From the Latin mors, death is understood to mean the end of life, the physical cessation of life. If this definition is known to all of us, it can be broadened. Indeed, in its medical sense, it corresponds to the end of the functions of the brain defined by a flat electroencephalogram. In its philosophical sense now, it has been considered successively by a plurality of authors. Plato thus defined it as the end of earthly life and access to an ideal world. Epicurus and Lucretia defined it as the dissolution of soul and body (materialist approach). Heidegger sees it as the very form of human life, considered in its finitude; this form grasped and assumed, allows access to authenticity. Finally, Sartre saw death as a fact without any ontological cause. Let’s go through some directions of the philosophy of death.
The Philosophy of Death According to Some Philosophers
– Plato’s Philosophy of Death:
[Death], “Is this something other than the separation of the soul from the body? We die when the body, separated from the soul, remains alone, apart, with itself, and when the soul, separated from the body, remains alone, apart, with itself “…
– Epicurus’ Philosophy
“Familiarize yourself with the idea that death is nothing to us, for all good and all evil lies in sensation: now death is the complete deprivation of the latter […]. Thus, one of the evils which makes the most shudder is nothing for us, since as long as we exist, death is not, and death is where we are no longer. ”
Philosophy of Death:
“ Death, if we want to name this unreality like that, is the most dreadful thing […]. It is not this life which recoils in horror from death and preserves itself pure from destruction, but the life which bears death, and maintains itself in death itself, which is the life of the spirit.”
Philosophy of Death:
“Death is the moment of liberation from a narrow and uniform individuality, which, far from constituting the intimate substance of our being, rather represents it as a kind of aberration. ”
Philosophy of Death:
“This end which is designated by death does not mean, for human-reality, to be-at-my-end, to be -finite; it designates a being for the end, which is the being of this existent. Death is a way of being that human reality assumes, as soon as it is: As soon as a human comes to life, he is already old enough to die. ”
Philosophy of Death:
[Death] “It’s not just the project that destroys all projects and destroys itself […]. It is the triumph of the point of view of others over the point of view that I am of myself. ”
“Death represents the future meaning of my current for-itself for the other. ”
I – Death, a Natural Fact or a Natural Law?
We want to know if death is something we can think about clearly. We must therefore try to identify a concept of death, that is to say, all the characteristics of this notion. What is death? Death, is it a natural law?
Death a Necessary Event… but Contingent!
Death is first of all a necessary event. Necessary: which cannot be otherwise. It is a law of life/nature. No one lives forever.
Who says necessary, does not say any contingent: contingency designates what can happen by chance, what one could not foresee (or else, but here it is not in that sense: what can be other than it is not). This cannot be deduced from any law.
Just as it is necessary that everybody obeys the law of the fall of the bodies, one cannot deduce from this law the moment when the stone will leave its place, will be moved, or move, and therefore, effectively obey the fall bodies. Likewise, one cannot deduce from the necessity of death the moment when Peter is going to die. Peter will die one day or another, but that moment is not known. It’s an event.
Death is therefore something that will certainly happen, but it is not known in advance when that moment will come.
Death, a Natural Law Unlike Any Other: “The” Death, “Your” Death, and “My” Death
But death is not a natural fact or law (s) like any other. My death is not the same “event” as the death of someone in general. Death, if it is the end of the species, it is also the end of the individual. However, the individual is an irreplaceable being, like no other. The death of an individual has nothing to do with the death of the human species, of a “man as a man”.
To use V. Jankélévitch’s words, death-in-general is not near-death.
– Death-in-General or in the Third Person:
This is abstract or anonymous death, or death proper, as this is impersonal or conceptually considered. Here, we judge death as if it does not concern us. It is an object like any other, that we describe or analyze medically, biologically, socially, demographically.
Cf. third person: point of view of me on the other (you, him) or of the other on myself, or even of me on myself but of myself as another.
– Self-Death or Death in the First Person:
This is the lived experience of self-death. The coincidence between the object of consciousness and the subject of “dying”. Death is my death.
CF. First Person:
point of view of me on me, or of you on you; in general, each person’s reflective view of himself.
– The Death of the Second Person:
The proximity of the death of the loved one; almost our death, also heartbreaking…
From these three views on death will derive the meaning of death in the following terms:
” My Death “
Death to me is my death. Now, my death, for others, for the human species, is a miscellaneous fact belonging to the course of events; the death of members of the human species is, in my eyes, an ordinary fact, a news item. But in my eyes, my death presents itself as the metaphysical tragedy par excellence. My death, for me, is the end of everything, the total and final end of my personal existence, and the end of the whole universe. My death is not the death of “somebody”, but it is a death that turns the world upside down, the death one of a kind.
“The Death of Our Loved Ones”
Death for us is the death of our loved ones, of individuals, of people who are dear to us. So this is the pain of separation. It, therefore, presents itself as an unbearable and frightening “fact”, as a scandal.
II – Death: An Unrepresentable Reality
Can we ever think of death as such, if death is first and foremost, when I think about it, my death? Let’s move forward a bit in characterizing this death.
Can We Think of Our Death?
Death is the horizon of my life, but I can’t tell about it. I can neither feel it nor think it.
Here: to say that we don’t know what it is, because when it is there, I am no longer there; I cannot live my death, know what it is to die and to be dead. Cf. the fact that becoming aware of something supposes a distancing, a retreat, vis-a-vis this thing: thus if during 1 thousandth of a second, I “see” / “feel” dying, I cannot really know that I am dying …. (Cf. the film “Forbidden Experience”)
I never die for myself; for me, death never exists, or: it’s never me who dies, always the other. I only die for others. So I can conceive of death, but then, this concept is still vague. I cannot live it effectively.
Can We Think of Death?
We have seen that thinking about death in the third person seems to be possible, but here we only reach the “outside” of death. I cannot think of death as such, that is to say, the tragic, irreplaceable character of “this” death for those close to me (because it is always an individual who dies).
But even more, can’t we say that we cannot by definition imagine what death is or was for such and such a person? This I do not know. This would require the dead to return and bear witness to what they saw and experienced. What death is, so we don’t know, we imagine it.
In short: we can only imagine death! Death is not clearly representable but can only be imagined (confused thought)
Cf. detective novels (where we can live from inside the consciousness of the dying “hero”) = we live by proxy what it feels like for the other to die, and this other is not another objectivity, but it is indeed a subjectivity. […]
Partly, we can say that our imagination does not embroider too much? Do the pictorial representations or imaginations of death conveyed since the beginnings of humanity not fill our own representation of death too much? Can they not convey false fears?
III – The Finitude of Existence: Death
We cannot speak of the notion of death without evoking that of existence.
The Living and the Dead
Death concerns only the living, it is both the opposite of life and the sign of life (only what lives dies). This statement is not entirely correct, however: biology teaches us that unicellular beings reproduce by scission, indefinitely: they are potentially immortal. The bacteria don’t die, they divide. Death is therefore a characteristic of more complex beings which give birth to different beings (through sexuality).
Death affects beings who tend to persevere in their being for an indefinite period of time, so it has an external cause. Death only happens when we are overcome by what is outside us. Considering this, we come to assert that death is not the end of life but that life is the story of death.
Fear of Death
What differentiates humans from other animals in relation to death? As an animal, man dies, but unlike other animals, he knows he is mortal. The burial does not exist anywhere else than in humans, and many specialists consider that the consciousness of death is a sign of humanity. Human beings anticipate: they know that there will be the present where they will no longer be. This is why Heidegger writes: “the only man dies, the animal perishes”.
This knowledge specific to Man plunges him into anguish. This anxiety is not to be confused with the fear of dying: in the fear of dying, we fear death as a coming event that will end our life; in the anguish of death, our conscience revolts against the very idea of nothingness.
The Epicurean Dissolution of the Fear of Death
The Greek philosopher Epicurus (342 / 341-270 BC), affirming that “death is nothing for us”, does not say that death does not affect us but intends to deliver us from the fear of death. He holds the following reasoning: I never meet death since life is marked by sensitivity and death, on the contrary, is the absence of sensitivity. Either I am alive, and in this case, death is not there, or I am dead, and in this case, I am no longer there. There is no contact between life and death. Epicurus says it is absurd to dread what you never meet.
IV – What Do We Think When We Think of Death?
The idea that we can form of death is at first sight purely negative: biologically, death is the final state of an organism that has ceased to live; for the individual, it is the end of his existence. There is nothing beyond this definitive term that we can experience, because for us to have an experience, to feel, to think, always involves life. Death is therefore not the object of intuition, and, if it is something, we cannot imagine it other than as a state of non-life or of non-consciousness.
The idea of death is not, however, devoid of meaning, but this meaning does not enlighten us so much on what death is, as on what we think of it as living beings.
For a being whose death is a certainty, and who is aware that his end is inevitable and unforeseeable, the thought of death is indeed first of all a thought of life.
Death not being an experience remains an idea, an object of speculation which nourishes the imagination. We cannot be sure about it. This is why thinking about death is fundamentally linked to thinking about existence. Depending on whether one believes in annihilation by death or, on the contrary, in death as an access point to the beyond, the meaning given to its existence can be very different.
Thought of the Inevitable
Whatever I do, wherever I am, I will die. Each of us, if we think of death, thinks of ourselves as a mortal. Death is constitutive of existence.
This knowledge gives us in sharing a feeling of fundamental helplessness (equality of all beings in the face of death, “fraternal basis of death” to use Malraux’s expression).
A Subject of Speculation
We know we will die, but we don’t really know what it means, or even if it means anything.
Religions and philosophy have imagined several meanings, including the following three, which are very widespread:
– nothingness, the final end of existence;
– nothingness, followed by rebirth in another earthly form, or in the same form;
– access to immortality, in another world.
These conceptions of death determine answers to the question of knowing how to lead our life: should we enjoy existence, without worrying about death? Or, on the contrary, should you spend your life preparing for your death? And, if there is something after death, can that define duties or values to be respected in order to lead my life?