Few phenomena lead people to philosophy (as the love of or search for wisdom, not necessarily as an academic discipline) like the fact of our own deaths. Most of the things we might seek in life – especially happiness – we will cease to have when we die, or so it seems. This fact is sobering; our choice is to be aware of it (and therefore be in some sense philosophical) or to be caught unawares, die unprepared and miserable. For that reason Plato said that philosophy is the practice of death; today, we don’t have enough of a culture of death, enough to prepare us for this fact.
What then should we do about our impending death? The most common answers typically involve the supernatural, with belief in an afterlife. Christians will speak of an afterlife in heaven, Buddhists of rebirth. So all we have to do is be good in this lifetime (or ask forgiveness for our sins), and we’ll be able to continue “living” well after death. Such a view is comforting. Unfortunately, I don’t have any reason to believe it true. I’ve heard it argued that we really don’t know enough about consciousness to say that it ends with death. That may well be so. But we also don’t know enough to say that anything else happens to it, either – certainly nothing like the graphic hells that, according to Śāntideva, await those with sufficiently bad karma. In terms of any sort of survival of the self after death, it seems to me, the very best we can do is agnosticism, and perhaps not even that.
But if death really is – or might be – the end of each individual, then what? Well: I posted a little while ago about three basic ways of life, three orientations to theoretical as well as practical philosophy: the asceticism of most Buddhists, Jains, Advaitins and early Christians; the traditionalism of most Jews, Confucians and dharmaśāstra; and the libertinism of Marx, Nietzsche, Rawls, Ayn Rand and the utilitarians. Asceticism and libertinism can each take on more egoistic or more altruistic forms. Stephen Walker challenged the formulation somewhat, noting that Mozi doesn’t comfortably fit it; but a typology like this must necessarily consist of ideal types in Max Weber’s sense, giving us extremes within which real examples take a middle ground, and Mozi seems like an altruist who takes on some elements of all three basic ways of life.
My point here, however, was to be that these three ways of life each seems to have a corresponding way of death – an attitude toward death that does not depend on the supernatural. This is true whether they take an egoistic or altruistic form, for others must die as surely as oneself. The traditionalist would take the path most people likely take, seeking immortality through her children. This is the path the Hebrew Bible offers – progeny represent immortality. (Thus the now-shocking happy ending to the book of Job: he loses all his children, but it’s all okay in the end because he gets more!) By contrast the libertine, it seems to me, must follow Lucretius’s advice: do not fear death; nothing bad can happen to you. True, you won’t have any of the things you loved during life, but that won’t matter, because you’ll be dead. You won’t notice any of it.
And the ascetic? Most ascetic traditions do rely in some sense on the supernatural, but I’m not sure that they have to. I’m particularly intrigued by the approach to death in Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta philosophy. Our selves are illusion in the first place; the true nature of the world is a simple oneness identical with all our selves, if we could perceive it. Indian gurus will sometimes leave the words for their disciples: “I was not born, I did not die.” This sounds somewhat supernatural, but I don’t think that it must be – at least not if we take “supernatural” in the standard sense of “ideas incompatible with the evidence of natural science.” The Advaita view is not falsifiable by empirical evidence, and is not supposed to be; arguments for it take place at the pre-sensory level of a priori foundations, of what makes empirical knowledge possible.
Now the idea of immortality through one’s children requires a bit more fleshing out, to the point that Job’s version no longer satisfies. The simple fact of having children does nothing to defeat death, for one’s children are not oneself. Children can only offer a sort of immortality because they promise what Freud (or his translator) called cathexis (German Besetzung): the breaking down of self boundaries, so that we come to identify ourselves with our children, and really come to see ourselves as existing partially in those children. It seems unlikely that this happened in Job’s case; if new children were as good as the old ones, he can’t have been that closely cathected with the old ones to begin with. On the other hand, cathexis alone isn’t enough; we surely cathect with our spouses or other romantic lovers, but they will only survive a few decades beyond us at most, and usually not that. Children, on the other hand, can pass on their own cathexis, a new identification with our grandchildren and their descendants.
I suppose a similar kind of cathexis might happen in the attempt to achieve immortality through one’s work: artistic, scientific, philosophical, sociopolitical. If the creation one brings into the world is closely identified with oneself, and if it is everlasting, then it can similarly keep one around. But both kinds of cathexis face a similar problem: one cannot know at death whether the object of cathexis will survive. Will one’s descendants keep oneself alive, or will their bloodlines die out, as seems to be happening frequently in my generation where so few have children? Will one’s social accomplishments be toppled, will one’s artistic work fade into such obscurity that it is forever lost? (Woody Allen: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.”) Lucretius’s comfort with nonexistence, and Śaṅkara’s identification with a unified cosmic Self, seem to promise a surer way.