Death and unanswerable reasoning


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Death, as a subject, provokes a host of emotions. That's almost as much a truism as its being one of the "two inevitable things." (I never agreed that taxes constituted the other one. But I digress.)

I've not liked thinking about death. I've despised it, for cutting short the time I've had knowing people I love or respect. I've avidly read about, and welcomed, medical advances that can put it off, and used too few of them myself. I've railed at how too many are too cavalier about it, especially those in positions of power.

Yet for nearly thirty years, one emotion has been absent. I haven't feared it.

None of this state came from Rand's work, by the way. It came from Albert Jay Nock.

Specifically, from the autobiography of that brilliant, sardonic, illusion-piercing libertarian writer, one of the most literate, highly accessible, and yet least acclaimed of such works, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. More specifically, the last page of it.

Even more precisely, from what Nock quotes of someone else, which quote constitutes the only bulletproof (pun intended) piece of reasoning I've ever encountered. I'm inclined to think it qualifies as being unanswerable, if any such argument does on any topic.

To wit, the last lines of Nock's book:

With regard to the dread of death, one has one's worry for nothing when death comes in the course of nature, for the dread evaporates in face of the event. Indeed, in any case one has one's worry for nothing, as every person who studiously contemplates the order of nature is well aware.

Marcus Aurelius reminds himself that "he who fears death either fears the loss of sensation or a different kind of sensation. But if thou shalt have no sensation, neither wilt thou feel any harm. And if thou shalt acquire another kind of sensation, thou wilt be a different kind of living being, and thou wilt not cease to live."

This is all one can know, doubtless, but it is also all one needs to know.

When I read this, at age nineteen, I had a singular experience. I could, figuratively, feel a pool of emotions within me simply drying up, turning to dust, and blowing away.

I was just old enough to have started to get past that sense, which all teenagers possess, of being effectively immortal. I'd had more than a few bad nights, usually after college-dorm bull sessions on the stairs, where I had started to fear what would happen to my unique self one day.

And then, reading eleven lines, it was gone.

I've had bad nights contemplating death since then, but only in the wake of having lost people I love, especially my parents. Or in fearing being cut off from others. Yet not once, in these twenty-nine years, have I genuinely feared my own death.

I have tried poking and prodding this reasoning from Aurelius (and Nock). I have tried to think of counterexamples. I even had it diagrammed into symbolic logic to see if a colleague who was an expert in such rationalism (which I was not) could tear it apart.

All arguments fail against it. That, also, is a singular experience. I can conceive of counterpoints for every element in Rand's philosophy, from axiomatic concepts up to volition as the core of Romantic art. Let alone for those of a host of others who didn't examine the core issues as well as she did.

Yet these few lines from Nock's book have ended up covering the whole ground. A small patch and depth of life's ground (again, the pun is intended), but one of the most important ones.

If you want to tear apart what Aurelius wrote, you're welcome to try. I don't think you can do so.

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I would like to add to that observation. There is a powerful quote by a person I otherwise don't care for, Jim Morrison of The Doors. I tried to find where he said it, but Google was not helpful.

Death is only going to happen to you once; I don’t want to miss it.

I have a light dread of my own death, but I also have a strong curiosity. In my case, the dread is a VERY good thing, otherwise I just might try to satisfy that curiosity before I really need to.

I have been cultivating a sense of how the Japanese traditionally viewed death, wishing to have a good death instead of a poor one. But I have not created anything structured like they did with the poem and rituals. Intellectually, cultivating this is easy, but it is hard to do on an emotional level.


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I like this post, Steve. I happen to be re-reading *Meditations* by Marcus Aurelius right now. The Hellenistic world had some great wisdom passed to them from the Hellenic age of Aristotle and his predecessors. The Stoics and the Epicureans had a balanced attitude toward the naturalness of death, as in Epicurus’ famous line, “Death is nothing to us….” And Nock of course had a timeless wisdom.

-Ross Barlow.

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