On Dying — Day 4

The following is from my daily newsletter, The Pocket Philosopher. Each week we explore a theme, looking at that theme through the lens of a different philosophy each day.

Existentialism and Dying…and Living Before That

Fellow Philosophers,

Today we’re looking at death through the eyes of the existentialists, specifically a philosopher of the early 20th century named Simon De Beauvoir.

Her work is pivotal in informing and guiding the existentialist movement. Interestingly, I often hear existentialism and its cousin nihilism (for those who have even heard of these philosophies) positioned in a depressive lens. And De Beauvoir is likewise cast in a depressive, un-relatable light.

Somehow, in crafting this letter about death and existentialism, I was confronted with the most down-to-earth hopefulness of any philosophy thus far.

I think what trips some folks up most is the basis or initial supposition that most existentialist philosophy warrants, which tends to be some form of absurdity.

This concept of absurdity is the cost of entry, but just beyond this “wall” is a new world to be explored.

Absurdity supposes that there simply is no cosmic design, plan, or purpose for being. If we can step back, this is actually not dissimilar to the randomness of the Hindu parable of Visnu dreaming a lotus flower, which gave rise to Brahma, which then created a world. A world which collapses at the conclusion of Visnu’s dream, as he naps over and over again, indefinitely, on the back of a serpent whose very name means endless.

If anything, this parable trains the mind to accept the unknowing of our cosmic reality. The same unknowing heralded by the Mystical Christians and Aristotle’s naturalist observations.

Why are we here, why are humans seemingly different than other animals, what is the mind, what is my purpose, what is the soul?

In many respects, existentialism is simply the latest in a series of philosophies and religions to breach the topic of absurdity. Perhaps though, for some existentialism feels harsh because it is done not in a history book, or within the confines of an existing structure, faith, or community. Rather, existentialism approaches absurdity in the open waters of global thought. Something that was just emerging in a tangible way during the first half of the twentieth century.

Sure, life is absurd, but at least we have a Visnu, or a church, or a tribe, or a history book compiled for us in an organized way. But what if it’s just absurd, and there’s not much more to it.

But this is where Simon De Beauvoir makes an important and brave turn.

Man has to be his being. Every moment he is seeking to make himself be, and that is the project. The human being exists in the form of projects that are not projects toward death but projects toward singular ends…these are not a diversion or flights but a movement toward being. 1

What emerges from existentialism and from Simon De Beauvoir then, is well, existing. It appears that from this philosophy death neither good nor bad, but perhaps uninteresting, if not irrelevant.

Because, what is interesting is the way that people craft their lifestyle when they are alive-what purposes and projects do they undertake and why did they choose them?

One key caveat, however, that De Beauvoir leaves behind is how one approaches their projects in life.

For her, it matters that these projects and reasons for being are self-discovered-that is-discovered on the other side of accepting that life is absurd. What’s more, this reason for being must be discovered separate from other institutions, world views, cultural norms, or established philosophies.

De Beauvoir argues that upon sensing the absurdity of life many people seek the comfort of institutions which provide certainty mimicking the safety of childhood. These institutions also prohibit the real living that comes on the other side of painting on the blank, absurd canvas that is life.

In this way, physical death in De Beauvoir’s mind is perhaps uninteresting. The real death is a philosophical one which occurs at the surrender of dreams and hopes in exchange for false security and certainty.

In this way, real life is uncovered when one abandons any sense of cosmic purpose, and crafts for themselves a life that is deeply authentic.

What do I want to create, and how do I want to do it?

This freedom, however, is very frightening, so most settle for the slow death of “normal.” And that, is the only real death to be feared.

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Matt Malcom

Matt Malcom

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West Point Graduate. Former Army Officer. Conscientious Objector. Home for Regenerative Spirituality and The Inclusive Orthodoxy. New Book: repairinghope.com