Why a conception of death that is inseparable to life can be life-affirming.

In 1879-1880 Leo Tolstoy finished his semi-autobiographical book titled A Confession, a short work on the subject of melancholia, philosophy, and religion. Reaching a specific midlife crisis in his own life, Tolstoy started thinking about his death and, accordingly, concluded that life has no meaning whatsoever. To illustrate his views, the Russian novelist introduces an Eastern fable. An unnamed traveler, during a walk in the desert, is chased by a dangerous beast. Fearing for his life, he dives into a dry well he finds on his path. In the well, however, there is a ravenous dragon hovering, intent on eating him. To save himself, the man clings to a branch that is being gnawed on by two mice.

The traveler is aware it is only a matter of time before the branch will break, and he will tumble into the claws of the dragon. However, as he desperately looks around, he notices that some nearby leaves have several drops of honey on them. Pendulous in the air, the traveler licks the drops of honey on the leaves.

According to Tolstoy, the fable represents a fundamental fact about our existence. The dragon represents the death that awaits us all. The black and white mice represent the days and nights of our lives, passing away and leading us towards our inevitable demise. And the drops of honey represent the sundry pleasures in life that help distract us from thinking about the unavoidable day waiting in store for us: we just let them sate us without giving it too much thought. For Tolstoy, this is the human condition.

Most of us, at least once, will broach the subject of mortality. For many, thinking about it is depressing and a little pointless – “It is unavoidable, why worry?” Some, however, see the conception of death, as personified in Tolstoy’s fable, as needlessly scary and fundamentally erroneous.

In his book Being and Time, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger explores our relationship with mortality, particularly the “authentic” and “inauthentic” relationship with it. The philosopher suggests that what it is to be human is fundamentally connected with time. Human beings are temporal beings – born into a world that preceded us with its culture and politics, its history already written, and to comprehend this world, we partake in numerous projects to get by. We may build a house, or get married, and in doing so, we put ourselves on a path aiming towards some particular future.

However, there’s an endpoint to our projects, a point at which all our human possibilities cease, whether consummated or not, and that endpoint is our death. This point is what Heidegger calls “being-towards-death”, meaning that humans always exist “toward” the end of our lives even if humans never ‘actualize’ it as an event. As Epicurus said, “If I am, then death is not. If Death is, then I am not.” In this sense, death is not an event but something that humans constantly live with. In a way that an apple is always “not yet” ripe before its ripening, humans also maintain a “not yet” at its end while existing. As Heidegger says, “as soon as man comes to life, he is at once old enough to die.” Being-toward-death refers to a process of growing through the world where a certain foresight guides humans towards gaining an authentic perspective.

According to Heidegger’s assessment, our fundamental relationship with our mortality is at fault. To be precise, normal discussions of death conceals what death is. Most people discuss the topic in a fugitive manner, dismissing it as something occurring at some distant time, but not as some actuality, and conceal the fact that it is something that is my own most, instead presenting it as belonging to no one in particular. Being-toward-death, understood in this sense, is thus inauthentic. It has become devalued,  conceived as a colorless and mundane part of being alive, warranting no proper consideration. The statement “one dies,” conceived factually, comes to mean “nobody dies.” 

Heidegger’s thought is that we are essentially finite beings, meaning that an “authentic” human life can only be found by confronting who we are and trying to find meaning in our death. The ancient maxim “to philosophize is to learn how to die” captures this point. An authentic relation to our mortality frees us from the “they-self” to which our individuality is often compromised, in part by revealing to us that we are indeed a part of them.

The disclosure of the finite nature of our being, of our inevitable death, is what we always need to remember to live our lives genuinely, meaningfully, and true to who we are. This awareness positions us toward our inevitable demise and calls for several insights:

  • Death is non-relational. Death cannot be experienced through the deaths of others but only through my relation to my own mortality. This insight yields something existentially salient – the non-relational characteristic of death radically individuates human beings, allowing them to “find themselves,” so to speak, from the humdrum and emulsified group to which human beings are oft to belong.
  • Death is certain. While few are willing to sit around and talk about their mortality, we do nevertheless hear about it and talk about the death of others: “One dies too, some-time, but not for the time being”. For Heidegger, “certain” means not merely recognizing death’s certainty but acting in a way appropriate to its verbal affirmation (think of Chekhov’s characters who ‘must go to Moscow’ but remain seated as the curtain falls on the play after play and thus do not want to go to Moscow at all).
  • Death is indefinite. The certainty of our ending is indeterminate concerning its ‘when.’ This certainty and indefiniteness is the existential and fundamental meaning of Death.
  • Death is not to be outstripped. There’s no way of overcoming it, and it outstrips all other human possibilities. Our mortality is that essential impotence against which the potency of my freedom shatters itself.

An authentic conception of death opens itself up for the fundamental existential mood, known in German as ‘angst’ (anguish is its Latinate equivalent, and anxious, anxiety are of similar origin) – emerging from the uncanny fact that there is nothing about the structure of the self that can tell it what to do with its life. This state of mind arises in the most innocuous of situations. Angst is that rudimentary mood when we distinguish ourselves from the world and become self-aware. With this experience of angst, Heidegger says, we become individualized from the they-self.

One could be walking through a grocery store, weighing some fruit, and overhearing conversations, and suddenly one is overwhelmed by the feeling of meaninglessness, by the radical division between oneself and the world in which they live. As the world slips away, we become obtruded. This state of angst is the first experience of our freedom, as a freedom from things and other people. It is a freedom to be myself.

Our conception of death is too concerned with the actual, as an event, a conception understood as an actualization of a human possibility. This would be a deeply depressing philosophy. Rather, death need not be waited on, it should mobilize mortality as the grounds for free action in the world.

Confronting death need not be a deeply morbid affair. Confronting our own death has the capacity to pull us out of our immersion in inauthentic everyday life, providing the grounds to be our own. It is through our relation to being-towards-death that we can all become fundamentally aware of our freedom.