Thursday, 6 October 2011

On death…

I've just posted some uncompromisingly hard words on the passing of Steve Jobs. Some balance is, I think, required.

I've been reading Stephen Greenblatt's new book, The Swerve, which posits that the rediscovery of Epicurean philosophy via Poggio's unearthing of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) kickstarted the humanist Renaissance. Two of the central tenets of Epicureanism are that death is definitely the end, and that if there are gods, they don't concern themselves with us. This is the life we have: its limited span gives it meaning amidst an indifferent universe.

I have a friend who cried when I espoused this view: to her, the lack of a divine purpose or design made her feel infinitesimal and lonely. For me, both liberation and responsibility are enhanced by the feeling that we are responsible for our actions. The fear of God or eternal reward/damnation don't provide a basis for morality, they remove it. If you do good, or avoid doing harm in the hope of avoiding punishment or achieving rewards, you aren't moral, you're a coward.

I think Steve Jobs felt something similar, based on what he says here:
"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."
"Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn't matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we've done something wonderful … that's what matters to me." 
He clearly isn't concerned with morality or philanthropy: his mental landscape is dominated by achievement in financial and technical terms, but mortality - and he faced it bravely - actuated his drive towards triumph. I suspect that like Epicurus and Montaigne, 'legacy' isn't important: the dead cease to be. Being dead isn't a problem - it's dying that we all fear, as Lucretius said on the subject of dying unfulfilled, 'after you expire/Not one of all these things will fill you with desire'. Montaigne, who returned to the subject of death often, had this to say:
I want death to find me planting my cabbages, but careless of death and still more of my unfinished garden'. 
Hopefully Jobs, having lived ceaselessly driven by ambition, had this moment of realisation to ease his passing.

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