Philosophy, Western

"The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our own ways—I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows" (Edman 1930, p. 88). These dramatic lines, spoken by Socrates at the end of Plato's Apology, are among the most memorable in the history of Western philosophy. Their implication that death is a blessed relief from the suffering that is life has proved a watershed in Western philosophical attitudes toward life and death, with some subsequent thinkers echoing their otherworldly metaphysics and others, like Nietzsche, countering with a passionate affirmation of life against death. Because a philosophical verdict on death entails a judgment on life as well, no issue is more central to the metaphysical controversies that have marked the history of Western philosophy nearly from the beginning.

Ancient Period

The first philosophers in ancient Greece (c. 600 B.C.E. ) were cosmologists chiefly concerned with the origin and nature of the universe, so the meaning of death to humans was not a prominent issue in their work. The first of these thinkers was Thales, who described the universe as "full of gods," a view that seems to imply that the universe is alive and that there is no such thing as dead, inert matter. Anaximander, who was Thales's student, seems to have been the first to suggest an evolutionary mechanism for life and for the human species. About death he says, "Things perish into those things out of which they have their being, as is due . . ." (Guthrie 1971, p. 76), seeming to imply that death and change are natural parts of the cycle of life. For Anaximenes, life occurs through the breathing in of air, seen as a divine element and the nature of soul itself. He offers the first purely naturalistic explanation of death. It occurs, he explains, when the creature is no longer able to respire and the outside air can no longer enter in to counteract compression.

Heraclitus spoke of death more often than his contemporaries. For him death is a basic feature of the universe, for he believed in the periodic consumption of the universe by fire. In his cosmology, the whole world and each creature in it are in a constant state of flux, and each element lives by the death of the other. The processes of life and death are a necessary feature of the world; he argues that without them the cosmos would disintegrate. Heraclitus was among the first to suggest that not all souls perish at death; virtuous souls, he believed, may rejoin the divine spark itself. Pythagoras, the philosopher and mathematician, elaborated a doctrine of reincarnation or transmigration of the soul; in his view, life and death involve a process and a progress through many series of physical forms (human and animal) with the goal of achieving a spiritual purity leading to an ultimate reunion with the state of divine origin.

The survival of the spirit or mind after the death of the body is supported in other preSocratic thinkers such as Empedocles and perhaps Anaxagoras. But this view met a stiff challenge in the materialist metaphysics of the atomists Leucippus and Democritus. The atomistic theory suggests that all things in the universe are composed of indivisible particles of matter ( atomoi ); at death the atoms simply disperse, and there is no survival of the individual. Atomism is the last great theory offered by the philosophers before Socrates, and the theme is picked up again by Epicurus, with important consequences for human dealings with death.

With Socrates, the gadfly-philosopher of the ancient Greek agora, the topic of death achieves more focus. The Apology, recounts Socrates' (469– 399 B.C.E. ) unjust condemnation to death by a court in Athens. Before leaving the court, Socrates requests to speak to his friends on the subject of his impending execution. He reasons that death is not an evil; in fact, he argues, "There is much reason to hope for a good result. . . . Death is one of two things. Either it is annihilation, and the dead have no consciousness of anything, or, as we are told, it is really a change—a migration of the soul from this place to another" (Hamilton and Cairns 1961, p. 25). If death is a state of nothingness, he argues, it will be like an eternal sleep and therefore will be a gain and nothing to fear. If death is migration of the soul into another world, a spiritual world of true judges, then there is also nothing to fear because no evil can await a good and just person. So, Socrates concludes, the good person can be of good cheer about death, and know for "certain— that nothing can harm a good man either in life or after death" (p. 41).

Plato (428–348 B.C.E. ) took a more definite stand than his mentor Socrates (though because Plato made Socrates the major character in Dialogues, it is sometimes hard to distinguish between the two). Plato believed that death is most definitely not an eternal sleep but rather the moment at which the soul (that is, the true person) is finally released from the body (its earthly prison). In the Phaedo, there is no either/or argument. Rather, Plato attempts to prove the immortality of the soul, offering reasons why the real philosopher, who is "always pursuing death and dying," should never fear the end. In the Phaedo no less than four arguments or proofs are offered; all of them, however, depend on two main Platonic premises: a dualistic view of the relation between the body and soul, and the conviction that the core of true being is the soul, which survives the death of the body. Perhaps the most widely discussed argument is the last offered by Plato: The soul is incapable of death because death is, after all, decomposition (wherein the dying subject is dissolved), but the soul, being simple and uncompounded, cannot decompose.

Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E. ), Plato's greatest student, did not share a similar conviction about the immortality of the soul. In De Anima (On the Soul) he denies the Platonic dualism of soul and body, arguing instead for a far closer relationship: the soul, he says, is the "form" of the body. The comparison he makes is that between the pupil and the power of sight: "As the pupil plus the power of sight constitutes the eye, so the soul plus the body constitutes the animal. From this it indubitably follows that the soul is inseparable from its body, or at any rate that certain parts of it are (if it has parts) .. ." (McKeon 1941, p. 556). As the son of a physician, Aristotle was much more closely attuned to the material world than Plato; he viewed the human being as a preeminently biological creature, a member of the animal kingdom. Aristotle was the first of the philosophers to carry out detailed study and writings on animals in De Partibus Animalium (On the Parts of Animals), a topic he pursued in such biological writings as De Generatione et Corruptione (On Generation and Corruption), where he studies "coming-to-be and passing-away" as changes uniformly found in all of nature, and Historia Animalium (The History of Animals).

While it is clear that Aristotle denies the Platonic dualism and the consequent views on immortality—indeed, he seems to suggest that a desire for immortality is a wish for the impossible—it is not certain that he believes that death is the final end of the soul entirely. The highest part of the soul, the purely intellectual part, is akin to the divine, he argues, and may survive death. Aristotle does not elaborate on this possibility, but it is clear that this cannot be a belief in the survival of the whole person (such as in Plato's view), since for him the person is a union of body and soul together, and at death that union no longer exists.

Classical philosophy after Aristotle concerned itself with practical issues of living, especially the quest for happiness and peace of mind. Epicurus (341–271 B.C.E. ), who was introduced to the writings of Democritus in his early teens, propounded an atomistic metaphysics and the attendant skepticism toward an afterlife. For epicureanism, the goal of each human being is tranquility ( ataraxia ) of soul. This tranquility can be achieved only after certain fears are conquered—chiefly, the fear of the gods and of death. Atomism solves both fears at once, he argues, while at death the subject ceases to exist and therefore is touched neither by the gods or the experience of death itself.

As Athens gave way to Rome as the cultural epicenter of the ancient world, the philosophy of stoicism grew in prominence and influence. Among its most eloquent expositors was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180), whose Meditations is an especially rich source of reflection on the meaning of life in the face of death. Stoicism emphasizes acceptance of that which is outside of human control, in particular, the workings of nature, seen as a divine and governing force. Aurelius viewed death as either a cessation of sensation or as an ascent to the divine—and hence nothing to fear in either case.

Medieval Period

The Middle Ages saw a gradual convergence of philosophical and theological concerns. The great thinkers of this age were theologians first and philosophers second. Augustine (354–430) held firm to the Christian notions of the human predicament. The human being is in a state of misery because of a diseased condition brought on by original sin, for which the chief punishment is death. In Augustine's view, God created human beings to live according to his commandments. In the City of God, Augustine argues that should the human being live righteously,

He should pass into the company of angels, and obtain, without the intervention of death, a blessed and endless immortality; but if he offended the Lord his God by a proud and disobedient use of his free will, he should become subject to death, and live as the beasts do, the slave of appetite, and doomed to eternal punishment after death. (Dods 1872, XII, p. 21)

But there is a way out of this misery. Augustine, accepting the Platonic dualism, believed that the soul was the true person and can exist apart from the body. The soul, therefore, can escape the misery endemic to earthly life, but only with God's help and grace.

For many medieval thinkers, Plato's thinking provided the necessary philosophical groundwork for belief in an afterlife. For the most part, the medieval theologian/philosophers welded Platonism to Christianity so firmly that criticism of the synthesis was nearly tantamount to heresy. This dogmatism was reflected clearly in Bonaventure (1221–1274), a Franciscan and Augustinian thinker who rejected the influx of Aristotelian ideas in his time because they seemed to deny the immortality of the soul.

There was the occasional crack in the Platonic/ Christian foundation of medieval philosophy. The Islamic theologian/philosophers Avicenna (980–1037) and Averroes (1126–1198) appear to have interpreted Aristotle in such a way to raise doubts about individual immortality. According to this perspective, if anything of the soul survives, it is not the individual person but some divine spark that rejoins its supra-individual source.

It took the towering intellect of Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) to come to terms with the powerful Aristotelian system and the consequences for Christianity of its clear-cut denial of the mind-body dualism. For Aristotle, the soul is not trapped in a body but is naturally allied with it. Although this conception makes it harder to disentangle a distinctly immortal soul from the mortal body at death, Aquinas elicits from it support for the Christian notion of an afterlife—that is, a bodily resurrection. Since the soul is united with a particular body, at death this natural unity will be restored through a physical resurrection that reunites body with soul. Christ's own resurrection was, after all, a bodily resurrection.

Modern Period

The Frenchman René Descartes (1596–1650), the father of modern philosophy, provides support for belief in an afterlife. In Discourse on Method he writes,

Next to the error of those who deny God ... there is none which is more effectual in leading feeble minds from the straight path of virtue than to imagine that . . . after this life we have nothing to fear or to hope for, any more than the flies or the ants. (Haldane and Ross 1931, p. 276)

Further, the original subtitle to Descartes's major work, the Meditations, was "In which the existence of God and the Immortality of the Soul are demonstrated." Descartes provides an argument for the immortality of the soul by suggesting a radical difference between the two substances, mind and body, such that mind is in no way dependent on the body for its existence.

Arguments like Descartes's were rejected by those who did not share his radical dualism. The Englishman Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), for instance, held that belief in an afterlife is a result of religious superstition driven chiefly by the fear of death. David Hume (1711–1776), in "Of the Immortality of the Soul," argues that the case for mortality was strong and asked, "What reason is there to imagine that an immense alteration, such as made on the soul by the dissolution of the body, and all its organs of thought and sensation, can be effected without the dissolution of the soul?" (Hume 1993, p. 406).

An entirely different approach was taken by Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), who provided what has come to be known as the "moral argument" for the immortality of the soul. Kant acknowledged that humankind cannot demonstrate, as a matter of certainty, things like the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. However, in Critique of Practical Reason, he writes, "It is morally necessary to assume the existence of God" and that morality requires humankind to pursue a state of complete virtue ( summum bonum ), which is "only possible on the supposition of the immortality of the soul" (Abbot 1927, pp. 218–219).

Among the other major moderns who grappled with human mortality, the French thinker Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) argued in Pensées that the human being is unique in having the knowledge of death. In Ethics , the Dutchman Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) wrote that "a free man thinks of nothing less than death, and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life" (Elwes 1919, p.113). Some interpret these lines as simply a recommendation to avoid consideration of death because it arouses wasteful fears. On this interpretation, Spinoza's advice is similar to that of the French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), who, in Essays wrote that humans should adopt the attitude of the simple, nonphilosophical person and not "have death constantly before our eyes" because "nature teaches [him] not to think of death except when he actually dies" (Zeitlin 1936, p. 208). Others see in Spinoza one who became a free and wise man only after much thought about death and much grappling with his fears about it, so that what he really meant was that a wise and free man will become so only after confronting and conquering death.

Contemporary Period

Reflections on death and dying in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries extended and reshaped the themes discussed in the modern period. The existentialists, in particular, follow the lead of the German Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), who called death the "muse of philosophy." Schopenhauer, in The World As Will and Idea, states "all religious and philosophical systems are principally directed toward comforting us concerning death, and are thus primarily antidotes to the terrifying certainty of death" (Haldane and Kemp 1948, p. 378).

Existentialist thinkers, beginning with Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), were directly concerned with contemplating the deeper meanings of death. Kierkegaard, the father of religious existentialism, begins by contemplating the meaning of existence itself, rather than engaging in philosophical abstractions; he wrote that it was easier to indulge in abstract thought than it was to exist. For him, existence requires passion and truth—and not just any truth, but a truth for which he can live and die. The most important existential truths for Kierkegaard were not those available to objective reason, but those which require subjectivity (or passionate inwardness), courage, commitment, and faith. For Nietzsche, the father of atheistic existentialism, truth required courage. The courageous individual, however, will have the courage to face the inevitable fact for Nietzsche that "God is dead." For Nietzsche, this means that there is no cosmic order, purpose, or meaning in the universe or in human life. What is required is to create one's own order, purpose, and meaning by facing and then slaying death. In Thus Spake Zarathustra, he says that what is required is courage which "is the best slayer—courage which attacks: which slays even death itself" (Kaufmann 1954, p. 269).

The twentieth-century existentialists continued the exploration into death as a necessary theme for anyone seeking "authenticity," as Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) put it. In his view, it was all too easy to fall back into an artificial, inauthentic life by ignoring the reality of death and by failing to recognize that the human being is, after all, a "being towards death" (Heidegger 1962, p. 296). Heidegger argues that authenticity comes only in the recognition of human temporality and finitude. For the French thinker Albert Camus (1913–1960), the reality of death must not only be accepted, but it also provides evidence of the "absurd," the lack of any real correspondence between the desires of humankind and the cold, dark universe. The French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) followed Nietzsche in rejecting God or any attempt to ground meaning objectively in the universe itself. For Sartre, meaning was found in human freedom, but death was not an obstacle to an individual's freedom. As he states in Being and Nothingness, "Death is not an obstacle to my projects; it is only a destiny of these projects elsewhere. And this is not because death does not limit my freedom but because freedom never encounters this limit" (Barnes 1956, p. 547). In a sort of atheistic existentialist version of Epicurus, death is seen as that which a meaningful life never encounters. As Sartre explains, meaning requires subjectivity (as in Kierkegaard), and "I myself escape death in my very project. Since death is always beyond my subjectivity, there is no place for it in my subjectivity" (p. 548).

The analytic philosophers, being drawn to issues of language and logic, perceived the whole topic of death as being outside the proper study of philosophy since, in their view, it is hopelessly bound up with religion and metaphysics. The English philosopher A. J. Ayer (1910–1989), in Language, Truth, and Logic, is typical in demanding empirical evidence for belief in an afterlife because "all the available evidence goes to show that it is false" (Ayer 1946, p. 117). Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) went further in Why I Am Not a Christian, declaring:

Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the out-come of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.

(Russell 1957, p. 107)

The French religious existentialist Gabriel Marcel (1889–1973) countered this point of view. In Homo Viator he states, "If death is the ultimate reality, value is annihilated in mere scandal, reality is pierced to the heart" (Crauford 1951, p. 152). Marcel discusses death from several unique perspectives. He speaks of the "death of man" as following upon the heels of Nietzsche's "death of God." Marcel does not refer to the death of the human species itself because of some catastrophe such as a nuclear war. Rather, he refers to a radical change stemming from what he calls "techniques of degradation," wherein the human person is degraded, dehumanized, and treated as a thing or an object rather than as a person. Under this system of depersonalization, the person is already "dead." However, Marcel finds the possibility for hope. In Being and Having, he says that death can be "considered as the springboard of an absolute hope" (Farrer 1949, p. 93). How can death provide hope? An essential part of one's personhood, he argues, lies in one's relationship with others, for humans are intersubjective beings. And while other thinkers have focused on what death and dying means to the individual, Marcel explores what death may mean as an avenue for fuller relationships with others—in particular, those that we love. For Marcel, loving transcends the world of things—and nothing that can happen to the world of things (including death) can affect the person.

In the last few decades of the twentieth century, certain postmodern thinkers have revisited the "death of man" theme. The French thinker Michel Foucault (1926–1984), for instance, speaks of the "death of man," and his countryman Jacques Derrida (1930–) refers to the "ends of man." Foucault, following Heidegger, also examines death in terms of an "analytic of finitude" (Shuster 1997).

See also: Buddhism ; Chinese Beliefs ; Heidegger, Martin ; Hinduism ; Islam ; Kierkegaard, SØren ; Mind-Body Problem ; Plato ; Plotinus ; Sartre, Jean-Paul ; Schopenhauer, Arthur ; Socrates ; Zoroastrianism


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