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Fearing Death

December 24, 2008

Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind

…the most powerful passion of most men is fear of death. …  Socrates, therefore, defines the task of philosophy as “learning how to die.” (p. 277, 1987)

It is relatively easy to die well.  The question is how one lives … (p. 282)

All men fear death and passionately wish to avoid it.  Even the heroes who despise it do so against a background of fear, which is primary.  (p.285)


Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Brutus:          Set honour in one eye and death i’ the other,

                   And I will look on both indifferently;

                   For let the gods so speed me as I love

                   The name of honour more than I fear death.  (a.1, s.2, l.86ff.)



Brutus:          Fates, we will know your pleasures.

That we shall die, we know; ’tis but the time

And drawing days out, that men stand upon.


Casca:          Why, he that cuts off twenty years of life

                   Cuts off so many years of fearing death.


Brutus:          Grant that, and then is death a benefit:

                   So are we Caesar’s friends, that have abridg’d

                   His time of fearing death.  (a.3, s.1, l.99ff.)



Both indicate how the fear of death dictates the life one lives, and that is why the question turns to contemplate how to live.  What governs the kind of life I live that will properly prepare me for the death I will die? 


I am wondering what happens when we begin to fear life more than death?  That is, finding ourselves far more at rest with the certainties that death provides than with the uncontrollable mysteries of life.


On a different note, I am caught by the declaration that Brutus makes.  Brutus requests that both honour and the fear of death be set in his eyes.  When the fear of death governs human life on the one hand (or one eye), what pillar stands as our guide in the other?  Brutus clearly states that his love of honour trumps his fear of death.  But if there is no honour, what object of love steers our lives?  What holds our love more than our fear of death?  What happens when honour is democratized, when there is no clear ideal toward which to aspire?


And then I wonder, does anyone even think of these things anymore?  If the few, certainly not the many.



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