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Our attitude to death determines how we live


IT SEEMED an ordinary Sunday morning in November 2017. My last words to her were mundane. ‘Could you pick up a newspaper after you have dropped us off?’

My daughter and I were getting ready to be given a lift to the park to walk the dog while my wife went outside to get the car ready. Five minutes later as I opened the front door my wife was lying on the drive, her face white, and whispering for help. My daughter tried to comfort her while I spoke on the phone to the ambulance service. They arrived quickly and lifted her into the ambulance. Within minutes she was dead. The post mortem recorded a pulmonary embolism.

As a philosopher I have spent many years reading and considering philosophers who have written about death. But the felt reality of that terrible experience deepened my thoughts and feelings. I had lost people before – parents, relations, friends. But this whisking away of many years of marriage in the blinking of an eye had the deepest impact.

On the way to and back from the hospital I was struck by the humdrum ordinariness of life going on in the streets. W H Auden describes such a juxtaposition in his poem Musée des Beaux Arts, how tragedy and suffering seems to happen against a background of obliviousness, ‘how it takes place/While someone is eating or walking or opening a window or/Just walking duly along’. This death coincided with my young grandson’s birthday and that afternoon we had to go through the motions of his little celebration, while not letting on what had happened.

When the shock and the numbness began to wear off days, or weeks, later, I found myself struggling with the following paradox in human experience. On the one hand we should recognise that the miraculous gift of life is provisional and temporary, and that morally and spiritually we have a duty not to take that gift lightly, and not to take either our own life or the lives of others for granted. We should remember we only have each other for a little while.

And yet . . . and yet . . . on the other hand the frailty of the human heart gives us an emotional need to take one another for granted. Life would be intolerable or even impossible for us otherwise. We just can’t keep reminding ourselves that you or I might be dead tomorrow – which is presumably why the sudden shock of bereavement so often involves a feeling of disbelief and disorientation.

It is so hard to believe that the other person has gone from us forever. As T S Eliot put it, ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’. It is one thing to have an intellectual grasp of the terrible cry of Shakespeare’s King Lear with the dead Cordelia in his arms, that she will ‘come no more/ Never, never, never, never, never’. It is quite another to feel the awesome power and finality of that repeated ‘never’, with its stark realisation of eternal absence.

But need that be a reason for fearing one’s own death? There is surely an asymmetry here. The heart-rending, gut-wrenching loss of another person does not automatically transfer to fear of the prospect of ‘my’ ceasing to be. For one thing, though we may experience dying, we do not and cannot experience our own death, for we are no longer there. ‘Death is not an event in life. We do not live to experience death’, as Wittgenstein famously put it (though he was not the first). We may of course fear for those closest to us who are left, but that is not fear for ourselves.

In his attitude to his own impending death before his execution, Socrates (in the mouth of Plato) claimed to have no fear, since either there is some sort of survival beyond death, and who would not relish a ‘catch up’ with the departed? (My slang, not his!)

Or death is the end, and who would dread the prospect of eternal rest? (Shakespeare’s Hamlet had not yet been invented).

So even if death is the end, what attitude can or should we have towards this life? In other words it is a question regarding the meaning of life. There are at least two sharply contrasted responses.

We can follow the despair of Albert Camus who regarded life as meaningless and therefore ‘absurd’ (though he concocted a rococo argument against suicide). This is a nihilistic prospect in which it seems to me there is no reason not to lead a ruthless, selfish, scheming life. Or, put the other way round, leading a life of ruthless egotism or evil leads to the view that life is, as in the case of Macbeth, ‘A tale/told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/signifying nothing’.

A better alternative is to regard the world and one’s place in it sub specie aeternitatis (under the aspect of eternity), an approach to be found in that ‘tradition’ of thought from Plato, through Spinoza, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein to Simone Weil, which is less a moral view than it is a mystical or ‘religious’ view that transcends what we ordinarily mean by morality. It displaces the self, not as a centre of action but as a centre of importance in a world that has a greater meaning than one’s own petty concerns. One’s own extinction may be eternal, but how one lives has eternal significance. When we have gone, what we were will be for ever ours. I see that as a reason for living the best and most honourable life we can.

We now live in a culture that shies away from our mortality and exalts health and fitness as the supreme value – a cult of eternal youth and physical perfection which fears death or even ageing, and despises the old. This tyrannical government has exploited this present weakness by encouraging us to have the cowardly and hypochondriac obsessions of Howard Hughes who ended by shutting himself in a room and fearing human contact in case he caught something. Their ultimate goal is to have us jabbed, be-badged and trackable with biometric identity passes so we are like compliant robots.

Is that really the sort of life we should want stamped on the face of eternity? Covid mania is not really a life at all. It is more like a living death.

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Frank Palmer
Frank Palmer
Dr Frank Palmer is a philosopher and author. He was taught by Roger Scruton who was his PhD supervisor and during the 1980s was part of a thinktank of academics Roger formed to fight damaging trends in education. Frank’s last book was Literature and Moral Understanding (Oxford University Press).

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