Close Encounters of the Cancer Kind: Is Philosophy a Preparation for Death?

There is nothing like a diagnosis of stage four inoperable lung cancer with bone metastases to give one a shock. I have known since I took logic as a young man that “Human beings are mortal. Socrates is a human being. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” However, I was not Socrates, and as far as I was concerned that syllogism was just an example of a valid argument. However, when you put your own name in place of “Socrates” things look very different. Now I am an oldish philosopher (67), and suddenly the real possibility of my own death in the fairly near future has become a reality. Mortality approaches.

I know that philosophers concern themselves mostly with abstract and very general questions in epistemology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, etc.. By and large they do not approach philosophical questions from a personal perspective. Even death can be approached as an intellectual or conceptual problem. However, when Santa gave me my cancer diagnosis for Christmas 2011, abstract philosophy and my personal experience unavoidably came together. I now wonder if I can write in a very personal way about the universal truth that we are all going to die, what this means, and if there is anything of general import that I can express about what is happening in my own case. This breaks some common views of what philosophy is, but I do not have time to care about that now. So I am addressing you from a personal perspective, from my frame of life, and I ask your indulgence.

Let me state my tentative conclusion at the start. I do feel that having studied philosophy seriously for 46 years allowed me to keep my calm when the doctor gave me my diagnosis after a routine CT scan. For a second, I sat there feeling nothing at all. However, the next thought that came to me was gratitude for the life I have lived. Maybe other people do not feel this. Kubler Ross famously discusses five stages of grief and loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I seemed to skip the first four. This is not to say that I instantly reached acceptance, but I did come first to gratitude. Now, after six months of living with lung cancer, I am trying to understand what acceptance of death may amount to.

Each of us can only judge and describe the world from our own time frame. If I had been much younger, my response to the diagnosis might have conformed more to Dr. Ross’s formula. The world looks very differently at different stages of life. Nevertheless, how one has looked, thought, and felt about life and death throughout one’s life has to make a difference at the end. In my case, the lens through which I have considered life has always been philosophical. Snatches of philosophical thoughts have lodged in my mind since I was was young. These are like seeds that took root deep in my mind and have matured and grown over the years. Now I feel that they are bearing fruit, helping me to live a new and deeper life. One nugget stands out to complete this first meditation on life and death.

Plato’s famously stated that “Philosophy is a preparation for death.” The Greek word that Plato uses for ‘preparation’ is ‘Melete’ and the root meaning is ‘care’ or ‘attention’. It can also mean ‘meditation,’ ‘practice’ or ‘exercise’. So are philosophers supposed to ‘practice’ dying, or simply to recollect the fact of mortality as they live their lives? What difference will that make?

I confess a great love of Plato and his amazing Socrates. However, I cannot go along with his tentative conclusions. We know what Socrates argues in the Phaedo. The reason that practicing philosophy is a preparation for death is that Socrates believes that the soul and the body are separable, that the soul is immortal, and that a very different after-life awaits those who have lived a good or evil life. Therefore, it behooves us to separate our own soul from our body as much as possible while we live and to detach ourselves from the preoccupations of mundane life.

The reason that I admire Socrates in the Phaedo is that after giving his ‘proofs’ of the immortality of the soul, he has the greatness to admit that his arguments are only the reasons he personally accepts to advance his position. He does not claim that they absolutely prove the soul is immortal. It is a postulate of Socrates’ practical metaphysics. In fact, he says that if he is wrong, and death is total extinction, then he will never know he is wrong, and his folly will be buried with him.

So in what sense can the study of philosophy be a preparation for death if one does not accept metaphysical dualism? I do not accept any such thing, but I still feel that my study of philosophy has helped me prepare for my present state. Does this mean that the study of any topic in philosophy will have this effect? I do not think so. I am not at all sure that one would prepare for death very well by spending 40 years working in the salt-mines of post-Gettier epistemology, nor in picking over all he convoluted arguments in mereology and inductive logic.

To see how the study of philosophy might be of value in preparing to die, we have to go back to the root meaning of ‘philosophy’ as the ‘love of wisdom’. Wisdom is not a topic that comes up very much in contemporary philosophy. It was more to the fore in the ancient world, where wisdom, ethics, and the question of living a good human life were brought together in a philosophical approach to living. For me, loving wisdom has to do with taking up the largest possible perspective in which to live one’s life, going all the way back to the Big Bang, including all of space and time, the natural history of the universe, the geology of the earth, and the total history of animals and human beings on this planet spinning through a gigantic universe. It covers all the natural cycles of life and death and sees everything as part of this comprehensive whole. Somehow, living in this context has helped me see life and death as part of a seamless process. Death shadows life as naturally as the shadow one casts on the ground on a sunny day. There is no point in denying it, and no point in worrying about it. Perhaps acceptance lies in this direction.

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  1. swallerstein (amos)


    Thanks for your generosity in sharing what you are going through with us.

    I admire your courage in facing what you are facing.

    Is there something that we (readers of your blog) can do to help?

  2. Dear Jeff – Just wanted to echo Amos’s thoughts. If there is anything we can do, let us know.

  3. I’ve got very sceptical of people claiming that philosophy makes people wiser etc etc. in this case, it is really heartening to see that a life spent on philosophy really can help, if the person truly lives philosophically. You’re an inspiration Jeff. I only wish circumstances had meant no-one need ever have known just how much you walk the talk.

  4. It is difficult to assess what difference one’s pursuit of a career in philosophy has made to how one faces death, as one does not get to compare one’s actual self with some other possible self that took a different course in life. But I find it difficult to believe that the choice of professional pursuit makes much difference. It seems to me far more likely that one’s choice of professional pursuit is at most an indicator of one’s fundamental attitude toward life. Surely it is this attitude, not the professional career itself, that makes the difference.

    It seems to me plain that the vast majority of the concerns of philosophy as a professional academic practice–such things as “the salt-mines of post-Gettier epistemology” and “convoluted arguments in mereology and inductive logic,” for example–have nothing to do with facing death, and only the most tenuous and remote connection with wisdom. I do not consider this to be any fault of philosophy or of philosophers. But it seems to me that anyone who imagines that the study of philosophy will allow him or her to face death with less terror, anguish, and regret than other people will be in for a nasty disappointment.

    A few years ago, a fellow who had been my best friend for most of my life was found to have brain cancer; two summers after that discovery, he died, aged 51. He had studied philosophy as his undergraduate major and at one point intended to pursue an academic career in the field. In the event, he did not do so, while I did. I am pretty sure that he was acquainted with the Phaedo but did not derive any more consolation from it than I do.

    By the way, while Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s list of stages of facing death has enjoyed the good fortune to gain widespread circulation in popular culture (what is now fashionably called a “meme”), it little if any scientific basis. Some debunking of it may be found here.

  5. Thank you for your thought provoking article. Metaphysical dualism clearly has had a role in creating the illusion of “cheating death”, but I think it does more. By making us consider what may come after, we are able to stand back and look objectively at the very personal experience of our own mortality. I think Jeff is right in taking the view of looking at our existence as part of something far greater. We are today (in Western society at least) highly individualistic in our outlook and find it very difficult to consider larger collectives as being more important than ourselves. I do not know how I would react in these circumstances, Jeff, and perhaps won’t be able to before I am eventually brought to face my own mortality. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  6. Having had stage 4 cancer myself and 10 years ago at that, I found a disturbing amount of humor in this same realization – there were a couple of take aways.

    1. Learn to be less fearful –

    2. Don’t be an unmitigated a**hole –

  7. Dennis Sceviour

    Jeff tackles the problem of Socrates and the immortality of the soul! In the Republic, Socrates had said that immortality of the soul was easy to prove, but in the Phaedo he had great difficulty.

    Before the Greeks, some Mediterranean populations such as the Egyptians believed in physical immortality. They mummified the dead and entombed them in structures such as pyramids. The early Greeks challenged this view. They believed that the mind and soul are one; thus, only what is learned could be made immortal. All matter was moved by the immortal mind of a deceased Greek; for example, Apollo pulled the sun.

    How do I see death? I agree when Jeff says he does “not accept any such thing” as metaphysical dualism. Life is an ever-changing stream, and it carries death along with it. I cannot see death being a static unchanging eternity, but a part of the dynamics of the known and unknown universe. Life and death is too dynamic for time to stand still. The love of wisdom can sometimes be an illusion for seeking timelessness and unchanging eternity.

  8. That’s not good. I’m really sorry to hear about that, Jeff.

    It feels strange to give a philosophy post under these circumstances. But I’ll do it anyway, in part because I agree with you — I think there is something to the idea that philosophy is preparation for the end.

    Epicurus argued that we should not fear death because death was nothing to the dead. To fear the state of non-being after you have died is as unreasonable as fearing the state of non-being before your birth.

    The best way to refute Epicurus’s treatment of death would be to say that he has missed the point. People aren’t afraid of death, but of dying.

    Epicurus might then ask why we ought to care about dying. Suppose we admit that death ought to mean nothing to us. In that case, he might argue that if we care about dying simply because it is connected with death, then dying should mean nothing to us, either. If that’s true, then it looks as though it follows that if dying has any significance, that significance has nothing to do with dying’s relation to death.

    One possibility is that dying matters because it is about life. (What else would it be about?) Dying is a last opportunity for reflection on what matters in life; to prepare for dying is to seize that opportunity. So to the extent that philosophy is the study of what matters, philosophy can’t help but be involved in the preparation for dying.

    While some philosophy can be a preparation for dying, not all philosophy must be a preparation for dying. For if all philosophy were a preparation for dying, then dying would be the upshot of all that matters in life. That would be like saying that the point of the game is the final score. It’s the other way around — the point of the final score is that it tells us about the game.

  9. Facing Death with Philosophy - pingback on June 3, 2012 at 11:19 am
  10. On Death « Episyllogism: Phil & Lit - pingback on June 3, 2012 at 2:14 pm
  11. Jeff,
    Sorry to hear about your diagnosis.

    When I teach the Crito to my students, I always say “Socrates has been sentenced to death and believes he will soon be dead, so what does he do? Philosophy, of course.”

    Socrates, I am sure, would be pleased to know that this tradition of courage has continued.

    Still, it is a hell of a thing.

  12. “For me, loving wisdom has to do with taking up the largest possible perspective in which to live one’s life, going all the way back to the Big Bang, including all of space and time, the natural history of the universe, the geology of the earth, and the total history of animals and human beings on this planet spinning through a gigantic universe. It covers all the natural cycles of life and death and sees everything as part of this comprehensive whole. Somehow, living in this context has helped me see life and death as part of a seamless process.

    I, too, think that acceptance lies in this direction.

    When we think of ourselves as isolated and somehow separate from the rest of what exists, then the prospect of death is one of complete loss.

    However, when we see ourselves as inextricably connected with and not truly separate from the rest of reality, “including all of space and time”, the perspective is much different.

  13. Thank you for this, Jeff. If I’m reading you right, it sounds like there’s acceptance in seeing death as another part of the universal, natural whole. You mention the ancients, and you do sound stoic. Maybe there’s room for Montaigne in here too: ‘He who would teach men to die would teach them to live’.

  14. I was lucky..eventually the diagnosis was (against the odds it has to be said) ‘almost 100% chance of complete cure’

    But until then I must say I went through a similar set of internal mental shenanigans.

    I think what helped me WAS the philosophy. And also being exposed to death and the ideas of my own mortality quite early in life.

    In short if you have developed a worldview that looks at life from afar and dispassionately, its end is simply one more element.

    I think also I can say that there comes a point where death is a welcome release from the complications worries and stresses of having to deal with life: In the end, one tires.

    Conversely a close brush with death strips away all the dross of life: so much simply is not worth bothering about.

    Jeff: what can one say but feel the warmth and support – not to change your destination, but to help the passage to it. In the end, Peter Pan has always been my guide:

    “To die, must be an Awfully Big Adventure”.

  15. As for the five stages of grief and loss… There is no definitive pattern from which humans should experience completely the five stages. Based on my practice as a nurse, there are some people who actually experience each of the five stages in jumbled orders. Meaning, one of them can come earlier or later than the others. Based on that premise, I would have said that you are just undergoing a different phase at the moment and that you will go through the others later.

    However, I think you’re an exception. Study of Philosophy is an endeavor that enables an individual to procure reason as justification. It’s a study that gives any person a capacity to approach anything in a macro-perspective.

    You’re totally thinking out of the box, which is why you had accepted and understood.

    I adore the courage of your soul. Its robust quality convinces me that, indeed, immortality to the soul is inherent. You lived to prove just that.

    If there’s anything I can do to help you, don’t hesitate to give us all (your commenters and readers) a buzz. :cry:

  16. Glenn Costello

    I am currently being treated for a rare cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma, having survived stage 3 non-hodgins lymphoma 10 years ago. Mortality is a topic much on my mind and I thank you for sharing these thoughts.

  17. » Is Philosophy a Preparation for Death? Weblog - pingback on June 11, 2012 at 4:33 am
  18. …a preparation for death…
    When I first heard that phrase it struck me as being almost right. My experience of the exploration of philosophy has been that I drifted more toward thinking of meanings than of endings. We are ‘becoming’, partially under our own influence, and then we will be becoming without our influence- all in a medium of people and culture and material remnants. What will I mean when my own motive force has passed? How will I have altered the trajectory of human history?

    When I speak a thought there is a moment of uncertainty while the sentence unfolds. The sentence is spent and ‘dies’. Then it works its way with those who heard it. That is when we really find out what it meant.

    We are like that. We can’t know in this life what we really meant. To me that means philosophers must learn a kind of faith whether they believe in a deity or not. Few could hope for an afterlife of greater significance than that of Socrates.

  19. Exactly nine months ago I was diagnosed with HIV. Granted, its not as severe as cancer but Being only 21 years of age, I was very much afraid. But the diagnosis made me ponder a lot about death and somehow I figured that since it was inevitable the best thing to do would be to accept it as quickly as possible. So I did – to some extent – accept death. But I was only able to do so by believing that afterwards something else would follow. Another life. That belief changed my entire perspective on death. From a scary moment to an important event. Now, I’m not very philosophical about it…I’m just sayin’ that if you believe that death is a bridge that connects both realities then it could become easier to accept it. At least, that works for me. And honestly- i do not feel you should spend so much time pondering about the nature of death itself. Instead, ponder about what you have learned from your life and about what sort of individual you have become – the greater significance lies there.

  20. Jeff,

    We lost touch many moons ago, so it is very sad to have finally caught up with you thanks to the internet in these difficult circumstances.

    I still have very fond memories of those mediaeval readings of great texts that we did with students in our own time back in the 70s.

    Know that I’m thinking of you with great affection.

  21. Just a note to Jeff’s readers that he died of lung cancer yesterday (August 21, 2102.)

  22. Terribly sorry to hear that, Merrill.

    I met Jeff a few times. Always great company.

  23. We’ll miss his meditations, humor and wisdom.

    My condolences.

  24. I did not know him outside of this post but I appreciated his wise words. A good man. My condolences to his friends and loved ones.

  25. I was so sad to hear of Jeff’s passing and all my thoughts are with you Jane, Jen and Ben at this very difficult time. We will miss Jeff’s visits to Ireland but he will not be forgotten. He was a teacher of many things to my family, he taught my eldest brother how to play Go and my other brother poker which kept him going throughout his own illness. Jeff was an inspiration to my family and a long time friend. Until we meet again……. Love Nikki Podmore and family.

  26. Sad news indeed.

    Jeff was an inspirational teacher and a good friend to those that knew him.

    His death comes as a shock.

    My thoughts go out to his family and friends.

  27. That is terrible news. While I never met Jeff, I certainly appreciate his writings and respect his courage in the face of his illness.

  28. A video of Jeff talking on life, death and cancer can be found here:

    All his blog ‘meditations’ can be found

  29. Hello Jim:

    Thanks for posting this.

    By the way, I’ve wondered where you are and what you are up to.

    I hope that all is fine with you.

  30. Hello Amos,

    I disconnected from the internet – and indeed philosophy – some months ago and have only occasionally, and briefly, popped online to see what Jeremy is twitteriong about and take a glance at some of the postings here. I’ve resisted the urge to get drawn into conversations though and have been spending damn near all the hours of daylight working away in gardens.

    I’d read Jeff’s post when it came out but have only very recently learnt the sad news of his passing. I just wanted to stop by and flag up these small parts of what he left behind.

    Whether, with the winter drawing in, I’ll make further appearances in the comments section I don’t know. I have, of late, had some notion to write and converse on matters philosophical again but it may be an urge best resisted – there seems something to be said for the unexamining life in my case (though it might be self-defeating to try saying it).

    In any case, I’m happy to find you here and hope I find you well. All is relatively fine, thank you.

    best wishes, as always,


  31. Hello James,

    So good to have news from you.

    I’ve been less directly involved in philosophy per se myself lately.

    It seems that the model or paradigm of politics which was constituted or came into being after the Pinochet dictatorship, that is, a bit of over 20 years ago, is evaporating.

    Once again, politics and what kind of society we want is being discussed fairly openly in Chile.

    About 15 years ago, I gave up on politics, because the dogmatic and falsely reasonable consensus made anyone who asked questions feel like a Martian.

    It seems that now questions are, if not welcomed, at least acceptable once again, and so I’m back pestering the political circles that I move in with questions.

    I’m not sure how long this social space in which I play my question instrument will last, but I’m having a good time.

    Best, Amos

  32. Good to hear from you too Amos, glad you’re enjoying life and still busy thinking and discussing things that matter. I’ll catch you here again at some point, best J

  33. Jim:

    Bothering those who know and who are reasonable and who are sure of themselves with questions is one of the few pleasures I count on, besides that of a cold beer on a hot day.

    Take good care of yourself, Amos

  34. Jeff

    Purely by chance (names pop into your head) I decided to Google Steven Burns and have sent email, reminding him if same of Birkbeck, LLoyd Reinhardts house, etc. This led me on to yourself, Youtube etc and finally a means of contact. Can you send me an email address so that I can contact you directly.

    best wishes Alan

  35. Wittgenstein on death | - pingback on August 6, 2013 at 12:38 am
  36. Close encounters of the cancer kind – - pingback on January 11, 2015 at 12:26 am

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