Friday, February 20, 2009

Exit, Pursued By a Bear

"To philosophize is to learn how to die." -Cicero

The New York Times has had several articles recently about death and philosophy and the relationship between the two inspired, it seems, by a recently-published book by Simon Critchley, Book of Dead Philosophers. In it, Critchley explores the life-and-death stories of 150 philosophers, comparing how they lived their lives with the manners in which they died.

His goal ostensibly is to discover how philosophers "learn how to die," in Cicero's words. In an essay published on the 12th, "Death: Bad?", Jim Holt explores some of the views that argue that there is no reason to be afraid of death:

"There are three classic arguments, all derived from Epicurus and his follower Lucretius, that it is irrational to fear death. If death is annihilation, the first one goes, then there are no nasty post-death experiences to worry about. As Epicurus put it, where death is, I am not; where I am, death is not. The second says it does not matter whether you die young or old, for in either case you’ll be dead for an eternity. The third points out that your nonexistence after your death is merely the mirror image of your nonexistence before your birth. Why should you be any more disturbed by the one than by the other?"

Unlike Critchely, however, Holt takes a critical look at each of these arguments, finding each one of them to be weak at best:

"These arguments are invoked in Critchley’s book, but their logic goes unexamined. Unfortunately, all three are pretty lousy. The American philosopher Thomas Nagel, in his 1970 essay 'Death,' showed what was wrong with the first. Just because you don’t experience something as nasty, or indeed experience it at all, doesn’t mean it’s not bad for you. Suppose, Nagel says, an intelligent person has a brain injury that reduces him to the mental condition of a contented baby. Certainly this would be a grave misfortune for the person. Then is not the same true for death, where the loss is still more severe?

"The second argument is just as poor. It implies that John Keats’s demise at 25 was no more unfortunate than Tolstoy’s at 82, since both will be dead for an eternity anyway. The odd thing about this argument, as the (dead) English philosopher Bernard Williams noticed, is that it contradicts the first one. True, the amount of time you’re around to enjoy the goods of life doesn’t mathematically reduce the eternity of your death. But the amount of time you’re dead matters only if there’s something undesirable about being dead.

"The third argument, that your posthumous nonexistence is no more to be feared than your prenatal nonexistence, also fails. As Nagel observed, there is an important asymmetry between the two abysses that temporally flank your life. The time after you die is time of which your death deprives you. You might have lived longer. But you could not possibly have existed in the time before your birth. Had you been conceived earlier than you actually were, you would have had a different genetic identity. In other words, you would not be you."

Therefore, while the idea of finding a point of view that will allow us to be "philosophical" in the face death is certainly appealing, it is not necessarily all that practical. In addition, I do not link that a healthy fear of death is necessarily a bad thing as long as one doesn't stay indoors obsessing about it all day. Instead, I think a healthy fear of death makes one appreciate life, to the point that one will take full advantage of living as well as not taking any foolish risks. While constantly being afraid is a bad thing, I do not think fear in itself is negative in this case.

If you're interested, here's a link to the first chapter of Crickley's book, The Book of Dead Philosophers.

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Let me just add one other thing about how Critchley envisions his own death: "Exit, purued by bear." That is just the sort of academic inside-joke that makes me want to grit my teeth because I feel Critchley is misusing the reference. (For those of you who don't know, Exit, pursued by a bear is the most famous Shakespearian stage direction. It appears in Winter's Tale and is the perfect example of deus ex machina, which is, "The god from the machine' used to refer to the appearance of gods by means of the mechane in tragedy. Also employed in a pejorative sense in modern literary criticism to refer to an improbable character or turn of events introduced by an author to resolve a difficult situation." Basically, Shakespeare threw a bear up on stage to kill of a character with whom he was finished.) Are you really telling me that Critchley wants the great Playwright in the Sky to get tired of his time on stage and kill him off with something that is both improbably and unpleasant?

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