(This blog is part of a weekly series for Know Thyself 2019, a 365 day journal project. Start here!)
This Week’s Journal Topic: Immortality
The previous topics have been relatively light. Bear with me as we approach some questions that require courage and serious philosophical thought!
The attitude you have towards death influences your attitudes towards other human life, ethics, ownership, society, and politics.
Physical death is the great equalizer; no one – no matter how rich or powerful, and regardless of citizenship – can avoid it. Despite the fact that death is natural and unavoidable, you might not have thought about it much. Some cultures do not talk about mortality, immortality, the soul, the afterlife. Even if it’s difficult and brings up fear or anxiety, please give the questions a try!
Views of Death: Final State? Or Transformation?
If you were raised in Western culture, you are probably familiar with concepts of dying, death, and the afterlife. Most adults could thoughtfully answer the question, “What do you think happens after we die?” There are few grave superstitions about death, and we even joke about it! For example, if you were very late to a meeting, someone might say sarcastically, “Oh, I’m glad you made it. We thought maybe you had died.” And if someone has a killer sense of humor and make us laugh, we might say, “You’re killing me!”
In Western philosophy, there is even a study of the afterlife called eschatology. The Western assumption is that an immortal soul continues on after the physical body dies. Two of the greatest philosophers of the Western world, Socrates and Jesus, boldly embraced their death to honor their philosophical commitments. In fact, they took death to be a transformation, rather than a final event. Surely, they believed in some kind of continuance after death of the physical body.
If you were raised in an East Asian culture, you might not have strong feelings about the concept of afterlife. In East Asia, there exist many superstitions relating to talking and thinking about death. For example, traditional Chinese culture has superstitions about death that intrude into all areas of life. The number 4 is associated with death, so many Chinese people refuse to buy apartments on a fourth floor or buy homes with 4 in the house number. What a Western person thinks is a funny joke about his death might confuse or offend someone raised in East Asia. In comparison to Western culture, East Asian cultures tend to view death as a final event. Wise and successful Chinese philosophers are admired for living a long life and dying a natural death. Contrast wise, old Confucius and Lao Tzu with Socrates or Jesus, who were both killed.
Indian cultures also view death as a transformation, and no where in the world has this belief been more influential than in the caste system. The caste system is a rigid social/economic ordering system that arose out of ancient religious beliefs about death and rebirth. Poor people comprise the lower castes, and rich and educated people comprise the higher castes. If you live a good life and rid yourself of “moral pollution”, then you will be reborn into a higher, more pure, caste. By living a good life, then with each death you are offered greater freedom and eventual transmigration into an elite caste.
- What happens to your body after you die?
- Do you think there is a personal soul, and does it leave the body immediately?
- What do you think about an impersonal soul, such as an energy that dissipates into the universe when a person dies?
- Do you think it’s possible to be reborn again?
- Who do you admire more: a person who dies for his spiritual or philosophical beliefs, or a person who skillfully makes the best of this physical life?
- What do you think of evidence about rebirth, such as child prodigies (3 or 4 year old painters, pianists, or mathematicians) or people who recount past lives?
- Which is more comforting – the idea that death is final, or that there is rebirth, or that it is a transformation and migration to the afterlife?
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