Thursday, 10 February 2011
Death and the paradox
We have looked at the problems posed by the current views on death, and at the background provided by past approaches to the question. We are now going to consider the practical aspects of the question. When, where and what is the best death, and what is the nature of the choice (if any) that we have on the subject, and to what conclusions do these questions lead?
Once I have established that dying of old age is not necessarily the preferable or natural possibility, all alternatives left to consider amount to suicide (since death by accident cannot be chosen). So the question becomes (and it's a serious question): is it best to let oneself die of natural causes, or to choose one's death by means of a calculated suicide? And if so, when should we kill ourselves? We must of course consider that, framed in this way, death by natural causes is itself a choice - it's just that you don't choose WHEN you're dying. And so everything points to this as the most synthetic form of the question: when is the best time to terminate your life (if any)? We shall return to this later.
The nature of the choice is not homogeneous for all of us, of course. It depends heavily on what kind of future we have, and what situation we're in when we reach an elder age. If certain conditions apply, the choice of death does not pose itself. If I have a family, for instance, all considerations of suicide must be dropped. The responsibilities towards my wife and children (even if the latter are economically independent, there's affective and emotive responsibilities) are enough to forbid me from choosing death.
If I do not have a family, or do no longer have one, or have lost all connections with the members of my family, then the dilemma of natural death versus suicide has the grounds to be posed, and it is only under this implicit condition that we shall now explore its possibilities.
Let's go back to the question in the final form it revealed itself: when is the right moment to die (and is there one)? It is widely agreed that youth is the best part of life, so for all the emo kids who protest otherwise, definitely not then. As a rule, as long as you have full possession of your physical and mental faculties, there is no reason for you to consider death. It is also common sense that aging is not a pleasure, and that the longer you age, the more difficult it becomes. So if there has to be self-termination, it would have to be only after the body has reached a point of irreparable deterioration. If you contract a disease as lacerating and degrading as alzheimer's, for instance, it makes sense to end it before it gets to the stage that you've forgotten how to eat, even if you have a family.
Still, it's not that you should live or die because youth is pleasant and old age is painful. It's that when you're young, you haven't had the time to fulfill (or even choose) a 'purpose', and therefore to kill yourself then is to negate the value of life itself (you are essentially saying, it is better never to have been born than to live at all). I don't really agree with that statement and that's not the question I'm posing. I'm saying this: assuming that life is worth living, what is the right way to end it? All other questions would be thoughts on life, not thoughts on death, so they're not the subject of these meditations. Therefore if one should terminate life by one's own hand at all, it would have to be in old age, not so much to spare oneself the pains, but because I'm assuming that then you've had the time to do whatever it is that you've invested your life into doing. If you reach the age of eighty and you still have dreams you want to fulfill, the problem of killing yourself is again not to be posed.
First scenario. I am seventy, and I seem to be pretty much as lucid now as I've been most of my life. My body isn't deteriorating too badly: I can still go out for a walk by myself, I can take care of things, and I'm not tormented with too much pain. Conclusion: no need to consider ending life. Even if you already feel accomplished, you haven't really lost anything you had when you were young (other than the possibility of playing rugby with your mates), so there's no more reason to kill yourself now than there was then.
Second scenario. I am sixty, and I can feel that my mind is beginning to slip away. I forget things, I can no longer reason clearly, I often fail to make sense with my friends in conversations, and I am no longer good at the mathematics/economics/journalism that I've spent my life doing. I've suffered from a disease of the bones or the heart or the nervous system a few years ago, and now I've got killer back pains every night when I go to sleep, or it looks like I'll need a wheelchair five years from now, or I'm wetting my bed, or several of these put together, and I'll need a nurse to take care of me. Conclusion: the conventional objections to suicide do no longer hold.
Kant went down that road. Here's Scruton's account of his final days. It makes for a rending read:
Kant gave his last official lecture in 1796. By that time his faculties had begun to decline and a sombre melancholy had replaced his former gaiety. Fichte describes him as seeming to lecture in his sleep, waking with a start to his half-forgotten subject matter. Soon he lost his clarity of mind, his ability to recognise old friends, even his ability to complete simple sentences. He faded into insensibility, and passed from his blameless life on 12 February 1804, unaccompanied by his former intellectual powers.
Kant died at the age of eighty. Suppose that he'd died at the age of seventy. Would he or anyone else have lost very much? And if so, then what, exactly?
A common way to dismiss this would be to say, "These reflections only indicate a fear of aging." Yes, in part they do, but this misses the point. The conventional social response, the 'obvious' voice, is precisely the one which says - all of this is only considered by people who are afraid of becoming old. Even if there is some truth in it (and there is, of course), you must stop to consider that the statement is reversible. A Viking would say that we're only considering the alternative because we're afraid of death. Everyone would like to choose the path of courage, if that's a possibility, but once you strip away the clichés, the question remains of what is really courage, here. This is not a rhetorical question. Is it to shun the cold of solitude and pain, and by the bold decision to find death before both strength and mind are lost? Or is it to endure with patience the conclusive ride, and pay the debt of nature while enjoying the final skies? The whole point of these reflections is that the dilemma cannot be taken for granted. Yes, our society today says the second option is the right one. But others before it said different things. We cannot determine the answer simply by looking at what all the other people do (or are doing).
So if one is done with his/her 'purpose' or interest by the elder age, and if s/he also doesn't have a family, what then? Is the dilemma of suicide then opened? Alas, no. Regrettably, this is where things get more rather than less complicated, and where the whole edifice of suicide is mined in its foundations, and it goes to show what we were saying from the outset: that a 'philosophy of death' is untenable from its inception.
Planning your death involves a series of round-about psychological fuck-ups. For instance, it makes sense to plan on spending the last few years in hedonistic debauchery, throwing to the winds any money you don't intend to leave to charity. But as we mentioned, the hedonistic perspective doesn't work, even in such micro-versions. The moment you abandon yourself to pleasure with the justification that your imminent mortality allows it, the justification itself spoils the fun: you can't have fun without thinking that you're going to die. And then there's no fun. The agency contaminates the performance.
Another example. It would make sense for a writer or poet to produce his/her final works when s/he knows s/he's going to die: the knowledge of death would inspire very acute meditations on the subject (and from a cynical point of view, it would sell if s/he killed him/herself right after). We've seen it in everyone from Seneca to Sylvia Plath. So I could say, 'geez, I'll reach the age of 55, then write my last collection on the subject of death, then kill myself.' But the moment you start writing it, the act itself fucks you up: you become aware that you then become compelled to kill yourself to 'respect' the statement you're making, otherwise you're a charlatan. And this deterministic pressure is bound to have such horribly burdensome effects as to make the years under them not worth living, which defeats the point you were killing yourself for in the first place. The fact that you are, in a way, binding yourself, leads you to struggle against those binds, in the same process by which you originally struggled against the 'binding' of a death you did not like. It may even dissuade you from actually killing yourself - which makes the writing a waste of time, because if you hadn't planned on killing yourself, you wouldn't have written that which deterred you from killing yourself anyway!
And so we come back to the original paradox: that you can't speak or think of death because any philosophy of death is a philosophy of life. It only holds, and it MUST be held, until you reach the point of executing it in practice. You can't plan the actions of your end, because if you end, there are no actions, and therefore whatever you're planning is not the end.
It's impossible to have a philosophy on death, but it's also impossible NOT to have one, simply because we cannot make our choices in life unless we are thinking of how we want it to end. To be alive necessarily implies to think of death (even if you say, 'I do not think of death,' you are already thinking of death), but in order to truly think of death, you would have to be dead. This is the inescapable paradox on which all thoughts of death must depend. The ethics of suicide are valid and sustainable, at least as much as those behind natural death, but the fact of death itself makes these ethics performative rather than descriptive - they are something that we *do,* not something that is right or wrong. (And I suspect all ethical systems may be like that, in truth). The irony is that society spends so much of its energy into condemning suicide, which is something that we can't implement anyway. At least not until we have no choice. And then it isn't really suicide, or at least, it doesn't have the same ethical weight.
I expect several other of the philosophies and systems that we use to bear us forward, those which speak not just of death but of the meaning of life, are based on equally intangible foundations - paradoxes which cannot be sustained, yet simultaneously cannot be demolished. It is incredible how effectively they hold us together.
For the rest, nothing has changed. For the rest, you are immortal for as long as you're alive.
...the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.