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A Wise Death Glenn Braddock  Socrates’ message for Evenus: “wish him well and bid him farewell, and tell him, if he is wise, to follow me as soon as possible”.

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Presentation on theme: "A Wise Death Glenn Braddock  Socrates’ message for Evenus: “wish him well and bid him farewell, and tell him, if he is wise, to follow me as soon as possible”."— Presentation transcript:

1 A Wise Death Glenn Braddock  Socrates’ message for Evenus: “wish him well and bid him farewell, and tell him, if he is wise, to follow me as soon as possible”.  “the aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death”. (Plato, Phaedo)

2 Death and Wisdom  Two assumptions about wisdom A wise person is not unnecessarily bothered, worried, or harmed A wise person leads, or at least attempts to lead, a good and valuable life Some things that make life worth living  Projects and goals  Relationships with others  Commitments, passions  A wise death? What does a wise person think about death? How does a wise person organize his or her life and attitudes given the fact that he or she will die? Death and the two assumptions: If it’s possible to eliminate or reduce the harm of death, can a person do so and still live a worthwhile life?

3 “Death” in this discussion  The end of a person’s existence  My death for me, your death for you  Not the dying process

4 Epicurus and the insignificance of death  “Get used to believing that death is nothing to us. For all good and bad consists in sense-experience, and death is the privation of sense-experience”.  “So death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist. Therefore it is relevant neither to the living nor to the dead, since it does not affect the former, and the latter do not exist”. (Letter to Menoeceus)

5 An objection to Epicurus’ argument  Experiencing pain or the removal of pleasure are not the only ways to be harmed  Can also have desires that go unsatisfied and interests that are thwarted  Usually when interests are thwarted, we experience unpleasant feelings, but the feelings do not make the event bad  “For the natural view is that the discovery of betrayal makes us unhappy because it is bad to be betrayed – not that betrayal is bad because its discovery makes us unhappy” (Nagel, “Death”)  Interest-thwarting account of death’s badness is consistent with our common intuitions about the comparative badness of actual deaths

6 The Epicurean timing challenge  “when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist”  So when is the subject harmed by the thwarting of his or her interests?  Some possibilities: There is no determinate time (Nagel) After death: The dead have some kind of reality even though they don’t exist (Yourgrau) During life: when the person acquires the interests that will be defeated by death (Pitcher, Feinberg)

7 What all of this suggests about the harm of death  There is no universal answer to the question “Does death harm the person who dies?”  It depends on whether or not the person’s interests are thwarted by death  Our interests are largely in our own control: we can make our own plans, set our own goals, adjust our own desires  So we have some control over whether we will be harmed by our own deaths  Should a wise person adjust his or her interests to eliminate or reduce the harm of death?

8 Problems with becoming Epicurean  The goal of the Epicurean life: “the health of the body and the freedom of the soul from disturbance” (Epicurus, Letter to Men.)  To secure tranquility, limit yourself to natural desires for necessary things – relatively easy to satisfy  “The purest security is that which comes from a quiet life and withdrawal from the many…” (Diogenes Laertius, Principle Doctrines)  “There is no need for things which involve struggle” (Diogenes Laertius)  So becoming Epicurean involves avoiding Difficult, long-term projects Unnecessary entanglements in personal relationships Commitments and passions  If you adjust your life in this way, you protect yourself from the harm of death but at the cost of living an empty life

9 Epicurean vs. Stoic attitude adjustment  Epicurean: Reduce your desires to those whose satisfaction are well within your control – most basic needs  Stoic: Want only what actually happens – calmly accept fate.

10 Living with Fate Epictetus  “Do not seek to have events happen as you want them, but instead to want them as they do happen, and your life will go well” (The Handbook) Marcus Aurelius:  “To love only what happens, what was destined. No greater harmony” (Meditations)  “So this is how a thoughtful person should await death: not with indifference, not with impatience, not with disdain, but simply viewing it as one of the things that happens to us” (Meditations)

11 Problems with becoming Stoic  Fatalism and helplessness: Epictetus: “The most important aspect of piety towards the gods is certainly both to have correct beliefs about them, as beings that arrange the universe well and justly, and to set yourself to obey them and acquiesce in everything that happens and to follow it willingly, as something brought to completion by the best judgment” (Handbook)  Coldness, lack of caring and real commitment?: Epictetus: “If you kiss your child or your wife, say that you are kissing a human being; for when it dies you will not be upset” (Handbook) Marcus Aurelius: “Blot out your imagination. Turn your desire to stone. Quench your appetites. Keep your mind centered on itself” (Meditations)

12 Common mistake in Epicureanism and Stoicism  Focus on complete invulnerability  Tendency to lead to self-centeredness, coldness, lack of commitment, lack of worthwhile interests  Steven Luper: “To completely eliminate death’s sting, we require an analgesic so powerful that it would numb us to life” (Invulnerability)

13 Seneca: On the Shortness of Life  “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it”.

14 Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life”, continued  “But one man is gripped by insatiable greed, another by a laborious dedication to useless tasks,…another sluggish with idleness”  “Many pursue no fixed goal, but are tossed about in ever-changing designs by fickleness which is shifting, inconstant and never satisfied with itself. Some have no aims at all for their life’s course, but death takes them unawares as they yawn languidly…”  “Call to mind when you ever had a fixed purpose; how few days have passed as you had planned; when you were ever at your own disposal… what work you have achieved in such a long life…”  “You are living as if destined to live forever; your own frailty never occurs to you”  “No one keeps death in view, no one refrains from hopes that look far ahead…”

15 “Stoicism” about death without fatalism and without goal of invulnerability?  Stoics emphasize “living in accordance with nature” – often passive acceptance of fate  But might interpret this more loosely, as understanding, accepting, and adjusting to reality  Seneca’s argument (here) is not that we should prepare ourselves for death at any moment, but that we should prepare ourselves for death when it is likely to come – normal life expectancy  Objection: “A man’s sense of his own experience… does not embody this idea of a natural limit. His existence defines for him an essentially open-ended possible future… If there is no limit to the amount of life it would be good to have, then it may be that a bad end is in store for us all” (Nagel, “Death”)  Possible reply: what counts as a harm or misfortune is constrained by the way the world actually works, not by metaphysical possibility

16 Some Seneca-inspired advice on facing death  “Keep death in view” Not morbid fascination with the event of dying Not obsessive thinking about, accepting, and making yourself invulnerable to the fact that death might come at any moment Rather, accept that you are mortal, that you will change as you age, and that your life is likely to last a certain number of years  Don’t waste time on …? (Seneca: idleness, pleasure-seeking, too much concern about what others think of you, etc.)

17 Seneca advice, continued  Have a plan. Adjust your projects to The likely length of your life The likely structure of your life -- aging Your own abilities  “Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements”

18 Summary  Epicurean argument for harmlessness of death does not work because we can be harmed by unsatisfied desires and defeated interests, not just by unpleasant experiences  Since we have some control over our interests, we have some control over whether we will be harmed by our own deaths  Living a worthwhile life requires taking the risks that go along with engaging in projects, making commitments, having relationships. So the wise person will not seek invulnerability to death  But the wise person can accept the reality of mortality and arrange his/her attitudes and goals accordingly, to minimize the possibility that death will thwart interests

19 Questions about science, personal death, and the annihilation of humanity  Should we attempt to extend the normal human life span?  Would the end of the human species be a bad thing?


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