Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Perspectives on Death

I have lately thought it would be interesting to do a study of the various perspectives on death found in the great writers, philosophers, theologians, poets, saints, and other thinkers. In the reading I have done, which is not quite yet extensive, I have already encountered some interesting ideas. Of particular interest to me is the question of whether, and why or why not, one should desire death. Plato argues in the Gorgias (if I remember rightly) that because the philosophic man seeks to know the truth and thus have wisdom, he should desire death. Knowledge is essentially the attaining of the incorporeal Forms which exist in a separate realm of pure reality. The soul, which is immaterial, is hindered from the perfect attainment of these Forms by its encagement in the body. Therefore the soul, especially of the philosophic man, has a deep desire to be free so that it might be able to attain perfect knowledge. A man should therefore desire death, especially if he wishes to satisfy that highest part of him, the intellect, which is in the immaterial soul.

I find particularly interesting to contrast this with the Epicurean view, as expressed by Lucretius in De Rerum Natura, that man does not have an immaterial soul. The soul is rather composed of tiny invisible atoms which direct and constitute the life of the body. But because both body and soul are composed of matter, it is in their nature to disintegrate; whence it comes that man must die. Lucretius argues that a man who genuinely desires to know and love the truth about the nature of things will accept this truth and be satisfied with it. Indeed, he should even desire its fulfillment, because his non-existence is the only escape from the pain and misery of life. Lucretius does not believe in an afterlife, so he has no concept of a positive reward or happiness to be gained after death. Rather, he argues that the fact of non-existence alone should be comfort to a man who fears pain: non-existence is painless, and he who does not exist cannot regret the miseries of his past life either. The fascinating comparison between Plato and Lucretius is this: Plato argues that man should desire death because he is essentially an immaterial being, that is, a soul contained within a body. Lucretius, on the other hand, argues that man should desire death because he is essentially a material being, in whose nature it is to die.

In the Christian understanding, death is desirable, not in itself, but as the necessary step before everlasting life. Death in itself is not seen as a good; indeed it is one of the consequences of Original Sin. All men must suffer death in the end. But death is conquered by the Redemption through the death of Christ on the Cross, and hence we have nothing to fear from it. We may even look forward to it, as the door to our fully reaping the benefits, in the afterlife, of Christ's work of salvation, provided we cooperate in this life with the graces which God gives us. 

This is in some sense a mean between the extremes presented by Plato and Lucretius, though I tend to think it more closely resembles the Platonic account, insofar as it is only after death that a man can fully rest in the attainment of Truth. But whereas Plato saw death itself as the good wherein the Truth is attained, Christ teaches us that death is merely a necessary step before the attainment of that Truth, and that, at the end of time, we will in fact be resurrected whilst still resting in the fullness of Truth.

The Christian understanding is not altogether unlike Lucretius' idea either, in that the death of a good man does free him from the misery of earthly life. But the crucial difference is that the man must in fact be good; if he has lived a bad life, obviously, he will only encounter worse misery after death. Lucretius denies all this, because he denies the merit of religious belief and the idea of an afterlife. He adheres to a materialistic worldview, in which suicide is altogether acceptable if life is miserable for a man. But the Christian is not permitted to take this path. His belief in an afterlife must give him pause, as it did Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The Christian is certainly permitted to sigh after the next life, to long for death, if he lives in the peace of a good conscience. But he entrusts the time of his death to God, who alone is the Lord and Master of life.

So many more perspectives exist among the great writers of human civilization. The above thoughts are simply an example of how some of those perspectives could be collected and compared...

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