Is there any reason to fear death? I don’t mean the process of dying. There are plenty of ways to die that would be extremely unpleasant, and it is reasonable to try to avoid them. I mean the state of being dead after the death of your body. Certainly, many people do fear being dead, but the philosophical question is whether it is rational to do so.
Rational arguments depend on premises, and there are several different assumptions that we can make in thinking about death. The first is whether we continue in some form or other after bodily death or not. If we assume that we don’t, one set of arguments ensues. If we assume that we do, the next questions are theological. Is there a God who will reward or punish us for our deeds in this life? If so we better figure out how to get rewarded. If not, we better figure out what else we need to do to end up in a happy state. Philosophers over the years have given different answers to these questions.
What if we don’t believe that we live on after the body dies? The ancients had an answer for that. A hundred or so years after Plato, Epicurus said we have no reason to fear death because we won’t be there to experience it! “Death does not concern us,” he said, “because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.”(1)
Epicurus was a materialist; in his view reality is, fundamentally, material stuff. But what of the soul, or what we nowadays call the mind? Epicurus said it is identical to an organ in the body. He knew far less about physiology and neurology than we do now and thought the organ of thought resided in the chest. Now we say it is the brain. Such details aside, the point is that when the body dies, that organ dies and the mind or soul goes with it. There is nothing to fear about being dead because there will be nobody to experience that condition. Being dead is the complete absence of experiential mental states; it is an experiential blank. It won’t hurt; it won’t be pleasant; it won’t be anything. Hence, there is no reason to fear it.(2)
An extension of Epicurus’ argument proposed by his follower Lucretius says that the state of being dead is just like the state before being born; there is no reason to fear either one. Lucretius says,
Look back now and consider how the bygone ages of eternity that elapsed before our birth were nothing to us. Here, then, is a mirror in which nature shows us the time to come after our death. Do you see anything fearful in it?(3)
Heidegger agrees with Epicurus but has a different take on it. Being dead is the one aspect of human existence that cannot be described from a phenomenological, first-person point of view. You can’t even imagine it. But the human being (Dasein in his terminology), knowing that death is inevitable, can take an authentic stand toward his or her own life. The possibility of our own death is omnipresent, always there if we choose to pay attention to it. To live authentically is to live in the knowledge of our own finitude, a knowledge that allows each of us to make of our lives something of our own, not just something dictated by others — culture, family, school, religion, etc. — , which Heidegger calls the “they” (das Man).(4)
There is some question as to whether Heidegger, seemingly describing the structure of human existence generally, actually describes only his own idiosyncratic view of the world. He speaks of authentic being-towards-death as “anxious.”(5) Is being anxious a correct attitude toward life or just a morbid one? In order to make sense of Heidegger, we each need to examine our own experience and see if we find what he describes. I think that Heidegger’s anxiety is more a feature of him himself than of Dasein in general. A sense of authentic being-towards-death is better captured by poet Mary Oliver:
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?(6)
Instead of feeling anxious about being dead, we can feel the excitement of making something of our life. In either case, if we are convinced that we will experience nothing after death because we won’t be around to experience anything, then Epicurus’ advice is cogent. There is no need to fear or worry about being dead.
That’s the rational position. But not many of us are entirely rational when it comes to contemplating our own death. Perhaps it’s because our animal bodies cling to life regardless of what we think, or perhaps it’s because we aren’t as clear-headed as Mary Oliver, but contemplating our own death does give most of us pause. The prospect of our death might fill us with regret at having to leave behind things or people, or perhaps the whole world, for which we have some fondness. We might fear having left unfinished something we wanted to accomplish or having left unreconciled a relationship that has become strained. Or we might just feel Heidegger’s vaguely unfocused anxiety. A poignant case in point is philosopher Herbert Fingarette, who lived a full and meaningful life and wrote a book on death in which he came to the same conclusion as Epicurus. But, as the short documentary “Being 97” reveals, at the end of his life he did indeed fear death and was puzzled and saddened by his failure to find the point of existence.(7)
The alternative to thinking that death is mere non-existence is to think that something, a soul or mentality or a point of view of some kind, does continue after the body dies. If you have such a belief, you expect to find yourself in a world after you die. That world will be different no doubt from the one you are in now, but you expect to have something before you, something to engage with. In short, life continues after death. In fact, death is not death, but only a transition into what we might call an afterlife. Then the question becomes not whether to fear death, but whether to fear the afterlife. Depending on your beliefs about what you think will happen and your assessment of how your life has gone, the prospect can be hopeful or terrifying.
Socrates said that if you have prepared yourself, you should welcome your transition to a better state. As portrayed by Plato in the Phaedo, Socrates says that the true philosopher should have no fear of death at all, as his whole life has been a preparation for that very event. According to accepted belief of the time, when you die, your soul separates from and leaves behind your body. The body dies but the soul lives on; and the philosopher’s soul, unencumbered by bodily distractions, can then enjoy the pleasure of pure knowledge of the Just, the Good, the Beautiful and so on.(8)
The Gnostics of the first couple of centuries of the Christian era had a similar view. They thought that this material world we live in was basically a sort of prison created, not by the supreme Godhead, but by a demented or at least incompetent lower god. We find ourselves thrown into a world à la Heidegger, but the world thwarts our desire to make sense of life and to actualize ourselves authentically because it is the result of the malignant designs of an inferior deity. While nature is, for modern Existentialism, merely indifferent, for the Gnostics it was actively hostile toward the human endeavor. Fortunately, there was a way out, at least for certain advanced souls. Such a soul could receive a supra-cosmic revelation in the form of a vision that would reveal the knowledge (gnôsis) that humankind is alien to this realm and possesses a “home on high” within the plêrôma, the Fullness, where all the rational desires of the human mind come to full and perfect fruition. Much like the ascetic philosopher idealized by Plato, the Gnostic strove to dissociate himself or herself from the material world. If successful, you could achieve some degree of release from suffering in this world, and even more so in the next. Death for the Gnostic, as for Socrates, was to be welcomed, at least if you were suitably prepared.(9)
And, of course, there is no shortage of alarming accounts of what will happen to you if you are not suitably prepared. A well-known example is the sermon by Christian preacher Jonathan Edwards in 1741, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in which he warns those who fail to accept the grace of the Christ that they are in grave peril:
The Wrath of God burns against them, their Damnation do[es]n’t slumber, the Pit is prepared, the Fire is made ready, the Furnace is now hot, ready to receive them, the Flames do now rage and glow. The glittering Sword is whet, and held over them, and the Pit hath opened her Mouth under them. The Devil stands ready to fall upon them and seize them as his own.(10)
Terrifying indeed, and one reason why those who don’t like attempts to motivate by fear shun apocalyptic religions.
I could go on and on with examples, as the belief in life after death is widespread throughout human history. From primitive ancestor worship to present-day theistic religions, some themes are common:
- There is something amiss about our life in this material world.
- It can be better or worse in the afterlife.
- Your state in the afterlife depends on how you comport yourself in this life.
I suspect that a great deal of people’s fear of death has to do with fear of going to hell or being punished in some way in the next life. Religious traditions tell us how to behave here in order to be in a good place there. The way to avoid fear of death, they say, is to do what the scriptures, teachings and elders say to do in order to end up in a happy state in the afterlife. Fear is appropriate if you believe that you have not fully lived up to what is required of you. Confidence is appropriate if you have been righteous and obedient. My mother, the wife of a Presbyterian minister, told me serenely shortly before her death, “I’ll be taken care of.”
The specifics of what is mandated by religion vary from culture to culture, but some of those teachings might indeed be divinely inspired. If you suspect that something happens to you after death but don’t want to blindly accept what you have been told without careful consideration, you can compare the teachings of various traditions and find those that are common to many or seem to be good advice for life in general. I’m thinking of things like treating others as you would have them treat you, helping the poor and needy, avoiding obsession with material things and the like. One of my favorites is from the prophet Zoroaster, who taught that Ahura Mazda, the supreme Wise Lord, desires our welfare. To that end, the Wise Lord commands us to have good thoughts, good words and good deeds.(11)
Most religions are dualistic, viewing the world as divided into opposites such as good and evil, body and soul, material life and spiritual life and the like. Within them, though, we find strains of mystical monism, the belief that despite the appearance of variety, in fact all is one. For the mystic, the transition to the afterlife is neither a calamitous loss of this life nor a triumphant gain of the next. Instead, it is but a step in the soul’s journey toward the One from whence it came.
This idea comes from the Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan. Before elaborating, let me acknowledge that I cannot speak from experience here, as I don’t have any personal memories of having died, nor of being in an afterlife. But I am convinced that life can continue after the death of the physical body. My daughter communicated with me shortly after she died in a car accident, and there was enough independent confirmation from various people to lead me to believe that it was not just a hallucination or wishful thinking. Please see my essay “An Impeccable Death” for the details.(12) Once I visited what is now a museum in Istanbul but was in former times a tekke, a gathering place for Sufi ceremonies of music and movement. I had a powerful sense of familiarity, as if I had been there before. There is no objective proof, of course, but I feel no hesitation in taking seriously what Inayat Khan says about the journey of the soul.
Now, about the soul: there has been much controversy about what the term “soul” means, whether the soul (whatever it is) exists, whether we have one, whether we are one and so forth. I don’t intend to resolve such questions; I just stipulate that what I mean by the term is the unobservable center around which the experience of each of us is organized and from which our actions emanate.(13) When we transition to the afterlife, the soul is what experiences whatever is there and acts in response.
And what will we find there? Basically, what we bring with us. We don’t bring anything material, of course. Nothing that has mass accompanies us to the afterlife. What does accompany us is intangible: our beliefs; our character; our habitual way of approaching the world and our emotional attitude toward it; the way we treat other people; in short, our personality.
Inayat Khan says that the world that appears to us then is influenced by what we believe now. A Christian finds a Christian world; a Hindu, a Hindu world; a Muslim, a Muslim one.(14) Those from other traditions or who espouse none will find different worlds, each a continuation of what they expect or hope or fear in this life. In short, what is left behind is material stuff, and what comes with us is a function of what we carry in our mind. Inayat Khan says,
Before the soul now is a world, a world not strange to it, but which it had made during its life on the earth. That which the soul had known as mind, that very mind is now to the soul a world; that which the soul while on earth called imagination is now before it a reality.(15)
According to Inayat Khan, the afterlife can be a heaven or a hell. What we can do now to influence the outcome is to cultivate the kind of world we would like to be in and to train ourselves to be the kind of person we would like to be while in that world. He continues,
What will be the atmosphere of that world? It will be the echo of the same atmosphere which one has created in this. If one has learned while on earth to create joy and happiness for oneself and for others, in the other world that joy and happiness surrounds one. And if one has sown the seeds of poison while on earth the fruits of these one must reap there.(16)
Your personality goes with you, so cultivate a beautiful and harmonious personality in this life, says the Sufi sage. (This is not a moral commandment, by the way, just very good advice.) Indeed, he devotes much of his writing to what he calls the Art of Personality, the point of which is to become a person who brings heavenly blessings wherever he or she goes. Heaven and hell are not reserved for the afterlife.
It is not that God from His infinite state rewards us or punishes us, or that there is one fold or enclosure called heaven, in which the virtuous are allowed to be, and another called hell, in which all the sinners are penned. In reality we experience heaven and hell in our everyday life all the time.(17)
And this brings us back to the original question, whether it is rational to fear the state of being dead. For those who believe that this one life is all we get and for those who believe that we live on after death, the advice is the same: cultivate tranquility and benevolence here and now. Become a person who radiates and embodies love, harmony and beauty.
(2) O’Keefe, “Epicurus.”
(3) Lucretius, Book III, vv. 972–75.
(4) Wheeler, “Martin Heidegger.”
(5) Heidegger, Being and Time, p. 311.
(6) Oliver, “The Summer Day.”
(7) Hasse, “Being 97.”
(8) Plato, Phaedo, 64a-67e. I say “his” because in Plato’s time philosophers were mostly male.
(9) Moore, “Gnosticism.”
(10) Edwards, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God.”
(11) Rose, Zoroastrianism, An Introduction, p. 18. See also Meacham, “Learning from Masters.”
(12) Meacham, “An Impeccable Death.”
(13) Meacham, How To Be An Excellent Human, p. 60.
(14) Khan, “Aqibat, Life After Death,” pp. 54–55.
(15) Khan, “The Soul, Whence and Whither,” p. 165.
(16) Ibid., p.168.
(17) Khan, “Aqibat, Life After Death,” p. 57.
Edwards, Jonathan. “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God.” Boston: Kneeland and Green, 1741. Libraries at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Electronic Texts in American Studies. Online publication https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1053&context=etas as of 25 February 2019.
Hasse, Andrew. “Being 97.” Online video publication https://aeon.co/videos/an-ageing-philosopher-returns-to-the-essential-question-what-is-the-point-of-it-all as of 20 February 2019.
Khan, Inayat. “Aqibat, Life After Death.” The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan Volume 5, pp. 37–78. London, Barrie and Jenkins, 1973. Available online at https://wahiduddin.net/mv2/V/V_4.htm as of 25 February 2019.
Khan, Inayat. “The Soul, Whence and Whither?” The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan Volume 1, pp. 107–186. London, Barrie and Jenkins, 1973. Available online at https://wahiduddin.net/mv2/I/I_III_3.htm as of 25 February 2019.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Tr. Macquarrie, John, and Robinson, Edward. New York: Harper and Row HarperSanFrancisco, 1962.
Lucretius. On The Nature Of Things. Tr. Martin Ferguson Smith. Cambridge: Hackett, 2001.
Meacham, Bill. “An Impeccable Death.” Online publication https://www.bmeacham.com/blog/?p=1061 as of 25 February 2019.
Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human: Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life. Austin: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at https://bmeacham.com.
Meacham, Bill. “Learning from Masters: Ethics and Cosmology in Zarathustra and Hazrat Inayat Khan.” Online publication https://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/Zarathustra_v3.htm as of 25 February 2019.
Moore, Edward. “Gnosticism.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Online publication https://www.iep.utm.edu/gnostic/ as of 20 February 2019.
O’Keefe, Tim. “Epicurus.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161–0002. Online publication https://www.iep.utm.edu/epicur/ as of 16 February 2019.
Oliver, Mary. “The Summer Day.” New And Selected Poems. Boston, Beacon Press, 1992, p. 94.
Plato. Phaedo, tr. Hugh Tredennick. In The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. New York: Pantheon Books, 1961.
Rose, Jenny. Zoroastrianism, An Introduction. London and New York: I.B. Taurus, 2011.
Wheeler, Michael. “Martin Heidegger”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Winter 2018 Edition, ed. Edward N. Zalta. Online publication https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/heidegger/ as of 17 February 2019.