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Is it reasonable to fear death?


To: James M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is it reasonable to fear death?
Date: 20 December 2002 11:37

Dear Jim,

I nearly forgot to write in response to your fine essay. (The piece was on the yellow bulldog clip for Pathways submissions, not the black and white bulldog clip for students' work. It will be appearing in the next Philosophy Pathways issue, a week from Sunday.)

Regarding publication, there were two or three places where the language seemed *too* caustic, spoiling the tone of the piece. What you have to say is powerful enough.

I did find these thoughts powerful - and empowering. There is a place for this kind of discourse which is 'philosophical' but not argumentative or analytic. ('Practical philosophy' seems too dour a description. Poetic philosophy?)

'Though evolution has provided us with a basic urge for survival which we share with other members of the animal kingdom, human beings are also taught the fear of death.' What are the implications of that claim? That an alternative teaching is possible, or at least conceivable? Then we would certainly live differently. Perhaps as the Spartan hoplite lived, who wishes for nothing so much as a 'beautiful death'. Or like the Epicureans. Or the Stoics.

As you know from reading my essay, my approach is robustly metaphysical. I do not accept the seeming truism that everyone takes for granted - that for a while 'one survives', and then, at a particular point in time, one ceases surviving. The argument is strictly logical. The identity of the subject, the 'I' cannot be equated with the 'one' that survives or fails to survive (the human individual, the person). I am not GK. And the 'I' that you refer to when you say 'I' is not JM. No definition of personal identity has yet been put forward that would rule out in principle the 'survival' of two identical 'GK's or 'JM's. But whatever else 'I' can be, it cannot be both. Nor is it neither. There is therefore no 'it', no 'entity' that exists or fails to exist. 'My subjective world can never die, can never cease to continue, for with every new moment it is as if it had never existed, and will continue no longer than that very moment' ('Naive Metaphysics: a theory of subjective and objective worlds').

It is interesting that although one of the motivations of your piece was to deal with the death of another, of a loved one, most of you have to say concerns the first person. (Of course, this is the focus of my essay.) I therefore feel to some extent that you have missed an opportunity. The Spartan mother celebrates the glorious death of her warrior son (as the Palestinian women do now, to the horror of Western TV viewers). Is mourning, the devastation of loss, something we learn too? So that it could be envisaged (in another world) that one might say 'goodbye' as one would to someone off on a shopping expedition. Or alternatively with gratitude and pride at a great achievement, a truly splendid death.

The ground you have chosen to stand on leaves this question wide open, in a way, arguably, that it is not open in an account of the 'fear of death' which is based on metaphysics, as opposed to common experience (or even 'a priori experience').

A question could be raised about 'death is going to bite you in the ass. And it will hurt forever.' As Tertullian noted (quoted by Nietzsche somewhere) the joys of those who have made it to heaven are increased immeasurably by hearing 'the tortured cries of the damned'. Justice is sweet. But this is not death, only another kind of life. Here, all one needs to do is quote Epicurus. Death isn't just a bad experience you go through, or even a bad experience that lasts forever. It is the cessation of 'you'. But perhaps another gloss could be put on your words. Life only lasts so long. Only so long, therefore, to make up for the inevitable 'fuckups', to win the number of points required for entry through the pearly gates.

One philosopher who has written extensively on the question of death in relation to the 'I' and the 'other' is Emmanuel Levinas (who I had never heard of when I wrote my essay). I think you would find his works gripping ('Totality and Infinity', 'Beyond Essence or Otherwise than Being', 'Time and the Other', plus numerous collected essays).

Thank you for this piece, which I am proud to include in 'Pathways'.

All the best,