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Dennis Sansom presents and examines the way the experience of death teaches a moral lesson from three poets and playwrights. Sophocles’ conclusion to Oedipus Rex shows the shortcoming of living a meaningful life based upon a utilitarian calculus. Shakespeare’s soliloquy of “To be or not to be” given by Hamlet exposes the limitations of trying to base a well-ordered moral life upon rational principles. John Donne’s Meditation XVII, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” presents an experience of death, interpreted by faith in Christ’s salvific work through suffering death, which creates compassion toward humanity and confidence in humanity purpose. Mr. Sansom is Professor of Philosophy at Samford University.

I think one of the most interesting points Stanley Hauerwas makes in his essay is in the following statement, “The problem is quite simply that medicine has been put at the service of cheating death by a people who no longer believe our deaths have any meaning.” The logic of the statement is similar to one he makes in God, Medicine and Suffering (Eerdmans, 1990) in which he argues that medicine has become a form of theodicy, a way to justify our existence rather than God’s in a world of suffering and death. For a person who values life proportional to the amount of self-referential advancement obtained in it, sickness and disability threaten our worth and existence. Thus we must keep them away and delay death as much as we can, because sickness and death cannot have meaning for us.

However, the Christian, according to Hauerwas, does not view sickness and death that way, because,

[Christians] are a community of people who have learned that their deaths are not an unmitigated disaster. Even more important they are or should be a people who have learned that service to one another is more important than life itself. As a result they can envision a form of care in which the poor are not excluded.

I believe his argument is this: because Christians live as though their deaths can give a moral designation to their lives and because they seek to care for those who suffer, they opt out of unnecessary medical care for themselves so that the resources can go to the weakest persons in society. I want to examine the major premise of this argument: can death be meaningful, can it be a moral educator to us?

Of course, death itself does not educate us, for it is technically the cessation of biological-social life. It is the kind of experience death creates upon us that indicates whether it acts as a moral instructor. I believe death can be a moral educator, and I think Hauerwas thinks the same.

In the Preface to God, Medicine and Suffering, Hauerwas admits he cannot possibly touch his reader’s soul “with words so that we may be comforted.”1 He says one would have to be a poet to do that, and he is only a mere theologian. Though I am not a poet either, I want to look at three poets and examine what they say about the kinds of instructions we get in the experience of death, and determine from their insights in what way death can be a moral instructor

The first poet is Sophocles (495-406 B.C.E.), perhaps the greatest Greek play-wright and poet. His play Oedipus Rex still captivates us, because in its graphic and tragic story, we find something of our own lives in it, as Aristotle said of the play when he used it as an example of the catharsis we can experience in art. What makes the story a tragedy is that Oedipus is a good person who plans to do the right thing but who discovers that his best efforts and calculations have revealed his profound faults. The story is well known – a prophet predicts that Oedipus one day would break the most sacred of taboos: patricide and incest. To avoid this fate, his parents throw him away, so to speak, but he is found and raised. He becomes prominent and righteous, and attempts to rid Thebes of a plague by discovering the guilty person who offended the gods and brought on the sickness. It is a good plan, but the closer to the truth he gets, the more he realizes that he is the cause of the plague, because unknowingly, he had killed his father in self-defense and married his mother and bore two daughters with her. Upon realizing that his plans had actually exposed his guilt, he tears out eyes so to live in darkness and agony.

At the end, Sophocles says this:

Behold him, Thebans: Oedipus, great and wise,
Who solved the famous riddle. This is he
Whom all men gazed upon with envious eyes,
Who now is struggling in a stormy sea,
Crushed by the billows of his bitter woes.
Look to the end of mortal life. In vain
We say a man is happy, till he goes
Beyond life’s final border, free from pain.

Our consummation occurs in death, and only then do we see what fate has done to our well-calculated and devised plans. No amount of circumspect, utilitarian reasoning and action can guarantee that we will die with the desired ends for which we aimed. Death undercuts the confidence of a utilitarian and shows that the unpredictability and inherent ambiguity of life thwart all pretenses that we can maximize our preferences and in the end live a fulfilled life. Our coming deaths warn us that our futures cannot always be constructed in the present. We know that the tragic happens to the best of people, and hence we identify with Oedipus, though his sins are not ours. Death is an educator in the sense of exposing the folly of thinking that the kinds of preferences which result from a utilitarian calculus could make life meaningful.

The next poet is William Shakespeare and his famous prince of Denmark, Hamlet. Sensing that there is something rotten in Denmark, Hamlet begins to investigate the cause of his father’s death, all the while questioning his own purpose and even sanity. In the middle of the play (III.1), he gives the unforgettable soliloquy, which starts, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” He reflects on his mortality and becomes bitter and terrified of death:

Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover ’d country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear the ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.
And the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn away,
And lose the name of action.

For Hamlet, no matter how hard we reason and speculate about the good we should do, the uncertainty of death undercuts the confidence we can put into our reasoning about moral principles. We may think such and such is a moral duty because we would want everyone to will such an action, but when we face our mortality, our wills become confused, not pure reasoning agents, and we loose courage to universalize the maxims of what we may think are our ethical duties.

The uncertainty of what lies beyond death not only erodes the hope that our eternal states will bring us happiness because our temporal actions have been rational and dutiful, it also undermines a confidence in the success of those “enterprises of great pitch and moment” that, we have pretended, if everyone would have followed them, we would have a society of free people working toward a perpetual peace, and that if everyone were rational and dutiful, society would be democratic and peaceful. The experience of death shows the limitation (and maybe even the futility) of our attempts to make life meaningful by designing and following necessary and universalizeable rules. Death educates us by exposing the tenuousness of our reasoning about what constitutes a well-ordered life and shows the latent fear we carry about our pending deaths.

The final poet is the great preacher-poet of London’s St. Paul Cathedral, John Donne, who in 1624 wrote the meditation (number XVII) which has perhaps become his most widely quoted writing: “For whom the bell tolls.” Though written in prose rather than in meter, Donne’s poetic skills shine through the meditation. He has us hearing a funeral bell and meditating if we should go see for whom it rings. The meditation makes us realize a fundamental fact about our existence: “noone is an island entire unto himself.” We share a profound link to all who suffer; we share humanity. Thus, Donne makes us ask of ourselves,

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

Instead of enervating our utilitarian plans or undercutting our rational consciences, for Donne, the experience of hearing the bells compels us to recognize the worth of the dead and to care for the grieving. The experience of death does not create despair, though it does engender sorrow. It evokes from us the realization that even the dead are our neighbors whom we should love and by loving them, we come to realize more about ourselves as neighbors to others. The tolling of the bells presents a profound moral lesson: we all share a similar hour with the grim reaper, and in standing with all who face it, we embolden others to affirm the value and worth of being human.

Why does Donne, who lived during the great plague of London and lost his brother to it and his wife and five of his 12 children in childbirth, come to a different experience than Sophocles in Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare in Hamlet? What works in his thinking and affections to say that the bells toll for us? To help give an answer, I go to a French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, in particular his small book published in 1995, The Gift of Death. In typical fashion, Derrida is often clever times two in the book, but it has a clear argument. To do good to another person, we should respect the other as truly another person, not a projection we fashion, which means we must recognize the uniqueness and mystery of the person.2 Our efforts then must be relative to the other person’s particularity and “secret” as Derrida says, which means that to do good to that person, we restrict ourselves away from doing good to others. We cannot treat everyone the same, but in caring for one person, we know we take away that care from others. That causes suffering, knowing we are not helping others in choosing to do good to the other. We know that we should do good to them but cannot because we do good to the other. Our doing good is a gift to someone that comes at a great cost to us. We do not do good because of some universal rule of doing good to all people. We do good because of the worth of the individual who confronts us. We suffer in doing good, and the greatest gift would be to die to others in order to save the other.

In the book Derrida gives a slight and curious deference to the Christian teaching of God suffering a death to save humanity.3 Yet, this teaching permeates the thinking and affections of Donne’s community and informs the right responses they should have toward the experience of death. He knows Christ’s death is a gift, that God the Father sacrifices the Son’s life so to save humanity. He experiences the worth of all who suffer and die because death has meaning in the death of Christ, and consequently, the commandment to love our neighbor to whom we should sacrifice entails the dead as well as the living. Death educates us because it can be a gift, a sacrifice that secures faith and hope in the value of being human in a world of suffering and death, of infinite need, even when people seem to loose social significance and personal health.

I am not for sure if Hauerwas has any of the above in mind, but he does think death can be a meaningful experience. Perhaps a way to explain how the experience of death can have meaning is to think the experience is a gift, a sacrifice on our part for the weaker in society to show their value as humans. Their suffering is a bell that tolls for those who know the power of God’s response to the death of the Son, a response that settles the divine rectification and affirmation of a fallen and sick world and proffers a redemption for those stricken with the fear and foreboding of their own deaths.

Footnotes

  1. Stanley Hauerwas, God, Medicine and Suffering (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), ix.
  2. Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago: The University of ChicagoPress, 1995), 86-92.
  3. Ibid., 40-50.

Dennis L. Sansom

Samford University
Mr. Sansom is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama.