Death, writes Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, is not part of life but its limit. He means that there is no such thing as ‘living through death’, so as to emerge on the other side of it. Death is not an experience in life, and there is no such thing as looking back on death, and assessing it from a new perspective.
Others have argued in a similar way for the conclusion that the fear death is irrational. (Thus Lucretius and various Roman Stoics.) If, after death, I am nothing, there is literally nothing to fear. This, however, seems like sophistry. Death is also the loss of life and of the of the good things that come with life. And is it not rational to fear such a loss? Yet that too seems to miss the point: I could be threatened with the loss of all good things, and still regard this threat with equanimity or at least, without that queasy feeling which comes from that thought that soon I shall not exist. Why is my non-existence so terrible?
Why, indeed, is it terrible at all? It is peculiarly difficult to get one’s mind around this question. Every attempt to describe the evil of death suggests either that we fear the loss of goods (including the good of life), and so misses the distinctive feeling of ontological insecurity; or else concludes that we fear non-existence per se — and that seems irrational. In another sense, however, it is plainly reasonable to fear death: for if we did not, we should fail to secure our own survival, and therefore threaten the success of all our projects. Hence a rational being needs the fear of death, just as he needs the capacity for nausea at foul smells, or the disposition to sleep from time to time. But does that make the fear into a rational fear?
What is a rational fear? Presumably it is rational to fear what will pain you. It is rational to fear some condition, to the extent that you would wish to get out of it, when you are in it. But again the criterion does not apply to death. If death is the end, then no one fears to escape from it, once it has arrived. When Achilles complains to Odysseus that he.would rather be the meanest serf on earth, than the greatest prince in Hades, he speaks from a point beyond death — he speaks as a ‘spirit’ who has survived his encounter with death. But he justifies the fear of death only by showing that it leads to an irreversible decline in one’s fortunes; not by showing that it brings one’s fortunes to an end.
In response to this unanswerable riddle, it is tempting to turn the argument on its head, arguing that it is rational to fear the absence of death. Drawing on a famous play by the brothers Capek, Bernard Williams (The Makropoulos Case) has argued for the ‘tedium’ of immortality, pointing out that our joys are mortal joys, dependent upon death for their desirability. The central character of the play, who has lived through every love and joy only to rise to a frozen plateau of cynical disregard for others, displays the true character of a practical reason that has been shorn of mortal limits. (A more comic version of immortal tedium is to be found in the brilliant last chapter of Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters).
Traditional defenders of immortality would scarcely be disturbed by Williams’s argument. They would argue, with Aquinas (and Dante of Paradiso), that our mortal desires are precisely what we lose in dying; so as to devote ourselves to those other and more my enterprises which never grow stale. The worship of God bears infinite repetition, precisely because its object too is infinite. Never does the Mass or the Sacred Service weary the true believer, or cause him to doubt the meaning of its inner message. If there is eternal life why should that not be it? ·
Such thoughts do nothing to console the timorous pagan. Is he caught between the irrational fear of death that the capacity for success demands, and the rational fear of a joyless longevity? would be terrible indeed.
Looked at from the third-person perspective, death is not always evil. Sometimes, indeed, it is a good. First, death may be conceivably a rightful punishment. A person’s crimes may be sufficient reason for killing him: in which case, how can it be said that his death is an evil? (Think of Hitler or Stalin: not only were their deaths good in themselves; more miserable deaths would have been even better.)
Secondly, death can be seen as a liberation from appalling torments whether physical or emotional. Thirdly, and more mysterious death can be seen as the fitting conclusion to a life of great undertakings. The tragic hero is vindicated in death, which reflects back into his life the redeeming order of finality. We do understand this; yet we feel it, and our feeling is every bit as real a queasiness with which we contemplate our own extinction. Why should not our reflections come to rest in this more satisfying perspective, rather than dwelling on the nameless fear that gets us nowhere?
For ancient thinkers death could be vindicated in another way. Return for a moment to Aristotle’s discussion of virtue. The courageous man acquires a disposition to pursue what is honorable in the face of danger. Honor is what he wants, more than he wants to flee and it is irrational to acquire this disposition, since it is ‘a part of happiness’ without courage one can have no guarantee of the ‘success in action’ which is the final end of practical reasoning. But now, consider the moment of battle. The enemy will shortly overpower me, what is it rational for me to do?
For the coward, who desires to live himself, it is rational to drop his shield and run. For the courageous man, whose heart is wedded to the thought of honor, it is rational to stand, even if death is the consequence. Since the courageous man’s desire springs from a disposition that all of us have reason to acquire, he is doubly reasonable. It is therefore rational to prefer honorable death to an ignominious survival. (This matter is discussed by Xanthippe and Socrates in a notorious Xanthippic dialogue: See Phryne’s Symposium, 1158a-b.)
That is perfectly intelligible from a third-person viewpoint. We all warm to the hero, who lays down his life for his friend. Even pacifists feel this witness the glorious tribute to self-sacrifice in Britten’s War Requiem. And one can feel this, while deploring the ‘pity’ of war. But it is intelligible too from a first-person perspective. One can learn not to love death, but at least to accept it as the best outcome in a dire situation. There are circumstances in which survival is a fatal compromise of one’s life, a shame from which one could not recover, a disparagement of all that one has wished for and all that one has done. Hence, according to Nietzsche, the thought of a ‘timely death’ may be the ground of the true (i.e. pagan) morality.
Do those thoughts justify suicide? Schopenhauer believed so; as did many of Plutarch’s heroes. But it is one thing to justify acquiring those virtues which make you likely to die honorably; another thing to justify the death itself.
The Mystery of Death
Even if true, such thoughts do not quiet our apprehensions. Maybe nothing can quiet them. Maybe we should accept that the fear of death. It is not really a fear, since it is founded in no coherent thought of how we are harmed by dying. It is an anxiety.
This anxiety, according to Heidegger, has deep foundations. For it marks the insurgence into consciousness of the thought of our contingency. Death shows us that we will not be, and therefore that we might not have been. Our existence has no ultimate foundation; it is a brute fact for which we can find no reason, since all our reasons are generated within life and not from the point of view outside life to which we can never attain.
The anxiety towards death is ‘ontological’; it spreads over the existence itself, and undermines the ‘ground of being’. What can we do to assuage it? Heidegger makes some pregnant but obscure suggestions. Dasein, he tells us, must assume responsibility for its own being; and this can be done only through an ontological posture which he describes as ‘being towards death’: we must act out the of our own mortality, and never flee into fantasy or despair. We see death as the other side of life: to look death clearly in the face we see the meaning of life. Only then do we truly live.
Maybe this is what the tragedians tell us. It is certainly one of the themes of Rilke’s Elegies. But whether a philosopher can really convey such thoughts let alone a philosopher whose mastery of the written word advances no further than the stage reached by Heidegger — may reasonably be doubted.