What is the Meaning of Death? – Philosophy & Psychology

Death is the unequivocal and permanent end of our existence. Most people unconsciously repress the idea of their death, as it is too horrifying a notion to think about.

Some are perhaps not so horrified of the idea of death, but rather the pain associated before one’s death, or the death of loved ones. We live entirely unique lives with complete different experiences, but we all share one common fate: Death. This is what links all of us together. Death smiles at us all and all we can do is smile back.

Is Death Undesirable?

We might think that death is undesirable since it deprives us of life. If by death we mean permanent death without any form of conscious survival, this question should be of interest even to those who believe that there is an afterlife, for one’s attitude towards immortality must depend in part on one’s attitude towards death.

If death is undesirable at all, it must be because it brings to an end all the good that life contains. In this view, life is worth living despite the existence of suffering. The more one lives the better. What makes life worth living includes everything that we find desirable.

The value of life does not attach to mere organic survival: almost everyone would agree that immediate death and immediate comma followed by death without reawakening would be the same outcome. Therefore, we can say that more life is good insofar as one is conscious and one is able to have good experiences.

If we were to consider death undesirable, it is because of the loss of life, rather than the actual state of being dead or non-existent. Death is bad because of the desirability of what it removes.

But this raises the question: what if we were to live indefinitely? If we had virtually endless days ahead of us, wouldn’t that generate widespread laziness? We would have all the time in the world, there would be no urgency to achieve great goals and there would be less incentive to make every day count, and as a result, we might end up as a bunch of unhappy people.

Death might well be what makes life valuable.

Should We Fear Death?

So, should we fear death? American philosopher Thomas Nagel identifies two common mistakes on the notion of death.

The first mistake is the asymmetry between our attitudes to posthumous and prenatal nonexistence. None of us existed before we were born (or conceived), but few regard that as a misfortune. How can posthumous death be considered bad and not prenatal nonexistence?

Some may say that no one finds it disturbing to contemplate the eternity preceding his own birth, and so it must be irrational to fear death, since death is simply the mirror image of the prior abyss.

However, this does not make much sense. While it is true that both the time before a man’s birth and the time after his death are times when he does not exist, the time after his death is time of which his death deprives him. It is time in which, had he not died, then he would be alive.

On the other hand, his birth, when it occurs, does not entail the loss to him of any life. The time prior to his birth is not time in which his subsequent birth prevents him from living. Thus, one’s prenatal nonexistence cannot be attributed to one’s posthumous nonexistence.

The second mistake is about the origin of the fear of death. It is often said that those who object to death have made the mistake of trying to imagine what it is like to be dead, leading to the conviction that death is a mysterious and terrifying future state.

This is logically impossible as there is nothing to imagine when one’s mental faculties have been shut down. People who are afraid of death in this sense mistake being dead as a conscious state, for it is easy to imagine oneself, from the outside, in that condition – but one can never experience it.

There is a difficulty, in the case of death, about how the supposed misfortune is to be assigned to a subject at all. There is doubt as to who its subject is, and as to when he undergoes it.

Epicurus writes:

“Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.”

Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus

So long as a person exists, he has not yet died and once he has died, he no longer exists; so there seems to be no time when death can be ascribed to its unfortunate subject.

Therefore, the more reasonable fear people have is the pain that one experiences before one’s death. Thus one should not fear one’s death, but rather the possible ways of dying.

Ernest Becker: The Denial of Death

Ernest Becker, the author of The Denial of Death, was diagnosed with colon cancer and died two years later at the age of 49. He was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for this literary work, gaining him wider recognition.

Becker tells us that we are born in a world that is terrifying and our basic motivation is our biological need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death. He writes:

“This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression – and with all this yet to die.”

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, Chapter 5: “The Psychoanalyst Kierkegaard”

Since the terror of death is so overwhelming we conspire to keep it unconscious. The first line of defence that protects us from the painful awareness of our helplessness is “the vital lie of character”. Every child borrows power from adults and creates a personality by introjecting the qualities of the godlike being: “if I am like my all-powerful father I will not die” – the child seeks self-extension or what Becker calls “cosmic significance”.

This expresses man’s tragic destiny:

“He must desperately justify himself as an object of primary value in the universe; he must stand out, be a hero, make the biggest possible contribution to world life, show that he counts more than anything or anyone else.”

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, Chapter 1: “Introduction: Human Nature and the Heroic”

The problem of heroics is the central one of human life. It is the combination of organismic narcissism and the basic need for self-esteem that creates a creature who has to feel himself an object of primary value, as the condition of his life.

We build “character armour” which makes us feel safe and are able to pretend that the world is manageable. But the price we pay is high, life escapes us while we huddle within the defended fortress of character.

“The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free from the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, Chapter 4: “Human Character as a Vital Lie”

Society provides the second line of defence against our natural impotence by creating a hero system that allows us to believe that we transcend death by participating in something of lasting worth. We achieve ersatz immortality by sacrificing ourselves to establish a family, to accumulate fortune, to write a book and so on.

Since the main task of human life is to become heroic and transcend death, every culture must provide its members with an intricate symbolic system that is covertly religious. Our heroic projects are “my gods against your gods, my immortality project against your immortality project”.

Man’s basic narcissism is what keeps men marching into point-blank fire in wars: at heart one doesn’t feel that he will die, he only feels sorry for the man next to him.

Becker advises us to contemplate death. Cultivating awareness of our death leads to disillusionment, loss of character armour, and a conscious choice to abide in the face of terror. This is the existential hero’s way, which differs from the average person. Instead of hiding within the illusions, he sees his impotence and vulnerability. Living with the voluntary consciousness of death, the heroic individual can choose to despair or to make a leap of faith.

“Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.”

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, Chapter 9: “The Present Outcome of Psychoanalysis”

Becker indicates, however, that the truth about the need for heroism is not easy for anyone to admit, and so we disguise our struggle by piling up figures in a bank book to reflect privately our sense of heroic worth.

To become conscious of what one is doing to earn his feeling of heroism is the main self-analytic problem of life.

Stoicism: Memento Mori

The Stoics, on the other hand, do not believe in the terror of death. It is a natural process and should not be feared. They practiced memento mori (meditating on your mortality), to remember that we all have to die.

Marcus Aurelius writes:

“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.56

Death allows one to fully live one’s life. For it is not death a man should fear but rather never beginning to live. For the Stoics, death is not anxiety-inducing or grippling, it is part of nature.

Epictetus writes:

“I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later.”

Epictetus, Discourses of Epictetus 1.1

If every second counts as dying, this allows one not to take anything for granted in this life and to fully immerse oneself, being aware that life is temporal. This also allows us to focus on the things that really matter:

“Constantly run down the list of those who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever. And ask: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend… or not even a legend… And how trivial the things we want so passionately are.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 12.27

Nietzsche: The Free Death

Nietzsche also embraces and celebrates death and talks about the “free death”. He writes:

“Many die too late, and some die too early. The doctrine still sounds strange: “Die at the right time!”… To be sure, how could the person who never lives at the right time ever die at the right time? Would that he were never born! – Thus I advise the superfluous… Everyone regards dying as important; but death is not yet a festival. As of yet people have not learned how to consecrate the most beautiful festivals. I show you the consummating death that becomes a goad and a promise to the living. The consummated one dies his death, victorious, surrounded by those who hope and promise. Thus one should learn to die; and there should be no festival where such a dying person does not swear oaths to the living!”

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part I, “On Free Death”

Nietzsche establishes a view of the correct death which one chooses freely and which occurs at the right time. Death should be a consummation to life, dignified by a meaning and purpose emanating from the life that is ending.

In contrast he writes about the “preachers of death”:

“There are preachers of death, and the earth is full of those to whom one must preach renunciation of life… There are those with consumption of the soul: hardly are they born when they begin to die and too long for doctrines of weariness and renunciation. They would like to be dead, and we should welcome their wish. Let us beware of waking the dead and disturbing these living coffins! They encounter a sick or a very old person or a corpse, and right away they say: life is refuted!”

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part I, “On Preachers of Death”

Nietzsche rejects the melancholy of encountering a sick or a very old person or a corpse, as a repudiation of life. He illustrates the manner in which living men can be “effectively” dead. There are forms of death other than ceasing to be physically alive. There are the “living dead,” those who avoid the demands of existence through escape into work and through renunciation of life.

The Death of Socrates

Socrates, the founder of Western philosophy – may well be one who practised “dying at the right time”. At the age of 70, he was sentenced to death.

The Oracle of Delphi, which found the sum of human wisdom in the expression “know thyself”, had declared that there is no one wiser than Socrates. Thus he began his mission to educate people, with his famous irony: “I know that I know nothing”.

He was known as the gadfly of Athens, asking question after question in order to expose the contradictions in the thoughts and ideas of people. It was an attempt made to use critical reflection to call into question traditional beliefs and ways of thinking. This is known as the Socratic method.

As is described in Plato’s Apology, Socrates was sentenced to death by drinking hemlock for impiety against the pantheon of Athens and for corrupting the youth. In the trial, he stated his famous dictum: “The unexamined life is not worth living”.

He was given the chance to live in exile, but refused. He spent his last day in prison with his friends visiting him and offering him an opportunity to escape, which he declined.

His enigmatic final words were: “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Pay it and do not neglect it.”

Socrates is thanking the god Asclepius for healing him of the sickness of life by the cure of death.

The cock, which gives hopeful proclamation of the coming new day, symbolised rebirth and afterlife for ancient Greeks and was the offering to the healing god Asclepius. Socrates is simply offering thanks and pointing to the afterlife. He invokes the only god known to revive the dead, who Socrates suggests with his last words has already helped heal both Socrates himself and his followers from the fever of earthly life. He tells his friends to work to purify their souls, to serve others with compassion and to dedicate their lives to the community’s health.

Carl Jung: Life and Death

Carl Jung believes that one must be as ready to live as to die. He writes:

“Death is psychologically as important as birth, and like it, is an integral part of life… As a doctor, I make every effort to strengthen the belief in immortality, especially with older patients when such questions come threateningly close. For, seen in correct psychological perspective, death is not an end but a goal, and life’s inclination towards death begins as soon as the meridian is passed.”

Carl Jung, Collected Works 13: Alchemical Studies

Jung’s entire psychology is predicated on the existence of psychic oppositions in the human psyche. He stressed the need to hold the tension of opposites. Death is inevitable and to think otherwise is to live in denial and to live against one’s instincts.

Jung criticises contemporary culture in its one-sidedness about this pair of opposites, with our almost complete focus on life, and denial of death. He tells us to prepare ourselves for the second half of our life. But how should we face death when we grow older? He writes:

“Death is an important interest, especially to an aging person. A categorical question is being put to him, and he is under an obligation to answer it. To this end he ought to have a myth about death, for reason shows him nothing but the dark pit into which he is descending. Myth, however, can conjure up other images for him, helpful and enriching pictures of life in the land of the dead. If he believes in them, or greets them with some measure of credence, he is being just as right or just as wrong as someone who does not believe in them. But while the man who despairs marches toward nothingness, the one who has placed his faith in the archetype follows the tracks of life and lives right into his death. Both, to be sure, remain in uncertainty, but the one lives against his instincts, the other with them.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Chapter XI “On Life after Death”

A myth is not something that we create rationally, but rather through observing our psychic life, through active imagination, dreams, intuitions and synchronicities or meaningful coincidences. The lifelong process of individuation brings one’s unconscious contents into consciousness, shifting the focus of the ego with the self.

Jung recounts his visions that followed his near death experience. As he hung on the edge of death, he saw himself high up in space and noticed a large granite block floating in space, which had a temple. As Jung approached the steps leading into the temple, he experienced “a strange thing”:

“I consisted of my own history, and I felt with great certainty: this is what I am… This experience gave me a feeling of extreme poverty, but at the same time of great fullness. There was no longer anything I wanted or desired. I existed in an objective form; I was what I had been and lived… At first the sense of annihilation predominated, or having been stripped or pillaged; but suddenly that became of no consequence. Everything seemed to be past… There was no longer any regret that something had dropped away or been taken away. On the contrary: I had everything that I was, and that was everything… as I approached the temple I had the certainty that I was about to enter an illuminated room and would meet there all those people to whom I belong in reality. There I would at last understand… what historical nexus I or my life fitted into. I would know… why I had come into being, and where my life was flowing…”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Chapter X: Visions

Jung then saw an image of his doctor telling him that he must return to earth, and his visions ceased. Compared to the freedom he felt in his vision, living felt like a prison, back to the “box system”. By day Jung was depressed, however, by night he was swept up in ecstasy, within visions that gave him the experience of:

“the odour of sanctity… a pneuma of inexpressible sanctity in the room, whose manifestation was the mysterium coniunctionis.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Chapter X: Visions

Jung’s last major work was in fact called Mysterium Coniunctionis, completed in his 81st year, on the synthesis of the opposites in alchemy and psychology. He wrote:

“Only with Mysterium Coniunctionis was my psychology definitely situated in reality and was historically cemented as a whole. With this my task was finished, my work done and accomplished. The moment I achieved my goal, I accessed the most extreme limits of what was scientifically conceived for me, the transcendent, the essence of the archetype itself, beyond which it is no longer possible to express anything else in the scientific aspect.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Chapter VII: The Work

Years later Jung could look back on his visions and say:

“It is impossible to convey the beauty and intensity of emotion during those visions. They were the most tremendous things I have ever experienced… not a product of imagination. The visions and experiences were utterly real; there was nothing subjective about them; they all had a quality of absolute objectivity.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Chapter X: Visions


The Meaning of Death – Philosophy & Psychology

What is the meaning of Death? It is the unequivocal and permanent end of our existence. Most people unconsciously repress the idea of their death, as it is too horrifying a notion to think about.

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In Pursuit of Meaning (philosophy & psychology)

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