DANCING NEAR THE ABYSS: Nietzsche’s dangerous life as portrayed by Stefan Zweig…


Some remarks upon...

nietzsche zweig
STEFAN ZWEIG (1881-1942),
Part of the trilogy “The Struggle With The Demon – Kleist, Hölderlin and Nietzsche”
Introduction and Translation by Will Stone.
Hesperus Press, London, 2013.

stefan-zweig-nietzsche-le-combat-avec-le-demon_2254061-MArticle by Eduardo Carli de Moraes:


Maybe the thrill in our veins when we read Nietzsche derives from the sense of danger that his words exhale: he’s inviting us to dance near the abyss, and without safety nets. Nietzsche desires life to be risky and full of surprises, and is furious against all tendencies of sheepish conformity. A true lover of art and poetry, Nietzsche was both a great thinker and a great artist – one who claimed that “we have art so that we might not die of the truth.” For him, an authentic “free spirit” doesn’t shy away from confrontation with the riddles of existence, even the most scary and painful ones: if you want knowledge, you’ll have to face the monsters of the abyss, and let the abyss stare into you!

As Karl Jaspers wrote on his awesome book about Nietzsche, the philosopher worthy of his task is a figure similar to Theseus: he enters boldily into the labyrinth, willing to face the danger of being eaten by the Minotaur. In Stefan Zweig’s writings on Nietzsche we feel the emphasis falling upon the dangerousness of Nietzsche life and fate. In his introduction, Will Stone recalls how much Zweig’s book focuses on “the decisive abandonment of security by Nietzsche and his propensity to take an ever more self-destructive tightrope walk, where all safety nets are strictly forbidden.” (Will Stone, Introduction, XIX)

“Voluntarily, in all lucidity, renouncing a secure existence, Nietzsche constructs his unconventional life with the most profound tragic instinct, defying the gods with unrivalled courage, to experience himself the highest degree of danger in which man can live.” (Zweig, p. 6)

Few philosophy books can be said to be as exciting as a roller-coaster ride or a bungee-jump. I believe Nietzsche’s impact on posterity has to do, partly, with those adrenaline shots we receive from his writings. We can re-read his words many times because they provoke us, entice us, marvel us, enfuriate us – but hardly ever leave us indiferent. The flame of life, in each to us, seems to burn more brightly and intensely when we come to spend so time in company with Nietzsche’s flaming words. My experience as a reader of Nietzsche’s books leads me to cherish him as a powerful voice who affects people deeply – some may disagree with him, but this disagreement itself is usually so vehement and intense that it serves as a sign of the echoes, either consonant or dissonant, that Nietzsche’s words arouses. Philosophy in the 20th century was profoundly shaken and inspired by Nietzsche’s books, but in his life, as Zweig points out, he was eaten alive, bit by bit, by the demon of solitude.

Despite his attempts to make his voice be heard, many commentators point out that Nietzsche lived an utterly lonely, isolated existence – “a solitude deprived even of God”, writes Zweig. Nietzsche ended up “crushed by the world’s silence.” (pgs. 5-7) In the following lines, Zweig is less a biographer than a painter: he’s trying to get us in synch with the philosopher’s emotional mood: “One feels here is a man residing in the shadows, apart from all social conviviality, (…) a man who over the years has lost the habit of social interaction and dreads the prospect of being asked too many questions.” (pg. 10)

Nietzsche’s health can be seen as one reason for his choice of an isolated life-style, but it doesn’t explain why the philosopher chose to cut himself even from the most basic of relationships needed, for survival reasons, for someone in his condition: the relationship with a doctor! Nietzsche rarely sought aid of professionals in the medicine field: he mostly self-medicated. He kept away from alcoholic beverages, never drank cofee nor smoked cigarettes. His pension-room had always among its furnishing elements, according to Zweig’s lively description, “an horrifying arsenal of poisons and narcotics”:

 “On a shelf, innumerable bottles, flasks and tinctures: for headaches, which regularly occupy so many wasted hours, for stomach cramps, spasmodic vomiting, instestinal weakness, and above all, those terrible medicaments to control insomnia – chloral and veronal.” (11)


A portrait of the philosopher by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch

Imagine Zweig as a painter, and his words as drawings in our imagination, and let’s hear how he further paints Nietzsche portrait: the philosopher’s eye-sight is poor, without his glasses he would be blind as a bat. But that seems to be no impediment to his will to devote so much energy into the activities of reading and writing (which demand so much eye-labor). Most nights, Nietzsche’s brain just won’t turn off, and he can only restore his energies by sleep if he ingests some kind of soporific medicine.

“Sometimes he spends the whole day confined to bed. And no one comes to his aid, not even a helping hand, no one to lay a cool compress on his burning brow. No one to read to him, to chat with him, to laugh with him… never a warm naked female body beside his own.” (p. 11-12)

A grim picture of disease and loneliness is painted before our eyes by these Zweigian words, but they serve merely as background for the main figure in the painting: a tragic hero in the realm of knowledge, Nietzsche himself, and the process by which he falls down into the abyss. Would we dare, right here and right now, rebelling against the silence that springs from his grave, delve into the mystery of Nietzsche’s life and death?

friedrich-nietzsche (1)

Zweig seems to want his reader to pity the fragile and lonesome state of poor Nietzsche – friendless, abandoned, unloved. I couldn’t help imagining how Nietzsche himself would judge Zweig’s portrait. Nietzsche himself was never attracted by self-pity, and it may be argued that he chose voluntarily to lead a life in which we wouldn’t bother others with his health issues – as if he was trying to put to practise a radical attempt at self-reliance, even in the worst conditions. As Jacob Burckhardt points out, Nietzsche lived as if his task were “to increase independence in the world” (quoted by Zweig, pg. 89), and it’s hard to imagine a philosopher who took so seriously the task of being independent. The fluctuations of his health had profound impact upon his emotional state and the “mood” of his tought: by his own life-experience Nietzsche extracted awesome insights into the inner workings of the human mind. He’s arguably one of the greatest psychologists of the 19st century (he claimed to have learnt psychology mainly with Stendhal and Dostoivésvki), an certainly a pioneer in pre-Freudian times.

 Zweig’s book focuses a lot on Nietzsche’s life, especially the connection between his existential loneliness and his outstanding artistic and philosophical productions. It leads the reader to ask himself: why did this philosopher, who had demolished the moral ideals of asceticism (mainly in his Genealogy of Morals), chose to live in a condition of isolation similar to those hermits he criticised so much? What caused Nietzsche’s attitude of removal from sociability: was it arrogance or pride ? What could have acted as an impediment in the route to Alterity, in Nietzsche’s life? What was the obstacle he couldn’t trespass, keeping him from crying out for help and accepting the aid of human love? Were the people around him to blame for being indiferent and uncomprohensive?

According to Zweig, aways, everywhere he lived, Nietzsche was a foreigner. And that usually doesn’t make easier the task of building friendship. It can’t be said that friendship is highly valued in his books. And it doesn’t seem to me that Nietzsche pursued in his life, with much interest or passion, a quest for human warmth and love. Lou Salomé is maybe the sole female figure in Nietzsche’s life to have aroused in him some kind of dream about redemption by love, some passionate widening of his emotional chest to the realm of the Other, but we know well things didn’t turn out that rosely. Nietzsche couldn’t see la vie en rose and his passion for Lou Salomé turned out to be a devasting heart-break. After the rupture with Lou Salomé, facing what he calls “the greatest crisis of his life”, he writes Zarathustra, a work-of-art and an philosophical poem that carry the mark of something unique. His bond with Lou had collapsed, in ruins were all the bridges of dreams, and in utter solitude he set out to write a book about a character who spent ten years far from all human contact, and tries to re-descend among the humans, to reveal what he learned whilst dwelling in the wilderness, only to discover that everyone miscomprehends him. A book born out of Nietzsche’s abyss, filled with dancing stars, chaotic and colourful as life itself. 



“The year-in year-out lack of a really refreshing and healing human love, the absurd loneliness that it brings with it, to the degree that almost every remaining connection with people becomes only a cause of injury; all that is the worst possible business and has only one justification in itself, the justification of being necessary.” – Letter sent by Nietzsche to his friend Overbeck, 3.2.88

Much speculation about Nietzsche breakdown in Turin is to be found in dozens of books. To this pile of speculation, Zweig adds his own contribution:

“For 15 years this cave life of Nietzsche continues from rented room to rented room, while he remains unknown…. only the flight of Dostoyevsky, almost at the same moment in time, with equitable poverty and neglect, is illuminated by the same cold grey spectral light. Here, as there, the work of a titan conceals the gaunt figure of the poor Lazarus who daily expires from his despair and infirmity in solitude, as day by day, the miracle savior of creative will awakens him from the depths. For 15 years, Nietzsche emerges thus from the coffin of his room, moving upwards and downwards, with suffering upon suffering, death upon death, resurrection upon resurrection, until, over-heated by such a flood of energy, his brain breaks apart. (…) Un-accompanied and unkown, the most lucid genius of the spirit rushes headlong into his own night.” (13)

Tough Nietzsche suffered a lot, he didn’t turn angrily against life, nor did he sought final relief in suicide. His philosophy is born out of the dwellings of his mind with his pains: “pain always searches to know the causes, whilst pleasure remains in a fixed position and does not look backwards”, he wrote. “Mighty pain is the last liberator of the spirit; she alone forces us to descend into out ultimate dephts.” And elsewhere: “I know life better, because I have so often been at the point of losing it.” (p. 23)

“Nietzsche never sets up house, with a view to economizing and conserving, he builds no spiritual home; he wants (or perhaps he is forced by the nomadic instinct in his nature) to remain eternally without possessions, the solitary Nimrod who wanders with his weapons through all the forests of the spirit, who has no roof, no wife, no child, no servant, but who, on the other hand, has the thrill and pleasure of the hunt; like Don Juan, he adores not the enduring feeling but the fleeting moments of greatness and ecstasy. He is solely attracted by an adventure of the spirit, by that ‘dangerous perhaps’ that stimulates and excites as long as the chase is on but as soon as attainmet is reached loses its grip.” (29)

In Zweig’s perspective, Nietzsche sounds the alarms and alerts us – prophetically – against the ills of nationalism and praises cosmopolitism:

“Nietzsche is content to be without country, without home or possessions, cut off forever from that ‘parochialism of the fatherland’, from all ‘patriotic subjugation’. His perspective will be the lofty one of the bird in flight, of the ‘good European’, of that ‘essentially nomadic race of men who exist outside of nations’. (…) Once Nietzsche has established himself in the south, he steps definitively beyond his past; he is peremptorily de-Germanized, de-Christianized… the navigator to the realm of the future is too happy to be embarking on ‘the fastest ship to Cosmopolis’ to experience any nostalgia for his unilateral, uniform and univocal fatherland. That is why all attempts to re-Germanize him should be strongly condemned.

At the same time as de-Germanizing him, the south also serves to de-Christianize him completely. Whilst like a lizard he enjoys the sun on his back and his soul is lit right through to his innermost nerves, he ponders what exactly had left the world in shadow for so long, made it so anguished, so troubled, so demoralized, so cowardly conscious of sin, what had robbed the most natural, the most serene, the most vital things of their true value, and had prematurely aged what was most precious in the universe, life itself. Christianity is identified as the culprit, for its belief in the hereafter, the key principle that casts its dark cloud over the modern world.This ‘malodorous Judaism, concocted of Rabbinic doctrines and superstition’ has crushed and stifled sensuality, the exhilaration of the world and for fifty generationshas been the most lethal narcotic, causing moral paralysis in what was once a genuine life force. But now (and here he sees his life as a mission), the crusade of the future agains the cross has finally begun, the reconquest of the most sacred country of humanity: the life of the world.” (pg. 61-63)

Zweig also suggests that, with Nietzsche, it appears for the first time upon the high seas of German philosophy the black flag of a pirate ship. With Nietzsche, it dawns

“a new brand of heroism, a philosophy no longer clad in professorial and scholarly robes, but armed and armored for the struggle. Others before him, comparably bold and heroic navigators of the spirit, had discovered continents and empires; but with only a civilizing and utilitarian interest, in order to conquer them for humanity, in order to fill in the philosophical map, penetrating deeper into the terra incognita of thought. They plant the flag of God or of the spirit on the newly conquered lands, they construct cities, temples and new roads in the novelty of the unkown and on their heels come the governors and administrators, to work the acquired terrain and harvest from it the commentators and teachers, men of culture. But the final objective of their labours is rest, peace and stability: they want to increase the possessions of the world, propagate norms and laws, establish a superior order.

Nietzsche, in contrast, storms into German philosophy like the filibusters making their entrance into the Spanish empire at the end of the 16th century, a wild unruly swashbuckling swarm of desperados, without nation, ruler, king, flag, home or residence. Like them he conquers nothing for himself, or anyone following him, not for a god, or a king, or a faith, but uniquely for the pleasure of conquest, for he wants to acquire, conquer and possess nothig. He concludes no treaty nor build a house, he scorns the rules of war put in place by philosophers and he seeks no disciple… Nothing was more foreign to Nietzsche than to merely proceed towards the habitual objective of philosophers, to an equilibrium of feeling, to repose in a tranquilitas, a sated brown wisdom at the rigid point of a unique conviction. He spends and consumes successive convictions, rejecting what he has acquired, and for this reason we would do better to call him Philaleth, a fervent lover of Aletheia, truth, that chaste and cruelly seducing godess, who unceasingly, like Artemis, lures her lovers into an eternal hunt only to remain ever inaccesible behind her tattered veils.” (pg. 43)

In Nietzsche’s fate we can read the tragedy of someone who, tortured by disease and anguish, embarks head-on in Knowledge’s dangerous adventure. Alone and frail, but bold and curious, he’s a man who, like a serpent, exchanged skins thoughout his life. But, as Zweig points out, his only homeland was solitude. Wherever he lays his hat, there he’s alone. He journeys through the land, but doesn’t seem ever to leave loneliness behind. There’s a song by Portishead in which Beth Gibbons wails: “This loneliness just won’t leave me alone”. It’s quite possible Nietzsche knew a lot about this emotional mood. The philosopher has been acquainted with the blues. Sometimes, it seems, he tries to believe isolation is a merit and that the geniuses of humanity shouldn’t mix with the riff-raff – that’s why many nostrils can smell arrogance in Nietzsche attitude, some aristocratical eliticism, as if the man believes he shouldn’t wallow in the mud of common vulgarities.

This loner consoles himself, to lessen the pains of his solitude,  with the idea that posterity will understand and honour him. Free spirits yet to be born keep him company through his darkest hours. He warms himself by the fireside of his imagination of future glories. Zarathustra is filled with images, bursting from a mind intoxicated by poetry, of better days to come, of men who have outgrown mankind as we know it. The question I pose is: how maddening is it to seek human warmth on the imaginary realm? Can you cure yourself from loneliness with the dreamt shadow of future friends?

In Nietzsche’s final years, he gets increasing bombastic. Now he brags he’s dynamite. His previous books were almost completely ignored by the general population of the planet, and he can’t deal with this easily, emotionally speaking: he felt “only immutable solitude multiplied” and this is what, according to Zweig, “turns his soul gangrenous”: the wound of no reply.” (75)

 His descent into the abyss is portrayed by Zweig as a tragedy of utter solitude. Nietzsche sinks, his brain shatters, because the burden of the world’s indifference and deafness is too much to bear. Nietzsche’s own judgement of his past achievements, in Ecce Homo, may sound deeply narcisistic and self-glorifying: he believes, for example, that Zarathustra is the biggest gift ever given to humanity, the greatest book ever written, and that whole universities should be created and devoted to its study. Some chapters of Nietzsche’s intriguing auto-biography are filled with self-celebration and megalomania, as if he’s trampling modesty underfoot: Nietzsche explains to his readers why he  is so wise, how does he manage to write such great books, and considers himself to be an event in History that will divide it in two epochs. Zweig’s interpretation invites us to understand this as a symptom of his social isolation, of his frustration about the silence that surrounded his ideas, and which was so rarely broken in Europe during his life (only George Brandes, professor in Copenhagen, made an effort to spread Nietzsche’s ideas in academic circles during the philosopher’s life).

When he reached the period when he wrote his last books – among them are The Antichrist, Twilight of the Idols, Ecce Homo… –  Nietzsche seems to be increasingly furious, bombastic. He writes with outbursts of rage and indignation, striving to get some answer from the world around him. Even hostility from readers seems to him to be better than silent indifference. This is how Zweig describes this late Nietzschean works:

“There are contained the most unbridled scornful cries of rage and heavy groans of suffering, flayed from his body by the whip of impatience, a savage growling through foaming mouth and bared teeth… provoking his epoch so that they react and let go a howl of rage. To defy them still, he recounts his life in Ecce Homo with a level of cynicism which will enter into universal history. Never has a book exhibited such a craving, such a diseased and feverish convulsion of impatience for response, than the last monumental pamphlets of Nietzsche: like Xerxes insubordinately battling the ocean with a scourge, with insane bravado he wants the indifferent to be stung by the scorpions of his books, to defy the weight of immunity which enshrouds him. (…) In the glacial silence and lost in his own entrancement, he lifts his hands, dithyrambic his foot twitches: and suddenly the dance begins, the dance around the abyss, the abyss of his own downfall.” (p. 77)

Stefan Zweig’s book is filled with this kind of highly dramatical images, as if he’s trying to honour Nietzsche with a painting worthy of a tragic hero. It’s certainly a very impressive and sensitive portrayal of Nietzsche, tough in its less than 100 pages it doesn’t share many details of the philosopher’s life (this has been done by Curt Paul Janz, Rudiger Safranski and other biographers). Zweig’s perspective is filled with melancholia and he decribes the “struggles with the demon” experienced by Hölderlin, Kleist and Nietzsche as something he also has experienced in his own flesh. Zweig’s life, similarly to that of Nietzsche, can’t be said to have ended happily: he was living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, when he commited suicide in 1942. He had sought refuge from the horrors of the World War in Europe, a jew fleeing from the claws of the Holocaust. For a while, he believed Brazil to be “the country of the future”, a safe harbour where no racism or anti-semitism existed. In his book, Brazil – Country of The Future, he idealizes his new home with the eyes of the refugee who was leaving behind a world of intolerance, hatred and persecution. Then, frustration takes over, and he shoots himself in Petropolis. But that’s another story.

I believe Zweig’s Nietzsche is a book whose great merit lies in the description of Nietzsche’s existential position, one of social isolation of almost complete lack of community bonds. He’s downfall, according to an interpretation by Brazillian philosopher Oswaldo Giacoia, one of the leading figures in Nietzsche studies in Latin America, is deeply related the fact that he couldn’t belong to what Hannah Arendt used to call “a common world”. One of the most interesting psychological problems posed by Nietzsche’s fate, it seems to me, is this: how important for psychic health are the lived experienced of community bonds? What are the consequences of radical rupture with the whole dimension of alterity? Or, put more simply, what’s the price that pays the person who lives without any of the warmth provided by friendship and love? 


Stefan Zweig, author of “The Struggle With The Demon – Hölderlin, Kleist and Nietzsche”. Click here to read an excerpt of the last chapter of Zweig’s book.

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Human All Too Human – BBC Series – Full Episode


Thomas Nagel on Death (a chapter from “Mortal Questions”, 1979, Cambridge University Press)



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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Other perspectives: