Philosophy professor Ryan Christensen takes on Epicurus, Socrates and Frankfurt in a debate on philosophers’ favorite subject: death.
PROVO, Utah (Feb. 5, 2015) — Socrates said that the true philosopher does nothing but practice dying and being dead. “So, that’s what philosophy is: a practice for death,” Ryan Christensen from the Department of Philosophy said. Philosophers of every age have debated death. It is, after all, the great god of mortality itself.
As Socrates sat on his deathbed, condemned to die for being a philosopher, his close friend Apollodorus began to cry, and Socrates chastised him for crying. Why would he do that?
“Socrates is convinced that death is not bad for him,” Christensen said. “It’s clear how someone else’s death could be bad for me, if someone I love is going to die. But it’s not clear how my own death can be bad for me.”
From another philosophical perspective, Epicurus, a Hellenistic philosopher, coined a famous argument about death: “Death is nothing to us. When we are, death is not come, and when death is come, we are not.”
Christensen explains that the essence of Epicurus’ argument is that you and death are never in the same place at the same time, so how can it harm you?
But Christensen sees some problems with this argument and its assumptions, one of which being that when we die, we no longer exist, which Christensen finds debatable.
Socrates articulated a few different perspectives on death. He claimed that either death is the greatest good that we could hope for or that death is nothing. “The dead have no sensation, or as they say it’s a migration of the soul from here to some other place,” Socrates asserted, and went on that if death is as sensationless as a dreamless sleep, then it would be a great benefit. “Choose a night you slept like this, without dreams, and compare all the days and nights of your life to that night,” Socrates said. “I think that anyone, even the great king himself, would say that that night was better than all the days and nights of his life. So, if death is like this, death would be a great gain, and all of time appears no more than a single night.”
His last hypothesis on death claims that “death is a journey from here to some other place,” and if all who ever lived and died are there, could there be anything better than to mingle around in the underworld? “He goes on to talk about all the people he’s going to talk with once he dies,” said Christensen. “He’s going to go around Hades talking with everybody to find out what they know and whether they know anything.”
No matter what death really is, Socrates considered it good.
But, Christensen has a different view on death. He proposes that death is bad, and there are a handful of possible reasons that that he tosses around for debate. For one, death puts an end to whatever is good about life. Of course, the second reason for death being bad is that it cuts off our futures. But, finally, as some have argued: why is death bad? It just is.
For example, if someone falls off a cliff, they choose to grab on. Princeton University philosopher Harry Frankfurt has said: “That’s the end of the explanation.” There’s no need to ask the person why they don’t want to die. It’s just because they don’t want to die, and there’s no answer to that question. Frankfurt said: “Our interest in living does not only depend upon our having projects that we desire to pursue. It’s the other way around. We are interested in having worthwhile projects because we do intend to go on living, and we would prefer not to be bored. When we learn that a person has acted to defend his own life, we do not need to inquire as to whether he had any projects in order to recognize that he had a reason for doing whatever it was that he did.”
However, Christensen is not quite convinced by Frankfurt’s reasoning, largely because of something that Socrates stated in what is his most well-known quote (often only partially quoted): “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being” (italics added).
“Animals defend themselves. Weeds defend themselves. Every living thing defends itself,” said Christensen. “We have an instinct to defend ourselves, but that’s not what makes my death bad for me. And if the reason why my death is bad for me is the same reason why a weed’s death is bad for it, I’m not terribly interested in that answer.”
It seems to Christensen that there’s something more about living that is good for us and death that is bad for us.
“It’s the idea that there is something inherent about my personhood that is being removed by my death,” Christiansen said. “Socrates talked about death as migration, just like moving to Corinth or Sparta. But the migration to the afterlife is so much more than that. The afterlife is so very different from this life that we can’t really imagine it.”
It’s the very act of being human, of existing as a person in this life that makes life precious and death inherently bad.
“The view that I am proposing is that death is always bad for you, just because you’re a person,” said Christensen. He noted that the badness of death doesn’t mean that it’s the worst thing that could ever happen or that we should be afraid of it, but that we should treasure that ability to live as a human, as an individual person, throughout our lives.
For more information on the Philosophy Lecture Series, visit their website.
—Danielle Chelom Leavitt (B.A. Russian ’15)