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>>The Logic of Death



Introduction to
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DIALOG, Volume 15, Autumn 1976 (293-296)


Duane Voskuil
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 Necessities

Death, the 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)

Questions 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 from premises unavoidable in their conceptual ubiquity. The latter sort of premises have no alternatives. They are necessary, not by deduction but because one cannot find any consistent rival premises. What, then, might be the principles that are exhibited by all possible actual 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 yet who is so omniscient as to know that there are no such unavoidable concepts?

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 or mourn.

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 the following:
(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 says,

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 of the present actualities, then all that one has become is fully effective in the difference it can make in the Whole. The reality of our acts resides in their power, to force the whole to account for our acts as parts of its self. The self is what Leibniz calls "active 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 and still avoid the usual deus ex machina, the illogic of a changing whole, the 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 done otherwise.

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 valuating 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 disparity between seeming and actual good, a life could still effect a negative outcome for those living its death. Such a death is tragic, not evil. The answer to why it happened lies in the necessity of life to be lived contemporaneously with other lives, each with some 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 leave open.

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 risk 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 forever.


1. Marcus Aurelius, Meditation VI, 24. Can be found in The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers, W. J. Dates, ed., Modern Library, 1940. 2.

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 II, 11.



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