Monday, September 15, 2008

Death and Philosophy


If we did not die, if our existence did not unravel in the endless darkness of death, would life be quite so precious, so extraordinary, so moving?
Andre Comte-Sponville,
Professor of Philosophy at the Sorbonne


Whenever I ask students what they think are the most fundamental questions of human life, always on the list is some form of the question, Why do we have to die?
I lost a very close friend, one of those few friends who are really more like family, this week. He died suddenly, leaving three children behind. Can philosophy help me to deal with this loss? Can it help me to understand death? Can it help young people?
One way in which I've explored this question with students is by reading with them the picture book The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia, about the life a leaf named Freddie and his struggle to understand death and the cycle of life, and discussing the following questions:
Was fall frightening for the leaves? Why?
Daniel tells the leaves that in fall the leaves change their home, and he says that some people call this “to die.” What does this mean?
Freddie tells Daniel he is afraid to die. Why is he afraid?
Daniel says that death is a natural change just like spring becoming summer, or summer becoming fall. Do you think this is true? What is a "natural change?"
How do you think Freddie felt when he was all alone, the last leaf left on his branch? Do you think he was ready to die? Is there such a thing as being "ready to die?" What does that mean?
Freddie saw how strong and firm his tree was as he fell from it. He felt proud that he had been a part of its life. Why do you think he felt that way? Is death a part of life? How would life be different without death?
The author ends the book by calling it “the beginning” instead of “the end.” Why does he do that? What is the difference between a beginning and an end? Are they always different? Can beginnings be endings, and endings beginnings?

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