Monday 13 September 2010

Time to die

When is it right to die? And how do we know this?


The secular, modern view of death seems to be based on an argument at the level of: ‘I can choose which car or house I buy. But dying is (even) more important than buying houses and cars; so why should I not also be able to choose how and when I die?”

Clearly, this is wrong.

There is a gulf between (on the one hand) wanting to understand the nature of things in order that we may be in harmony with the nature of things; and (on the other hand) wanting to impose our *will* upon the nature of things.

It is the difference between essential humility and essential pride.


To feel in some (mysterious and intuitive) way that it is now right to die, and then to let go one’s grip on life; seems utterly, existentially opposed to the secular and modern idea that when our ‘quality of life’ drops below a certain point, we should make a decision to die and then be assisted to kill ourselves (or should be able to request to be killed by accredited and regulated experts).

It is the difference between hoping to *know* when it is right to die, and wanting to *control* the time and manner of our death.


For wisdom I often turn to JRR Tolkien. In this instance his myth of Numenor.

As a reward for their many generations of valour against Morgoth, some of the Men of Middle Earth were rewarded by the gods with enhanced powers and a safe and beautiful island to dwell upon.

Among these powers were greater height and strength, greater intelligence and aesthetic sensitivity, a life free from illness and disease, and a life span about treble that of normal Men.

So, the Men of Numenor were mortal, ‘doomed’ to die, but lived a vigorous and healthily life (without any significant degeneration) until about 200 years old, at which point they died.


But another gift was that when the Numenoreans reached the point at which their life was ending, they were able to be aware of this, and to voluntarily accept their death and (within a leeway of a few days or weeks) to choose the moment of their death – the point at which they ‘let go’ their hold on life.

And this was exactly what was done by the early generations of Numenoreans. However, the later generations began to envy the immortality of the elves and to ‘cling’ to life. Instead of letting-go at the appointed time, instead of releasing themselves from life, they lived for as long as possible – and the old Numenoreans experienced decline, debility and disease until eventually their mortal nature overcome them and they were (in effect) dragged kicking and screaming into death.

Eventually, their desire for everlasting life became all-consuming, and led them to invade the land of the gods to ‘win’ immortality; at which point the supreme God intervened and the invading army was buried in rock, and the island of Numenor was drowned and utterly destroyed by a cataclysmic earthquake.

But the early, un-corrupt Numenoreans had an understanding of the real nature of mortal life which included a strong sense of when it was right, or best, to die. They knew that they _could_ live longer than this, but that it was a mark of corruption for them to do so; and that the wrongness was seen in the fact that a failure to make the choice to die was followed by the advent of debilitation, degeneration and decline.

To cling to life, therefore, would be acting against nature; and vainly, pridefully, trying to defy destiny.


What I take from this story of Tolkien’s is that mortal life must include at some level (which may be inarticulate, a sense or instinct) an answer to the question of when it is right or best to die. And that this answer is not, cannot be, ‘at the last possible moment’ – since that would be to deny our mortal nature.

The story of Numenor represents a vision of how humans ought to live and die. The story seems to say that it would be best if we could (within limits, and these limits may be external, imposed) choose our moment of death and voluntarily let go of life.

To quote from the beautiful denouement of Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner; ideally, in their uncorrupted hearts, it seems that Men aspire to know when it is ‘time to die’ and then to die.


It is strange that to recall this truism, to make it real again, to refresh our innate and spontaneous insight in the face of so much confusion and distraction; we sometimes need to see the reality of the human condition depicted in terms of a mythical fantasy, or spoken by a science fiction android.


dearieme said...

WKPD: "..Frederick the Great who asked on June 18, 1757, at the Battle of Kolin, "Kerle, wollt ihr denn ewig leben?" (Men, do you want to live for ever?)."

P.S. Do you think "Kerle" might be our "churls"?

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearieme - according to "An analytic dictionary of English etymology: an introduction" by Anatoly Liberman - you are correct; in that these words have the same etymology - although the German is less deprecatory, being more equivalent to 'blokes' or 'chaps'.

Bruce Charlton said...

PS: My name - Charlton - means the village/ town (ton) of the churls (ceorls) - which is also the same as Charles (and Carl).

Peter said...

"we sometimes need to see the reality of the human condition depicted in terms of a mythical fantasy, or spoken by a science fiction android." . . . this runs parallel to a thought I've held for years.... "We tell ourselves stories to communicate the Truth for the facts are often far too dreadful for us to face . . . and so it goes"