CURRENT READING – ON DEATH by MILTON MAYER – PART III

THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY

In this section, Mayer grasps at a hodgepodge of items in trying to understand death. He notes all people want to live on in some way, through their children, the memories of friends, or fame. In fact they will die to feel they will live on in these ways. Fame is problematic however; by how many people and for how long? It is uncertain both in occurrence and value, and worst of all, one gets no enjoyment of it after death. Also infamy may be more enduring: “There is more immortality in burning Rome than in saving it.”10

Supposed communication with the deceased and stories of ghosts offer limited evidence of survival of the dead, though a surprising number of people believe in them even in our time. Some think life can be extended through frozen storage though there are few healthy takers. Physicians tell us dying is at last easy – similar to falling asleep – often preceded by a willingness to die. Still there is no returning, so falling asleep every night is no practice at all, and everyone is a novice in dying.

There are two kinds of mysteries in this world – the Unknown and the Unknowable – and death seems to be the latter. However we are reasonably sure being dead entails no physical pain or pleasure. In the absence of resurrection, death should be “eternal rest.” Still most of us would delay death even for a day. Death we know is also the end of all change. He ends with a paradox; life is most devalued in societies with the greatest levels of comfort – perhaps we are bored to death by luxury. But if we risk life we should know “the value of the end and the choice of the means”11

 THE LOVE OF LIFE

In a secular world, life should be dearer given its brevity and the disavowal of an afterlife. Still life requires an objective valuation, presumably based on its meaning or one’s happiness.  Mayer notes this merely pushes back the appraisal to what makes life meaningful or happy. A separate calculus  assesses the value of another person’s life versus that of our own. In this vein we come across a paradox; we are all unavoidably killers (through commission or omission), but we go to great length to deny it. Perhaps this explains sanctions against euthanasia and suicide.

Then there is the matter of the value of the life of an old individual compared to that of a young one. Older people have no less desire to continue to exist while young people are so unconcerned about distant death that comparative valuation is moot – rather life simply bubbles forth in the young. It is not until perhaps age 45 that the reality of death sinks in and life is consciously valued. Nonetheless while life expectancy has increased over time, prolongation comes at increasing cost with advancing age. Moreover the human life span seems fixed, and the rapid speed of human progress has diminished the value of the wisdom of the elderly due to unavoidable obsolescence.

(concluded next post)

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10The Great Ideas Today 1965, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1965. Pages 121.

11Ibid., page 126

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