Wednesday, December 10, 2008

All roads end, but usually at another road

In "End of the Road: On the journey to oblivion," Joseph Epstein reviews Julian Barnes's Nothing To Be Frightened Of, a book about death. (Weekly Standard, 12/15/2008):
At times, one cannot help wondering if Nothing To Be Frightened Of isn't Julian Barnes's contribution to the recent books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, & Co. happily proclaiming their authors' atheism. Barnes reports that his hero Flaubert "was suspicious of militant atheism" and Barnes senses that the only confident answer to the spectre of death, apart from the dignified resignation that comes with accepting your fate, lies in religion. But religion is impossible for him, and the reason is that he makes too literal demands upon it. He wants religion to be accounted for and defended on coolly rational grounds. "Faith," he writes, "is about believing precisely what, according to all known rules, 'could not have happened.'" Barnes has himself never felt the invisible, and as a writer, a word-man, is insufficiently impressed with the unspoken.
Barnes is not very happy with death. The difficulty is that, as Socrates and many other philosophers have explained, philosophy is learning how to die.

The reason they say that, I suppose, is not simply because everyone dies, but because awareness of death is what concentrates our minds and forces us to ask what we are here for - and what we want to be remembered for. Without death, we would have much less reason to value the significant over the trivial. Everything would go on forever anyway.

Curiously, most arguments I hear about how death gives significance to life are philosophical. They do not address the perennial human assumption that our minds survive death - which we discuss in The Spiritual Brain.

That sounds right to me too. Whatever else happens, we must anticipate and experience death first.

See also:

A philosopher faces death ... and mysticism

Alexander Solzhenitsyn on death

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