Last month, I learned that a dear friend of mine and philosopher died—by suicide. (If you were also a friend and knew him, please only share your comments by e-mail. I want to keep this private.) While I don’t know what thoughts were on his mind when he took his life, his suicide prompted some personal reflections on philosophy and death.
Many, though not all, of us come to philosophy with existential questions. In fact, one of the most enduringly popular undergraduate courses in the discipline must be “Existentialism.” Courses on existentialism bring us face to face with two major philosophical questions: Is life worth living? And: What makes a life worth living? I know from taking and teaching existentialism that these questions are hard to deal with.
The two texts that have most touched me in grappling with these questions are: Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), of which I read the chapter on death in a course on Existentialism in my senior year of college, and Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886), which I only discovered as a graduate student teacher for a course on the meaning of life. I have also taught both texts as a professor of philosophy in a course on existentialism.
Heidegger and Tolstoy direct us to the connection between a life well lived and death. In The Death of Ivan Ilych, Tolstoy portrays the anxiety Ivan Ilych experiences as he copes with his terminal illness and reflects on whether he has lived well, together with the “joy” he has in his final hours, after he reaches a point of resolution about the life he led. One of the most memorable passages from the novella deals with the seeming foreignness of death:
The syllogism [Ivan Ilych] had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius — man in the abstract — was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman and a nurse, afterwards with Katenka and will all the joys, griefs, and delights of childhood, boyhood, and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of?
In my own unthinking moments, I subscribe to Ivan Ilych’s faulty logic: death happens to others—not me. At other times, I have awoken to the “possibility of the absolute impossibility” of my own being, to borrow Heidegger’s expression. (In fact, Heidegger footnotes The Death of Ivan Ilych in Being and Time.)
Anxiety and joy are moods that also come up in relation to death in Being and Time. Heidegger leads into the discussion of anxiety by speaking of the “tranquilizing” effect our everyday talk about death has on us. We say, “one dies,” as though death were “somewhere or other,” and not yet a “threat.” By contrast, anxiety permeates an authentic relation to death, a relation that requires the recognition of death as something that belongs to each one of us. Not only that, but an authentic relation to death means that we anticipate this possibility. In so doing, we can begin to exist authentically, that is, we free ourselves from unthinking, automatic, average ways of living. In short, the anxious anticipation of death brings one face to face with the possibility of “being oneself.” At the same time, Heidegger speaks of an “unshakeable joy” that we can also experience when we live resolutely in the face of death. So, while anxiety dominates Heidegger’s discussion of death, there is also room for a different mood, the mood of joy, which differs from the numbness inherent in our everyday ways of living. In this regard, the account of death in Being and Time dovetails with the portrait of Ivan Ilych’s anxiety and joy at the end of his life.
When I last taught The Death of Ivan Ilych, I brought up the question of whether an immortal life is desirable. (In connection with this conversation, I mentioned Bernard Williams’s “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality” (1973).) It was one of the best discussions I have led as a teacher: my students were fired up, and the classroom was roughly divided between supporters of dying and supporters of immortality. I don’t remember if I admitted it to my students, but I side with the supporters of death. However attractive the opportunities (e.g., for education and relationships) immortality might afford, I think that we would miss out on some of the anxiety and the joy that come with facing death.