Reflections on Death in times of pandemic

In a famous passage from his magnum opus, Schopenhauer writes: “Death is the real inspiring genius or Musagetes of philosophy, and for this reason Socrates defined philosophy as ‘Preparation for death.’” (SCHOPENHAUER, 1966)
Painting by Zdzislaw Beksinski

According to Schopenhauer there is a force which permeates all of reality: the Will. He argues that the Will is the Kantian thing-in-itself, the metaphysical noumenon which we can't have access to by observing the world. In living beings, this force is expressed as Will to live, something that doesn't care about our comfort or well-being. Its objective is to perpetuate itself, to propagate. When we observe beings capable of feeling pain, this tragedy becomes obvious: our individual and collective sufferings have are not important to the Will. Even when an entire species becomes extinct, the Will to live continues to exist in other animals and living beings.

The virus occupies a strange place in the classifications of contemporary biology. It presents certain characteristics of a living being, while it lacks others. A living being possess genes, is capable of reproducing and evolves through natural selection. Viruses have these characteristics, but they lack cellular structure, their own metabolism, and other features that define living beings. It needs host cells in order to reproduce. Let's leave the world of biology behind and fall back into philosophical speculations: Schopenhauer would certainly characterize the virus as one of countless representations of the Will, just like all of empirical reality, be it organic or inorganic.

The bacteria is clearly defined as a living being, and it had a long protagonism in past epidemics. The bubonic plague was caused by the bacteria Yersina pestis, and it decimated between 30% and 60% of Europe's population in the 14th century. It would take another 200 years for Europe to recover the number of inhabitants it had before this epidemic. However, in the second decade of the 20th century, before the discovery of antibiotics helped curb bacterial infections, and before the airplane became a means of mass transportation, the influenza virus H1N1 caused a global pandemic that killed between 50 and 100 million people around the world. In Brazil, 300 thousand lives were lost, including that of president Rodrigues Alves.

Just as in all brutal epidemics that mankind has gone through, the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic won't make our species extinct. The World Health Organisation says that the global mortality rate of Covid-19 is around 3.4%. In the case of Italy, the mortality rate is above 8%. In other countries, like Germany, it isn't even 0.5%. These rates are calculated by taking into account the number of confirmed cases and the number of confirmed deaths. There is at least one study that indicates the real global mortality rate is closer to 1.4%. It takes into account an estimation of how many people were infected but who weren't identified as being carriers, which lowers the true mortality rate.

Let's use the optimistic figure of 1.4%. The world today has about 7.5 billion people. If 60% of the world's population (4.5 billion) contract the SARS-CoV-2 virus, even if only 1.4% of them die, that's about 63 million deaths from Covid-19 in a short amount of time, whithin this year. It's worth noticing that in 2015, 57 million people died in total from old age, diseases, accidents, homicides and wars—and 141 million were born in total. Now we have the possibility of adding 63 million deaths because of the pandemic on top of the 60 million who would die anyway of other causes. But even if these numbers are way off the mark, even if the entire world sees only half a million deaths by Covid-19 this year, it will still be a lot of deaths.

That is why several measures have been taken: if nothing is done, even a 1.4% mortality rate would cause a tremendous amount of deaths. Although current measures are probably not enough, the precautions adopted in several countries—including Brazil, which has a president who believes in ridiculous conspiracy theories and denies the existence of the virus—are going to help the world avoid the worst case scenario. Regardless, many lives will be lost.

No matter how the scenario develops—regardless of us being able to isolate the virus (and only a few thousand or hundreds of thousands die) or not (millions die)—, the presence of death is clearer these days. A pandemic ends up being more democratic than urban violence, because even though the rich can initially have more hospital beds at their disposal, there will come a moment when beds will be full, including in private clinics, since both the public health system and private hospitals will be saturated. Death will be evident to all, even to those who can normally avoid her. It will be impossible for us to hide from her, just like in certain regions of Italy, where bodies begin to pile.

This is a startling fact about us humans: we avoid thinking about death at any cost. It is considered morbid. This rejection is recurring in several civilizations, since antiquity, especially in the West. This happens despite the existence of philosophies, great religions and minor sects throughout History that embraced the contemplation of death. The ascetic movements within certain religions sought different ways to let go of the world and prepare for a (supposedly) superior reality—this occurred in the Buddhist traditions of India and China, in Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity in northern Africa and Eastern Europe.

Epicurus (341 b.C. - 270 b.C.) wrote the following concerning death:
Get used to believing that death is nothing to us. For all good and bad consists in sense-experience, and death is the privation of sense experience. Hence, a correct knowledge of the fact that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life a matter for contentment, not by adding a limitless time to life but by removing the longing for immortality. For there is nothing fearful in life for one who has grasped that there is nothing fearful in the absence of life. Thus, he is a fool who says that he fears death not because it will be painful when present but because it is painful when it is still to come. For that which while present causes no distress causes unnecessary pain when merely anticipated. So death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist. (EPICURUS, 1996)

The idea here is that death cannot be seen as an evil by the person who fears it for themselves. It's alright that we suffer when others die, but we shouldn't fear our own death, because when it comes, we don't exist anymore. That is: because we don't exist after we die, our death are nothing to us. South African philosopher David Benatar disagrees. He mentions Lucretius, Epicurus' disciple who advanced the argument made by his teacher. Lucretius stated that, since we don't feel bad about the period of time we didn't exist prior to our birth, we shouldn't feel bad about the time we won't exist after our lives are finished.
Benatar (2006) argues that dying is not the same as never being born. His point is that death is the last evil in a series of evils that exist in human life. Before that, however, he reminds his readers that for those who believe in life after death, the Epicurean argument just doesn't apply. But Benatar himself adopts the view that after we die our consciousness stop existing. However, he doesn't consider death as a neutral event. To show that death is itself a harm, one of the arguments he uses is the common intuition that when we kill someone we are causing a harm to this person, depriving them of their lives and interests. If death really were nothing for those who die, it would be possible to argue that a murderer doesn't harm anybody.

There are nuances in Benatar's arguments against the Epicurean view of death, and he himself admits not having a definitive answer. However, he finishes by stating that, if the Epicureans are right and we can't consider death a harm, we also could not consider death something good either. That is: no matter how bad a life is, death can never be viewed as something good for the person. One example we can give is of an elderly terminal patient suffering from extreme pain in his or her death bed. For the Epicurean, death is neither bad nor good for the person, since it doesn't deprive him or her of nothing, including pain.

For Benatar, the Epicurean must explain how a murder victim after the act cannot be said to be suffering a harm (since being dead equals being nothing). The explanation that it is not the dead that suffers the harm, but society or people close to the victim isn't enough to explain why killing someone is to cause harm to this person. When the Epicurean says it is not the dead that is harmed, but society and close relatives, he is not explaining how the victim can properly be considered a victim. The Epicurean would also have to explain how a terminal sufferer wouldn't benefit from death. Benatar says that the murder victim is in fact harmed, because he argues that dying is a harm. He also says that the terminal sufferer benefits from dying because he or she is relieved of a great burden (physical pain and avoidable suffering)—even though death is a harm according to Benatar, it would be the smaller of two evils in the case of the terminal patient suffering from immense pain.

Centuries after Epicurus, Seneca (4 b.C. - 65 a.C.)—Nero's preceptor who would later be sentenced to death by his pupil—also meditated on the subject of death. He wrote in his letters to Lucilius: “Whatever years be behind us are in death’s hands.” (SENECA, 2014). Seneca, like Epicurus before him, also didn't consider death a great evil:
For this reason, make life as a whole agreeable to yourself by banishing all worry about it. No good thing renders its possessor happy, unless his mind is reconciled to the possibility of loss; nothing, however, is lost with less discomfort than that which, when lost, cannot be missed. Therefore, encourage and toughen your spirit against the mishaps that afflict even the most powerful. (...) I am not so foolish as to go through at this juncture the arguments which Epicurus harps upon, and say that the terrors of the world below are idle, – that Ixion does not whirl round on his wheel, that Sisyphus does not shoulder his stone uphill, that a man’s entrails cannot be restored and devoured every day; no one is so childish as to fear Cerberus, or the shadows, or the spectral garb of those who are held together by naught but their unfleshed bones. Death either annihilates us or strips us bare. If we are then released, there remains the better part, after the burden has been withdrawn; if we are annihilated, nothing remains; good and bad are alike removed. (SENECA, 2014)
It is not only our deaths that need to be meditated upon. In a letter to a grief stricken mother who lost her son many years earlier, Seneca wrote:
How many funerals pass our houses? yet we do not think of death. How many untimely deaths? we think only of our son’s coming of age, of his service in the army, or of his succession to his father’s estate. How many rich men suddenly sink into poverty before our very eyes, without its ever occurring to our minds that our own wealth is exposed to exactly the same risks? (...) Still, it is a sad thing to lose a young man whom you have brought up, just as he was becoming a defence and a pride both to his mother and to his country.” No one denies that it is sad: but it is the common lot of mortals. You were born to lose others, to be lost, to hope, to fear, to destroy your own peace and that of others, to fear and yet to long for death, and, worst of all, never to know what your real position is. (...) There is nothing to prevent their performing the last offices for you, and your panegyric being spoken by your children: but bold yourself prepared nevertheless to place a son as boy, man, or greybeard, upon the funeral pyre: for years have nothing to do with the matter, since every sort of funeral in which a parent buries his child must alike be untimely. If you still choose to rear children, after I have explained these conditions to you, you render yourself incapable of blaming the gods, for they never guaranteed anything to you. (SENECA, 2014)
The French moralist Michel Montaigne (1533 - 1592) absorbed some of these ancient teachings and dealt with death in similar fashion. One of his most famous essays is titled To philosophize is to learn how to die. In it, he tells us that without pondering death—the death of others and our own—our lives are ripe for disaster. Since it is full of iconic passages, I will cite a longer section:
But it is madness to think you can succeed that way. They come and they go and they trot and they dance: and never a word about death. All well and good. Yet when death does come – to them, their wives, their children, their friends – catching them unawares and unprepared, then what storms of passion overwhelm them, what cries, what fury, what despair! Have you ever seen anything brought so low, anything so changed, so confused? We must start providing for it earlier. (...) If death were an enemy which could be avoided I would counsel borrowing the arms of cowardice. But it cannot be done. [B] Death can catch you just as easily as a coward on the run or as an honourable man (...) we must learn to stand firm and to fight it. To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness; let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death. At every instant let us evoke it in our imagination under all its aspects. Whenever a horse stumbles, a tile falls or a pin pricks however slightly, let us at once chew over this thought: ‘Supposing that was death itself?’ With that, let us brace ourselves and make an effort. In the midst of joy and feasting let our refrain be one which recalls our human condition. Let us never be carried away by pleasure so strongly that we fail to recall occasionally how many are the ways in which that joy of ours is subject to death or how many are the fashions in which death threatens to snatch it away. (...) We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practise death is to practise freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. Knowing how to die gives us freedom from subjection and constraint. (...) That same journey from death to life, which you once made without suffering or fear, make it again from life to death. Your death is a part of the order of the universe; it is a part of the life of the world (...) Shall I change, just for you, this beautiful interwoven structure! Death is one of the attributes you were created with; death is a part of you; you are running away from yourself; this being which you enjoy is equally divided between death and life. (MONTAIGNE, 2003)
Death comes to us all, one way or another. Like one of my greatest friends once told me: all of those who go through graduate school have to submit and defend a final paper, it is of no use to be scared. In the same way, all of us who are alive have to die at some point. Like the students who fear writing their monographs and their thesis, many of us fear our own deaths. The comparison doesn't really fit when we are talking about the lives of those who we love, though.

Well, what do I think about death? Although many sages have meditated over death and told us not to be afraid, in times when death appears to be around the corner more than usual it is perfectly normal to fear her. Like Julio Cabrera would say: the end of our lives is only the final, punctual death. However, before that moment that ends all moments, we live a structural death, which accompanies us from the moment we are born up until we are no more. All of life is one great death.

By Fernando Olszewski

(This post was first published March 23rd, 2020 @ Exilado Metafísico)

. BENATAR, David. Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
. CABRERA, Julio. Mal-Estar e Moralidade: Situação Humana, Ética e Procriação Responsável. Brasília: Editora UnB, 2017.
. EPICURUS. Letter to Menoeceus. In: EPICURUS. The Epicurus Reader. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1996. p. 28-31.
. MONTAIGNE, Michel de. The Complete Essays. London: Penguin Books, 2003.
. SCHOPENHAUER, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation, v. 2. New York: Dover Publications, 1966. Translated by E.F.J. Payne.
. SENECA, Lucius Annaeus. Complete Works of Seneca. East Sussex: Delphi Classics, 2014.
. Schopenhauer (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
. Virus - Life properties (Wikipedia)
. Black Death (Wikipedia)
. Spanish flu (Wikipedia)
. COVID-19 basics explained (The Conversation)
. What is coronavirus – and what is the mortality rate? (The Guardian)
. How many people die and how many are born each year? (Our World in Data)
. The top 10 causes of death (World Health Organization)