Many religions contemplate some form of personal continued existence after death: reincarnation in another body, or continued being in some vastly different place like Heaven or Hell.
Nobody wants to die. Well, that's not exactly true. Some people do commit suicide in moments of deep despair. And many would rather die than live on in interminable and unbearable pain. I bet hardly anyone, if you asked them in advance, would say "Even if I sink into a persistent vegetative state, keep me alive. Better to live on as a vegetable than to die."
So, the simple statement that I opened with needs to be qualified. No one who is in the full flowering of life, who is not overcome with a paralyzing despair or unbearable pain, etc. wants to die. It would seem to follow from that alone that we intrinsically prefer, at least at every moment of full flowering, life to death. And it would seem to follow from that alone that we prefer immortality to mortality. Of course, we aren't going to get immorality. At least not in THIS life. But if immortality really is something we intrinsically desire but are barred from achieving in the one and only life we are ever going to get, what follows? That's what I want to talk about a bit in this post in order to get my juices flowing before going on the air with todays guest Anne Ashbaugh. Anne, by the way, was our guest on one of the most popular Philosophy Talk episodes ever, as judge by the web traffic it still receives. Even in a supposedly high-brow subject like philosophy, sex still sells, I guess.
I would gladly see all the pointless and depressing deaths disappear. But although I think that all deaths are sad (for someone) maybe not all deaths are bad in the ways that the kinds of deaths just referred to above are. Maybe there is such a thing as a good death.
Perhaps we could more easily see some deaths as "good" deaths -- not good simpliciter, but good in the way that deaths can be, good "for a death" (but is that damning with faint praise?) -- if we did not view mortality itself as a problem to be overcome, as a tragic condition from which we yearn to escape, to which we cannot be reconciled.
Throughout much of human history and in many human culture mortality has indeed been viewed as a tragic predicament from which we yearn to escape. It is no accident, I think, that eastern and western cultures have both given rise to fantasies of the afterlife. Of course there are difference between eastern and western visions of the afterlife. Westerners seem to have envisioned afterlives in which we survive as the very persons that we now are. Easterners seem to have envisioned an afterlife that involves, ultimately -- perhaps after many cycles of earthly existence -- some kind of non-personal survival in the great sea of being. Despite their differences, I suspect that both sets of visions of the afterlife are borne of a deep sense that the condition of mortality is tragic.
To be sure, there have been those how have accepted mortality as an inescable condition of human existence, who have had the clear eyed courage to acknoweldge that we have exactly one short life, a life that will last for a mere blip in the entire history of the universe, a life that will never be repeated, that can't be transcended, escaped, or extended by a transit to some otherwordly realm. The existentialists are perhaps the clearest examples.
But we still have a problem. We desire always more life -- at least when we are in the flowering of life -- but we can't have it. So doesn't the combination of our desire for more life and our inability to get it imply that we are destined to frustation and sadness, to endure an insatiable longing. And doesn't that make those who see mortality as a tragedy right?
Of coruse, sometimes the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" manage to beat the desire for still more life out of us. But that just shows, again, that its not just mortatlity, but mortality plus "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to" that pack the real whammy. Perhaps mortality wouldn't be so depressing if it weren't for the shocks. On the other hand, the thought that you could eliminate the thousand natural shocks is probably as hopeless and as delusional as thoughts of an afterlife.
Could we give up wanting more life (life of the full-flowering kind)? Should we give it up? The stoics say, roughly, if there is something beyond your control and you hold your happiness hostage to whether you gain or lose that thing, then you will not live well, you will not be a self-governing other, but will be "fortune's slave," as Shakespeare has as Hamlet put it.
Well I think we can't give up the desire for more life. And that we shouldn't. That would be a tragedy of its own kind. We should embrace life fully and entirely with open and welcoming arms. And we should also mourn its passing. For the loss of life is really a loss, a great loss, perhaps the greatest loss -- at least if its the loss of live of the full flowering kind.
But there must be a way both to embrace life and to desire it as a great and glorious good, but also to be reconciled to the inescapable fact of its finitude and vulnerability. There must be a way both to desire to be and to delight in just what we are -- finite, fragile beings, here for only the briefest of moments -- without giving into a despair that gives rise to delusions and fantasies. In their own sometimes confusing, but sometimes astoundingly clear-eyed ways that's what many of the existentialists were after. Unfortunately, I don't have time to elaborate on why I think that. Maybe I can say more after the show.
But for now, I gotta go, as Ian Shoales loves to say.
Talk to ya' soon.