounded and elaborated in the history of philosophy, but in some form has persisted and frequently dominated through antiquity, the long era of Christian theologizing, modernity, and into contemporary postmodern thinking. Considerably less attended to is the attempt to reconcile human beings to death's finality, to death as the end of individual human experiencing beyond which there exists no consciousness.

The Pre-Socratic Philosophers

The tension in Western philosophy between regarding death as transformation and thinking of death as final appears at the very outset of what is conventionally regarded as the beginning of Western philosophy, in the fragmentary remains of writing that have survived from thinkers in the early Greek colonies of Asia Minor, especially the Ionians. Anaximander (ca. 610–547 b.c.e.) and Heraclitus (ca. 533–475 b.c.e.) in particular were singularly impressed with the transitoriness of all things, as captured in the best-known corruption of a Heraclitean fragment, "One cannot step into the same river twice" (Kirk and Raven, fr. 217). The attempt to reconcile opposites—such as life and death—and to perceive the underlying unity, even harmony, in all of reality was preeminent for the pre-Socratics.

The very earliest surviving pre-Socratic fragment, from a book attributed to Anaximander, contains a passage that allows one to see both of the subsequent views about death—death as final and death as transitory—that have dominated Western thinking:

And the source of coming-to-be for existing things is that into which destruction, too, happens, "according to necessity; for they pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice according to the assessment of Time." (Kirk and Raven, fr.112)

Jacques Choron, to whom all subsequent accounts of death in Western philosophy are indebted, reads this passage as evidence of how impressed Anaximander was with the terrible fact that things perish, but also as expressing the hope "that somewhere and somehow death shall have no dominion" (p. 35). Further, there is the suggestion that despite appearances, death is not annihilation: In the everlasting boundlessness (aperion), individual death is not meaningless, perhaps not even final.

In what is now southern Italy, Pythagoras (ca. 572–497 b.c.e.) struggled with these same realities, teaching that the soul suffered from embodiment, longed for release and reunion with the divine, possibly at death experienced transmigration into possibly other life forms, and could be purified in part through the process of rebirth. For the purification needed to overcome death and to be evermore united with the divine, it was most important to live a philosophical life, especially one that paid considerable attention to the contemplation of mathematical truth. This very abstract, highly intellectual element in Pythagoreanism distinguished it from the Orphic cults and Dionysian predecessors that so influenced it, and gave Pythagoreanism considerable appeal for Plato.

Continuity and change, constancy through flux, permanence and impermanence, death, extinction, and recurrence are the enduring concerns of pre-Socratic philosopher/scientists. If, as mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) has suggested, the whole of Western philosophy is but a series of footnotes to Plato, it might equally be said that the history of Western philosophy on death is but a series of footnotes to Plato's predecessors.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle

What we know of Socrates's (ca. 470–399 b.c.e.) view of death is largely detached from a theoretical context replete with ontological and metaphysical doctrines. His views seem to be rooted in the immediacy of his experience and circumstances, at a time when he is first anticipating, then under, a death sentence. It is the example Socrates sets, more than the words that Plato (or Xenophon) reports him to have said, that have influenced generations of students.

Early in Apology (29Aff.), Socrates is tentative in his assertions about death, saying only that "To be afraid of death is only another form of thinking that one is wise when one is not; it is to think that one knows what one does not know." Later, having been sentenced to death, Socrates ventures that death is either dreamless sleep from which, it seems, we do not awaken (annihilation) or transport to a place where we might ever after commune with those who precede us in death. The first is not fearsome; the second is to be joyfully celebrated (41B–42A). Socrates's deepest and most influential conviction, however, may have been that "Nothing can harm a good man, either in life or after death" (41D).

Socrates's courage and equanimity in the face of a manifestly unjust death sentence is universally admired. But exactly why he was so compliant with injustice at the end of his life is a continuing mystery (Momeyer, 1982).

Less mysterious is how Socrates could go from the cautious and skeptical views on death expressed in Apology to the far more metaphysically burdened opinions of Phaedo. The accepted explanation here is that in Phaedo, written later than Apology and Crito, Socrates has been transformed into a spokesperson for Plato (ca. 428–348 b.c.e.). As such, Phaedo is best read as the most complete case that Plato makes for his views on the immortality of the soul, with only the final death scene bearing any likely resemblance to Socrates's actual words.

Plato's view of death is inseparable from his doctrine of the soul, his identification of the soul with personhood, and ultimately the theory of Forms. Curiously, Plato's arguments are directed more to establishing the immortality of the soul than to the logically prior task of showing that the soul is the person. Whether the soul is identical to the person is a matter of continuing controversy in bioethical debates over the definition of death and criteria for personhood.

In Phaedo, Plato reminds readers that knowledge is recollection and shows that the soul must have existed before birth and embodiment in order for us to know most of what we do know during life. While this does not show that the soul survives death, it is suggestive in that it implies the soul's independence from the body. Other arguments attempt to show that the soul is simple, that is, not composed of parts and hence not subject to dissolution; that the soul resembles immortal gods in ruling the body; and that since the essence of the soul is life, it cannot admit of its negation or opposite any more than fire can be cold. Similarly, Plato holds that since the soul is capable of apprehending the eternal and immutable Forms or Ideas, it must be of a similar nature, eternal and divine.

It is not clear how seriously Plato intends most of these arguments to be taken, nor how seriously he himself takes them. But at least two central Platonic views are relevant and seriously maintained. The first is the reality of ideas, a domain of pure, unchanging essences the apprehension of which, however imperfect, is as close to real knowledge as living human beings can get. Second, Plato's suspicion of the body—construed by much later followers to be outright disdain—and his longing to be free of its burdens are consistent throughout his work. In Plato's judgment, intellectual pursuits are the most noble, but these are consistently and constantly hindered by bodily appetites and bodily limitations of sensory experience. Hence the true philosopher aspires to death, we are assured in Phaedo, and lives to die, in the expectation that only the soul's liberation from embodiment will make possible the fullest attainment of knowledge.

Plato's premier student began his own philosophizing in Eudemos, espousing Platonic views on the immortality of the soul and how individual selves survive death. Soon, however, Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) departed substantially from his mentor, and in De anima sees the soul as almost entirely physical, the entelechy of the body. More than being physically inseparable from the body, Aristotle argues, the soul is logically inseparable, as vision is logically inseparable from the seeing eye. The closest Aristotle will allow us to come to immortality is in the same fashion other creatures experience it, in successive generations of progeny. (Aristotle, 1941).

Aristotle does allow for the possibility that part of the soul survives death, the part that distinguishes us from other animals: reason, our divine element. But Aristotle's writings on these matters are fraught with ambiguity, and it is not clear that he thinks there is any survival of individual personalities.

In any case, the strongest imperative for Aristotle is to live a life of reason, an important part of which requires one to overcome a natural fear of death through courage and virtue. It seems to be Aristotle's considered judgment that individual selves do not survive death, and no benign deity watches over us; yet life is still meaningful so long as we are awed by the beauty and order of nature, and meet life's misfortunes with courage and perseverance.

Aristotle's death in 322 b.c.e. brought an appropriate close to the Hellenic period of philosophizing and provided some of the central themes in reflections on death for the Hellenistic schools that followed. Chief among these were Epicureanism and Stoicism.

Hellenistic Schools: Epicureanism and Stoicism

Where death had been a distinctly secondary concern for Socratic thinking, it soon became a primary one for Hellenistic philosophers. For Epicurus, Lucretius, and Zeno, then Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, discovering how to live life and confront death were the central tasks of philosophy.

Although Epicureans and Stoics differed on what they most valued in life, they equally valued attaining equanimity in the face of imminent death. Epicureans in particular saw no reason to fear death, believing that at death the soul, composed of the finest atoms, simply dissipated, so that there was nothing left to have experiences. Epicurus argued that one need not fear an unpleasant afterlife, for there was no afterlife; nor need one fear death as annihilation, for as soon as it occurred, one no longer existed to suffer anything. Epicurus's view is well captured in his memorable letter to Menoecus, in which he asserts:

Death … is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more. (Epicurus, 1926, p. 85)

Epicurus may well be on strong ground in urging us to regard death as final and afterlife as nonexistent, for this claim at least is supportable by overwhelming empirical evidence: People die, and they do not return. His second assurance, however—that the living need not fear death because once it occurs, they no longer exist to experience it—is far more problematic.

Epicurus's argument seems to be the following: Only that which is experienced can be evil and fearful. But death is a condition in which nothing is experienced, for the subject of experience no longer exists. Hence, it is unreasonable to fear death.

The problematic assumption here is that only that which is experienced is harmful. Deception, betrayal, and ridicule behind one's back are all capable of doing great harm, though one may never be aware of them, know of the damage they do, or be able to mind the harm. Consequently, it is legitimate to argue, contrary to Epicurus, that death is a harm (even though not experienced) precisely because it is the irrevocable loss of opportunity, of the continued good of life. Death is the deprivation of life, and were one not dead, possibilities for satisfying experiences could be realized (cf. Nagel).

The Stoics pursued a rather different strategy than the Epicureans in attempting to accommodate people to their mortality. Though we have only the most minimal fragments from the early Stoics—Zeno of Citium (ca. 336–264 b.c.e.), Cleanthes of Assos (ca. 331–232 b.c.e.), and Chrysippus of Soli (ca. 280–206 b.c.e.)—it is clear that they were much influenced by Heraclitus and emphasized discoveries in logic and cosmology. In ethics, they were early natural-law theorists, urging the unity of physical and moral universes and the duty to live a life as orderly as the cosmos, always striving for autarkeia (autonomy) of the virtuous person. Socrates, especially during his trial and execution, was a model and inspiration for Stoics of all eras.

Most closely identified with Stoicism are the later Stoics of the first two centuries of the Christian era in imperial Rome. The most prominent of these were Seneca (ca. 4 b.c.e.–65 c.e.), Epictetus (ca. 50–130 c.e.), and Marcus Aurelius (121–180 c.e.). What bound these philosophers together was their commitment to virtue, understood as willing behavior in accord with reason (or nature) and unresisting resignation before what was uncontrollable.

The art of mastering the fear of death is not easily learned. Stoics recommend emulating great men [sic], virtuously living the life of a philosopher, and always remembering that living well is by far the most important thing. Reminders of the futility of fearing or resisting death are also prevalent in their writings. For all of its inevitability, death need not be our imposed fate before which impassibility is required. No philosopher more than Seneca recommended so enthusiastically and vigorously, nor practiced so decisively, taking control of death by choosing it in the form of suicide. In a remarkable letter he says the following:

For mere living is not a good, but living well. Accordingly, the wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can.… soon as there are many events in his life that give him trouble and disturb his peace of mind, he sets himself free.… It is not a question of dying earlier or later, but of dying well or ill. And dying well means escape from the danger of living ill.… Just as I shall select my ship as I am about to go on a voyage … so shall I choose my death when I am about to depart from life.… Every man ought to make his life acceptable to others besides himself, but his death to himself alone. The best form of death is one we like. (Seneca, 1970, Letter No. 70)

Seneca was not, in practice, so casual about self-killing as some of the above implies. Still, when Nero accused him of conspiring against the state, and ordered him to take his own life, Seneca is reported to have paused only long enough to remind his followers of the philosophical precepts they had striven to live by before slashing his wrists and bleeding to death.

The Long Transition to a Modern View of Death

In tracing our theme through Western philosophy—whether death is final or whether some notion of afterlife is envisioned—there is very little more to say about this between the time of Stoicism's greatest influence and the onset of a secular, scientific modern renaissance. For over 1,200 years Christian religious views held sway, and philosophy, dominated by theology, had little of substance and still less that was novel to say about death. Enormously important philosophical work was done during this long era, but little of it had much new to contribute to Western philosophical thought on death.

Western philosophical thought on death did not take a turn back to the secular until Francis Bacon (1561–1626) promoted an increasingly scientific methodology and worldview, and René Descartes (1596–1650) reordered the philosophical agenda. Both reflect on death with the aim of excising the fear of death (which in the late Middle Ages, overwhelmed by both plague and superstition, reached new heights). Bacon, however, does so by emphasizing the continuity of dying with living, such that once we learn to live fearlessly, we will be assured of dying fearlessly. Descartes chooses to assuage fears of death by the now more traditional route of arguing for the immortality of the soul. And as is well known, Descartes's argument to this end relies upon a radical division of persons into different substances, body and soul, mysteriously and problematically united, which sets the stage for much subsequent philosophizing.

Most of modern philosophy pursues Cartesian themes, and the variety of responses is considerable. Rationalist philosophers have generally sought to salvage hopes of surviving death. (Benedict Spinoza [1632–1677] is a notable exception.) But the philosophers of the eighteenth century, and the empiricists they often looked to, came to regard doctrines of the immortality of the soul as priestly lies. French writer Voltaire (1694–1778), through Candide's misadventures in "The Best of All Possible Worlds," savagely ridicules Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's (1646–1716) faith in universal harmony, and other philosophers look back to the Epicureans and Stoics for inspiration on how to face the prospects of death as annihilation.

But it was David Hume (1711–1776) who most systematically and rigorously called into question doctrines of the soul's immortality. His attack is two-pronged: First he argues against the notion of substance, specifically the self as a substance, and second, he directs a series of arguments against the notion that some part of a person survives death. In his essay "On the Immortality of the Soul" (1777), Hume characterizes substance as a "wholly confused and imperfect notion," an "aggregate of particular qualities inhering in an unknown something" (p. 591). As for the self as a substance, he states in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739):

There is no impression constant and invariable. Pain and pleasure, grief and joy, passions and sensations, succeed each other, and never all exist at the same time. It cannot therefore be from any of these impressions, or from any other, that the idea of self is derived; and consequently there is no such idea. (1978, bk. I, pt. 4, sec. 6)

Hume claims to be "insensible of myself," for the self is "nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement." All that binds perceptions together is memory and constancy, but it is futile to ask what it is that "has" memory or experiences constancy of conjoined perceptions (1978, bk. I, pt. 4, sec. 6).

Hume's more vigorous critique of immortality is reserved for benighted attempts to settle questions of fact by a priori metaphysical speculation, which is what is done by all doctrines of immaterial substance and all attempts to identify personhood with an immaterial soul substance that is individuated and survives the demise of the body. Placing his faith in the conviction that all natural processes have some point (if not purpose), Hume notes the universal fear of death and remarks that "Nature does nothing in vain, she would never give us a horror against an impossible event"(p. 598).

The only admissible arguments on such a question of fact as whether human beings survive death are those from experience, and these, Hume asserts, are "strong for the mortality of the soul." What possible argument could prove a "state of existence which no one ever saw and which in no way resembles any that ever was seen?" Body and mind grow together, age together, ail together, and, from all experience conveys to us, perish together. (p. 598).

Moral arguments that turn on a just Deity's desire to punish the wicked and reward the good fare no better than metaphysical ones when attempting to prove immortality. It would be a "barbarous deceit," "an injustice in nature," Hume asserts, to restrict "all our knowledge to the present life if there be another scene still waiting us of infinitely greater consequence." Still worse, it would be monstrous for a loving God to base a judgment of how each of us will spend eternity upon the all too finite experience of one human lifetime. (p. 593)

Notwithstanding that it was Immanuel Kant's (1724–1804) reading of Hume that woke him up from a comfortable immersion in conventional dogmas. Kant advanced his own version of a moral argument for the immortality of the human soul. Kant agrees with Hume that no argument from nature (i.e., experience) can demonstrate the immortality of a human soul, and he even concedes that pure reason is not up to the task. Nonetheless, Kant is firmly convinced that a compelling metaphysical/moral argument will do the job.

Kant apparently never doubted his belief in human immortality, and his argument to show the soul's immortality is both elegant in its simplicity and rich in the number of fundamental Kantian tenets that it incorporates or presupposes. Kant asserts in the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) that the most basic requirement of the moral law is the attainment of perfection. Such an achievement is not possible in a finite life, however. But the moral law can command only what it is possible for moral agents to do. Hence the necessity of an immortal soul so that moral agents will have the opportunity to do what they ought to do.

One of the more interesting features of Kant's proof is that it breaks with the long tradition that sees afterlife as occurring in paradise. In Kant's moral universe, there must still be pain and suffering in the hereafter, for these are inseparable features of the moral life. Further, doubt, uncertainty, and struggle for constant improvement must accompany our disembodied journey through eternity. The moral law would appear to be nearly as powerful as God.

The soundness of Kant's argument turns on the truth of at least the following Kantian doctrines: Objective reality must conform to the essential structure of the human mind; moral certainty is as sure a route to knowledge as the logical demonstrations of reason; moral perfection is required of all who would live a moral life; human beings exist, simultaneously, in two worlds, one phenomenal, the other noumenal. If any of these dogmas fail—and all have been extensively criticized—Kant's argument for the immortality of the human soul fails as well. Any number of philosophers after Kant, less enamored of metaphysical arguments, have turned his argument around and observed that if perfection is not possible in a human life span, the moral law cannot require perfection of human beings. Far from showing human immortality, Kant's insight into morality shows the limits of what a reasonable morality can demand of mortal creatures.

Toward Postmodernism

Variations on religious, usually Christian, views of death and immortality continued in the writings of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophers, including most notably the idealism of Georg W. F. Hegel (1770–1831) and the atheistic pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860). Not until a real break with modern thought occurred did genuinely novel views about the significance of death and the possibility of immortality arise. In the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) many now find both the culmination of ancient and modern approaches to death and the transition to a postmodern worldview. And it is certainly true that in Nietzsche's various writings, one can find many different historically grounded and historically transcendent approaches to the problem of death.

While still a student, Nietzsche read Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Idea (1819). Profoundly moved and deeply disturbed, he sought escape from Schopenhauer's pessimism and atheism, and saw the task of philosophy as overcoming the former while taking responsibility for the latter (Ecce Homo, 1888). Physical pain and mental suffering were lifelong companions; staring into the abyss of despair and coping with the guilt of killing God, Nietzsche tried a number of different strategies for finding life worth continuing.

Through classical studies and art, Nietzsche supposed, one might escape the profound misery of existence (The Birth of Tragedy, 1872). The consolations of beautiful dreams soon faded, however, and Nietzsche turned to a detached, critical search for knowledge, and the "interesting illusion of science replaces the beautiful illusion of art" (Choron, p. 201).

Objective knowledge, or its semblance, proved unsatisfying as well, and Nietzsche then began to develop the idea of the superman as the disciplined Dionysian man capable of living a pain-filled life with full creativity. Truth is painful and, to all but the superman, unbearable. Above all, one must love fate (amor fati), which becomes possible with the Eternal Recurrence of the Same:

Everything goes, everything returns; eternally rolls the wheel of existence. Everything dies, everything blossoms forth again; eternally runs the year of existence … All things return eternally and we ourselves have already been numberless times, and all things with us. (Also Sprach Zarathustra, 1891 quoted by Choron, p. 202)

At least Heraclitus's voice seems to recur here.

How such a view of the one life we have and the one death we experience, albeit endlessly repeated, solves the problem of death is not clear. Sometimes Nietzsche suggests that recognizing the Eternal Recurrence of the Same should lead us to passionately embrace and affirm life, to live with as much conviction and determination as we can muster, for life might otherwise be all the more miserable for its endless repetition. But Nietzsche, who attempted suicide three times, must have been terrified at the prospect of such recurrence. It is the ultimate test of the superman to love fate while recognizing precisely what fate has in store.

Contemporary Philosophy

The problem of death has not often been seen by contemporary philosophers as a choice between devising consolations for our finitude and demonstrations of our eternalness. For many, perhaps most philosophers early in the twenty-first century, the death of God is more than a century past, the grieving finished more than half a century ago. The problem of death, understood as the struggle to make life meaningful in an increasingly secular age plagued by the temptations of nihilism, continues. The little that philosophers in the present time have had to say about death—outside of chiefly moral concerns centering on choosing death—has tended to suppose death is final, not, in any form, to be survived.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), once a student of Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), took as his project the application of phenomenological method to the fundamental question of metaphysics, the study of Being-as-such. To this philosophically most contentious enterprise in the twentieth century, Heidegger brought a particular concern for death. Since Heidegger is addressing the issue of why there is something rather than nothing, it is not nonexistence of Being that concerns him, but rather how individual beings—most particularly, individual self-conscious human beings (Dasein)—can possibly come to not exist.

Heidegger uses language in highly idiosyncratic ways, so when he talks about possibility and non-possibility and impossibility it is best to leave our conventional (and philosophical) understandings of these terms behind and attend to Heidegger's peculiar uses.

Understanding our own being at a deep level requires the attainment of wholeness and authenticity, which enables life to be lived with integrity and clear thinking. Nothing is more central to this quest than an appreciation of temporality and possibility, which provides insight into Being in general and Dasein in particular.

Dasein aspires to wholeness, but has future possibilities open to it only so long as it exists and can freely choose. But so long as Dasein exists and can make free choices, it cannot be whole. Death appears to us an end of Dasein and of possibility, but is it the attainment of wholeness? How can non-existence constitute completion?

Heidegger's resolution of these paradoxes involves an analysis of the unique way in which Dasein has possibilities and of how these are limited. Dasein's possibilities are ever limited by the possibility of the impossibility of existing, which in Heidegger's discourse is a synonym for death. Yet Heidegger maintains that his view of death leaves open the question of afterlife.

Death creates for Dasein its ownmost possibility, one that invites a uniquely free choice in response to mortality from each individual. The certainty of death is the ultimate realization of each Dasein, experienced alone and not shared by another. Attaining authenticity requires Vorlaufen, literally a running forwards, metaphorically, an ever self-conscious anticipation of death—a being towards death—that will free one from life's trivia and focus on using freedom to create an authentic self.

Jean Paul Sartre (1905–1980) in philosophy, and Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961) in psychoanalytic theory, were both influenced by Heidegger's thinking. Jung developed Heidegger's notion of being towards death as a central focus of his psychoanalytic theory, and Sartre, along with French writers Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) and Albert Camus (1913–1960) articulated some of the most distinctive things to say about the problem of death in the twentieth century. Building on Nietzsche's alienation from convention, despair at the death of God, and attraction to nihilism, and struggling with revelations of the distinctly human capacity for genocide revealed during the Holocaust and the era of nuclear weaponry, existentialists have sought ways to affirm against all odds the meaningfulness of individual human existence. A good deal of the spirit of this distinctive approach to death is captured in de Beauvoir's unsettling judgment on the very difficult dying of her mother:

There is no such thing as a natural death: nothing that happens to a man is ever natural, since his presence calls the world into question. All men must die: but for every man his death is an accident and, even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation. (p. 123)

Far from providing assurances of immortality or consolations designed to meet death with equanimity, existentialists recommend a rebellious, often angry response to the cosmic injustice that human beings die. Rebellion against or resistance toward death, however, is not recommended as a strategy for overcoming death; no illusions are allowed as to the inevitability and finality of death. Rather, for Camus especially, such resistance is recommended as an affirmation of one's decency, caring about life, and personal integrity. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Camus's novel The Plague, an extended allegory about any number of evils, not the least of which is death itself. Dr. Bernard Rieux and his closest friend, Jean Tarrou, struggle mightily against the ravages of the plague in the seaside town of Oran in Algeria. In time, however, Tarrou succumbs to the plague, and Rieux reflects on what it means:

Tarrou had lost the match, as he put it. But what had he, Rieux, won? No more than the experience of having known plague and remembering it, of having known friendship and remembering it, of knowing affection and being destined one day to remember it. So all a man could win in the conflict between plague and life was knowledge and memories. But Tarrou, perhaps, would have called that winning the match. (Camus, p. 262)


Most Western philosophical views on death have been singularly human-centered, driven by the assumption of human uniqueness. Even atheistic existentialists, for whom God is displaced altogether from the universe, seem lost with no center, and substitute human beings and a kind of humanism as their moral center.

We have only just begun to explore the post-Darwinian implications of regarding human beings as a natural kind—as creatures like other creatures known to us, evolved from simpler life forms without conscious direction. The moral implications of such a change in worldview are getting considerable attention from philosophers at present—in reflections on ecology and the moral status of nonhuman animals, in more sympathetic treatments of rational suicide and euthanasia, in greater openness about the difficulties of dying—but the larger ontological and metaphysical consequences are infrequently addressed. If there is to be any substantial breakthrough in our philosophical thinking about death, it might well come only with the displacement of human self-centeredness, with seeing human beings as one among many natural kinds on a solitary planet in an ordinary solar system that is on the fringes of one of many billions of galaxies in an apparently infinitely expanding universe. Such a potentially revitalized naturalism need not imply that life is meaningless for solitary, mortal human beings, nor does it guarantee significant life, but it might suggest that our plight is not unique, not unshared by others, and not, finally, to be resolved (or dissolved) by exclusive self-centered speciesist concerns.

But maybe not. Even such a revitalized naturalism might prove to be but one more variation on one side of the recurrent debate between those who seek a satisfactory means to reconcile each of us to the finality of death, and those who, on the other hand, seek to sustain the hope that life does not end with death and that individual consciousness continues beyond the grave.

richard w. momeyer (1995)

revised by author

SEE ALSO: Anthropology and Bioethics; Autonomy; Body: Cultural and Religious Perspectives; Care; Grief and Bereavement; Harm; Holocaust; Human Dignity; Infanticide; Life; Life, Quality of; Life Sustaining Treatment and Euthanasia; Literature and Healthcare; Narrative; Palliative Care and Hospice; Pediatrics, Intensive Care in; Right to Die, Policy and Law; Suicide; Triage; Value and Valuation; Virtue and Character;Warfare; and other Death subentries


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