Death and the Art of Living

Death and the Art of Living

 As one gets older, it is harder to ignore the inevitable approach of death. The young, if they are lucky, live as though there were no tomorrow. The days seem to stretch out before them in an endless line. Of course, no one is too young to die. Accidents, wars, famine and disease carry off many individuals before they feel the approach of old age and decrepitude. Still, to an older person, it appears that the young live as though life will never end. They often seem to be wasting their time, idling through their days without a care for the future. Older people are partly envious of the young, but they also recognize that, for them, there is no time to waste.

 The phenomenology of aging and death is the unfolding of time in a person’s life. When we are very young, tomorrow is what matters, or perhaps the day after that. One cannot wait for one’s birthday, for graduation into the wide world, for love and romance, making a living, having a family, and attaining respect as an adult in an adult’s world. Thoughts of the end rarely intrude, unless, perhaps, some religious teaching reminds one of it. Indeed, it is in religion that death takes a starring role, reminding the faithful of their common lot, and perhaps of a world beyond this one in which death shall be no more. Still, for a young person, even a reminder of death, like a skull, is more likely to be a paperweight or a scary curiosity than a catalyst for serious thoughts about death.

 So as time unfolds, the trail of the past gets longer and longer, while the future gets shorter and shorter.  In the blink of an eye, the time comes to look back on one’s life and ask what it all meant. For philosophers, and those who are philosophically minded, this question cannot be avoided by embracing a dogmatic creed that tells us in advance the meaning of human life. Thinking about death and the art of living will help us with the question of what life means after it has been lived.

 Every person has a choice to make in the manner in which he or she lives toward death, though no choice in living toward that end. One choice is to ignore death as long as possible, pretending that life will go on and on. Another choice is to see only the black dog of death, robbing us of all the transitory pleasures of life and the joys of the day. Choosing this, the prospect of death robs life of its very meaning. But while one worries about death, life slips by unlived.

 There is living, and then there is living well. The art of living is about living well, steering a course somewhere between ignoring death and obsessing about it. The fact is that though we will most probably experience dying, we will never experience death itself. Whatever death is or is not, we always approach but never reach it. This fact must be faced if we are to acquire the art of living well. All we will ever know is life, and with this realization comes the awareness that the present moment is all we presently have. The past is gone and the future never arrives except as a later present. So the art of living takes death on board, but does not allow the thought of it to sour the moment. 

 At the same time, awareness of death as the horizon of life ought not to be forgotten, since this thought gives relish to life. In fact, it may be that the prospect of living endlessly on and on is more effective in robbing life of meaning and joy than the thought of personal extinction. The art of living involves seeing death as an impetus to life, to living each moment in its fullness. This is why, I believe, Spinoza said that there is nothing the wise person thinks of so little as death. He is not telling us to live in ignorance of death, but rather to see that it is our lives we must cherish and celebrate, for that is all we will ever have. 

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  1. Interesting thoughts, Jeff. Need some time to process so a proper comment can be left, but wanted to thank you for the opportunity to chew on something besides finals, even if just for a few minutes . . .

  2. Eric MacDonald

    Every person has a choice to make in the manner in which he or she lives toward death, though no choice in living toward that end.

    Much of what you say, Jeff, is no doubt true, if somewhat banal, but surely the quote I have chosen from your piece is not – that is, either true nor banal. Read Jean Améry on aging (Über das Altern) or on suicide (Hand an sich Legen), where he makes the point that this is precisely where we do have a choice, a choice which, in the end, he made. John Donne said:

    … methinks I have the keys of my prison in mine own hand, and no remedy presents itself so soon to my heart as mine own sword. (Biathanatos)

    And, of course, you will remember the Stoics, and Socrates. Having said this, of course, death as the horizon of life may provide encouragement to live well. It may, on the other hand, be the worm which gnaws at life from the inside, turning what we most treasure to dross, like Blake’s sick rose.

  3. Eric, thanks for the comment. A couple of points. One is that even though suicide is nearly always an option to put an end to one’s life, this does not negate my point that we have no choice in living towards the end of death. The suicide puts an end to his or her own future, but not to him or herself. Up until the point one pulls the trigger, one is both alive and living towards death. The other point is that we still do have a choice in the manner in which we approach our own demise. You say yourself that the thought of death might encourage one to life each moment to the full, or that it might rob life of it joy. These are options for the individual to choose, and perhaps there are others. My point is really that we have all made an orientation to death in our lives, though we might now know what it is. Jeff

  4. Jeff,
    At 75 I’d guess I’m one of the older posters here. I read your piece with great interest and even pleasure. I’d like to share a few things.
    My son a few years ago with great concern in his voice and manner asked “how does it feel being old?” He was asking how do I deal with the reality that death is near. In all honesty I told him somewhere along the line without realizing it I had accepted my mortality, and it wasn’t any big thing, living with it, that is. I thought about death more when I was in my thirties. Of course, there’s a difference in the way I think of the future, in fact, I think of it infrequently. Now is what I’m most interested in. We have travel plans for the future, but I’m not anticipating the events. When the time comes hopefully I’ll enjoy what we do.
    A few weeks ago I arrogantly thought of writing an essay on the art of aging and eventually I probably will. Why not? I’m no authority on the subject so what I say won’t be right for everyone, but it will for me. The important thing in my mind is to stay vital by doing things – all sorts of thing – anything.
    I saw on a “feel-good-blog” a question: If you weren’t concerned about failing what would you try that’s different (for you?)
    How stupid! I’m not sure I ever consciously stopped myself from doing something for fear of failing. Oh, yes, I fail a lot. So what?

  5. I’ve missed a few interesting subjects because I’ve been on pup butt watch lately. The pup is a 9 week old jack russell terrier, so his butt has to lower only 2 inches for me to jump, scoop him up, dash out, and go through the routine of Goood Punky, yes peepee, gooood little Punkin, ahh poopy, good little doggy. Then, with him in my left arm, I open up Death and the Art of Living and try to do some rocking chair thinking. My first thought: Death? Weird. Lifeless body, what do you do with it? Who made this design anyway. At least we should vaporize, return to pre-birth nothing. Add some pain to the process and clearly there is a serious flaw with the whole concept. I’ll try to seriously worry right now; my mind turns directly, without passing Go or collecting anything, to who’s left and how will their needs be fulfilled without my wise counsel and my ability to turn a screw in the right direction. Personal fear doesn’t present itself. Typing with one hand while patting Punky with the other is challenging. Out we go for another exercise in life’s necessities.

  6. I read with interest…. And enJOYed the comments. Yes, Ralph,
    write that ‘reflection’ on aging. No matter it won’t ‘mean’ something to me; I’d nevertheless still read it, etc.
    This subject needs a great more probing. I come at it from the psychological angle, which as philosophers you would need to ‘posit’ that archetypes exist, and if you GRANT that Jung’s archetypes exist, why, it ‘points to’ or ‘suggests’ or ‘indicates’ that we have all LIVED BEFORE….!!! How else did the archetypes get ‘in there’? And what is the mechanism by which they DO get inside us…?
    So, as a psychologist, I need to posit a ‘MECHANISM of birth and death’ and ask the scientist (physiicist and biologist) to help me identify it, etc. I have a sneaking suspicion that SOME scientists have already delineated this ‘mechanism’ and are keeping it secret (up at Area 53, no doubt), as it would totally upset the status quo should it become a popularly understood fact (e.g. it would greatly increase the ‘kill rate’ from what it is at present, and it would remove all of the ethos of life, with impugnity, etc.). Plus, it would deflate the role of religion to a ‘flat line’ opiate……
    I have taken it a step further, now that I believe that we are thusly ‘recycled’ as it were. As I am a poet, and NOT a psychoanalyst, I nevertheless can offer what I have done in exploration of this conundrum or epi-phenomenon. Through self-analysis (which as a poet I am always engaged in) I have uncovered a ‘last death’ AND I even went back to the Crimean War and uncovered an ADDITIONAL death I had undergone.
    By uncovering your last death, you achieve this immense peace with the ‘next death’, because you REALIZE it as a bit-map of the process, which is really ALL of the in-between stuff, or life itself, or THAT which we CAN remember and talk about and ‘make hay while the sun shines’ about, etc.
    So by positing that ‘this is what my last death was like’ it places you at a point in time, say, the late thirties/early forties. It places you on one continent or another. It places you in an event that ‘has’ a history, even though you NOW do not participate in that history, and can only ‘build into it’ (much as a computer screen ‘builds in’ as something is uploaded to your view) the NOVEL of what it must have been like, what you must have been talking about, doing, at the time, etc.
    My ‘last death’ is way too complicated and controversial to ‘get into’ for this comment. But I can give you an encapsulation of the Crimean War one : I was shot off my horse by cannon fire, and my entire lower part of my body was a ruination….. My best friend turned on his horse and rode back, surveyed the damage, some shouts were exchanged, and he shot and killed me. And was able to exit the war alive and return home and marry the ‘sweetheart’ we both loved….!
    Now, as a poet, I can say that yes, this DOES have quite a bit of embellishment. But I must tell you that the deep sense of PEACE and calm which welled up in me at having so identified this death left such an indelible mark that I am proud to claim it, at least insofar as its ARCHETYPAL significance goes–which as a poet and literary person in general means a great deal to me.
    Such epiphenomena in my life do not change in any way the process which Jeff outlines as ‘living toward’ your next death. But the amount of expansion it gives to your awareness, to the sense of your contribution to Ethos (or simply, culture, or all of the in-between stuff of live as lived), and as a benefactor in the “fellow-traveler” aspect of other lives both those which impinged upon us in our former lives, and our appreciation for those whom we know in this life increases to a manifold degree. brett (Happy B’day Jeff…..)

  7. There was an inadvertent ‘typo’ in my post. It should read : “And HE was able to exit the war alive and return home and marry the ‘sweetneart’….etc.

  8. To throw in some science fiction, I happen to be re-reading The Rediscovery of Man. It is an anthology of Corwainer Smith’s short stories. In his fictional universe, a drug was discovered that allowed humans almost unlimited life. Naturally, many of his stories explore the implications of such a technology. His story “Under Old Earth” most directly addresses this matter-well worth a read. Well, if you like science fiction.

  9. this is a great post! I use death as my main motivator to live the most moral life i can. I’m glad our days are numbered, it gives me a desire to make my days count. I recently changed world views as young people like myself do, and i want to know how do you deem something moral or just? Changing from a Christian world view to a secular one has left me high and dry i suppose. I feel i need model to follow. how can i use logic to deem something morally good or bad? (if possible) For instance stealing. I steal because i want something. it’s rational, that i stole because of a desire for something. Can logic deem things immoral?

    i’ll end there. thanks in advance for any replies.

  10. Addressing Nick J.’s comment : The construct that is fueling your ‘change in world views’ will dictate the logic you use in moral/amoral determinations. ‘immoral’ is what you get when you look through the eyes of the OTHER (someone apart from yrself…).
    Aside from this, we ought not to take up space underneath Mr. Mason’s article to ‘go around’ about ‘moral and just’. It is a big enough philosophical subject on its own.
    Email me at and I’ll let you in on a few ‘tricks’ (actually sleights of thought) on the subject.
    For instance, we are all Christians whether we like it or not if and when we are blown away by a nuclear blast….. You can’t be in a Christian nation and escape the venom intended for Christians and miss ‘going up in smoke with the whole shebang….! This is logic writ ultimately large; so in order to have ‘small-game’logic–that which is good to fit into court cases and personal interactions–you have to adopt SOME parameters of ‘group-think’ to replace the parameters you have thrown over from yr days as a Christian, etc.
    It would begin with an examination of whether or not you ‘believe’ or can assent to the 10 commandments.
    More anon.
    Sincerely, brett barton

  11. I found Spinoza’s quote, “There is nothing the wise person thinks of so little as death” to be so true. My husband, a very wise man, was in his final weeks of life (at the age of 44) when I asked him to help me put together our goals for the next six months. And he looked at me and said, “No, I’d rather look at our goals for the long term, say 10 years.” I was shocked and yet Spinoza’s quote has just put this into perspective for me, albeit 6 years later. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

  12. A wise man is yet a romantic man, or to put it another way, it is at the heart of wisdom to be romantic….
    It is hoped you can go back six years in yr thinking now, and view yr ‘shock’ with a twinge of the ‘romance of it…’!
    And that wisdom comes of even this–that we experience such loss when we didn’t ask for it, or didn’t ‘put in’ for it…
    Thank you for sharing…

    Sincerely, Brett Barton
    (Everett Barton on fcebk…)

  13. At the risk of being bombarded by Atheists…

    Why has religion been blacklisted by so many in philosophy? As far as I was aware: even the Christian version of God cannot be disproved beyond a shadow of a doubt. People who believe in re-incarnation could have a strong desire to accomplish grand feats in life, yet still have little concern about death.

    I am sorry for perhaps bringing up an old and unsolved debate, but it seems that religion deserves some reference when one discusses death.

  14. Point well taken.
    I was ‘in trouble’ in a comment above by mentoning the ‘individuation of the psyche’ which is a pseudo-Jungian rephrasing of re-incarnation….So
    I am not at a loss for HOW one can ascribe to the tenets of Jungian science, while at the same time being a Christian.. It can easily be done; and to engage in atheism is to waste a lot of energy that would be better used ‘mining the depths’ of our own deep past–for starters.
    As I stated earlier–to say more than this under Mr. Mason’s post is not prudent, as it detracts from the sucinctness of his message. So if you want to bat such concepts around more, why, you can reach me at

    Sincerely, Brett Barton

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