There is one thing I can be sure of: I am going to die. But what am I to make of that fact? This course will examine a number of issues that arise once we begin to reflect on our mortality. The possibility that death may not actually be the end is considered. Are we, in some sense, immortal? Would immortality be desirable? Also a clearer notion of what it is to die is examined. What does it mean to say that a person has died? What kind of fact is that? And, finally, different attitudes to death are evaluated. Is death an evil? How? Why? Is suicide morally permissible? Is it rational? How should the knowledge that I am going to die affect the way I live my life?
In Ancient Greece or Rome, philosophers were seen as natural authorities on the most pressing questions. However, since then, the idea of finding wisdom from philosophy has come to seem bizarre. Enter a university department today and ask to study wisdom, and you will politely but firmly be shown the door. The Consolations of Philosophy sets out to refute the notion that good philosophy must be irrelevant and gathers together six great philosophers who were convinced of the power of philosophical insight to work a practical effect on our lives.
There’s definitely an element of Stoicism in existentialism, particularly in Sartre, and also in Viktor Frankl’s work. The difference is that there is more emphasis on the need for human beings to find a meaning and an individual purpose in what they do. It’s not just a matter of enduring or retreating into an inner realm in which you’re free. In fact, it’s not really about the inner realm at all, because the way you find meaning is not within, but through a purpose in the world, something that’s outside you, something that is greater than you. It could be by creating something, and it could be — and very often is — connections to other human beings, whether it’s comrades, friends, family or the people you come up against in life. And if all else fails — as it tended to in the concentration camps — and all the usual sources of meaning fall apart, there is always the chance of finding a meaning in the suffering itself. This is something that’s very hard to talk about in the abstract, but that was the conclusion that he came to.