Just a few months ago I lost a relative and now another one is about to be harvested by the grim reaper. Although all the uncertainties of afterlife, reincarnation, and eternal bliss are supposed to console me in these moments, I cannot help asking myself whether death is good or bad.
As I have no knowledge of what happens once we are dead, I will focus on the non-religious, philosophical question for now. Epicurus once said: “death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.”
In other words: only what we can experience can be bad or good, but as we cannot experience anything when we are dead, death can neither be good nor bad. Lucretius, an adherent of Epicurus, put forward another argument against the apparent evil named death.
Before birth and after birth infinite time elapses. No one really cares about the infinite time before birth. Since the time before birth and after exitus is symmetrical, the time after death cannot be bad either.
Also Vladimir Nabokov and Arthur Schopenhauer asked themselves, why we never inquire about the time before birth and always about the posthumous time. Still, can this be even a quantum of solace?
No. Neither for me nor for the philosopher Thomas Nagel, who argued that the time before our birth and after our quietus are not identical, for if someone expires earlier, his life is shortened. If, contrariwise, someone is born later, he will be a different person altogether.
It seems that my individuality, my ego, is strongly defined by my unique history. (Neuroscientists argue alike, when they claim that, if there is anything that we can call our self among the scattered pieces of selves, it is our historical self.)
According to the philosopher Derek Parfit, we have a general bias concerning goods. Meaning we prefer to have good things in the future and bad things, if at all, in our past. Thus, we, in our present existence, detest demise more than not having existed in the first place.
In both cases future and past seem to be of different value to us. Especially, because the future is intertwined with our wishes, which can be terminated by our death. The same applies to Epicurus argument. Death might be bad, because the loss of life inhibits us from fulfilling my wishes or desires.
However, Bernard Williams makes an important distinction concerning desires. According to him, as long as we have “categorical” desires and not merely “conditional” desires death is negative.
While “conditional” desires are solely concerned with conservation of our life, “categorical” desires go beyond. For instance, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who got shot by the Taliban, had many categorical wishes, such as fighting for girls’ rights for education. Therefore, if we have no categorical desires any longer “death is not necessarily an evil”.
We need death
By the same token, we need death since an endless life would leave us with no categorical desires at all. Like Williams, Simone de Beauvoir and Jorge Luís Borges reveal in their fictional stories that an immortal life would be undesirable. Time loses its value for those who have too much of it, actions would become superfluous and the eternal recurrence of the same would cause a life of perpetual boredom.
Hence Rabindranath Tagore wrote: “life is given to us, we earn it by giving it.“ We need death. It gives life its importance. The existentialist Heidegger had a somewhat similar idea, when he coined the term death-toward-being. Death makes us realize the scope for decision making in our existence and hence its significance.
The grim reaper is a paradoxical being: On the one hand, we do not like him, as he might compromise our desires. On the other hand, he makes us have desires in the first place.
My family members lived a fulfilled life, and I guess they got most of their categorical wishes granted. So is this the quantum of solace? Yes, but still I cannot free myself entirely from grief, as if these tears of comfort were instantly scraped away by death’s reaping hook.
Killing the ego?
This is because (now I am leaving the realm of plain philosophy) we are terrified of losing our ego including its desires and wishes; petrified to lose our personal history, the very essence that constitutes our identity. Either one can accept this as a part of life, or one can attempt to overcome this agony by detaching oneself from the ego during ones’ lifetime.
This is why Jiddu Krishnamurti meant when he said, one has to die in order to life. It is the idea, like in death, to lose the ego, for only then can we live freely without angst. Learning how to die is what Plato demanded from his philosopher kings and what Indian ascetics do every day.
It is an entirely different debate, whether killing the ego entirely is the right path. The existentialist, for example, would argue that we need fear to be aware of the value of our life and the decisions we make.
All I know for now is that all of us, existentialist or not, have to die somehow during our own lifetime in order to live a life without exaggerated fears of death. The question is solely how much fear we are willing to accept. Exaggerated fear, natural fear, or no fear at all?
When Søren Kierkegaard wrote “nevertheless is the healing just to die, to die off”, when Mohammed proclaimed “die before you die”, or when Montaigne wrote “one who teaches people to die, teaches them to live” they had something similar in mind.
I passed away myself a bit during the last hour of writing. But it is a good quietus. A quietus wish enables you to live a better life, as you know that you do not have to be afraid of losing yourself – at least to a certain degree.
Again, the grim reaper is slicing truth into a contradiction: we are afraid of the unknown, which death is to us. As soon as we experience death during life, we supposedly know the unknown. Eventually, we are left with two paradoxes and Kierkegaard’s insight: “where there is life, there is contradiction.”