Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

Philosophy as the Art of Dying

"Skeleton pondering", a sketch from the Italian anatomist Vesalius and a typical "memento mori" image.

“Skeleton pondering”, a sketch from the Italian anatomist Vesalius and a typical “memento mori” image, and reminiscent of Hamlet pondering the skull of Yorick

“Who would Fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of.”                                  Hamlet, Act III, Scene i

Hamlet is commonly considered the greatest achievement of that most superlative paragon of Western culture, William Shakespeare. What is greatest about the play is not its action, but its sublime lack of action. Hamlet’s dilemma is how to balance his desire for revenge with his fear of its consequences–namely, death. Hamlet’s fear of death paralyzes him and leads to much philosophizing throughout the play; indeed, perhaps it is no coincidence that Hamlet was a student of philosophy. Fear of death is an attribute common to all animals, but existential angst is a condition which seems to only affect mankind. The limits of philosophy are the limits of life itself, but at its heart it is a way to put our mortality into proper perspective and ward off the fear of death. As Montaigne said, channeling Cicero, “That to philosophize is to learn how to die.” Thus, in philosophizing we also learn how to live, and how to prepare for our own death and non-existence.

There are various ways to think about death, and one fruitful exercise is to look at what dead philosophers and writers of the past had to say about it. After all, we are alive and they are not, so are we not superior to them in one aspect? But they know something that we do not, which is the precise geography of that undiscovered country. A philosopher was “an apprentice to death” according to Montaigne, an author who is especially relevant because his Essays were begun after the death of a close friend and written as a way of meditating on death and his own life in order to find personal solace and happiness.

In the 6th century AD, the last Classical philosopher Boëthius’ Consolations of Philosophy, written from prison while awaiting execution for treason against the Gothic King of Italy Theoderic, is a dialogue between the author and the personified female form of Philosophy. One of the main arguments is the paradox that misfortune is better than good fortune because the former teaches us a lesson while the latter always deceives us about the illusory nature of all earthly happiness. This is reminiscent of the dialogue in Herodotus between Solon, one of the legendary Seven Sages of Greece, and Croesus, King of Lydia and the richest of men. Croesus beseeches Solon to tell him, from his wisdom and experience, who the happiest of men is (expecting himself to be named because of his great wealth and worldly success). Solon, instead, tells of a noble warrior who died on the battlefield; when pressed, he tells another story of two brothers who died in their sleep after carrying their mother to a temple. Croesus intervenes and asks why he has not been named, and Solon tells him that he can count no man happy until he is dead (that is, it is impossible to weigh the balance of a person’s happiness while he is still alive). Later, Croesus is defeated by the Persian King Cyrus and, just before being burned alive, cries out that Solon was right. Cyrus hears this and asks what he means, whereupon Croesus recounts the story to Cyrus and is subsequently released and made an advisor to the victorious king. The lesson, of course, is to take everything in stride–don’t be overly pleased in the good times, but don’t overly despair during the bad times. Things have a tendency to equal out over time as part of the normal vicissitudes of life. This basic lesson is similar to those taught by the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Buddhists.

Hans Holbein, "The Dance of Death"

Hans Holbein, “The Dance of Death”

Contrary to the common use of the word today, the Stoics were not merely unemotional people, but practiced control of extreme emotions in the face of misfortune. For them, virtue was sufficient for human happiness, and freedom was to be used in the practice of constant virtue. It is interesting that the two most famous Stoic philosophers were a slave (Epictetus) and a Roman Emperor (Marcus Aurelius), both of whose writings show the tempering of emotions as a way to virtuous happiness despite their opposite positions in life. Like Platonism, it was a popular school in the Roman Empire that heavily influenced early Christianity, which is ironic considering that the Emperor Justinian closed the philosophical schools of Athens in 529 AD as being at odds with Christianity.

Contrary to the common idea today, the Epicureans did not merely seek pleasure as the ultimate happiness. Rather, such pleasure is achieved through modest living and the limits of one’s desires (and so the limits of one’s needs), and the search for knowledge of the world. This led eventually to a state of tranquillity and freedom from fear, which constitute the highest form of happiness. Very little of the writings of Epicurus survive, but the sublime “On the Nature of Things”, by the Roman poet Lucretius, is an encapsulation of Epicurean thought. On death, Epicurus was the author of the famous maxim, “Death is nothing to us: for that which is dissolved is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us” (or more simply “when death is, I am not; when I am, death is not”).

Just as the Stoics knew that “we should not complain of life, for the door of the prison is open”, Camus claimed that suicide is the fundamental problem of philosophy. As much as they may discuss the act, philosophers do not kill themselves at a higher rate than other people (one of several notable exceptions was the cynic Diogenes, who reportedly died by holding his breath). Rather than lamenting or killing oneself, there are other recourses for finding a meaning to life. According to Schopenhauer, there are four “avenues of escape”: aesthetic contemplation; cultivation of sympathy for one’s fellow beings; music; lose the ‘will to live’. Nietzsche, also a great admirer of music, found that struggle was the key to transcendence into some type of being above that which is all too human. Marx said that “Philosophers have sought to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it.” That is, to make the world better than it currently is, though your idea of better will be different from mine. Sometimes, then, the collective spirit of community and sympathy with others gives purpose in life, but for the most part this is just a remedy and not the cause. The search for meaning is always an individual one, just as one’s life and death are always one person’s alone. Wittgenstein expressed his thoughts as, “Just improve yourself, that is all you can do to improve the world.” Solipsistic perhaps, but there is a lot of leeway to the injunction of “improve yourself”.

As Camus describes in The Myth of Sisyphus, sometimes it is the struggle to live that gives life its meaning, especially in opposition to some great burden. Thus, opposing death can be seen as an end in itself. I am reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s great film The Seventh Seal, in which a knight plays chess with Death. The film is a metaphor for coming to terms with death in general, and the great struggle is ended with a sort of satisfaction of the resignation to one’s fate despite doing one’s best. Living with a sense of humor and irony helps gives this satisfaction. One of the countless epigrams of the great skeptic philosopher George Santayana is, “There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.” Compare a line of Milan Kundera in the novel Immortality, “You make a common error: namely, considering death a tragedy”, or the famous humor of Mark Twain in the following bon mots which strikes an almost Epicurean tone: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” Such irreverence is contrasted with high-minded seriousness as written by the Italian novelist Italo Svevo, “The image of death is enough to occupy the entire intellect. The efforts needed to restrain and repel it is titanic”. (L’immagine della morte è bastevole ad occupare tutto un intelletto. Gli sforzi per trattenerla o per respingerla sono titanici.) Another modernist writer, Vladimir Nabokov had this to say, “Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.” I find this line by the philosophical writer Jorge Luis Borges telling: “I have noticed that in spite of religion, the conviction as to one’s own immortality is extraordinarily rare.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims all profess belief in immortality, but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe only in those hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive.” Like almost all writers, Borges’ main theme was human mortality, which drew him often to the concept of infinity (a relevant example is his short story “A Weary Man’s Utopia”).

For courage in facing death, philosophers give many examples. Most obviously, Socrates refused to fight against the injustice of his death sentence or to escape, and spent the last hours of his life in carefree conversation with his closest friends. Georg Hegel said, “Dialectics (or Philosophy) does not run from death and devastation. But it tarries with it a while, and looks it in the face.” Spinoza’s outlook is intended to liberate men from the tyranny of fear: “A free man thinks of nothing less than of death; and his wisdom is a meditation not of death, but of life.” Spinoza lived up to this precept very completely, as Bertrand Russell comments in his A History of Western Philosophy. Russell himself penned these singularly eloquent lines, “I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I’m not young and I love life, but I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end. Nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold. Surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.”

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Philosophy, especially as understood by the ancients after Socrates, is not merely its intellectual content and doctrines, but rather an art of living that can transform our lives and help us develop ourselves day by day. This is shown once again by Montaigne, whose friend’s death caused him to write his Essays and to seek a good and fully realized life, which led him to quit his job, travel widely, get into and then out of politics, and deal with a disease and then death with dignity.

There have been a number of recent books by both academic philosophers and popular thinkers which directly confront these issues of philosophy as a way of living and dying, including but not limited to: The Consolations of Philosophy, by Alain de Botton; How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne, by Sarah Bakewell; Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, by James Miller; All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly; Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers, by Costica Bradatan; The Book of Dead Philosophers, by Simon Critchley. All of these seem like worthy and fruitful reads, but I can only personally attest to the first and the last. De Botton’s book does well by the original version by Boëthius. He uses six historical philosophers’ ideas (Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche) as ways to potentially deal with six different everyday problems everyone encounters in life at some time or other. He gives funny and easy to understand examples and generally tries to make philosophy more useful and accessible to normal readers, part of his on-going life project.

Simon Critchley’s 2008 The Book of Dead Philosophers is what he calls a “romp” through how 190 or so philosophers’ deaths related to their ideas. Nearly every entry is full of funny and irreverent quips about the protagonists’ lives and deaths, and is not a bad survey of a wide range of philosophers from around the world, men and women. Some examples of short summaries given in the intro are: “Pythagoras allowed himself to be slaughtered rather than cross a field of beans”; “Bacon died after stuffing a chicken with snow in the streets of London to assess the effects of refrigeration”; “Diderot choked to death on an apricot, presumably to show that pleasure could be had until the very last breath.” One of the book’s strengths (besides the excellent bibliography) lies in its long introductory essay thoughtfully preparing us for how to use the examples given, which is to begin to think clearly about what death is and how to face it. It does not provide any solutions, for there are none to be had, but raises some of the questions that we all must ask ourselves of our place in the world. Since to be a philosopher is to learn how to die, it is first necessary to have a proper attitude towards death. Critchley quotes Marcus Aurelius as writing “it is one of the noblest functions of reason to know whether it is time to walk out of the world or not.” “Unknowing and uncertain,” Critchley comments, “the philosopher walks.” Indeed, in this case we must all be philosophers, not crawling, and not running away, but walking upright towards our fate while looking it squarely in the eye. Only when we confront our own mortality can be be truly human, and truly free to live our lives. The Greek writer Kazantzakis chose for his epitaph these lines, “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” That is the goal not only of the philosopher, but of mankind.


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