Tuesday, April 21, 2020

No, Philosophy Does Not Teach Us How to Die

Among the leading pseudo-profundities trotted out by our intelligentsia is this, from French essayist Michel de Montaigne:

To philosophize is to learn how to die.

Before shredding it, one can, to be fair minded, explain what the essayist meant. Joseph Epstein does so, in these words:

Montaigne, whom one does not think of as a dark writer, felt one couldn’t think too often or too much about death, especially one’s own. He wrote about death in three separate essays — “On Fear,” “Why We Should Not Be Deemed Happy Until after Our Death,” and “To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die” — and his general point was that we should accustom ourselves to the idea of death, of our own death specifically, in order “to educate and train [our souls] for their encounter with that adversary, death.” Doing so, we would thereby fight free of the fear of death, so that when it does arrive “it will bear no new warning for [us]. As far as we possibly can we must have our boots on, ready to go.” Montaigne wished to die tending his cabbages, but, alas, he was instead the victim, at 59, in 1592, of quinsy, a disease of the throat that can be painful and that, in his case, rendered him speechless at the close of his life.

Naturally, this invites yet another meditation about death. The world of philosophy is full of them, which is perhaps better than to be full of it. And yet, for those who are more devoted to common sense than to platitudinous pseudo-profundities, the purpose of philosophy is: to teach us how to think, I hope that this does not come as a surprise. It is a bit too obvious to say that philosophy teaches us how to live-- because such a thought will not allow us to pretend to be serious intellectuals.

Consider some of its more prominent branches. Aesthetics teaches us how to think about beauty, about artistic beauty in particular. Ethics teaches us how to think about the kinds of behavior that will help us to get along with other people, by building character. Metaphysics teaches us how to think about insubstantial non-physical entities, entities that we can neither see, hear, taste, touch or smell. Those would be-- you guessed it-- ideas and the minds that think them. The philosophy of science teaches us the scientific method, its rationale and its workings.

In any case, that amuse bouche should whet your appetite for some reflections about death. One notes in passing, that while Epstein believes that our airways are being filled with talk of impending death, the coronavirus is not a very effective killer. There is no way that the pandemic is going to catch up with the bubonic plague or the Spanish flu. By now, I would say, we are more likely to be obsessed with how we can all get back to work, not with the number of ventilators that Andrew Cuomo thought he might need.

So, I also disagree with this Epstein reflection:

The coronavirus has forced almost all of us, either in enforced or self-imposed quarantine, to sit quietly in our room, and the news of the continuing deaths it is causing — of the obscure and the celebrated — concentrates our minds on Pascal’s dark human condition.

Most people are suffering from a lack of human contact. They are more concerned about when they can get back to work. How many people, beyond professional philosophers who get paid to opine, are really meditating about the human condition? And what would be the purpose of doing so, anyway?

Let’s introduce something of a curve ball into all of this. Montaigne was writing in Catholic France during the time of the Protestant Reformation. He lived during the time when the Counterreformation was promoted by the Council of Trent.

Now, you might know that Luther, and perhaps Calvin after him, introduced something called the Protestant work ethic into Western civilization. Sociologist Max Weber wrote a seminal work about it, entitled The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Weber-- I have some doubts-- he was writing at a time when sociologists were serious thinkers. That time has long since passed.

Anyway, Weber begins with the thesis that, prior to Luther, the purpose of human life was to prepare for the afterlife. Humans needed to be good Christians, and to observe Church ritual, the better to ensure an eternity in Heaven. Under the circumstances, work was limited to providing sustenance. People worked to live; they did not live to work. They worked to provide the basics: food, raiments and shelter. Beyond that, the purpose of life was to prepare for eternity. There was no point in indulging earthly frivolities or even in building great cities and industries. Why emphasize the transitory when we should really be concerned with the eternal.

I hope I am not the only one who sees in that ethic the basis for Montaigne’s reflection. The French essayist was merely taking a basic tenet of his contemporary culture and pretending that it was some kind of philosophical truism.

Now, I do not recall Weber mentioning one important point, but Luther himself made the decisive step away from the Church-sponsored sustenance ethic. He wrote, in a book on Good Works, that it was time to expand the doctrine of good works. Prior to Luther good works consisted in observing proper Church ritual: going to mass, confessing, taking communion, giving alms to the poor and contributing to the Church coffers. 

But, Luther expanded the scope of ethical work by including industry and commerce, the work involved in making a living and contributing to community wealth. I underscore this point because Weber does not quite see it this way. He attributes the advent of the Protestant Ethic to one John Calvin, 

A Swiss theologian, Calvin was twenty plus years younger than Luther. He is commonly known for his advocacy of the doctrine of predestination. To Calvin, your place in Heaven or Hell was predetermined, before you were born. This meant that it did not matter how many good works, in the religious sense, you performed. God was going to save you or not, regardless. Meditating about death and trying to earn your way into Heaven by an excess of piety would not work. God had long since made up his mind. If God has decided that you will spend eternity in Hell your pious actions were merely a ruse to dupe your co-religionists. And perhaps even to dupe yourself.

From there, Weber takes a significant leap. He suggests that when people accepted Calvin’s theory about predestination they were most desirous, not so much in earning their way into Heaven, as in showing their fellow congregants that they counted among the elect. And they could do so, Weber opined, by accumulating capital in the fallen world. 

Precisely why this would be the irrefutable sign of election, escapes me. At the least, following Luther, Calvin was proposing that hard work and productivity in the fallen world was not necessarily a sign of impiety. It could be a sign of piety and election.

This means that hard work is a virtue, and that it is more important to work hard making a living than it is to eschew all socioeconomic duties in favor of contemplating death. That would mean, in favor of preparing for the afterlife.

As you see, the terms of this cultural shift are being played out in our current discussions about staying at home and going to work.

Rather than abrogate our responsibilities as social beings, we should embrace them, the better to show ourselves to be honorable and decent. As for the ultimate disposition of our souls, we will leave that to God.


whitney said...

"There is no way that the pandemic is going to catch up with the bubonic plague"

Also a much prettier plague. It's spring, everything's in bloom all the people are at parks. No boils. It's a very attractive plague

UbuMaccabee said...

First, the baby boomers invested sex, now they have invented death.

Exnihilo1968 said...

Also from Max Weber (I paraphrase): Human beings are like insects caught in a web of assumption they themselves have spun.