“Philosophy is nothing more than the preparation for death.”
It creeps up on you bit by bit, like a masked bandit until one day you awake to feel its cold, merciless fingers around your throat: old age. Of course, a long discerning life can bring insight and even some wisdom. But the greatest shock of a person’s life, Tolstoy said, is that sudden realization that most of your life is behind you, and lying ahead, terrible in its unpredictable inevitability lies decline, loss, sickness and finally oblivion. Can philosophy (as opposed to religion) help us to face it with the deep peace of wisdom?
Today, in my 70s, this is no longer just an academic question. I, like many, struggle with sickness and decline. Montaigne would undoubtedly castigate me as a whinner. To die at an advanced age, he observes, is a “rare privilege,” and we should be grateful for having evaded the masked strangler for so long – unlike a vast majority of human beings on this earth.
Socrates, facing his own death in 399 BCE in Athens, argued that death logically involves one of two possibilities: either an after-life or oblivion. The former is not to be feared since we will be reunited with friends and family. The latter is not to be feared either since it is like an endless night sleep. Thus Socrates drinks the hemlock with utter serenity … .
I recall that Plato, Socrates’ follower, famously argued even further that since the soul is capable of perceiving the eternal forms of truth, goodness and beauty, therefore the soul also must be eternal. The body, subject to deterioration and death, is only the temporary container of the immortal soul. The quest for wisdom seeks the gradual freeing of the soul from the shackles of physical desire. Hence death is really the ultimate liberation of the immaterial self (soul) from its material “prison.” Plato thought that death could even be celebrated like the butterfly flying free from its cocoon.
Elsewhere Plato paints an even more vivid, almost ecstatic, picture of the good death. He analogizes dying to returning from a wonderful feast — the feast of life. After such an all-night celebration of food, drink, music and conversing with your dear friends about things that matter, one departs with no regrets, filled with gratitude and joy for the gifts of beauty, love and life. There is no fear and no sorrow because it has been enough. No, more than enough, a plenitude, a beautiful feast of love. And it will live on in many memories.
Plato is describing the fulfillment of a good life, not a perfect life, but a decent life immersed in justice, beauty, honesty and friendship. The feast of love comes to an end, friends depart, and the music slowly fades away. We take our leave at last with overflowing hearts and stride out into the mysterious night with deep gratitude.
The final gift is serenity.
Vincent Kavaloski, Ph.D., lived for 37 years in these Uplands in an intentional, eco-community devoted to peace and harmony with people and the land. He is currently a long academic calling at Edgewood College and looking forward to being a freelance philosopher. He can be reached at email@example.com.