Teaching Death

About a decade ago, I decided it was time to confront what seemed to me to be the most important issue a human being can face: death. I decided to do so in the way you might expect an academic philosopher to confront a difficult issue. I would teach a course about it. Along with a dozen or so willing (or unwilling) fellow travelers about half my age, I would read about and reflect upon the fact of my mortality.

It is not unusual for me to teach about issues about which I’m thinking. Often, I use teaching to reflect on issues that I don’t want to approach in specialized philosophical language, issues that are important but not in my particular area of philosophical expertise, issues that deserve thought and consideration but that aren’t necessarily topics about which I would write a technical article or a book. War, justice, technology. Sooner or later, I suppose, it was inevitable that death would be added to that list.

But why a course on death at that particular time? Why was it somehow ripe for me to drag myself and these students into a reflective confrontation with death then? I suppose that if I say I was in my mid-forties, many readers won’t need further explanation. And, in fact, that was likely it. I was at that point where I could see the far shore of my life more clearly than the shore from which I had set out. And that had me thinking.

As I began to put together a syllabus for the course, the first thing I discovered was the difficulty of cobbling together a good list of readings for a seminar on the philosophy of death. The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t find any philosophical writings on death. I could. They simply weren’t the kind of writings I was looking for. Philosophers of death mostly seemed to write about the technical matters that define life and death and that, perhaps, help doctors who are uncertain about whether to sustain a particular life. Not that there is anything wrong with that angle, as far as it goes. But I wasn’t really interested in thinking about the question of when someone is technically dead or whether someone who dies of cancer two days before she would have been run over by a car anyway really suffers a tragedy when the cancer gets her first. I wasn’t interested in the question of whether someone who dies after having Alzheimer’s disease is a different person at her death from someone who dies with her mental facilities intact.

What I was interested in was the fact that I am going to die—that each of us is going to die. I wanted to confront that fact reflectively with my students. I wanted to look death in the face, have it look back at me and then figure out how, in the glare of its gaze, I was going to continue on. And when it came to philosophical writings on the fact of death, I discovered that after the ancients, it was pretty slim pickings. There was material in Plato and Aristotle, a wealth of riches in the Stoics and the Epicureans, and then only an essay or an excerpt here and there until Heidegger’s famous chapter on death in Being and Time. And that was about it. In the end, I turned to literature for assistance. That did the trick. Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illyich, Jim Crace’s Being Dead, Milan Kundera’s Immortality—these and other texts helped me design a syllabus that would keep us on track in thinking about our lives and our deaths.

Then there was another hurdle I hadn’t predicted. The curriculum committee in my department didn’t want to allow me to teach the seminar. Why? It wasn’t philosophical enough. Too much literature. In the end, I was begrudged the course mostly because there were no other seminars being offered that semester. I got it by default. And it turned out to be the best course I ever conducted, or am ever likely to conduct.

There is much about the course I still reflect upon. Among those is the dearth of philosophical writings on the fact that we will die. Why is it that so few philosophers—and, in particular, so few modern and contemporary philosophers—write on this? Contemporary philosophers who do write on the fact of death mostly seem to engage with Epicurus’ and Lucretius’ raft of arguments to the effect that we have nothing to fear in death: because in death we don’t exist (so there is no is nobody there to mind being dead); because we didn’t mourn over not existing before we were born (so there’s no reason to mourn over not existing after we die); or, in a more generous vein, because we need to exit our lives gracefully to leave room for the generations that follow us. These are all interesting arguments, and they deserve attention. But, with the exception of that single chapter in Being and Time, is there really so little else to be said about the issue philosophically?

Maybe the problem is that each of us, as Heidegger tells us, must confront death alone. There is nobody to do it for us, no one who can stand in as our representative. If that is true—and certainly it is—then perhaps philosophy is not the place to confront death. Philosophy’s coin of trade is generality, even universality. It tends to reside in the realm of what is true for all rather than in that of what each must confront singly. And so perhaps literature is, indeed, the proper place for reflection on death. In literature, humans don’t die; individuals die. Each of them dies his or her own particular death. Ivan Illyich dies. Jim Crace’s Joseph and Celice die—hand in hand, to be sure, murdered together on the beach. But, as Crace makes us understand, they die alone. Maybe my colleagues on the curriculum committee were not entirely wrong. Death is not a philosophical issue; it is a literary one.

And yet, if philosophy is supposed to have something to do with thinking about our lives, should it not also have something to do with thinking about a defining fact of those lives—i.e., that they end? I suspect it is not enough for philosophy to define the problem as one out of its realm. It is not enough to say, “Death? That’s down the hall in the English department.” I also suspect most philosophers would agree with me on this. So again: why the dearth of philosophical considerations of death?

I believe the reason is twofold. First, philosophers are human beings. Like non-philosophers, we die. And this causes us anxiety. So we think about other things in regard to living—how to act, what we can reasonably know, what justice is, how our minds relate to the world—rather than dying.

But what about the ancients, for whom death was a central issue? They died, too, and a number of them thought and wrote about it. There is something that distinguishes us from the ancients, something that encompasses all of us, not just philosophers. We live in a period where the denial of death, at least for those of us fortunate enough to live decently well in technologically advanced societies, is not merely a social temptation but instead a phenomenon approaching a collective illusion. We are no longer on intimate terms with death.

I am told that the average life span of Americans about a hundred years ago was not much more than forty. Now people regularly live into their eighties. And when we begin to decline, we do not so much think about death as about medicine. We look for ways to prolong our lives. This, in itself, is not a bad thing; all things equal, a longer life is better than a shorter one. However, in the same gesture that we prolong our lives, we also postpone thinking about death. It is as though death becomes a misfortune, a medical or personal failure, rather than an inevitability. We might even be forgiven for thinking that one of the reasons we prolong our lives is precisely so we don’t have to think about death.

If my seminar is any evidence, the thought of one’s death can be more than frightening. It can be overwhelming. The first day of class, I asked my twelve students to take out a piece of paper and write on it the four things most meaningful to them about their lives. I assured them no one else would see what they wrote. Then I asked them to fold the papers up and pass them to me, again saying that I would not see what they had written. I held the pieces of paper in my hand and told my students to keep in mind what they had written there. Then I tore the papers into shreds. I thought this might impress them a bit with the stakes involved in the course.

I was not ready for the collective gasp my students let out as I ripped up the papers. It was as though something foreign, and threatening, had just entered the room. And, for those of us in the contemporary world, that is probably exactly what happens when we are forced to confront our deaths.

Philosophers—like my students, like me, like the rest of us—don’t think about death because the tools of our society permit us to forgo thinking about it. And the medical and other health advances of the contemporary world—in contrast to so many other recent developments, such as advanced weaponry, environmental degradation, neoliberalism—are undoubtedly among the developments we could unreservedly call historical advances. We have extended our lifespans to lengths our recent ancestors couldn’t have imagined. The cost it seems to have exacted, however, is the loss of our intimacy with the most important fact about ourselves. We live as though we are immortal, and the more we train our eyes on the immortal, the more farsighted we become and the less clearly we can see that the horizon is not laid out endlessly before us. If, instead, we cast our vision upon ourselves, we would see that we are not, in fact, immortal. Death comes to each of us. Sooner or later, it is our lot.

And this, I want to argue, is necessary if our lives are to have the meaning they do.

There have been—in literature, of course—a number of reflections on immortality. The most famous among them is probably Jonathan Swift’s struldbrugs, who live forever but continue to age. They are a pathetic bunch, wizened and decrepit, shunned by their fellow creatures, who put them out to pasture with minimal provisions and support. And yet, since the promise of modern medicine is not just longevity but vitality, perhaps the struldbrugs lack relevance for contemporary audiences or immortality-seekers. Perhaps Jorge Luis Borges’ short story aptly named “The Immortal” provides a better comparison. Borges’ protagonist, Joseph Cartaphilus, finds himself among the immortals, whose landscape is dismal indeed. He learns that the immortals have stopped caring for themselves or others; life has lost all urgency for them since everything will happen of its own accord, sooner or later. Cartaphilus meets Homer in the City of Immortals and reflects that Homer having composed The Odyssey is not such a remarkable feat, for “if we postulate an infinite period of time, with infinite circumstances and changes, the impossible thing is not to compose The Odyssey, at least once.”

Our age—and again, I emphasize this applies only to the few of us fortunate enough to live in comfortable circumstances in developed nations—is one that denies death in favor of immortal strivings. But have we really thought about what immortality might mean? Imagine that you were to live forever. Imagine that your life were to go on without cease. And, to give it the best gloss, imagine that you were to do so as a healthy human being and that everyone you cared about could join you in this immortal condition. Would this be a future worth having? Would you want it?

In order to see what is at stake, let us give this imagining some flesh. What are your favorite activities? Sports, music, reading, watching television, talking with friends, eating at interesting restaurants? Take any or all of these, and then consider doing them for five thousand years. Or ten thousand. The first ten thousand years, of course, would be only a flicker in the span of immortality. One image that captures immortality for me, one which I believe comes from earlier sages, is that of a desert the size of the Sahara. To this desert flies a bird every thousand years. The bird collects a grain of sand from this desert and flies off, only to return a thousand years later to collect another grain. When the bird has cleared all the sand from the Sahara, not even an instant of eternity will have passed. Immortality lasts, I think we can agree, a long time.

Over such an immensity of time, what happens to our projects, our relationships, the meaning and character of our lives? They become shapeless. When there is time for everything, and perhaps everything will happen over the course of one’s time, then the urgency of living is sapped. The threads tying us to our lives go slack. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum explains this concept in her book on the Stoic philosophers, The Therapy of Desire: “[T]he intensity and dedication with which very many human activities are pursued cannot be explained without reference to the awareness that our opportunities are finite, that we cannot choose these activities indefinitely many times. In raising a child, in cherishing a lover, in performing a demanding task of work or thought or artistic creation, we are aware, at some level, of the thought that each of these efforts is structured and constrained by finite time.” It is not that structure and constraint alone give our lives meaning. But without the finiteness of time, it is unclear if they could sustain us in the meaningfulness they possess for us mortals. As Homer concludes in Borges’ “The Immortal,” “Everything among the mortals has the values of the irretrievable and the perilous.”

One might argue here that there is so much to do in life, so many activities to engage in, that it would be myopic to say immortality would leave our lives shapeless or bereft. After all, there are people being born every day. There are different activities and pursuits being created all the time. Think of the video games and novels being written as you read this, the basketball games yet to be played, even the slow changing of the earth’s surface.. There is always something new to do, some project to be pursued, someone else to meet. How could a person at all dedicated to life lose the intensity of living under these conditions?

This line of thought fails to appreciate the uniqueness of each of us. We cannot be just anybody. The trajectory of each life offers particular passions and interests and styles of relationships. There are certain people with whom we form deep relationships; others are just acquaintances. There are projects and engagements that stir us; others are just ways of passing time. There are places we want to see and immerse ourselves in because they resonate with something inside us, perhaps something inchoate even to us; other places are just amusing. The idea that novelty could continuously lend our lives shape misses this essential fact about us. For me, a life where what was left to do involved fishing, romance novels, racquetball, cocktail parties, and gardening would not be a life that compelled me. I would not be living; I would just be soldiering on.

In order for our lives to have a sense, we must die. We may try to avoid thinking about this, but it remains a cornerstone for our living.

And yet, we cannot conclude from the fact that immortality would be bad for us that we should embrace the fact of our dying. Death is not good for us, except perhaps for those among us in extreme pain or suffering.

This is the paradox of human mortality. We need death to give us meaning, and yet the meaningfulness of our lives is precisely what makes death so frightening. Without death, our lives would be shapeless. Since we do, in fact, die, our lives often take on a shape, but once they have a shape, a meaning, who wants to die?

As a philosopher, I am supposed to have a solution to this paradox. I am supposed to guide people on the narrow straits between death and immortality, to navigate us through this Scylla and Charybdis into the tranquil waters of a consistent and non-paradoxical relationship to mortality.

I cannot do so.

Death and its other, immortality, present us with the paradox our lives must grasp. We must simultaneously recognize the evil to each of us that death inescapably is and yet also not pine for a future that would bleed us of the reasons to fear death. We must embrace the fragility that lends our lives beauty and, at the same time, withdraws beauty from us. There is no straight path, nor a crooked one, that will lead us beyond all this. Our home lies here, we might say.

There are those in philosophical circles who seek a bid for immortality through the back door of this paradox. They argue that however many days I am granted, if I were asked at the end of that time whether I wanted another day, would I not say yes? And if, at the end of the next day, I were asked again, would I not continue to say yes? And in the end, would this not be the embrace of immortality that I have just denied?

This is clever, but ultimately it requires the mortality it seeks to overcome. If I am asked on a given day whether I would like another one, the background of the asking is the fact of my death. I live that day, in the hours before I am asked, as a mortal creature. I am not granted immortality; I am granted another day within mortality. And, then, another and, perhaps, another. The framework of my life remains a mortal one. I remain someone who faces death but with an indefinite reprieve. How long this cycle can go on without, one day, my saying I have had enough of these extra days is a question for which I have no answer. However, the frame of the question presupposes the extension of a mortal life, not the granting of an immortal one.

In any case, this offer is not a choice we are given. We are only given one choice, which is to die. And this, of course, is no choice at all.

Near the end of the fifteen-week seminar I taught a decade ago, during the discussion of Crace’s Being Dead, one of my students became noticeably silent. She wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone and just stared in front of her as each class unfolded. After a week of this, I asked her after class whether she was OK. Yes, she replied, she was OK. But, she added, she didn’t want to talk. She couldn’t talk. For the first time in her life, I realized, she was looking right at death. And, although she didn’t say this, it was looking right back at her. I knew what she meant and knew that there was nothing I could do to take away what she saw. After all, there were moments in class when I had to stop speaking because the hitch in my voice was beginning to overtake me. After all, I myself was waking up from nightmares, covered in sweat, knowing only that all of this would one day end. And after all, wasn’t all this why we had embarked upon this journey? She sat in class in those moments, staring straight ahead because she knew that when death appears before you, when it really appears, there is nowhere else to look.

In the end, then, the philosophers whose reflections on death I could not find because they were not there were half right in their avoidance, in their refusal to have death really appear. There is much to fear from death, just as there would be from immortality. In seeking to come to terms with death through the course I taught, I was treading on ground that rightfully stirs the deepest anxieties among all of us who consider our lives from outside the immediacy of what they ask of us. I was lucky to have had that particular group of people, young but game to confront the most intractable problem most humans ever face; several of them, long since graduated, still keep in touch and write to tell me about how the course affected them, how they think differently about their lives knowing that they will die.

I would like to say that since teaching the course, I have risen above the silence this fear of death often induces, in order to place it before myself and others. But this, too, would only be half right. I have written on death, and have been asked to speak on death. But I have not taught the seminar on death again and have no plans to do so in the future.

* Illustration by Anna Hall

About the Author

Todd May

Todd May is Class of 1941 Memorial Professor of the Humanities at Clemson University. He is the author of 10 books of philosophy, including “Death” (Acumen Press, 2009). He has also written extensively on recent French thought.

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