The relationship between a person and his death, said the Greek thinker Epicurus, is a strange one. It is roughly akin, if we may leap forward a couple of millennia, to the relationship between Superman and Clark Kent. Whenever one is present, the other is nowhere to be seen. As long as a person is alive, his death has not yet happened. And of course once his death occurs, he is no longer around. Since no one will ever encounter his own demise, Epicurus concluded, it should cause him no concern.
Shelly Kagan’s “Death” furnishes a lucid guide to a range of philosophical claims of this sort, such as whether we can know what it’s like to be dead or why life is valuable in the first place. But Mr. Kagan continually returns to one matter that looms over all others: whether, for anyone who rejects religious notions of an afterlife, there are ways of consoling oneself about the inevitability of death. He takes no definitive position on this question. Rather his aim—the book is based on a popular Yale philosophy course that Mr. Kagan teaches—is to probe the positions on offer. And in his pages we find two consolations, apart from that of Epicurus.
The first one Mr. Kagan associates with is Buddhism, though it as been advanced as well by Western philosophers such as Schopenhauer. It urges us to cast off our selfish preoccupations. To hold on to our self-focused projects and attachments is to court suffering whenever they end in disappointment. Far better to abandon any concern with our self, existing instead moment by moment, shorn of any concern for past or future. And since our self is the very thing that we are supposed to lose when we die, death will then become a nonevent, not worth fretting over.
The other consolation that emerges in Mr. Kagan’s book comes from existentialism, and it flips the Buddhist consolation on its ear. Existentialists value the individual self, with its own projects and aims. They argue that our death, in particular our constant knowledge that we are moving ever closer to it, is precisely what makes each of us his own unique person. Aware that time does not stretch out limitlessly, we feel an urgency to get started in the world, to make hard choices about what’s important and thus to carve out the narrative arc of our singular lives. Death compels us to craft a life-story that resembles a “resolved chord” or “melody,” as Sartre put it. Only with death always looming can we have a self—can we exist as identifiable individuals in the first place.
For existentialists and Buddhists, though in different ways, the relationship between the self and death seems more like the “Late Night” relationship between David Letterman and Paul Shaffer. One will be present if the other is too. You can be a full-fledged self, existentialists say, only if your death is ever present in your life. If you can manage to make your self disappear, Buddhists say, then death will as well.
Mr. Kagan sees value in both positions, though he implicitly acknowledges that their paths to consolation are hazardous. Anyone who seeks the Buddhist-style consolation is going to lead a life that, at its end, risks leaving him bereft of any feeling of accomplishment. And anyone who tries for an existentialist consolation—leading a chock-a-block life because mortality has concentrated his mind—will feel the loss of something of great value when it ends. “Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened,” said the great existentialist Dr. Seuss. But anyone who can smile because it happened is going to have to cry because it’s over.
Which brings us back to Epicurus. For as long as we exist, the philosopher argued, our death must remain absent. But what would it take to live a life in which death truly wasn’t present to us—not just logically, as Epicurus suggests, but psychologically, internally? We would live, as Freud believed most in fact do live, not really believing that we will die—believing, as Mr. Kagan notes of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, that death is something that happens to other people. Most of us, like Ivan, go merrily along taking on new projects, forming new relationships and scheming new schemes to promote ourselves socially, even though death could interrupt us at any moment. Instead of arriving at one completed narrative, we often risk leaving—to our ultimate sadness—many uncompleted ones. Truly living as if death is absent as long as we are alive is unlikely to console us.
Or take Epicurus’ other claim: once death comes, we will no longer be alive to worry about it. What kind of life would we have to live to be consoled by this idea? Obviously not Ivan’s. His life, in a real way, continues on after he is dead. What tears at him is the thought that so much of what would otherwise comprise his life—his children, his friends, his projects—will go on to flourish or flounder without him: without his being there to enjoy or assist.
The only way that we can avoid that prospect is to follow the advice of the poet Hölderlin (cited by Mr. Kagan): aim for a “single summer” of intense joy and then, having experienced the heights of what life has to offer, recognize that “more is not needed.” Life’s meaning would be derived from a single moment, and one could then wait in serenity for the end. Fine if you can do it. For most, it would be a tedious living death.
Mr. Kagan’s book rich book shows, ultimately, that there is no single, all-purpose consolation for death. What we do have is the freedom to choose our own consolation by living our life in a particular way, knowing that, in doing so, we will deprive ourselves of all the others.