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. •

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