I just read two things which put death on my mind today – Plato’s Phaedo, and Wait but Why’s post on timelines, both of which ended with expiration (of Socrates as he drinks his hemlock, and the death of everything at the Heat Death of the Universe). This has put me in a very existential mood.
What fascinated me about Plato’s Phaedo is that the character Socrates holds a belief about the immortality of the soul so strongly that he faces his imminent death with great courage, so convinced he is that the separation of the soul from the body is a good thing (since as a philosopher he has spent his whole life trying to untangle himself from bodily things). This conviction comes out of Socrates faith in this belief, although he does arrive at it by a certain amount of (not particularly convincing) reasoning.
Can reason alone overcome the emotions of fear and uncertainty in the face of death? I have never seriously doubted the immortality of the soul. Although I have considered the idea that consciousness ends with bodies I have never really believed it for longer than half a second. And yet death fills me with fear and I would do what I could to prolong my life, and certainly have delayed taking the hemlock til the last possible moment (Socrates turns down the chance to). I could not welcome it as a good thing, even though I believe I would be going on to something better, because I am convinced that life is too good to let go of.
Of course, Socrates is a character made up by Plato for his play, and we have no idea how the real Socrates died – whether he did so with heroic resignation and even optimism, or not. I have never stared death in the face before, and don’t know what my reaction would be to my imminent demise. Perhaps I would be given a special dispensation of grace that would allow me to accept it, or even welcome it, when the time comes – I certainly hope so.
But there is no way I would be happy about death itself. And I am reminded that, just the way Socrates’ friends wept when he had taken the poison, Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus, even though he knew that moments later he would be leading him out of the tomb. That is enough for me to understand what our attitude towards death should be – precisely what it is, sadness, even, rage.
It upsets me that the universe is heading, in the long run, for absolute cold and dark and nothingness. It upsets me that I will lose my loved ones, one by one, in this life, and be unable to communicate with them or see or hear or touch them when they die. These are losses, grave ones, and the response is to grieve, and even to rage at death itself. Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.
So there is in a sense room for me to believe that there is something good for me on the other side of death, and yet still hate the door I have to pass through to get to that other side. Because that door represents a bundle of doubt, of pain, of separation and of difficulty, much like the struggle out of the birth canal must have been at my birth, which I nevertheless will emerge into greater life from.
When I think of death I think of two great poems on the subject – the atheist Philip Larkin’s Aubade, and John Donne’s most famous Holy Sonnet (“Death, be not proud”). One is painfully frank and chilling, staring nakedly at the gaping void of death that we all instinctively fear; the other is a piece of triumphant cleverness, declaring after a few specious arguments about the smallness of death, in its last lines, the Christian defeat of humanity’s most dreaded enemy. It is curious that while I believe in the triumph of the last two lines of Donne’s poem, it does not make me feel less like the persona of Larkin’s. There is something inherently troubling about the coldness of the corpse left behind. What if that’s it? Or worse, what could there be that we would hurtle towards in the unknown bowels of eternity?