God made mud. God got lonesome. So God said to some of the mud, “Sit up!” “See all I’ve made,” said God, “the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars.” And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around. Lucky me, lucky mud. I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done. Nice going, God. Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly couldn’t have. I feel very unimportant compared to You. The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud that didn’t even get to sit up and look around. I got so much, and most mud got so little. Thank you for the honor! Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep. What memories for mud to have! What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met! I loved everything I saw!
–Kurt Vonnegut (Cat’s Cradle)
From time to time my mind turns to death, though certainly not in an obsessive, suicidal, sociopathic, or gruesomely morbid way. Rather for reasonable amounts of time and on occasion I find it useful and productive to contemplate what my death means for me and those I care about, or about what the death of a loved one will mean for her and those she cares about. Thoughts along these lines motivate me to get more out of life and to prepare for the inevitable (see, for example, my series on estate planning).
I’m not alone in finding it of value to think about death. So too does Shelly Kagan, the Yale philosophy professor who teaches a course on the topic–Philosophy 176–available to all for free through Open Yale Courses and iTunes U. So Kagan’s course was a natural one for me to take next (after Yale’s Econ 252, Econ 159, and Psych 110, reviews of which can be found under the Yale tag).
Philosophy 176 is an introductory course so it does not presuppose any background in philosophy. That’s good because I recall very little from the few philosophy courses I took 15 or more years ago or the reading of philosophy I did as a teen. Perhaps because I was a bit rusty at waxing philosophic I had a some difficulty getting accustomed to the style of the course, but I did warm to it. And I liked it more as it progressed.
Part of the challenge initially was getting comfortable with the fact that in philosophy nearly everything is debatable and, in an almost because-it-is-there sense, it is debated. But of course that’s the point. It is the nature of the subject to pursue every nuance of argument, to poke and prod every assumption, to go down many rabbit holes. The discipline, as it turns out, and at least insofar as death is concerned, is mostly holes–deep six footers. Indeed, it seems more holes than terra firma. There’s not that much to cling to beyond one’s own beliefs and a reasonable, but far from air tight argument or two.
That’s the course: one long argument, with many detours and dead ends, with much backtracking and reworking. Ultimately Kagan aims to teach the art of philosophy but also to convince his students that conventional notions of death–that it is bad, frightening, to be avoided for all time at all costs, among others–are not reasonable.
In doing so the course surveys some great questions: Is there an immortal soul? Is immortality desirable? What does it mean to say that a person has died? Is death bad? Is it frightening? Is suicide rational or moral? How does the knowledge of one’s mortality affect how one lives or how one should live?
These are great questions. No. They are THE great questions, and well worth thinking about while you still can. Their relevance and urgency was reinforced upon Kagan’s roughly 20 year old students and me in two poignant moments in the class. One was when Kagan recalled a student with a terminal cancer diagnosis who had been taking this very class on death a few years prior. The student’s goal in life was to complete his Yale degree. When his illness forced him from the classroom mid-semester Yale found a way to honor his desire. He was awarded his bachelor’s degree on his death bed.
The other poignant moment came during the class following the one in which Kagan quoted the Kurt Vonnegut passage above. He had done so without knowing Vonnegut had passed away the night before. What better lesson could there be on the only type of immortality we’re likely to achieve? Vonnegut’s brilliant illustration of the arbitrariness of life and our great fortune to partake in it is no less true and beautiful now than it was before his death.
In Philosophy 176 Kagan succeeds in making the important lessons clear: live fully and thoughtfully because for many of us death may come too soon. And for all of us death is, of course, inevitable, unstoppable, and in Kagan’s view, completely final. His concluding words were to encourage his students to “face death without fear and without illusion.” No doubt he hopes that they also feel at the end of life what Vonnegut expressed: “What memories…I loved everything I saw!”