In times of crisis, we are reminded that human beings are first and foremost the animals that are aware of their own death. But the impossibility of experiencing death shouldn't lead us to nihilism. Ethics transcend mortality and scorn the risk of death.
Suddenly, thanks to the Covid 19 global crisis, our relationship to nature has been altered. We are confined to our castles, large or small. Nature is now all outside us: it is no longer that sphere through which we wander, stare at in aesthetic detachment or endeavour to master and exploit. On our few permitted solitary outings we discover that it is newly eerie; has sunk back into a primordial past where it is better able to flourish on its own without us. In the face of the uncanny, we retreat with half-relief to our enforced enclosure.
But on the other hand, nature has also become more proximate. Our castles are also our hutches. When we do converse with others, electronically or at a safe, shouted distance, then the everyday chatter that Martin Heidegger affected to despise has suddenly merged with that authentic daily confrontation with our existential fate which he recommended. That of which we constantly speak is suddenly our shared human destiny: we are now surrounded by nature as potential death and so we are thrown back upon our own natural finitude. No longer do our careers nor our diversions seem to count for so much. What instead impinges, hour by hour, are our existential and animal exigencies: birth, death, life together in kinship and nurturing-huddles and tribal proximity.
If our uniquely human mode of animality still persists, then this is now in the more animalised sense that all of our surrounding environment, nature as such, is a potential predator. Our usual peculiar attributes of species-division are correspondingly suspended, at least for the moment: no longer are we warring nations, races, classes and genders; instead, we are one species confronting a shared alien threat, however much our own folly may have instigated it.
In such a novel circumstance, the paring back to animality, in terms of a dual experience of nature as threatening exterior and protecting interior, also coincides with a less distracted sense of what it is to be human. The ordinary indeed now more coincides with the existential margin which we usually banish to the back of our minds. Human beings are, perhaps first and foremost, the animals aware of their own death. Indeed, without such awareness, there is a sense in which animals do not die: they merely perish and cease to exist.
But what does it mean to be aware of the fact that we are going to die? It does not mean that we are ever going to experience death.
But what does it mean to be aware of the fact that we are going to die? It does not mean that we are ever going to experience death: no, as Heidegger said, death is ‘impossible’ for us, because it is the foreclosure of any remaining human possibility. Does that then mean that we know that death is something that is going to happen to our animal bodies, and which we as conscious animal spirits will not outlive? No, again, because we have already said that animals do not die, since they do not anticipate their dying. Neither animal nor human consciousness is going to die, in the sense of experiencing death as an event, since it’s not a conscious event in life, as Wittgenstein realised. Equally, both animal and human bodies merely mutate: nothing existing or living ever really vanishes, it merely alters, such that there is, in a sense, no material death, as Leibniz taught.
All that occurs is the eventual dissolution of the individual thing, whether organic or inorganic, and in massively differing timescales. The processes of energy or life that sustain these individual things in being do not themselves die. Moreover, these processes do not subsist or live apart from the sequences of individual things. No energy operates apart from the temporary vehicles of energy; no life as such operates outside the series of generated living things, even though energy and life survive the passing of both vehicles and organisms. Energy and life are, as it were, predatory ‘viruses’ that nonetheless somehow antedate and survive their hosts, whose new arrival is, in consequence, never-ending. Ultimately then, the ceaseless dissolution of individual things, including death (for which biologists cannot clearly find a ‘cause’), is as much a mystery as their original formation.
This is why the speculation of the Church Father Gregory of Nyssa, taken up again by the Irish philosopher John Scotus Eriugena in the tenth century, concerning the plausibility of universal resurrection (extending, for Eriugena, beyond human beings to everything) is by no means absurd. Since we do not exactly know what ‘gluon’ (as Graham Priest puts it) holds any individual thing together – or why there are relatively integral ‘substances’ at all --we cannot dismiss the idea that all seemingly dispersed material elements remain ‘signed’ by this mysterious psychic unity, which could eschatologically reassert itself, beyond the current sway of time.
Full reflexivity confronts us with a still more extreme perplexity. We are only able to think of death as though we were going to survive it.
This ‘holding-together element’ in each and every relatively autonomous ‘thing’ can be thought of as ‘psychic’ or at least as proto-psychic. In animals this soul-factor becomes conscious; in human beings it becomes fully reflexive and so ‘spiritual’. It is this spiritual reflexivity which is able to apprehend that other creatures die and that this is our shared fate. And yet we have already seen that death, though it be the most certain thing of all, is also strangely elusive. It seems to happen nowhere. It does not really happen to bodies: it is rather the departure from them of energy, life, soul or spirit, which sustains itself elsewhere: in newly generated things and lives in the finite future. And death, as we have seen, does not happen to conscious spirits either.
Indeed, full reflexivity confronts us with a still more extreme perplexity. We are only able to think of death as though we were going to survive it. We can comprehend sleep because we eventually wake up. It is in this way alone that we ‘pass’ the moment of tumbling into slumber. But we are never going to pass the moment of dying, at least in our current mode of finite existence. Normally, a conscious moment of experience is surpassed because we pass to the next moment of conscious experience. But does that then mean, if there is no after-life, that there is after all a terrifying secular one, an appalling finite hell, in which we must be eternally stuck in our last moment of agonising awareness?
For if we cannot consciously experience the passing of our death throes, then how can we say that these ever pass, since they only pass in an objective, physical sense which we will not survive to observe? Because consciousness is inherently temporal and lives through memory and anticipation rather than an impossible ‘pure presence’, the idea of a ‘final moment’ of consciousness is more problematic than we imagine. For no moment that is a moment of consciousness can be final, since consciousness is inherently continuous, inherently transcendent of every previous moment, inherently of itself a kind of perpetual resurrection. It would then follow that if is there is no after-life in the religious sense, then the spectre of a secular hell as just invoked must surely arise – especially if even secular thought is able to contemplate the relativity of time. Perhaps for this reason we need to take seriously reports of ‘after death’ experiences – whatever they may exactly imply.
What we are also confronted with here is the truth that conscious spirit cannot be reduced to material life, as Henri Bergson taught. If spirit is inherently ‘undying’ then that is because neither memory not anticipation are physical or merely neurological experiences – as Rupert Sheldrake has confirmed, in Bergson’s wake. Nothing in our brains is equivalent to a memory trace or a future hope, or we would need an infinitesimal sequences of traces to recover the traces, or of triggers of expectations to remind us to plan forwards or speculate about what is to come.
What are the ethical implications of such a metaphysics? What does it mean for us to live authentically in the face of death?
No, temporal life is inherently spiritual. To survive and yet retain the past, to transcend the present and to live in hope is already to survive corporeal vanishing and therefore provides a good ground, as Bergson thought, for supposing a spiritual survival of death.
What are the ethical implications of such a metaphysics? What does it mean for us to live authentically in the face of death? Does it mean, as Heidegger thought, after all to embrace death as a ‘possibility’, the ‘furthermost’, which we can heroically ‘own’? Surely not, for by this Heidegger implies that we should treat the sheerly negative as something real and to see Being as identical with Nothing. For this nihilistic view, animal life is merely a concealing-revealing of being in particular existence, whereas conscious human beings, which Heidegger calls Dasein, ‘unconceals’ Being in its primordial nullity.
Authentic human identity is in this case negative, the heroic resoluteness of an individual – or, one fears for Heidegger, of an heroic nation. It does not, for Heidegger, have any positive ethical content.
This is essentially because he has deserted the classical Western idea that human reflexive awareness is in continuity with life and with animal life. The understanding that we are Dasein or ‘there-being’ is offered as an alternative to the traditional notion that we are a ‘rational animal’. Thus for Heidegger, to be aware of death is a rupture with living and the purposes of living. It is really something like a realisation of the ultimate pointlessness of living and of reasoning – all of which, for him, including nearly all philosophy hitherto, is really ‘idle chatter’.
This is a horrible foreshortening of our existential situation. As Heidegger’s pupil Hannah Arendt said, we live as much in relation to birth and constant new beginnings as to constant endings. We also live ecstatically in space besides time: in terms of our habitual attachments to and relationships with other people, animals, things and places.
In short, Heidegger lagged well behind Bergson in his understanding of human existence: in being alive we are as we are also equally orientated towards birth, towards creativity human and creaturely others as we are towards death. What is more, our specific living as animating ‘spirit’, rather than just as dasein, implies some sort of transcendence of death as mere nullity, rather than a resolute acceptance of its nullity, which after all can never be proven.
Much of human tradition seems to accept that individual risk is a necessary path to morality.
Aristotle taught that death is a horizon in another, more ethical sense: for him only the completed life is the ultimate focus of an ethical judgement, because for him the focus of morality is not isolated duty or utility (as for most modern ethical philosophy) but rather continuous human fulfillment and flourishing. Yet this view also opens up a paradox. As individuals we will never arrive at the end of our lives and so will never be able to render any final judgment upon ourselves. Our consciousnesses must do their best, but a good conscience can only try to situate itself within and to anticipate the wider verdict of society and of generations to come.
Thus our most authentic projects are not just negative -- they are rather the ethical and poetic attempts we make to shape our own lives in inherited sequences and in geographical linkage.
Do we require the spice of death as danger in order to do that? Risk as mere calculus looks intolerable: this is why most countries (apart from rationalistic and individualistic Sweden and to an extent the USA and initially the UK) have tried simply to confront the immediate threat of death that faces so many without trying to do utilitarian sums (which may well not work anyway) about whether allowing some to die now can save more in the future.
Instead, risk as heroic preparedness for individual sacrifice, without counting the cost, seems more acceptable. Much of human tradition seems to accept that individual risk is a necessary path to morality. But the New Testament is somewhat unique in resisting that conclusion, since it links the perfect presence of goodness with paradise and the absence of any death or danger. Thus St Paul declares that ‘sin and death’ entered the world in tandem.
In a sense death is no risk to genuine human life whatsoever. The ethical life does not so much face up to death or treat it with due solemnity as rather it scorns it.
The entire tradition of arcadia and of the pastoral, our entire experience of music and dance and sex are here in keeping with the gospel. The purest contentment and the greatest thrill, besides the sense of a virtuous peace, transcend the threat of violence, or perhaps the contrast of violence with peace.
If, without this threat, we are slothful and sluggish, then that, for theology, is a mark of our ‘fallenness’, the ‘original sin’ of discontent even in Eden, of boredom with bliss. It is not, after all, inherent to the notion of a good life that it needs to be understood as lived in the face of the horizon of death, nor as the heroic resistance to the threat of danger, which ultimately threatens our own death or that of others.
Yet since, as a matter of fact, we do live in a world much dominated by evil and death we cannot contentedly evade risk. Just because the full extension of peaceful relations and the possibility of human fulfilment is continuously blocked and thwarted, we cannot really be individually either at peace or fulfilled unless we embrace risk and are prepared for self-sacrifice.
Nonetheless, even in our current world circumscribed by death, it is not really death that most fundamentally threatens life, but rather evil or the impairment of life itself. As we have seen, death is somewhat ‘irreal’: physical reality only mutates, and conscious ‘spirit’ is in no real relationship to death at all, as death cannot ‘occur’ to it. Thus in a sense death is no risk to genuine human life whatsoever. The ethical life does not so much face up to death or treat it with due solemnity as rather it scorns it.
For only if we rate the risk of our own dying as much lower than the risk of the dying of others and still more as lower than our own and others’ psychic health, then we will not act in a way that is moral in the sense of being loving and relational.
Aristotle and his aporia of the completed individual life we do not live to see is here transcended in the sense that the deeper subject of ethical valency is our human flourishing in common. Being alive at all is certainly a precondition of such flourishing, but it is this specific mode of cultural life in community, not life as such that has ultimate value. It follows that as individuals we should be prepared to risk our mere lives for the sake of the various dangers to this higher mode of life that exceeds the danger of death to mere life as such. Since spiritual life transcends death via memory, expectation and thinking which inherently ‘includes’ the other, we cannot fully live at all unless we are prepared to scorn death – whose irreality we have in any case demonstrated.
The current crisis therefore should not return us to existential nihilism, but rather to the philosophy of the spirit. In recent times the wealthier in the West have been both shockingly complacent about the death of others at the hands of brutal economic and ecological processes and over-cossetted in relation to themselves. Given a world in which the threat of death and human violence is a constant reality, we cannot allow this double menace to quell our spirituality and reduce us to an unventured life no that is really worth living