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Home » Theology & Philosophy » The Acceptance of Death

The Acceptance of Death

My Lifeline, by Herbert F. Vetter

The Acceptance of Death

by Charles Hartshorne

Since all of us die, it is clear that the meaning of life must be inseparable from the meaning of death. If we cannot understand death, we cannot understand life, and vice versa. Life and death are two sides of one reality.

In principle life is good while it lasts. The meaning of life is, in part at least, the simple goodness of living. Normally we are glad to be alive. We may imagine circumstances in which we would be much more intensely glad to be alive than we actually are, but still life seems better than just no life. Even when things go badly with us, I think we deceive ourselves if we think that we derive no satisfaction from the activities of the living. The person who proclaims her or his misery derives some value merely from breathing and eating, some value from choosing the words in which the self is expressed, some value from making one’s troubles an object of attention and observing the way other people react to them. I believe that living is essentially voluntary, and that no one can be compelled to exist, unless on a largely unconscious level. If the will to live really dies, then we are already virtually dead. The person who decides to commit suicide gets some satisfaction out of thinking, “now it will soon be over.” This satisfaction is what keeps the person still among the living until performing some physical action which ends life, but then the bullet or poison, not directly the will to die, is what ends the life. Willing to live and finding life better than nothing are, I hold, the same things.

Take the person who stays alive because of fear of hell. Then what sustains the will to live is the thought, “I am better as I am than I might be in hell; I don’t have to be in hell, at least not yet.” Thinking thus gives present life some value. Or, if a mother lives for the sake of her children, the interest in the children and approval of herself as living for them make it possible for her to achieve at least some mild satisfaction in her own activities.

Though living is always more or less voluntary, dying can be either with or without our choice, not only because, on the one hand, external forces in action ourselves, but also because we can will not to live beyond a certain point of time. Or at least, we can be entirely content with the thought of not living forever or much beyond some specified point in our individual careers. We can choose to stop trying particularly to live, accepting death as coming from old age or terminal illness; we can be on the side of the physical forces that tend toward our death.

There are three principal ways of trying to make death as such acceptable. We can believe, or try to believe, in personal immortality in the conventional sense, meaning that after death we are to become conscious again; somewhat as we do in waking from a deep sleep, but this time in some supernatural heaven or hell, or on some other planet or in some other animal body. This may or may not be with memory of our previous earthly career. In either case this is a view which cannot appeal to any definite well-documented or scientific evidence to support it. I think that the appeal of this view is largely a consequence of misconceptions about the nature of life as such, no matter where or when.

Another way of arguing that death is good, or at least not too bad, is that it is like going into a dreamless sleep and never waking up again. Thus, there is no suffering in being dead, though there may be in dying, and so we escape from the evils of life once and for all. Note, however, that only for the others, the spectators, can it be “better” that we are no longer suffering. The suicide who reasons, “I shall be better off dead” will not be better or worse off, not yet just the same: simply he or she will not be in any state whatsoever, good, bad, or neutral. Into no future will the person survive to benefit since the future after death will not be hers or his at all. The suicide must act whether for personal satisfaction in the moments before death, or else for the benefit of those who survive. My conclusion is that the comparison of death to dreamless sleep is not enough to show that death is a good thing for the individual who dies.

The third way of making death acceptable is that of transcending self-interest as our final concern. If, and only if, we can regard our entire lives as contributing to the good of those who will survive us and if we can find part of our present satisfaction in the thought of such contribution to the future of life beyond ourselves, can we find death positively acceptable. I call this doctrine “contributionism.” It includes, but is more than, what is sometimes called “service” to others, for that is too much confined to things we do for others, actions from which others may benefit, like giving lectures. By “contributionism” I mean more than this. I mean that simply by being what we are in ourselves we contribute to the future of life. Our present happiness is a central factor in this contribution. Miserable people, even if they are useful, contribute less than happy people who are also useful. By giving posterity our misery to look back upon, we do them no special favor. It is joys one wants to recall, more than sufferings. Even admitting the truth in the poet’s phrase, “our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought,” still, in the composing and singing of these songs, there is more than misery; there is satisfaction in the beauty of the expression of grief.

To accept death as ending our personal career is to regard that career as a finite or bounded thing. We are finite in space and time; indeed, we are mere fragments of reality spatially and temporally, but then any work of art or beautiful thing is such a fragment, apart from the entire universe throughout time. Contentment with mortality is contentment with the finitude of our ultimate contribution to the whole of life. Should our careers have a last episode? Should a book have a last chapter? A poem, a last verse? Without beginning and end a work of art has no definite form or meaning. I personally regard a life as, with normal luck and good management, having something of the qualities of a work of art, and I see no reason why it should be endless; rather the contrary, it ought not to be endless.

Part of the interest of life is that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. There are dramatic contrasts between infancy and youth, youth and maturity, maturity and elderliness, and these contrasts are spanned by certain life purposes, finite in scope, that bind them together. What more does one wish? If going to sleep is nothing dreadful, why is it dreadful to think of a sleep without waking? For the sleeper the fact that he or she does not awaken is as nothing. Only the others experience the not waking up.

What bothers people is perhaps the idea that death is the mere absence of life, but my death is only the absence of my continued living, it is not the absence of all living. New lives make their finite contributions to the future of life as a whole.

If contributionism is to solve the problem of death, certain other ideas are required.

1. One must be able to see that for our present satisfaction in living it is not necessary to foresee everlasting future rewards to ourselves for our actions. The personal reward for living is essentially in the living itself. We live because we will to live, and this means that our essential reward is in the present.

2. What is necessary for present satisfaction is only some answer to the question, “What good will it be, after the present has gone into the past, that we have been happy, and why will it matter if we have been miserable, that is, far less happy than we might have been?” If happiness and misery are merely nullified by becoming past, then is not the last word about life that it signifies nothing and is destined to become indistinguishable from nothing? If we are not to be there benefiting from our having lived well rather than ill, still some life must be there which can be supposed to have benefited from our lives. What is called “social immortality,” is at least a move in the required direction.

3. However, social immortality in the merely human sense is at the mercy of doubts about the future of the species, and also about the extent to which our now being happy or good may, or perhaps may not, make a significant contribution to that future. Supposing nuclear war, perhaps there will be nothing left to which the contribution can be made. No way is apparent to guarantee that humanity will always escape destruction of the species. Only if we can believe in a superhuman and in some strict sense divine form of life, to which our lives can make contributions proportional to their goodness or beauty, only then is the permanence of our contributions clearly implied. I hold that this solves the basic question about death, which is how the meaning of life can survive its termination.

4. It is one thing to have a view about the general fact that we all must die and another to know what to think about the endless variety of ways in which persons die, some in infancy, some in ripe old age, some in agony, some peacefully in their sleep, and so forth. I have two things to say about this: it is partly a matter of chance, and partly a matter of good or bad management. There are misfortunes that no wisdom and no effort by the individual could have guarded against; but also there are foolish or weak decisions or actions that greatly diminish one’s chances of living out a normal life span. I have developed a philosophy according to which, in spite of a real framework of providential order in the world, the details of what happens in it are genuinely matters of chance. Not God, and not any creature, decides precisely what happens to you or me, but innumerable creatures together decide it, no one of them having any definite idea in advance of the happenings. God’s role in the world is not in selecting details of creaturely careers, but in maintaining certain limits to the disorder and conflict that creatures can fall into as they make their own decisions.

I am deeply convinced that it is a religious mistake to ask, in case of misfortune, why did God do this to me? God is not in the business of inflicting misfortunes upon anyone. It is other creatures, for example bacteria, or human thieves or mischief-makers, that inflict misfortunes. God makes it possible for there to be a cosmic order in which creatures can live and make their own decisions. This order does make it inevitable that there will be some misfortunes, but the particular ones are not divinely, but creaturely chosen. Always many creatures together are involved. Thus, so far as any one creature’s intentions go, it is a matter of chance that this or that happen to you or me.

Show me a philosopher or theologian who denies that chance is pervasive in life, and I will show you one who can give no acceptable view of the concrete facts of good and evil. If he or she believes in God, they can say nothing to the purpose about the theological problem of evil, and if they do not believe in God, then they are committed to a blind, amoral necessity that acts with the same shocking indifference to our suffering that theological determinism attributes to deity. Only chance intersections of many actions by many agents can acceptably account for evils.

Nontheological determinists are, in spite of themselves, committed to chance, for the entire cosmic system from which, according to them, every event is a necessary consequence, has itself no explanation and is as a whole like an immensely complex throw of the dice, with no intelligible account possible either of the dice or the dice thrower. Chance must be admitted somewhere, but the place to admit it is everywhere, just as some aspects of order are everywhere. Quantum physics shows in principle how the two can be combined. Given certain limits to randomness (which limits I view as providential) and large numbers of similar happenings, there will then be statistical regularities, and yet each single agent can be making its own little decision.

A contemporary philosopher has told us that we to well to be mindful of our own mortality. Long before I met him in 1924, I had given thought to this matter. It was one of the reasons, not the only one, for my reaching the firm conclusion, never afterward abandoned, that self-interest, no matter how “enlightened,” is not the key to motivation. While we live, others may contribute to our happiness; but in the end happiness itself is nothing unless there be something for which it is important that this happiness occurred as it did, something which, having once acquired our earthly careers as parts of its own life and value, can never thereafter lose them. The “posterity” for which we finally live needs to be more than human, it needs to be a life which cherishes us and all creatures forever for the intrinsic beauty and joy we have actually achieved. While we live, others may serve us, but in death no one can be served. However, our having lived as we have can continue to serve others, at least that supreme “Other” able appreciate all the forms of value there can be, the supreme conductor of the universal symphony who is also its final and definitive auditor, to deserve whose infinitely discriminating applause is that for which, knowingly or otherwise, all our efforts are, as I believe, directed.

What do we get out of it all? We get the satisfaction of being able to find a rational meaning in our lives now while we live them. Heaven and hell are here and now. The ultimate future belongs, not to us, but to God and whatever new creatures may follow our decease and that of our friends and enemies.

Death is a riddle to which no mere egoist, no denier of chance, no one who fails to see that beauty and finitude belong together, and finally no one without some sense of the superhuman or cosmic, the truly immortal reality, can ever find the key. Transcendence of the primarily selfish way of seeing the future, rejection of the purely deterministic view of causality, acceptance of the aesthetic need for finitude, and faith that there is a superhuman and everlasting good which we, in our humble way, can enhance or enrich, this combination is the fourfold key to the riddle of life and death.

From “The Acceptance of Death,” Philosophical Aspects of Thanatology, Vol. 1, ed. Florence M. Hetzler and Austin H. Kutscher, New York: MSS Information Corporation, 1978.

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