It was the summer of 2014 and I was already working full time. Only a credit or two short of graduation, I decided to finish them up as quickly as possible.
I chose PHL 382 “Death and Dying”, taught by Alessandro Bonello, because it had a catchy title. How cool would it be to say that I was taking a course on death? Little did I know that it would be one of the highlights of my undergraduate career (alongside an individual seminar in metaethics with Professor Derek Allen).
The meditation on death that this course offers aims at retrieving from the first philosophers of Western history the ancient practice of philosophy as a preparation for dying and being dead. The idea that philosophy’s business is to train the mind in the presence of death and to pursue the wisdom that enables us to confront our finitude and the instant of our end is axiomatic for most of the ancient philosophers. The Phaedo , one of Plato’s philosophical and dramatic masterpieces, epitomizes the idea of the philosophical death in his description of Socrates’ last hours of life. In conversations with his closest friends while awaiting his death, Socrates tells us that the true vocation of philosophy is always to pursue death and dying, and tries to persuade his friends that the philosopher has good reasons to be cheerful when he is about to die. In this course we will follow the idea of the art of dying from its origins to its different developments and expressions in some of the major philosophical figures of antiquity, especially the Epicurean and the Stoic schools, and uncover the resonances it brings into our own way of attempting to understand our mortality.PHL382 Course Syllabus
Readings were drawn from Herodotus, Sophocles, Aristotle, and Plato, as well as Stoics such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. The classwork was centered on five writing assignments known as consolatio mortis, ancient philosophical pieces designed to help the reader overcome grief, sorrow, or fear of death so that they may accept it with calm readiness. In each, the writer reflects on the nature of death while offering consolation to someone for a specific mortal occasion. Consolatio mortis are written in the form of a personal letter, but with an eye towards instructing a wider audience as well.
The following is the final consolatio mortis I wrote to myself for my own death. Out of the many university essays, I am most proud of this one. It was the last paper I completed and the only one that received full marks, a difficult feat in academic philosophy. I present it today, five years later, without edits of any kind.
You are alive and well as of this writing. You think to stand and your body responds instantly. Your mind is sharp, carefully considering the abstractions that it comes across in the office. Your heart beats steadily and your lungs take in fresh oxygen. But your heart, like the rest of your body, was created with an expiration date. Each beat of your heart is one beat closer to its last. One day, your heart will beat its last beat and then you will be dead. That day could be today. And it will be okay.
How could that be okay? You will be dead! Everything that you have ever worked for or cared about will cease to exist. The body that you toil to keep reasonably fit will decompose. The mind that you have carefully nurtured and invested in will be no more as the underlying brain rots.
Of all that is feared in life, its end is feared the most. Men have tried every method under the sun to extend their lives, some of which border on comedy. What they are really attempting to do is to forestall death. When you were younger, you were no different in this regard. You were a cautious child, slower down the slide at the playground than the other kids. You were afraid that you would get hurt and die. It is likely that your fear stemmed from an early appreciation of man’s inherent mortality. While your friends were taking ever greater risks, your introspective nature taught you that certain actions had permanent consequences that no amount of regret could reverse. The marble that went down the drain was lost forever. The same could happen to your life. You enjoyed being alive or, more accurately, you feared not being alive. Death was a mystery, so you sought to avoid it.
The fear of death is partly motivated by the fear of the unknown. As there is no returning to life after death, it is necessarily true that anyone who is alive has not experienced death. Therefore, death is inherently unknowable to the living. It is natural to fear the unknown because what we do not know has the ability to harm us. It pays to treat that which can harm us with great caution.
However, death is not the great unknown that it appears to be. As Marcus Aurelius observes in Meditations, it is either a loss of sensation or a new sensation. We experience a loss of sensation when we fall asleep. How silly it is to fear something that you (usually) do on a nightly basis. On the other hand, if death is an adventure with a new sensation, then you are not dead. A fear of the potential new sensation is different from the fear of death.
While it is true that you do not know the exact timing of your death, the fact that you will die one day is beyond question. That, and taxes, or so goes the joke. Death is the most certain of man’s fears to occur. Not everyone will be eaten by snakes or chopped up by clowns, but everyone will die one day. Not only is the nature of death (loss of sensation) known, but so is its probability. You are less certain about when the next subway train will arrive than you are about death.
But still you stand far back from the yellow line in the subway as you make your way to the office. Personal injury at track level are the words that come to mind as the train arrives. Your caution cannot be entirely explained by a desire to avoid the pain associated with being struck by fast-moving metal. It briefly occurs to you that you are too young to die. You have so much of life that you have never experienced and would like to.
Such thinking suggests that you have not fully considered the nature of life and death. Suppose that you are to die tomorrow. After getting over your (misguided) sorrow, imagine how much happier you would be to die the day after tomorrow instead. From the way you spend an average day right now, it is safe to assume that an extra day of life would not change your outlook. And what if you were supposed to die in two days, but instead died tomorrow? Not much sadder. Then why would death tomorrow be meaningfully different from death in eight decades? It is not. It is as the gentleman who asked a lady if she would sleep with him for a million dollars. When she accepted, he counteroffered a dollar. She angrily declined, asking him what kind of woman he thought she was. The gentleman responded that they had already determined what kind of woman she was – now they were merely haggling price. Similarly, a death tomorrow is different from a death in eighty years only by degree.
Up to this point, you understand that death is merely a permanent version of a known experience (loss of sensation) that is certain to occur at some point in your future. When it occurs is a matter of degree rather than categorical difference. Yet still you hesitate. Do not be alarmed. It is natural to feel fear, regardless of how irrational those fears are. Is it the thought of all of the positive experiences that you will no longer have after you die? Is that why you would rather die many years down the line than tomorrow?
If so, recall all of the unpleasantness that is life. The last best environment you had, floating in your mother’s womb, was one you don’t even remember. You’ve been trying to return to it ever since you were forcibly evicted approximately 23 years ago. But you never will. Mankind was doomed to wander a cold, inhospitable landscape, clutching at anything and anyone that will remind them of what unconditional acceptance was like. All of the positive experiences that you’ve had or will have pale in comparison. Then, understand that you will have negative experiences to go along with the positive ones. Loss, pain, and suffering are just some of the ills that are part of the human condition. Although this bleak outlook is not necessarily an exhortation to commit suicide, it is clear why the living say that the dead have found peace.
I understand, you exclaim, I understand! I still don’t want to die. Every argument has been made and you still dread the inevitable. And it’s okay. Certain or not, death is not an easy outcome to come to terms with. At its center, our physical death is representative of the death of our ego. The latter is what makes death so difficult to accept. It is the death of the “I” in “I understand”. The ego fears death long after it is irrational to do so because our death is the unnegotiable end of the line for the ego. As a man cannot be made to understand what his paycheck depends on him not understanding, the ego cannot accept what its existence depends on it not accepting.
A philosopher recognizes a reality outside of his own ego. In striving to know what is real, he recognizes his ego as a distorting factor. A philosopher cannot achieve an understanding of reality with his ego in the way, so he hacks away at it on his road to knowledge. If he is fortunate, he will kill his ego while he is still alive to experience it. I hope you are fortunate.