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The Philosophical Origins of Existential "Death Anxiety"

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"This spiritual life, in the end it is not a choice, it’s what’s left when you run out of choices. If when you’re in a crowded room you automatically find yourself thinking ‘all of us in this room will die. Someone will be the first to die, and someone the last to die, but there is an order,’ then gloomily ponder what the order might be, I suggest that you are already excluded from material solutions to the spiritual problem of being alive."
(Russel Brand, Comedian)

 

 
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"After about thirty years of creative activity which included some work in chemistry, Newton became depressed and suffered a nervous breakdown. He left Cambridge University to become Warden of the British Mint in 1696 and thereafter confined his scientific activities to the investigation of an occasional problem. He did, however, devote himself to theological studies, which he regarded as more fundamental than science and mathematics because the latter disciplines concerned only the physical world ...An example of his theological writing is The Chronology of the Ancient Kings Amended, in which he sought to determine the dates of Biblical events by utilizing astronomical facts mentioned in connection with these events." (Mathematics for the Non-Mathematician)

 
I've seen this a lot. Someone experiences an "existential meltdown" / a nervous or mental breakdown and they are suddenly deep into (usually mystical) philosophy. Behind the scenes is an intense focus on death, which the Russel Brand quote captures well. Apart from comedians, it happens to successful businessmen, athletes, friends, anyone. Why is it usually mystical philosophy that is pursued? Because God is Dead:
 
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"God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?" (Nietzsche)

 

God is dead. And philosophies that are mystical offer comfort, if you can buy into their premises. A more naturalistic, this-worldly-only philosophy like Objectivism is rare, but it would also be a much more potentially bitter pill to swallow at first—because what if it's too late? what if you can't make meaning?

Of course everyone's answer to this experience varies, but the experience usually prefigures significant psychological change.
 
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"Ebenezer Scrooge, the grasping, isolated, mean-spirited old man in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Yet something happened to Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of the story—a remarkable transformation. His icy countenance melts, and he becomes warm, generous, and eager to help his employees and associates. What happened? What fueled Scrooge’s transformation? Not his conscience. Not the warmth of Yule cheer. Instead, it was a form of existential shock therapy or, as I shall refer to it in this book, an awakening experience. The Ghost of the Future (the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come) visits Scrooge and delivers a powerful dose of shock therapy by offering him a preview of the future. Scrooge observes his neglected corpse, sees strangers pawning his belongings (even his bed sheets and nightdress), and overhears members of his community discuss his death and dismiss it lightly. Next, the Ghost of the Future escorts Scrooge to the churchyard to view his grave. Scrooge gazes at his tombstone, fingers the letters of his name, and at that moment he undergoes a transformation. In the next scene Scrooge is a new and compassionate person.
...
"Pierre, the protagonist of Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace, faces death by firing squad, only to be reprieved after several men in line ahead of him have been shot. A lost soul before this event, Pierre is transformed and lives with zest and purpose in the remainder of the novel." 
(Staring at the Sun, Irvin Yaalom)

 

 
What is going on here in philosophic terms? The best understanding I could make of it is that there is (forced) complete re-evaluation of values, of one's life, and that the judgement is negative. If one has lived by (and is embodying) what one now judges as wrong values, has one ever really lived or only meaninglessly existed? will one still have a chance to experience living? 
 
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“What precisely do you fear about death?”, a question I often ask clients, elicits varied answers that often accelerate the work of therapy. Julia’s answer, “All the things I would not have not done,” points to a theme of great importance to many who ponder or face death: the positive correlation between the fear of death and the sense of unlived life. In other words, the more unlived your life, the greater your death anxiety. The more you fail to experience your life fully, the more you will fear death. Nietzsche expressed this idea forcefully in two short epigrams: “Consummate your life” and “Die at the right time”—as did Zorba the Greek in urging, “Leave death nothing but a burned out castle,” and Sartre, in his autobiography: “I was going quietly to my end … certain that the last burst of my heart would be inscribed on the last page of my work and that death would be taking only a dead man.” (Irvin Yaalom, Psychotherapist)

 

 
There is some complication here because, as far as I can tell, it's not only a complete re-evaluation of values that leads one to this state:
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"Certain life situations almost always evoke death anxiety: for example, a serious illness, the death of someone close, or a major irreversible threat to one’s basic security—such as being raped, divorced, fired, or mugged. Reflection on such an event will generally result in the emergence of overt death fears." (Irvin Yaalom, Psychotherapist)

Unless by this he means that the situation forcefully leads to the re-evaluation of all values.

 
What are the two most basic motivations man can have? a love of life, of (his) values or fear of death, fear of dis-value. If one is stripped of values then all that remains is to stare into the abyss? But saying this feels like a mathematically deductive reductio ad absurdum not appropriate to this enquiry. Why the intense focus on death that many experience in the wake of an "existential meltdown?" 
Edited by Jonathan Weissberg
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Jonathan,

Thank you for bringing together these significant issues and reflections.

I think there is a most basic and ever-present form of the human fear of death, and that is our animal wire-up to avoid death joined with our distinctive ability to think about the past and future and know that we shall die.

For each individual, ancient to modern, I think their coming end of existence is known to them at the deepest level, and that is directly terrifying left to itself, untied from conscious wider engagement in the stream of life. So when Plato has an old man speaking his terrors, especially at night when trying to sleep, of what awaits in the afterlife, I do not think that Plato and his fellows are being entirely honest with themselves and with others concerning what their fear is really about. Indeed the whole spiel—Egyptian, Greek, Christian/Muslim—about an afterlife is not simply an error of knowledge, but a psychological defense, an attempt to brainwash oneself against a truth one cannot get free of all the way down: one is going to cease to exist. From before Plato to the billboard signs of today that read “Where will you spend eternity?” we have the same self-foolery of the coming full stop.

One common thought from believers in afterlife is that otherwise: life is meaningless. The thought becomes dubious as they think more specifically and fully about their life with their spouse and children and other projects and enjoyments. Rand’s theory of value is the full deliverance from the muddle “otherwise, life would be meaningless.” All meaning and worth and purpose is derivative from our life and life before us. All chanting upon life beyond what arose in nature and ends in nature is primordial human self-foolery, and Rand’s insight brings the completeness of realizing squarely that all value and worth and purpose and problems exist only within the phenomenon of life.

Brushes with death and traumatic losses surely do occasion turns to new sorts of life. Those are turns in the making of one’s life, that is, turns in what we call making a life. The most basic fear of death retains its place under any such turns. But as ever, one can become fully aware not only of one’s coming nonexistence, but to its place in life.

Edited by Boydstun
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On 9/27/2021 at 12:13 AM, Boydstun said:

Jonathan,

Thank you for bringing together these significant issues and reflections.

I think there is a most basic and ever-present form of the human fear of death, and that is our animal wire-up to avoid death joined with our distinctive ability to think about the past and future and know that we shall die.

For each individual, ancient to modern, I think their coming end of existence is known to them at the deepest level, and that is directly terrifying left to itself, untied from conscious wider engagement in the stream of life. So when Plato has an old man speaking his terrors, especially at night when trying to sleep, of what awaits in the afterlife, I do not think that Plato and his fellows are being entirely honest with themselves and with others concerning what their fear is really about. Indeed the whole spiel—Egyptian, Greek, Christian/Muslim—about an afterlife is not simply an error of knowledge, but a psychological defense, an attempt to brainwash oneself against a truth one cannot get free of all the way down: one is going to cease to exist. From before Plato to the billboard signs of today that read “Where will you spend eternity?” we have the same self-foolery of the coming full stop.

“Thou hast become dark and cannot hear me. When I die shall I not be like Enkidu? Sorrow enters my heart. I am afraid of death.”—The Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh.

  This awareness seems to affect people differently at different points in their life:

"For some of us the fear of death manifests only indirectly, either as generalized unrest or masqueraded as another psychological symptom; other individuals experience an explicit and conscious stream of anxiety about death; and for some of us the fear of death erupts into terror that negates all happiness and fulfillment." - Staring at the Sun, Yaalom.

Yaalom thinks that we find ways to 'repress' this fear, although I would distinguish between dealing with this fear by finding rational meaning that makes life worthwhile on its own and irrational attempts at finding meaning through what he calls 'immortality projects' like having children or seeking to create another kind of legacy (specifically when motivated by this fear, rather than some other reason).

 

On 9/27/2021 at 12:13 AM, Boydstun said:

One common thought from believers in afterlife is that otherwise: life is meaningless. The thought becomes dubious as they think more specifically and fully about their life with their spouse and children and other projects and enjoyments. Rand’s theory of value is the full deliverance from the muddle “otherwise, life would be meaningless.” All meaning and worth and purpose is derivative from our life and life before us. All chanting upon life beyond what arose in nature and ends in nature is primordial human self-foolery, and Rand’s insight brings the completeness of realizing squarely that all value and worth and purpose and problems exist only within the phenomenon of life.

Brushes with death and traumatic losses surely do occasion turns to new sorts of life. Those are turns in the making of one’s life, that is, turns in what we call making a life. The most basic fear of death retains its place under any such turns. But as ever, one can become fully aware not only of one’s coming nonexistence, but to its place in life.

I quote this before, but it's relevant again:

Quote

 

“What precisely do you fear about death?”, a question I often ask clients, elicits varied answers that often accelerate the work of therapy. Julia’s answer, “All the things I would not have not done,” points to a theme of great importance to many who ponder or face death: the positive correlation between the fear of death and the sense of unlived life. In other words, the more unlived your life, the greater your death anxiety. The more you fail to experience your life fully, the more you will fear death. Nietzsche expressed this idea forcefully in two short epigrams: “Consummate your life” and “Die at the right time”—as did Zorba the Greek in urging, “Leave death nothing but a burned out castle,” and Sartre, in his autobiography: “I was going quietly to my end … certain that the last burst of my heart would be inscribed on the last page of my work and that death would be taking only a dead man.”
It does seem to be the case that people who do feel this way consistently share this kind of evaluation. Life on its own, without an afterlife, is meaningless if they "have not lived."

 

 
See Also 'Death of Ivan Illych':
 
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In Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, the protagonist—a middle-aged, self-absorbed, arrogant bureaucrat—develops a fatal abdominal illness and is dying in unremitting pain. As death approaches, Ivan Ilych realizes that all his life he has shielded himself from the notion of death through his preoccupation with prestige, appearance, and money. He becomes enraged with everyone about him who perpetuates denial and falsity by offering unfounded hopes for recovery. 

Then, following an astounding conversation with the deepest part of himself, he awakens in a moment of great clarity to the fact that he is dying so badly because he has lived so badly. His whole life has been wrong.

 

 
So rational values pursued, internalized and embodied lead one not to even raise these kinds of questions is my take-away. One can setup irrational 'defense mechanisms', i.e., unreal explanations and life projects engaged in out of fear of this death rather than love of life, which reality constantly presents counter evidence for, and which eventually will result in an 'existential meltdown' (Like a Jim Taggart moment).
 
In what sense did you mean one becomes aware of the place of one's own eventual non-existence in one's life? That would be a case for what Yaalom is claiming when he says that it's important to "derepress" this fear if it has been smothered with irrational coping mechanisms.
 
 
 
 
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1 hour ago, Jonathan Weissberg said:

In what sense did you mean one becomes aware of the place of one's own eventual non-existence in one's life? 

I had said: "But as ever, one can become fully aware not only of one’s coming nonexistence, but to its place in life." I had meant it is good to become fully aware of one's coming nonexistence square on, with no ifs, buts, or maybes, no fogginess and no denials. And its place in life is only terminal point of life. Conducting one's life never shunting awareness of the coming end is a rationality in life (and tuning one's priorities in projects and relationships with one's present expectation of the termination time of one's life---some decades from now versus two months from now---is part of that rationality).

Have you by chance read the book The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker? It's been a while since I read that, but as I recall, it's quite good.

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As for the origin of all these things, within philosophy anyway, I wonder if a lot of it stems from Spinoza. He seemed to make it possible for philosophers to break from Christianity in a meaningful way, artists as well, without complete abandonment for some vague divinity for those who couldn't let go. But because Spinoza thought that God ultimately didn't and couldn't care about you one way or another, that leaves you wide open to the question: "if God doesn't care about me, now what?" 

 

Edited by Eiuol
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Eiuol,

The idea that Spinoza opened a gate for the modern standpoint is interesting. There is a book by Steven Nadler on my shelf which I’ve not gotten to whose full title is: A Book Forged in Hell - Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age (2011).

In the ancient world, it would seem that Epicureanism was a philosophy facing squarely that death was the end of the whole person and that gods were indifferent to the affairs of humans. In a couple hundred years, however, that philosophy and its practice was overrun by spiritualistic cultural currents.* In the modern era, Epicureanism was bannered by devotees of empiricism, and Jefferson was a devotee of the Epicurean philosophy. It seems to mesh well with the secular outlook today provided one replaces Epicurean views on the methods and significance of science with modern ones. Epicurus/Lucretius suits our modernism better than Spinoza’s rationalism and his scheme for mind-body relations. Both seem to have opened a gate in the early modern period for our modern standpoint.

 

 

Edited by Boydstun
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On 9/30/2021 at 7:52 AM, Boydstun said:

Epicurus/Lucretius suits our modernism better than Spinoza’s rationalism and his scheme for mind-body relations. Both seem to have opened a gate in the early modern period for our modern standpoint.

I only have passing knowledge of these people. But as far as tracing influences with philosophy, Spinoza seems to be a turning point of some kind. On the other hand, it might be more about romanticism starting with Goethe, and the fact that he thought of science as something different than physicists of the time, focusing on biology. It's a sign of treating living things as something great with many values and characteristics and emotions and causes. Physicists like Galileo or Newton were plenty happy with being reductionists about reality, reducing causality to primarily things bouncing around, and treating abstractions in a platonic or Christian way. When life is thought of as a complete totality, it becomes easier to worry about what would happen when that process ends. If life is an incidental feature of the soul, and when the body dies, the soul does not, then the end of life doesn't really matter much in one's existence. 

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