Philosophically why continue to live

Is there a good death?

Svenja Flasspoehler published on 6 min

It is pitch black and absolutely quiet. I lie on my back with my folded hands resting on my stomach. As if to prove that I'm still alive, I move my little finger, lift one knee, and blink my eyes. And yet, there is no doubt about that, one day I will die and probably rest in a coffin just as I am lying there ... It was something like that when I was about ten years old and before I went to sleep with me a tingling sensation in the epigastric region trying to imagine being dead. Today, three decades later, the thought of the end is far more urgent for me. I'm 40 years old, about half of my life is over. That year two people in my immediate environment died who were hardly older than me. But how should I deal with the fact of finitude? How to exist when everything boils down to death and we cannot know when it will overtake us? Is a reconciliation with the inevitable end possible at all - and if so, in what way?

Is death beautiful?

Death is the unavailable par excellence: it cannot be calculated, investigated, or eliminated from the world, and so the efforts of the secularized knowledge society aim to suppress it as far as possible. To die, largely invisible to the majority of the population, behind the walls of hospitals and hospices, the problem of finitude is left to theology and medicine. If one alleviates the pain of the dying palliative, is there for them, gives human warmth, then, the priests and doctors agree, a "good" death, even a "good" death is possible. But what if these consolations were nothing more than desperate attempts to cover up the existential scandal of death? Even the debate about the legal regulation of suicide assistance is in a certain sense an avoidance discourse. The question being discussed is whether and, if so, under what conditions a person has the right to end his life with the help of others; A corresponding law will be decided in November 2015. The focus therefore shifts to death as the lesser evil that may be preferable to an existence marked by suffering. In fact, the Greek expression “euthanasia” means nothing else than “beautiful death” - but, and precisely therein lies the avoidance, the end of life is primarily addressed in the above-mentioned debate from a distance. Death is the death of others (sick, dying), a clearly delimited object of practical ethics, which, according to the tacit agreement, can be reasonably contained by a rational legal regulation. But isn't death seen in the light of day just that event that breaks every law, every order? To paraphrase the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan: Death is the “real”, which cannot be grasped either symbolically or imaginary and breaks into every existence as brutally as it is inevitable. This literal incomprehensibility - which affects not only the terminally ill, but all of us - is countered by the proponents of euthanasia with the tangible, as if to prove one's own agency: To demand the right to self-determination even at the end of life means to extend the radius of what is available as far as possible to expand, namely to the ultimate limit of life.

The black robber

Reason enough to turn today to the discipline that confronts death in all its enormity: philosophy. "Why is it really bad to die when death is the end of our existence, irrevocably and for all eternity?" Asks the American philosopher Thomas Nagel in his essay "Death". For Nagel, death is an evil, not because of being dead itself - a state in which a person simply no longer exists - but “because of what it steals from us”. To die, says Nagel, is bad, "because there used to be something desirable that death took away from us". According to the thinker, any form of consolation is a failure. The widespread argument that we in no way regret not having existed before we were born is true. To conclude from this, however, that we do not have to mourn death either, criminally ignores the fact that we have lived in the meantime and therefore have something to lose. According to Nagel, the horror of death is pervasive. It does not only concern those who are torn from life far too early, but still the healthiest old man who dies in old age without severe pain: “From the fact that each of us inevitably after a few dozen years will die does not by any means follow that it would not be good to go on living. "

Eyes shut and go for it?

From this perspective, the end is never redeeming and coming to terms with death is generally a pitiful, even fundamental, necessary self-deception. Could we get through the day, would we really face the unbearable loss associated with our end? Don't we have to hide our mortality in order to even accept the challenge of existence? “Birth is painful and filthy, it takes a lot of effort to raise them, they have to endure hardships in childhood, adolescence brings them great toil, old age is a constant source of complaints - and hardship is the inevitable Death ”, so the philosopher and humanist Erasmus von Rotterdam in his work“ In Praise of Folly ”. “But who were primarily those who gave themselves to death because they were tired of life? Wasn't it the friends of wisdom? (…) You can now see what would happen if the average person came up with the idea of ​​being wise… “Those who are wise do not just exist senselessly and wait for the inevitable, but rather end their life resolutely. What Rotterdam formulated in an ironically broken exaggeration in the 16th century in order to escape clerical censorship is still a largely taboo thought today: What if suicide were a thoroughly sensible act? What would be the practical consequences of this? If humanity wants to continue, does it only have the permanent negation of death? Is the repression that has just been lamented possibly nothing more than a deeply implanted instinct for survival?

Nothingness and freedom

Probably the most powerful philosophical tradition of the 20th century has a clear answer to these questions. Anyone who lives life as if it lasts forever misses it. Only those who take nothing into being can find their way with the greatest possible clarity. Thus, according to existentialism, death is not a destroyer of meaning, but, just the other way around, the maker of meaning par excellence. It was Martin Heidegger who, in his work “Sein und Zeit” (1927), developed this idea step by step and thus created one of the decisive foundations for a completely different, positive view of death - whereby “positive” is by no means meant that death itself should lose its horror. But on the contrary. “Being to death is essentially fear,” writes Heidegger. This fear goes deeper than the well-known “fear of death”, which “for the time being has not yet overtaken us”. To exist means to be constantly exposed to the possibility of your own death. In this way, held into nothingness, man is called not to live just any life, but to advance to himself, to his very own “being able to be”. For Heidegger, death is the guide to “authenticity”. However, it would be a mistake to reduce existentialism to this formula. Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, although heavily inspired by Heidegger, comes to a completely different conclusion in his main work “Das Sein und das Nothing” (1943). The genuinely human knowledge of the possibility of non-existence gives us the ability to “negate”, to purposefully reject forms of life, claims and images that are brought to us. By negating, according to Sartre, people break free from fixations. He therefore does not arrive at an essence of any kind whatsoever, but, on the contrary, at absolute freedom. Man is determined by literally “nothing”. And so he is “doomed” to design himself.

Who dies well who has lived well?

Seen existentially, death is, to put it casually, a life helper, a real savior from the context of delusion and alienation. But also die well who has lived well? Assuming once that I actually manage to look back at the end with no regrets: will it then be easy for me to let go? Or do I cling to existence all the more firmly because I am about to lose my luck? “To philosophize means to learn to die”, said the French essayist Michel de Montaigne: How did great thinkers deal with their finiteness, with illness and depression? And how does it feel when death is imminent? Much like when I was a child, when I lay motionless in bed and my own body seemed strangely alien to me, as if it no longer belonged to me? What if he finally gives up his job? Do I really stop being then - or are there absolutely reasonable reasons to assume that I will continue to live after my death? Open questions that concern the core of our existence. Anyone who philosophizes about death always philosophizes about life. •

More articles

And what do you doubt?

Wolfram Eilenberger

You are probably feeling the same way now. Almost every day I have to admit to myself how much wrong I have believed to be true and absolutely irrefutable over the past few years. And how dubious have now become to me all the assumptions that were built on this foundation. Nobody whose judgment I trusted seriously thought Brexit was possible. Nobody choosing Donald Trump. And if a knowledgeable friend had prophesied to me just two years ago that in the spring of 2017 the continued existence of the USA as a liberal constitutional state was just as seriously questioned as the future of the EU, I would have smiled at him as an incurable apocalyptic. When asked what I currently doubt most, I can only give an honest answer: I doubt myself. Last but not least, I ask myself whether the wonderfully stable world order in which I, as a Western European, has been able to spend my entire life so far , could not just turn out to be a short dream episode from which we now all have to painfully wake up together. There are doubts that make me deeply insecure. I would love to know how to pacify them through clear facts, clarifying methods, or even just plausible promises.


What does my body know

Svenja Flasspoehler

The question is irritating. What should my body know? Isn't the problem that he doesn't know anything? Has neither reason nor wisdom? Why else are there health guides, back training, painkillers, cholesterol levels that are far too high. And why are there fitness trackers, those little black armbands that show the wearer exactly how many meters they have walked today, how many calories still have to be burned or how much sleep the body needs. He doesn't know all of this by himself - yes, he has never known it when viewed in the light of day. It may well be that in the 16th century you went to bed all by yourself. But probably not because the body was still knowing at the time, but because it was dead tired from ruinous work and it was simply pitch black as soon as the sun went down. So who would deny that the body itself has no knowledge and never has? And it's more about collecting as much knowledge as possible about him in order to keep him fit for as long as possible.


Is there a good death?

Svenja Flasspoehler

Nobody escapes this question. For most, it remains fraught with fear. In the current debates on euthanasia, a good death is negotiated primarily in terms of good death and thus purely feasibility considerations. Where are the unacceptable limits of suffering? Do people have the right to determine their own end? Does truly freely chosen suicide even exist? In the course of this concentration on dying, life-guiding questions are lost from view. How do we deal with our own finitude and that of our neighbors? Can we reconcile with death? What does a human existence look like that always suppresses its end? Or is consciously running ahead of death - as Socrates or Heidegger say, for example - not exactly the key to a successful existence? With contributions from Svenja Flaßpöhler, Reinhard Merkel, Philippe Forest, Thomas Macho and David Wagner, among others


Do you remember what it was like when you were young, I mean: very young?

Svenja Flasspoehler

This feeling that the big ones, those who actually have responsibility and should know better, understand nothing at all, nothing at all? Have a completely unjustified power over you? Determine your existence without being deeply and seriously interested in your well-being? When I was ten I tried to run away, which usually ended at the next corner, when I was 16, like most of my age, I heard rage against the machine: "Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me… Uaaaah !!!"


The ideal of intensity

Nils Markwardt

We know it from films and novels: The question of the reward in life typically only arises in retrospect. As a settlement with yourself and the world. When existence flies by in front of the inner eye, a biographical balance sheet is drawn: Was it worth it? Was it worth it? Would you do it all over again? It would be much more natural not to postpone the question of what it is worth living for until it is too late, but to make it the yardstick of the present and the future. On the one hand, because it impregnates later feelings of remorse. Anyone who is clear about what makes life really worth living becomes at least a little weatherproof compared to the melancholy subjunctive of "If I had ...". On the other hand, the question as such has become much more urgent: As traditional systems of attachment have lost their influence, i.e. the importance of religion, nation and family has dwindled, the personal pressure of meaning has increased enormously. What is it worth getting up for in the morning, yes, even taking on the troubles of life? What exactly is it that gives you support even in difficult times? And in the end it really counts - will have counted?


Imre Kertész: "Thinking is an art that transcends people"

Alexandre Lacroix

The editors of Philosophy Magazin mourn Imre Kertész. In memory of the Hungarian writer, we are publishing an interview with him from 2013.

Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Camus - it was philosophy that showed Imre Kertész the way to literature. In his “last interview”, as he himself suspected, the Hungarian Nobel Prize laureate looked back on a life that could not be silenced either by concentration camps or by communist censorship.

“You know, I've thought a lot about your questions,” Imre Kertész said right from the start when he received us in his apartment in Buda, a part of Budapest. “It is important to me to have a nice interview with you, because it will probably be my last.” This testamentary sentence could seem macabre, but on the contrary: Despite his short-winded voice, his eyes shine brightly and mischievously. For a good decade, Kertész has been struggling with Parkinson's disease, the cause of countless pain and difficulties reported in his published diaries. This illness forced him to officially quit writing in 2012, leaving him only a few brief moments of calm each day.

It is difficult not to be touched by the encounter with this tested and at the same time so tenaciously persevering person who has constantly pondered the paradoxes of existence as a “survivor”. Imre Kertész was born in 1929. In 1944 he was deported to Auschwitz, then brought to Buchenwald, where he saw the liberation of the camp in 1945. He then spent most of his life under the communist regime in Hungary. Kertész began to write in the mid-1950s. At the same time tolerated by the regime and carefully kept away from the public, he published masterpieces such as “The Novel of a Fateful Man” or “The Tracker” in extremely manageable editions and coldly received by official criticism. It was only with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc that his works were translated around the world and found international recognition, crowned by the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002.
If there is one lesser-known dimension of his existence, it is the writer's relationship to philosophy. Out of passion, but also to earn a living, Imre Kertész translated numerous German philosophers from German into Hungarian, among them Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein. The reading of these authors, as well as those of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, has steadily nourished his work. Kertész agreed to our interview request primarily out of the desire to express himself about his - intensive and constant - relationship with philosophy.


Who is my real self

Svenja Flasspoehler

Do you also know such evenings? Exhausted, you sink onto the sofa, perhaps with a glass of wine in hand. You have just come from a reception, many colleagues were there, business partners, you talked for hours and felt like an actor who does not find his role. All these looks. All of these expectations. All these people who see something in you that you are not at all and compel you to pretend ... When, you ask yourself, was I actually me today? I - that little word suddenly sounds so strange to your ears that you involuntarily pinch your arm. I - who is that? Do I even have such a thing as a true self? Wouldn't I then, at least now, in the quiet of the evening, know what to do with myself?


Does my life need a goal?

Wolfram Eilenberger

And what is your goal in life? You have one, don't you? There is hardly a person who could escape the pressure of this question. It hits the center of our existence, lays deepest Wishes and hopes free - and not least also fears. What if I don't achieve my goal? What if I don't even know my destination yet? And above all: What if the goals you set yourself were restricting my life and making me unhappy? When asked about the goal in life, two human longings collide. After an active life in permanently meaningful and targeted self-determination. And after a deeply relaxed existence in lustful serenity. What would a life look like if the aim was to convey both ideals together?