Don’t avoid the big questions about death
Death prompts serious reflection. If death is a dreamless sleep, there is no reason to fear it, since “you” won’t know you are dead. But if death opens the door to another life, where God metes out justice, evildoers ought to fear death and good people should look forward to it.
These issues are the focus of a new book, “The Ethics of Death.” The book provides an interesting dialogue between Lloyd Steffen, a scholar of religion, and Dennis Cooley, a humanist philosopher. I am on a panel with the authors this weekend at a conference in Southern California, discussing the meaning of death.
This big question has deep roots. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus argued that death was annihilation. He thought this was a liberating idea, since it cured the anxiety created by religious stories of reward and punishment. Don’t worry about being dead, Epicurus advised, because your own death will literally be nothing to you. Epicurus and his followers ignored religion and focused on living long and living well.
The early Christians argued directly against the Epicureans and their indifference about death. Augustine argued, for example, that the Epicureans vainly pursued merely fleeting satisfactions. Augustine thought that real happiness is only found in eternal blessedness after death.
Epicurean affirmation of mortal finitude may help us savor the pleasures of life. If the Epicureans are right, ethics becomes a matter of prudence: clean living helps us prosper in this life. But Christians and others who long for eternal life will argue that the joys of this life are shallow and worthless. If we believe in an afterlife, ethical action takes on infinite weight.
A variety of concrete moral implications flow from this dispute. For example, if death means annihilation, then the death penalty is not much of a punishment, since once the criminal is dead he is no longer being punished. A harsher punishment might keep the bad guy alive in order to cause him to suffer as long as possible. On the other hand, if there is an afterlife, then execution speeds the criminal on to final judgment.
Or consider suicide and euthanasia. If death is nonexistence, then death could provide relief in the face of terrible suffering. But those who believe in an afterlife tend to think that suicide is immoral because our lives are not entirely our own to dispose of.
Despite the import of these issues, we often ignore them. Perhaps they are too difficult to think about. But the fact of the matter is that you can’t grow younger and you can’t avoid death.
Phillip Levine, Fresno’s beloved and recently departed poet laureate, once lamented the fact that it takes a very long time to believe the simplest facts of life: “that certain losses are final, death is one, childhood another.”
In another poem Levine said, “no one believes that to die is beautiful.” Levine suggested that in death we might join the waters of the world, flowing into every crack and crevice. Perhaps something beautiful happens when we give up the ghost and join the flow of nature. A poet’s ear may be needed to hear this.
Reflection on death naturally gives way to poetry. In his last days, Socrates wrote poetry and composed hymns. But he also philosophized until his final moments, talking with his friends and speculating about the afterlife.
Music, poetry, religion, and philosophy are expressions of the depth of the human spirit. Consciousness transforms brute experience into meaning. Awareness of death gives urgency to the soul’s need to express itself. We sing and talk and write because we want to leave a fluttering trace of ourselves in the void. If we never died, would we bother to think or talk at all?
To be conscious is to be surrounded by darkness. We do not recall the nothingness before life. Nor can we see beyond the shadows of death. The great religious and philosophical dialogue is an attempt to shed some light on this surrounding gloom.
Death gives meaning to life. Unfortunately, we each have but one lifetime to pray, argue, and sing, while the light still shines. At stake in this discussion is simply everything.