Thinking About Life: disaster & philosopy

By ROGER KIMBALL  |  Oct. 1, 2001 at 10:19 AM
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NEW YORK, Oct. 1 (UPI) -- Is disaster a spur to philosophy? It is certainly a spur to reflection and stock-taking.

Houses of worship across America were suddenly brimming the Sunday after the terrorist atrocities of Sept. 11.

It is too soon to say how lasting the effect will be. For the time being, however, the public is not only galvanized but also ruminative.

Why? What is it about disaster that sparks meditation?

No doubt it has something to do with fear. Foxholes, it is said, are conspicuously lacking in atheists. (Although -- a possible counter-example -- it is not at all clear that soldiers as a group are more religious than civilians.)

"Repent! The end is at hand!" say the placards paraded by doomsayers. Everyone counts on danger to induce reconsideration.

This is true across a wide spectrum of experience.

In the Rhetoric, Aristotle discusses the central tragic emotion of pity. He defines pity as "a feeling of pain caused by the sight of some evil, destructive or painful, which befalls one who does not deserve it, and which we might expect to befall ourselves or some friend of ours, and moreover to befall us soon."

That "soon" is crucial. Dangers lose majesty with distance. "Depend upon it, Sir," Dr. Johnson told Boswell, "when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

Doubtless it does. The prospect of imminent death is indeed fearsome. But remove it to the indefinite future and death, for most of us, anyway, ceases to concentrate the mind.

In many ways, what is most remarkable about death is not the extent to which it concentrates the mind but the extent to which most of us successfully ignore it. "How strange it is," Nietzsche mused in his book The Gay Science, "that this certainty and common element makes almost no impression on people, and that nothing is further from their minds than the feeling that they form a brotherhood of death."

Nietzsche welcomed this fact. He thought, to put it somewhat paradoxically, that there was something deep about superficiality. "It makes me happy," he wrote, "that men do not want at all to think the thought of death. I should like very much to do something that would make the thought of life even a hundred times more appealing to them."

Among philosophers, anyway, Nietzsche was unusual in recommending that we avoid thinking about death. Many Christian philosophers, viewing life as a sort of pilgrimage, emphasize death and mortality in their teaching.

And the so-called existentialists -- Sartre, Heidegger, and Co. -- brought in the fact of death early and often. (Heidegger even defined man as a "being-towards-death.")

Indeed, the reputation philosophers have for being on the whole rather gloomy chaps is not unmerited. You will find that many of them are always steering the conversation around to death. Wanting to "concentrate the mind," they reason that unwelcome reminders about mortality will do the trick.

Indeed, notwithstanding the example of Nietzsche, philosophy has a curiously intimate relationship with death.

Plato's dialogue Phaedo, for example, is partly about the death of Socrates, partly about death as the consummation of life. As the hemlock worked its way through his body, Socrates said to his friend Crito, "We ought to offer a cock to Asclepius."

That was a traditional gesture of thanks to the divine healer when one recovered from a serious illness. Socrates is suggesting that death, far from being an evil, is a release. In this sense, philosophy, the "love of wisdom," may also be described as the art of dying.

The Renaissance French philosopher Michel de Montaigne was no follower of Plato. But he titled one of his most famous essays "That to Philosophize is to Learn How to Die." "Children," Montaigne wrote, "are frightened of their very friends when they see them masked. So are we. We must rip the masks off things as well as people."

Unmasked, Montaigne suggested, death loses its fearsome aspect: "we shall find underneath only that same death which a valet and a chambermaid got through recently, without being afraid."

A large part of philosophy is about ripping masks off things. The Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said that "Nature loves to conceal itself." Philosophy is dedicated to exposing those subterfuges.

Which way does the mask go? Are the distractions of life -- our absorption in everyday tasks and pleasures -- a mask for the unsettling fact of death? Or is the supposedly fearsome fact of death a mask obscuring the true vitality of life?

How one answers such questions will depend less upon the reasons one can contrive than upon temperament. "All that lives must die," Hamlet's mother tells him, trying to get him to buck up, "passing through nature to eternity." That didn't cut much ice with Hamlet, but then what would have?

Whether or not philosophy begins in wonder, as Aristotle said, it certainly feeds upon a certain kind of disengagement from everyday life.

Wonder can perform that function, as can skepticism or doubt, metaphysical solvents more popular in the modern age than wonder.

It seems strangely inappropriate -- bordering, perhaps, on the obscene -- to speak of the philosophical potential of disaster. But the truth is that disasters do tend to make us pause to reflect (when, that is, they do not induce panic).

Perhaps that is the silver lining in the very dark cloud that descended on Western civilization on Sept. 11.

Bin Laden's lieutenants caused us great pain and great damage. They also made us more united, more thoughtful, and more resolute. And here is an irony. For although we can thank those evil-doers for an unintended benison, they will not be thanking us for the unintended result of their evil.

In this instance, anyway, a more philosophical temper is also a more formidable one.


(Roger Kimball is managing editor of the New Criterion)

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