You might also enjoy:
You might also enjoy:
“Patrick Shen’s award-winning “Flight From Death: The Quest for Immortality” is a provocative study of “death denial” in cultures around the world. It draws upon the expertise of scholars, theologians and philosophers to examine how human behavior is influenced by the universal fear of death, especially in a post-9/11 climate of terrorism. It’s a stimulating, ultimately life-affirming film, filled with big ideas and revelatory footage.” -Seattle Times
“Narrated by Golden Globe Winner Gabriel Byrne (Usual Suspects, HBO’s In Treatment, Miller’s Crossing), this 7-time Best Documentary award-winning film is the most comprehensive and mind-blowing investigation of humankind’s relationship with death ever captured on film. Hailed by many viewers as a “life-transformational film,” Flight from Death uncovers death anxiety as a possible root cause of many of our behaviors on a psychological, spiritual, and cultural level.
Following the work of the late cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Denial of Death, this documentary explores the ongoing research of a group of social psychologists that may forever change the way we look at ourselves and the world. Over the last twenty-five years, this team of researchers has conducted over 300 laboratory studies, which substantiate Becker’s claim that death anxiety is a primary motivator of human behavior, specifically aggression and violence.
Flight from Death features an all-star cast of scholars, authors, philosophers, and researchers including Sam Keen, Robert Jay Lifton, Irvin Yalom, and Sheldon Solomon culminating in a film that is “not only thought-provoking but also entertaining and put together with a lot of class” (Eric Campos, Film Threat). Three years in the making and beautifully photographed in eight different countries, Flight from Death is “a stimulating, ultimately life-affirming film, filled with big ideas and revelatory footage” (Jeff Shannon, Seattle Times).”
WATCH “THE FLIGHT FROM DEATH” (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!):
P.S. A LINK TO ALL HOT DOCS PREVIOUSLY POSTED ON AWESTRUCK WANDERER CAN BE FOUND ON TOP OF THE BLOG, ABOVE THE COLLAGE OF HUMAN FACES. CHECK IT OUT!
I’ve been immerging myself in Alan Watt’s talks lately, plunging into his words and thoughts, and I seem to have reached a point in which, so to speak, my cup is about to overflow. In other words: his teachings, I suppose, are beggining to bear fruit in my inner gardens, and I’ve been wondering with myself, under Alan’s inspiration and spell: why don’t I open the gates to others to come and taste these fruits, even though they’re still in a process of ripening? What starts here, right now, is an attempt to write about my pilgrimages through Eastern Wisdom. Not from the perspective of an historian who looks at it like dead curiosities in a museum of ruins, but as something alive and kicking, which still has many possible lessons to teach us, the “Modern Times”. This is certainly a work in progress – but after all, is there any work that isn’t necessarily in flux, embarked on the cosmos’ ever-moving stream, and thus fated to wander and ramble on, constantly on the move?…
I cherish a lot Alan Watts’ attempts to teach to the Modern Times the keys to the unlocking of the treasures of Eastern (and ancient) Wisdom. Maybe he deserves to be considered alongside figures such as Aldous Huxley or Heinrich Zimmer as a very important figure in the history of bridge-constructing between the so-called “East” and “West”. A famous Zen proverb – quoted often in popular culture (in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film Le Fabuleux Destin D’Amélie Poulain, for instance) – states: “When the wise man points his finger at the Moon, the fools regard his fingers.” Alan Watts’ uses words in order to get beyond words, to point at the stars and moons, at the waters and the rocks, at the breezes and the streams, in order to invite us, invoke on us, depict for us, a way of experiencing the world in which we inhabit Nature instead of feeling alien (or alienated) from it.
I don’t listen to Alan Watts like he’s an irreproachable Awakened One, who has all the answers and final solutions, to be worshipped on my knees, but rather as some sort of pilgrim of wisdom, of witty beatnik poet, of “spiritual entertainer” (as he himself jokingly called himself). He demands of us, his listeners and readers, not credulity or obedience, but rather creativity and singularity. A guru who is deeply anti-gurus and who repeats to us: “Don’t respect any authorities or gurus without criticism, try to think and experience for yourself!”
Stuff like Nirvana – or other sorts of Ecstactic Awakenings and satoris and unio mysticas – aren’t fully describable in words. They are truths of lived experience rather than statements of representational verbal language. “Words are too clumsy”, Alan Watts loves to say, and he underlines frequently the simple fact we tend to take for granted: the mountains aren’t made with words, and neither are the stars. Do words flow in rivers? Do we breath words in the air? Does it rain words on our umbrellas? In our cosmos, words seem to be a very small part of it. As far as we know, it’s a recent extravagance of certain lliving organisms on a little corner of the Universe called planet Earth…
My plan is to begin a series here in Awestruck Wanderer’s vast cyber-spaces (I see plenty of room to keep on expanding it!) in which I’ll try to share some footprints of my own wanderings in the realm of Eastern Wisdom. The aim is not only to register a journey, but to invite others to add their own discoveries and different perspectives to this journey of quest for Nirvanic enlightenments and dispellments of burdensome illusions.
I enjoy very much the concept of Buddhism not as a religion, with fixed dogmas and rituals, unquestionable and always worthy with blind obedience, but rather as a collective effort, extending over several generations, to discover ways to transform states of consciousness. Sidarta Gautama, some may argue, is the world’s first great psychotherapist. The word “religion”, perhaps, doesn’t fit well when applied to Buddhism – Alan Watts calls it, rather paradoxically, “The Religion of No Religion” – cause Buddhism it’s the poles apart from Christianity, Judaism and Islam, to restrict ourselves to the world’s most popular monotheisms.
My perspective on this radical difference between Buddhism and the three major monotheistic religion is this: there’s a radical difference between concepts such as Nirvana and Samsara and concepts such as Heaven and Hell. Samsara and Nirvana are existential states, are different ways of experiencing reality, are ways to inhabit the world; Heaven and Hell are mythological places, imagined to be absolutely transcendent, alien to this world, supernatural, outside Nature. Samsara and Nirvana only have meaning inside the realm of life, considered as journey of transformation; Heaven and Hell are thought to “reside” in a separate territory, outside the Physical realm, and the access to it is granted only after the body’s death.
It would be quite absurd for someone to say: “I’ll reach Nirvana when I die” – such a statement would probably provoke a zen master either to hit the person with a stick or to laugh his lungs out, joyously aware of how nonsensical that pretension is. But it’s perfectly “normal” for a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim to say: ‘I’ll get to Heaven when I die” – and such a statement would be considered normal, trivial, in accordance with the predominant discourse of their particular communities, faithful to the main cultural trend.
Heaven, of course, is a place quite different from Earth: it’s imagined to be a place of pleasure without pain, life without death, existence without change (no disease, no decay; no old-age, no new-born-baby…). Buddhists look at this Heaven dreamed by the Monotheisms and say: your Heaven is but a phantasy and an ideal impossible to attain. The way of liberation, a Buddhist will state, lies not in dreaming another reality, “purged” of all the elements usually called evil, ugly or sick. The way of liberation lies in understanding the inter-dependency and inter-relateness of the fabric of reality in which we exist, each one a part of the same whole.
This I’ve learned from Alan Watts (and, indirectly, from the masters from which Alan himself has learned from…): in reality, there’s no eggs without chickens, no fingers without hands, no brains without stomachs, no planets without rocks, no black without white, no pleasure without pain, no life without death. I could go on forever: no seas without salt, no tears without eyes, no mind without matter, no life without bodies, no wisdom without folly. When we realize fully that the cosmos is in flux, filled by ever-moving processes, we begin to perceive ourselves not as separate egos, fixed in some sort of enduring permanence, but rather as whirlpools in the stream, interconnected beings in a web-of-evolution, boats embarked in cosmic change. Awakening or Nirvana refers to a state of consciousness in which the ilusion of separateness vanishes: in the Cosmos we plunge. The Whole, the All, Spinoza’s God, the pantheist’s object of adoration, we fill no longer apart from us – we’re in it. We’re one of its constituent parts.
To believe in Heaven and Hell – the first a realm of absolute enjoyment, pleasure, light, delight; the other a realm of terrible torture, un-ending pain, fiery darkness… – is pure folly, a Buddhist would argue, because it denies reality – it’s nothing but a ghost created by the human mind in its alienation from its existential position inside Nature’s bosom. The awakened one is not the one to preach fake promises, but rather someone who aims to free us from the burden of expecting reality to conform to a certain ideal that reality can never fulfill. In Lin Chi’s words: “MY DUTY IS TO BEAT GHOSTS OUT OF YOU!”
One of the best visual representations of Eastern Wisdom is the Yin & Yang dancing diagram. It means not only that black implies white, and figure implies background, but much more: it depicts reality’s eternal movement, in which are cointaned all differences. Just like it’s impossible to take a magnet and separate its North and South poles (if you chop off any of the poles of a magnet, Alan Watts explains, you won’t ever manage to get rid of polarity), it’s impossible to sever reality in separate chunks. Reality comes like this: all mixed stuff, intermingled beings, connected in inter-relationships and webs. Just like the apple-tree bears fruit, the Cosmos has made Earth it’s life-tree: our planet peoples, our Earth bears the fruits of life, and life bursts from the Cosmos not as something created by Transcendece but as a product of Immanence. Earth or Gaia, this flying sphere of multiplicity beyond words, locked in the embrace of solar gravity, dancing in the Universe’s immense dancefloor, has life as one its fruits. The Cosmos is doing each of us just like a tree is doing apples or the oceans are doing waves. Life: We must cherish it, enjoy it, love it, but always aware that Life is dependent on Nature, involved in it, part of it, plunged in it. Lives in the cosmos are like fishes in seas.
Alan Watts explains this beautifully in several of his talks and lectures – here’s one of the best of them: 1960’s Buddhism and Science, part of Watts’ TV-series Eastern Wisdom & Modern Life:
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You might also enjoy this South Parkianesque video
(it could be nicknamed Alan Watts For Dummies):
* * * * *
“Man as an organism is to the world outside like a whirlpool is to a river: man and world are a single natural process, but we are behaving as if we were invaders and plunderers in a foreign territory. For when the individual is defined and felt as the separate personality or ego, he remains unaware that his actual body is a dancing pattern of energy that simply does not happen by itself. It happens only in concert with myriads of other patterns – called animals, plants, insects, bacteria, minerals, liquids, and gases. The definition of a person and the normal feeling of ‘I’ do not effectively include these relationships. You say, ‘I came into this world.’ You didn’t; you came out of it, as a branch from a tree.”
“The special branch of science which studies the relation of living beings to their environments – ecology – shows beyond doubt that the individual organism and its environment are a continuous stream, or field, of energy. To draw a new moral from the bees and the flowers: the two organisms are very different, for one is rooted in the ground and broadcasts perfume, while the other moves freely in the air and buzzes. But because they cannot exist without each other, it makes real sense to say that they are in fact two aspects of a single organism. Our heads are very different in appearance from our feet, but we recognize them as belonging to one individual because they are obviously connected by skin and bones. But less obvious connections are no less real…
Civilized human beings are alarmingly ignorant of the fact that they are continuous with their natural surroundings. It is as necessary to have air, water, plants, insects, birds, fish, and mammals as it is to have brains, hearts, lungs, and stomachs. The former are our external organs in the same way that the latter are our internal organs. (…) The sun, the earth, and the forests are just as much features of your own body as your brain. Erosion of the soil is as much a personal disease as leprosy, and many ‘growing communities’ are as disastrous as cancer. That we do not feel this to be obvious is the result of centuries of habituation to the idea that oneself is only the envelope of skin and its contents, the inside but not the outside. The extreme folly of this notion becomes clear as soon as you try to imagine an inside with no outside, or an outside with no inside.”
(ALAN WATTS. “Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality.” New World Library, California, 2007. Pgs. 20 and 36-37)
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A box of comments, in the Blogosphere, may well be used as a bridge [a meeting place, a cyber-symposium…] between humans interested in Wisdom Sharing. Anyone? “Hello… Hello… Hello… Is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me… Is there anyone at home?”
Eduardo Carli de Moraes, Awestruck Wanderer
Toronto, 13/08/2014 (my last week in the Twenties!)
Come, fill the Cup and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly – and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.
* * * *
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
O Wilderness were Paradise enough!
* * * *
24 & 25
Lo! some we loved, the loveliest and the best
That Time and Fate of all their Vintage prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to Rest.
And we, that now make merry in the Room
They left, and Summer dresses in New Bloom,
Ourselves must we beneath the Couch of Earth
Descend, ourselves to make a Couch – for whom?
* * * *
For let Philosopher and Doctor preach
Of what they will, and what they will not – each
Is but one link in an eternal Chain
That none can slip, nor break, nor over-reach.
* * * *
There was a Door to which I found no Key:
There was a Veil past which I could not see:
Some little Talk awhile of ME and THEE
There seemed – and then no more of THEE AND ME.
* * * *
And if the Wine you drink, the Lip you press,
End in the Nothing all Things end in – Yes –
Then fancy while Thou art, Thou art but what
Thou shalt be – Nothing – Thou shalt not be less.
* * * *
59 & 60
How long, how long in infinite Pursuit
Of This and That endeavour and dispute?
Better be merry with the fruitful Grape
Than sadden after none, or bitter, Fruit.
You know, my friends, with what a brave Carouse
I made a Second Marriage in my house;
Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed,
And took the Daughter of the Vine to Spouse.
* * * *
Strange is it not? that of the myriads who
Before us pass’d the door of Darkness through
Not one returns to tell us of the Road,
Which to discover we must travel too.
* * * *
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
* * * *
Ah, with the Grape my fading Life provide,
And wash my Body whence the Life has died,
And in the Windingsheet of Vine-leaf wrapt,
So bury me by some sweet Garden-side.
* * * *
97, 98 & 99
Indeed the Idols I have loved so long
Have done my Credit in Men’s Eye much wrong:
Have drown’d my Honour in a shallow Cup
And sold my Reputation for a Song.
Indeed, indeed, Repentance oft before
I swore – but was I sober when I swore?
And then and then came Spring, and Rose-in-hand
My threadbare Penitence apieces tore.
And much as Wine has play’d the Infidel,
And robb’d me of my Robe of Honour – well,
I often wonder what the Winemakers buy
One half so precious as the Goods they sell.
* * * *
Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would we not shatter it to bits – and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!
OMAR KHAYYAM (1048-1131),
Persian astronomer, mathematician and freethinker.
Translated by Edward Fitzgerald (1809-1883).
Who’s next? Help me out in the comment box!
“A poet always knows that what in the vernacular is called the voice of the Muse is, in reality, the dictate of language; that it’s not the language that happens to be his instrument, but that he is language’s mean toward the continuation of its existence. Language, however, even if one imagines it as a certain animate creature (which would only be just), is not capable of ethical choice.
A person sets out to write a poem for a variety of reasons: to win the heart of his beloved; to express his attitude toward the reality surrounding him, be it a landscape or a state; to capture his state of mind at a given instant; to leave – as he thinks at that moment – a trace on the earth. (…) Regardless of the reasons for which he takes up the pen, and regardless of the effect produced by what emerges from under that pen on his audience – however great or small it may be – the immediate consequence of this enterprise is the sensation of coming into direct contact with language, or more precisely, the sensation of immediately falling into dependence on it, on everything that has already been uttered, written, and accomplished in it.
The poet, I wish to repeat, is language’s means of existence – or, as my beloved Auden said, he is the one by whom it lives. I who write this lines will cease to be; so will you who read them. But the language in which they are written and in which you read them will remain, not merely because language is a more lasting thing than man, but because it is more capable of mutation.”
Russian poet and essayist
In: “On Grief and Reason”
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Here’s one of my favorite Brodsky’s poems:
Song of Welcome
Here’s your Mom, here’s your Dad.
Welcome to being their flesh and blood.
Why do you look so sad?
Here’s your food, here’s your drink.
Also some thoughts, if you care to think.
Welcome to everything.
Here’s your practically clean slate.
Welcome to it, though it’s kind of late.
Welcome at any rate.
Here’s your paycheck, here’s your rent.
Money is nature’s fifth element.
Welcome to every cent.
Here’s your swarm and your huge beehive.
Welcome to that there’s roughly five
billion like you alive.
Welcome to the phone book that stars your name
Digits are democracy’s secret aim.
Welcome to your claim to fame.
Here’s your marriage, and here’s divorce.
Now that’s the order you can’t reverse.
Welcome to it; up yours.
Here’s your blade, here’s your wrist.
Welcome to playing your own terrorist;
call this your Middle East.
Here’s your mirror, your dental gleam.
Here’s an octopus in your dream.
Why do you try to scream?
Here’s your corn-cob, your TV set.
Your candidate suffering an upset.
Welcome to what he said.
Here’s your porch, see the cars pass by.
Here’s your shitting dog’s guilty eye.
Welcome to its alibi.
Here are your cicadas, then a chickadee,
the bulb’s dry tear in your lemon tea.
Welcome to infinity.
Here are your pills on the plastic tray,
Your disappointing, crisp X-ray.
You are welcome to pray.
Here’s your cemetery, a well kept glen.
Welcome to a voice that says, “Amen.”
The end of the rope, old man.
Here’s your will, and here’s a few
takers. Here’s an empty pew.
Here’s life after you.
And here are your stars which appear still keen
on shining as though you had never been.
They might have a point, old bean.
Here’s your afterlife, with no trace
of you, especially of your face.
Welcome, and call it space.
Welcome to where one cannot breathe.
This way, space resembles what’s underneath
and Saturn holds the wreath.
by Thomas Nagel
from Mortal Questions
(New York: Cambridge U. Press, 1979) pp. 1-10.
If death is the unequivocal and permanent end of our existence, the question arises whether it is a bad thing to die.
There is conspicuous disagreement about the matter: some people think death is dreadful; others have no objection to death per se, though they hope their own will be neither premature nor painful. Those in the former category tend to think those in the latter are blind to the obvious, while the latter suppose the former to be prey to some sort of confusion. On the one hand it can be said that life is all we have and the loss of it is the greatest loss we can sustain. On the other hand it may be objected that death deprives this supposed loss of its subject, and that if we realize that death is not an unimaginable condition of the persisting person, but a mere blank, we will see that it can have no value whatever, positive or negative.
Since I want to leave aside the question whether we are, or might be, immortal in some form, I shall simply use the word ‘death’ and its cognates in this discussion to mean permanent death, unsupplemented by any form of conscious survival. I want to ask whether death is in itself an evil; and how great an evil, and of what kind, it might be. The question should be of interest even to those who believe in some form of immortality, for one’s attitude towards immortality must depend in part on one’s attitude toward death.
If death is an evil at all, it cannot be because of its positive features, but only because of what it deprives us of. I shall try to deal with the difficulties surrounding the natural view that death is an evil because it brings to an end all the goods that life contains. We need not give an account of these goods here, except to observe that some of them, like perception, desire, activity, and thought, are so general as to be constitutive of human life. They are widely regarded as formidable benefits in themselves, despite the fact that they are conditions of misery as well as of happiness, and that a sufficient quantity of more particular evils can perhaps outweigh them. That is what is meant, I think by the allegation that it is good simply to be alive, even if one is undergoing terrible experiences. The situation is roughly this: There are elements which, it added to one’s experience, make life better; there are other elements which if added to one’s experience, make life worse. But what remains when these are set aside is not merely neutral: it is emphatically positive. Therefore life is worth living even when the bad elements of experience are plentiful, and the good ones too meager to outweigh the bad ones on their own. The additional positive weight is supplied by experience itself, rather than by any of its consequences.
I shall not discuss the value that one person’s life or death may have for others, or its objective value, but only the value that it has for the person who is its subject. That seems to me the primary case, and the case which presents the greatest difficulties. Let me add only two observations. First, the value of life and its contents does not attach to mere organic survival; almost everyone would be indifferent (other things equal) between immediate death and immediate coma followed by death twenty years later without reawakening. And second, like most goods, this can be multiplied by time: more is better than less. The added quantities need not be temporally continuous (though continuity has its social advantages). People are attracted to the possibility of long-term suspended animation or freezing, followed by the resumption of conscious life, because they can regard it from within simply as a continuation of their present life. If these techniques are ever perfected, what from outside appeared as a dormant interval of three hundred years could be experienced by the subject as nothing more than a sharp discontinuity in the character of his experiences. I do not deny, or course, that this has its own disadvantages. Family and friends may have died in the meantime; the language may have changed; the comforts of social, geographical, and cultural familiarity would be lacking. Nevertheless those inconveniences would not obliterate the basic advantage of continued, thought discontinuous, existence.
If we turn from what is good about life to what is bad about death, the case is completely different. Essentially, though there may be problems about their specification, what we find desirable in life are certain states, conditions, or types of activity. It is being alive, doing certain things, having certain experiences, that we consider good. But if death is an evil, it is the loss of life, rather than the state of being dead, or nonexistent, or unconscious, that is objectionable.1 This asymmetry is important. If it is good to be alive, that advantage can be attributed to a person at each point of his life. It is good of which Bach had more than Schubert, simply because he lived longer. Death, however, is not an evil of which Shakespeare has so far received a larger portion than Proust. If death is a disadvantage, it is not easy to say when a man suffers it.
There are two other indications that we do not object to death merely because it involves long periods on nonexistence. First, as has been mentioned, most of us would not regard the temporary suspension of life, even for substantial intervals, as in itself a misfortune. If it ever happens that people can be frozen without reduction of the conscious lifespan, it will be inappropriate to pity those who are temporarily out of circulation. Second, none of us existed before we were born (or conceived), but few regard that as a misfortune. I shall have more to say about this later.
The point that death is not regarded as an unfortunate state enables us to refute a curious but very common suggestion about the origin of the fear of death. It is often said that those who object to death have made the mistake of trying to imagine what it is like to be dead. It is alleged that the failure to realize that this task is logically impossible (for the banal reason that there is nothing to imagine) leads to the conviction that death is mysterious and therefore a terrifying prospective state. But this diagnosis is evidently false, for it is just as impossible to imagine being totally unconscious as to imagine being dead (though it is easy enough to imagine oneself, from the outside, in either of those conditions). Yet people who are averse to death are not usually averse to unconsciousness (so long as it does not entail a substantial cut in the total duration of waking life).
If we are to make sense of the view that to die is bad, it must be on the ground that life is a good and death is the corresponding deprivation or loss, bad not because of any positive features but because of the desirability of what it removes. We must now turn to the serious difficulties which this hypothesis raises, difficulties about loss and privation in general, and about death in particular.
Essentially, there are three types of problem. First, doubt may be raised whether anything can be bad for a man without being positively unpleasant to him: specifically, it may be doubted that there are any evils which consist merely in the deprivation or absence of possible goods, and which do not depend on someone’s minding that deprivation. Second, there are special difficulties, in the case of death, about how the supposed misfortune is to be assigned to a subject at all. there is doubt both to who its subject is, and as to when he undergoes it. So long as a person exists, he has not yet died, and once he has died, he no longer exists; so there seems to be no time when death, if it is a misfortune, can be ascribed to its unfortunate subject. the third type or difficulty concerns the asymmetry, mentioned above, between out attitudes to posthumous and prenatal nonexistence. How can the former be bad if the latter is not?
It should be recognized that if these are valid objections to counting death as an evil, they will apply to many other supposed evils as well. The first type of objection is expressed in general form by the common remark that what you don’t know can’t hurt you. It means that even if a man is betrayed by his friends, ridiculed behind his back, and despised by people who tread him politely to his face, none of it can be counted as a misfortune for him so long as he does not suffer as a result. It means that a man is not injured if his wishes are ignored by the executor of his will, or if, after his death, the belief becomes current that all the literary works on which his fame rest were really written by his brother, who died in Mexico at the age of 28. It seems to me worth asking what assumptions about good and evil lead to these drastic restrictions.
All the questions have something to do with time. There certainly are goods and evils of a simple kind (including some pleasures and pains) which a person possesses at a given time simply in virtue of his condition at that time. But this is not true of all the things we regard as good or bad for a man. Often we need to know his history to tell whether something is a misfortune or not; this applies to ills like deterioration, deprivation, and damage. Sometimes his experiential state is relatively unimportant — as in the case of a man who wastes his life in the cheerful pursuit of a method of communicating with asparagus plants. Someone who holds that all goods and evils must be temporally assignable states of the person may of course try to bring difficult cases into line by pointing to the pleasure or pain that more complicated goods and evils cause. Loss, betrayal, deception, and ridicule are on this view bad because people suffer when they learn of them. But it should be asked how our ideas of human value would have to be constituted to accommodate these cases directly instead. One advantage of such an account might be that it would enable us to explain why the discovery of these misfortunes causes suffering — in a way that makes it reasonable. For the natural view is that the discovery of betrayal makes us unhappy because it is bad to be betrayed — not that betrayal is bad because its discovery makes us unhappy.
It therefore seems to me worth exploring the position that most good and ill fortune has as its subject a person identified by his history and his possibilities, rather than merely by his categorical state of the moment — and that while this subject can be exactly located in a sequence of places and times, the same is not necessarily true of the goods and ills that befall him. 2
These ideas can be illustrated by an example of deprivation whose severity approaches that of death. Suppose an intelligent person receives a brain injury that reduces him to the mental condition of a contented infant, and that such desires as remain to him can be satisfied by a custodian, so that he is free from care. Such a development would be widely regarded as a severe misfortune, not only for his friends and relations, or for society, but also and primarily, for the person himself. This does not mean that a contented infant is unfortunate. The intelligent adult who has been reduced to this condition is the subject of the misfortune. He is the one we pity, though of course he does not mind his condition. It is in fact the same condition he was in at the age of three months, except that he is bigger. If we did not pity him then, why pity him now; in any case, who is there to pity? The intelligent adult has disappeared, and for a creature like the one before us, happiness consists in a full stomach and a dry diaper.
If these objections are invalid, it must be because they rest on a mistaken assumption about the temporal reelation between the subject of a misfortune and the circumstances which constitute it. If, instead of concentrating exclusively on the oversized baby before us, we consider the person he was, and the person he could be now, then his reduction to this state and the cancellation of his natural adult development constitute a perfectly intelligible catastrophe.
This case should convince us that it is arbitrary to restrict the goods and evils that can befall a man to nonrelational properties ascribable to him at particular times. As it stands, that restriction excludes not only such cases of gross degeneration, but also a good deal of what is important about success and failure, and other features of a life that have the character of processes. I believe we can go further, however. There are goods and evils which are irreducibly relational; they are features of the relations between a person, with spatial and temporal boundaries of the usual sort, and circumstances which may not coincide with him either in space or in time. A man’s life includes much that does not take place within the boundaries of his life. These boundaries are commonly crossed by the misfortunes of being deceived, or despised, or betrayed. (If this is correct, there is a simple account of what is wrong with breaking a deathbed promise. It is an injury to the dead man. For certain purposes it is possible to regard time as just another type of distance.). The case of mental degeneration shows us an evil that depends on a contrast between the reality and the possible alternatives. A man is the subject of good and evil as much becomes he has hopes which may or may not be fulfilled, or possibilities which may or may not be realized, as because of his capacity to suffer and enjoy. If death is an evil, it must be accounted for in these terms, and the impossibility of locating it within life should not trouble us.
When a man dies we are left with his corpse, and while a corpse can suffer the kind of mishap that may occur to an article of furniture, it is not a suitable object for pity. The man, however, is. He has lost his life, and if he had not died, he would have continued to live it, and to possess whatever good there is in living. If we apply to death the account suggested for the case of dementia, we shall say that although the spatial and temporal locations of the individual who suffered the loss are clear enough, the misfortune itself cannot be so easily located. One must be content just to state that his life is over and there will never be anymore of it. That fact, rather than his past or present condition, constitutes his misfortune, if it is one. Nevertheless if there is a loss, someone must suffer it, and he must have existence and specific spatial and temporal location even if the loss itself does not. The fact that Beethoven had no children may have been a cause of regret to him, or a sad thing for the world, but it cannot be described as a misfortune for the children that he never had. All of us, I believe, are fortunate to have been born. But unless good and ill can be assigned to an embryo, or even to an unconnected pair of gametes, it cannot be said that not to be born is a misfortune. (That is a factor to be considered in deciding whether abortion and contraception are akin to murder.)
This approach also provides a solution to the problem of temporal asymmetry, pointed out by Lucretius. He observed that no one finds it disturbing to contemplate the eternity preceding his own birth, and he took this to show that it must be irrational to fear death, since death is simply the mirror image of the prior abyss. That is not true, however, and the difference between the two explains why it is reasonable to regard them differently. It is true that both the time before a man’s birth and the time after his death is time of which his death deprives him. It is time in which, had he not died then, he would be alive. Therefore any death entails the loss of some life that its victim would have led had he not died at that tor any earlier point. We know perfectly well what it wold be for him to have had it instead of losing it, and there is no difficulty in identifying the loser.
But we cannot say that the time prior to a man’s birth is time in which he would have lived had he been born not then but earlier. For aside from the brief margin permitted by premature labor, he could not have been born earlier: anyone born substantially earlier than he would have been someone else. Therefore the time prior to his birth prevents him from living. His birth, when it occurs, does not entail the loss to him of any life whatever.
The direction of time is crucial in assigning possibilities to people or other individuals. Distinct possible lives of a single person can diverge from a common beginning, but they cannot converge to a common conclusion from diverse beginnings. (The latter would represent not a set of different possible lives of one individual, but a set of distinct possible individuals, whose lives have identical conclusions.) Given an identifiable individual, countless possibilities for his continued existence are imaginable, and we can clearly conceive of what it would be for him to go on existing indefinitely. However inevitable it is that this will not come about, its possibility is still that of the continuation of a good for him, if life is the good, we take it to be. 3
We are left, therefore with the question whether the nonrealization of this possibility is in every case a misfortune, or whether it depends on what can naturally be hoped for. This seems to me the most serious difficulty with the view that death is always an evil. Even if we can dispose of the objections against admitting misfortune that is not experienced, or cannot be assigned to a definite time in the person’s life, we still have to set some limits onhow possible a possibility must be for its nonrealization to be a misfortune (or good fortune, should the possibility be a bad one). The death of Keats at 24 is generally regarded as tragic; that of Tolstoy at 82 is not. Although they will be both be dead for ever, Keats’ death deprived him of many years of life which were allowed to Tolstoy; so in a clear sense Keats’ loss was greater (though not in the sense standardly employed in mathematical comparison between infinite quantities). However, this does not prove that Tolstoy’s loss was insignificant. Perhaps we record an objection only to evils which are gratuitously added to the inevitable; the fact that it is worse to die at 24 than at 82 does not imply that it is not a terrible thing to die at 82, or even at 806. the question is whether we can regard as a misfortune any limitations, like mortality, that is normal to the species. Blindness or near-blindness is not a misfortune for a mole, nor would it be for a man, if that were the natural condition of the human race.
The trouble is that life familiarizes us with the goods of which death deprives us. We are already able to appreciate them, as a mole is not able to appreciate vision. If we put aside doubts about their status as goods and grant that their quantity is in part a function of their duration, the question remains whether death, no matter when it occurs, can be said to deprive its victim of what is in the relevant sense a possible continuation of life.
The situation is an ambiguous one. Observed from without, human beings obviously have a natural lifespan and cannot live much longer than a hundred years. A man’s sense of his own experience, on the other hand, does not embody this idea of a natural limit. His existence defines for him an essentially open-ended possible future, containing the usual mixture of goods and evils that he has found so tolerable in the past. Having been gratuitously introduced to the world by a collection of natural, historical, and social accidents, he finds himself the subject of a life, with an indeterminate and not essentially limited future. Viewed in this way, death, no matter how inevitable, is an abrupt cancellation of indefinitely extensive possible goods. Normality seems to have nothing to do with it, for the fact that we will all inevitably die in a few score years cannot by itself imply that it would be good to live longer. Suppose that we were all inevitably going to die in agony — physical agony lasting six months. Would inevitability make that prospect any less unpleasant? And why should it be different for a deprivation? If the normal lifespan were a thousand years, death at 80 would be a tragedy. As things are, it may just be a more widespread tragedy. If there is no limit to the amount of life that it would be good to have, then it may be that a bad end is in store for us all.
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