Matters of Life and Death

I am now 50 years old, and invariably in this western society, at this age one becomes concerned with the final stages of their existence. That is, they think about dying. Their lives are visited with a ever-growing focus on their ages as it becomes more advanced. People in this country and in most western European ones, consult physicians to lengthen and preserve their health as much as possible. Thereby, they hope to extend the term of their lives to a maximum point. Moreover, if they have possessions, they consult attorneys and write detailed instructions on how their material possessions are to be shared with their survivors. Worst of all, they are often depressed about what they have not accomplished in their spent lives. The latter years of an older personís life becomes increasingly gloomy and bane as he or she advances in years. This is so in part because they are bound to become physically decrepit and will eventually rely on others for their continued existence. It isnít this aspect of life-in-the-face-of-death that Iím focusing on. Itís the asymmetry of living that interests me. What do I mean by asymmetry? It is probably best expressed by a writer and radio personality, Joe Frank, whom in one of his spellbinding, surreal radio stories made the following comment:


People agonize about what will happen after they die. But, they donít seem to give a damn about what happened before they were born.


While this may at first sight, appear comical and jocular, it is in fact the kind of asymmetry to which Iím alluding. All of our pain, worry, angst, dread, concern and projections of ourselves are skewed toward the ending of our lives, not its inception. There is no objective reason for this kind of behavior. As I pointed out above, we do extraordinary things in preparation for death. To this can be added one other fearful concern: We ruminate on how weíll be remembered after death. But, if life is a line with a definite beginning and end, then why not fret for ourselves at both ends of the line. Why not wonder: were my parents good people before they conceived me? What things do I deserve as birthrights? Was I given these things at birth? Was I suckled properly? Did I get a sufficient amount of love and care before I became aware of myself as self-reflecting conscious being? To many, this will seem absurd. They will counter: How can you concern yourself with things over which you had no control and could not influence in any respect? To which I retort, the same applies when you die. But once youíve lived, they retort, youíve experiences, people you are related to, perhaps children, a whole lifetime of experience with which you must come to terms. I can just as easily rebuff this comment with statements like: Before you were born there were those that commented on your coming existence. Perhaps your parents started a saving account for you, and your mother watched her diet and all manner of preparation was made for your birth. Shouldnít all of this be of paramount concern to you?



Empiricist Philosophers and Death


But, the real reason for this apathy about the world prior to our births is because of the philosophic tradition that has been inherited in countries with western influences. Today this includes many a locality that 500 years ago would have had nothing to do with Western Europe. It includes all of Europe, Australia, Latin America (at least the urban areas of Australia and Latin American countries), and many westernized countries in Africa (South Africa, Botswana, even Nigeria in the urban areas) and the Far East (for instance The Philippines).


The tradition is one that English Empiricist philosophers of the 18th century laid down. They were in turn influenced by Hellenic sources such as Epicurus, Socrates and Plato.


John Locke set the basis for a notion we have of material objects, which we possess and should be able to use and protect from being possessed by others. I have more to say about him shortly. John Stuart Mill gave the reason for our growing fear and dread of death. He put forth (though he was not the first) the notion of happiness being the pursuit of pleasure and eschewal of pain as the continuing goal of human societies. He called it Utilitarianism. He wrote a very readable work of the same title explaining this idea. Mill's conception tells us that our collective happiness is contingent upon each of us having a measurable amount of pleasure. By pleasure he meant that which is useful to us. He explains in detail that pleasure is not (as it was sorely criticized to be) hedonistic craving of physically pleasing sensation. Mill points out that intellect and knowledge, aesthetic appreciation and artistic expression are all forms of useful pleasure. Useful in the sense that human beings feel a need to experience this form of pleasure. It is this kind of pleasure we seek to maximize during the course of our lives. Locke put in place the social basis for our notion of what should be done after we die, i.e. will making. He believed that persons in a civil society had certain rights. That is, by virtue of being in a society of orderly social relations, we derive a privilege to own material objects: personal property. We possess homes, devices, land and even less concrete artifacts, like productions of our minds, e.g. books, musical compositions, etc. This possession of material goods is dovetailed with Millís utility principle. By goods, Locke meant more than just tangible objects. Good did mean material objects of use. But good in the sense of something that facilitates our pleasurable experiences, was a greater good. It was good that all member of civil society should have. We have all heard the term Ďpublic goodí in America. It is a direct descendant of Lockeís idea of good. We are all recipients of material objects that enrich us, they provide is with a form of good. From this line of reasoning we get the following:

* From the material objects we possess, we derive utility (pleasure).

* A utility we seek to bring to all. This idea is expressed in the famous line: The greatest good for the greatest number (we must add one more English Empiricist, Jeremy Bentham. The latter statement is attributed to him).

And thatís all the English Empiricists philosophy we need to understand how this affects our view of Life and Death today.


Why Death is more important than Birth.


With what has been said about Empiricist philosophy in mind, lets go back to Joe Frankís statement:


People agonize about what will happen after they die. But, they donít seem to give a damn about what happened before they were born.


What Frank is really saying is we agonize about what will happen to ourselves after we die and donít care about what was occurring before we became a living being. I for example have never given one moment of serious thought to the fact that this country was involved in a bloody war (the Korean War) that took the lives of thousands of people and caused undo harm to families prior to my birth. Now if someone asked the following question I would be disturbed and more than mildly concerned:


Would you care if someone urinated on your body after you die?


Treatment of my corpse, though it has no feelings, thoughts and sentiments is of special concern to me. As it is to most people in this society. Here is an even more telling question:


Would it bother you if after youíve died, it was revealed that you had committed incest with your parent (mother or father), and this charge was falsely thrown? Would that thought disturb you?


Most people at this point will find it hard to countenance such a thought. But, this is really a crystal clear picture of how much we take ourselves as going beyond death. We see ourselves in some conceptual sense as exceeding death, we meaning people as conscious beings, feel that we are somehow aware of what others will think of us after we die,when this is not true. This may seem obvious to some, but simply put, we conceptualize ourselves after death as if we could--ghostlike--see what happens after we die. We can't! We should see, that death is the endpoint, and after it, nothing concerns us. And, I mean nothing because we never experience existence after death. Even if calumny is spread after you die, you won't know it, because there will be no YOU. But, there are those whom will counter, well you've got a family and even friends that knew you. What about their view of you in death? Doesn't it concern you here and now in the present, what you are remembered as? I respond, how can it have anything to do with you, since there is no more you? Of course, moralists response with this: It does because, we have become a person with experiences after being born. Don't we feel this sense of 'having a remembrance'? At first, I dismissed this question as being unanswerable. But upon closer inspection, something more intriguing arises. The moralist is trying to make the deceased responsible even after death. I say no to that. A murderer that is executed has no responsibility after his death. Nor, does his family for that matter. Most of all, the persons that are about to die should not concern themselves with what transpires after their deaths, because they can have no knowledge of it. Many may see this is why death is quite often viewed as a freedom of sorts. Of course I am not referring to living persons that in some way aided a murderer during his/her life. This should go without saying.

Our concern with dying is more important to us than being born, because once we've been in the world and have sought pleasure (in the sense we discussed above) we canít let go of it. We see ourselves even after our demise, as having to still pursue this pleasurable state. And the implication is we don't accept, the pain of being disgraced by calumny or desecration. Even though, we can't experience either self-directed emotional state in death. So strong is the cultural embedding of these notions, that we perceive them as we conceive our own deaths. The same goes for our sense of possession. We seek to preserve things we own by passing them to our progeny. We give the material pleasures of our lives to our descendants in hopes of our transcending death through our children.


With this backdrop to our lives, it is no wonder we feel dread when faced with death. Of course, no one in the countries I noted actually thinks: Oh, since Iím suppose to try to gain the most pleasure out of life according J.S. Mill, then Iím regretting aging and fearing death, which will end my pursuit of pleasure. No, itís the way the very fabric of these societies are structured that engenders feelings of foreboding. While birth is received with enthralled joy, its opposite occasions death. We are saddened and feel a sense of lost. The coming conclusion of our real life play is met with all the irrational ideas I mention above. We donít want certain things done to our lifeless corpses. We donít want to be reviled or remembered in the minds of the living in a shameful way. Shame itself being an emotion only the living can experience. We seek to pass some part of our former existence to those closest to us. All of these things are evidence that Death supersedes Birth in our minds as the event of primal importance. As Jean-Paul Satre characterized it, we are beings towards death. Put another way, the most important event of our lives is not our being born, but our dying day. For on this day, we give up all that we were and ever will be. On this day, we end the story, and as any perpetual book reader will tell you, the end of the story is far more encompassing than its start.



Ken Wais 9/20/03

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