Thoughts on death

Monastery Beach, United States

Monastery Beach, United States (, Richard Nolan)

Alexandrine SchniewindAlexandrine Schniewind is Full Professor at the Department of Philosophy of the Faculty of Arts.
Nadine Richon / L’Uniscope
Alexandrine Schniewind, who is a philosophy professor at the UNIL Faculty of Arts, has written a book on the issue of death in the famous book series, Que sais-je ? (What do I know?).

Whatever our background, we can be confident that what matters most when we die is life: not only all of our deeds but also, as Buddhists assert, all of our thoughts and emotions which this philosophy claims will determine our next incarnation for better or for worse. This little book that is simply called La mort (Death) is very enlightening and in fact talks about life. As an expert in ancient philosophy, professor Alexandrine Schniewind very logically opens her book with the question of death for Homer, Sophocles, Socrates, Plato, Epicurus, Seneca, Epictetus and Augustine, who introduced the Christian idea of the resurrection of both the soul and body.

For Socrates, for instance, life is neither more nor less than “caring for one’s soul”, which is understandable since it is immortal. But this “care for the soul” can also be used, according to Epicurus, to live better without fearing death, since the soul will dissolve just like the body. In short, dying is learning to live life to the full without worrying about your last hour on earth. Seneca added that it’s “better for man to learn to die than to kill”. Schniewind stresses that the importance which poets and philosophers in Antiquity attached to thinking about death never stopped them from always preferring life.

By contrast, today we think about the negation of human existence advocated by Islamist terrorism, which violates the ancient ideas of mindfulness of self, but also those of Christian death in the Middle Ages, which aimed to incorporate death into the daily fabric of life, family and through wills in particular. Terrorism gives back to death its appalling character. The medieval world stressed the importance of preparing for it, to feel it coming, and marked sudden death as the sign of a curse. Meanwhile, a hidden death was “like that of a traveller en route or someone who has drowned,” writes Schniewind.

Live well, die well

In two other sections, the book addresses the subject from a contemporary perspective: what does dying look like today in a medical, technological, scientific, political, cultural, psychological and even administrative sense? Again, reading these sections – informed by the most burning issues of our times – allows you to see terrorism in contrast not only to every age-old human practice and every religious rite, but also of course to the newest ideas. For a start, think about the shift in society as stressed by the author: we used to have a religious interest in life after death (eschatology), but are now pondering the question of knowing how we will die. Conversely, terrorists are stuck in the mentality of heaven (for them) and hell (for their victims). In following this path, it’s clear that terrorists appal us because they deny the modern-day battle to: increase life expectancy; fight against child mortality; care for the dying; give back meaning to dying itself; design palliative care which eliminates pain and envisages dying in the calmest possible way; increase the importance of choice and individual freedom at the end of life; prevent suicide among young people; enable loved ones to find life in the deceased by taking care of the body; and support the mourning process etc.

Live well so that you don’t die badly, seek to tame death, curb it, and develop collective efforts around the notion of a “good death”: these are among the many approaches which are presented in a clear and accessible way, in line with the editorial policy of the famous series of books. For Schniewind, this project has given her “the great privilege of being able to deal with death in its most diverse aspects, considering that this is a subject which is as much about society as a whole as it is about each individual person. This will also continue to be a challenge for as long as death is a taboo subject for many people”.

Further reading

La mort (Death). Alexandrine Schniewind, Paris: PUF (2016)

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