About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Wednesday, August 31, 2005
Anyway, Russell wrote an essay (in 1928) entitled "Stoicism and mental health," in which he tackles the issue of death and how to deal with it (I wrote a longer essay on the same issue, using another piece of writing by Russell as the starting point. My essay was published by the University of Tennessee Library, together with a companion piece that looks at death from the point of view of a religious believer. Both essays are available from yours truly as pdf.)
Russell suggests that there are three common attitudes toward death, all of them problematic. (1) Don't think about it. But as he points out, we know from basic psychology that avoiding to think about emotionally charged issues (e.g., sex) isn't either healthy or successful. (2) Think about it all the time. Not psychologically healthy either, since it turns into an obsession, and because we can't really do much about the issue at hand (we can act as to postpone death as much as possible, but so far nobody has managed to avoid it completely). (3) We can try to believe that death isn't really death, just the beginning of something better. According to Russell, while this is the most common take, most people don't really believe it. He reports a story by F.W.H. Myers, who asked someone during a dinner conversation what he thought would happen to him after death. Eventually, the other answered: "Oh well, I suppose I shall inherit eternal bliss, but I wish you wouldn't talk about such unpleasant subjects." (I'd like to add that genuine belief in the afterlife can, although of course doesn't have to, lead to a rather callous attitude toward life -- including acceptance of injustice in view of a future reward, or even the willingness to give up one's own life by slamming airplanes into skyscrapers, etc.)
What then? Being a philosopher, Russell suggests that the best approach to the issue is the same that one ought to use with any such delicate matter (such as pain, reversals of fortune, etc.): stoicism. As Bertrand puts it, "It is best to think with a certain stoicism, deliberately and calmly, not attempting to minimise its importance, but feeling a certain pride in rising above it." Not an easy path, but then again, who said life was going to be easy?