Simon Critchley on Religion and Death

The philosopher talks about how suicide has become a taboo and how death could be regarded differently.
  • Transcript


Qusetion: Does religion or philosophy best prepare us for death

Critchley:  There’s an aspect of religious thinking which I think is superior to philosophical thinking and this appears historically with the person of St. Augustine and Augustine’s Confessions.  The center of Augustine’s Confessions are 3 deaths, death of his friend, death of his mother and the death of his son. This death of mother is the key, this key death and what you’re getting in Augustine and elsewhere in the Christian tradition is this extraordinary meditation on grief or mourning, and the way in which grief, if you like, defines what it means to be human.  You know, a human life can be punctuated in terms of a series of acts of grief, death of a parent, a mother or a father or a child, or whatever and these things structure what it means to be a self but they do it by tearing us apart, by really sundering us and the religious tradition has got a much, I think the Christian tradition has got a much, is much better on that than the philosophical tradition.  What I don’t like about the idea of the philosophical death, although I defended it in the book, is there’s a certain selfishness and, if you like stoicism, at the heart of it.  You know, it’s about me, Socrates or Epicurus dying, my dying well, my death surrounded by my disciples.  What this overlooks is the fact that death comes into the world, comes into the world to us through the death of others and so this question of grief I think is the key.  They have something to work on more on the future because that’s the question of love, the relation between death and love.  The death that really, you know in the sense you could say perhaps finally my death isn’t so important.  It’s the death supposed that we love that are truly important and how do we think about that? 

Question: How has secularization in the West affected view of death?

Critchley:    A very revealing issue in this regard are our attitudes towards suicide and our attitude towards suicide are already still completely colored by Christianity, and in the ancient world, it was no ignominy to kill oneself.  Certain people, it was a noble death if it was done in a noble way.  Often one was, it was required of one, Seneca was asked to kill himself by his employer, Nero, sort of employee one, but there we are.  Suicide was no shame and the idea that begins with Christianity is the idea that death is something, that life is something given, all right, over which one has no dominion.  It’s something given over which not one has no dominion.  Therefore to take one’s life is to as it were assume the role of God.  So, therefore suicide is illegitimate.  It is blasphemous, and we’re still very much stuck with it, with those of the debates.  Think back to its own, the Terri Shaivo debate, the issue, a few years ago.  We, it seems to me that one thing that the [emaciation] [09:01] of the history of philosophy can allow one to think about is the fact that suicide should be something that was, is within everybody’s power.  I think it’s, you know, a minimum of human dignity, consisting of the fact that one’s got the right to take one’s life, not willing really but you know, in the right circumstances.  So, I still think we’re very much in the grip of religious frameworks of a [fool] [09:31] so, I don’t, you know, so secularization, yeah, but really how far?  The other thing I’d say about secularization is that the only metaphysics in which we believe these days are really, is the metaphysics of medical science, and medical science which really means technology, and medical science and technology being used as an instrument which furthers our longevity.  Longevity is seen as an unquestioned good in life, unquestioned good and this is a very strange thought.  When you look the history of humanity and the history of philosopher as I’ve done, the brevity of human life was often something to be celebrated.  A brief, brilliant, meteoric, wonderful life was a great thing.  Whereas the idea we have is that, you know, I was raised in Sweden and Swedes die, I think, it’s 83 is the, you know, the average age of death and they’re very proud of this.  This is one of the achievements of [serving] democracy.  If you don’t die when you’re 83, they’re sort of cheated.  They feel as they’ve sort of failed in some way or they should have lived for longer. 

Question: How would you prefer humans appreciate death?

Critchley:    There were different heroes in the book but the hero in many ways is, one hero is Montaigne, Michel de Montaigne, 16th century French.  A writer which develops the essay has this amazing form and in his essay to philosophize is to learn how to die which is a phrase that he takes from Cicero from antiquity.  He says a number of things.  The line which I think sticks with me is the following.  He says, he who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.  He who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.  What that means is that the person who, what that means is a slavery because this is slavery to the fear of death.  It’s the fear of death that really enslaves us.  It’s that fear of death that grips us and makes us want to believe that death is an illusion or death is a passage to some afterlife, some immortality, whatever.  Freedom by contrast consists in the acceptance of our mortality and this is a very I think paradoxical conclusion but for me, very important is that freedom consists in the acceptance of the determination of our life by necessity, right.  The one thing that gives life meaning is the certainty of death, this frame, and without that, life would rapidly become meaningless.  Look at the following example.  Look at the, what if we had immortal life here on earth.  I think if we had immortal life here on earth, life would soon become meaningless.  There’s a very good literary example of this from Gulliver’s Travels, from Book 3 of Gulliver’s Travels.  It’s the, Swift talks about these creatures called the struldbrugs and the struldbrugs have immortal life on earth and they’re marked with a red spot in the middle of their forehead.  He shows them slouching against walls, sort of having lost the will to live many generations previously, lost the use of language, lost any sense of the purpose and points of life.  So, immortal life on earth would rapidly become meaningless.  I think immortal life would also rapidly become as a rather, rather boring if we were conscious.  So, as were the big message of this is that a free human life consists in accepting our mortality and affirming our life in relationship to that mortality.   At the end of the book, I try and talk about the idea of creature in us and I go back to a, this is a theological line.  The theological tradition is full of fascinating things when it comes about, comes to mortality but the idea of being a creature which usually seen as being a creature in relationship to Creator, namely God, but what I take from the idea of being a creature is that we are, we’re dependent.  We’re not as if we’re, we’re not Robocop.  We’re not, you know, we’re not self-sufficient beings, you know.  We are creatures, who are frail and dependent upon others, and that’s what we have to accept.  I think human history, particularly history of the last few hundred years, is full of delusions of omnipotence through technology, usually some point in the future, let’s say 15 years away, somewhere there’s not quite now but not quite that far away.  I think that’s a great pity, I mean, fantasies about artificial intelligence, fantasies that will be, you know, cloning and all the rest. I mean, the fact is that what it means to be a human is to be a frail creature, the softest, that loves that has an extraordinary range of emotions and creates servicing and a creature that dies.