Transcript of notes on "Death and Immortality" from David Hawe, Philosophy Lecturer, Banyo Seminary, -1977.
40: the philosophy of death
(1) Death: "the end of life" (any dictionary.
a) For the scientist: an obstacle not so far surmounted; new techniques may succeed in deferring the onset of death; (cf. declining 'mortality rate');
Is there a possibility that death itself will be overcome? It would be necessary to set human beings free from all diseases; from growing old; from all risk of accidental death and e.g. death in war.
Then it would soon be necessary to decide who - if anyone - would be admitted to the human race: would nominations be permanently closed? Cf. Lecomte de Nouy: Human Destiny, Ch. 5: "from an evolutive point of view, the greatest invention of Nature is death."
(Biologically, death is linked with sexuality; before sexual reproduction appeared, the individual as such did not die. Old age and death are not found in asexual beings. Cf. Lk 20:35.
b) For the philosopher:
a more insurmountable obstacle: how can death be fitted into a rational system? shown to be rational?
a human being dies:
ceases to be-conscious-in-the-world;
the remains: corpse: inhuman thing.
the soul survives: subsisting, non-corporeal being; in a new situation; not a being-in-the-world; not a complete human being. A person? A 'personalized forma', about which (whom?) the philosopher has little to say.
(2) From Dictionnaire de la langue philosophique,
"The free person thinks least of all of death; their wisdom is a meditation, not on death, but on life."
Spinoza, Ethica, IV, 67.
"Death surprises even the dying."
"Death destroys, but life depraves".
"This end that is called death does not signify, for the human reality (Dasein?), being-at-the-end, 'being-finished'; it signifies rather a being-for-the-end, which is the being of this existent.
"Death is a manner of being that human-reality (Dasein) assumes just as soon as it exists; 'as soon
as a man comes to life, he is already old enough enough
to die'. Heidegger
"The authentic existant regards death as an index affecting each one of his actions, and each modality of his being. He lives in the unceasing anticipation of death. Thereby he perceives the profound uselessness (emptiness) of every action. In the light of that (anticipation) he comprehends himself as nothing(ness)."
de Waelhens, La Phil. de M. Heidegger.
41: the certainty of death, the idea of death
(1) The certainty of death.
The one certitude that no one can call into question:
but carrying with it a great deal of uncertainty: I cannot say where, when, how, I shall die. Hence I cannot include my death in arranging future details of my life.
a) How is the certainty arrived at?
reasoning? (All human beings are mortal; I am a human being; ergo). But how do I know that all are in fact mortal?
By verifying the fact in an indefinite number of cases? that is: experience shows it?
but what if the doctors discover some new drug to set people free from death? Impossible?
Is death 'natural' to human beings? A law of our nature? But how can one come to a knowledge of our essential nature?
Is it because of our finiteness? But a being may be finite and yet be immortal.
Cf. the gods of the Greeks.
Biological science seems to be the main source of thinking of death as part of human nature. Although biologists cannot yet understand these things as thoroughly as they wish it, ageing and death are seen to be qualities universally in certain types of living things.
b) But thinking of death as a biologist is not
thinking of my death. I am certain of my life here and now; for I am living it; (it is a 'lived' experience).
But my death is not a lived experience of that kind; even though I may be certain that death is part of my biological nature, death is not part of my existence.
Thus, for example, Sartre: in so far as I exist, I project myself forward to a future; and death does not enter into that project; it always comes from outside, by chance, something contingent; "It is absurd that we are born; and it is absurd that we die."
(disagrees with Heidegger in this who holds that human existence is essentially a being-unto-death.)
c) The existentialist preoccupation with death -
-conceived and often personified as a hostile force that is always threatening human beings - can never become an objective certainty of my death.
(2) What is it: to die (i.e. dying)?
Everyone agrees with Albert Camus: "In truth, there is no experience of death. For only that is experienced - in the proper sense of the word - which has been lived and rendered conscious." (The Myth of Siscypus: the absurd walls.)
a) Cf. Epicurus. As long as there exists a conscious
subject capable of experiencing, there is no death; and when there is death, there is no conscious subject. Experience of death is not part of our lived world.
b) Do we experience the death of others?
Seeing one die is an experience; my experience; but it does not reveal to me what dying is. At first there is someone who is communicating with me; and then he or she is no longer there. Only the silence of death.
In this case we experience the distance that separates the dead from the living; we experience the shock of this death on our own lives, if there is question of someone we love; and in a sense part of us dies with* him/her;
but all this is not an experience of dying.
Confessions IV 4.
c) Our daily falling into sleep seems to be the
experience that best anticipates that of dying. We speak of being 'buried' in sleep; sometimes we cannot tell whether someone is dead or sleeping. And sleep is not properly speaking an 'experience'; hence maybe it is an all the more apt image of death.
(3) The idea of death
a) traditional 'definition': death is the separation
of the soul from the body;
concepts: best expounded by
b) This intelligible doctrine of materia and forma
had become unintelligible by the time of Descartes. Cf Pascal, Pensees, no. 72.
c) This traditional definition is linked to belief in
immortality of the soul:
and proofs of this are, in one way or another, derived from the Phaedo of Plato:
The philosopher need not fear death, for in the practice of philosophy he or she anticipates death by 'thinking with the soul alone', contemplating the Ideas. This is to realize in this life the conditions of immortality.
d) But is this immortality a personal life in any
genuine sense; or maybe an impersonal sharing in the eternity of the ideas? Thus Spinoza rejects personal immortality, while holding that it is possible for the wise person to experience their eternity in this life.
(4) The idea of death (cont'd):
attain greatest complexity when one attempts to define the place of sense
knowledge in conscious personal life.
And if one cannot talk intelligibly about immortality, it is not possible to give a clear and precise meaning to the definition of death as the separation of soul from body.
Contemporary existentialism and phenomenology stress even
more the role of the body, not only in knowing, but in the being that is properly human:
"The major difficulty of every doctrine of the
immortality of the soul is that it postulates that the being of man could
subsist without its expression for another; that human existence could retain
its fulness if it were not this body manifested to
another, without this movement towards another which the body at once
symbolizes and realizes." Roger Mehl, Aging and death (Le viellissement
et la mort),
R. Mehl goes on to say that, independently of the Christian faith, the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body is much more acceptable philosophically than that of the immortality of the soul.
But this doctrine too is much less simple than at first it appears; even Christian faith does not give complete clarity to the phenomenon of death.
"Perhaps its clearest teaching is that it enables us to believe in a future life, without obliging us to think that we have solved the mystery of death, the mystery of dying, which remains as a limit which human thought can in no way comprehend or transcend."
Pierre Colin, "La mort, achec de la pensee", La vie spirituelle, supplement no. 77 Mai 1966, p. 207.
42: Human attitudes in the face of death.
(1) Pascal: "Diversion. - As men are not able to fight against
death, misery, ignorance, they have taken it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of them at all." 168.
Pascal could not understand that people could really not think of death. See the other thoughts on divertissement, esp. 139, 142, 143.
(2) Nietzsche: "That which makes me happy is to see that men
refuse absolutely to think the thought of death."
Thinking of death is the mark of the slave who does not know how to "live dangerously'; Death is a deliverance only for those whose only pleasure is sleeping, 'eternal repose'.
(3) Epicurus: "Make yourself familiar with the thought that
death is nothing for us; for every good and evil reside in our sensation; and death is the complete privation of all sensation."
(4) Stoics: The universe is a cosmos, ruled by universal
reason, which is a providence in relation to man. Death is then an item in the magnificent, beautiful, harmonious order of universal reason; and it should be received and accepted in that way.
Marcul Aurelius: "Welcome all that comes to pass, even though it appears rather cruel, because it leads to the health of the universe... You must be content with what happens to you...because that which has come to each individually is a cause of the welfare and the completion and in very truth of the actual continuance of that which governs the whole." Meditations V.
Epictetus: "When the hour comes I shall die; but I shall die as a man ought to die, who merely restores what has been lent to him." Manual VII.
a) This approach would apply today to all who have only
the scientific objectivist attitude towards death; it is the view of a world unaware of human being as subjectivity: as one whose existence is always I think, that is, I am a conscious-being-in-the-world.
b) Max Scheler: Modern man does not believe any longer in
a survival and victory over death; for he no longer sees clearly his death in front of him; he no longer lives in the presence of death.
Heidegger: human being is only a being-unto-death;
and his(/her) existence is authentic only to the extent that (s/)he assumes his(/her) death; for death permeates every moment of their being. Inauthentic existence does not assume death in that way. It is the way "people" (das Man) exist. 'People' is a universal, impersonal subject: one of the crowd: human nature as studied by biology. One who remains in this inauthentic existence can never come to grips with his or her death. The fact that "people die" does not reveal anything to me about my death.
(5) Albert Camus: Revolt: death reveals the absurdity of the
human condition; it cannot be made rational. Father Paneloux: (religion) says: "Perhaps we should love what we cannot understand." Rieux (Camus) answers: "No, Father. I have a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture." The Plague.
Hence the proper attitude of the wise person is rebellion: if murder is wrong, then it is wrong too for God.
Rebellion (la revolte) is in the first place saying no; but by that very fact it also says yes; for it affirm's man's belief in something which is sacred. And in this case it is the human being that is sacred; and revolt is a metaphysical protest against the injustice of death. The rebel is simply a person of principle; a person who bears witness to the value of man.
(6) Philosophy then has not much to say about death that is of
value; it cannot make it rational. And perhaps this is why death is tragic; not only human techniques, but human thought is powerless against death.
43: The Christian and death:
(1) Christian attitude to death is determined by the
ineffaceable memory of "the life, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ our Lord". My death is to be seen and accepted only in the light of his death.
cf. the litanies: a subitanea et improvisa mort
improvisa: not seen beforehand, and so not pro- vided for by assuming it in union with Christ, as a Christian.
(2) Cf. the Agony: Jesus face to face with death; not only
physical, but 'ontological', threatened by the annihiliation of his pro-jects.
agonia: a contest, struggle for victory; a gymnastic exercise; anguish (of the mind). (Liddell and Scott)
So for the Christian, death is an agonia, a source of fear and anguish; but not of weeping, nor of despair. And it is accepted and assumed, in hope that rests on the promise of the God of Abraham.
(3) Rahner: "Who amongst us (preachers) calls today on their
neighbours to save their soul? Is there anyone who still feels the Christian fear of death?"
Louis Lochet: "If Christians do not speak of death, who
will speak fittingly of it? ...There is a danger for people who no longer think of their mortal condition. Psychologists are well aware of this; no one becomes truly adult unless they assume and accept their birth and their death; for to be truly a human person one must accept the human condition. Those who live and die without having ever assumed the limits of their life and the meaning of their situation in the world are perpetual adolescents; they play with cars, with aeroplanes, with fire-works, but they have no knowledge of their souls; they are incapable of mastering themselves; they cannot encounter others as persons, nor can they give genuine love. In order to avoid life's tragedy, they remain ignorant of its seriousnesss. Since they have not assumed death, they will never know the meaning of life, but will live always on the surface of the human condition.
That is why, in this world which seeks to pretend to ignore it, death comes forth from the shadows and asserts itself. Even at the summit of scientific discovery, death appears and threatens the whole human race with extinction. Whether he wishes it or not, man is going forward to death...
Pagan thought has only two possibilities: to accept death and so despair, or to pretend not to see it and so remain ignorant of what life is. The meaning of life can be grasped only by accepting death. And death cannot be accepted save in the light of faith."
(from: "How to proclaim the mystery of death", Christus, No. 34.)
(4) Let Hegel have the last word:
"It is solely by risking life that freedom is obtained; ...The individual, who has not staked life, may, no doubt, be recognized as a Person; but s/he has not obtained the truth of this recognition as an independent self-consciousness. ...This consciousness was not in peril and fear for this element or that, nor for this or that moment of time; it was afraid for its entire being; it felt the fear of death, the supreme master. It has been in that experience melted to its inmost soul, has trembled throughout its every fibre, and all that was fixed and steadfast has quaked within it."
Phenomenology of Mind: Lordship and Bondage.
(Baillie 233 and 237)
The meaning is, in part: one of the factors that enable the slave finally to overcome his or her dependence on the lord is the fact of having trembled in the face of death; s/he has seen the murderous intent of the other and has retained a determination not to yield. But if s/he has preferred life to freedom, s/he lives; but as a slave.