Confronting the Reaper
Mysterious and Evil
In art and mythology, death is sometimes represented as a ferryman, eager to take his passengers to the other side. It is also sometimes represented as a moth, fluttering mindlessly into the flame of a candle.
But the most compelling, the ancient image of death is provided by the Reaper—the hooded skeleton bearing the huge curved scythe.
He’s ugly, he’s menacing
The Reaper is ugly and menacing. He stares directly at us, and with an outstretched bony finger, he beckons us to come to him. He is patient. If we escape today, surely he will have us tomorrow. He is democratic.
He lurks in the shadows
He is mysterious. This is illustrated by the fact that the Reaper's face is often hidden in the shadows of his hood.
Death is taken to be weird or uncanny—something about which we have no real understanding.
Some apparently want to know what it feels like to be dead.
Since no one returns from death, the living apparently have no informants who can tell us what death is like.
Thus, according to these people, a certain important aspect of death remains mysterious. We cannot know what it feels like.
Edwards points out the absurdity of any such quest. Death surely does not "feel like" anything; once dead, we cease to feel.
We have no experience. If you are troubled because you cannot know what it feels like to have no feelings, you are simply confused.
Other philosophers argue that the Reaper is not really evil.
Epicurus—perhaps the most eloquent spokesman for this position—says in effect that we have an utterly failsafe way of protecting ourselves from the evil of death.2
At the very moment when the Reaper clutches us in his bony embrace, we go out of existence.
Since the nonexistent cannot be harmed, death cannot harm us.
Epicurus summarizes this point by saying that "death ... is nothing to us, since so long as we exist death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist.
It does not concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more."3
Death comes quickly an unexpectedly.
Many modern philosophers, biologists, and theologians have defended similar positions.
They have claimed that death is neither so mysterious nor so evil as the naive would suppose.
The Reaper, according to these thinkers, is really no more mysterious or evil than the stork who symbolizes birth or the flowing stream that symbolizes life.
In each case, all we have is a biological phenomenon that has by now been thoroughly studied in the full light of day.
In this course, I will examine the naive view on both counts.
I try to display death as a mystery.
Perhaps it is not mysterious in quite the way some have said, but it is mysterious nonetheless.
Yet, we will also show how death can be a great evil, especially for its victim.
If I merely claimed that death is mysterious and evil, there would be no reason to continue this course.
You probably already accept these points and think that anyone who says otherwise is engaging in self-deception.
But the issue is more complex.
Wise and thoughtful philosophers have presented subtle arguments designed to show that death cannot be evil.
Equally sensible thinkers have claimed to take the mystery out of death by telling us, in straightforward biological terminology, what death is.
In order to deal responsibly with these views, we must first understand the arguments and proposed definitions.
If, after appropriate scrutiny, the arguments and definitions can be seen to be defective, than we can reinstate the naive views.
Of course, under those circumstances, the views will no longer be so naive.
What would it be like without death? Is he really the enemy?
Since the concept of life apparently plays a role in the definition of death, we must first understand what is meant by 'life'.
But, on a philosophical level, remember, life itself turns out to be a bit of a mystery.
Our fifth section will concern "Dying as a Process."
Roughly, the idea seems to be that something is dying if it is still alive, but on an irreversible downhill path that will soon terminate in death.
We will review the Western Concept of Death.
Dying is a process
The skull of Adam at the foot of the Cross: detail from a Crucifixion by Fra Angelico, 1435
"The Survival of Death,"
When Hamlet says, "To be or not to be, that is the question," he really means "To die or not to die, that is the question."
"Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest. . ."
He urges the skull to “get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come”
A Materialist Conception of Death
Can a person survive death? Can a person die more than once? Can a person get out of life without dying?
Can something die if it never lived? This chapter provides a summary of a proposed materialistic conceptual scheme for death.
We will question the value of death.
The central ethical problem, as I see it, is whether death is bad for the one who dies.
Will my death be a misfortune for me? Epicurus and Lucretius presented a famous argument designed to show that since I will not exist after death, and will not then suffer any pain, my death cannot be bad for me.