Let me tell you something: you are going to die. But surely you do not need me to remind you. We are all thinking about it without thinking! Why else are we complying with mask and social distancing mandates? (I can think of a few ‘plausible conspiracy theories’ as well, though I prefer to keep my head attached to my neck.) But the fear of death that many of us have raises a question: Why is it that we are afraid of dying?
Consider for a moment the job of a firefighter. A firefighter trains to put out fires. Yet, it may be the case that the firefighter would never have to put out an uncontrolled fire. Instead, the firefighter prepares for what is only probable, something that is not certain.
But death is something that will happen to all of us for certain. So, if we follow the analogy, we must ask ourselves, How am I preparing for death?
Or if you have never encountered this question, like many of us, you might ask, ‘How do I prepare for death?’ But surely, we don’t have to look too hard to see how one prepares for death.
A beginner at running, for example, trains to be a better runner by running, eating healthy, and resting. At first, it might hurt to run, turn down that ‘Mike’s Hard Lemonade’, or to go to bed at a reasonable time. (Especially during last summer’s quarantine!) But perhaps with practice, and therefore through habit, training to be a runner wouldn’t hurt as much. In fact, the training might even be something pleasurable. In a way, the runner dies to his or her old self and becomes a ‘new self’. This is because the runner submits his or her impulses to reason, instead of reason enslaving itself to the impulses. In this way, we may call the runner or athlete ‘free’.
Such freedom is not foreign to Philosophy either. Philosophy as traditionally understood is most definitely useless. Obviously, it is not useless in the sense that it is beneath the dignity of useful things, but rather, it is above usefulness! We would say the same thing about happiness, for example. We don’t use happiness for the sake of something else, as if happiness wasn’t good enough. Rather, we enjoy happiness for its own sake, because it is a universal good in itself.
Now, the term ‘Philosophy’ means ‘love of wisdom’, and love requires that one goes outside or beyond oneself. For this reason, a lover of wisdom isn’t too concerned about him or herself. The lover merely wants to know and be with the beloved.
According to the Christian Tradition, God Himself is that wisdom. Thus, the Philosopher truly wants to know and be with God. The Philosopher therefore turns his or her attention away from things that are changing and unstable, in order to gaze into the eyes of ‘Beauty so ancient yet so new’. Thus at death, the lover will say to the beloved, ‘I have heard of you, but now my eyes see you.’
So, how do we prepare to die? We prepare through virtue and contemplation. Virtue consists in performing good actions which become habits. Those habits make one who he or she is. To contemplate, on the other hand, consists in knowing and loving reality, as a lover knows and loves the beloved. As lovers, therefore, let us live well in order to die well.
Ryan Ford '23,