Given the absence of an afterlife, we need to be consoled about death—unlike animals that are spared our lifelong anticipation of it. We need a story about our mortality that makes it look like less of a tragedy. In his chipper and charming “The Consolations of Mortality: Making Sense of Death,” Andrew Stark, a professor of management and political science at the University of Toronto, considers four stories about why death might not be as bad as we tend to suppose.
First, death is actually quite benign. Second, immortality would give us no more goods than mortality can provide. Third, immortality itself would be intolerable. Fourth, life already contains all the bad things that death entails.
The first and third options are the most promising with the other two open to obvious objection. The second option insists that if we have done something worthwhile in life we have lived enough life, but that doesn’t take into account other precious aspects of life, such as love, pleasure and fascination. The fourth option points out that life is full of loss, so that death gives us more of the same, but that ignores that in death we also lose ourselves. So let’s concentrate on the other two.
THE CONSOLATIONS OF MORTALITY
By Andrew Stark Yale, 275 pages, $30
Epicurus famously said that, so long as we are alive death is not with us and in death, there is no self to endure deprivation—so we have nothing to worry about. The logical point is correct but, as Mr. Stark observes, this is not much help psychologically, because we still have to face the fact that this thing we love—life—will some day be snuffed out. It is the fact that I will be no more that bothers me, not the confused fear that I will be unhappy when dead.
The existentialists try to make a virtue of necessity by claiming that death is the great motivator: It galvanizes us by its presence, forcing us to make something of our life—to become a real authentic self. One sees the point of this reflection—imagine the procrastinations of immortality!—but it is surely not true that only death can motivate us to achievement and selfhood (what about vanity and rivalry, or the desire to do good?).
Then we have the Buddhists: once we come to see that the self is unreal we will recognize that there is no self to die—no real entity goes out of existence when death overtakes us. In Western philosophy we have the views of David Humeand Derek Parfit, to the effect that persons are collections of connected mental states with no underlying ego; so long as mental states continue in other people, nothing substantial has been lost when a particular individual dies. Again, the logic sounds reasonable, but how about our actual psychology—isn’t this view a lot like saying that I never existed to begin with, so why worry about my impending nonexistence? And why is it wrong to want my mental states to continue? That is what the fear of death is.
So we get to the perils of immortality, and whether they might be as harrowing as those of death, and here reach a point of at least partial comfort. I found this part of “The Consolations of Mortality” the most rewarding, building as it does on the important work of the late Bernard Williams. Williams’s argument takes the form of a dilemma: Either immortality would lead inevitably to excruciating boredom, or it would lead to the perpetual reinvention of the self, in which case it is tantamount to repeated death. It would seem to inevitably lead to boredom because eternity is an awfully long time to keep repeating the same old pleasures and passions. In a tiny fraction of eternity, everything of the world will have been learned with nothing new to pique one’s interest. Even a delicious plate of oysters will pall after the billionth dozen. Won’t one’s own self come to seem as dull as ditchwater?
There is also the point, mentioned by Mr. Stark, that as one ages one will be prone to painful nostalgia for the time of one’s youth, a million years ago; and how will one relate to people much younger? I would add that immortality allows for a crushing accumulation of bitter memories of slights, failures and betrayals. Memory is already cruel enough in our limited lifespans, but it would be more cruel if it could store up pain and grievance over endless aeons.
True, we might well feel that a few hundred extra years of life would be nice—we don’t live long enough given our psychology—but to live forever is a very big commitment. We could avoid such pitfalls by creating new selves every thousand years or so—selves without the baggage of memory to weigh them down—but then we have traded immortality for something that looks like mortality. Maybe the ideal would be to live as long as one felt like living and then put an end to the tedium when it became too much.
So there is some consolation to be found, Mr. Stark shows us, but it is of a distressingly indirect kind: Yes, death is bad, very bad, but it is not as bad as the impossibility of death. We may prefer mortality to immortality, if we follow Bernard Williams’s argument, but that is like preferring to be whipped than electrocuted—neither is remotely acceptable. From the fact that A is worse than B it doesn’t follow that B is any less bad than we supposed.
My own view is that consolation is more available from reflections about the nature of personal identity, particularly the impermanence of the self over the course of a single biological life. Isn’t it true that my childhood self no longer exists, having been replaced by my very different adult self? And wasn’t that earlier death not as terrible as I suppose my adult death to be? Maybe we can be consoled by the thought that an ordinary human life consists of a series of deaths of successive selves, the last death merely being the one that puts an end to the series.
Mr. McGinn is a philosopher. His books include “Philosophy of Language: The Classics Explained” and “Prehension: The Hand and the Emergence of Humanity.”
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.