PHIL 176: Death

Lecture 23

 - How to Live Given the Certainty of Death


In this lecture, Professor Kagan invites students to pose the question of how one should live life knowing that it will certainly end in death. He also explores the issue of how we should set our goals and how we should go about achieving them, bearing in mind the time constraints. Other questions raised are how this ultimately affects the quality of our work and our accomplishments, as well as how we decide what is worth doing in life.

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PHIL 176 - Lecture 23 - How to Live Given the Certainty of Death

Chapter 1. How Carefully Should We Live? [00:00:00]

Professor Shelly Kagan: At the end of last class, I quoted some words from Kurt Vonnegut, a kind of deathbed prayer confession that he’d written in one of his novels in which the basic gist of the prayer is to express gratitude. Whatever the content of your life, the fact that at least you’ve been able to live at all — As he put it, most mud isn’t lucky enough to sit up. He feels lucky to have been some of the sitting-up mud. He loved everything he saw. When I read that quote, I did not know that Kurt Vonnegut had died the night before. Immediately after the class ended, a visitor to the class brought this fact to my attention. So, I can’t pass without commenting on that death, and just remark that I hope that to the very end, Kurt Vonnegut, who lived until he was 84, realized how lucky he was to be some of the sitting-up mud.

The question I want to turn to now is this. So, we’ve been going over the various facts about the nature of life and death. And the question then is, how should we live, in light of the fact that we’re going to die? Previously, we’ve talked about what emotional response we should have to that. And I’ve argued, as I just reminded us, that although perhaps the most common reaction is one of fear or terror at death, it may in fact be that we should be grateful and consider ourselves lucky that we were able to have had life as well — life at all.

But how, then, should we live in light of the fact that we’re going to die? And the immediate answer that comes to mind seems almost like a joke. I want to say, well, we should be careful, given that we can die, that we will die.

There used to be a TV show, a cop show called Hill Street Blues. The show began every day with the sergeant going over the various crimes and investigations that were going to fill up the day’s episode. And he’d always end, as he sent off his police, the cops. He’d end by saying, “Be careful” or “Be careful out there.”

But the particular kind of care that I have in mind isn’t just this pure fact, that if you’re not careful, you won’t notice that the car’s coming down the street and you’ll hit by the car and that’ll be the end. The fact that we’re going to die intuitively seems to require a particular kind of care, because, as we might put it, you only go around once, right? You don’t get to do it again. And so, it seems as though the fact that we’re mortal, the fact that we’ve got a finite lifespan, requires us to face the fact that intuitively we can blow it. We could do it wrong.

Now, the nitpicky part of me wants to point out that it can’t be mortality, per se, that has this implication. Even if we lived forever, we could still do it wrong. After all, whatever it is you’ve filled your life with, with an immortal infinite life, there’s still going to be the particular pattern of actions and activities that you engage in. And that particular pattern could still be one that wasn’t the best pattern that was available to you. So, the possibility of having blown it, of having lived the wrong kind of life, is a possibility that’s going to be true of us, whether or not we’re mortal.

And yet, for all that, it seems as though mortality adds an extra risk, an extra danger of blowing it. Look, suppose we lived forever and just have a kind of simplistic example. You might say, imagine somebody who spends his eternity counting the integers — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Well, that might not be as valuable as an eternity spent doing something else, let’s say, doing more complicated math. But still, if you’ve spent a million years or a billion years counting the integers and then realized that was sort of pointless, you could always start over by doing more interesting, more deep, more worthwhile math.

The immortality gives you a chance of starting over. It gives you the possibility of do-overs. We might then worry that what’s especially bad about death, the fact that we’re mortal, is that it robs us of the chance of do-overs. But of course, that’s not quite right either. Even if you don’t live forever, you live 80 years or 100 years, you have the chance to reappraise your life at the age of 20 or 30 or 50 and decide you need to change course. So, it’s not exactly as though the possibility of do-overs disappears by death itself, via death itself. Still, the thought that death comes when it does seems to push us in the direction of thinking we’ve still got to be very careful because, of course, given that we’re mortal, we have only a limited period of time in which to do the do-overs.

There are two kinds of mistakes, really, that we might catch ourselves in. We might discover, on the one hand, that we made some bad choices in terms of what we were aiming for. And on the other hand, we might find even if we made the right choices in terms of our goals, we flubbed it in terms of actually accomplishing what we were trying to accomplish. And so we literally have to start over again, and try again. So, there’s two kinds of care that we have to take. We have to be careful in our aims and we have to be careful in our execution of our aims, because we have, as it were, a rather limited amount of time to do it over.

Now, again, the nitpicky part of me wants to say strictly speaking, it’s not the fact that we are mortal, per se, that all by itself means we have to be especially careful. After all, suppose there just weren’t all that many things worth doing. And suppose they weren’t all that complicated, all that difficult to do well. Suppose there were only five things worth doing. And even if you couldn’t necessarily do every single one of them right the first time out, at most it would take two or three tries. And by a try I mean maybe an hour or two. Well, that would be a pretty impoverished world that could only offer us that much. But after all, if that was the way the world worked and we had a hundred years, we wouldn’t really have to worry all that much about being careful. We’d have plenty of time to aim for each of the five things worth having and plenty of time to get each one of the five things right. A hundred years of life would be more than enough. We wouldn’t have to be careful.

So, it’s not just the fact that we’re mortal that requires us to be careful. It’s the fact that we have a relatively short span of life relative to how much there is worth aiming for, and how complicated and difficult it can be to get those things and get them right. It’s because of the fact that there’s so much to do and doing it properly that we have to be careful. We just don’t have enough time to flail around, try a little of this, try a little of that. Somebody who lives like that may well find that the things they aimed for weren’t really the best choices. You don’t have to decide that these things weren’t worth having at all, given the relatively short period of time we’ve got. We’ve got the extra burden of deciding what are the things most worth going after. And we have to face the prospect, the chance, that we’ll look back and discover that we didn’t make the best choices there. We aimed for the wrong things, not necessarily things that weren’t worth having, but given the limited number of things we were going to be able to fill our lives with, in that sense, the wrong choices. And we may discover as well that we were not sufficiently careful, attentive in how we tried to achieve these things. Because it’s not as though — although given the way life is, you’ve got the chance for do-overs, you don’t have time for a whole lot of do-overs. And so what death forces us to do is, to be careful.

An analogy that comes to mind here is an artist who goes — a musician who goes into a recording studio. And look, he can start trying to record his songs to cut an album. And he may only have a certain number of songs in his repertoire. And so if he’s got a long enough period of time, a month in the recording studio, he’s got plenty of time, or she’s got plenty of time, to sing a couple of songs. Maybe these wouldn’t be the best things to record. Let’s give it a try and we’ll see. Didn’t get it right the first take. Let’s record it again. Let’s try it a third time. Let’s try it a fourth time. If you’ve got enough time, it’s less pressing to get clear before you start, or as you’re going along, what are the songs I should try to record, and can I get it on one take, or at most two?

But if instead of having a month in the recording studio, you’ve got only a week in the studio, or a day in the studio, suddenly everything’s much more pressing. Time is much more precious. You’ve got to decide early on just which are the songs that it makes sense to record? And yeah, there are some other songs, but these seem to be the better choices. And when you record them, you can’t be as careless and inattentive as you try to get them down. You’ve got to try to get it right the first time, or at worst, the second time.

That’s, it seems to me, the situation we find ourselves in, not just given the fact that we die, but, we might say, given how incredibly rich the world is, how many things it offers us, how many choices we have in terms of what’s worth going after. But for many of these things, given how difficult they are to accomplish, although we’ve got the chance for do-overs, both in terms of changing our mind about what we should be aiming at, and trying again, for the things we have aimed at, we’ve got to be careful. The fact about our death requires paying attention. It requires care.

Chapter 2. Time Constraints and Goals: Finding Appropriate Contents for Life [00:11:21]

Well, having said that, of course, the immediate question then, is all right, so I’m paying attention. I’m trying to be careful. What should I do with my life? How shall I — What should I fill it with? We’ve, previously in the class, talked about the possibility that being alive, per se, may have some value. But above and beyond whatever stand we take on that, it’s certainly also the case that part of what adds to the value of our lives are the contents of our lives. And so we need to ask, well, what kinds of contents should we try to fill our lives with? Now, I won’t try to answer that. To ask the question, what are the things really worth going after in life? is to come up to the edge of asking, well, just what is the meaning of life? What’s really worth going after? And although that is indeed an important, perhaps the important question, it’s the question, I think, for a different class. And so having come close to the edge of that question, I’m going to now back away from it.

But still, it seems we might say, in broad strokes, there are two different strategies that we could adopt. And it’s worth at least pausing to think about these two strategies. Strategy number one says given that you’ve only got a finite amount of time — Actually, the basic underlying thought behind both strategies is just this. We haven’t got much time. Pack as much as you can into life. Pack as much as you can in. But there are two basic strategies about how do you put that idea into practice. And strategy number one says given the dangers of failure if you aim too ambitiously, you should settle for the kinds of goals that you’re virtually guaranteed that you’ll accomplish. The pleasures of food, company, sex, ice cream. One of the paper topics asks you to reflect on the philosophy, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die.” Well, that’s one of the strategies. We’re going to be dead tomorrow. And so while we’re here, let’s try to pack in as much as we can, by going for the things that we’ve got a very high chance of actually accomplishing.

Strategy number two says that’s all well and good. You’ve got a pretty high chance of succeeding at that. The trouble with strategy number one is the goods that you can achieve, the sort of sure thing goods are small. They’re rather small potatoes, as things go. Some of the most valuable goods in life are things that don’t come so readily, don’t come with guarantees of achieving them. You might want to write a novel, compose a symphony, or for that matter raise — marry and raise a family. Some of these things, strat — fans of strategy number two argue, these things are the most valuable things that life can offer us. So that a life filled with these larger goods is a more valuable life than a life filled with the small potatoes goods. I suppose fans of the “Eat, drink, and be merry” strategy don’t like to call those “small potatoes goods,” but that’s the kind of language that might be offered by fans of strategy number two.

And it seems to me that as a claim about which life, if only you had it, if you had a guarantee — If God were going to say, “Look, which life do you want? I promise you’ll get it. The life filled with food and drink or the life filled with accomplishment?” — perhaps most of us would say well, it’s the life filled with accomplishment that’s the more valuable life. The trouble, of course, is, the life with the greater accomplishments, the life aiming for greater accomplishments, is also a life with a greater chance of failure. You aim for writing the great American novel and ten years later, you still haven’t finished it. Twenty years later, you decide you don’t have it in you to write the great American novel. You try to produce a business and it goes under.

So, what’s the right strategy to take? I suppose many of us would be inclined to say, well, the third strategy. There’s a third strategy that’s the obviously right thing to do, which is, get the right mixture. Aim for a certain number of — what should we call them? Large potatoes. Aim for a certain number of the large accomplishments, because if you do manage to get them, your life will have more value. But also throw in a certain sprinkling of the smaller things, where you’re at least assured of having gotten something out of life. Well, that’s all well and good as well, but it just now brings us to the next question. What is the right mixture, after all? Well, I’m not going to try to answer that one either. But again, those of you who choose the topic, the “Eat, drink, and be merry” question, basically I’m inviting you, in that topic, to reflect on that question.

Chapter 3. Quantity of Life: The More, the Better? [00:17:30]

Here’s a different thought. The entire, as I said, the underlying thought behind the go-for-the-big-things, go-for-the-small-things, was pack it all in. The underlying thoughts seem to be, look, as long as you’ve got a life that’s got valuable contents, the more, the better. You might say here’s common ground between the two strategies — the more, the better.

Now previously, we’ve — I’ve argued that immortality would not actually be a good thing. Eventually rich and incredible as the world is, eventually, the goods of life would run out and immortality would be dreadful. But having said that, that’s not to suggest that we — most of us — come remotely close to that condition. For most of us, it’s certainly true that dying at 30 deprives you of goods that would have come to you, if only you’d lived to 40. And dying at 40 deprives you of goods that would have come to you if only you’d lived to 50 or 60 or 80. So, one thing that we’re inclined to agree is, other things being equal, the longer your life, the better. So here’s a life, 50 years long. And suppose you live it with a certain amount of value in your life, 100 value points, whatever that is, whatever the — however our units of measuring just how good a life is. We’d say, look, better to have a life at that value, instead of going through 50 years, went for 100 years. Fair enough. We might say, we all agree, don’t we, that quantity of life’s a good thing. And that does seem plausible. [See Figure 23.1]

But at the same time we’ll want to immediately say quantity of life may matter, but it’s not the only thing that matters. Quality of life matters as well. And again, that point’s fairly uncontroversial. If you had to choose between your life of 50 years at 100 value points or 50 years at whatever that is, 130 value points, you’d rather have the second life. The length of life isn’t the only thing we care about. The overall quality of your life is something we care about as well. And this, of course, is another topic that we’ve talked about previously. Just what is it that goes into making a life better than another? So, we now see, summing it up, yeah, got to pay attention to quality, got to pay attention to quantity or duration. [See Figure 23.2]

Of course, the reason I just corrected myself is because you might say, if you want to think about it mathematically, it all is just a matter of quantity. As long as when we measure quantity, we bear in mind we need to measure not just the length of the life, but the height of the box. So, the area of the box here is 50 x 100 units, so whatever that is, that’s 5,000. I’m going to get another giggle here, right. Imagine our little units. It’s a quality, one unit of quantity — one unit of quality for a year. So, it’s a quality year unit, whatever it is, 5,000 units. Here 6,500. You might say, look, we can capture the thought that the duration of your life matters, the quality of your life matters, by multiplying the two together. And without getting hung up on the numbers, as though there was any kind of precision here, the underlying thought’s fairly clear. The area of the box represents the overall quality — the overall quantity that you managed to cram into your life in your 50 years.

And we could start measuring different kinds of lives. We might start worrying about well, look, suppose I could live 50 years at 130 or I could live, whatever it is, 100 years at some other number that’s a little bit less. We might say, oh, less quality, but longer quantity, longer duration, more valuable life filled in that last box. We see how it goes. But the question we need to ask is — so, if we’ve got this more rich sense of quantity, where we multiply the duration of the life times the how good a life you’re having while you’ve got it, does that give adequate place to what we think is valuable? Does that give adequate place to quality in life?

Let me draw some different boxes, some different possible lives to choose between. Suppose you had a nice long life, 150 years. Again, just for the sake of concreteness, we assign 50 quality points. So, the area is 7,500. Let’s suppose, so you can get a feel for this, let’s suppose that the best life lived on earth so far was worth a 10. So this is an incredible life, to be a 50. And you get it for 150 years. A very nice life. Now, compare it with this life. Suppose that this life isn’t really all that good in terms of how well off you are at any given time. It’s plus one. Zero would be a life not worth having, though no worse than nonexistence. Negative numbers would be lives presumably that would be you’re better off dead. This life is just barely worth having. It’s plus one. But it’s a very, very, very long life, so long that I couldn’t draw it to scale. That’s why we’ve got the “…” in the middle. Suppose it goes on for 30,000 years. Well, the math here is pretty easy. 30,000 times one is 30,000 in terms of the area. Okay. [See Figure 23.4]

So, trying to choose between these two lives. Life A or Life B? In terms of quantity, our enriched notion of quantity, where you measure the length of the life times the height of the box, Life B’s got more quantity of what matters — 30,000 versus 7,500. And yet, most of us, when we think about this choice, do not find B to be a preferable life, even though the quantity of value — Just suppose we could measure quantity of whatever the goods are that we’ve got crammed into our life. Well, this has very, very, very small amounts stretched over a very long time. The quantity’s larger, but Life A seems preferable. Now, for any — at least, this may not be true for everybody, but for those of us who share that thought, you might say quantity isn’t all it’s about. Or when we try to take quality into account, it wasn’t so much that we couldn’t measure it, it’s that if you reduce the importance of quality into, fold it into quantity, so that what it’s all about is the total amount that you’re getting, well the total amount’s bigger in B than A. If you don’t think B’s a better life, that suggests that totals aren’t what it’s all about.

Well, what else might we then choose between with regard to A and B? Well, the natural response is to say, even though Life A is shorter, it attains a kind of peak, a kind of height that isn’t approached anyplace in Life B. And perhaps, then, in evaluating lives and choosing between rival lives, we can’t just look for the quantity of good, we have to look at the peaks. We have to look at the heights. In choosing between lives, it’s important to think not just about how much did you pack in, total, but what were the greatest goods that you had or accomplished in your life? And perhaps, then, we should conclude, quality can trump quantity. Perhaps with the right quality in place, quantity becomes of secondary importance. Yeah, it might be that if we could have a longer life where we achieved great things, rather than a shorter life where we achieved great things, better to have the longer life. Quantity might matter, too, as long as we think the quality’s what matters the most.

But a more radical version of the theory would say, actually, quality’s all that matters. The peaks are all that matter. That, at any rate, is the position that gets expressed by Hölderlin in the poem “To the Parcae,” to the fates. That was in one of the essays that I had you read. But let me read that now. “To the Parcae.”

A single summer grant me, great powers, and
a single autumn for fully ripened song
that, sated with the sweetness of my
playing, my heart may more willingly die.
The soul that, living, did not attain its divine
right cannot repose in the nether world.
But once what I am bent on, what is
holy, my poetry is accomplished:
Be welcome then, stillness of the shadows’ world!
I shall be satisfied though my lyre will not
accompany me down there. Once I
lived like the gods, and more is not needed [Kaufmann 1976].

Hölderlin is saying he doesn’t care about quantity at all. If he can accomplish something great, if he can ascend to the heights and do something great with his poetry, that’s enough. Once he’s lived like the gods, more is not needed.

So, in thinking about what we want to do with our lives, it’s not enough to have the kind of theory that we’ve begun to sketch in previous weeks, where we think about what are the various things worth having in a life? — we also have to address this question of quality versus quantity. Is quality only important insofar as it gets folded into producing greater quantity? Or does quality matter in its own right as something that’s worth going for, even when it means a smaller quantity? And if quality does matter, does quantity matter as well? Or is, indeed, quality all that matters? Is Hölderlin right when he says once I’ve lived like the gods, more is not needed?

Now, Hölderlin, I imagine, in thinking about why that kind of life is the best kind of life he could aspire to, is thinking, in part, about the lasting contribution that his poetry makes. There’s a sense in which, when we think about having done things like that, we feel that we attain a kind of immortality. We live on through our works. And so the next question I want to turn to in thinking about strategies of how to live in light of the fact of, in terms of facing our mortality is, well, maybe a kind of immortality is worth going after. Or maybe, at the very least, we can take a kind of comfort in thinking that we have or can attain a kind of immortality. I emphasize the word “kind,” of course, because strictly speaking, if you live on through your works, it’s not as though you are literally living on. It’s semi-immortality or quasi-immortality. I suppose people who don’t believe in it would prefer to call it pseudo-immortality. Actually, this reminds me of a joke. Here’s a Woody Allen joke. “I don’t want to be immortal through my work; I want to be immortal through not dying.”

Chapter 4. Semi-Immortality through Accomplishments [00:32:38]

Well, as you know, previously I’ve argued that genuine immortality, unending life, would not be a good thing. But still, many of us aspire to this kind of semi-immortality. And actually, it can take, I think again, two broad forms. Sometimes people want to say there’s a sense in which, although it’s not as though you’re literally living on, there’s something like that going on, insofar as a part of you continues. If I have children, then literally some of my — in my case, there’s a male — one of my cells continues. And then their cells continue in their children and their cells continue in their children. If you think of an amoeba splitting and splitting, and splitting and splitting again, part of the original amoeba could be there for many, many, many generations. Some people take comfort in the thought that, literally speaking, a part of them will continue, if not through cells through my offspring, perhaps at least my atoms get recycled, get used again. And so I get absorbed into the universe, but I never disappear. Some people take comfort in that thought.

The German philosopher Schopenhauer thought that this should reduce somewhat the sting of death. He said, “But it will be asked, ‘How is the permanence of mere dust, of crude matter, to be regarded as a continuance of our true inner nature?’” And he answers,

Oh! Do you know this dust then? Do you know what it is and what it can do? Learn to know it before you despise it. This matter, now lying there as dust and ashes, will soon form into crystals when dissolved in water. It will shine as metal; it will then emit electric sparks… It will, indeed, of its own accord, form itself into plant and animal; and from its mysterious womb it will develop that life, about the loss of which you in your narrowness of mind are so nervous and anxious.

Well, that’s a very moving passage, but I have to say, I don’t buy it. I don’t find any comfort at all in the thought that my atoms will still be around getting reused into something else. So, this first kind of semi-immortality, where you take comfort in the thought that literally there are parts of you that will continue, this strikes me as a kind of desperate striving, desperate reaching for straws. Perhaps in Schopenhauer’s case, leading him to delude himself into thinking, “Oh, it’s not so bad that I’m going to die and going to die soon. At least my atoms will still be around.” It doesn’t work for me.

There’s a second sort of approach, though, where it’s not so much that you’re supposed to be comforted by the thought that your parts will continue to last after you, but that your accomplishments will continue to last after you. Hölderlin writes poetry, which we’re still reading some 200 years later. You can write a novel which can be read for 20 or 50 or 100 or more years. You might make some contribution to math or philosophy or science, and 50 or 100 years later, people could still be talking about that philosophical argument or that mathematical result.

You might have other kinds of accomplishments. You might build a building that will last after you. Stone cutters, I’ve read interviews with stone cutters who take a kind of pride and comfort in the thought that long after they’re gone, the buildings that they helped build will still be there. You might try to build a company that will last after you die. Or, for that matter, you might take pleasure and comfort in the accomplishment of having raised a family. Here, not so much the thought that some of your cells are in your offspring, but rather the thought that to have raised another decent human being is a nontrivial accomplishment, something worth having done with your life. And that accomplishment continues after you’re gone.

Well, what should we think about this second group of approaches to attaining semi-immortality? I’ve got to say that I’m of two minds when I think about them. Unlike the dust and the atoms stuff, where I just think you’re deluding yourself, I find myself drawn to this second set of thoughts. I find myself tempted by the thought that there’s something worth doing about producing something that continues for a while. That it’s significant. And even if my life here on earth is a short one, if something that I’ve accomplished continues, my life is the better for it. That’s Hölderlin’s thought, I suppose. And it’s a view that appeals to me. I suppose it explains, in part, why I write philosophy, in the hopes that the things I write might still be read 20 years after I die, or 50 years or, if I’m so lucky, 100 years after I die.

Well, in certain moods, perhaps in most moods, I’m drawn by that thought. But in other moods, I’ve got to confess, I’m skeptical of it. I remind myself of Schopenhauer writing his little passage, his Ode To Dust, and I find myself saying, just like Schopenhauer was so desperate that he deludes himself into thinking, “Oh, it doesn’t matter that I’m about to turn into dust. Dust is really, really important,” I’m just deluding myself as well, when I think there’s something grander, something significant, something valuable about having made an accomplishment, having achieved something that continues beyond me. So in certain moods, at least, I find myself thinking that I’ve just deluded myself.

But that’s only certain moods. And at least most of the time, I find myself in agreement with Hölderlin. Not necessarily in thinking quantity doesn’t matter at all. To have written one great work is all you need and more great works doesn’t add anything — that strikes me as going too far. But at least to have done something significant that abides, that does seem to me to add to the value and significance of my life.

Chapter 5. Life Is Suffering: An Alternative Approach to Living [00:40:21]

Well, let me mention an entire different approach. I’m going to give very, very short shrift to this last approach, but it’s probably worth mentioning as well. The entire assumption of all the lines of thought that I’ve been discussing so far today have in common the underlying belief that the way to deal with the fact that we live and then we’re dead is to try to make the life that you’ve got as good as possible, as valuable as possible, to pack as much into it as you can, even though there’s room for disagreement about what’s the best strategy for doing that. The picture is one in which we say we can’t do anything about the loss of life, so the right response is to make the life that we’ve got as valuable as it can be, to see it as valuable as it can be.

But there’s a rather different approach. That alternative approach says, yes, we’re going to lose life and that’s horrible. But it’s only horrible insofar as you think of life as something that it’s bad to lose. After all, if we were to decide that life wasn’t really a valuable gift, if it wasn’t really something worth embracing, and something that we could turn into something full of value, then its loss wouldn’t actually be a loss. That’s a point we’ve seen before, right? The central badness of death is explained in the depravation account. You are deprived of the fact that you could have had more life that would have been worth having overall. But if life isn’t worth having overall, then its loss is not a bad thing, but a good thing. The trick, then, isn’t to make life as valuable as it could be, but rather to come to recognize that on balance, life isn’t positive, but negative.

I know that what I’m about to say has a kind of Classics Illustrated simplicity to it, and it’s a bit of an over-exaggeration, but in gross terms, we might say the first general outlook — that life is good and so the loss of it is bad and so the answer is make as much of it as we can while we’ve got it — you might say that is, in broad strokes, the western outlook. And in broad strokes, the notion that life isn’t really as good as we take it to be, but is, in fact, bad overall, perhaps it’s oversimplification to call it the eastern outlook, but at least it’s an outlook that gets more expression typically in eastern thought than in western thought.

Foremost example of this second outlook is, I suppose, Buddhism. Four noble truths in Buddhism. The first noble truth is that life is suffering. Buddhists believe if you think hard about the underlying nature of life, you’ll see that everyplace there is loss. There is suffering. There is disease. There is death. There is pain. Sure, there are things that we want and, if we’re lucky, we get them. But then we lose them and that just adds to the suffering and the pain and the misery. On balance, life isn’t good. First noble truth, life is suffering. And so, armed with this estimation, what Buddhists try to do is to free you from attachment to these goods, so that when you lose them, the loss is minimized. And indeed, Buddhists try to free you from what they take to be the illusion of there being a self. There is no me to lose anything.

Death is terrifying insofar as I worry about it being the dissolution of myself. If there is no self, there’s nothing to dissolve. It all makes sense — and I have tremendous respect for Buddhism — it all makes sense, given the thought that life is suffering. But for better or for worse, I’m a child of the west. I’m a child of the Book of Genesis, where God looks on the world and says, “It’s good.” For me, at least, the strategy of minimize your loss by viewing the world as negative, is not one that I can be at rest with. For me, life can be good. And so the choices for me, and I suppose for most of us, remain among the strategies with which I began. How is it that we can most make our lives valuable? What is it that we can do that will allow us, with Hölderlin, to say, “once we lived like the gods”?

[end of transcript]


“To the Parcae ” by Friedrich Holderlin, translated by Walter Kaufmann, from Existentialism, Religion and Death by Walter Kaufmann, copyright (c) 1976 by Walter Kaufmann. Used by Permission of Duton Signet, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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