THE LOGIC OF DEATH
University of North Dakota
Turn thy thoughts to the consideration
of thy life...
every change was a death.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditation IX, 21
Death's Facts Versus Death's
rider of the pale horse followed by Hades, death, by which "Alexander the Macedonian and his groom . . . were brought
to the same state,"(1) gives man such a heavy psychological
burden to carry that one who dares to speak on the logic of death
waits for his ratiocinations to scatter at some dark hour. Yet
I want as far as possible to get below variable attitudes toward
death and speak to its unavoidable conceptual implications.(2)
of rational meanings are not factual questions nor examinations
of what is the case as opposed to what might have been. Rational
implications can be either those that necessarily follow from
premises more or less arbitrarily assumed or those that follow
unavoidable in their conceptual ubiquity. The latter sort of
premises have no alternatives. They are necessary, not by deduction
because one cannot find any consistent rival premises. What,
then, might be the principles that are exhibited by all possible
realities and, therefore, must exhibit the logical aspects of
death (and, for that matter, life)? I say "might be" for
who is so omniscient as to know what they unmistakably are? And
who is so omniscient as to know that there are no such unavoidable
Death as Seeming Loss
What we are most psychologically aware of at our own impending,
or another's actual or impending death, is a loss. What can be
lost? What or who can lose? Plato was right that before such questions
can be answered, one must be prepared to go into the whole question
of generation and corruption because the answer to the first question,
stated in the most general form possible, is that losses can be
(a) of what is or has been, or (b) of what could have become, or
(c) of both.
Life is the process of fulfilling moments of experience that could
have been fulfilled otherwise. The alternatives that are not fulfilled
must be lost and stand forever as contrary to fact conditionals.
The necessary rejection of other possibilities may be of positive
or of negative value, depending on how much value was fulfilled
compared to how much might have been--relative, of course, to some
measure of value. The loss may be or may not be something to fear
But there is also the loss of one's accomplishments and not just
of the potentialities they displaced. The concern about death cuts
below the concern about positive or negative value. It is the fundamental
concern about the value of being alive at all if at death one fails
to exist. This psychological concern has a logical ground. To be
meaningful one must make a difference to some thing, which one
does by contributing the result of one's life to some actuality
that is changed by its reception (perception) of the act contributed.
Three Loci of Meaningful Death
We will examine the rationale behind the usual theories that give
life meaning in the face of the seeming loss of what one has been
and could have become. In theories, the changes or differences
must be made in one or more wholes; only units can be affected
by parts. Differences cannot be made in an aggregate.
The acts of one's life can make a difference only within one of
(1) The unit(s) that is oneself.
(2) the units that are or compose other selves less inclusive than
one cosmically inclusive.
(3) the unit(s) that are cosmically inclusive.
If the difference made by myself is to the same self in the future,
then at death the question of meaning is: If I will no longer exist
to make a difference to myself, how can my life be meaningful whether
positively or negatively? Will it make any difference for better
or worse that I have lived at all? And, of course, the answer is
no. Marcus Aurelius leaves out something very important when he
He who fears death either fears the loss of sensation or a different
kind of sensation. But if thou shalt have no sensation, neither
wilt thou feel any harm; and if thou acquire another kind of sensation
. . . thou wilt not cease to live.(3)
The first alternative only removes the fear of negative future
differences to the self. At the heart of the matter is the necessity
of the self to know that a difference of some kind or other will
be made (and in this first theory, to the self). And this difference
must not just be made while one lives but after one lives; otherwise,
having lived is absurd. To be concerned about how one lives has
no cogency unless it makes sense that one lived, that one does
make a difference in having been at all.
The attempt to employ the self as the locus of the differences
one makes drives one to assert the second of Marcus Aurelius's
alternatives; namely, that one does not die, that one only begins
a different series of experiences (with some retention of the past,
or else the effect of the past is again nil). The logical problem
of personal identity is serious for this attempted answer, but
let this wait for a general evaluation of the logic of substances
that supposedly remain numerically one through change.
An alternative to the position that requires one to live forever
to be meaningful is the theory of social continuance. While one
lives he makes differences to those around him; and when he dies,
those in whom he made differences continue to be different because
of the differences he made in them, and they continue to make differences
in others because of his differences.
This position faces two main problems. First we must ". .
. consider the death of a whole race,"(4) as Marcus Aurelius
puts it. Every group comes to an end. Even if one would allow the
everlastingness of some society, a second problem remains: in what
sense can others retain the reality that is the flesh and blood
of my full experience, be it the excitement of being in love or
the pain of its disappointment? Those aspects which are not retained
then make no difference. The first two proposals are not neatly
separated, since affecting another will affect the self as long
as it lives, and affecting the self (unless solipsism is right
or there is only One Self––both of which, I think,
are logically self-contradictory) will affect some others.
The third possibility (discussed, for example, by Hermann Lotze)
is that what we do makes a difference to the cosmic Whole (as
well as to ourselves and others). If this Whole be fully aware
present actualities, then all that one has become is fully
effective in the difference it can make in the Whole. The reality
acts resides in their power, to force the whole to account
for our acts as parts of its self. The self is what Leibniz
power," a power active in its acquisition of others as
parts. Yet the cosmic Whole, in gathering up new parts, is
no more the
same Whole. A whole is logically dependent on its parts: different
or additional parts imply a new whole.
Deathless versus Dying Substance
If life is substance, death is the end of substance. Much of traditional
philosophy, East and West, has been directed towards establishing
that substance cannot end, and that since we are substances, that
death is meaningless. The best arguments of this type are not that
death is possible but does not occur, but that it is an impossibility.
The fear (or joy) of death would then be absurd, since one would
be anticipating a self-contradiction.
Substance, whatever else it is, is wholeness, unity, numerical
oneness. It is that which in some way supports diversity. Diversity
is in substance as its parts, as objects of the substance-subject.
Only someone as careful as Leibniz will see that one cannot put
real new diversity into a substance and still have the same substance.
Is it even possible for one monad or soul to have different successive
internal states and still be the same whole?
Why not assert the death of a substance? Why not say that a substance
is an active, creative whole that has objects for parts, and that
the activity ceases with the accomplishment of its act? Of course,
we must find another way to speak meaningfully of the accomplished
act being sustained if we do not posit one underlying substance
or actor doing and remembering different acts.
Let us consider a person not as one actor (one substance) but as
a series of different acts (many substances). Each act dies with
its completion. The person dies when no new acts occur in the series.
In this way each whole is bounded not only by the objects it covers
or includes but by a temporal duration productive of a new result
that is then taken up as an object (lye) part in other successive
wholes or subjects. No whole then falls victim to the illogic of
alteration. One's death is the difference one's life makes in other
lives. A momentary life cannot die without making a difference
in other momentary lives. A life is (1) the enjoyment or suffering
of others' deaths and (2) the anticipation of how the life in its
somewhat novel death will be enjoyed or suffered by other lives.
No moment can reap the benefits of its own accomplishment or the
pains of its own bungling; egoism is therefore illogical. The first
position above, i.e., egoism, can only mean that the momentary
lives of a personal series are concerned that there be some future
member in their series to inherit the results of their deaths,
in order that they will always be making a difference. And since
no other non-cosmic wholes but those of one's own series are inclusive
or intimate enough to retain anywhere near the full effects of
a moment's death, social meaning cannot be the answer to death.
One Whole or One Series of Deaths
Every change is the sign of a death. No whole, not even a cosmic
Whole, can be necessary or deathless. But must every series
die? Must there be a last moment of life for all persons? A person
begins to exist with the momentary life productive of a death—a
result which is immediately inherited by another life. The person
continues to exist only so long as one moment follows upon another
inheriting the death of the previous moment in that series. And
if, contrary to Leibniz, a series does die, where does the difference
reside that all the members of the person make? Even if, as Leibniz
says, as long as one lives ". . . there remains something
of all our past thoughts and none can be entirely effaced”(5)
for a ". . . mind cannot be despoiled of all perception of
its past experience,"(6) we still must ask about the meaning
of the whole person. I think that rather than giving each monad
the divine property of everlasting continuance, an adequate
formulation of cosmic wholeness can satisfy the logic of death
avoid the usual deus ex machina, the illogic of a changing
impossibility of a necessary whole or the emptiness of a homogenous
whole. Death of the particular forms of life is necessary for
universal life to continue, as Eastern pantheism asserts.(7)
But even a cosmic
Whole is a particular. It contains parts that could have been
otherwise. It does with them something that could have been
If we deny that change is real, no difference can be made and life
is meaningless. If we assert that change is real, so that one can
make a meaningful difference to a whole, it then follows; that
either one is still meaningless when that whole ends, or that meaningfulness
is a function of making a difference in more than one whole successively,
even if it is at present cosmically inclusive. There must always
be another whole of cosmic scope that supercedes the last whole.
Each whole must be affected by what the previous whole was in order
that the parts of that whole (and the past whole itself as now
a part in the new whole) may continue to make their difference.
Since of each of the cosmic Wholes is nonselective, all that is
done at any moment is saved by that Whole regardless of whether
or not another successive non-cosmic whole comes to exist that
has that creaturely doing as a part. Differences will be made forever,
if it can be established, as I believe it can, that there is no
last cosmic Whole and that each totally includes the past. In this
way the logic of meaningfulness would be satisfied. One would be
meaningful despite death, for death is only the end of making a
difference to one's own personal series, not an end to making a
difference. One can be meaningful without being meaningful to oneself
forever. It is God that saves us and not we ourselves. There is
no reason why one must be motivated to be ultimately concerned
with himself. Such concern is always corrosive of rational consideration
of value whether one is speaking of the narrow society of a personal
series or even of a whole civilization.(8)
Tragic Death or Evil
The common denominator of all grades of life and the purpose of
them all is to die. "Death certainly, and life . . . equally
happen to good men and bad, being things which make us neither
better nor worse. Therefore they are neither good nor evil." But
a rational life is lived so as to die well or beautifully. A moment
of life motivated by good gives to new life what beauty it can
with the active power it has. And again, logic requires that we
assert that the "new life" be the life of a person
that is ever renewed. Value is relative merit of parts to the
whole, which is the arbiter of whether or not the part was
valuable. And the final arbiter of the relative merit of all
parts is the
present cosmic Whole of all parts.
The experience of (1) too much simultaneous similarity or successive
repetition compared to possible unified diversity, or (2) the experience
of diversity that is mutually inhibiting or lacking in the strength
afforded by repetition are the two negative poles one's death can
exhibit. A life productive of a death that is negative for other
lives may have been lived deliberately to bring about the negative
result. Such a moment or series of moments is evil. Evil is not
in the dying, as Marcus Aurelius points out, nor in suffering the
death of another, but in the deliberate use of the moment's power
of life to die negatively for others, as judged by the Whole.
With an evil actuality there is always someone to blame for
the suffering, but a death that brings suffering without someone
to blame underlies our most searching "whys" about
death. If each life used its power to bring about the good
as it saw it,
there could still be death with negative value because what
was taken for good was not good. But even if there were no
between seeming and actual good, a life could still effect
a negative outcome for those living its death. Such a death
evil. The answer to why it happened lies in the necessity of
life to be lived contemporaneously with other lives, each with
degree of free power to form its own death. One must die without
being able to know exactly how others will die.
What the good is which a moment accomplishes depends on how it
will affect the richness of other lives, and even omniscience can
only foresee a more or less general kind of death for a future
life, since (even if it be a good life) it will use its power to
effect its death within a range of co-equally good possibilities,
which to some degree the unforeseeable outcomes of other contemporaries
Bringing in an omnipotent Whole that could control the parts so
they could never conflict would necessitate eliminating the freedom
of the non-cosmic units. Since their freedom is their life, their
existence, they would no longer exist even to be compatible parts
in the Whole. The so-called possibility of complete power over
or in all would eliminate those realities (substances) in which
power is exercised.
So if Omnipotence makes sense, it must be as some power or
influence in all, the "some" being modified by "as
good as any other use of power could be." If Omnipotence
must be good, as I think logic will dictate. His goodness would
be expressed in His Death as a Death which offers to future
lives, cosmic and non-cosmic, as much opportunity with as little
as possible, (1) to experience the Death to be enriching for
themselves and (2) to then in turn create their creaturely
deaths (and another
divine Death) so as to be enriching for other momentary, creaturely
lives and other momentary Lives of the one deathless series
1. Marcus Aurelius, Meditation VI, 24. Can be found in The
Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers, W. J. Dates, ed., Modern Library, 1940.
2. For example, the book entitled The Meaning of Death, Herman
Feifel, ed., McGraw Hill, 1959, is mostly concerned with the psychology
rather than the logic of death.
3. Marcus Aurelius, Meditation VIII, 58.
4. Ibid., 31
5. Leibniz, New Essays on the Human Understanding, Bk. II, chap.
I, sec. 11. Can be found in Leibniz Selections, Philip P. Wiener,
ed., Scribner's, 1951, p. 411.
6. Ibid., Chapter XXVIII, Section 14, or Scribner's, p. 444. 7.
7. M. Hiriyanna, Outlines of Indian Philosophy, George Allen & Unwin
Ltd., 1932, p. 96.
8. Arnold Toynbee, An Historian's Approach to Religion, Oxford
University Press, 1956, e.g. pp. 4 and 5. 9. Marcus Aurelius, Meditation