Death and Happiness Class

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Lecture Notes: Death and Happiness Class, April 17, 2007


  • The Philosophy Bird,
  • St. Jerome, and
  • UVA Killings

Some paradoxical intuitions

There's something odd about trying to get over death, or adjust your attitude toward death as the wisdom literature of so many traditions (Stoic, Daoist, Judeo-Christian-Islam, Buddhist, ...)suggests. After all, why not just say that the better life is, the more death sucks? Of course, the converse holds: The worse life is, the more death might be a gift. The problem is that its not just the wisdom literature that pushes us to try to understand death. I have a strong intuition that when I try to understand death, I am learning something about life. That's one of the loudest messages in my recent reading (East and West), especially in the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead). But this might lead to a reversal of the point we started with. It may be that the better we understand death, the more we can appreciate life.

Some Initial Distinctions

  1. Distinctions among: Thinking about (preparing for) your own death, Responding to the death of others, helping others with their experience of death (their own or others). Critical Quesitons: Which way to does the inference go? from our own understanding of death to the others, right?
  2. Distinct yet overlapping concerns in different religious traditions treatment of death: 1) Islam and Christian; 2)Tibetan Buddhist. (Montaigne's point about the need to conquer death.)
  3. Distinction between cognitive knowledge of death and experience knowledge, felt responses. Critical Question: Are our responses to death trainable? What is the goal of such traning? Does it come with the pursuit of wisdom?

Montaigne, That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die

Montaigne gives us a hedonist/stoic view of death. One would think that death is a problem for a hedonist, since it appears to be the end of sensation, but Montaigne argues

"Cicero says—[Tusc, i. 31.]—"that to study philosophy is nothing but to prepare one's self to die." The reason of which is, because study and contemplation do in some sort withdraw from us our soul, and employ it separately < from the body, which is a kind of apprenticeship and a resemblance of death; or, else, because all the wisdom and reasoning in the world do in the end conclude in this point, to teach us not to fear to die."

M. affirms his commitment to hedonism: "Let the philosophers say what they will, the thing at which we all aim, even in virtue is pleasure."

"Now, of all the benefits that virtue confers upon us, the contempt of death is one of the greatest, as the means that accommodates human life with a soft and easy tranquillity, and gives us a pure and pleasant taste of living, without which all other pleasure would be extinct."

Makes fun of people (folk) who are bothered by the mention of death.

We all think we have more time. Cognitive bias. (mentions, p. 3, weird, untimely deaths)

In light of this, how can we avoid thinking about death? -M You could try not thinking about it, but it will surface if you don't deal with it.

["Let him hide beneath iron or brass in his fear, death will pull his head out of his armour. "—Propertious Hi. 18]

"Where death waits for us is uncertain; let us look for him everywhere. The premeditation of death is the premeditation of liberty; he who has learned to die has unlearned to serve. There is nothing evil in life for him who rightly comprehends that the privation of life is no evil: to know, how to die delivers us from all subjection and constraint."

"I am at all hours as well prepared as I am ever like to be, and death, whenever he shall come, can bring nothing along with him I did not expect long before. We should always, as near as we can, be booted and spurred, and ready to go, and, above all things, take care, at that time, to have no business with any one but one's self"

Bot. p. 5: poking fun at the annoyance of the living about death.

p. 7: We have a bias to ignoring our own deterioration. "Let us but observe in the ordinary changes and declinations we daily suffer, how nature deprives us of the light and. sense of our bodily decay. What remains to an old man of the vigour of his youth and better days? ["Alas, to old men what portion of life remains!"—Maximian, vel Pseudo-Gallus, i. 16f -- Note Hecht's point about how we insulate ourselves from death, less common experience, also, the beauty culture.

We erect the soul in prtest / denial of the decay of the body.

Religion is founded on the contempt of death.

Cognitive therapy: "What a ridiculous thing it is to trouble ourselves about taking the only step that is to deliver us from all trouble! As our birth brought us the birth of all things, so in 1 hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago. Death is the beginning of another life. "

Metaphors and images for training the heart: ["Mortals, amongst themselves, live by turns, and, like the runners in the games, give up the lamp, when they have won the race, to the next comer—" Lucretius, ii. 75, 78.]

["Why not depart from life as a sated guest from a feast? "Lucretius, Hi. 95 ]

To the Best of Our Knowledge: Segments on Guillermo Arriaga, Lorne Ladner, et al

Dave Meyers, psychologist: Durability bias. We're bad at predicting our future happiness: tenure study, physical tragedies, (cancer patients), mentions his own impending hearing loss (a kind of death). Trick knee vs. broken leg.

Smiling segment - Kind of tangential to our concerns, but any thoughts?

"Mexican writer Guillermo Arriaga is best known in the States for his screenplays. He wrote "Amores Perros" and the critically acclaimed "21 Grams." From his home in Mexico City, Arriaga tells Steve Paulson where the story idea for "21 Grams" came from, and why it was so interesting to have a religious man direct a film written by an atheist that deals with topics like the meaning of life and the afterlife. "

-back story about driving home, on his birthday, and coming across a fatal accident. Sister's story about pool accident, son asks, "If I die, will you ever smile again?"

Also, Lorne Ladner is a psychologist, a practicing Buddhist and the author of The Lost Art of Compassion . He tells Jim Fleming that accepting the inevitability of one's own death leads a person to truly appreciate living while you can.

--meditation on one's own death, charnel grounds. Example about the guy who took down the trophies and put up pictures of his kids.

Tibetan Book of the Dead

Primary understanding of death: great opportunity for learning. Discuss advantages of rebirth as a system.

Six Bardos:

  1. the chikhai bardo or "bardo of the moment of death"
  2. the chonyid bardo or "bardo of the experiencing of reality"
  3. the sidpa bardo or "bardo of rebirth".
  4. the bardo of ordinary waking consciousness
  5. dhyana, meditation
  6. dream state

Discuss practice associated with the Great Liberation by Hearing