Death, Philosophy, and Advent

By Marina Olson
December 17, 2013

The truism claims nothing is sure but death and taxes. Leaving aside the taxes, let’s focus on death.

Death, particularly in our modern and sterile society, is a really scary concept. Oh, there is Beatitude, but we hold that by faith. (The immortality of the soul might be a more philosophical principle, but excluding the resurrection of the body, which we know by divine revelation, it is fairly difficult for a natural Aristotelian to say what the soul is doing after death). Setting aside the knowledge held by faith, I’d like to return to the human phenomenon of death, to consider that experience, and how it intertwines with natural philosophy.

Death, Wikipedia informs me, “is the cessation of all biological functions that sustain a living organism.” You will no longer breath. Your heart will no longer beat. You will no longer blink, move, experience blood flow, headaches, tears, coughs, laughter, hugs, tactile sensations. Your body will cease to feel anything. Even when we think about not feeling, we have no true experience of not feeling a thing. Slowly or swiftly, your ability to express your interior into the extrinsic world will be gone. You will no longer have your body, and all that it does for you.

Der Weyden Last JudgmentWriting that, I actually feel panic. I want to delete those words. Those words are wrong. As a young adult, I am acutely aware of how my body has not yet begun to fail. I like to hug my friends, to feel them in a very human and material way. I like to laugh. I enjoy running, lying in the sun, eating pizza. I know that this experience of living is a good one, and it is terrifying that this could all be not.

Not only does it terrify me, but it angers me on a visceral level. How wrong is it that I should not always be so? Why must my body decay? (As a Catholic, I understand the theological responses to these questions, but to speak as a human, I think these experiential feelings indicate a certain truth). I fear the day I will no longer express my interior in the extrinsic world. As a Christian I have faith and hope in the resurrection of the body. As a human, I have strong trepidations.

Yet, in a world where, as FUN. so aptly put it, “this growing old is getting old,” man still desires to know. Death resides in the company of those events that our mind shrouds in experiential ignorance; differentiating death from other momentous occasions is the lack of persons with significant experience. Very few people have spent a few days “dead as a door-nail.” I remember, before I had my first kiss, wondering what it was like; enough movies and TV time, plus hearing my friends’ explanations gave me a pretty good guess of what was coming. When it comes to dying, I can’t exactly text my friends who have all the details. Death is an event we must experience alone.

Allan Bloom, in a fantastic lecture on Plato’s Apology, states “learning how to die rationally is a hard thing to do,” and that is a fundamental goal of philosophy. On a natural level, we cannot lay claim to heaven. So the three possibilities man faces are: Heaven, Nothing, or Hell. Two of those doors open to terrifying options, and the philosopher must face that they are each possibilities. If activity is life, and philosophic contemplation is the highest natural act of man, then philosophy is for the living, but it could be consumed by death. Man could, in fact, never think again after death, because he would no longer be. Bloom argues that the reason philosophy must prepare men for death is that “philosophy doesn't live for hope, philosophy lives for truth, which is the exact opposite of hope.” Facing death as possibly this terrible alternative is necessary for the one who wants to learn how to die.

This has become very dark. That is precisely the point: death is terrible. This sets the stage to understand what today is often taken for granted, good tidings of great joy: the Word became Flesh to save men from their sins and grace them with eternal life. This is a remarkable claim: there is something higher than nature by which men can be saved. Now this promise of life does not change the fact that men die, but it pierces the veil into that death, it removes the viciousness of death’s sting. To have the hope that is founded on a truth more fundamental than the truth known by natural reason is a gift that humanity did not have prior to Christ. Perhaps, in a post-Christian society, this is the hope many no longer have. The loss of this hope might explain, in part, our fascination with youth and fear of decay: we again live in a world so terrified of death that we lose the strength to accept and defy it as the martyrs once did.

So, remember during this Advent season to think about death, and rejoice in the incomprehensible love that led God to become man, and to die, so that we might live.