Meditations of a 21st century incarnation of Socrates as composed by Brent Silby
Death. The forbidden topic. It is forbidden, I think, because it is feared. You moderns, much like we ancients, do everything you can to avoid death. You alter your bodies to appear younger, you spend a fortune on medical treatments, and your scientists research life extension — as if death is a disease that can be cured. But it cannot be cured, and although I have no real wisdom, I know enough to realize that accepting the inevitability of death is wise. I also believe that the wise person does not fear death.
I wonder if people fear death because they have knowledge of what death is like? I do not know how they could acquire such knowledge. Perhaps they think they know what death is like. But that is uncertain. Death may be the end of the soul. Or it could be, as many religious people think, the transportation of the soul to a new life. What that life is like, no-one can know. Either way, we do not know what happens to the soul at death. I ask people, do you fear going to a movie you have never seen? They say “no”. I ask, do you fear eating at a new restaurant? They say “no”. And yet, I suggest, you fear death. Is it not another unknown, just as the unseen movie and the new restaurant are unknowns? They agree to this point, so I ask, is it wise to fear the unknown? And they concede that it is not wise. What happens at death is unknown so it is not wise to fear it.
But people say they fear missing out on living. That is why they fear death. To this I ask, do you feel fearful about the time of non-living prior to your birth? They reply that they have no such fear. So I ask, why do they fear the time of non-living in the future? Is it not the same, after all? By Zeus, this is a difficult question for people to answer. They seem to rate the loss of their own life highly. They do not fear the time before birth because they had not yet experienced life. The time after living, however, is a loss of something they had. But, I remind them, that if the soul survives, then there is no loss. And if the soul is destroyed, they do not experience the loss. So there if nothing to fear.
Perhaps it is the anticipation of death that people fear. When they realize that life is finite, they ruminate on it and become fearful as the end approaches. I ask people, do you fear the end of a symphony when you are half-way through? They say “no”. This is of no surprise. The wise person enjoys the symphony and is not fearful that the symphony will end. Would we not be wise to treat life the same way?
We all experience something like death every day. It happens when we go to sleep. During a dreamless sleep we have a length of time of seeming non-existence. Now, we do not fear going to sleep at night, therefore we do not fear seeming non-existence. So why do we fear death? When I pose this question to people, they tell me that the situation is different. When they go to sleep they know they will awaken, but they do not know they will awaken after death. I respond by asking, do you really know you will wake up after going to sleep? People will often accept that they don’t know it, but it is likely. So people believe they will awaken after sleeping and therefore they do not fear sleep in the same way that they fear death. Why? Because they believe they will not awaken after dying. I must, at this point, refer back to our earlier point about knowledge. No-one knows they will not wake up after death, because no-one knows what happens to the soul after death. Nevertheless, I ask people how they feel about waking up each morning. Most people want to go back to sleep. People are most remarkable creatures. They don’t fear sleep because they know they will wake up. Yet, upon waking they want to go back to sleep. On the other hand, people fear death because they believe they will not wake up and will continue to sleep.
Is it better to be at risk of harm or at no risk of harm? The answer to this question will lead us to a conclusion about whether or not death should be feared. Let us assume that death is the end of suffering. Let us assume that no harm can come to someone after death. Now, if it is better to be at no risk of harm and if no harm can come to one after death, then death should not be feared.
These thoughts are based on my dialogues with people over the years. It seems that when carefully considered, wise people should not fear death. Still, we are human with human weaknesses.