- In art and mythology death is sometimes represented as a ferryman, eager to take his passengers to the other side. It is also sometimes represented as a moth fluttering mindlessly into the flame of a candle. But the most compelling image of death is provided by the Reaper – the hooded skeleton bearing the huge curved scythe.
- The Reaper is ugly and menacing. He stares directly at us, and with an outstretched bony finger, he beckons us to come to him. He is patient. If we escape today, surely he will have us tomorrow. He is democratic. He takes all; high and low alike will be "harvested" when the time comes. He is unforgiving. Once we are in his grasp, there is no return.
- Two aspects of the Reaper are especially noteworthy. He is mysterious. This is illustrated by the fact that the Reaper's face is often hidden in the shadows of his hood. Death is taken to be weird or uncanny – something about which we have no real understanding.
- Death is also taken to be evil. This is illustrated by the Reaper's malevolent glare. A visit from the Reaper is to be feared almost beyond comparison. What he does to us is the standard by which misfortunes can be measured.
- While most of us find nothing remarkable in the claims that death is mysterious and evil, each of these claims has been vigorously rejected by certain philosophers. Some insist that there is nothing mysterious about death. In a remarkably level-headed and sensible paper2, Paul Edwards argues for the conclusion that death is no more mysterious than any other biological phenomenon. As he sees it, a person’s death is simply the event that takes place when he or she ceases to be alive. We understand (well enough) what life is; we know what cessation is. Thus, since death is just the cessation of life, we understand what death is. The Reaper is thus unmasked.
- Edwards suggests that if you seek more knowledge about the nature of death, you may seek something that does not exist. Some apparently want to know what it feels like to be dead. Since no one returns from death, the living apparently have no informants who can tell us what death is like. Thus, according to these people, a certain important aspect of death remains mysterious. We cannot know what it feels like. Edwards points out the absurdity of any such quest. Death surely does not "feel like" anything; once dead, we cease to feel. We have no experience. If you are troubled because you cannot know what it feels like to have no feelings, you are simply confused.
- Other philosophers argue that the Reaper is not really evil. Epicurus – perhaps the most eloquent spokesman for this position – says in effect that we have an utterly failsafe way of protecting ourselves from the evil of death. At the very moment when the Reaper clutches us in his bony embrace, we go out of existence. Since the non-existent cannot be harmed, death cannot harm us.
- Epicurus summarises this point by saying that "death … is nothing to us, since so long as we exist death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more."
- Many modern philosophers, biologists and theologians have defended similar positions. They have claimed that death is neither so mysterious nor so evil as the naïve would suppose. The Reaper, according to these thinkers, is really no more mysterious or evil than the stork who symbolises birth or the flowing stream that symbolizes life. In each case, all we have is a biological phenomenon that has by studied in the full light of day.
- In this book, I defend the naïve view on both counts. I try, in Part I, to show that death really is a mystery. Perhaps it is not mysterious in quite the way some have said, but it is mysterious nonetheless. In Part II I try to show how death can be a great evil, especially for its victim.
- If I merely claimed that death is mysterious and evil, there would be no reason to read any further. You probably already accept these points and think that anyone who says otherwise is engaging in self-deception. But the issue is more complex. Wise and thoughtful philosophers have presented subtle arguments designed to show that death cannot be evil. Equally sensible thinkers have claimed to take the mystery out of death by telling us, in straightforward biological terminology, what death is. In order to deal responsibly with these views, we must first understand the arguments and proposed definitions. If, after appropriate scrutiny, the arguments and definitions can be seen to be defective, than we can reinstate the naïve views. Of course, under those circumstances, the views will no longer be so naïve.
Footnote 1: The numbering is mine. Also, the chapter-summaries have been removed to the relevant Papers corresponding to these chapters.
Footnote 2: See "Edwards (Paul) - Existentialism and Death: A Survey of Some Confusions and Absurdities".
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)