We will all, presumably, die one day. That much is certain. But how we die, is at least somewhat, up to us. And how we understand death will dramatically change how we face it. We can turn to five of history’s most influential philosophers for wisdom, and maybe solace, as we meet our maker, writes Steven Luper.
How we view the nature and significance of death depends principally on what we take ourselves to be and what makes our existence good or bad, so modifying the latter can change the former. In what follows I illustrate this dependence by sketching five distinctive philosophical perspectives on death: the views of Gautama, Socrates, Epicurus, Zeno (and other Stoics), and Nietzsche.
Siddhārtha Gautama / Buddha
(c. 563 - c. 483 BCE)
Of the many views of death that philosophers have developed, the strangest by far is that of Siddhārtha Gautama, the man who came to be known as Buddha. His approach was shaped by his unusual views about the contents of the world. Take an ordinary object such as a chair or say an armadillo. Typically, it seems, such objects exist for years. But what is it for such an object to persist over time? Finding himself unable to supply a plausible answer to this question, Gautama concluded that objects don’t persist. More precisely, there just are no persisting objects. But doesn’t that mean that the object that was named “Gautama” itself does not exist? It does. And the same goes for all of the rest of us: despite appearances to the contrary, we just don’t exist!
Gautama found it difficult to explain his view, known as the no-self doctrine, to others. To some, it seemed incoherent. He seemed to be saying “I don’t exist,” which invites the question, “who is saying that he does not exist?” Critics asked him: which is it? Do you exist or do you not exist? Knowing that either reply seemed to presuppose his existence, he replied: neither.
The implications concerning death are perhaps even more confusing. Given that we do not exist at all, we never cease to exist. But to say that we never cease to exist, that we never die, is misleading, as it suggests that we are immortal. For Gautama, we are not immortal, but neither are we mortal. We never die for the bizarre reason that we never exist. Still, we have nothing to fear in death, no reason to think it is bad to die. Death never gets its grip on us. Indeed, it cannot possibly matter that anything, including ourselves, comes to an end, as the persistence of all things is an illusion. Only the ephemeral is real.
Shouldn’t we be upset about the fact that we do not exist? Not if we accept Gautama’s advice about happiness. He said that the way to happiness is to reshape what we care about, as the chief cause of unhappiness is unfulfilled desires. We should simply stop caring about things we are unlikely to have. In particular we should eliminate all desires that presuppose that we exist, as most desires do. That done, our nonexistence gives us nothing to be upset about.
Philosophical reflection encourages us to rid ourselves of mundane concerns. It helps us to pare away all physical features from our conceptions of ourselves, and identify solely with the intellect.
Socrates (c. 470 - 399 BCE)
Socrates, perhaps the most famous ancient Greek philosopher (but rivaled by his student Plato), developed views concerning death that could scarcely have been more different than Gautama’s.
To begin with, Socrates thought that he did indeed exist (alongside his fellow Athenians), and would live for many years to come. That idea is hardly remarkable. But he also thought he would survive death, and continue his existence in an afterlife.
It must be said that he had little grounds for his assumption about the afterlife. One argument he developed starts with his belief that we all know things we did not learn while we are alive (such as various bits of geometry). We know truths about things whose nature does not change, and whose reality is tied up with their unchanging nature, which ultimately led him to believe that the ephemeral is unreal. The fact that we have knowledge that we did not acquire by experience suggested to him that we accrued it prior to birth. From this he concluded that we existed prior to birth, and that since we did not have a physical form prior to birth then we lack it now. We are souls that are distinct from, and precariously tethered to, physical bodies.
When we confuse ourselves with our bodies, our views are corrupted. We come to think that the life of the senses matters—that physical gratification makes life good. We do best when we take a different path, and engage in philosophical reflection. Those who remain attached to the physical world will be saddened by the prospect of dying, as death severs those ties. Philosophical reflection encourages us to rid ourselves of mundane concerns. It helps us to pare away all physical features from our conceptions of ourselves, and identify solely with the intellect. This conceptual shift will smooth the transition by which the death of the body frees us to make our ways to the afterlife, where our activities will be wholly intellectual, wholly detached from ephemeral matters—from sexual attachments, accruing wealth and prestige—that occupy the attention of the ignorant. For Socrates, then, the death of the body is something we should welcome. Unlike our bodies, we ourselves are immortal, and death frees us from the limitations imposed upon us by the physical world.
Epicurus thought that each of us should view our eventual demise with equanimity, as death is neither good nor bad for the one who dies.
Epicurus (341 - 270 BCE)
Like Socrates, a second ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, rejected Gautama’s idea that material objects neither persist nor perish. Epicurus assumed that material objects do indeed exist for a time, as these come to exist when atoms adhere to each other in various ways—atoms that are arrayed in the way of tables and cats, for example—and these objects remain in existence until the atoms that compose them disperse. You and I are composed of atoms, so we, too, persist until our constituent atoms come apart.
But disperse they do; in time, our existence ends. So Epicurus not only rejected Buddhism, he also rejected Socrates’s idea that we continue our existence in an afterlife. We are mortal.
Now, Socrates looked forward to dying. As for Gautama, we might say that he was indifferent about the prospect of dying (and not dying). Epicurus’s attitude about death was rather like Gautama’s. Epicurus thought that each of us should view our eventual demise with equanimity, as death is neither good nor bad for the one who dies. This was because he assumed, roughly, that, for something to be good for us, it must bring us pleasure, while to be bad for us something must bring us pain. From this he concluded that “everything good and bad lies in sensation,” as pleasure and pain are themselves sensations. But he also assumed that, because it ends our existence, death brings us neither pleasure nor pain. Indeed, “death is to be deprived of sensation.” It is neither good nor bad for us. What if you are nevertheless distressed by death because you have desires that death would thwart? Epicurus’s solution is like Gautama’s: rid yourself of these desires.
Zeno (c. 334 – c. 262 BCE)
Stoic philosophers such as Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, developed a third distinctive approach to death. Stoics wished to achieve equanimity in the face of death, and suggested that the key to achieving this goal is to realize that the only thing that is intrinsically good for us--good in itself--is to be virtuous, that is, to have a morally good character, while the only thing that is intrinsically bad for us is to be vicious, to have a morally bad character. If we shape ourselves into virtuous people, we will make our lives as good as they can possibly be.
Once we do that, our lives cannot be made better, no matter how long they last. In fact, if we live longer, it seems possible, at least in theory, that we could end up making life worse, in that we might come to be vicious. However, Stoics did not worry about this eventuality. One consequence of being virtuous, they thought, is that it precludes our ever subsequently allowing ourselves to slip into viciousness. Hence once we are virtuous, nothing, including death, can harm us. Something can make our lives shorter than they might have been, but this is of no consequence for us. A longer good life is no better for us than a shorter good life.
In Zarathustra, Nietzsche emphasizes the importance of “dying at the right time,” while our lives still call for celebration, and before we risk undermining the legacy we otherwise would leave others.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)
Nietzsche’s writings say a great deal about what living well involves. He wrote with considerable originality about the significance of death as well.
Nietzsche came to develop his view of life in opposition to the work of Arthur Schopenhauer. As a young scholar Nietzsche was impressed with Schopenhauer. He admired the strength of mind he thought he detected behind Schopenhauer’s harsh thoughts, which culminated in the judgment that it would have been better had the world and everything in it never existed. But Nietzsche quickly came to see Schopenhauer as a spiteful man whose writing was an attempt to bring his readers to hate life as bitterly as he, Schopenhauer, did. Nietzsche set himself the opposite task: to develop a philosophy that affirms life, but without ignoring its more disappointing features. To that end Nietzsche encouraged us to strive for greatness, leaving the notion largely undefined, as one feature of great individuals is that they are self-defining. Nietzsche thought that nothing so seduces people to love life as the example of great individuals, and he emphasized that their projects and influence reach past the confines of their lives, lasting long after they die. At least in this respect, death is therefore no misfortune for them. Indeed, in Zarathustra, Nietzsche emphasizes the importance of “dying at the right time,” while our lives still call for celebration, and before we risk undermining the legacy we otherwise would leave others. “In your dying, your spirit and virtue should still glow like a sunset around the earth: else your dying has turned out badly.”