In the concluding segment, Mayer suggests there are three ways to prepare for death – denial, gritty determination, and self-reassurance that everything will be all right afterwards. He hypothesizes that mundane virtues which carry us through life may carry us through death as well, and persons with the four cardinal virtues (fortitude, temperance, justice, and wisdom) in life are unlikely to lose them at death. It is childish to mitigate the fear of death with the hope of eternal bliss; the mature person can accept life’s ending as such.

Besides the horrors of damnation make the believer dread death more than the agnostic. He notes Pierre Teilhard de Chardin doubts God would create a useless hell of eternal suffering; rather nonexistence or simple separation from God is more reasonable. Paul Tillich argues there is little scriptural evidence for an afterlife at all. Resurrection seems untenable, but mere spiritual persistence seems too intangible for orthodox Church dogma. In contrast, he reminds us that William James thought we believe in immortality because we believe we are fit for it and deserve it. Science with its pointless view of life and death fails to meet human needs, so. Carl Jung concludes, “As a physician, I think it is hygienic…to discover in death a goal to which one can strive; and that shrinking away from it is something unhealthy and abnormal that robs the second half of life of its purpose. I therefore consider the religious teaching of a life hereafter as consonant with the standpoint of psychic hygiene.” 19

Mayer arrives at last at his synthesis: ‘If Death cannot be cheated, maybe he can be talked into making it a little easy…Nearly everyone is agreed that the best way to die is not to shuffle and lag, but to be hurrying to do something useful (or something else useful), or at least something urgent that preoccupies the putative victim.”20 And if we die of natural causes and not suddenly, we experience one of life’s supreme experiences. Since it cannot be prevented one might as well view it as an opportunity. By suffering the “sense of dying” one learns about “the conduct of life and the demeanor of its close.”21 He offers two examples: Oliver Wendell Holmes who said “To live is to function. That is all there is in living.” and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu “It has all been very interesting.”22 Since we must die, we should practice it in the death of others and by seeing ourselves as dying.

He closes, “We do not know that there are no worse things than dying. We do know that it would be nice to be rid of the blemishes of this life…Death takes us down a peg or two, too, and cuts us and our furnishings to size; probably not a bad thing for most of us, and maybe the best thing that ever happened to us. Who knows?”23

Seneca could not have said it better!


19The Great Ideas Today 1965, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1965. Page 147.


21Ibid., page 148.



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In this section Mayer demonstrates how the negatives of life produce a desire for death. “That living should grow no more perfect with our practice of it – and, unlike in all our other undertakings, be most difficult when we have had the most practice of it – is enough to touch every satisfaction with conscious or unconscious unease, every joy with evanescence.”12 Life is indeed universally seen as difficult, full of sorrows, increasing pains exceeding any pleasure, the grind of labor, and worst perhaps, a weary monotony. He quotes an unnamed university president, “The aim of life is to get through it.”13 Even a life of delight looks forward to one incapable of it. Still nearly all hold on for dear life instinctually so it seems.

Death in his view is the failure of a system of systems, not ultimately natural as proved by unicellular organisms; nonetheless human immortality is “untenantable in no time”14 “It is the prospect of death that gives life its form and meaning.” 15 Time is essential to the movement of our lives; it is within us; we, not time, march on. It isn’t even clear we need more time given our tendency to ‘kill time’ or concede we have ‘spare time.’ Freud considered the death instinct (the need, not the desire, to die) stronger than the life instinct and claimed it as the reason for death’s eventual success. “Death is the only cure for what ails us all.”16


However Mayer recognizes a universal fear of death which he suggests is not in fact the fear of dying, particularly for modern individuals where science eases the suffering of it. And yet we are still afraid. He notes Epictetus thought death was not terrible, only our thoughts about it. Santayana saw a positive in this, “The radical fear of death…is the love of life.”17 Plutarch disagreed seeing the fear of death as just that. Mayer thinks this remains debatable, but we can agree that the source of our dread is our conceptualization of death as eternal night, unimaginable incorporeality and nonsensitivity, and the knowledge one will exist no more. “While I am, reality is. The world began when I was born. It ends when I die. And die I do, and this is unbearable, and I shall bear it.”18

(final continuation next post)


12The Great Ideas Today 1965, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1965. Pages 134.


14Ibid., page 137.


16Ibid., page 139.

17Ibid., page 142.

18Ibid., page 143.

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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


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)


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

11Ibid., page 126

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Mayer believes death has a different meaning for us if we survive it versus if we do not; but this difference is an empirical problem for which we have no empirical evidence at all. There simply are no probabilities either way; we either do or we don’t and even an agnostic view imposes some risk for our understanding on life and death. One’s opinion is in effect an extension of one’s worldview; that is, a sensible universe holds a promise of immortality while a purposeless one does not.  He concludes “Death, and death alone, is at once a totally objective and a totally subjective reality.”5

He then examines various perspectives. Our ancestors hoped for salvation in a then unchallenged matrix of religious belief. In contrast Paul Tillich, the modern Protestant theologian, argues the tragic consequences of truth revealed by science do not justify its denial, transforming the question into whether humanity can find sufficient meaning in a diminished place in the cosmos or will turn to newer ‘theologies’ such as Fascism or Communism. Erich Fromm thinks that psychoanalysis can reconnect us to the unconscious which in turn is associated with religious feelings and frees us from individuation in favor of the All. The great existentialists such as Jean Paul Sartre think each person must seek on their own “freedom-toward-death” and liberation from terror in order to achieve “authentic existence” as an individual.

Instead of modern pessimistic notions of life as absurd we may choose instead to circle back to ancient pre-Christian philosophies of happiness in harmony of the soul, virtue, and the secular ‘blessedness’ touted by Aristotle. If these possibilities are real, then death “even as the end of the ‘biological entity’ may still crown something more than a farce.”6


Man, thinks Mayer, is defined by his burying of the dead – as opposed to our reaction to the deaths of thousands, or millions – but by the seriousness symbolized in the funeral procession. But humans also the only animals to celebrate death, seeking splendor in the deceased through ritual. He quotes Patrick O’Donovan on funeral rites, “It is a gesture made over and over again…a proud, half-conscious assertion that man is not an animal that dies alone in a hole.”7 Moreover he notes a paradox; supernaturalists and naturalists agree on this ‘half-conscious assertion’ – whether one believes in immortality or not, one believes in the ritual; even though neither should logically attach significance although for opposite reasons.

Bereavement is another feature of humanity. As         Freud tells us, we assume a special attitude to the dead, suspending criticism and recalling only that which is favorable to their memory. Freud tells us “consideration for the dead, who no longer need it, is dearer to us than the truth, and certainly for most of us, is dearer also than consideration for the living.”8 This attitude towards death according to Freud impacts our own lives. Life is impoverished and uninteresting when life itself may not be risked, but when death occurs “not one by one, but many at a time…Life has, in truth, become interesting again; it has regained its full significance.”9

(further continued next post)


5The Great Ideas Today 1965, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1965. Pages 113

6Ibid., page 115

7Ibid., page 116

8Ibid., page 117


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“Immortality is the hinge on which death hangs. – Milton Mayer.1



Several years ago my wife gave me The Great Books series as a birthday gift, and shortly thereafter I was at a local charity’s fundraising book fair where a collection of the annual updates, The Great Ideas Today (1961-1993), was for sale for $1.00 per volume. These precious books offer an immense amount of traditional and contemporary writing filling over 10,000 pages, including this 40-page essay in the 1965 issue.

Milton Mayer (1908-1986) was a journalist by trade, reporting on executions, murder and suicides in Chicago. By age 30 he was teaching at the University of Chicago and by 1965 was a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts. He claimed “in all modesty to know as much about death as any man alive.”2 While I cannot confirm the validity of that statement, his thoughts seemed worth a few hours of reading and three or four blogs.

He divides his essay into eight parts: an introduction, Immortality, Bury the Dead, The Undiscovered Country, The Love of Life, The Love of Death. The Fear of Death, and How to Die.

Is your interest piqued yet?


He starts, “Death is the one idea that has no history…Only death stands unmoved by man’s relentless compulsion to know.”3 In fact, he believes we don’t even know what death is other than as the negation of the idea of life and as such “an irremediable deprivation, possessed of no trace of existential reality”4 There is no report of the experience of death, but he thinks poets understand it best. Three aspects of modernity impact contemporary thinking on death – longevity, secularization, and total war. On the one hand, we may be able to extend life with science, however we remain certain death cannot be prevented. The demise of religion is likewise the downfall of the afterlife, and as such humanity turns from God’s work of ‘Life and Death’ to man’s work of ‘A Better Life.’ In opposition are recent historical events such as the carnage of the first World War, the mass exterminations in Nazi concentration camps, and the annihilation of entire human populations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki – events which suggest that death instead is the work of humanity and deprive it of individuality. In the end, death, and so life, are seen as absurd leaving only the futile hope of  a modicum of dignity in our dying.

(continued next post)


1The Great Ideas Today 1965, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1965. Pages 113.

2Ibid., page 109

3Ibid., page 107


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CURRENT READING – Fallen Leaves by Will Durant (final continuation)


After a lifetime of study Durant concludes the only consistent idea of beauty in nature and for humans is the opposite sex. He also admits to a bias in favor of or art prior to the twentieth century. His distaste of modern art is its revolt against beauty where his criticism is severe, “Any art that has no ruling form is the empty vanity of an undisciplined mind “31 He believes “the essence of art, as of beauty, lies not in content or elements but in structure and form.”32 He does however appreciates modern architecture where he agrees with Louis Sullivan that “form must follow function.” As for the place of art versus science in civilization he adds “Art without science is poverty and science without art is barbarity. Let every science strive to fulfill itself in beauty or wisdom, and let us rejoice when a science becomes an art.”33


Durant appears to have a great respect for science and its accomplishments, its commitment to the advancement of human knowledge. However, he has some concerns. As a lay person, he sees scientists, whose specialized knowledge is seemingly inscrutable for most of us, as the new priesthood. We must accept their pronouncements on faith, and like religion in the past, science is used as such by government. He honors their discipline in truth-seeking, but expresses skepticism as to its uses citing the examples of the machines of war and the pollution of industrialization. He argues for the need of wisdom in addition to knowledge.


He distills his theory of education to the following points: (1) “That education is of most worth which opens to the body and the soul, to the citizen and the state, the fullest possibilities of their harmonious life.”34 and (2) Education is the perfection of life – the enrichment of the individual by the heritage of the race.”35 He thus believes that a rounded education should emphasize health, cleanliness, character, and self-discipline – all of which he would teach each of the first 15 years of schooling. He would put more emphasis on human association, especially friendship and on Nature, and athletics. He would focus historical studies on the remarkable cultures and literature of ancient Greece and Rome. He would limit education on art and music to those who show interest, but of course believes everyone needs education on science, history, and philosophy. He would delay specialized training until after college.


Durant has written so much on history that I believe only some choice pearls are appropriate here. The reader should consult the book for more details.

“The present is merely the past rolled up and concentrated in this second of time”36

“A wise man can learn from other men’s experience; a fool cannot learn even from his own.”37

“History finds that human nature is essentially the same…”38

“Civilization is a fragile bungalow precariously poised on a live volcano of barbarism”39


While On Death is the fifth of the 22 chapters, thoughts on death are logically the ultimate ones so I end here. What does a man whose life was devoted to the understanding of human existence and civilization think of his own death? I allow him to speak for himself:

“I am quite content with mortality; I should be appalled at the thought of living forever, in whatever paradise. As  I move on into my nineties my ambitions moderate, my zest in life wanes; soon I shall echo Caesar’s Jam satis vixi – ‘I have already lived enough.’ When death comes in due time, after a life fully lived, it is forgivable and good. If in my last gasps I say anything contrary to this bravado, pay no attention to me. We must make room for our children.”40


31Durant, Will, Fallen Leaves. Simon & Schuster, New York, N.Y., 2014. ISBN 978-1-4767-7155-7, page 129.

32Ibid., page 130.

33Ibid., page 131.

34Ibid., page 139.


36Ibid., page 157.

37Ibid., page 158.

38Ibid., page 159.

39Ibid., page 161.

40Ibid., page 39.

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CURRENT READING – Fallen Leaves by Will Durant (further continued)

In the last two posts I extracted some key metaphysical conclusions offered by Will Durant in his final book, Fallen Leaves. We move now to his thoughts on morality, a term he seems to prefer over the word ‘ethics.’ In chapter 10 he contrasts Webster’s definition of morality as “the quality of that which conforms to right ideas or principles of human conduct” with his own as “the consistency of private conduct with public interest as understood by the group.”14  He enumerates a surprisingly conventional Christian list of morals including chastity before marriage, fidelity within marriage, extensive charity, and peaceful opposition to all but the most clearly defensive war (he cites WWII as the exception). He is realistic on extra-marital sex, believing society should encourage younger marriages, but he also thinks childbearing should be voluntarily limited to three per couple.

In addition to societal mores, Durant tells us natural morality requires intelligence and sympathy (citing David Hume and Adam Smith). Intelligence allows us to see that some instincts must be suppressed. Morality can be taught and understood by showing the young that a stable society assures personal security, advancement, and fulfillment. As a result, he is a proponent of law and order, but thinks peaceful protest is fine if one accepts the legal consequences. In chapter 12 he expresses his antiracist philosophy that “…all men are brothers and that mutual tolerance is the price of liberty.”15 He thinks the solution to racial inequality is extended and expanded education, and believes we “owe it to conscience and justice that every person – irrespective of their race – has full and equal opportunity to enter into the promise of American life.”16

In his chapter On Science, he explains the limits of science in perfecting human behavior. In addition to knowledge we need character and wisdom. He defines character as “a rational harmony and hierarchy of desires in coordination with capacity. He defines wisdom as “an application of experience to present problems, a view of the part in the light of the whole. A perspective of the movement in the vista of the years past and years to come.” 17

When he jumps to the international realm he notes that morality is a habit of order generated by centuries of compulsion, thus international morality must wait on international order which in turn requires an international force – “conscience follows the policeman.”18 Peace then must be planned and ordered preferably by a specially appointed international commission with realistic goals, not designs on utopia.

(third continuation next post)


14 Durant, Will, Fallen Leaves. Simon & Schuster, New York, N.Y., 2014. ISBN 978-1-4767-7155-7, page 66.

15Ibid., page 76.

16Ibid., page 80.

17Ibid., page 136.

18Ibid., page 97.

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CURRENT READING – Fallen Leaves by Will Durant (continued)

Last time I introduced Will Durant’s final book, Fallen Leaves, and discussed his metaphysical views from Chapter 6 regarding the soul. In that same chapter, he also addresses determinism which he rejects since it “would make consciousness a superfluous encumbrance, and I doubt if so remarkable a development would have persisted if it had no value for survival. Part of its value is that it can serve as a rehearsal stage for testing diverse possible responses to a situation…”9 He admits determinism seems irrefutable based on logic alone, but thinks it fails at the level of a Shakespearean play where “its distant cause and explanation in some gaseous primeval nebula…is harder to believe than any medieval miracle story.”10 He believes the escape from the reduction of the universe to purely mechanistic rests in a ‘power of spontaneity’ in nature, manifest in humans as the ‘procreant urge’ of the soul. For humans this freedom is facilitated by the world’s ‘conflicting vitalities and wills’ of which the ‘laws’ of mechanics, in his opinion, may be an approximate average as is implied in physics by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.

In the next chapter Durant discusses God. He admits outright that he is a theological skeptic arguing any evidence for order and design in the universe is countered with contrary evidence of disorderly randomness and design flaws. In addition, the abundance of undeserved suffering undermines belief in an all-powerful and benevolent deity. He proposes an alternative theology based on our understanding of evolution wherein life, not matter, is the essential comic process. “Life itself can be the new God…this is the God I worship: the persistent and creative Life that struggles up from the energy of the atom… This is a very old philosophy; otherwise I would distrust it.”11 He also tells us we should not be surprised that this God is not personal as personality belongs only to parts of creation, not the creative force itself.

In this and the next three chapters, Durant synthesizes his religious principles on a Christian foundation. He deeply admires the personality and ethics of Christ, and thinks the story of Christ is the ‘best ever,’ and thus remains committed to behave like a Christian. He distinguishes this from his Catholic upbringing, although he finds much of the teaching of the Church makes great sense metaphorically, for example, original sin as symbolic of man’s base instincts of greed and pugnacity. He concludes that while in our time of general disbelief, religion is moving to “the sincere acceptance of the moral ideas of Christ,”12 viewed historically, “the Church can make an impressive case for itself as an indispensable bulwark of morality.” 13

(further continued next post)


9 Durant, Will, Fallen Leaves. Simon & Schuster, New York, N.Y., 2014. ISBN 978-1-4767-7155-7, page 36.

10Ibid., page 37.

11Ibid., page 43-44.

13Ibid., page 54.

13Ibid., page 66.

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CURRENT READING – Fallen Leaves by Will Durant

“I propose to tell, in a very informal way…how I feel, now that I have one foot in the grave, about those ultimate riddles…” – Will Durant.1






For Christmas, my daughter and son-in-law gave me this priceless book written by Will Durant (1885-1981) in the last years of his life. The first philosophy book I ever read was Durant’s The Pleasures of Philosophy (1952) which served as an introductory ‘text’ in my junior high school course on the humanities. Over the subsequent 47 years I have acquired nearly all of his books including Philosophy and the Social Problem, The Story of Philosophy, Transition, his 11 volume The Story of Civilization  (several co-authored with his wife, Ariel), The Lessons of History, Interpretations of Life, A Dual Autobiography (also written with Ariel), and The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time. I previously summarized and commented on his 1932 book, The Meaning of Life on this site.2 Much of Durant’s personal philosophy is suggested in these earlier works, but what makes Fallen Leaves (written 1968-1978) so special is that it clarifies his mature beliefs in the context of approaching death. As with Bryan Magee’s Ultimate Questions,3 this manuscript offers us the rare opportunity to hear the concluding thoughts of an acknowledged master of philosophy, and in Durant’s case, history as well.       

The book consists of 22 chapters. The first five chapters offer the characteristically beautiful prose of Durant on birth, youth, middle age, old age, and death without taking on specific philosophical questions. However, the sixth chapter, On Souls, addresses some of the most troublesome questions in metaphysics. He tells us that despite ubiquitous houses of worship, we cannot know whether there is anything beyond death. He appears to doubt Kant’s assertion that we cannot know ‘the thing-in-itself’ and Schopenhauer’s belief that the world is “my idea.” In his view our perceptions of the world are instantiated in its reality.

Durant believes mind is not matter, as the pure materialist claims, since it does not occupy space. And, unlike Hume, he believes the self is real: “In addition to that succession of mental states there is, by the direct witness of introspection, a sense of continuity and personality constituting ‘the self’…” Durant is convinced the subconscious is in fact the  psychological ‘self.’ He continues: “…dormant recollections are part of the self and the soul; consciousness is not all of the soul, but only the soul’s supreme achievement.”5  Nonetheless the soul is distinct from the mind being “an inner directive and energizing force in every body…closely associated with breath.”6 For Durant the soul consists of “not merely sensations and ideas, but desire, will, ambition, and pride…” 7

However he does not expect the soul to survive death. In his words:

“Death is the breakup of the human soul – i.e. of the life-giving, form-molding force – of an organism into those partial souls that animate individual parts of the body; so these lesser souls can for a time continue the growth of hair and nails on a corpse. And when the corpse completely disintegrates there will be souls or inner energizing powers, even in the ‘inorganic’ fragments that remain. But my soul as me is bound up with my organized and centrally directed body, and with my individual memories, desires, and character; it must suffer disintegration as my body decays.”8

(continued next post)


1Durant, Will, Fallen Leaves. Simon & Schuster, New York, N.Y., 2014. ISBN 978-1-4767-7155-7, page 1.

2See posts titled Current Reading – On the Meaning of Life, Parts I and II dated 1/13/21, 1/15/21, and 1/18/21 on this website.

3See posts titled Current Reading –Bryan Magee dated 9/27/21, 9/29/21, 10/1/21, 10/4/21, and 10/6,/21 on this website.

4 Durant, Will, Fallen Leaves. Simon & Schuster, New York, N.Y., 2014. ISBN 978-1-4767-7155-7, page 35.



7Ibid., page 36

8Ibid.,page 38.

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CURRENT READING – Bryan Magee (final continuation)

In the last five posts, I reviewed Bryan Magee’s final publication, Ultimate Questions, purportedly his only attempt at original philosophy, and a book he hoped might justify his place among the greats such as Locke, Hume, or Kant. Below is a list of the main points I extracted from my reading arranged in logical order rather than in the sequence found in the book.

1.  Reality is only partially accessible and understandable to humans because our sensory apparatus is limited to that necessary for our evolution.

2.   In spite of all humans have learned and will learn in the future, we cannot know or understand everything.

3.   Direct experience of reality is more genuine than concepts related through language.

4.   To the extent we can understanding the nature of things it is found partly within and partly without, thus accessible through philosophy, and art as well as science.

5.   God and religion are unacceptable explanations of the unknown especially since they impede further truth-seeking.

6.   We can be certain of some things, but not know why (e.g we ought not torture children).

7.   For most things, certainty is impossible, so we should remain generally agnostic, and pursue progress in understanding, rather than proof. 

8.   Anything, even things we find inconceivable, may exist.

9.   Morality may be grounded on the inner connectedness of human beings.

10.  We exist involuntarily in a universe that is mysterious to us and the challenge of living is to live out our lives without understanding everything while remaining aware of our ignorance.

11.  Existence and consciousness are miraculous and inexplicable but thrilling.

12.  We can never know the thing-in-itself, thus the empirical world is subjective and while at death it may be we enter the nuomenal world, it is more likely we lapse into nothingness along with our unique empirical world.

Magee’s personal philosophy seems to me a mix of Kantian metaphysics and Kierkegaardian and Heideggerian existentialism. As with the Roman stoics, his thoughts appear not so much original as syncretic. To me, he is, with Mortimer Adler, Will Durant, and Walter Kaufmann, one of the four great 20th century scholar-philosophers who encapsulate and elucidate the thoughts of the greatest philosophers and thinkers of the Western tradition while introducing new perspectives and ideas within the schools they explore. Therein they offer a greatness and originality of a type different from their subjects, but arguably as vital to our modern understanding of the progress of philosophy and its place in our lives.

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