Monday, March 24, 2008

Fear of Death

It would seem that we should not fear death. For either we survive death, or we do not. If we do not, then after death we simply do not exist and thus can suffer nothing. But of course if there is no possibility that we suffer, there is nothing to fear. If, on the other hand, we do survive death, there might well be something after death that should be feared. But even if this is so, it is not death that should be feared. Rather it is that which follows.

(I grant that one might well fear the pain that so often accompanies death. But we must distinguish that fear from the fear of death. Fear of pain that accompanies death is not itself fear of death.)

This argument seems decisive to me. It seems to decisively prove that there is nothing in death to fear. But yet the fear of death persists. I feel it, as do most others. Why is this? What is the source of this deep-seated irrationality? I have a suggestion. It is that we are not are own, that there are forces in us that use of for purposes that extend past the boundaries of our lives. If we were solely our own, if all our desires concerned only ourselves and our ends, we would not fear death. But if there is something greater than us, something outsides us that uses us for a purpose greater than that of the individual human life, then it might have implanted in us a fear of frustration of that greater purpose. I think that the fear of death is such a thing. The higher purpose concerns our species. It is, in a word, the health of that species. The species is in us in a way that is now obscure to me. It uses us for its own ends. It uses us to insure its own health. Thus it makes us fear death, for once dead we cannot serve it.

A strict individualism on which we are concerned only with our own little lives is simply false. (Indeed it is perhaps necessarily false.) We are more than ourselves, and this is reflected in our most deeply seated desires. Human being is not being unto death. It is rather being past death. The human essence looks past the end of the individual human life to the life of the species of which it's part.


thechristiancynic said...

Good to see you posting again. I've kept you on my RSS reader and was delighted to see this entry.

As to the content, I think there are valid (and maybe even rational) psychological reasons for fearing death in some sense. For one thing, I agree that it isn't just death we fear; it is most probably something that accompanies death. My first thought would be the fear of the unknown - we do not know what life is like after death in the experiential sense, even if we understand what will happen cognitively (assuming, of course, that we really can know such a thing). There might also be some irrational - or perhaps existential - doubt as to whether or not we really know what will happen after death. With such a serious issue, it wouldn't be surprising for uncertainty to creep in.

Franklin Mason said...

Thanks for the kind words. I wasn't at all certain anyone would notice a new post after such a long time. My energies have been consumed by a new position, but I hope to back at it soon.

Your suggestion, then, is that by "fear of death" we mean fear of something that follows death or perhaps fear occasioned by the uncertainty of our state after death. I reply that, in all strictness, this should not be called "fear of death". It is a fear of something other than death.

In my own case, fear of death (and it came to be strongly when I was young) was fear of non-existence. This, it seems to me still, is deeply irrational. For if I cease to exist, there is nothing that can happen to me that I ought fear for the simple reason that there is nothing at all that can happen to me. But though I know this, I still sometimes still feel the tug of that old fear, and I take this as evidence that there's something in me - something greater than me - that seeks, through me, to carry out a purpose not my own.

I also think that sexual desire is also evidence of such a more-than-individual power that directs our lives. Again the obvious candidate here is our species-being. We lust so that we might copulate so that we might reproduce so that the species might persist. Homo sapiens (however precisely we say what kind of being that is) seems to call the shots here.

thechristiancynic said...

Again, I agree with you as per the true nature of the source of such anxiety; it's not death but something associated with it. On the other hand, I don't wonder if "fear of death" is really just a linguistic shorthand for something like you describe.

Anna said...


This is a deep post and it has taken me awhile thinking about it to see the truth in what you are saying and really appreciate it.

I believe that ultimately our 'purpose' if it can be called such, (maybe it is better to think of it as our created nature) is to live in a totally self-giving love. At least in my own experience I fear to live like this because when more is asked of me then I think that I have, in giving I am afraid somehow that I am going to lose myself and end up with nothing, thus being nothing.

This is not in terms of giving away possessions, obviously if I give all my possessions away I still have myself left. But in the sense of giving myself away - my energy, my life.

If my body is a cup and the life of my soul the water in it then I am afraid of pouring out all the water because in having nothing left, I will cease to exist.

I think though that where my mind tends to fool me is that I am failing to see myself as a contingent creature. If God is the source of our life, then I cannot exhaust that life. But if I falsely believe that I contain within myself the whole of my life force, then I must protect that life force so that I do not use it up and so cease to exist.

Maybe what I fear then is not physical death but the death of the soul, and yet because our nature is to love, (to die to ourselves), I desire also this 'death', that is truly life if only I had the faith to live it.

Allyson said...

Franklin -
After thinking about this entry quite a lot. I've concluded that many people don't fear death as much as they fear an unknown entity. For example the concept of heaven is usually associated with "forever". Even if human beings were to be in a place with unparalleled happiness that lasted forever the concept is nearly impossible for the average brain to wrap around.

Another argument, like you said, is fear of non-existence. I believe general contentment is directly correlated with fear, if you have a moderately easy, happy life, you will fear more than somebody who's life could be quite easily improved. I recently watched an interview on the internet where an African boy who hadn't eaten a full meal in almost three weeks was being interviewed. Even after the boy was fed he stated (this is a nine year old) "I would rather die in the next week than go another three hungry, which I know will happen". This nine year old boy wanted to die. His life could be improved by just about anything and I'm sure death at times would be quite appealing to him versus a middle class American nine year old boy.