Mortality and the need to embrace life
‘Death destroys a man, but the idea of death saves him…’
EM Forster, Howards End
Thinking about our death, and what it deprives us of, can have consequences for how we live. Accepting our mortality may help us to embrace living the one life that we have to the full, and the recognition that we are not alone in having just one chance at life can promote living in a way that involves concern for others as well as ourselves.
The acceptance of our mortality does not mean that we must dwell on death throughout life. Nor must it necessarily lead to despair or even depravity, as the philosopher Spinoza notes.
‘[Some people believe that] had they not this hope and fear [of reward or punishment after death], but believed rather that the mind perished with the body… they would surely return to their inborn disposition, and wish to govern all things by their lusts… All this appears to be no less absurd than that a man, because he did not believe that he could keep his body alive for ever by wholesome diet, should stuff himself with poisons and deadly food: or, deeming his mind not to be eternal and immortal, should therefore wish to be mad, and live without reason.’
Humanists emphasise that this is the one life we have. Reflection on that fact can have positive consequences for how we live, becoming aware of life’s importance to others as well as to ourselves.
Life’s finite nature, a humanist might argue, is necessary for structure, purpose, and value. The absence of an afterlife makes this life more important and meaningful than it would be if we had another life to live afterwards. Let us remember, good things are all the more precious because they come to an end. A cake or a book that went on forever would eventually lose its appeal.
Many of us may wish to live a little longer, but that does not necessarily mean that we would want to live forever.
‘Take any day of our likely death: if we are not suffering or even if we are, but we have uncompleted projects – be they to water the garden, visit Jerusalem, meet with old friends, make love with new friends, or simply finish the book or try the latest wine – then we should like to live a little longer. It is worth noting that just because, on any given occasion, we may desire the extra week, month, year of life, it does not follow that we in fact would desire to live forever, to be immortal.’
Peter Cave, Death, Dying, and Meaning course
Immortality, were it possible, could well be highly undesirable. Living forever could mean everything would be endlessly repeated. With infinite time to fill, might we not get bored? Would we lose all motivation and urgency to do anything? We lack time here to explore these questions, but they challenge unreflective thoughts that infinite lives are better than finite ones.
Living life to the full
Lives are around a thousand months long for many in the West: they are much shorter for billions of others. Humanists feel that a belief in an afterlife can potentially distract attention from living in the here and now.
‘Awareness of death as the end may heighten reflection on life. It may generate an intense feeling that we must get things right in the one life that we have.’
Peter Cave, Handbook of Humanism
We must live well this one life. That is the humanist view, recognising how lucky many of us are to be alive. Remember, the odds of all the events taking place over the complete history of the universe that allowed us to be born are incredibly small.
‘We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia.’
Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow
This humanist approach to death, the necessity to focus on the here and now, on life’s wonders and joys, is summed up poetically by Matthew Arnold.
‘Is it so small a thing
To have enjoy’d the sun,
To have lived light in the spring,
To have loved, to have thought, to have done;
To have advanced true friends, and beat down baffling foes;
That we must feign a bliss
Of doubtful future date,
And while we dream on this
Lose all our present state,
And relegate to worlds yet distant our repose?’
Matthew Arnold,Hymn of Empedocles
Question: What, if anything, does death add to life?