KEMATIAN : Is the fear of death the fear of nothing?


In a poem, John Donne tells Death not to be proud. While appearing mighty and dreadful, Death is in reality powerless. Of course, Donne is writing as a Christian, and for him death is a gateway to a new life. We do not have to think of death as an end, but rather as a new beginning. Death is a kind of sleep that will end with an awakening to a continuing consciousness of oneself. Even without this expectation, some people take comfort in the idea that one’s energy, at least, will remain part of the universe. Aristotle and Spinoza hold a similar view. They believe that something about our minds is divine and immortal, the part that thinks timeless universal truths. Of course, that part of our mind never dies, but neither do we recognize ourselves in it. It is as if one were comforted by the thought of leaving a bequest to the universe. This is the comfort parents have when they are able to leave something to their children, through whom they feel they live on, and this thought gives them comfort now while they are still alive to think about it.

Epicurus famously tells us that where death is, I am not; and where I am, death is not. So death is not to be feared, since it is nothing, and we will never experience death. As Wittgenstein tells us, being dead is not an experience within life. We will never know death. This is fair enough, but Epicurus is wrong to think that we cannot be afraid of nothing. This is precisely what we are afraid of, that the world will go on, but we will not be there to witness it. We do not and never will understand death except in an abstract way, and it is often where we are least able to understand something that we are most afraid.

This state of not knowing and being unable to know non-being gives us a blank slate on which to speculate about the nature of death and the possibility of an afterlife. As there is no knowing, the human imagination attempts to color-in the un-colorable. All we can do with death is to speculate about it, since it is our own death that we contemplate, not the deaths of others. Objectively, death is a simple and common occurrence. Subjectively, however, the question is more intimate and private, since only you can live through your dying, and have the thoughts and feelings that you have about it.

Obviously, we have a problem here. All the writings on death, the afterlife, reincarnation, annihilation, and so on, are like so many imaginative projections of our living fears and hopes. Ask what someone thinks about death and you will really be finding out what they think about life, and even, perhaps, their idea of the good life.

So my quest is to see how we might think of death without all the imaginative trappings. I want to see if we can think of death as a simple ending, and ask whether there is anything truly fearful in that end. This is not the same as the fear of getting old and dying which is easier to understand. Dying is something we all go through, but it is something we do while still living. Let us explore the nature of our fear of death and see whether that will help us to understand all the wishful thinking that surrounds it, and the almost universal desire for immortality or reincarnation. By uncovering all that death can mean for the living, perhaps we may find a better understanding of the possibilities of human life.

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