Reflections on Death in Philosophical/Existential Context

  • Symposium: Reflections Before, During, and Beyond COVID-19
  • Published: 27 July 2020
  • Volume 57 , pages 402–409, ( 2020 )

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death philosophy essay

  • Nikos Kokosalakis 1  

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Is death larger than life and does it annihilate life altogether? This is the basic question discussed in this essay, within a philosophical/existential context. The central argument is that the concept of death is problematic and, following Levinas, the author holds that death cannot lead to nothingness. This accords with the teaching of all religious traditions, which hold that there is life beyond death, and Plato’s and Aristotle’s theories about the immortality of the soul. In modernity, since the Enlightenment, God and religion have been placed in the margin or rejected in rational discourse. Consequently, the anthropocentric promethean view of man has been stressed and the reality of the limits placed on humans by death deemphasised or ignored. Yet, death remains at the centre of nature and human life, and its reality and threat become evident in the spread of a single virus. So, death always remains a mystery, relating to life and morality.

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What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! In form and moving, how express and admirable! In action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? William Shakespeare ( 1890 : 132), Hamlet, Act 2, scene 2, 303–312.

In mid-2019, the death of Sophia Kokosalakis, my niece and Goddaughter, at the age of 46, came like a thunderbolt to strike the whole family. She was a world-famous fashion designer who combined, in a unique way, the beauty and superb aesthetics of ancient and classical Greek sculptures and paintings with fashion production of clothes and jewellery. She took the aesthetics and values of ancient and classical Greek civilization out of the museums to the contemporary art of fashion design. A few months earlier she was full of life, beautiful, active, sociable and altruistic, and highly creative. All that was swept away quickly by an aggressive murderous cancer. The funeral ( κηδεία ) – a magnificent ritual event in the church of Panaghia Eleftherotria in Politeia Athens – accorded with the highly significant moving symbolism of the rite of the Orthodox Church. Her parents, her husband with their 7-year-old daughter, the wider family, relatives and friends, and hundreds of people were present, as well as eminent representatives of the arts. The Greek Prime Minister and other dignitaries sent wreaths and messages of condolences, and flowers were sent from around the world. After the burial in the family grave in the cemetery of Chalandri, some gathered for a memorial meal. This was a high profile, emotional final goodbye to a beloved famous person for her last irreversible Journey.

Sophia’s death was circumscribed by social and religious rituals that help to chart a path through the transition from life to death. Yet, the pain and sorrow for Sophia’s family has been very deep. For her parents, especially, it has been indescribable, indeed, unbearable. The existential reality of death is something different. It raises philosophical questions about what death really means in a human existential context. How do humans cope with it? What light do religious explanations of death shed on the existential experience of death and what do philosophical traditions have to say on this matter?

In broad terms religions see human life as larger than death, so that life’s substance meaning and values for each person are not exhausted with biological termination. Life goes on. For most religions and cultures there is some notion of immortality of the soul and there is highly significant ritual and symbolism for the dead, in all cultures, that relates to their memory and offers some notion of life beyond the grave. In Christianity, for example, life beyond death and the eternity and salvation of the soul constitutes the core of its teaching, immediately related to the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. Theologically, Christ’s death and resurrection, declare the defeat of death by the death and the resurrection of the son of God, who was, both, God and perfectly human (theanthropos). This teaching signifies the triumph of life over death, which also means, eschatologically, the salvation and liberation of humankind from evil and the injustice and imperfection of the world. It refers to another dimension beyond the human condition, a paradisiac state beyond the time/space configuration, a state of immortality, eternity and infinity; it points to the sublimation of nature itself. So, according to Christian faith, the death of a human being is a painful boundary of transition, and there is hope that human life is not perishable at death. There is a paradox here that through death one enters real life in union with God. But this is not knowledge. It is faith and must be understood theologically and eschatologically.

While the deeply faithful, may accept and understand death as passage to their union with God, Sophia’s death shows that, for ordinary people, the fear of death and the desperation caused by the permanent absence of a beloved person is hard to bear – even with the help of strong religious faith. For those with lukewarm religious faith or no faith at all, religious discourse and ritual seems irrelevant or even annoying and irrational. However, nobody escapes the reality of death. It is at the heart of nature and the human condition and it is deeply ingrained in the consciousness of adult human beings. Indeed, of all animals it is only humans who know that they will die and according to Heidegger ( 1967 :274) “death is something distinctively impending”. The fear of death, consciously or subconsciously, is instilled in humans early in life and, as the ancients said, when death is near no one wants to die. ( Ην εγγύς έλθει θάνατος ουδείς βούλεται θνήσκειν. [Aesopus Fables]). In Christianity even Christ, the son of God, prayed to his father to remove the bitter cup of death before his crucifixion (Math. 26, 38–39; Luke, 22, 41–42).

The natural sciences say nothing much about the existential content and conditions of human death beyond the biological laws of human existence and human evolution. According to these laws, all forms of life have a beginning a duration and an end. In any case, from a philosophical point of view, it is considered a category mistake, i.e. epistemologically and methodologically wrong, to apply purely naturalistic categories and quantitative experimental methods for the study, explanation and interpretation of human social phenomena, especially cultural phenomena such as the meaning of human death and religion at large. As no enlightenment on such issues emerges from the natural sciences, maybe insights can be teased out from philosophical anthropological thinking.

Philosophical anthropology is concerned with questions of human nature and life and death in deeper intellectual, philosophical, dramaturgical context. Religion and the sacred are inevitably involved in such discourse. For example, the verses from Shakespeare’s Hamlet about the nature of man, at the preamble of this essay, put the matter in a nutshell. What is this being who acts like an angel, apprehends and creates like a god, and yet, it is limited as the quintessence of dust? It is within this discourse that I seek to draw insights concerning human death. I will argue that, although in formal logical/scientific terms, we do not know and cannot know anything about life after/beyond death, there is, and always has been, a legitimate philosophical discourse about being and the dialectic of life/death. We cannot prove or disprove the existence and content of life beyond death in scientific or logical terms any more than we can prove or disprove the existence of God scientifically. Footnote 1

Such discourse inevitably takes place within the framework of transcendence, and transcendence is present within life and beyond death. Indeed, transcendence is at the core of human consciousness as humans are the only beings (species) who have culture that transcends their biological organism. Footnote 2 According to Martin ( 1980 :4) “the main issue is… man’s ability to transcend and transform his situation”. So human death can be described and understood as a cultural fact immediately related to transcendence, and as a limit to human transcendental ability and potential. But it is important, from an epistemological methodological point of view, not to preconceive this fact in reductionist positivistic or closed ideological terms. It is essential that the discourse about death takes place within an open dialectic, not excluding transcendence and God a priori, stressing the value of life, and understanding the limits of the human potential.

The Problem of Meaning in Human Death

Biologically and medically the meaning and reality of human death, as that of all animals, is clear: the cessation of all the functions and faculties of the organs of the body, especially the heart and the brain. This entails, of course, the cessation of consciousness. Yet, this definition tells us nothing about why only the human species, latecomers in the universe, have always worshiped their gods, buried their dead with elaborate ritual, and held various beliefs about immortality. Harari ( 2017 :428–439) claims that, in the not too distant future, sapiens could aim at, and is likely to achieve, immortality and the status of Homo Deus through biotechnology, information science, artificial intelligence and what he calls the data religion . I shall leave aside what I consider farfetched utopian fictional futurology and reflect a little on the problem of meaning of human death and immortality philosophically.

We are not dealing here with the complex question of biological life. This is the purview of the science of biology and biotechnology within the laws of nature. Rather, we are within the framework of human existence, consciousness and transcendence and the question of being and time in a philosophical sense. According to Heidegger ( 1967 :290) “Death, in the widest sense, is a phenomenon of life. Life must be understood as a kind of Being to which there belongs a Being-in-the-world”. He also argues (bid: 291) that: “The existential interpretation of death takes precedence over any biology and ontology of life. But it is also the foundation for any investigation of death which is biographical or historiological, ethnological or psychological”. So, the focus is sharply on the issue of life/death in the specifically human existential context of being/life/death . Human life is an (the) ultimate value, (people everywhere raise their glass to life and good health), and in the midst of it there is death as an ultimate threatening eliminating force. But is death larger than life, and can death eliminate life altogether? That’s the question. Whereas all beings from plants to animals, including man, are born live and die, in the case of human persons this cycle carries with it deep and wide meaning embodied within specific empirical, historical, cultural phenomena. In this context death, like birth and marriage, is a carrier of specific cultural significance and deeper meaning. It has always been accompanied by what anthropologists refer to as rites of passage, (Van Gennep, 1960 [1909]; Turner, 1967; Garces-Foley, 2006 ). These refer to transition events from one state of life to another. All such acts and rites, and religion generally, should be understood analysed and interpreted within the framework of symbolic language. (Kokosalakis, 2001 , 2020 ). In this sense the meaning of death is open and we get a glimpse of it through symbols.

Death, thus, is an existential tragic/dramatic phenomenon, which has preoccupied philosophy and the arts from the beginning and has been always treated as problematic. According to Heidegger ( 1967 : 295), the human being Dasein (being-there) has not explicit or even theoretical knowledge of death, hence the anxiety in the face of it. Also, Dasein has its death, “not in isolation, but as codetermined by its primordial kind of Being” (ibid: 291). He further argues that in the context of being/time/death, death is understood as being-towards-death ( Sein zum Tode ). Levinas Footnote 3 ( 2000 :8), although indebted to Heidegger, disagrees radically with him on this point because it posits being-towards death ( Sein zum Tode) “as equivalent to being in regard to nothingness”. Leaving aside that, phenomenologically the concept of nothingness itself is problematic (Sartre: 3–67), Levinas ( 2000 :8) asks: “is that which opens with death nothingness or the unknown? Can being at the point of death be reduced to the ontological dilemma of being or nothingness? That is the question that is posed here.” In other words, Levinas considers this issue problematic and wants to keep the question of being/life/death open. Logically and philosophically the concept of nothingness is absolute, definitive and closed whereas the concept of the unknown is open and problematic. In any case both concepts are ultimately based on belief, but nothingness implies knowledge which we cannot have in the context of death.

Levinas (ibid: 8–9) argues that any knowledge we have of death comes to us “second hand” and that “It is in relation with the other that we think of death in its negativity” (emphasis mine). Indeed, the ultimate objective of hate is the death of the other , the annihilation of the hated person. Also death “[is] a departure: it is a decease [deces]”. It is a permanent separation of them from us which is felt and experienced foremost and deeply for the departure of the beloved. This is because death is “A departure towards the unknown, a departure without return, a departure with no forward address”. Thus, the emotion and the sorrow associated with it and the pain and sadness caused to those remaining. Deep-down, existentially and philosophically, death is a mystery. It involves “an ambiguity that perhaps indicates another dimension of meaning than that in which death is thought within the alternative to be/not- to- be. The ambiguity: an enigma” (ibid: 14). Although, as Heidegger ( 1967 :298–311) argues, death is the only absolute certainty we have and it is the origin of certitude itself, I agree with Levinas (ibid: 10–27) that this certitude cannot be forthcoming from the experience of our own death alone, which is impossible anyway. Death entails the cessation of the consciousness of the subject and without consciousness there is no experience. We experience the process of our dying but not our own death itself. So, our experience of death is primarily that of the death of others. It is our observation of the cessation of the movement, of the life of the other .

Furthermore, Levinas (Ibid: 10–13) argues that “it is not certain that death has the meaning of annihilation” because if death is understood as annihilation in time, “Here, we are looking for other dimension of meaning, both for the meaning of time Footnote 4 and for the meaning of death”. Footnote 5 So death is a phenomenon with dimensions of meaning beyond the historical space/time configuration. Levinas dealt with such dimensions extensively not only in his God, Death and Time (2000) but also in his: Totality and Infinity (1969); Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence (1991); and, Of God Who comes to mind (1998). So, existentially/phenomenologically such dimensions inevitably involve the concept of transcendence, the divine, and some kind of faith. Indeed, the question of human death has always involved the question of the soul. Humans have been generally understood to be composite beings of body/soul or spirit and the latter has also been associated with transcendence and the divine. In general the body has been understood and experienced as perishable with death, whereas the soul/spirit has been understood (believed) to be indestructible. Thus beyond or surviving after/beyond death. Certainly this has been the assumption and general belief of major religions and cultures, Footnote 6 and philosophy itself, until modernity and up to the eighteenth century.

Ancient and classical Greek philosophy preoccupied itself with the question of the soul. Footnote 7 Homer, both in the Iliad and the Odyssey, has several reference on the soul in hades (the underworld) and Pythagoras of Samos (580–496 b.c.) dealt with immortality and metempsychosis (reincarnation). Footnote 8 In all the tragedies by Sophocles (496–406 b,c,), Aeschylus (523–456 b. c.), and Euripides (480–406 b.c.), death is a central theme but it was Plato Footnote 9 (428?-347 b.c.) and Aristotle Footnote 10 (384–322 b.c.) – widely acknowledged as the greatest philosophers of all times – who wrote specific treatises on the soul. Let us look at their positions very briefly.

Plato on the Soul

Plato was deeply concerned with the nature of the soul and the problem of immortality because such questions were foundational to his theory of the forms (ideas), his understanding of ethics, and his philosophy at large. So, apart from the dialogue Phaedo , in which the soul and its immortality is the central subject, he also referred to it extensively in the Republic , the Symposium and the Apology as well in the dialogues: Timaeus , Gorgias, Phaedrus, Crito, Euthyfron and Laches .

The dialogue Phaedo Footnote 11 is a discussion on the soul and immortality between Socrates (470–399 b.c.) and his interlocutors Cebes and Simias. They were Pythagorians from Thebes, who went to see Socrates in prison just before he was about to be given the hemlock (the liquid poison: means by which the death penalty was carried out at the time in Athens). Phaedo, his disciple, who was also present, is the narrator. The visitors found Socrates very serene and in pleasant mood and wondered how he did not seem to be afraid of death just before his execution. Upon this Socrates replies that it would be unreasonable to be afraid of death since he was about to join company with the Gods (of which he was certain) and, perhaps, with good and beloved departed persons. In any case, he argued, the true philosopher cannot be afraid of death as his whole life, indeed, is a practice and a preparation for it. So for this, and other philosophical reasons, death for Socrates is not to be feared. ( Phaedo; 64a–68b).

Socrates defines death as the separation of the soul from the body (64c), which he describes as prison of the former while joined in life. The body, which is material and prone to earthly materialistic pleasures, is an obstacle for the soul to pursue and acquire true knowledge, virtue, moderation and higher spiritual achievements generally (64d–66e). So, for the true philosopher, whose raison-d’être is to pursue knowledge truth and virtue, the liberation of the soul from bodily things, and death itself when it comes, is welcome because life, for him, was a training for death anyway. For these reasons, Socrates says is “glad to go to hades ” (the underworld) (68b).

Following various questions of Cebes and Simias about the soul, and its surviving death, Socrates proceeds to provide some logical philosophical arguments for its immortality. The main ones only can be mentioned here. In the so called cyclical argument, Socrates holds that the immortality of the soul follows logically from the relation of opposites (binaries) and comparatives: Big, small; good, bad; just, unjust; beautiful, ugly; good, better; bad; worse, etc. As these imply each other so life/death/life are mutually inter-connected, (70e–71d). The second main argument is that of recollection. Socrates holds that learning, in general, is recollection of things and ideas by the soul which always existed and the soul itself pre-existed before it took the human shape. (73a–77a). Socrates also advises Cebes and Simias to look into themselves, into their own psych e and their own consciousness in order to understand what makes them alive and makes them speak and move, and that is proof for the immortality of the soul (78ab). These arguments are disputed and are considered inadequate and anachronistic by many philosophers today (Steadman, 2015 ; Shagulta and Hammad, 2018 ; and others) but the importance of Phaedo lies in the theory of ideas and values and the concept of ethics imbedded in it.

Plato’s theory of forms (ideas) is the basis of philosophical idealism to the present day and also poses the question of the human autonomy and free will. Phaedo attracts the attention of modern and contemporary philosophers from Kant (1724–1804) and Hegel (1770–1831) onwards, because it poses the existential problems of life, death, the soul, consciousness, movement and causality as well as morality, which have preoccupied philosophy and the human sciences diachronically. In this dialogue a central issue is the philosophy of ethics and values at large as related to the problem of death. Aristotle, who was critical of Plato’s idealism, also uses the concept of forms and poses the question of the soul as a substantive first principle of life and movement although he does not deal with death and immortality as Plato does.

Aristotle on the Soul

Aristotle’s conception of the soul is close to contemporary biology and psychology because his whole philosophy is near to modern science. Unlike many scholars, however, who tend to be reductionist, limiting the soul to naturalistic/positivistic explanations, (as Isherwood, 2016 , for instance, does, unlike Charlier, 2018 , who finds relevance in religious and metaphysical connections), Aristotle’s treatment of it, as an essential irreducible principle of life, leaves room for its metaphysical substance and character. So his treatise on the soul , (known now to scholars as De Anima, Shields, 2016 ), is closely related to both his physics and his metaphysics.

Aristotle sees all living beings (plants, animals, humans) as composite and indivisible of body, soul or form (Charlton, 1980 ). The body is material and the soul is immaterial but none can be expressed, comprehended or perceived apart from matter ( ύλη ). Shields ( 2016 ) has described this understanding and use of the concepts of matter and form in Aristotle’s philosophy as hylomorphism [ hyle and morphe, (matter and form)]. The soul ( psyche ) is a principle, arche (αρχή) associated with cause (αιτία) and motion ( kinesis ) but it is inseparable from matter. In plants its basic function and characteristic is nutrition. In animals, in addition to nutrition it has the function and characteristic of sensing. In humans apart from nutrition and sensing, which they share with all animals, in addition it has the unique faculty of noesis and logos. ( De Anima ch. 2). Following this, Heidegger ( 1967 :47) sees humans as: “Dasein, man’s Being is ‘defined’ as the ζωον λόγον έχον – as that living thing whose Being is essentially determined by the potentiality for discourse”. (So, only human beings talk, other beings do not and cannot).

In Chapter Five, Aristotle concentrates on this unique property of the human soul, the logos or nous, known in English as mind . The nous (mind) is both: passive and active. The former, the passive mind, although necessary for noesis and knowledge, is perishable and mortal (φθαρτός). The latter, the poetic mind is higher, it is a principle of causality and creativity, it is energy, aitia . So this, the poetic the creative mind is higher. It is the most important property of the soul and it is immaterial, immortal and eternal. Here Aristotle considers the poetic mind as separate from organic life, as substance entering the human body from outside, as it were. Noetic mind is the divine property in humans and expresses itself in their pursuit to imitate the prime mover, God that is.

So, Aristotle arrives here at the problem of immortality of the soul by another root than Plato but, unlike him, he does not elaborate on the metaphysics of this question beyond the properties of the poetic mind and he focuses on life in the world. King ( 2001 :214) argues that Aristotle is not so much concerned to establish the immortality of the human individual as that of the human species as an eidos. Here, however, I would like to stress that we should not confuse Aristotle’s understanding with contemporary biological theories about the dominance and survival of the human species. But whatever the case may be, both Aristotle’s and Plato’s treatises on the soul continue to be inspiring sources of debate by philosophers and others on these issues to the present day.

Death in Modernity

By modernity here is meant the general changes which occurred in western society and culture with the growth of science and technology and the economy, especially after the Enlightenment, and the French and the Industrial Revolutions, which have their cultural roots in the Renaissance, the Reformation and Protestantism.

It is banal to say that life beyond death does not preoccupy people in modernity as it did before and that, perhaps, now most people do not believe in the immortality of the soul. In what Charles Taylor ( 2007 ) has extensively described as A SECULAR AGE he frames the question of change in religious beliefs in the west as follows: “why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?” (p. 25). The answer to this question is loaded with controversy and is given variously by different scholars. Footnote 13 Taylor (ibid: 65–75, 720–726) shows how and why beliefs have changed radically in modernity. Metaphysical transcendent beliefs on life and death have shrunk into this-worldly secular conceptions in what he calls, “the immanent frame”. As a consequence, transcendence and the sacred were exiled from the world or reduced to “closed world structures”. Footnote 14 In this context many scholars spoke of “the death of God” (ibid: 564–575).

In criticizing postmodern relativism, which brings various vague conceptions of God and transcendence back in play, Gellner ( 1992 :80–83) praises what he calls Enlightenment Rationalist fundamentalism, which “at one fell swoop eliminates the sacred from the world”. Although he acknowledges that Kant, the deepest thinker of the Enlightenment, left morality reason and knowledge outside the purview of the laws of nature, thus leaving the question of transcendence open, he still claims that Enlightenment rationalism is the only positive scientific way to study religious phenomena and death rituals. This position seems to be epistemologically flawed, because it pre-empts what concerns us here, namely, the assumptions of modernity for the nature of man and its implications for the meaning and reality of death.

In rejecting religion and traditional conceptions of death, Enlightenment rationalism put forward an overoptimistic, promethean view of man. What Vereker ( 1967 ) described as the “God of Reason” was the foundation of eighteenth century optimism. The idea was that enlightened rationalism, based on the benevolent orderly laws of nature, would bring about the redeemed society. Enlightened, rational leaders and the gradual disappearance of traditional religious beliefs, obscurantism and superstitions, which were sustained by the ancient regime, would eventually transform society and would abolish all human evil and social and political injustice. Science was supportive of this view because it showed that natural and social phenomena, traditionally attributed to divine agencies and metaphysical forces, have a clear natural causation. These ideas, developed by European philosophers (Voltaire 1694–1778; Rousseau, 1712–1778; Kant, 1724–1804; Hume, 1711–1776; and many others), were foundational to social and political reform, and the basis of the French Revolution (1789–1799). However, the underlying optimism of such philosophical ideas about the benevolence of nature appeared incompatible with natural phenomena such as the great earthquake in Lisbon in 1755, which flattened the city and killed over 100,000 people. Enlightenment rationalism overemphasised a promethean, anthropocentric view of man without God, and ignored the limits of man and the moral and existential significance of death.

In his critique of capitalism, in the nineteenth century, Marx (1818–1883), promoted further the promethean view of man by elevating him as the author of his destiny and banishing God and religion as “the opium of the people”. In his O rigin of the Species (1859), Charles Darwin also showed man’s biological connections with primates, thereby challenging biblical texts about the specific divine origin of the human species. He confirmed human dominance in nature. Important figures in literature, however, such as Dostoevsky (1821–1881) and Tolstoy (1828–1910), pointed out and criticised the conceit and arrogance of an inflated humanism without God, promoted by the promethean man of modernity.

By the end of the twentieth century the triumph of science, biotechnology, information technology, and international capitalist monetary economics, all of them consequences of modernity, had turned the planet into a global village with improved living standards for the majority. Medical science also has doubled average life expectancy from what it was in nineteenth century and information technology has made, almost every adult, owner of a mobile smart phone. Moreover, visiting the moon has inflated man’s sense of mastery over nature, and all these achievements, although embodying Taylor’s ( 1992 ) malaise of modernity at the expense of the environment, have strengthen the promethean view and, somehow, ignored human limits. As a consequence, the reality of death was treated as a kind of taboo, tucked under the carpet.

This seems a paradox because, apart from the normal death of individuals, massive collective deaths, caused by nature and by hate and barbarity from man to man, were present in the twentieth century more than any other in history. The pandemic of Spanish flue 1917–1919 killed 39 million of the world’s population according to estimates by Baro et al. (2020). In the First World War deaths, military and civilians combined, were estimated at 20.5 million (Wikipedia). In the Second World War an estimated total of 70–85 million people perished, (Wikipedia). This did not include estimates of more than seven million people who died in the gulags of Siberia and elsewhere under Stalin. But Auschwitz is indicative of the unlimited limits, which human barbarity and cruelty of man to man, can reach. Bauman ( 1989 :x), an eminent sociologist, saw the Holocaust as a moral horror related to modernity and wrote: “ The Holocaust was born and executed in modern rational society, at the high stage of our civilization and at the peak of human cultural achievement, and for this reason it is a problem of that society, civilization and culture. ”

Questions associated with the mass death are now magnified by the spread of the coronavirus (Covid-19). This has caused global panic and created unpredictability at all levels of society and culture. This sudden global threat of death makes it timely to re-examine our values, our beliefs (secular or religious), and the meaning of life. Max Weber (1948: 182), who died a hundred years ago in the pandemic of great influenza, was sceptical and pessimistic about modernity, and argued that it was leading to a cage with “ specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it had attained a level of civilization never before achieved. ”

So, what does this examination of philosophical anthropology illuminate in terms of questions of human nature and life and death in deeper intellectual, philosophical, dramaturgical context? Now, we are well into the twenty-first century, and with the revolution in information science, the internet, biotechnology and data religion , the promethean view of man seems to have reached new heights. Yet, massive death, by a single virus this time, threatens again humanity; are there any lessons to be learned? Will this threat, apart from the negativity of death, bring back the wisdom, which T. S. Elliot said we have lost in modern times? Will it show us our limits? Will it reduce our conceit and arrogance? Will it make us more humble, moderate, prudent, and more humane for this and future generations, and for the sake of life in this planet at large? These are the questions arising now amongst many circles, and it is likely that old religious and philosophical ideas about virtuous life and the hope of immortality (eschatologically) may revive again as we are well within late modernity (I do not like the term postmodernity, which has been widely used in sociology since the 1980s).

The central argument of this essay has been that death has always been and remains at the centre of life. Philosophically and existentially the meaning of death is problematic, and the natural sciences cannot produce knowledge on this problem. Religious traditions always beheld the immortality of the soul and so argued great philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. Modernity, since the Enlightenment, rejected such views as anachronistic and advanced an anthropocentric promethean, view of man, at the expense of the sacred and transcendence at large. Instead, within what Taylor (1967: 537–193) has described as the immanent frame, it developed “closed world structures,” which are at the expense of human nature and human freedom. One consequence of this has been massive death during the twentieth century.

Following Levinas ( 2000 ), I argued that death should not be understood to lead to nothingness because nothingness means certitude and positive knowledge, which we cannot have existentially in the case of death. In this sense the reality of death should not be understood to lead to annihilation of life and remains a mystery. Moreover, the presence and the reality of death as a limit and a boundary should serve as educative lesson for both the autonomy and creativity of man and against an overinflated promethean view of her/his nature.

David Martin ( 1980 :16) puts the matter about human and divine autonomy as follows: “Indeed, it is all too easy to phrase the problem so that the autonomy of God and the autonomy of man are rival claimants for what science leaves over”. This concurs with his, ( 1978 :12), understanding of religion, (which I share), as “acceptance of a level of reality beyond the observable world known to science, to which we ascribe meanings and purposes completing and transcending those of the purely human realm”.

We do not know how and when human beings acquired this capacity during the evolutionary process of the species. It characterises however a radical shift from nature to culture as the latter is defined by Clifford Geertz (1973:68): “an ordered system of meanings and symbols …in terms of which individuals define their world, express their feelings and make their judgements”.

For a comprehensive extensive and impressive account and discussion of Levinas’ philosophy and work, and relevant bibliography, see Bergo ( 2019 ).

Perhaps it is worth mentioning here that the meaning of the concept of time, as it was in Cartesian Philosophy and Newtonian physics, has changed radically with Einstein’s theories of relativity and contemporary quantum physics (Heisenberg 1959 ). Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (Hilgervood and Uffink, 2016 ) is very relevant to non- deterministic conceptions of time/space and scientific and philosophical discourse generally.

Various religions articulate the structure of these meanings in different cultural contexts symbolically and all of them involve the divine and an eschatological metaphysical dimension beyond history, beyond our experience of time and space.

Ancient Egyptian culture is well known for its preoccupation with life after death, the immortality of the soul and the elaborate ritual involved in the mummification of the Pharaohs. See: Egyptian_ funerary_ practices). Also the findings of archaeological excavations of tombs of kings in all ancient cultures constitute invaluable sources of knowledge not only about the meaning of death and the beliefs and rituals associated with it in these cultures but also of life and religion and politics and society at large.

For an extensive account of general theories of the soul in Greek antiquity see: Lorenz ( 2009 ).

For a good account on Pythagoras’ views on the transmigration of the souls see: Huffman ( 2018 ).

For a recent good account on the diachronic importance of Plato’s philosophy see: Kraut ( 2017 ).

For a very extensive analytical account and discussion of Aristotle’s philosophy and work with recent bibliography see: Shields ( 2016 ).

For an overview of Phaedo in English with commentary and the original Greek text see: Steadman ( 2015 ).

See, for instance, Wilson ( 1969 ) and Martin ( 1978 ) for radically different analyses and interpretations of secularization.

Marxism is a good example. God, the sacred and tradition generally are rejected but the proletariat and the Party acquire a sacred significance. The notion of salvation is enclosed as potentiality within history in a closed system of the class struggle. This, however, has direct political consequences because, along with the sacred, democracy is exiled and turned into a totalitarian system. The same is true, of course, at the other end of the spectrum with fascism.

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Kokosalakis, N. 2001. Symbolism (religious)) and Icon. International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioural Science . Amsterdam: Elsevier.

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Levinas, E. 1969. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority . (Trans. A. Lingis). Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

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Levinas, E. 2000. God, Death and Time . (tr. Betina Bergo) Stanford Calif: Stanford University Press.

Lorenz, H. 2009. Ancient Theories of the Soul. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy . (Summer 2009 edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) . Accessed 22 Apr 2009.

Martin, D. 1978. A General Theory of Secularization . Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Martin, D. 1980. The Breaking of the Image. Oxford: Basil Blackwell

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1969. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. London: Methuen.

Shagufta, B. and M. Hamad. 2018. Concept of immortality in Platos’s Phaedo. Al-Hikmat , Vol. 36, pp. 1–12.

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Shields, C. 2016. Aristotle. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (winter 2016 edition) Edward N. Zalta (ed.). . Accessed 29 Jul 2015.

Steadman, G. 2015. Plato’s Phaedo , 1 edition. Accessed 15 Jun 2015.

Taylor, C. 1992. The Malaise of Modernity . Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, C. 2007. A Secular Age . Cambridge MA Harvard University Press.

Turner, V. 1969. The Ritual Process. London; Penguin.

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Kokosalakis, N. Reflections on Death in Philosophical/Existential Context. Soc 57 , 402–409 (2020).

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How death shapes life

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Colleen Walsh

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Does the understanding that our final breath could come tomorrow affect the way we choose to live? And how do we make sense of a life cut short by a random accident, or a collective existence in which the loss of 5 million lives to a pandemic often seems eclipsed by other headlines? For answers, the Gazette turned to Susanna Siegel, Harvard’s Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy. Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Susanna Siegel

GAZETTE: How do we get through the day with death all around us?

SIEGEL: This question arises because we can be made to feel uneasy, distracted, or derailed by death in any form: mass death, or the prospect of our own; deaths of people unknown to us that we only hear or read about; or deaths of people who tear the fabric of our lives when they go. Both in politics and in everyday life, one of the worst things we could do is get used to death, treat it as unremarkable or as anything other than a loss. This fact has profound consequences for every facet of life: politics and governance, interpersonal relationships, and all forms of human consciousness.

When things go well, death stays in the background, and from there, covertly, it shapes our awareness of everything else. Even when we get through the day with ease, the prospect of death is still in some way all around us.

GAZETTE:   Can philosophy help illuminate how death impacts consciousness?

SIEGEL: The philosophers Soren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger each discuss death, in their own ways, as a horizon that implicitly shapes our consciousness. It’s what gives future times the pressure they exert on us. A horizon is the kind of thing that is normally in the background — something that limits, partly defines, and sets the stage for what you focus on. These two philosophers help us see the ways that death occupies the background of consciousness — and that the background is where it belongs.

Susanna Siegel.

“Both in politics and in everyday life, one of the worst things we could do is get used to death, treat it as unremarkable or as anything other than a loss,” says Susanna Siegel, Harvard’s Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

These philosophical insights are vivid in Rainer Marie Rilke’s short and stunning poem “Der Tod” (“Death”). As Burton Pike translates it from German, the poem begins: “There stands death, a bluish concoction/in a cup without a saucer.” This opening gets me every time. Death is standing. It’s standing in the way liquid stands still in a container. Sometimes cooking instructions tell you to boil a mixture and then let it stand, while you complete another part of the recipe. That’s the way death is in the poem: standing, waiting for you to get farther along with whatever you are doing. It will be there while you’re working, it will be there when you’re done, and in some way, it is a background part of those other tasks.

A few lines later, it’s suggested in the poem that someone long ago, “at a distant breakfast,” saw a dusty, cracked cup — that cup with the bluish concoction standing in it — and this person read the word “hope” written in faded letters on the side of mug. Hope is a future-directed feeling, and in the poem, the word is written on a surface that contains death underneath. As it stands, death shapes the horizon of life.

GAZETTE: What are the ethical consequences of these philosophical views?

SIEGEL: We’re familiar with the ways that making the prospect of death salient can unnerve, paralyze, or derail a person. An extreme example is shown by people with Cotard syndrome , who report feeling that they have already died. It is considered a “monothematic” delusion, because this odd reaction is circumscribed by the sufferers’ other beliefs. They freely acknowledge how strange it is to be both dead and yet still there to report on it. They are typically deeply depressed, burdened with a feeling that all possibilities of action have simply been shut down, closed off, made unavailable. Robbed of a feeling of futurity, seemingly without affordances for action, it feels natural to people in this state to describe it as the state of being already dead.

Cotard syndrome is an extreme case that illustrates how bringing death into the foreground of consciousness can feel utterly disempowering. This observation has political consequences, which are evident in a culture that treats any kind of lethal violence as something we have to expect and plan for. A glaring example would be gun violence, with its lockdown drills for children, its steady stream of the same types of events, over and over — as if these deaths could only be met with a shrug and a sigh, because they are simply part of the cost of other people exercising their freedom.

It isn’t just depressing to bring death into the foreground of consciousness by creating an atmosphere of violence — it’s also dangerous. Any political arrangement that lets masses of people die thematizes death, by making lethal violence perceptible, frequent, salient, talked-about, and tolerated. Raising death to salience in this way can create and then leverage feelings of existential precarity, which in turn emotionally equip people on a mass, nationwide scale to tolerate violence as a tool to gain political power. It’s now a regular occurrence to ram into protestors with vehicles, intimidate voters and poll workers, and prepare to attack government buildings and the people inside. This atmosphere disparages life, and then promises violence as defense against such cheapening, and a means of control.

GAZETTE: When we read about an accidental death in the newspaper, it can be truly unnerving, even though the victim is a stranger. And we’ve been hearing about a steady stream of deaths from COVID-19 for almost two years, to the point where the death count is just part of the daily news. Why is the process of thinking about these losses important?

SIEGEL: It might not seem directly related to politics, but when you react to a life cut short by thinking, “If this terrible thing could happen to them, then it could happen to me,” that reaction is a basic form of civic regard. It’s fragile, and highly sensitive to how deaths are reported and rendered in public. The passing moment of concern may seem insignificant, but it gets supplanted by something much worse when deaths are rendered in ways likely to prompt such questions as “What did they do to get in trouble?” or such suspicions as “They probably had it coming,” or such callous resignations as “They were going to die anyway.” We have seen some of those reactions during the pandemic. They are refusals to recognize the terribleness of death.

Deaths can seem even more haunting when they’re not recognized as a real loss, which is why it’s so important how deaths are depicted by governments and in mass communication. The genre of the obituary is there to present deaths as a loss to the public. The movement for Black lives brought into focus for everyone what many people knew and felt all along, which was that when deaths are not rendered as losses to the public, then they are depicted in a way that erodes civic regard.

When anyone dies from COVID, our political representatives should acknowledge it in a way that does justice to the gravity of that death. Recognizing COVID deaths as a public emergency belongs to the kind of governance that aims to keep the blue concoction where it belongs.

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Philosophy: “Death” Essay by Thomas Nagel Essay

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Death is an integral part of a person’s life, although some people choose to think of it as dreadfull, while others consider it natural. While from a biological or medical perspective defining death, and thus one’s attitude is easy because it is the termination of vital activities, the philosophical view of it is more complicated. Therefore, the attitudes towards death and its inevitability and permanence may differ, leading to some people believing that death is evil. This paper aims to evaluate the arguments about death and the perception of this phenomenon presented by Thomas Nagel in his essay “Death” as well as examine the most severe difficulty with viewing death as an evil.

Firstly, the author defines death as a permanent state, leaving aside discussions regarding the possible survival of consciousness. As such, death can be viewed as something that deprives a person of all good things that exist in life. This approach can include wishes and desires, as well as happiness itself. Nagel (1970) argues that in this regard, the valuable attributes of one’s life are not connected to the mere organic survival of the body. Therefore, the first element of viewing death is evil that the author examines is the contrast of this occurrence to life, which is perceived as good.

Hence, when comparing those who lived long lives with those who lived less, one can argue that the former experienced more of this good, which would suggest that death is evil. However, Nagel (1970) cites an example of temporary freezing and renewal as a case that illustrates the view of existing or not existing at a certain period of time as a misfortune. If one were to be frozen and then revived, lack of his presence at a given point would not be perceived as bad, as Nagel (1970) suggests. Besides, none of the individuals perceive the fact that they did not exist before they were born as evil.

Secondly, it is essential to establish what is the most severe difficulty associated with viewing death as evil. Nagel (1970) argues that following the common belief that death is the inevitable and final element of a human’s life, it is necessary to determine if dying is a bad thing since it is usually perceived as such. The most serious difficulty, which arises as a result of viewing death as evil, is the direction of time and the associated opportunities and possibilities that people can have.

The examination of the concepts of life and evil, assigning the two phenomena with characteristics of good or bad, suggests that the fact that after dying a person can more extensive experience is the main attribute of death. According to Nagel (1970), evil is a lack or a deprivation of a certain quality. Also, it can be argued that death deprives a person of conscious life. As a result, an individual cannot experience the positive aspects of his or her life. This is because the activity of experiencing something is future-oriented and thus cannot be achieved after dying.

The counterargument to this claim is the idea that such deprivation does not harm the deceased as they cannot experience this difficulty. From this perspective, death is the ultimate end, and it is nor good nor bad, meaning that no dilemma with determining it as evil exists. However, Nagel (1970) states that “even if we can dispose of the objections against admitting misfortune that is not experienced, … we still have to set some limits on how possible a possibility must be for its nonrealization to be a misfortune ” (p. 80). The author considered this issue as the most severe difficulty when reviewing death as evil. In general, the death of a young individual is considered a tragedy as opposed to the death of an old individual. The latter is natural and implies that he or she had lived and experienced all the good elemnts of life. The former, however, was deprived of this opportunity and did not have as many good and positive experiences.

When comparing the deaths of Tolstoy and Keats, the author argues that the latter, who died at twenty-four, lost a lot more than the former. This approach is based on the mathematical calculations of the years of life and assumptions that Tolstoy experienced a lot more of the good aspects of life. Therefore, as Nagel (1970) argues, “in a clear sense, Keats’ loss was greater” (p. 80). Then, a controversy arises as one can argue that this approach results in the conclusion that losing Tolstoy was insignificant. From this perspective, determining whether death is evil in one case and not as evil in the other is the main issue. Arguably, in most cases, both Tolstoy and Keats died, which was an evil, as regardless of when and what age a person dies, it is a deprivation.

In essence, if people were to live only twenty or thirty years, the described difficulty would not arise. However, Nagel (1970) states that “the trouble is that life familiarizes us with the goods of which death deprives us” (p. 80). This means that humans can make a distinction between dying at a young age and dying at an old age. Hence, we appreciate the years of life and the good it brings. As a result of this, the distinction between the deprivation as a result of dying at twenty-four and eighty is a significant philosophical problem.

The author concludes his essay by arguing that the main issue of death is, in fact, the deprivation of life’s continuation. The mix of the good and bad experiences that a person has throughout life should also be considered. According to Nagel’s (1970) view, life is the biggest treasure that a person has, and thus losing it is a tragedy. In essence, this future-oriented view and the need to account for the continuation of life when determining if death is always evil are the main difficulties that the author cites.

Overall, this paper examined an essay by Thomas Nagel titled “Death.” In this work, the author evaluates the issue of dying and the perception that society has of this concept, which is usually negative. Death is a permanent state and a termination of a person’s existence. From the author’s perspective, the main difficulty with reviewing death as evil is the need to consider continuity of time when regarding the unused opportunities and possibilities. In most cases, the death of a young individual is perceived as tragic becuase of the many experiences that this person could have. In contrast to these, the death of an older adult is not viewed as such. Hence, difficulty in establishing clear criteria of when death is perceived as evil exists.

Nagel, T. (1970). Death. Noûs, 4 (1), 73-80.

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Brandt, Richard. “The Morality and Rationality of Suicide.” In Moral Problems . Edited by James Rachels. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.

Edwards, Paul. “Existentialism and Death: A Survey of Some Confusions and Absurdities.” In Philosophy, Science and Method: Essays in Honor of Ernest Nagel . Edited by Sidney Morgenbesser, Patrick Suppes and Morton White. New York: St. Matrin’s Press, 1969. pp. 473-505

Feldman, Fred. “The Enigma of Death.” In Confrontations with the Reaper: A Philosophical Study of Nature and Value of Death . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. pp. 56-71

Hume, David. “On Suicide.” In Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary .

Kaufmann, Walter. “Death.” In The Faith of a Heretic . New York: New American Library, 1959. pp. 353-376

Kaufmann, Walter. “Death Without Dread.” In Existentialism, Religion, and Death: Thirteen Essays . New York: New American Library, 1976. pp. 224-248

Martin, Robert. “The Identity of Animal and People.” In There are Two Errors in the the Title of This Book: A Sourcebook of Philosophical Puzzles, Problems, and Paradoxes . Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2002. pp. 223-226

Montaigne, Michel de. “That to Philosophize is to Learn to Die.” In The Complete Essays .

Nagel, Thomas. “Death.” In Mortal Questions . New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979. pp. 1-10

Rosenberg, Jay. “Life After Death: In Search of the Question.” In Thinking Clearly About Death . Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1983. pp. 18-22

Schick, Theodore and Lewis Vaughn. “Near-Death Experiences.” In How to Think About Weird Things . New York: McGraw Hill, 2005. pp 307-323

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels , Part III, chapter 10.

Williams, Bernard. “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality.” In Language, Metaphysics, and Death . Edited by John Donnelly. New York: Fordham University Press, 1978. pp. 229-242

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The Metaphysics and Ethics of Death: New Essays

The Metaphysics and Ethics of Death: New Essays

Associate Professor of Philosophy

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The questions that surround death – Is death a harm to the person who dies? Should we be afraid of death? Can the dead be harmed? Can they be wronged? – have been of widespread interest since classical times. This volume is the first to bring together both original essays that address the fundamental questions of the metaphysics of death, as well as original essays that explore the relationship between those questions and some of the issues in bioethics in which they play a central role. The chapters in section I examine some of the classical approaches to some of the fundamental metaphysical questions surrounding death, addressing in particular the question of whether a person’s death can be a harm to her. The theme of the value of death is continued in section II, with chapters addressing this issue through a more contemporary lens. The chapters in section III address the related but separate issue of whether persons can be harmed by events that occur after they die. Finally, the chapters in section IV apply the metaphysical issues addressed in sections I through III (especially the issues of the evil of death and the possibility of posthumous harm) to various issues in bioethics to which their answers are directly relevant, including the question of posthumous organ procurement, suicide, and survival after brain injury.

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Microscopic view of various microorganisms and particles in a blue liquid, showing a large oval-shaped microorganism amidst smaller particles.

An elegy for a dying microbe explores what we really mean by ‘death’

A colourful, abstract image featuring a large, black and white bird in flight. The background is a swirling mix of purple, orange, and yellow hues. A small figure of a child walks in the distance, casting a long shadow.

Ageing and death

Peregrinations of grief

A friend and a falcon went missing. In pain, I turned to ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ – and found a new vision of sorrow and time

A person stands in a sunlit forest, holding a compound bow, and wearing outdoor gear with a backpack.

A hunter’s lyrical reflection on the humbling business of being mortal

Black-and white photo of a man wearing glasses and a suit sitting in a chair in front of a blackboard in a classroom.

Thinkers and theories

We’ll meet again

The intrepid logician Kurt Gödel believed in the afterlife. In four heartfelt letters to his mother he explained why

Alexander T Englert

A figure is silhouetted in an older style apartment block window at night. In the distance are taller modern tower block apartments

The haunting of modern China

In Nanjing, Hong Kong and other Chinese cities, rapid urbanisation is multiplying a fear of death and belief in ghosts

Andrew Kipnis

A person in a lab coat holds an alligator hand puppet and a mouse hand puppet, mimicking an interaction between them.

Even in modern secular societies, belief in an afterlife persists. Why?

People walking towards a crashed aeroplane in a snowy field with trees in the background.

Meaning and the good life

The world turns vivid, strange and philosophical for one plane crash survivor

Three rams with large curved horns standing on grass near a wooden fence and a small tree in the background.

Toby ponders the inner lives of the sheep that roam atop his parents’ graves

Close-up of a tabby cat sleeping with its paws tucked in, showing a peaceful expression with closed eyes and striped fur.

Animals and humans

Goodbye Pixel

Although it felt more like bereavement for a person than the loss of a thing, the death of a pet isn’t exactly like either

Julian Baggini

Elderly couple sitting outdoors, both wearing glasses and light-coloured shirts, with greenery in the background.

When his elderly parents make a suicide pact, Doron struggles to accept their choice

death philosophy essay

Rituals and celebrations

In a Mongolian wind burial, a body falls on land before getting swept up to the heavens

death philosophy essay

Values and beliefs

A funeral director takes in bodies that social stigma leaves unclaimed

death philosophy essay

How an end-of-life doula found her vocation as a companion for the dying

death philosophy essay

Is grandad on the moon?

We no longer have a clear sense of how to introduce our children to death. But their questions can help us face up to it

Pragya Agarwal

death philosophy essay

Final thoughts

Do deathbed regrets give us a special insight into what really matters in life? There are good reasons to be sceptical

death philosophy essay

Mood and emotion

Grieving Kobe Bryant, Conor wonders: why do untimely celebrity deaths hit so hard?

death philosophy essay

Sooner or later we all face death. Will a sense of meaning help us?

Warren Ward

death philosophy essay

Marcus Aurelius helped me survive grief and rebuild my life

Jamie Lombardi

death philosophy essay

This mortal coil

The fear of death drives many evils, from addiction to prejudice and war. Can it also be harnessed as a force for good?

Jeff Greenberg

death philosophy essay

Psychiatry and psychotherapy

It’s complicated – why some grief takes much longer to heal

Marie Lundorff

death philosophy essay

Death by design

We can choose how we live – why not how we leave? A free society should allow dying to be more deliberate and imaginative

Daniel Callcut

death philosophy essay

Thinking about one’s birth is as uncanny as thinking of death

Alison Stone

death philosophy essay

‘When it comes to the end, we all want the same things.’ Why animals need a good death

death philosophy essay

‘Where is it that we are?’ A poet conjures a journey along the waters of the afterlife

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death philosophy essay

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death philosophy essay

What the Stoics Understood About Death (And Can Teach Us)

David fideler on what awareness of mortality does to a life.

“Wherever I turn, I see signs of my old age,” Seneca wrote to Lucilius. Seneca had just arrived at his villa outside of Rome, where he was having a conversation with his property manager about the high cost of maintaining the disintegrating old building. But Seneca then explained, “My estate manager told me it was not his fault: he was doing everything possible, but the country home was old. And this villa was built under my supervision! What will my future look like if stonework of my own age is already crumbling?”

At that time, Seneca was in his late sixties, and he was starting to feel the aches and pains of old age. But he also found old age to be pleasurable. However, the older you get, the more challenging things become. Extreme old age, he said, is like a lasting illness you never recover from; and when the body really declines, it’s like a ship that starts springing leaks, one after another.

Where I currently live, in Sarajevo, I see extremely old people, who are quite close to death, on an almost daily basis. It seems that some of my neighbors—​thin, frail, and bent over, often walking with a cane at a snail’s pace over the old stone streets—​could drop over and expire at any moment. That said, seeing extremely elderly people out and about is an inspiring and heartfelt experience for me. First of all, it’s lovely to see people who have lived for so long, often against challenging odds, and it’s impossible to see them without feeling a great sense of tenderness for them. Second, they are a timely reminder of my own mortality. It’s also very different from what I remember seeing in the United States.

Unlike many other countries, the United States has accomplished a world-​class disappearing act when it comes to keeping older adults (and any other reminders of death) out of sight and out of mind. With its shiny glass and steel buildings, shopping malls, and spread-​out suburbs, the American landscape has been sterilized and artificially “cleaned up” in such a way that extremely old people are rarely seen on public display. But here in a historic European city with ancient stone buildings that go back centuries, and well-​established neighborhoods with cobblestone streets, extremely old people, hobbling along, are a happy part of daily life. They remind me that life is not without extreme struggle. And when people die, which can happen at any age, the local religious communities post death notices, with photos of the deceased, in local neighborhoods all over town. It’s another nice custom that reminds us of being mortal.

A Stoic wants to live well—​and living well means dying well, too. A Stoic lives well through having a good character, and death is the final test of it. While every death will be a bit different, the Roman Stoics believed that a good death would be characterized by mental tranquility, a lack of complaining, and gratitude for the life we’ve been given. In other words, as the final act of living, a good death is characterized by acceptance and gratitude. Also, having a real philosophy of life, and having worked on developing a sound character, allows a person to die without any feelings of regret.

Seneca frequently thought and wrote about death. Some of this must have been due to his poor health. Because he suffered from tuberculosis and asthma from a young age, he must have sensed the certainty and nearness of his own death throughout his entire life. In Letter 54 he describes, in graphic detail, a recent asthma attack that nearly killed him. But much earlier, probably in his twenties, he was so sick, and so near death, that he thought about ending his own life, to finally stop the suffering. He didn’t follow through on that, fortunately, out of love for his father. As he writes,

I often felt the urge to end my life, but the old age of my dear father held me back. For while I thought that I could die bravely, I knew he could not bear the loss bravely. And so I commanded myself to live. Sometimes it’s an act of courage just to keep living.

For a Stoic (and for other ancient philosophers, too), memento mori —​contemplating our inevitable death—​was an essential philosophical exercise, and one that comes with unexpected benefits. As an anticipation of future adversity, memento mori allows us to prepare for death, and helps remove our fears of death. It also encourages us to take our current lives more seriously, because we realize they’re limited. As I’ve discovered in a practical sense, reflecting on my own death—​and the inevitable death of those dear to me—​has had a totally unexpected and powerful benefit: feeling a more profound sense of gratitude for the time we still have together.

The Latin phrase memento mori literally means “remember that you have to die.” Over the centuries, scholars often would keep a symbolic memento mori image in their study, like a skull, as a reminder of their own mortality.

In the world of philosophy, the model of someone dying well, without an ounce of fear, was Socrates. Imprisoned on trumped-​up charges for corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates was detained for thirty days before facing his death sentence of drinking hemlock poison. At the time of his death in 399 BC, Socrates was around seventy years old. If he had wished, he could have very easily escaped prison, with his friends’ help, and then set up life elsewhere in Greece. But it would have gone against everything he believed in. Also, escaping would have permanently damaged his reputation. Since one of Socrates’s main goals was to improve society, that implied he should follow society’s laws, even if he had been treated unjustly.

This allowed Socrates thirty final days to meet with his friends and his students to continue their philosophical discussions. He had challenged the morality of those who called for his death with a very memorable line: “If you kill me,” he said, “you will not harm me so much as yourselves.”  This thought was much appreciated by the later Stoics, since, in their view, nothing can harm the character of a wise person. During his last meeting with his students, right before his death, Socrates discussed and questioned the possibility of an afterlife. He also said, memorably, that “philosophy is a preparation for death,” which was probably the real beginning of the memento mori tradition (at least for philosophers). When his final conversation was complete, Socrates drank the hemlock, and he peacefully passed away, surrounded by his students.

According to Seneca, the philosopher Epicurus said, “Rehearse for death,” which is a practice Seneca himself greatly encouraged. For Seneca and the other Roman Stoics, death was “the master fear,” and once someone learns how to overcome it, little else remains fearful either.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus told his students that when you kiss your child goodnight, you should remind yourself that your child could die tomorrow. While it is literally true that your child could die tomorrow, many modern readers recoil at the idea of even contemplating such a thought. However, that might be a measure of their reluctance to accept the inevitability of death, or a way of repressing the fact that death can arrive unexpectedly, at any moment. As someone who personally uses this practice, I can tell you that it’s perfectly harmless, once you get past any initial discomfort. The huge benefit it brings is the greater sense of gratitude you experience with your loved ones. When you perform this practice, you consciously realize that someday, which nobody can predict, will be your last time together—​so you experience much greater gratitude for the time you spend together now. As Seneca wisely recommended, let us greedily enjoy our friends and our loved ones now, while we still have them.

What is it like emotionally to contemplate your own death or the death of a close family member? I’ve been experimenting with this for some time now and can report only positive results. That’s because, when I think of the mortality of a loved one and the fact that all of our time together is by definition limited, it improves the quality of my life. It makes me feel a much deeper sense of appreciation for all the time we are together. If you don’t remember that your time is limited and finite, you are much more likely to take things for granted.

I most often remember death when I’m with my son, Benjamin, seven and a half as I write. That’s a delightful age because he’s very playful and now capable of having fun conversations. We’re also starting to talk about philosophical things.

Of course, it’s impossible for most children of his age to grasp the gravity or finality of death, because most of them have never had any firsthand experience of losing a loved one. Children live in a kind of psychological Golden Age, in which all their needs seem magically provided for. Since they live in a protected sphere, most haven’t yet been exposed to the more challenging aspects of life.

Because of that, I’ve been trying to teach Benjamin a little bit about death and the fact that daddy, mommy, and he will someday die. This effort is a bit of basic Stoic training for a kid, and I’m curious if it might be possible to increase his appreciation for the limited time we have together, even at such a young age? At the very least, I hope it will greatly reduce the level of shock he experiences when someone close to him does die, because he’ll be expecting it.

The other day, we were driving home after feasting on some fast food, and Benjamin spoke to me about God for the first time in his life. With a boyish sense of delight, he explained to me, “God has some amazing powers, like being able to see and hear everything. But his greatest superpower is that he’s invisible!”

I chuckled at his use of the word “superpower,” which made God sound like a superhero, just like Spider-​Man! But laughter aside, he had opened up the doorway to speak about some profound issues, so I brought up the topic of death.

“Benjamin,” I asked, “do you know that, someday, mommy, daddy, and you are going to die?”

“Yes,” he replied.

“I’m almost sixty,” I explained, “so I could live another twenty years.”

“I don’t think you’ll live quite that long,” he said. “But maybe something like that.” (Thank you, Benjamin! We’ll just have to see how things go.)

Then I asked, “Did you know that you could die at any time?”

He said, “I don’t think I’ll die anytime soon.”

“But,” I replied, “you could. This is not something in our control. You are young, so you could live for a very long time. But since we’re driving in a car, we could be in a car crash five minutes from now, and we could both be killed instantly. So even if you’re very, very young, you can die at any time. If you stay healthy, the chances that you’ll live a long life go up. But in the end, when we die is not under our control.”

Benjamin nodded and seemed to understand. And fortunately, we arrived home safely a few minutes later.


Breakfast with Seneca

From Breakfast with Seneca: A Stoic Guide to the Art of Living by David Fideler, published by W. W. Norton.

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The Definition of Death

The philosophical investigation of human death has focused on two overarching questions: (1) What is human death? and (2) How can we determine that it has occurred? The first question is ontological or conceptual. An answer to this question will consist of a definition (or conceptualization ). Examples include death as the irreversible cessation of organismic functioning and human death as the irreversible loss of personhood . The second question is epistemological. A complete answer to this question will furnish both a general standard (or criterion ) for determining that death has occurred and specific clinical tests to show whether the standard has been met in a given case. Examples of standards for human death are the traditional cardiopulmonary standard and the whole-brain standard . Insofar as clinical tests are primarily a medical concern, the present entry will address them only in passing.

The philosophical issues concerning the correct definition and standard for human death are closely connected to other questions. How does the death of human beings relate to the death of other living things? Is human death simply an instance of organismic death, ultimately a matter of biology? If not, on what basis should it be defined? Whatever the answers to these questions, does death or at least human death have an essence—either de re or de dicto —entailing necessary and jointly sufficient conditions? Or do the varieties of death reveal only “family resemblance” relations? Are life and death exhaustive categories of those things that are ever animated, or do some individuals fall into an ontological neutral zone between life and death? Finally, how do our deaths relate, conceptually, to our essence and identity as human persons?

For the most part, such questions did not clamor for public attention until well into the twentieth century. (For historical background, see Pernick 1999 and Capron 1999, 120–124.) Sufficient destruction of the brain, including the brainstem, ensured respiratory failure leading quickly to terminal cardiac arrest. Conversely, prolonged cardiopulmonary failure inevitably led to total, irreversible loss of brain function. With the invention of mechanical respirators in the 1950s, however, it became possible for a previously lethal extent of brain damage to coexist with continued cardiopulmonary functioning, sustaining the functioning of other organs. Was such a patient alive or dead? The widespread dissemination in the 1960s of such technologies as mechanical respirators and defibrillators to restore cardiac function highlighted the possibility of separating cardiopulmonary and neurological functioning. Quite rapidly the questions of what constituted human death and how we could determine its occurrence had emerged as issues both philosophically rich and urgent.

Various practical concerns provided further impetus for addressing these issues. (Reflecting these concerns is a landmark 1968 report published by a Harvard Medical School committee led by physician Henry Beecher (Ad Hoc Committee of the Harvard Medical School 1968).) Soaring medical expenditures provoked concerns about prolonged, possibly futile treatment of patients who presented some but not all of the traditionally recognized indicators of death. Certainly, it would be permissible to discontinue life-supports if these patients were dead. Concurrent interest in the evolving techniques of organ transplantation motivated physicians not to delay unnecessarily in determining that a patient had died. Removing vital organs as quickly as possible would improve the prospect of saving lives. But removing vital organs of living patients would cause their deaths, violating both laws against homicide and the widely accepted moral principle prohibiting the intentional killing of innocent human beings (see the entry on doing vs. allowing harm ). To be sure, there were—as there are now—individuals who held that procuring organs from, thereby killing, irreversibly unconscious patients who had consented to donate is a legitimate exception to this moral principle (see the entry on voluntary euthanasia ), but this judgment strikes many as a radical departure from common morality. In any event, in view of concerns about the possibility of killing in the course of organ procurement, physicians wanted clear legal guidance for determining when someone had died.

The remainder of this entry takes a dialectical form, focusing primarily on ideas and arguments rather than on history and individuals. It begins with an approach that nearly achieved consensus status after these issues came under the spotlight in the twentieth century: the whole-brain approach . (Most of what are here referred to as “approaches” include a standard and a corresponding definition of death; a few offer more radical suggestions for how to understand human death.) The discussion proceeds, in turn, to the higher-brain approach , to an updated cardiopulmonary approach , and to several more radical approaches. The discussion of each approach examines its chief assertions, its answers to questions identified above, leading arguments in its favor, and its chief difficulties. The entry as a whole is intended to identify the main philosophical issues connected with the definition and determination of human death, leading approaches that have been developed to address these issues, and principal strengths and difficulties of these visions viewed as competitors.

1. The Current Mainstream View: The Whole-Brain Approach

2.1 appeals to the essence of human persons, 2.2 appeals to personal identity, 2.3 the claim that the definition of death is a moral issue, 2.4 the appeal to prudential value.

  • 3. A Proposed Return To Tradition: An Updated Cardiopulmonary Approach

4.1 Death as a Process, Not a Determinate Event

4.2 death as a cluster concept not amenable to classical definition, 4.3 death as separable from moral concerns, references cited, other important works, other internet resources, related entries.

According to the whole-brain standard, human death is the irreversible cessation of functioning of the entire brain, including the brainstem . This standard is generally associated with an organismic definition of death (as explained below). Unlike the older cardiopulmonary standard, the whole-brain standard assigns significance to the difference between assisted and unassisted respiration. A mechanical respirator can enable breathing, and thereby circulation, in a “brain-dead” patient—a patient whose entire brain is irreversibly nonfunctional. But such a patient necessarily lacks the capacity for unassisted respiration. On the old view, such a patient counted as alive so long as respiration of any sort (assisted or unassisted) occurred. But on the whole-brain account, such a patient is dead. The present approach also maintains that someone in a permanent (irreversible) vegetative state is alive because a functioning brainstem enables spontaneous respiration and circulation as well as certain primitive reflexes. [ 1 ]

Before turning to arguments for and against the whole-brain standard, it may be helpful to review some basic facts about the human brain, “whole-brain death” (total brain failure), and other states of permanent (irreversible) unconsciousness. (The most important terms for our purposes appear in italics.) We may think of the brain as comprising two major portions: (1) the “ higher brain ,” consisting of both the cerebrum , the primary vehicle of conscious awareness, and the cerebellum, which is involved in the coordination and control of voluntary muscle movements; and (2) the “ lower brain ” or brainstem . The brainstem includes the medulla , which controls spontaneous respiration, the reticular activating system , a sort of on/off switch that enables consciousness without affecting its contents (the latter job belonging to the cerebrum), as well as the midbrain and pons.

With these basic concepts in view, it may be easier to contrast various states of permanent unconsciousness. (For a helpful overview, see Cranford 1995.) “Whole-brain death” or total brain failure involves the destruction of the entire brain, both the higher brain and the brainstem. By contrast, in a permanent ( irreversible ) vegetative state (PVS), while the higher brain is extensively damaged, causing irretrievable loss of consciousness, the brainstem is largely intact. Thus, as noted earlier, a patient in a PVS is alive according to the whole-brain standard. Retaining brainstem functions, PVS patients exhibit some or all of the following: unassisted respiration and heartbeat; wake and sleep cycles (made possible by an intact reticular activating system, though destruction to the cerebrum precludes consciousness); pupillary reaction to light and eyes movements; and such reflexes as swallowing, gagging, and coughing. A rare form of unconsciousness that is distinct from PVS and tends to lead fairly quickly to death is permanent ( irreversible ) coma . This state, in which patients never appear to be awake, involves partial brainstem functioning. Permanently comatose patients, like PVS patients, can maintain breathing and heartbeat without mechanical assistance.

With this background, we turn to the advantages and disadvantages of the whole-brain approach. First, what considerations favor this approach over the traditional focus on cardiopulmonary function in determining death? The most prominent and arguably the most powerful case for the whole-brain standard appeals to two considerations: (1) the organismic definition of death and (2) an emphasis on the brain's role as the primary integrator of overall bodily functioning. (Some who regard a general definition of death as unnecessary have focused on consideration (2) in defending the whole-brain standard. Some others, as discussed later, have retained consideration (1) but dropped consideration (2).) An additional consideration that has been influential, yet is logically separable from the other two, is (3) the thesis that the whole-brain standard updates, without replacing, the traditional approach to defining death.

According to the organismic definition, death is the irreversible loss of functioning of the organism as a whole (Becker 1975; Bernat, Culver, and Gert 1981). Proponents of this approach emphasize that death is a biological occurrence common to all organisms. Although individual cells and organs live and die, organisms are the only entities that literally do so without being parts of larger biological systems. (Ideas, cultures, and machines live and die only figuratively; cells and tissues are literally alive but are parts of larger biological systems.) So an adequate definition of death must be adequate in the case of all organisms. What happens when a paramecium, clover, tree, mosquito, rabbit, or human dies? The organism stops functioning as an integrated unit and breaks down, turning what was once a dynamic object that took energy from the environment to maintain its own structure and functioning into an inert piece of matter subject to disintegration and decay. In the case of humans, no less than other organisms, death involves the collapse of integrated bodily functioning.

The whole-brain standard does not follow straightforwardly from the organismic conception of death. One might insist, after all, that a human organism's death occurs upon irreversible loss of cardiopulmonary function. Why think the brain so important? According to the mainstream whole-brain approach, the human brain plays the crucial role of integrating major bodily functions so only the death of the entire brain is necessary and sufficient for a human being's death (Bernat, Culver, and Gert 1981). Although heartbeat and breathing normally indicate life, they do not constitute life. Life involves integrated functioning of the whole organism. Circulation and respiration are centrally important, but so are maintenance of body temperature, hormonal regulation, and various other functions—as well as, in humans and other higher animals, consciousness. The brain makes all of these vital functions possible. Their integration within the organism is due to a central integrator, the brain.

This leading case for the whole-brain standard, then, consists in an organismic conception of death coupled with a view of the brain as the chief integrator of interdependent bodily functions. Another consideration sometimes advanced in favor of the whole-brain standard positions it as a part of time-honored tradition rather than a departure from tradition. (The argument may be understood either as an appeal to the authority of tradition or as an appeal to the practicality of not departing radically from tradition.) The claim is that the traditional focus on cardiopulmonary function is part and parcel of the whole-brain approach, that the latter does not revise our understanding of death but merely updates it with a more comprehensive picture that highlights the brain's crucial role:

Three organs—the heart, lungs, and brain—assume special significance … because their interrelationship is close and the irreversible cessation of any one very quickly stops the other two and consequently halts the integrated functioning of the organism as a whole. Because they were easily measured, circulation and respiration were traditionally the basic “vital signs.” But [they] are simply used as signs—as one window for viewing a deeper and more complex reality: a triangle of interrelated systems with the brain at its apex. [T]he traditional means of diagnosing death actually detected an irreversible cessation of integrated functioning among the interdependent bodily systems. When artificial means of support mask this loss of integration as measured by the old methods, brain-oriented criteria and tests provide a new window on the same phenomena (President's Commission 1981, 33).

According to this view, when the entire brain is nonfunctional but cardiopulmonary function continues due to a respirator and perhaps other life-supports, the mechanical assistance presents a false appearance of life, concealing the absence of integrated functioning in the organism as a whole.

The whole-brain approach clearly enjoys advantages. First, whether or not the whole-brain standard really incorporates, rather than replacing, the traditional cardiopulmonary standard, the former is at least fairly continuous with traditional practices and understandings concerning human death. Indeed, current law in the American states incorporates both standards into disjunctive form, most states adopting the Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA) while others have embraced similar language (Bernat 2006, 40). The UDDA states that “… an individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brainstem, is dead,” (President's Commission 1981, 119). Similar legal developments have occurred in Canada (Law Reform Commission of Canada 1981; Canadian Congress Committee on Brain Death 1988). The close pairing of the whole-brain and cardiopulmonary standards in the law suggests that the whole-brain standard does not depart radically from tradition.

The present approach offers other advantages as well. For one, the whole-brain standard is prima facie plausible as a specification of the organismic definition of death in the case of human beings. Moreover, acceptance of whole-brain criteria for death facilitates organ transplantation by permitting a declaration of death and retrieval of still-viable organs while respiration and circulation continue, with mechanical assistance, in a “brain-dead” body. Another practical advantage is permitting, without an advance directive or proxy consent, discontinuation of costly life-support measures on patients who have incurred total brain failure. While most proponents of the whole-brain approach insist that such practical advantages are merely fortunate consequences of the biological facts about death, one might regard these advantages as part of the justification for a standard whose defense requires more than appeals to biology (see subsection 4.2 below).

The advantages proffered by this approach contributed to its widespread social acceptance and legal adoption in the last few decades of the 20 th century. As mentioned, every American state has legally adopted the whole-brain standard alongside the cardiopulmonary standard as in the UDDA. It is worth noting, however, that a close cousin to the whole-brain standard, the brainstem standard , was adopted by the United Kingdom and various other nations. According to the brainstem standard—which has the practical advantage of requiring fewer clinical tests—human death occurs at the irreversible cessation of brainstem function. One might wonder whether a person's cerebrum could function—enabling consciousness—while this standard is met, but the answer is no. Since the brainstem includes the reticular activating system, the on/off switch that makes consciousness possible (without affecting its contents), brainstem death entails irreversible loss not only of unassisted respiration and circulation but also of the capacity for consciousness. Importantly, outside the English-speaking world, many or most nations, including virtually all developed countries, have legally adopted either whole-brain or brainstem criteria for the determination of death (Wijdicks 2002). Moreover, most of the public, to the extent that it is aware of the relevant laws, appears to accept such criteria for death (ibid). Opponents commonly fall within one of two main groups. One group consists of religious conservatives—and, recently, a growing number of secular academics—who favor the cardiopulmonary standard, according to which one can be brain-dead yet alive if (assisted) cardiopulmonary function persists. The other group consists of those liberal intellectuals who favor the higher-brain standard (to be discussed), which, notably, has not been adopted by any jurisdiction.

The widespread acceptance in the U.S. of the whole-brain standard and the broader international acceptance of some sort of “brain death” criteria—whether whole-brain or brainstem—are remarkable considering the subtlety of issues surrounding the definition and determination of death. Yet this near-consensus has been broader than it is deep. Increasingly, both in academic and clinical circles, doubts about “brain death” are being voiced. Following are several major challenges to the whole-brain standard—and, implicitly, to the brainstem standard. (Several additional challenges are implicit in arguments supporting the higher-brain approach.)

The first challenge is directed at proponents of the whole-brain approach who claim that its standard merely updates, without replacing, the traditional cardiopulmonary standard. A major contention that motivates this thesis is that irreversible cessation of brain function will quickly lead to irreversible loss of cardiopulmonary function (and vice versa). But extended maintenance on respirators of patients with total brain failure has removed this component of the case for the whole-brain standard (PCB 2008, 90). The remaining challenges to the whole-brain approach are not specifically directed to those who assert that its standard merely updates the traditional cardiopulmonary standard.

First, in the case of at least some members of our species, total brain failure is not necessary for death. After all, human embryos and early fetuses can die although, lacking brains, they cannot satisfy whole-brain criteria for death (Persson 2002, 22–23). An advocate could respond by introducing a modified definition: In the case of any human being in possession of a functioning brain , death is the irreversible cessation of functioning of the entire brain. While this may be practically useful in the world as we know it for the foreseeable future, this definition is not conceptually satisfactory if it is possible in principle for some human beings with brains (that is, who have functioning brains at any point in their existence) to die without destruction of their brains. The “in principle” is important here, for this is not possible in our world currently. But suppose we develop the ability to transplant brains. (The thought-experiment that follows appears in McMahan 2002, 429.) Recall that the whole-brain standard is generally thought to receive support from an organismic definition of death. But such a conception of human death, one could argue, only makes sense on the assumption that we are essentially human organisms (see discussion of the essence of human persons in section 2.1)—as some proponents explicitly acknowledge (see, e.g., Olson 1997). According to the present critique, the brain is merely a part of the organism. Suppose the brain were removed from one of us, and kept intact and functioning, perhaps by being transplanted into another, de-brained body. Bereft of mechanical assistance, the body from which the brain was removed would surely die. But this body was the living organism, one of us. So, although the original brain continues to function, the human being, one of us, would have died. Total brain failure, then, is not strictly necessary for human death. A possible rebuttal to this challenge from one who accepts that we are essentially organisms is to argue that the existence of a functioning brain is sufficient for the continued existence of the organism (van Inwagen 1990, 173–174, 180–181). If so, then in the imagined scenario the original human being would survive the brain transplant in a new body. Thus, the rebuttal concludes, it is false that a human being could die although her brain continued to live.

Perhaps more threatening to the whole-brain approach is the growing empirical evidence that total brain failure is not sufficient for human death —assuming the latter is construed, as whole-brain advocates generally construe it, as the breakdown of integrated organismic functioning mediated by the brain. Many of our integrative functions, according to the challenge, are not mediated by the brain and can therefore persist in individuals who meet whole-brain criteria for death by standard clinical tests. Such somatically integrating functions include homeostasis, assimilation of nutrients, detoxification and recycling of cellular wastes, elimination, wound healing, fighting of infections, and cardiovascular and hormonal stress responses to unanesthetized incisions (for organ procurement); in a few cases, brain-dead bodies have even gestated a fetus, matured sexually, or grown in size (Shewmon 2001; Potts 2001). It has been argued that most brain functions commonly cited as integrative merely sustain an existing functional integration, suggesting that the brain is more an enhancer than an indispensable integrator of bodily functions (Shewmon 2001). Moreover, several studies have demonstrated that most patients diagnosed as brain dead continue to exhibit some brain functions including the regulated secretion of vasopressin, a hormone critical to maintaining a body's balance of salt and fluid (Halevy 2001). This hormonal regulation is a brain function that represents an integrated function of the organism as a whole (Miller and Truog 2010).

Another, related problem for the sufficiency of total brain failure for human death arises from reflection on locked-in syndrome . People with locked-in syndrome are conscious, and therefore alive, but completely paralyzed with the possible exception of their eyes. With intensive medical support they can live. The interesting fact for our purposes is that some patients with this syndrome exhibit no more somatic functioning integrated by the brain than some brain-dead individuals. Whatever integration of bodily functions remains is maintained by external supports and by bodily systems other than the brain, which merely preserves consciousness (Bartlett and Youngner 1988, 205–6). If total brain failure is supposed to be sufficient for death, and if this is true only because the former entails the loss of somatic functioning integrated by the brain, then the loss of those functions should also be sufficient for death. But these patients, who are clearly alive, show that this is not so. Either the whole-brain definition must be rejected or this particular reason for accepting the whole-brain approach must be rejected and some other good reason for accepting it found.

Recently, a new rationale—distinct from the one that understands human death in terms of loss of organismic functioning mediated by the brain—has been advanced in support of the whole-brain standard (PCB 2008, ch. 4). According to this rationale, a human being dies upon irreversibly losing the capacity to perform the fundamental work of an organism, a loss that occurs with total brain failure. The fundamental work of an organism is characterized as follows: (1) receptivity to stimuli from the surrounding environment; (2) the ability to act upon the world to obtain, selectively, what the organism needs; and (3) the basic felt need that drives the organism to act as it must to obtain what it needs and what its receptivity reveals to be available (ibid, 61). According to a sympathetic reading of the ambiguous discussion in which this analysis is advanced, any patient who meets even one of these criteria is alive and therefore not dead. A patient with total brain failure meets none of these criteria, even if a respirator permits the continuation of cardiopulmonary function. By contrast, PVS patients meet at least the second criterion through spontaneous respiration (a kind of acting upon the world to obtain what is needed: oxygen); and locked-in patients meet the first criterion if they can see or experience bodily sensation and certainly meet the third insofar as they are conscious. One difficulty with this “fundamental work” rationale for the whole-brain standard, a rationale that is intended to capture “what distinguishes every organism from non-living things” (ibid), is that some present-day robots, which are certainly not alive, seem to satisfy the first two criteria. If one insisted, contrary to the reading deemed sympathetic, that a being must satisfy all three criteria—as robots do not since they lack felt needs—in order to qualify as living, the same may be asserted not only of insentient animal life but also of presentient human fetuses and of unconscious human beings of any age. Another difficulty of the “fundamental work” rationale for the whole brain standard is that it was intended to replace the idea that integrated functional unity within an organism is what constitutes life—but the latter idea is extremely plausible and helps to explain what any “fundamental work” would be working toward (cf. Thomas 2012, 105). Whether any variation or modification of the present rationale for the whole-brain standard can survive critical scrutiny remains an open question.

Some traditional defenders of the cardiopulmonary approach believe that the insufficiency of whole-brain criteria for death is evident not only in exceptional cases, such as those described earlier, but in all cases in which patients with total brain failure exhibit respirator-assisted cardiopulmonary function. Anyone who is breathing and whose heart functions cannot be dead, they claim. The champion of whole-brain criteria may retort that such a body is not really breathing and circulating blood; the respirator is doing the work. The traditionalist, in response, will likely contend that what is important is not who or what is powering the breathing and heartbeat, just that they occur. Even complete dependence on external support for vital functions cannot entail that one is dead, the traditionalist will continue, as is evident in the fact that living fetuses are entirely dependent on their mothers' bodies; nor can complete dependence on mechanical support entail that one is dead, as is evident in the fact that many living people are utterly dependent on pacemakers.

A third major criticism of the whole-brain approach—at least in its legally authoritative formulation in the United States—concerns its conceptual and clinical adequacy. The whole-brain standard, taken at its word, requires for human death permanent cessation of all brain functions. Yet many patients who meet routine clinical tests for this standard continue to have minor brain functions such as electroencephalographic activity, isolated nests of living neurons, and hypothalamic functioning (see, e.g., Potts 2001, 482; Veatch 1993, 18; Nair-Collins and Miller forthcoming). Indeed, the latter, which controls neurohormonal regulation, is indisputably an integrating function of the brain (Brody 1999, 73). Now one could maintain the coherence of the whole-brain approach by insisting that the individuals in question are not really dead and that physicians ought to use more thorough clinical tests before declaring death (see, e.g., Capron 1999, 130–131). But whole-brain theorists tend to agree that these individuals are dead—that the residual functions are too trivial to count against a judgment of death (see, e.g., President's Commission 1981, 28–29; Bernat 1992, 25)—suggesting that the problem lies with the formulation of the whole-brain standard rather than with its spirit.

Within this spirit and in response to this challenge, a leading proponent of the whole-brain approach has revised both (1) the organismic definition of death to “the permanent cessation of the critical functions of the organism as a whole” and (2) the corresponding standard to permanent cessation of the critical functions of the whole brain (Bernat 1998, 17). The organism's critical functions may be identified by reference to its emergent functions—that is, properties of the whole organism that are not possessed by any of its component parts—as follows: “The irretrievable loss of the organism's emergent functions produces loss of the critical functioning of the organism as a whole and therefore is the death of the organism,” (Bernat 2006, 38). The emphasis on critical functions, of course, allows one to declare dead those patients with only trivial brain functions. According to this revised whole-brain approach, the critical functions of the organism are (1) the vital functions of spontaneous breathing and autonomic circulation control, (2) integrating functions that maintain the organism's homeostasis, and (3) consciousness. A human being dies upon losing all three. Whether this or some similar modification of the whole-brain approach adequately addresses the present challenge is a topic of ongoing debate (see, e.g., Brody 1999, Bernat 2006). What seems reasonably clear is that not all functions of the brain will count equally in any cogent defense of the whole-brain approach.

The judgment that some brain functions are trivial in this context invites a reconsideration of what is most significant about what the human brain does. According to an alternative approach, what is far and away most significant about human brain function is consciousness.

2. A Progressive Alternative: The Higher-Brain Approach

According to the higher-brain standard, human death is the irreversible cessation of the capacity for consciousness . “Consciousness” here is meant broadly, to include any subjective experience, so that both wakeful and dreaming states count as instances. Reference to the capacity for consciousness indicates that individuals who retain intact the neurological hardware needed for consciousness, including individuals in a dreamless sleep or reversible coma, are alive. One dies on this view upon entering a state in which the brain is incapable of returning to consciousness. This implies, somewhat radically, that a patient in a PVS or irreversible coma is dead despite continued brainstem function that permits spontaneous cardiopulmonary function. Although no jurisdiction has adopted the higher-brain standard, it enjoys the support of many scholars (see, e.g., Veatch 1975; Engelhardt 1975; Green and Wikler 1980; Gervais 1986; Bartlett and Youngner 1988; Puccetti 1988; Rich 1997; and Baker 2000). These scholars conceptualize, or define, human death in different ways—though in each case as the irreversible loss of some property for which the capacity for consciousness is necessary. This discussion will consider four leading argumentative strategies in support of the higher-brain approach.

One strategy for defending the higher-brain approach is to appeal to the essence of human persons on the understanding that this essence requires the capacity for consciousness (see, e.g., Bartlett and Youngner 1988; Veatch 1993; Engelhardt 1996, 248; Rich 1997; and Baker 2000, 5). “Essence” here is intended in a strict ontological sense: that property or set of properties of an individual the loss of which would necessarily terminate the individual's existence. From this perspective, we human persons—more precisely, we individuals who are at any time human persons—are essentially beings with the capacity for consciousness such that we cannot exist at any time without having this capacity at that time. We go out of existence, it is assumed, when we die, so death involves the loss of what is essential to our existence.

Unfortunately, the use of terminology in these arguments can be confusing because the same term may be used in different ways and terms are frequently used without precise definition. It is sometimes claimed, for example, that we are essentially persons . But what, exactly, is a person? Some authors (e.g., Engelhardt 1996, Baker 2000) use the term to refer to beings with relatively complex psychological capacities such as self-awareness over time, reason, and moral agency. Then the claim that we are essentially persons implies that we die upon losing such advanced capacities. But this means that at some point during the normal course of progressive dementia the demented individual dies—upon losing complex psychological capacities, however these are defined— despite the fact that a patient remains, clearly alive, with the capacity for (basic) consciousness . This view is extraordinarily radical and appears inconsistent with the higher-brain approach, which equates death with the irreversible loss of the capacity for (any) consciousness. A proponent of the view that we are essentially persons in the present sense, however, may hold that practical considerations—such as the impossibility of drawing a clear line between sentient persons and sentient nonpersons, and the potential for abuse of the elderly—recommend the capacity for consciousness as the only safe line to draw, thereby vindicating the higher-brain view (Engelhardt 1996, 250). Meanwhile, other proponents of the view that we are essentially persons (e.g., Bartlett and Youngner 1988) apparently hold that any member of our species who retains the capacity for consciousness qualifies as a person. This view, unlike the previous one, straightforwardly supports the higher-brain standard. Still other authors (e.g., Veatch 1993) hold that we are essentially human beings where this term refers not to all members of our species but just to those judged to be persons by the previous group of authors: members of our species who have the capacity for consciousness. And some authors who defend the higher-brain standard (e.g., McMahan 2002) assert that we are essentially minds or minded beings , which is to say beings with the capacity for consciousness. In each case, an appeal to our essence is advanced to support the higher-brain standard.

Taking this collection of arguments together, the reasoning might be reconstructed as follows:

  • For humans, the irreversible loss of the capacity for consciousness entails (is sufficient for) the loss of what is essential to their existence;
  • For humans, loss of what is essential to their existence is (is necessary and sufficient for) death;
  • For humans, irreversible loss of the capacity for consciousness entails (is sufficient for) death.

We have noted that various commentators who advance this reasoning hold that we are essentially persons in a sense requiring complex psychological capacities. We have noted that this implies that for those of us who become progressively demented, we die—go out of existence—at some point during the gradual slide to permanent unconsciousness. Even if practical considerations recommend safely drawing a line at irreversible loss of the capacity of consciousness for policy purposes, the implication that, strictly speaking, we go out of existence during progressive dementia will strike many as incredible. At the other end of life there is another problematic implication. For if we are essentially persons (in this sense), then inasmuch as human newborns lack the capacities that constitute personhood, each of us came into existence after what is ordinarily described as his or her birth.

For those attracted to the general approach of understanding our essence in terms of psychological capacities, a promising alternative thesis is that we are essentially beings with the capacity for at least some form of consciousness who die upon irreversibly losing that very basic capacity. Stated more simply, we are essentially minded beings, or minds, and we die when we completely “lose our minds.” (Note that this thesis is consistent with the claim that we are also essentially embodied.)

What, then, about the human organism associated with one of us minded beings? Surely the fetus that gradually developed prior to the emergence of sentience or the capacity for consciousness—that is, prior to the emergence of a mind—was alive. On the other end of life, a patient in a PVS who is spontaneously breathing, circulating blood, and exhibiting a full range of brainstem reflexes appears to be alive. Consider also anencephalic infants, who are born without cerebral hemispheres and never have the capacity for consciousness: They, too, seem to be living organisms, their grim prognosis notwithstanding. In response to this challenge, a proponent of the higher-brain approach may either (1) assert that the presentient fetus, PVS patient, and anencephalic infant are not alive despite appearances (Puccetti 1988) or (2) allow that these organisms are alive but are not of the same fundamental kind as we are: minded beings (McMahan 2002, 423–6). Insofar as life is a biological concept, and the organisms in question satisfy commonly accepted criteria for life, option (1) seems at best hyperbolic. At best, the claim is really that these organisms, though alive, are not alive in any state that matters much, so we may count them as dead or nonliving for our purposes. This claim, in turn, may be understood as depending on option (2), on which we may focus. This option implies that for each of us minded beings, there is a second, closely associated being: a human organism. The prospects of the present strategy for defending the higher-brain approach turn significantly on its ability to make sense of this picture of two closely associated beings: (1) the organism, which comes into existence at conception or shortly thereafter (perhaps after twinning is no longer possible) and dies when organismic functioning radically breaks down, and (2) the minded being, who comes into existence when sentience emerges and might—in the event of PVS or irreversible coma—die before the organism does. (For doubts on this score, see DeGrazia 2005, ch. 2).

Appealing to the authority of biologists and common sense, some philosophers (e.g., Olson 1997) charge as indefensible the claim that we (who are now) human persons were never presentient fetuses. One might also find puzzling the thesis that there is one definition of death, appealing to the capacity for consciousness, for human beings or persons and another definition, appealing to organismic functioning, for nonhuman animals and the human organisms associated with persons. It is open to the higher-brain theorist, however, to allow that there are also two closely associated beings in the case of sentient nonhuman animals—the minded being and the organism—with the death of, say, Lassie (the minded dog) occurring at her irreversible loss of consciousness (McMahan 2002, ch. 1). But some will find unattractive the failure to furnish a single conception of death that applies to all living things. To be sure, not everyone finds these objections compelling.

One of the most significant challenges confronting the present approach is to characterize cogently the relationship between one of us and the associated human organism. The relationship is clearly not identity —that is, being one and the same thing—because the organism originates before the mind, might outlive the mind, and therefore has different persistence conditions. This strongly suggests, perhaps surprisingly, that we human persons are not animals. If you are not identical to the human organism associated with you, then since there is at most one animal sitting in your chair, you are not she and are therefore not an animal (Olson 1997). Yet many consider it part of educated common sense that we are animals.

Might you be part of the organism associated with you—namely, the brain (more precisely, the portions of the brain associated with consciousness) (McMahan 2002, ch. 1)? But the brain seems capable of surviving death, when you are supposed to go out of existence. Are you then a functioning brain, which goes out of existence at the irreversible loss of consciousness? But it seems odd to identify the functioning brain—as distinct from the brain—as you. How could you be some organ only when it functions? Presumably you are a substance (see the entry on substance ), a bearer of properties, not a substance only when it has certain properties . One might reply that the functioning brain is itself a substance, a substance distinct from the brain, but that, too, strains credibility. Might you instead be not the brain, but the mind understood as the conscious properties of the brain? That would imply that you are a set of properties, rather than a substance, which is no less counterintuitive. Note that the charge of incredibility is not directed at the assertion that the mind is the functioning brain, or is a set of brain properties, and not a distinct substance—a thesis in good standing in the philosophy of mind (see the entries on identity theory of mind and functionalism ). The charge of incredibility is directed at the assertion that you are a set of properties and not a substance. [ 2 ]

Another possibility regarding the person/organism relationship is that the human organism constitutes the person it eventually comes to support (Baker 2000). One might even claim the legitimacy of saying—employing an “is” of constitution—that we are animals (or organisms), just as we can say that a statue constituted by a hunk of bronze, shaped in a particular way, is a hunk of bronze (ibid). Challenges to this reasoning includes doubts that we may legitimately speak of an “is” of constitution; if not, then the constitution view implies that we are not animals after all. Another challenge, which applies equally to the view that we minds are parts of organisms, concerns the counting of conscious beings. On either the constitution view or the part-whole view, you are essentially a being with the capacity for consciousness. Closely associated with you—without being (identical to) you, due to different persistence conditions—is a particular animal. But that animal, having a functioning brain, would also seem to be a conscious being. Either of these views, then, apparently suggests that for each of us there are two conscious beings, seemingly one too many. Despite such difficulties as these, the thesis that we are essentially minded beings remains a significant basis for the higher-brain approach to human death.

A second argumentative strategy in defense of the higher-brain approach claims to appeal to our personal identity while remaining agnostic on the question of our essence (Green and Wikler 1980). The fundamental claim is that, whatever we are essentially, it is clear that one of us has gone out of existence once the capacity for consciousness has been irreversibly lost, supporting the higher-brain standard of death. Clearly, though, any view of our numerical identity over time—our persistence conditions—is conceptually dependent on a view of what we essentially are (DeGrazia 1999; DeGrazia 2005, ch. 4). If we are essentially human animals, and not essentially beings with psychological capacities, then, contrary to the above argument, it is not clear—indeed, it is false—that we go out of existence upon irreversible loss of the capacity for consciousness; rather, we die upon the collapse of organismic functioning. The appeal to personal identity in support of the higher-brain standard depends on the thesis that we are essentially minded beings and therefore inherits the challenges facing this view, as discussed in the previous subsection. Nevertheless, the appeal to personal identity, construed as a distinct argumentative strategy, was somewhat influential in early discussions of the definition of death (see, e.g., President's Commission 1981, 38–9).

Another prominent argumentative strategy in support of the higher-brain approach contends that the definition of death is a moral issue and that confronting it as such vindicates the higher-brain approach (see, e.g., Veatch 1975, 1993; Gervais 1986, ch. 6). In asking how to determine that a human has died, according to this argument, what we are really asking is when we ought to discontinue certain activities such as life-support efforts and initiate certain other activities such as organ donation, burial or cremation, grieving, change of a survivor's marital status, and transfer of property. The question, in other words, is when “death behaviors” are appropriate. This, the argument continues, is a moral question, so an answer to this question should be moral as well. Understood thus, the issue of defining human death is best addressed with the recognition that irreversible loss of the capacity for consciousness marks the time at which it is appropriate to commence death behaviors.

Is the definition of death really a moral issue? To say that someone has died does seem tantamount to saying that certain behaviors are now appropriate while certain others are no longer appropriate. But it hardly follows that the assertion of death is itself a moral claim. An alternative hypothesis is that the sense of moral import derives from the fact that certain moral premises—for example, that we shouldn't bury or cremate prior to death—are shared by virtually everyone. Moreover, the concept of death is (at least originally) at home in biology, which offers many instances in which a determination of death—say, of a gnat or a clover—seems morally unimportant. Rather than asserting that death itself is a moral concept, it might be more plausible to assert that death, a biological phenomenon, is generally assumed to be morally important—at least in the case of human beings—given a relatively stable background of social institutions and attitudes about “death behaviors.” Furthermore, due to the moral salience of human death, discussions about its determination are often prompted by a moral or pragmatic agenda such as interest in organ transplantation or concerns about expensive, futile treatment. But these observations do not imply that death is itself a moral concept.

Even if it were, it would hardly follow that the higher-brain standard is preferable to other standards. A person with relatively conservative instincts might hold that death behaviors are morally appropriate only when the whole-brain or cardiopulmonary standard has been met. We need to ask, therefore, what grounds exist for the claim—advanced by proponents of the higher-brain standard—that death behaviors are appropriate as soon as someone has irreversibly lost the capacity for consciousness. Perhaps the best possible grounds are that irreversible loss of consciousness entails an existence lacking in value for the unconscious individual herself . It appears, then, that the strongest specification of the present line of reasoning actually relies upon the next (and final) argumentative strategy to be considered—and might, as we will see, lead to the conclusion that we should permit individuals to select among several standards of death.

The idea here is to defend the higher-brain approach on the basis of claims about prudential value (for a discussion, see DeGrazia 2005, 134–8). Conscious life, it is argued, is a precondition for virtually everything that we value in our lives. We have an enormous stake in continuing our lives as persons and little or no stake in continuing them when we are permanently unconscious. The capacity for consciousness is therefore essential not in a metaphysical sense connected to our persistence conditions, but in the evaluative sense of indispensable to us . One need not claim that the capacity for consciousness underlies everything of prudential value, just that it underlies the overwhelmingly greater part of what matters to us prudentially. And although, for many people, consciousness may not be sufficient for what matters prudentially—insofar as they find indispensable, say, some degree of self-awareness and meaningful interaction with others—it is certainly necessary; and the basic capacity for consciousness (as opposed to self-consciousness or personhood) is the only safe place to demarcate death for policy and social purposes. We should therefore regard irreversible loss of the capacity for consciousness as a human being's death—even if the original concept of death is biological and biological considerations favor some less progressive standard.

How persuasive is this case for the higher-brain approach? One might challenge the assumption that prudential, as opposed to moral, considerations ought to be decisive in adopting a standard for human death. On the other hand, as suggested in our discussion of the previous argumentative strategy, moral considerations may not favor a particular standard of death except insofar as they rest on prudential considerations—our present concern. But even if we accept the claim that human death should be understood on the basis of prudential values, we confront the prospect of reasonable pluralism about prudential value. While supporters of the higher-brain approach (who tend to be liberal intellectuals) are likely to have prudential values in line with this approach, many other people do not. If a patient has a stake in his family's need for closure should he enter a PVS—an interest that may be self-regarding as well as other-regarding—this fact would count against allowing the PVS to constitute death in his case. If an Orthodox Jew or conservative Christian believes that (biological) life is inherently precious to its possessor, even if the individual cannot appreciate its value at a given time, this would count against the higher-brain standard in the case of the individual in question. Perhaps, then, the appeal to prudential value favors not the higher-brain standard for everyone but a pro-choice view about standards of death . A jurisdiction might, for example, have one default standard of death but permit conscientious exemption from that standard and selection of a different one within some reasonable range of options (Veatch 2019).

In reply to this argument, a proponent of the appeal to prudential value might contend that it is simply irrational to value biological existence without the possibility of returning to consciousness. But this reply assumes the experience requirement : that only states of affairs that affect one's experience can affect one's well-being (for a discussion, see Griffin 1986, 16–19). The experience requirement is not self-evident. Some people believe that they are worse off for being slandered even if they never learn of the slander and its repercussions never affect their experience. Some even believe, following Aristotle's suggestion, that the quality of one's life as a whole can be affected by posthumous states of affairs such as tragedy befalling a loved one. Although the intelligibility of this belief in posthumous interests might be challenged, the following is surely intelligible: States of affairs that don't affect one's experience but connect importantly with one's values can affect one's interests at least while one exists . Desire-based accounts of well-being (see, e.g., Hare 1981) standardly accept this principle, for what is desired may occur without one's awareness of its occurrence and without affecting one's experience. These considerations illuminate the intelligibility of one's prudential values extending to a period of time when one is alive but irreversibly unconscious.

In view of apparently reasonable pluralism regarding prudential values, including reasonable disagreement about the experience requirement, it seems doubtful that appeal to prudential value alone can support the higher-brain standard for everyone. At the same time, and more generally, the higher-brain approach remains an important contender in the debate over the definition of death.

3. A Proposed Return to Tradition: An Updated Cardiopulmonary Approach

Prior to the brain-death movement, death was traditionally understood along the lines of the cardiopulmonary standard : death as the irreversible cessation of cardiopulmonary function . In the supportive background of this consensus on the cardiopulmonary standard hovered several general definitions or conceptualizations of death. Some champions of the traditional standard (e.g., Becker 1975) have conceptualized death in the same organismic terms that proponents of the whole-brain standard invoke: death as the irreversible cessation of functioning of the organism as a whole. Other champions of tradition have conceptualized death in more spiritual terms such as the departure of the animating (or vital) principle or loss of the soul.

In determining whether someone was dead, one could check for a pulse, moisture on a mirror held in front of the mouth, or other indications that the heart and lungs were working. Before the development of respirators and other modern life-supports, a working heart and lungs indicated continuing brainstem function. As we have seen, however, modern life-supports permitted cardiopulmonary function without brain function, setting up a competition between traditional and whole-brain criteria for determining death. Although, as noted above, the whole-brain approach achieved near-consensus status, this approach is increasingly questioned and faces significant difficulties. Its difficulties and those facing the more radical higher-brain alternative have contributed to renewed interest in the traditional approach.

Further contributing to renewed interest in the traditional approach—and warranting a brief digression—is an approach to organ donation that capitalizes on the fact that current American legal standards for death are disjunctive, permitting satisfaction of either the whole-brain standard or the cardiopulmonary standard, whichever applies first, for a declaration of death. This approach to organ donation, called donation after cardiac death (DCD) or non-heart-beating organ donation , was very rare until instituted with much publicity by the University of Pittsburgh in the early 1990s in response to a perception that awaiting a neurological determination of death for (heart-beating, respirator-maintained) organ donors was insufficient to meet the demand for viable organs. In the Pittsburgh program, a respirator-dependent patient who had previously agreed to forgo life supports and donate vital organs is taken to an operating room and disconnected from the respirator, leading predictably to cardiac arrest. Two minutes after cardiac arrest, the patient is declared dead on the basis of the cardiopulmonary standard: “irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions.” This procedure allows organ procurement to commence very shortly after cardiac arrest, providing relatively fresh organs for transplant. (Organs, of course, would not be viable if medical staff awaited a declaration of total brain failure—which requires confirmatory tests hours after initial tests—in the patients in question, who will not incur total brain failure unless respirator support is discontinued.)

The practice of DCD, which has expanded to several medical centers, has provoked considerable controversy. Critics have charged that in DCD vital organs are removed before patients are really dead, implying that organ procurement kills the patients. Some proponents of the whole-brain approach argue that the patients are not yet dead because only total brain failure (or perhaps that of the brainstem) constitutes human death. But current American law in its disjunctive form suggests otherwise—at least for legal purposes. Other critics of DCD charge that a patient cannot be dead two minutes after cardiac arrest because the loss of cardiopulmonary functioning is not irreversible: Victims of heart attack are sometimes revived more than two minutes after the arrest. One might reply that the loss of functioning is irreversible because, the patient having requested removal of life supports, no one may violate the patient's rights by resuscitating him or her (Tomlinson 1993). It seems fair to reply, however, that a decision not to resuscitate does not mean that resuscitation is impossible as suggested by the concept of irreversibility . Has the latter concept been conflated in DCD with the concept of permanence ? Permanent loss of function does not imply that resuscitation is impossible, just that it will not occur. [ 3 ] These concerns about abandoning the standard of irreversible loss of cardiopulmonary function apply even to more modest proposals, such as that advanced by the Institute of Medicine (2000), in which a declaration of death and DCD proceed after a waiting period of five minutes: Resuscitation is sometimes possible more than five minutes after a heart attack. Proponents of DCD might reply that permanence, rather than irreversibility, is the appropriate standard in this context (see, e.g., Bernat 2006, 41) or that DCD represents an instance where it is permissible to remove vital organs from someone who is dying but not yet dead. Certainly, any proponent of DCD will see the current law's (disjunctive) acceptance of cardiopulmonary criteria for death as offering a major practical advantage over any policy that accepted only whole-brain criteria.

We return to the view of those who champion only the cardiopulmonary standard. Proponents of this approach believe that it correctly implies, contrary to competing standards, that a human body that is breathing and maintaining circulation is alive regardless of whether continuation of these functions requires external support (as with “brain-dead” patients, locked-in patients, and normal fetuses) (Shewmon 2001; Potts 2001). At the same time, the usual characterization of the traditional approach is problematic in suggesting that the difference between human life and death comes down to the state of two organs: heart and lungs. This reductionistic picture arguably obscures the holistic nature of bodily functioning.

A more realistic picture, some argue, features integrative unity as existing diffusely throughout the organism. As a leading proponent puts it, “What is of the essence of integrative unity is neither localized nor replaceable: namely the anti-entropic mutual interaction of all the cells and tissues of the body, mediated in mammals by circulating oxygenated blood” (Shewmon 2001, 473). On this view, the brain, like the heart and lungs, is a very important component of the interaction among body systems, but is not the supremely important integrator as suggested by the (mainstream) whole-brain approach. Nor is the functioning of other organs and bodily systems passively dependent on the brain. The brain's capacity to augment other systems presupposes their preexisting capacity to function. This is true even of a brain function as somatically integrating as the maintenance of body temperature: the “thermostat” may be in the brain, but the “furnace” is the energy metabolism diffused throughout the body. If not covered with blankets, brain-dead bodies maintained on respirators will grow colder—but not comparably to corpses (ibid, 471).

Although a realistic picture of organismic functioning must be holistic, according to this updated traditional approach, it should also portray certain functions as central. Tradition is correct that respiration and circulation are especially crucial, but respiration is not simply lung function and circulation is not just a working heart. Both organs, after all, can be artificially replaced as the organism maintains integrated functioning. Respiration and circulation occur throughout the body as oxygenated blood circulates to different organs and bodily systems—a condition necessary and sufficient for the integrated organismic functioning that constitutes life. Unlike whole-brain and higher-brain death, loss of respiration and circulation leads relentlessly to the breakdown of cells, tissues, organs, bodily systems, and eventually the organism as a whole. Hence an updated traditional standard, which we might call the circulatory-respiratory standard : death as the irreversible cessation of circulatory-respiratory function .

The chief advantage of such an updated traditional approach, according to proponents, is that it most adequately characterizes the difference between life and death—where the latter is understood in terms of organismic functioning—in a full range of cases. Such cases include several that the whole-brain and higher-brain standards handle less plausibly such as prenatal human organisms prior to brain development as well as locked-in patients and “brain-dead” individuals whose vital functions are maintained with mechanical assistance. The present approach also avoids some of the conceptual problems facing the higher-brain approach, as discussed earlier.

Nevertheless, the traditional approach, whether updated or not, faces significant issues. One concern is that the approach overemphasizes our biological nature, suggesting we are nothing more than organisms, and by demoting the brain from prominence underemphasizes the mental life that is generally thought to distinguish our species from others. We human beings are not merely organisms or animals, the argument continues; we are also (after normal development) conscious beings and persons whose nature, one might say, is to transcend nature with culture. Our conception of human death should be faithful to a species self-image that does justice not only to our animality but also to our personhood (cf. Pallis 1999, 96).

Whole-brain (or brainstem) theorists and higher-brain theorists will extend this line of argument in different directions. The higher-brain theorist will suggest that our capacity for consciousness, a precondition for higher capacities and personhood, is so important that permanent loss of the basic capacity should count as death. The whole-brain theorist who develops the present line of reasoning will maintain greater contact with the organismic conception of death, stressing the brainstem's role in integrating vital functions and claiming either that (a) consciousness is a critical function of the organism, permitting it to interact adaptively to its environment (Bernat 1998), (b) consciousness is a characteristic aspect of the fundamental work of organisms like us, or (c) consciousness is crucial to our personhood, a feature no less important to what we are than our animality. The latter option, in effect, would move the whole-brain theorist to a dual-aspect understanding of human nature, as just discussed: human persons as essentially both persons and animals (cf. Schechtman 2014).

A second major challenge confronting any traditional approach is the specter of highly unpalatable practical consequences (Magnus, Wilfond, and Caplan 2014). Currently the whole-brain standard is enshrined in law. Suppose we reversed legislative course and returned to traditional criteria (whether updated in formulation or not). Then a patient who satisfied whole-brain criteria but not traditional criteria would count as alive. Unless we overturned the “dead-donor rule”—the policy of permitting extraction of vital organs only from dead bodies—then it would be illegal to procure organs from these living patients who have incurred total brain failure; yet the viability of their organs would require maintaining respiration and circulation with life-supports. There is broad agreement that having to wait until traditional criteria are met to harvest organs would constitute a great setback to organ transplantation (even if donation after cardiac death, which invokes traditional criteria, is permitted). Moreover, a legal return to traditional criteria for death might lead physicians to feel they had lost the authority to discontinue treatment unilaterally—when a family requests continued treatment—upon a determination of total brain failure despite what many would consider the futility of further treatment. Furthermore, laws for determining death would have to be revised.

A defender of tradition might respond that we can avoid most of these unsavory consequences while legally adopting traditional criteria for determining death (see, e.g., DeGrazia 2005, 152–8). We could, for one thing, abandon the dead-donor rule, permitting the harvesting of vital organs when authorized by appropriate prospective consent of the donor even though taking the organs, by causing the donor's death, would instantiate killing (Truog and Robinson 2003; Sade 2011). We could also authorize physicians—through hospital policies, professional guidelines, or laws—to withdraw life-supports unilaterally upon a declaration of total brain failure (perhaps even upon a determination of irreversible unconsciousness) in cases where continued treatment is unnecessary for organ procurement and appears otherwise futile. Not all of what are traditionally considered “death behaviors” need to be permanently anchored to a declaration of death. Thus we currently use advance directives and other considerations to justify withdrawal of life-supports in some circumstances, although several decades ago such withdrawal had to await a determination of death. There is no reason to regard further reforms of our practices surrounding death as beyond responsible consideration. Thus, despite rowing against the tide of the brain-death movement, the traditional approach has reclaimed the status of a serious contender in the debate over the definition of death.

4. Further Possibilities

In recent decades, the debate over the definition of death has generally been understood as a competition between the approaches discussed here: traditional, whole-brain (or brainstem), and higher-brain standards and their corresponding conceptualizations. Each of these approaches, however, makes certain assumptions that might be contested: (1) that death is more or less determinate, more event-like than process-like, (2) that there is a uniquely correct definition of death, which can be formulated in terms of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions, and (3) that human death is morally a very important marker. Now we will consider three nonstandard ways of thinking about death, each of which directly challenges one of these assumptions.

Each of the approaches considered so far asserts the correctness of a single standard of death. Might different standards be appropriate for different purposes? If so, then the debate characterized in previous sections has reflected, to some extent, an exercise in futility: a search that wrongly seeks a determinate event, which can be captured by a single standard, rather than a process.

According to two authors who develop this line of reasoning, the nearly simultaneous emergence of organ transplantation and mechanical ventilators provoked three practical questions: (1) When may doctors take organs for transplantation? (2) When may doctors unilaterally discontinue treatment? (3) When is a patient dead for legal purposes and appropriately transferred to an undertaker? (Halevy and Brody 1993). Rather than assuming that one standard for death will adequately answer these three questions—a possibility rendered doubtful by the interminable debate over standards—we should answer each question on its merits, disaggregating death accordingly.

Providing one example of how these practical questions might be answered, the authors argue that organ procurement is appropriate when the whole-brain standard has been met (apparently precluding DCD), unilateral discontinuation of treatment is appropriate when the higher-brain standard has been met, and a patient should legally count as dead when traditional criteria have been met (ibid). (Here we need not consider the authors' specific arguments for these determinations.)

But why must each answer invoke a standard of death? An alternative would be to adopt an updated traditional standard, which would supply legal criteria for death, while denying that unilateral discontinuation of treatment and organ procurement must await death. To be sure, harvesting vital organs from living patients would require an exception to the dead-donor rule, the social risks of which might well be avoided if death were disaggregated along the lines suggested. But the alternative possibility of separating death from particular “death behaviors” motivates the question of whether there are further grounds for disaggregating death into a process.

A possible further ground is the thesis that life and death, although mutually exclusive states, are not exhaustive: “Although no organism can fully belong to both sets [life and death], organisms can be in many conditions (the very conditions that have created the debates about death) during which they do not fully belong to either. … Death is a fuzzy set,” (Brody 1999, 72). What are we to think of this proposal?

It seems undeniable that the boundary between life and death is not perfectly sharp. [ 4 ] The specification of any standard will require some arbitrary line-drawing. Operationalizing the whole-brain standard requires a decision about which brain functions are too trivial to count and need not be tested for. Making a traditional standard clinically useful requires a cut-off point of some number of minutes without heartbeat or respiration for the loss of functioning to count as irreversible. A higher-brain approach needs criteria for determining what sorts of brain damage constitute irreversible loss of the capacity for consciousness and which count as reversible. Yet, while some arbitrariness is inevitable, and highlights a blurred boundary, the blurring in each instance concerns very specific criteria and clinical tests for determining that a standard has been met, not the standard itself. None of the blurred boundaries just considered is inconsistent with the claim that some standard is uniquely correct. Moreover, if essentialism regarding human persons is true—that is, if we human persons have an essence locating us in our most basic kind (e.g., animal, minded being)—this would strengthen the case for a uniquely correct standard by suggesting a foundation for one.

But we must consider the possibility that there is no correct standard. Perhaps death is no more determinate than adulthood. Some people are clearly adults and some people are clearly not adults. But, as any college professor knows, many people are ambiguously adults—mature enough to count as adults in some ways but not in others. Socially and legally, we treat 16-year-olds as adults for purposes of driving, 18-year-olds as adults for purposes of voting and bearing the full weight of criminal law, 21-year-olds as adult enough to drink alcoholic beverages, and so on. Nor is this disaggregation of adulthood incoherent or even particularly awkward; rather, it seems to fit the facts about the gradual development of maturity, acquisition of experience, and accumulation of birthdays. Disaggregating death, one might argue, would be similarly faithful to facts about the frequently very gradual demise of human persons.

Even if this argument persuades us that death is more process-like than event-like—and to do this it must persuade us that it is death itself, not dying , that is process-like—it does not follow that we ought to draw several lines for the determination of death. Consider the confusion that would likely result from such statements as “Grandmother is partly dead, but less dead than Grandfather, although he's not fully dead.” People are so accustomed to thinking of life and death as mutually exclusive, exhaustive sets that there would be considerable practical advantage in insisting on some sensible line that demarcates death in this way. It is true that disaggregating adulthood poses no insuperable practical difficulties, but death is importantly different. For we generally assume that one goes out of existence (at least in this world) at death, a rather momentous change with—at least in the status quo—far-reaching social and legal ramifications. Confusion as a result of plural lines for death may be more troubling and more likely, for the idea of someone's only partly existing is of questionable intelligibility. On the other hand, a proponent of disaggregating death might reply that (1) we could either reserve the language of death for the traditional standard or get used to the language of someone's being partially dead, and (2) we should appreciate that existence is sometimes partial as in the case of a half-assembled car.

Most discussions of the definition and determination of death assume that there is a uniquely correct definition of death. Definitions, classically understood, are supposed to state necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for the correct application of a word or concept. They may be thought to capture de re essences existing independently of human thought, language, and interests, or de dicto essences determined solely by linguistic meaning. The major approaches we have considered have tried both to define death by capturing its essence and to advance a standard for determining human death that coheres with the definition. But what if the term “death” cannot be defined in any such way?

One might insist that death can be defined, as the competing definitions demonstrate. But, of course, the trick is to define the term adequately. For example, the organismic definition—death as the irreversible cessation of functioning of the organism as a whole—makes no reference to consciousness. Yet surely, one might argue, any organism that maintains consciousness should count as alive even if the organism as a whole has irreversibly ceased to function (whether or not this possibility is merely theoretical). Definitions associated with the higher-brain approach—such as human death as the irreversible loss of mind—implausibly imply that a PVS patient is dead despite exhibiting spontaneous breathing and circulation, brainstem-mediated reflexes, and the like. The best explanation for the shortcomings of leading efforts to define death, the argument continues, is that death is not amenable to definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions (Chiong 2005). Let's consider two distinct ways this thesis might be developed.

First, one might argue that the concept of death exhibits only “family resemblance” relations among its instances, as Wittgenstein argued was the case for the concepts of game , language , and many others (Wittgenstein 1953). There are various features of an organism that count towards its being dead, yet there is no authoritative list of features all of which must be satisfied for it to be dead. Each of the following, for example, seems relevant: unconsciousness, absence of spontaneous efforts to breathe, absence of heartbeat, inertness, lack of integrated bodily functions, incapacity to grow, and physical decay. If all of these conditions are present, an organism has surely died. But producing an authoritative shortlist of necessary and sufficient conditions seems futile. One scholar has advanced a parallel claim about the concept of life:

When some property is central to the cluster—as I've argued consciousness is—then possessing only this one property may be sufficient for membership in [the class of living things]. However, merely possessing one or several properties that are peripheral to the cluster may not be sufficient for membership. [S]ome robots are organizationally complex and functionally responsive, though intuitively not alive (Chiong 2005, 26).

Another direction in which to take the thesis that death is not amenable to classical definition is to argue that death is a natural kind whose essence may be obscure. Kripke influentially argued that natural kinds—kinds determined by nature rather than by human thinking, language, or interests—often resist adequate definition because their essential features may be entirely unknown to those referring to the kind in question (Kripke 1970). To define a term by reference to the features people originally used to pick out the kind in question won't do, because those features may be accidental, not essential, and speakers may even be mistaken about them. Those naming the kind whale might have thought whales were the largest fish in the ocean, but whales are not fish and their size relative to other creatures is a contingent matter. We can refer meaningfully to whales, to the creatures picked out by the term whale (the name for the kind), without knowing the essential features of whales, features likely to involve subtle biological details. Perhaps death, too, is a natural kind whose essence is obscure (a possibility entertained in Chiong 2005, 24–25). A likely challenge to this argument is that we already know a great deal about the physical processes involved in death, making it unlikely that death has a hidden essence the failure to discover which impedes adequate definition.

Importantly, though, one can claim that death is a natural kind without accepting any kind of essentialism. An alternative to the essentialist conception is the homeostatic property cluster theory of natural kinds (Millikan 1999). On this view, natural kinds do not, or at least need not, share essential properties. They are comprised by members sharing a stable cluster of similarities, which are brought about by “homeostatic causal mechanisms” (such as, in the case of species, common developmental programs and selective pressures). On this view, X (e.g., a fetus) might be a member of a natural kind (e.g., our species) despite lacking one of the properties (e.g., the potential for rationality) among the cluster of similarities. Death and its opposite, life, might similarly be natural kinds lacking essences, each kind being associated with a cluster of properties that tend to go together and support one another without being necessarily coinstantiated (see, e.g., Chiong 2005). If so, death cannot be defined in a set of necessary and sufficient conditions—in which case no such definition can justify a particular standard.

If death has no essence and resists definition, what is the upshot? One possible inference—that the boundaries of death are vague—would partially merge this approach with the previous one, which construed death as a process. We have noted that one response to the claim of vague boundaries (the response favored in the previous approach) is to embrace several lines, each for a different purpose, in determining death. Another possibility is to understand the vague boundaries as inviting discretion in the matter of producing a single standard of death. So long as a particular standard does not have clear and highly implausible implications, it is admissible for consideration on this view. Society may then select, among admissible standards, whichever is most attractive for practical purposes. It has been argued, along these lines, that the higher-brain standard is inadmissible for implying that those in PVS are dead while the traditional cardiopulmonary standard is inadmissible for implying (in principle) that a still-conscious individual might be dead, clearing the ground for the whole-brain standard, which has no fatal implications and is attractive from a practical standpoint (Chiong 2005).

Having already explored difficulties (and strengths) of each standard, how might we evaluate the more general thesis that death is not amenable to classical definition? One strategy open to critics of this reasoning, of course, is to argue that some definition is adequate. Another is to defend the disaggregation of death, as previously discussed. A third strategy would be to argue that our failure thus far to produce an adequate definition does not mean that none is possible. Some concepts can be adequately captured by classical definitions even if it is difficult to produce them. It would appear premature, therefore, to render a judgment on the success of the present approach to understanding human death.

A final assumption underlying the mainstream discussion of the definition of death is that human death is a morally crucial marker. Were it not, then accuracy in the definition of death would be of purely ontological, conceptual, or scientific interest. This attitude, of course, is not the prevailing one. Not only do we tend to regard many behaviors as appropriate only if an individual has died; the criminal law treats as momentous the question of whether one person has killed—that is, caused the death of—another person, even if such considerations as motive, deliberation, and special circumstances are also important.

It is not difficult to see, though, how one might challenge this presumption of death's moral salience. After all, we have already begun to remove certain behaviors from the class of death behaviors. For example, in many circumstances termination of life supports need not await a patient's death. And, as we have noted, there are calls to abandon the dead-donor rule in the context of organ transplantation. We might go further in separating death from the cluster of moral concerns traditionally associated with it. For example, without embracing the higher-brain approach to death, we could hold that irreversible loss of the capacity of consciousness entails a loss of moral status , at which point traditional death behaviors are appropriate (Persson 2002). We might even overhaul the criminal law with respect to killing:

It is then the irrevocable loss of the capacity for consciousness that is the great loss; so it is for the causing of it that criminal law should mete out the severest punishment. Killing, or the causing of (biological) death, should be punished to this degree only if, as is normally the case, it brings along the irrevocable loss of the capacity for consciousness (ibid, 32).

One implication of this proposal is that harvesting organs from PVS patients, thereby killing them, would not be punishable insofar as these patients, having irrevocably lost the capacity for consciousness, have already suffered “the great loss” and no longer possess moral status. Some attracted to this approach will want to argue further that the crime of murder is really that of causing the irrevocable loss of the capacity for consciousness without first obtaining voluntary, informed consent from the person to be killed . The italicized qualification would create conceptual space for a justification of active euthanasia (see the entry on voluntary euthanasia ).

The present proposal to separate the issue of death from what is morally important is somewhat radical. Yet its chief ground for doing so, the claim that the capacity for consciousness is what underlies moral status, cannot be dismissed. On the other hand, this claim apparently relies on the thesis (which we considered in connection with the higher-brain approach) that only what affects one's experience can affect one's interests. As we saw, this thesis is far from self-evident. For those who disagree with it, the time of death—the time at which one no longer exists (at least in this world)—is likely to retain some of the moral importance traditionally accorded to it. Moreover, even if the philosophical case for demoting the moral importance of death were airtight, we cannot responsibly dismiss widely held sensibilities, including those at odds with the present approach, in constructing public policies concerning death. Certainly it is contestable to what extent the public could embrace further demotion of the moral importance of death, and to what extent its limited ability to do so matters for public policy.

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How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.
  • International Network for Life Studies , founded by Professor Masahiro Morioka.
  • The U.K. Definition of Death , at The Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics.

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The Marginalian

Montaigne on Death and the Art of Living

By maria popova.

death philosophy essay

In one of his 107 such exploratory essays, titled “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die,” Montaigne turns to mortality — the subject of one of this year’s best psychology and philosophy books — and points to the understanding of death as a prerequisite for the understanding of life, for the very art of living .

death philosophy essay

Montaigne examines our conflicted relationship with dying:

Now, of all the benefits that virtue confers upon us, the contempt of death is one of the greatest, as the means that accommodates human life with a soft and easy tranquillity, and gives us a pure and pleasant taste of living, without which all other pleasure would be extinct. […] The end of our race is death; ’tis the necessary object of our aim, which, if it fright us, how is it possible to advance a step without a fit of ague? The remedy the vulgar use is not to think on’t; but from what brutish stupidity can they derive so gross a blindness? They must bridle the ass by the tail: ‘Qui capite ipse suo instituit vestigia retro,’ [‘Who in his folly seeks to advance backwards’ — Lucretius, iv. 474] ’tis no wonder if he be often trapped in the pitfall. They affright people with the very mention of death, and many cross themselves, as it were the name of the devil. And because the making a man’s will is in reference to dying, not a man will be persuaded to take a pen in hand to that purpose, till the physician has passed sentence upon and totally given him over, and then betwixt and terror, God knows in how fit a condition of understanding he is to do it. The Romans, by reason that this poor syllable death sounded so harshly to their ears and seemed so ominous, found out a way to soften and spin it out by a periphrasis, and instead of pronouncing such a one is dead, said, ‘Such a one has lived,’ or ‘Such a one has ceased to live’ … provided there was any mention of life in the case, though past, it carried yet some sound of consolation. … I make account to live, at least, as many more. In the meantime, to trouble a man’s self with the thought of a thing so far off were folly. But what? Young and old die upon the same terms; no one departs out of life otherwise than if he had but just before entered into it; neither is any man so old and decrepit, who, having heard of Methuselah, does not think he has yet twenty good years to come. Fool that thou art! who has assured unto thee the term of life? Thou dependest upon physicians’ tales: rather consult effects and experience. According to the common course of things, ’tis long since that thou hast lived by extraordinary favour; thou hast already outlived the ordinary term of life. And that it is so, reckon up thy acquaintance, how many more have died before they arrived at thy age than have attained unto it; and of those who have ennobled their lives by their renown, take but an account, and I dare lay a wager thou wilt find more who have died before than after five-and-thirty years of age. … How many several ways has death to surprise us?

death philosophy essay

Rather than indulging the fear of death, Montaigne calls for dissipating it by facing it head-on, with awareness and attention — an approach common in Eastern spirituality:

[L]et us learn bravely to stand our ground, and fight him. And to begin to deprive him of the greatest advantage he has over us, let us take a way quite contrary to the common course. Let us disarm him of his novelty and strangeness, let us converse and be familiar with him, and have nothing so frequent in our thoughts as death. Upon all occasions represent him to our imagination in his every shape; at the stumbling of a horse, at the falling of a tile, at the least prick with a pin, let us presently consider, and say to ourselves, ‘Well, and what if it had been death itself?’ and, thereupon, let us encourage and fortify ourselves. Let us evermore, amidst our jollity and feasting, set the remembrance of our frail condition before our eyes, never suffering ourselves to be so far transported with our delights, but that we have some intervals of reflecting upon, and considering how many several ways this jollity of ours tends to death, and with how many dangers it threatens it. The Egyptians were wont to do after this manner, who in the height of their feasting and mirth, caused a dried skeleton of a man to be brought into the room to serve for a memento to their guests: ‘Omnem crede diem tibi diluxisse supremum Grata superveniet, quae non sperabitur, hora.’ ‘Think each day when past is thy last; the next day, as unexpected, will be the more welcome.’ — [Hor., Ep., i. 4, 13.] Where death waits for us is uncertain; let us look for him everywhere. The premeditation of death is the premeditation of liberty; he who has learned to die has unlearned to serve. There is nothing evil in life for him who rightly comprehends that the privation of life is no evil: to know, how to die delivers us from all subjection and constraint. Paulus Emilius answered him whom the miserable King of Macedon, his prisoner, sent to entreat him that he would not lead him in his triumph, ‘Let him make that request to himself.’ — [ Plutarch, Life of Paulus Aemilius, c. 17; Cicero, Tusc., v. 40. ] In truth, in all things, if nature do not help a little, it is very hard for art and industry to perform anything to purpose. I am in my own nature not melancholic, but meditative; and there is nothing I have more continually entertained myself withal than imaginations of death, even in the most wanton time of my age.

death philosophy essay

One of Montaigne’s most timeless and timeliest points strikes at the heart of our present productivity-culture, reminding us that the whole of life is contained in our inner life , not in the checklist of our accomplishments:

We should always, as near as we can, be booted and spurred, and ready to go, and, above all things, take care, at that time, to have no business with any one but one’s self: — ‘Quid brevi fortes jaculamur avo Multa?’ [‘Why for so short a life tease ourselves with so many projects?’ — Hor., Od., ii. 16, 17.]

He presages the “real artists ship” mantra Steve Job made famous five centuries later:

A man must design nothing that will require so much time to the finishing, or, at least, with no such passionate desire to see it brought to perfection. We are born to action: ‘Quum moriar, medium solvar et inter opus.’ [‘When I shall die, let it be doing that I had designed.’ — Ovid, Amor., ii. 10, 36.] I would always have a man to be doing, and, as much as in him lies, to extend and spin out the offices of life; and then let death take me planting my cabbages, indifferent to him, and still less of my gardens not being finished.

The essence of his argument is the idea that learning to die is essential for learning to live:

If I were a writer of books, I would compile a register, with a comment, of the various deaths of men: he who should teach men to die would at the same time teach them to live. […] Peradventure, some one may object, that the pain and terror of dying so infinitely exceed all manner of imagination, that the best fencer will be quite out of his play when it comes to the push. Let them say what they will: to premeditate is doubtless a very great advantage; and besides, is it nothing to go so far, at least, without disturbance or alteration? Moreover, Nature herself assists and encourages us: if the death be sudden and violent, we have not leisure to fear; if otherwise, I perceive that as I engage further in my disease, I naturally enter into a certain loathing and disdain of life. I find I have much more ado to digest this resolution of dying, when I am well in health, than when languishing of a fever; and by how much I have less to do with the commodities of life, by reason that I begin to lose the use and pleasure of them, by so much I look upon death with less terror. Which makes me hope, that the further I remove from the first, and the nearer I approach to the latter, I shall the more easily exchange the one for the other.

death philosophy essay

With a philosophical lens fringing on quantum physics, Montaigne reminds us of the fundamental bias of the arrow of time as we experience it:

Not only the argument of reason invites us to it — for why should we fear to lose a thing, which being lost, cannot be lamented? — but, also, seeing we are threatened by so many sorts of death, is it not infinitely worse eternally to fear them all, than once to undergo one of them? … What a ridiculous thing it is to trouble ourselves about taking the only step that is to deliver us from all trouble! As our birth brought us the birth of all things, so in our death is the death of all things included. And therefore to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago. … Long life, and short, are by death made all one; for there is no long, nor short, to things that are no more.

He returns — poignantly, poetically — to the meaning of life :

All the whole time you live, you purloin from life and live at the expense of life itself. The perpetual work of your life is but to lay the foundation of death. You are in death, whilst you are in life, because you still are after death, when you are no more alive; or, if you had rather have it so, you are dead after life, but dying all the while you live; and death handles the dying much more rudely than the dead, and more sensibly and essentially. If you have made your profit of life, you have had enough of it; go your way satisfied.

Half a millennium before Carl Sagan, Montaigne channels the sentiment at the heart of Pale Blue Dot :

Life in itself is neither good nor evil; it is the scene of good or evil as you make it.’ And, if you have lived a day, you have seen all: one day is equal and like to all other days. There is no other light, no other shade; this very sun, this moon, these very stars, this very order and disposition of things, is the same your ancestors enjoyed, and that shall also entertain your posterity.

He paints death as the ultimate equalizer:

Give place to others, as others have given place to you. Equality is the soul of equity. Who can complain of being comprehended in the same destiny, wherein all are involved?

The heart of Montaigne’s case falls somewhere between John Cage’s Zen philosophy and the canine state of being-in-the-moment :

Wherever your life ends, it is all there. The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you. It depends upon your will, and not upon the number of days, to have a sufficient length of life.

death philosophy essay

He concludes with an admonition about the solipsistic superficiality of death’s ritualization:

I believe, in truth, that it is those terrible ceremonies and preparations wherewith we set it out, that more terrify us than the thing itself; a new, quite contrary way of living; the cries of mothers, wives, and children; the visits of astounded and afflicted friends; the attendance of pale and blubbering servants; a dark room, set round with burning tapers; our beds environed with physicians and divines; in sum, nothing but ghostliness and horror round about us; we seem dead and buried already. … Happy is the death that deprives us of leisure for preparing such ceremonials.

Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Essays is now in the public domain and is available as a free download in multiple formats from Project Gutenberg .

Public domain illustrations via Flickr Commons

— Published December 12, 2012 — —




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A Philosopher's Case Against Death

death philosophy essay

The idea is intuitive: It is good to be alive; it is bad to die. Yet many, even most, resist this idea, and not just because they believe in an afterlife. Some of the resistance comes from the worries about what would happen to the world if we lived much longer: Overpopulation! Stagnation! Social security and pension crises! These are reasonable concerns: Something that appears to be good for the individual can have such bad effects for society that in the end it is good for no one. But more commonly, people simply appear to accept that death comes after a full life; they do not object to death, only untimely death.

death philosophy essay

Writer David Ewing Duncan traveled the United States giving talks on biotechnology and life extension. At each venue, he asked the audience if they would want to live 80 years, 120 years, 150 years, or forever. People were allowed to imagine breakthroughs in antiaging medicine. Out of 30,000 people, around 60 percent responded by saying 80 years, 30 percent said 120 years, nearly 10 percent said 150 years, and less than 1 percent said forever. His results were similar to those of a 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center about Americans’ opinions on death. When asked how long they would want to live, 69 percent gave a number between 78 and 100. The average ideal life span turned out to be about 90. Only 8 percent said that they would want to live beyond 100, and only 4 percent said they would want to live beyond 120.

My own experience teaching an undergraduate class on the philosophy of death confirms some of these findings. At the beginning of each semester, I ask my class how long they would want to live, ideally. Contrary to what we might expect, the vast majority are content with a natural life span. They do not worry much about death. Half of the class say that they have never really thought about death. (Of course, this might be because they are young.) As someone who finds death to be a gruesome prospect, I find this easygoing attitude toward death weird. At first, I did not take it seriously. Surely they are only pretending to accept death in order to comfort themselves and each other! But when I pressed people around me on the matter, they too insisted that they were okay with dying. Really. This was not because they, like 80 percent of Americans, believed in an afterlife. People I spoke to were often agnostics, and they did not justify their equanimity by referring to heaven. Rather, they had accepted death and said that they had “made peace” with it. They had the same sentiments with regard to aging. The limiting conditions of our lives are fine to them just the way they are. Gradually it dawned on me: Could it be that what seems obvious (to me), namely, that it is bad to age and die, is actually a countercultural thought?

Stoic philosophers from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius implored us not only to accept death, but to love it as a part of the cosmically just iron laws of nature.

I began to study ideas about human mortality. What I found was that the acceptance of death is deeply embedded in our cultures. In the literature on death, this view is often referred to as “apologism” and contrasted with prolongevism, but it could also be labeled the “philosophical view” or the “wise view,” since all the most important philosophers and teachers of mankind have taught that we should not fear death.

Socrates likened earthly existence to a punishment and an illness and understood death to be a relief, something to look forward to. The Buddha similarly taught that life is suffering and saw our final and absolute extinction as the highest good. Stoic philosophers from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius implored us not only to accept death, but to love it as a part of the cosmically just iron laws of nature. The 16th-century thinker Montaigne, under the influence of Plato and the Stoics, goes so far as to identify philosophical wisdom with the acceptance of death in the famous title of one of his essays, “To Study Philosophy is to Learn How to Die.” Epicureans competed with Platonists and Stoics, but they agreed with these rival schools that death is nothing to fear.

In Book III of the Roman epicurean philosopher Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things,” in a section called “On the Folly of Fearing Death,” we find nearly all of the main reasons given for not fearing annihilation that we hear to this day: (a) we have no experiences when dead, so it cannot be bad; (b) if we have had a good life, then we should “retire like a guest sated with the banquet”; (c) if we have had a bad life, then “why not make end of life and trouble?”; (d) life will get boring in the end because “all things are ever as they were”; (e) we should “yield” to the younger generation, because “one thing must be restored at the expense of others” in a natural circle of life, whereby “one thing shall never cease to rise up of another, and life is granted to none for freehold, to all on lease”; and (f) we must die to avoid overpopulation since “there must needs be substance that the generations to come may grow.”

These are a few examples of death’s ardent advocates, and the list could be continued by simply adding the name of any philosopher, or prophet for that matter, who comes to mind. The likelihood that the thinker will be against death is slim. In a recent book on our attitudes toward death, the authors conclude, with some surprise, “[C]ome to think about it, we can’t think of a single major philosopher or world religion that subscribes to the position that death is nothing more than a dreadful prospect, the worst possible cheat imaginable.” Gerald J. Gruman, author of a classic study on the history of our ideas about death, similarly concludes that “the leading intellectual currents [of the West are] extensively infiltrated by apologism: The belief that prolongevity is neither possible nor desirable.”

Many of the stories we tell bring home the apologist message. The human condition seems harsh, since it comes with aging, illness, and death. However, so the message goes, it is actually what is best for us, and if we resist it and try to change it something bad is bound to happen. This is the moral of one of the earliest known pieces of literature from the 18th century BC, the “Epic of Gilgamesh.” Gilgamesh, pained and frightened by the death of his companion, sets out to find the secret of eternal life. At one point he finds it in a plant he rescues from the depths of the ocean. When he carelessly leaves the plant on the ground to go bathing, a snake steals it. All his efforts fail in similar ways. He eventually learns that “life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands.”

It was also a favorite theme of the Greeks. Man’s hubris, his refusal to stay within his proper bounds, is punished: We should not fly too close to the sun. In the tale of Tithonus, Eos — the Goddess of Dawn — falls in love with Tithonus and asks Zeus to make him immortal. Zeus grants Tithonus his wish, but with a catch. While unable to die, Tithonus still ages. In the end, they could do nothing but lock the senile old man in a room where he still lies babbling incoherently. (The moral may be highly relevant today: Many fear that the quest for life extension will result in the horrific spectacle of hospital wards with row after row of senile, demented centennials.) We all know how Sisyphus was punished by the gods to push a rock up a hill for all eternity. What, though, did he do to deserve this punishment? The backstory is this: Sisyphus was a king who tricked Death into putting on handcuffs. He then locked Death in a wardrobe, and as a result, no one died any more. People were still trying to slaughter each other on the battlefield to no avail. Once order was restored and death reinstated, Sisyphus was punished by being given what he wished for — namely, immortality, but again with a catch. This is a fitting punishment thinks the apologist, since in her view life without death is in fact a never-ending, infernal pushing of the rock. Death, more peaceful than the deepest sleep, saves us from sharing Sisyphus’s fate. Thank you, Death.

We are living in a time that has much less respect for the notion of hubris, but many of our most popular works of imagination continue in the tradition of the acceptance of death.

These are, of course, old myths, and we are living in a time that has much less respect for the notion of hubris, but many of our most popular works of imagination continue in the tradition of the acceptance of death. This may not be obvious until one reflects on it. Yet in what popular work of art does a quest for immortality end well? In what work of art does the hero seek immortality but is stopped by the villain? “The Lord of the Rings,” “Narnia,” “Harry Potter,” and the “Star Wars” series, to mention some of our most beloved and widely recognized stories, all reinforce the apologist narrative. Both J. R. R. Tolkien’s and C. S. Lewis’s fantasy epics were written as responses to what both authors saw as disturbing and dehumanizing science-driven visions for humanity, advanced by writers such as Julian Huxley, J. B. S. Haldane, and Olaf Stapledon.

In “The Lord of the Rings,” earthly paradise is a low-tech pastoral old Britain, whereas evil is created in the industrial furnaces of Sauron. The story centers around a magical ring, the One Ring, which can give its bearer great powers, including life extension. But it also corrupts: After having lived five times his natural life span, one of its possessors literally turns into the slimy creep Gollum. Only the Ainur, including wizards, and the elves are immortal. Men, dwarves, hobbits, and most other races cannot live forever and thus are subject to aging and natural death. In Tolkien’s universe, despite many having a desire for it, immortality is not desirable for those who are mortal. Every race has a set span; to exceed this span proves to be agony.

Peter Jackson, who directed the films based on the books, is not alone in interpreting the One Ring as representing science and technology, as well as their seemingly uncontrollable powers. Even the best, with the best of intentions, cannot control it. We must renounce its powers and return to a more natural way of being in order to save ourselves.

In the first two installments of C. S. Lewis’s “Narnia” series, Jadis, a young princess, violates the law of Aslan and eats a magical apple from the Silver Tree, which gives her inexhaustible powers and immortality but also transforms her into the psychopathic, mass-murdering archvillain, the White Witch. In J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, the archnemesis is the formidable black magician, Voldemort, who, according to Wikibooks, “apparently believes nothing is worse than death; perhaps his greatest weakness is his inability to love.” Taken together, Lewis, Rowling, and Tolkien have sold 600 million copies of their books, far more than any other literature except for a few religious texts, all of which are, of course, also apologist. As movie adaptations — again taken together — they have grossed more than any other franchise, constituting a quarter of the top 40 grossing films of all time.

Speaking of films, while the first three installments of the “Star Wars” saga did not seem to be concerned with either hubris or death, the prequels showed themselves, at least partly, to be another cautionary tale about what happens if we do not accept death. Darth Vader, we learn, was once a young Jedi Knight whose final turn to the dark side was an effort to save his beloved princess from dying in childbirth. The Jedi Master Yoda, a personification of wisdom, encapsulates the moral: “Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is.”

Moving beyond art, apologism is also the faith of our leading bioethicists. Leon Kass, the former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, writes in his book “Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity” that death “is a blessing for every human individual, whether he knows it or not,” and he complains that “the desire to prolong youthfulness [is] an expression of a childish and narcissistic wish incompatible with devotion to posterity.”

Fellow council member Francis Fukuyama warns that a graying population poses a wide range of threats, from economic collapse to the inability to defend our country. Daniel Callahan, another leading bioethicist, argues in favor of setting limits to how medicine is used. We should enable people to live well, but we should not seek to prolong their lives. Heart transplants, for example, should be reserved for younger patients, even given relatively ample resources, whereas the priority with older patients is to enable the best quality of life during their remaining years. Callahan believes a full human life is possible to achieve by 65. After 80, one’s death is still sad but not a tragedy; it is a tolerable death. Callahan rests his idea of a tolerable death on the concept of a “natural life span,” which he bases on “a persistent pattern of judgment in our culture and others of what it means to live out a life.” This “persistent pattern of judgment” referred to by Callahan is what I am referring to as the Wise View.

Thanatophobia, the fear of death, is, according to the mental health profession, no more rational than a fear of spiders, open spaces, or clowns.

In an echo of Soviet-style psychology, psychologists have even defined acceptance as the only sane, well-adjusted response to death. Thanatophobia, the fear of death, is, according to the mental health profession, no more rational than a fear of spiders, open spaces, or clowns. It is a product of “intrapsychic structural tension,” “infantile conflict,” or some other pejoratively labeled state. Kübler-Ross’s popular grief cycle model of how to face death and other forms of serious loss, by moving through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance, was initially intended to be strictly descriptive. However, it is often appropriated as a normative model of a healthy mind: We ought to move from denial to acceptance, and if we do not, then there is something wrong with us.

Should we naively insist that surely death — our own or that of a loved one — is simply gruesome, then philosophers, priests, and psychologists stand ready with their wisdom to tell us not to rage and rebel, but to relax and accept death because life has an end because it has a beginning, and it consists of different stages, each one with its particular meaning and charm, not unlike the seasons of the year. The limit of death raises the stakes; it makes each moment significant, each choice important, and it endows life with seriousness and meaning. We should seek a good life, not necessarily a long life. Death is a fitting culmination to a complete life, a well-deserved rest. A fear of death is foolish since either you cease to exist and can therefore not be harmed in any way (since you are not), or you go to a better place. Immortality should not be sought by greedily hanging on to our own particular existence, by refusing to yield and make space. Immortality should be sought in transcendence, in passing the flame of life on through our children, by contributing to the achievements of man, and through the religious and philosophical appreciation of the fundamental oneness of all being. The fact that many people seek to extend youth and postpone death at any cost is a sign of selfishness and decadence. It is hubristic, Promethean, and positivist. Death can be beautiful.

This may sound persuasive, but we should not buy it. Despite its dominance, its distinguished defenders, and its impressive provenance, the Wise View is false. If death is the end then it is simply awful, and it is time we admit it.

Unless there is an afterlife, we will all die — that much is undeniable. But it matters whether we die at 90 or 150. And it matters whether we continue to fall rapidly apart after 50, or if we can delay aging enough to continue in robust health far beyond that. Indeed, from the point of view of health, and healthcare, nothing can have a greater positive impact than addressing aging. Not to speak of the suffering it would prevent.

The Wise View, with its conservative acceptance of the status quo, stands in the way of a greater societal commitment to finding out what aging is, and slow it down, halt it, or perhaps even reverse it. Thankfully, we find ourselves at a turning point in history where the old stories in praise of human mortality are beginning to lose their grip. We are less willing to see death as a just divine punishment, less certain of an afterlife, less inclined to accept that everything that happens by nature is thereby good, and we are no longer certain that nothing can be done about death. We are beginning to allow ourselves to openly admit what our actions already say: namely, that we want youth and life and that we hate aging and death. A rebellion against death is brewing.

Ingemar Patrick Linden taught philosophy at NYU for nearly a decade. He is researching public attitudes to radical life extension. This article is adapted from his book, “ The Case Against Death .”

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The Philosophy of Death: Is it Rational to Fear Death?

In this article we consider Greek philosopher Epicurus’ reasons as to why we should not fear death, as well as some contemporary opinions on the philosophy of death.

philosophy of death socrates epicurus

Each of us has our own philosophy of death, our own thoughts about what it is to die and whether we should fear our end. In this article we explore the views on death of Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC), who proposed that we have no good reason to fear death and that we must relinquish our fear in order to live a happy life. We then consider the views of Thomas Nagel (b.1937), a contemporary philosopher whose views on the subject have proved influential.

Philosophy as Preparation for Death

raphael school athens painting

Let us go back in time, to a place where philosophers roamed the earth. We find ourselves in classical Athens, in a period where Socrates , Plato , Aristotle and of course Epicurus lived and breathed. This was a time of great intellectual accomplishment and it was to form the bedrock of philosophy until this day. We are fortunate to have many surviving works of Plato, who wrote about the life and philosophy of Socrates in a series of dialogues. In one such Dialogue, entitled Phaedo , he reiterated Socrates’ philosophy of death :

“… the true philosophers are ever studying death; to them, of all men, death is the least terrible.”

jacques louis david death socrates painting

Very early on in the history of philosophy we see that death is seen as the raison d’etre of philosophy. Death is what motivates us towards achieving our goals, which helps us to appreciate our loved ones and which concludes our story. It is our marching towards death that forces us to consider how we ought to live and, contrastingly, how we ought to die. For Socrates and Plato the purpose of philosophy is obvious: it is preparation for death. For Plato, our preparation for death was also a preparation for a kind of afterlife, which is something that Epicurus did not agree with.

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Please check your inbox to activate your subscription, who was epicurus.

epicurus head statue

Epicurus was born approximately seven years after Plato died and began his philosophical journey at the age of fourteen as a revolt against his teachers. He moved to Athens at the age of eighteen at the time Aristotle (a student of Plato’s Academy) was teaching at Chalcis, about eighty kilometres north of Athens. It was in Athens that Epicurus strayed from the esoteric teachings of Plato and formed his own naturalistic view of the world, which he published in hundreds of manuscripts (of which almost none survive and of which we know about through his disciples ’ writings and historical documents ).

Epicurus proposed that the world was made up of atoms (over two thousand years before they were shown to exist) and that the universe was infinite. He rejected Plato’s claims about the afterlife , believing that the soul dies with the body. He also encouraged a form of pleasurable living that was rejected by the Stoics , who thought his way of life was degenerate. Epicurus proposed that pleasure (defined as a lack of pain and mental disturbance) was the goal of life. But to achieve that goal we needed to rid ourselves of fear, especially the fear of death.

Is it Rational to Fear Death?

prothesis terracotta funerary plaque

Epicurus believed that our fear of death is the worst fear we face in life because it pervades our thoughts while we are alive. According to Epicurus our fear of death stops us from living. To live properly and happily we must rid ourselves of the fear of death. But how do we do that?

Most of what we know about Epicurus’ philosophy of death comes from a surviving letter of his to one of his students, Menoeceus :

Accustom thyself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply sentience, and death is the privation of all sentience; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an illimitable time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terrors for him who has thoroughly apprehended that there are no terrors for him in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatsoever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.

Epicurus’ Argument

william stott garden epicurus leontium ternissa painting

Let’s break Epicurus’ argument down.

  • Things are only bad for us if they are experientially unpleasant
  • The dead have no experience
  • Therefore by 1 and 2 nothing can be bad for the dead
  • It is irrational to fear what will not be bad
  • Therefore by 3 and 4 it is irrational to fear death itself

For Epicurus’ argument to be persuasive you would need to accept at least two assumptions in his view, namely:

  • That death is the end of consciousness and that consciousness does not transcend the body;
  • You cannot be harmed by things you cannot experience.

If you accept both assumptions, you probably will agree with Epicurus that it is irrational to fear death. If you disagree with the first assumption (if you believe in the life of the soul after death, for example) you may find yourself seeking answers within theology about whether death should be feared.

Things become interesting if you dispute the second assumption.

Is Death a Harm?

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Imagine you land a new job and are invited to a company party. You are having a nice time talking to the host, enjoying the atmosphere and the food provided. At this moment you assume that everything is going well. However, in the back room – away from earshot – your old work colleague Dave, who you invited as your plus-one, is telling the other guests about how much of a loser you are. Dave is eager to tell these people how slack you were in the old job and how everyone at the old job secretly despises you. At this moment your reputation among your new work colleagues is tainted, even though they keep their mouths shut around you and you never find out that Dave spread rumors about you.

The question is, have you been harmed?

Thomas Nagel, a contemporary American philosopher, argues that ‘yes,’ you have been harmed even though you do not experience the harm. We can think of many examples that may apply here, such as your partner cheating on you without you ever knowing. In such instances, he proposes that you have been harmed. What exactly about you is harmed is a question that could be asked, whereby the answer seems to depend on your view of personal identity. If you think that you are your thoughts and your body in the present moment, Nagel’s argument probably will not be persuasive since you do not experience the harm directly. This is the type of view that Epicurus seems to take.

However, if you think of yourself as a kind of narrative or story stretched over time, like Nagel seems to, then ‘you’ are your story, even if parts of your story are not known by you.

Thomas Nagel’s Philosophy of Death

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How does this apply to the philosophy of death? For Nagel, death is a harm because it deprives us of life which he believes is intrinsically good. He states in his book Mortal Questions in a chapter titled Death that “All of us, I believe, are fortunate to have been born.” It is from this conviction about the value of life that he builds his argument for why death is a harm:

“If we are to make sense of the view that to die is bad, it must be on the ground that life is a good and death is the corresponding deprivation or loss [of that good]”

Nagel, unlike Epicurus, thinks that we are harmed by death because “the time after his death is time of which his death deprives him.” In other words, death deprives us of more life . It is for this reason that we step away from oncoming traffic and for why we mourn the death of a young person more intensely than that of an elderly person. However, the implications of Nagel’s deprivation view are endless. How can we psychologically deal with our own impending death? Should we seek out immortality ? Nagel’s philosophy of death, for better or for worse, puts the fear back into death.

Towards a Philosophy of Death

auguste rodin thinker le penseur statue

One’s answer to the question ‘is it rational to fear death?’ will determine a large part of their philosophy of death. To begin, we can ask which view is more reasonable, Nagel’s or Epicurus’s?

On one hand, Nagel’s view seems to make sense of our emotions about death and our behaviour towards it. However, Epicurus seems to suggest that our typical emotions about death and our behaviour towards it may not be rational.

One could question Nagel’s view that life is intrinsically good, or one could question whether we fear death itself, or if we fear the broader impacts and circumstances of our death, thus challenging Epicurus’ view. Perhaps, as is often the case, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Could there be a way to dislike death and yet not fear it? Could we accept death in a way that allows us to live happy and fulfilling lives? That is up to us to determine, as we each form our own philosophy of death.

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Socrates’ Philosophy And Art: The Origins Of Ancient Aesthetic Thought

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By Casey Scott MA Philosophy, GDipEd English and Humanities, BA(Hons) Professional & Creative Writing Casey teaches philosophy and culture studies at a leading Australian university. His postgraduate research examined the metaphysics of biological concepts. He is a qualified English teacher with a degree in professional and creative writing and is about to begin his third degree in zoology and animal sciences.

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A Philosophical Perspective on Death

  • February 10, 2019
  • Posted by: RSIS
  • Category: Social Science

International Journal of Research and Innovation in Social Science (IJRISS) | Volume III, Issue I, January 2019 | ISSN 2454–6186

(Perspective essay)

IJRISS Call for paper

Elvis Omondi Kauka

Department of Educational Foundations, Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, Kenya

Abstract:-This essay examines death from a preliminary Philosophical perspective by scrutinising the positive side of death. It infers that death is a cosmologically, socioeconomically and morally useful phenomenon. It also adduces to the fact that the most logical step to take in life is to accept death and prepare for it, instead of wallowing in endless fear. It is further deduced that death may not be the end of life if at all it is the case that humans are Hylemorphic beings. The essay limits itself to analysis, and part descriptions and prescriptions. The fact that death is an unavoidable but feared Phenomenon, this essay anticipates to open and motivate crucial discussions on the existential assimilation and serene embrace of death.


Most human beings react when they hear the news of the death of someone they love, but only a hand full take time to think about death, to examine it and to assess its significance. Serious discussions on death are mostly limited to funerals and requiem services. Unfortunately, funerals usually are emotionally charged events, and they may not evoke rational inquiry into the death. After the funerals, mourners go retreat awaiting the next funeral, and it eventually becomes a routine, a weekly one or a monthly one. In the process, proper discourse on death is suffocated, and the logic of death is considered a taboo. Nonetheless, from a general perspective, death is considered an unavoidable evil that mauls the usual modus operandi in families and societies. In fact, in some communities, it is a taboo to utter the word Death because doing so would be tantamount to inviting it. However, not talking about death whenever the topic is brought forth, is a defence mechanism, escapism that is not fit for logical beings. We hold that in as much death is considered an evil, it can be philosophised and the more it is philosophised, the less mysterious it becomes. After all, the Problem of evil is one of the Problems in Philosophy, and so death is part of Philosophy.


1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology

1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology

Philosophy, One Thousand Words at a Time

Euthanasia, or Mercy Killing

Author: Nathan Nobis Category: Ethics Word count: 1000

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Sadly, there are people in very bad medical conditions who want to die. They are in pain, they are suffering, and they no longer find their quality of life to be at an acceptable level anymore.

When people like this are kept alive by machines or other medical treatments, can it be morally permissible to let them die ?

Advocates of “passive euthanasia” argue that it can be. Their reasons, however, suggest that it can sometimes be not wrong to actively kill some patients, i.e., that “active euthanasia” can be permissible also. [1] This essay reviews these arguments.

Ferdinand Hodler,

1. Passive Euthanasia

Denying that passive euthanasia is ever morally permissible suggests that we must always do everything we can to try to keep someone alive, even if they are miserable, want to die, and say so. To many, that’s just cruel. [2]

Passive euthanasia can be directly supported by both consequentialist (or utilitarian) and Kantian ethics. [3]

For the consequentialist, the patient being out of their misery is a better consequence for them , and overall, than their staying alive: this decreases the total amount of pain and unhappiness in the world, and no other choice would produce more good, for them or overall.

For a Kantian, letting them die respects their autonomy or decisions about matters that profoundly affect their own lives: this respects them as “ends in themselves,” whereas forcing them to live treats them as a “mere means” toward our ends, not their own.

Passive euthanasia can also be supported by stating conditions when it can be OK to let someone die. We begin with an ‘if’ and develop a principle:

(a) someone is dying, and (b) is in horrible pain and suffering, and (c) that pain and suffering cannot be relieved, and (d) that person wants to die and says so, and (e) informed, thoughtful and caring people agree that the person would be better off no longer living . . ,

then it can be permissible to let that person die. [4]

Passive euthanasia, then, can be justified in a variety of ways.

2. Active Euthanasia

To see why active euthanasia might be permissible, we begin by reflecting on why passive euthanasia might be OK: it gets people out of their misery and respects what they want for their own lives.

We then observe that these goals can often be pursued more directly and immediately by, say, giving them an overdose of pain-killing medications. Letting people die can take a long time, and that time might be full of unwanted suffering. Killing people, when they want to be killed, achieves their goals, more quickly.

So, it seems that if passive euthanasia can be permissible, so can active.

3. Objections

There are many objections to this reasoning. Some concern euthanasia in general.

3.1. Some claim that pain can always be controlled and so there is never a need to euthanize anyone. However, this insistence that pain can always be made bearable is, sadly, not true.

3.2. Some argue that “miracles” are possible – there’s always a chance that someone recovers – and so euthanasia is wrong. But making important decisions on very unlikely chances is often unwise. Most interestingly though, euthanasia would never prevent a miracle, especially one of divine origins.

Further objections claim there are important differences between active and passive euthanasia, making passive permissible but active wrong.

3.3. Some argue that it’s always wrong to intentionally kill someone, so active euthanasia is wrong. In reply, while it’s, at least, nearly always wrong to kill people, this is arguably because people usually want to live and do not have lives full of pain. Perhaps killing can be justified when this is not the case. [5]

3.4. Some argue that allowing active euthanasia might put us on a “slippery slope” to murdering people who want to live. But this hasn’t happened where active euthanasia is allowed, since we do and would have safeguards to lessen this possibility, as we do with other things that might lead to bad results if misused.

3.5. Some argue that there are important moral differences between allowing something to happen and doing something or because killing someone and letting them die are profoundly different, and so passive and active euthanasia should be judged differently. But consider this case:

An aunt will inherit lots of money if her five-year-old nephew dies. She plans to drown him in the bathtub and make it look like an accident. He just started his bath; she’s on her way to the bathroom to drown him. She opens the bathroom door and is delighted to see that he has slipped in the bathtub and is drowning. She watches, ready to push him under if he steadies himself and saves his own life. But, as her luck would have it, he drowns; she never touches him throughout the ordeal. She inherits the money. [6]

If she claimed that she didn’t “do anything,” she did : she stood there, and doing nothing is doing something . And letting someone die can be as bad , or nearly as bad , and perhaps sometimes even worse than killing someone [7] : indeed, a way to kill someone is to let them die. So these distinctions are, at least, not clear.

3.6. A final concern is that especially if active euthanasia were allowed, some people could be wrongfully killed. This is possible: some people might wrongfully break (potentially good) rules. But we cannot ignore that if euthanasia is not allowed, it might be that some people could be wrongly kept alive. Which wrong is more likely? Which wrong is worse?

4. Conclusion

While death is, arguably, usually bad for the person who dies, the goal of euthanasia is to make this less bad: the word euthanasia means a “good death.” These issues are important, and not just for people currently facing hard choices about death. None of us knows what will happen to us: at any time, an accident or illness might force these issues upon us, and so we should engage them more deeply, now. [8]

[1] The discussion and arguments here are largely based on James Rachels ’ (1941-2003) famous and widely-reprinted article “ Active and Passive Euthanasia,” New England Journal of Medicine 1975; 292: 78-80 .

[2] The discussion here concerns what’s called voluntary euthanasia, where a person wants to die and says so. There are other types of euthanasia though. Non-voluntary euthanasia involves an individual who neither wants to die nor wants to live, e.g., someone who has been unconscious for a long time, say in a coma, and we have good reason to believe that consciousness will never return: they currently don’t literally want anything and we usually don’t know what they would have wanted , since people usually don’t discuss this. What is sometimes called involuntary “euthanasia” involves someone who wants to live and says so . If such a person is let die or killed, this is not euthanasia: in all or nearly all cases, this is murder or wrongful killing , and so won’t be discussed further here.

These definitions cover most actual cases of euthanasia, but they aren’t perfect. First, it could happen that someone said that, if they were to fall into a permanent coma, they would very much want their body to be kept alive for as long as possible, but nobody knows this is what they wanted: if they are euthanized, is that in voluntary or non -voluntary? It could also happen that someone wants to die, but has no way of communicating that (suppose they have an extreme form of “ locked-in syndrome ,” with eye paralysis too, so they cannot even blink out messages): if they are euthanized, is that voluntary or non-voluntary? These cases are unclear, given the characterizations above, as are further possibilities of someone who wants to die but nobody knows that and someone who wants to live but nobody can tell .

Non-human animals who are judged to have a poor quality of life due to serious health problems are often (actively) euthanized: is this best considered a form of non-voluntary euthanasia, or potentially a different type of voluntary euthanasia? These animals have some current wants or desires, unlike a coma patient, but probably don’t have a specific want or desire to die, unlike in typical voluntary euthanasia cases. 

[3] Consequentialism and Kantianism can be used to support euthanasia (although Kant himself might have opposed it: Kant’s own judgments on many moral issues and the positions on moral issues that his theories arguably support sometimes diverge). But these theories do urge us to be very cautious about bringing about someone’s death, including our own.

Consequentialists would, and should, urge especially anyone who doesn’t have a challenging medical condition but wishes to die to seek counseling and assistance to help find happiness and fulfillment: in most cases, this would be better than death for that person and for promoting overall happiness. “ It gets better ,” the saying goes: it’s possible for someone to be euthanized (passively or actively), or commit suicide (if someone euthanizes themselves, this is a type of suicide; if they need assistance to do this, this is assisted suicide ), whose death is not in their own best interest or contributes to the greatest overall good. Indeed, some people have wished to die, have been prevented from ending their own life, come to appreciate their own life later, and then have been glad that they had not ended their life when they wanted to do so earlier. (However, it’s also sometimes true that people want to die, they live, and are eventually able to live what they report to be fulfilling lives, yet they still they wish they had died: Dax Cowart is a well-known case perhaps like this).

And Kantians don’t think that autonomy is unrestricted or limitless: just because we want something for ourselves doesn’t mean we should get it. Kantians firmly reject an attitude of “It’s your life, so do whatever you want with it,” since we have obligations to respect ourselves (and our future selves), given our value as persons, and this respect for ourselves could rule out some cases of euthanasia and suicide.

[4] The details of a principle like this, however, take us to harder questions about euthanasia, harder than those that arise in most circumstances: for examples, what if someone wants to die now but isn’t currently in horrible pain and suffering, or is expecting to die, but many years later after a very slow decline? Should anyone else have “say” over your own life or judge whether some pain and suffering is “horrible enough” for you to reasonably wish to die? If so, who? What if someone isn’t dying and doesn’t even have a bad medical condition but just finds their life not worth living and so wants to die (and so, say, plans to starve themselves to death or do other things that will result in their death)? These harder questions, and others, would need to be addressed for a complete defense of this or similar principles and any arguments based on them.

[5] Some might claim that their intention in any euthanasia is not to kill anyone: killing is an unintended consequence of their real intention, which might be to make the patient comfortable. If this makes sense, they might claim that they are not engaged in any intentional killing, so they aren’t violating any moral principle against intentional killing. This type of reasoning is related to what’s called the “Doctrine of Double Effect.”

[6] This case is from James Rachels. Here is another example that addresses the distinction between doing something versus allowing something to happen :

In a deep forest, hiking alone, Adam finds someone who has fallen into a deep pit. They ask him to throw them a rope so they can climb out. Adam doesn’t and they eventually starve to death. Adam learns of this on the news but feels fine since, he tells himself, “I didn’t do anything there. I did nothing wrong.”

To most, Adam clearly did something  –  he didn’t just allow something to happen – and he did something wrong: what he did , standing there not throwing the rope, was wrong.

[7] For tragic reflections that letting someone die can be worse than killing them, see Gary Comstock, “You Should Not Have Let Your Baby Die,” The New York Times , July 12, 2017 .

[8] Thanks to Zach Blaesi, Taylor Cyr, Chelsea Haramia, Dan Lowe, Travis Rodgers and Dan Peterson for comments on and discussion of this essay.

Gary Comstock, “You Should Not Have Let Your Baby Die,” The New York Times , July 12, 2017 .

James Rachels, “Active and Passive Euthanasia,” New England Journal of Medicine 1975; 292: 78-80.

For Further Reading

Young, Robert, “Voluntary Euthanasia”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta .

Cholbi, Michael, “Suicide”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) .

Woollard, Fiona and Howard-Snyder, Frances, “Doing vs. Allowing Harm”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) .

McIntyre, Alison, “Doctrine of Double Effect”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) .

Related Essays

Applied Ethics by Chelsea Haramia

The Badness of Death by Duncan Purves

Is Death Bad? Epicurus and Lucretius on the Fear of Death by Frederik Kaufman

The Doctrine of Double Effect: Do Intentions Matter to Ethics? by Gabriel Andrade

Deontology: Kantian Ethics by Andrew Chapman

Consequentialism by Shane Gronholz

Principlism in Biomedical Ethics: Respect for Autonomy, Non-Maleficence, Beneficence, and Justice  by G. M. Trujillo, Jr.

Can We Believe in Miracles? by Tomas Bogardus

Possibility and Necessity: An Introduction to Modality  by Andre Leo Rusavuk

Are We Animals? Animalism and Personal Identity by Kristin Seemuth Whaley

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This essay is an abbreviated version of a longer chapter of the same title published in Noah Levin, ed.,  Introduction to Ethics: An Open Educational Resource (NGE Press, 2019) .  Nathan is grateful to Noah Levin for the occasion and inspiration to write these essays. 

About the Author

Nathan Nobis is a Professor of Philosophy at Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA. He is the author of Animals & Ethics 101 , co-author of  Thinking Critically About Abortion , a co-author of  Chimpanzee Rights , and author or co-author of many other articles, chapters, and reviews in philosophy and ethics.

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The Philosophers' Magazine

Death and Its Concept

Jeff Mason argues that the concept of death has no subjective meaning.

Philosophers and non-philosophers stand on a level of equality with respect to death. There are no experts on death, for there is nothing to know about it. Not even those who study the death process have an edge on the rest of us. We are all equals in thinking about death, and we all begin and end thinking about it from a position of ignorance.

Death and its concept are absolutely empty. No picture comes to mind. The concept of death has a use for the living, while death itself has no use for anything. All we can say about death is that it is either real or it is not real. If it is real, then the end of one's life is a simple termination. If it is not real, then the end of one's embodied life is not true death, but a portal to another life.

Having no content, we must speak of death metaphorically. For those who think death is real, death is a blank wall. For those who think it is not real, death is a door to another life. Whether we think of death as a wall or a door, we cannot avoid using one metaphor or another. We often say that a person who dies is relieved of suffering. However, if death is real, then it is metaphorical even to say that the dead do not suffer, as though something of them remains not to suffer. As there are already many speculations about some sort of 'next life,' I will focus on the view that death is real and marks the final end of an individual's life.

Let us explore the metaphor that death is a wall a bit further. Each of us is born facing this wall. From that moment on, every step we take is towards it, no matter which way we turn. There is simply no other direction to take. Like a fun house mirror, the wall of death show us our living fears and distorted images of ourselves. All we see when we look at death is a reflection of our own lives.

Death has no subjective meaning at all. It will come to other people, but never to me. Of course, I know that I am going to die. Death means the end of my future. However, as long as I am alive, I will be living toward that future possibility of no longer having possibilities.

The unavoidable conclusion is that, if death is real, neither I nor you will ever personally taste death. I will cease to be conscious before the end. No matter how close I come to it, death recedes before me. I am actually dead only for others. When the end actually arrives, my dead body passes into the hands of the coroner. I will no longer be there. Death is always described from the perspective of the living. As Ludwig Wittgenstein famously put it, “Death is not an experience in life.”

The concept of death is unlike most other concepts. Usually we have an object and the concept of that object. For example, we have a horse and the concept of a horse. However, the concept of death is absolutely without any object whatsoever. Thinking about the prospect of one's own death is a constant meditation upon our own ignorance. There is no method for getting to know death better, because death cannot be known at all.

One trouble with discussing this topic is the instinctive fear of death. We tend to avoid death in our thoughts and actions. However, if we could forget our fears for a minute, we could see more clearly how interesting the concept actually is from a more detached point of view.

Birth and death are the bookends of our lives. Living towards death in time gives one's life a direction and framework within which to understand the changes that life brings. The world looks very differently to the young and the old. The young look forward. The old look back. What matters to us changes as we get older. The prospect of death informs these changes. The young have an intellectual understanding that death comes to us all, but their mortality has not become real to them. For the old, mortality starts to sink in.

For a long time, I have been puzzled by two famous philosophical ideas about death, one from Plato and one from Spinoza. The first is that a philosopher has a vital concern with death and constantly meditates upon it. The second is that the wise person thinks of nothing so little as death. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle. Ignoring death leaves us with a false sense of life's permanence and perhaps encourages us to lose ourselves in the minutiae of daily of life. Obsessive rumination on death, on the other hand, can lead us away from life. Honestly coming to terms with one's death involves reflection on its significance in one's life, and thinking about the larger values that give life its meaning. In the end, it is useful to think about death only to the point that it frees us to live fully immersed in the life we have yet to live.


Related Article: Close Encounters of the Cancer Kind (written by Jeff Mason two months before his death in August 2012).


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Home — Essay Samples — Philosophy — Socrates — Socrates’ Philosophy On The Life After Death


Socrates’ Philosophy on The Life after Death

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Words: 1273 |

Published: Jun 17, 2020

Words: 1273 | Pages: 3 | 7 min read

Works Cited:

  • Douglass, F. (2001). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Penguin Classics.
  • Foner, E. (2001). Introduction. In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (pp. vii-xxxii). Penguin Classics.
  • Gates, H. L. Jr., & Robbins, H. (2012). Introduction. In The Classic Slave Narratives (pp. ix-xxxi). Signet Classics.
  • Grinde, D. A., & White, J. (2002). Frederick Douglass and the Atlantic World. Slavery and Abolition, 23(1), 1-11.
  • Levine, R. S. (2009). Slavery and the Mastery of Life. In M. S. Lee (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Frederick Douglass (pp. 77-92). Cambridge University Press.
  • McFeely, W. S. (1991). Frederick Douglass. W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Morgan, P. D. (1972). Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox. The Journal of American History, 59(1), 5-29.
  • O'Meally, R. G. (1978). The Voice of Frederick Douglass. The Massachusetts Review, 19(1), 68-92.
  • Quarles, B. (1948). Frederick Douglass. Associated Publishers.
  • Yacovone, D. (2000). Beyond Redemption?: New England Slavery and the Myth of Human Depravity. Journal of the Early Republic, 20(3), 463-468.

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Franz rosenzweig on divine love and on the love of enemies: complications of agape in the secularized world, 1. introduction, 1.1. political theology and the transformations of virtues and vices.

The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and [inflict their] damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. ( Chesterton 1908, pp. 38–39 )
Modernity was and continues to be, in its transformed postmodern stage, an age of revolutions with promised utopias. […] The lesson of the political and philosophical revolutions of modernity and postmodernity is that it is impossible to move forward without taking the past with you. Taking the past into the future for the sake of the future, however, requires creative strategies—strategies of repetition, interpretation, and mediation—that sublimate and re-present the past as a usable past. ( Kepnes 2007, p. 9 )

“The Past […] Stuck like Glue […] and Caused an Excess Weight”

[W]hich was overly encumbered with miracles and now suspicious, could be thrown overboard, and it could be imagined that the ship of faith, already dangerously shaken without this ballast, yet could still safely cross the sea of the present. But this does not say that what was sunk also really—sank. Far from pleasing theology by really sinking, the past stuck like glue to the exterior of the vessel from which it had been thrown and caused an excess weight, worse than previously when it had been stowed inside, which is the proper nature of things. ( The Star 110–11/ Der Stern 111–12)

1.2. Rosenzweig within the Thicket of Political Theology, War and Love

2. rosenzweig on divine love and on the love of enemies, 2.1. rosenzweig on/against agapic love.

What we experience is that God loves, not that God is love [ Daß Gott liebt, erfahren wir, nicht daß Gott die Libe ist ]. In the love, he draws too near to us for us still to say: he is this or that. In his love, we experience only that he is […] but not what he is. The what, the essence, remains hidden. It hides precisely by revealing itself. ( Der Stern 424/ The Star 403–4)

2.2. Rosenzweig on the (Agapic) Love of Enemies

Of old you’ve been the heavenly vest of love, my loving settled with you in the nest.
Angry words of my enemy, I enjoy them, for Your sake; Leave him—he will pressure him whom you have long pressured.
Your enemy learned Your anger: that’s why I love him; for his fist meets Your blow head on.
If You would cast me away, on that day I would cast myself away, how could I wish the best for him, whom You cast away!
Until some day Your anger disappears and You send salvation to the remnant of the heirs redeemed by You.
( )

Von eh warst Du der Liebe Himmelsveste/mein Lieben nistete bei Dir im Neste.
Scheltworte meines Feinds, sie freun mich, Deinethalb/laß ihn—sein Druck preßt, den dein Druck längst preßte.
Es lernte Deinen Grimm der Feind: drum lieb ich ihn/den seine Faust trifft Deines Schlags Gebreste.
Verwarfst du mich, den Tag verwarf ich selber mich/wie gönnt’ ich dem, den du verwarfst, das Beste!
Bis einst dein Groll vergeht und Du Erlösung schickst/des einst von Dir erlösten Erbes Reste.
( )

מֵאָז מְעוֹן הָאַהֲבָה הָיִיתָ
חָנוּ אֲהָבַי בַּאֲשֶׁר חָנִיתָ
תּוֹכְחוֹת מְרִיבַי עָרְבוּ לִי עַל-שְׁמָךְ
עָזְבֵם יְעַנּוּ אֶת-אֲשֶׁר עִנִּיתָ
לָמְדוּ חֲרוֹנְךָ אוֹיְבַי וָאֹהֲבֵם
כִּי רָדְפוּ חָלָל אֲשֶׁר הִכִּיתָ
מִיּוֹם בְּזִיתַנִי בְּזִיתִינִי אֲנִי
כִּי לֹא אֲכַבֵּד אֶת-אֲשֶׁר בָּזִיתָ
עַד יַעֲבָר-זַעַם וְתִשְׁלַח עוֹד פְּדוּת
אֶל-נַחֲלָתְךָ זֹאת אֲשֶׁר פָּדִיתָ.

(cited in )
One does as little justice to the dictum “Love your enemies”, [ Liebet eure Feinde ] from the Sermon on the Mount [ Bergpredigt ], as one does to other great realities if one views it as an ethical demand and thus from the point of view of unreality. The Christian’s love for his enemies [ Die christliche Feindesliebe ] is a reality [ Wirklichkeit ]—wherever it cannot be anything else. And it enters this state of not being able to be anything else wherever the church or an individual obeys Christianity’s original command: to missionize [ zu missionieren ; ( Glatzer 1972, p. 348 ), translates: “the proselytize”]. Loving one’s enemies here becomes the most powerful weapon for world conquest: the enemy is loved as a future brother [ künftige Bruder ].
So Jewish love for an enemy must be something totally different [ ganz andres 10 ] if it is to be real. For here the reality is a community that has been granted not the blessings of victory [ Gnaden des Siegens ] but instead those of defeat [ Unterliegens begnadeten ]. Thus love for one’s enemies arises here at the point that Yehuda Halevy reveals in this poem, for what we have here is truly a revealing. The real is rarely that which is spontaneously expressed, and a word easily falls into unreality when it attempts to become objective. But what is here revealed is the objective truth, precisely because it is expressed in an entirely subjective manner. The Jew loved in his enemy, the executor of divine judgment [ Der Jude liebt im Feind den Vollstrecker des göttlichen Gerichts ], a judgment he accepts. In contrast to all other people, he has no other choice since he alone does not have at his disposal the Jews whose fault it is—and therefore makes his own [ und es bleibt ihm im Gegensatz zu allen andern Menschen nichts andres übrig, denn er als einziger hat nicht die Juden zur Verfügung, die daran schuld sind ]. A man’s love for God becomes the law of life for all the love with which he can love other people [ Die Liebe, mit der ein Mensch Gott liebt, wird zum Lebensgesetz aller Liebe, mit der er Menschen lieben kann ], even, to take it to the extreme (but is there an extreme for love?), his enemies. “Of old you’ve been the heavenly vest of love.” ( Rosenzweig 2000a, p. 197 , [see also Galli 1995, pp. 252–53 ]; the bracketed German sentences are cited from Rosenzweig 1927, p. 233 )
The Christian, Rosenzweig argues, demands Feindesliebe as a means of imperialistic love, that of a mission. With his love the Christian occupies the world. The Jewish Feindesliebe is, however, different, for it expresses the being of the occupied, the experience of destruction, defeat, and loss, which is related to and justified as the judgement of God. The Jewish love for the enemy is not a gesture of religious mission; its task is not an opening toward the world. It is not a gesture of Reformation, nor is it an attempt to enter Weltgeschichte […] it is rather a gesture of acceptance. ( Shahar 2014, p. 169 , see until 171)
Ha! Those who write out evil writs, and compose iniquitous documents. To subvert the cause of the poor, to rob of their rights the needy of my people; that widows may be their spoil, and fatherless children their booty! […] Ha! Assyria, rod of my anger, in whose hand, as a staff, is my fury! I send him against an ungodly nation, I charge him against a people that provokes me, to take its spoil and to seize its booty, and to make it a thing trampled, like the mire of the streets. (Isaiah 10:1–2, 5–6, trans. NJPS)

2.2.1. The Jew Does Not Have the Other “At His Disposal”

2.2.2. accepting divine judgment as a theological safeguard against gnosticism, 2.3. between rosenzweig and schmitt on the love of enemies, 2.4. conclusion: rosenzweig, agape, and political theology, 3. agape in the 21st century—some reflections following rosenzweig, 3.1. the significance of political theology and its secularizations, 3.2. rosenzweig’s thought and the quest for humanist, caring approaches, 3.3. emotional theology and the covenant of being-with, institutional review board statement, informed consent statement, data availability statement, acknowledgments, conflicts of interest.

2 [To] Carl Schmitt (p. 25) that “For Schmitt Christianity was ‘Judaism for the Gentiles’, he always longed to stand up against its power” (cited in ). Raphael Gross remarks ( ) that Schmitt in his public writing described himself Judenkritisch (critical of the Jews), but in the “notebooks, however, Schmitt refers to the Jews as ‘the true enemy’”.
3 ).
4 ), and the remark by Yehoyada Amir in ( ).
5 ( ).
6 ).
7 ( ) viewed Luther’s approach of human submission to divine authority as one of the sources of the human “escape from freedom” in the modern era.
8 ); see ( ) and ( ). The latter states (121) that, for Rosenzweig, “the unconscious implies a spiritual potential”, of liberation from Idealist Absolutism on the one hand, and from idolatry on the other.
9 ).
11 ; see also his elaborated remarks in Moses and Monotheism).
12 ; ). On Schmitt’s critique of Christianity, and in particular its idea of Katechon, or “restrainer”, see ( ). Schmitt’s stance vis-à-vis Christianity is a mirror-picture of Rosenzweig, a Jewish philosopher who endorsed the agapic love of enemies, as we saw above.
13 ).
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Berman, N.S. Franz Rosenzweig on Divine Love and on the Love of Enemies: Complications of Agape in the Secularized World. Religions 2024 , 15 , 806.

Berman NS. Franz Rosenzweig on Divine Love and on the Love of Enemies: Complications of Agape in the Secularized World. Religions . 2024; 15(7):806.

Berman, Nadav S. 2024. "Franz Rosenzweig on Divine Love and on the Love of Enemies: Complications of Agape in the Secularized World" Religions 15, no. 7: 806.

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    His death is the possibility of no-longer-being-able-to-be- there" ( Heidegger, 2014, p. 323). In Heidegger's view, death in active life and death "at work" are biological phenomena, and he does not object to them. However, death is the end of life, and Existence constantly communicates with it during its existence.

  16. A Philosopher's Case Against Death

    This is the moral of one of the earliest known pieces of literature from the 18th century BC, the "Epic of Gilgamesh.". Gilgamesh, pained and frightened by the death of his companion, sets out to find the secret of eternal life. At one point he finds it in a plant he rescues from the depths of the ocean.

  17. The Philosophy of Death: Is it Rational to Fear Death?

    The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David, 1787, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Very early on in the history of philosophy we see that death is seen as the raison d'etre of philosophy. Death is what motivates us towards achieving our goals, which helps us to appreciate our loved ones and which concludes our story.

  18. A Philosophical Perspective on Death

    Abstract:-This essay examines death from a preliminary Philosophical perspective by scrutinising the positive side of death. It infers that death is a cosmologically, socioeconomically and morally useful phenomenon. It also adduces to the fact that the most logical step to take in life is to accept death and prepare for it, instead of wallowing ...

  19. Life in relation to the value of death

    What is death? Death is the cessation of the connection between the body and the mind. Death occurs not only when the heart stops beating but also when the subtle consciousness leaves the body to go to the next life. Some people may believe that death is bad because it's a deprivation of life and others may believe that death is good because ...

  20. Euthanasia, or Mercy Killing

    3.1. Some claim that pain can always be controlled and so there is never a need to euthanize anyone. However, this insistence that pain can always be made bearable is, sadly, not true. 3.2. Some argue that "miracles" are possible - there's always a chance that someone recovers - and so euthanasia is wrong.

  21. Descartes Arguments For Mind Survivng The Bodys Death Philosophy Essay

    First, he presents what he calls the official doctrine of Cartesian Dualism in three premises: (1) humans are made up of the two distinct substances of body and mind, (2) the two work in unison, and (3) it is possible that the mind will continue its existence after the body's death. Bodies have the properties of being externally observable ...

  22. Death and Its Concept

    The concept of death is unlike most other concepts. Usually we have an object and the concept of that object. For example, we have a horse and the concept of a horse. However, the concept of death is absolutely without any object whatsoever. Thinking about the prospect of one's own death is a constant meditation upon our own ignorance.

  23. Socrates' Philosophy on The Life after Death

    When Socrates says that to do philosophy in the right is "to learn how to die" I think he means that in order to study philosophy and do it well one must learn about three things. These three things being; the soul, body, and afterlife. Learning about these three things will teach you about how all of that might be interconnected and affect ...

  24. Franz Rosenzweig on Divine Love and on the Love of Enemies ...

    Love is a keystone in Franz Rosenzweig's philosophy, which reaffirmed Judaism's emphasis on vital, relational love. What "love" exactly means, however, is controversial. In the Christian context, love is often denoted by Agape—which implies (1) that "God is Love", (2) that love is universal, impartial, and rather endorses the sinner; and (3) that humans should practice and ...