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date: 16 October 2021

Philosophy, Death, and Educationfree

Philosophy, Death, and Educationfree

  • Peter RobertsPeter RobertsUniversity of Canterbury


Often regarded as one of life’s few certainties, death is both instantly familiar to us and deeply mysterious. Every adult will have encountered death in some form, sometimes through the loss of a family member, sometimes less directly via friendships with others or the viewing of news items on television or the Internet. Yet, few take the time to examine death closely and to consider its significance in shaping human lives. Death is of interest both for what we know about it (in observing and living with others who die) and for what we do not know about it (“What will happen to me after I die?”). Death seems, on the face of it, to lend itself well to both philosophical and educational inquiry. For, if, as Socrates claimed, philosophy prepares us for death, this suggests an educational process (“How does it prepare us?”) that warrants careful investigation. It is, however, not just philosophy that prepares us for death but also death that prepares us for philosophy. Our understanding of death can exert a powerful but often unnoticed influence over our ontological and epistemological views, our ethical commitments, and our educational endeavors. Death can prompt us to ask: What does it mean to be a human being? What do we value and why? What and how should we seek to know? How should we live?


  • Educational Theories and Philosophies


Often regarded as one of life’s few certainties, death is both instantly familiar to us and deeply mysterious. Every adult will have encountered death in some form, sometimes through the loss of a family member, sometimes less directly via friendships with others or the viewing of news items on television or the Internet. Yet, few take the time to examine death closely and to consider its significance in shaping human lives. Philosophers of education have something important to offer in this respect. There is an established body of work on “death education” (Fonseca & Testoni, 2011; Wass, 2004), but this is predominantly concerned with something quite specific: the provision and evaluation of educational initiatives designed to assess and enhance understanding of death and dying. Research in this area has been undertaken in a number of institutions and professional contexts, including schools (Puolimatka & Solasaari, 2006), universities and colleges (Brabant & Kalich, 2008; Fowler, 2008; Mak, 2011, 2013; Wong, 2009, 2017), community rehabilitation centers (Leung et al., 2015), social work and human services (Cacciatore, Thieleman, Killian, & Tavasolli, 2015; McClatchey & King, 2015), nursing (Cui, Shen, Ma, & Zhao, 2011), and counselling (Servaty-Seib & Parikh, 2014). There is also a substantial literature on the “philosophy of death” (Luper, 2009; see also, Cholbi, 2016; Scarre, 2007), but this has been mainly the preserve of those working in philosophy departments, not educationists. Scholarship in this domain has focused on whether death is “bad” for us (Belshaw, 2000; Bradley, 2004, 2007; Brueckner & Fischer, 1986; Cyr, 2016; Draper, 1999; Feldman, 2013; Hetherington, 2013; Johansson, 2013; Nagel, 1970; Stoyles, 2011), on the nature and desirability of immortality (Fischer, 2005; Fischer & Mitchell-Yellin, 2014; Smuts, 2011), and on whether it is rational to feel fear or terror in the face of death (Bradley, 2015; Draper, 2004), among other areas.

“Death education” has a strong practical and professional focus; the “philosophy of death” draws primarily on the analytic philosophical tradition in its methods and aims. Other approaches to the question of death are possible. In particular, there is a longstanding concern with death in existentialism, as represented by the work of thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Unamuno, Heidegger, Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus—all of whom will be discussed in this article. Death is sometimes seen as a “sensitive” topic, as a subject best avoided. “Modern Western culture,” Arcilla observes, “has increasingly distanced itself from death” (Arcilla, 1997, p. 449). Yet, history is replete with examples of individuals who have rubbed against the grain and talked openly about death—both in the abstract and in relation to their own anticipated demise. Death is of interest both for what we know about it (in observing and living with others who die) and for what we do not know about it (“What will happen to me after I die?”). Death seems, on the face of it, to lend itself well to both philosophical and educational inquiry. For, if, as Socrates claimed, philosophy prepares us for death, this suggests an educational process (“How does it prepare us?”) that warrants careful investigation. It is, however, not just philosophy that prepares us for death but also death that prepares us for philosophy. Our understanding of death can exert a powerful but often unnoticed influence over our ontological and epistemological views, our ethical commitments, and our educational endeavors. Death can prompt us to ask: What does it mean to be a human being? What do we value and why? What and how should we seek to know? How should we live? The first part of the article introduces the notion of “learning how to die,” linking this with the concept of philosophy as a way of life. This is followed by an examination of existentialist approaches to the question of death. The idea of fearing death, considered in the first part, is extended here with reference to the existentialist themes of consciousness and subjectivity, angst and despair, and freedom and responsibility. The final part builds on both of the preceding sections, teasing out in more explicit detail some of the possibilities for philosophical work in education on death, with special attention paid to the social nature of teaching and learning.

Learning How to Die: Philosophy as a Way of Life

Death has featured as a subject for reflection from the beginning of recorded Western history. From its representation in ancient cave paintings and early forms of sculpture to its appearance as a dominant theme in the epic Homeric poems, The Odyssey and The Iliad (Homer, 1991, 2003), death has, in subsequent centuries, cast its shadow over Western art and culture. The question of what happens to us when we die has been a key concern in most traditions of religious thought. Across the ages, death has been present as a concrete reality to be faced, directly or indirectly, by individuals and families negotiating their way in the world. Human beings have always had to deal with death, in one way or another, sometimes with fear, shock, grief, or anger, at other times with quiet acceptance or a sense of relief. But what might it mean to make death the subject of philosophical investigation? In the West, it is the figure of Socrates as depicted in Plato’s dialogues to whom we most frequently turn in seeking a starting point for inquiry. In the Phaedo, Socrates claims that philosophy is a preparation for death. If we truly love wisdom, Socrates maintains, we will want, as far as possible, to free our souls from our bodies. We will not be afraid of dying, for in death this separation finds its ultimate fulfillment (Plato, 2003, pp. 128–130). Socrates is of interest not just for his views on death but also for the example he provided in the manner of his own death. Accused by the Athenian authorities of impiety and corrupting the minds of the young, he was put to death in 399 bce. By all accounts, he remained calm and composed right up to the last moment of his life, reinforcing, throughout his trial, the central tenets of his philosophy and the value of his mode of life. He could, it has often been noted, have saved himself, yet he did not do so, maintaining his commitment to the rule of law and retaining his philosophical principles until the end.

Socrates is, along with Hypatia, Thomas More, Giordano Bruno, and Simone Weil, among others, an example of a philosopher who was willing to “die for an idea” (Bradatan, 2015, p. 5). Whatever the differences between these thinkers in their circumstances, responsibilities, and worldviews, all shared a commitment to the idea of philosophy as a something practiced, something not merely studied but lived (p. 5). This conception of philosophy, as a “way of life,” with “spiritual exercises,” is evident in the work of the Stoics and the Epicureans as well as the writings of Plato and Aristotle (Hadot, 1995). From the Middle Ages to modern times, this orientation to the nature and purpose of philosophical work has largely been ignored; philosophy has become nothing more than “philosophical discourse” (p. 269; see also Neiman, 1997, pp. 457–458). There have been some notable exceptions to this discursive turn—Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein were all admired by Hadot—but the dominant tendency has been to separate philosophy from the concerns of the “concrete, living, and perceiving subject” (Hadot, 1995, p. 273); to restrict philosophical activity to a kind of “technical jargon reserved for specialists” (p. 272). Rather than focusing on ever increasing layers of abstraction, philosophy as a way of life has as its central focus the existing individual (Kierkegaard, 2009). But if we are concerned with the problem of existence, we are also concerned with the problem of nonexistence. In considering what it means to live, or to be, we cannot, if our inquiry is comprehensive, avoid questions relating to what it means to die. As Bradatan points out, “what philosophy as an art of living boils down to is, paradoxically, learning how to face death—an art of dying” (2015, p. 5).

Approaches to the question of death have often circled around the idea of fear. Should we be afraid of death? Our answer to this question will often depend on what we understand death to be. Among the ancients, Lucretius (1999) is perhaps the best-known exponent of the thesis that death should hold no fear for us. Death, Lucretius says, should be “nothing” to us (p. 92). “Look back upon ages of time past,” the long periods of time before we were born, and we will see that they have “been nothing to us, nothing at all” (pp. 96–97). This is the mirror that Nature holds up for us: the image of what death will be for us—nothing horrible, nothing sad (p. 97). If we are mortal in mind, body and spirit, death for the individual is the end of life. After death, there is, for each us, nothing, just as before our birth there was, for each of us, nothing. For Lucretius, as for his mentor Epicurus, “fearing what it will be like to exist after we die is as silly as revulsion at the thought of what it was like to not exist before we were born” (Luper, 2009, p. 63). As Epicurus puts it, “so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, we do not exist” (in Enright, 1987, p. 8). A similar view was adopted, many centuries later, by Schopenhauer: “it is irrefutably certain that non-existence after death cannot be different from non-existence before birth and is therefore no more deplorable than that is” (Schopenhauer, 1966, vol. 2, p. 466). For Lucretius, not only is there no need for fear in the face of the nothingness of nonexistence; death might even be considered something to be welcomed. Death releases us from our cares and relieves us from the pain we experience in life. There is no need to grieve, for in death we find the rest of a permanent sleep (Lucretius, 1999, p. 95).

Just as our understanding of death bears on how we live our lives—including whether we live in fear of death—so too does our understanding of life, and particularly what constitutes a good life, bear on our approach to death. Plato’s concept (1974) of the Good rests on the metaphysical foundations of his theory of Forms. For Plato, all specific, particular acts of goodness participate in something higher: the Form of the Good. Forms are ideals; they are timeless and universal. Plato conceives of the soul as immortal. He calls “anything that harms or destroys a thing evil, and anything that preserves and benefits it good” (p. 441). The soul has its own particular fault—moral wickedness—but even this cannot destroy it. Indeed, there is, as Plato sees it, no evil, either the soul’s own or another’s, that can weaken or annihilate the soul. The soul must therefore “exist for ever” (p. 443). For Plato, goodness is to be valued not just for the rewards it brings in life but for those it furnishes after death. Pursuing justice, with wisdom, will bring happiness in this life and the next (pp. 453, 455). Aristotle (1976), like his teacher Plato, believed a good life is a happy life. He also accepted, with Plato, that the rational person would be happy. But, where for Plato, specific acts of goodness must be understood in relation to the greater goodness that is the Form of the Good, for Aristotle, goodness lies in the application of practical reason in everyday human activity. “The quality of a life,” Aristotle argues, “is determined by its activities” (p. 84). This will be evident in the virtues we exhibit; virtuous activities make us happy. Happiness is “an activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue” (p. 87). The happy person will remain happy throughout life and die in this same state (pp. 83–84). Happiness is “an end in every way utterly final and complete” (p. 84).

Spinoza (1969) shares with Socrates and Plato a faith in the power of reason to set us free and argues that if we are directed by reason we will be led not by the fear of death but by a desire for what is good. Wisdom for Spinoza should be a “meditation not of death but of life” (p. 187). Reflection on death should be avoided, “since the fear of death diminishes a person’s power to live and her ability to act according to her genuine interests” (Puolimatka & Solasaari, 2006, p. 204). Others have responded to the fear of death in quite the opposite way. Montaigne (1991), for example, acknowledges the hold that death has over us—the fear it creates—but suggests that our best response is to “stand firm” and “fight” death (p. 96). Death, Montaigne observes, follows us all and cannot be avoided; no one can escape from its clutches. Faced with this reality, what should we do? We should, Montaigne counsels, “begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us” (p. 96). We need to rid death of its alien character, 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” (p. 96). Montaigne continues: “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” (p. 96). We must, Montaigne argues, always “have our boots on” (p. 98); we should, in our daily activities, be constantly ready for death, as we do not know when it will approach us. As far as practically possible, we must never put off until tomorrow what can be done today. Nature can come to our aid with a sudden death, allowing us no time to be fearful. Illness too, with the pain and suffering it entails, can make the prospect of death seem less unpalatable. Nature is also kind to us in making the process of aging a gradual affair; were we to be thrust into old age without warning, we might find the change unbearable. The length of our life should not concern us, for when considered in relation to all that exists in Nature, all human lives are short (pp. 100–103).

For Montaigne, life and death are intimately related. Death is a part of us, from the moment we are born. We are “in death” while we are “in life” (p. 103). After life, we are dead, but during life we are dying (p. 103). Life’s continual task, Montaigne claims, “is to build your death” (p. 103). There is little point in spending our lives in anguish over the one thing that will free us from all anguish: death (p. 102). Taking up the Socratic challenge, but in a more expansive fashion, Montaigne speaks of strengthening our souls to better prepare ourselves for death. We must “educate and train” our souls to be unafraid of the encounter with death that awaits us all (p. 101). Death, Montaigne contends, should be less feared than nothingness (p. 105). Death should not concern us in life because alive, we are; neither should death concern us in death, for in death we are no more (p. 105). More frightening than death itself, Montaigne believes, are the forms of expression often associated with death: “those terrifying grimaces and preparations with which we surround it” (p. 107). Weeping and wailing, doctors and ministers, beds kept in darkness: all of these can make death seem horrifying where it need not be so (p. 107). Preparing ourselves for death means letting go of everything, having, as it were, said as many of our goodbyes as we can already, and “regretting nothing except life itself” (p. 98). We should be “ready to leave” at any time, anywhere (p. 98). This may be on the battlefield or in a hospital but it may also be in the middle of the most mundane activities of daily life. “I want Death to find me planting my cabbages,” Montaigne says in a famous phrase, “neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening” (p. 99).

Existing and Dying: Consciousness, Fear, and Freedom

Thus, for Montaigne, as for Socrates, “learning how to die” involves developing a form of readiness that is built on an overcoming of our fear of death. For Socrates, the path to readiness is explicitly philosophical; for Montaigne, readiness emerges through everyday reflection and practice. Our fear of death diminishes, Montaigne believes, when we come to see that death is part of life, part of us, part of our very being. But what of situations where, for an existing individual (to use the Kierkegaardian terminology), this fear cannot be overcome? Can we still conceive of death as having educative value in such circumstances? One thinker who is instructive in considering this possibility is Miguel de Unamuno. Unamuno was obsessed with the question of death. In his philosophical and theological writings and in his literary work (Unamuno, 1972, 1996, 2000), he explores fundamental problems relating to reason, faith, and emotion. He finds, contrary to the position adopted by Socrates and Montaigne, that reason and reflection lead not to a stronger sense of acceptance and readiness in dealing with death but to greater distress and uncertainty. Unamuno argues that there is an irreconcilable, tragic tension between our longing for eternal life and the dictates of the critical, inquiring mind. As human beings, we have been endowed with a consciousness that allows us to grasp the ideas of temporality and finitude. We have a distinctive awareness of death, not just as an abstract subject but as something we as individuals will each have to face. Yet, we are also endowed with wants and feelings. Reason tells us that the idea of immortality is an absurdity, yet this does nothing to dampen our desire to go on living. Trying to make faith and reason compatible with each other by providing “proofs” for life after death is, from Unamuno’s point of view, a fruitless task. Philosophy cannot prepare us adequately for death; it can at best deepen our understanding of the suffering we experience in living with the “disease” that is consciousness (Unamuno, 1972).

Unamuno’s work raises other intriguing questions. For Epicurus, Lucretius, and Schopenhauer, the idea of nonexistence provided a philosophical antidote to the fear of death; for Unamuno, the prospect of nothingness was horrific. Being released from the cares of the world, from the pain of living, was no consolation for Unamuno if what followed from life was nothingness. Unamuno wanted to live on, even if this was in a state of despair. To suffer, as he saw it, was still to live. Living on, as the imperfect, distinctive individual that he was, was more important to Unamuno than anything else (Roberts & Saeverot, 2018). Questions about the existence or nonexistence of God were, it might be said, of interest to Unamuno only insofar as they related to questions about immortality. And in Unamuno’s philosophy, the question of death is really a question of life. Death haunts all of Unamuno’s work precisely because it provides a threat to the life he so desperately wanted to continue to embrace. It is easy to dismiss Unamuno’s unusually intense desire for immortality as an idiosyncratic, irrational, impossible dream. But the uncompromising nature of his appeal prompts us to delve deeper in thinking about life and death. We might ask: Why, if at all, would or should we want to live? The Stoic philosopher Seneca (2007) claimed that nothing was so deceptive, and nothing so treacherous, as the life of a human being; no one “would have accepted it as a present, if it were not given to us in a state of ignorance” (p. 78). “Accordingly,” Seneca suggests, “if the greatest fortune is not to be born, the next best . . . is to die after a short life and be restored to one’s original state” (p. 78). The question of whether we should want to live at all is, of course, not the same as the question of whether we should want to live on, having lived. Montaigne (1991) felt that eternal life would not be a blessing but a curse. This idea has also been explored in literature by, for example, Simone de Beauvoir (1992), who in All Men Are Mortal depicts the boredom, frustration, sense of purposelessness, and despair experienced by a man who cannot die.

Existentialist thinkers, both before and after Unamuno, have made the relation between death and life central to their inquiries. Kierkegaard (2009) regards the question of immortality as a deeply personal matter. His principal concern is not with abstract reflection and “objective” truth; his focus is, as noted earlier, on the existing individual and on the “subjective truth” that is pursued through looking inward. For Kierkegaard, subjectivity is truth, or at least the truth that is most worthy of our attention. Immortality has long been regarded as a topic of interest, but it has frequently been treated merely as an object for abstract investigation—as a “learned question” (p. 145). Against this approach and anticipating the stance that would later be taken by Unamuno, Kierkegaard argues that the question of immortality is “a question of inwardness, which the subject by becoming subjective must put to himself” (p. 145). “Objectively,” Kierkegaard continues, “the question cannot be answered at all, for it is not one that can be put objectively, since immortality is precisely the intensification and highest development of the developed subjectivity” (p. 145). It is not possible to “prove,” systematically, that immortality exists. Attempts to do so are, as Kierkegaard sees it, a waste of time and effort. From a systematic standpoint (Kierkegaard has Hegel’s “system” in mind here), the “whole question is nonsense” (p. 146). Kierkegaard adopts a somewhat different perspective: the “proof” of immortality lies not in rational argument, or in “objective” knowledge, but in the interest itself. Immortality is “subjectivity’s most passionate interest” (p. 146). Objectively, it is irrelevant; subjectively, for the existing individual, it matters more than anything else.

Developing an appropriately receptive attitude toward the possibility of immortality, for oneself, is more important than finding definitive, “objective” answers to one’s questions. For Kierkegaard, “a person who passionately strives after the highest good advances to a qualitatively higher form of existence” (Puolimatka & Solasaari, 2006, p. 206). Asking about immortality, wondering about it, pondering it: these inner activities are themselves forms of action for the existing individual. More than this, though, the individual might consider how to conduct himself or herself to express his or her immortality. Whether the individual actually expresses his or her immortality is not the point; for the time being, the task of asking, of inquiring, is sufficient. “For the time being” in this context may be for a lifetime, which is, after all, but a brief moment when considered in relation to eternity (Kierkegaard, 2009, p. 148). It is the process of searching that is significant here. The importance of this task becomes all the clearer when we reflect on how little time we have. An awareness of the limits of a human lifetime can “sharpen the distinction between the essential and the trivial and emphasize the urgency of discovering the right rank ordering of values” (Puolimatka & Solasaari, 2006, p. 206). A “bold commitment” is needed; indifference inhibits our ability to advance in our understanding of ourselves and the good (p. 206). An existing individual “cannot simply observe life as an outsider; she has to commit herself and take the risk of commitment in order to be able to apply the test of reality” (p. 206). It is passionate interest and commitment with which Kierkegaard is concerned, even if this places him at odds with the spirit of his times. Passion is, for Kierkegaard, “the very height of existence”; in passion, “the existing subject is infinitized in the eternity of imagination, and yet is also most definitely himself” (Kierkegaard, 2009, p. 166).

While Nietzsche differed from Kierkegaard in many respects, he shared a similar view of philosophy not as a dry, abstract, purely theoretical affair but as a passionate mode of life. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche instructs us to “Die at the right time” (Nietzsche, 1976, p. 183). “Everybody considers dying important,” he notes, “but as yet death is no festival. As yet men have not learned how one hallows the most beautiful festivals” (p. 183). He implies that if we have not lived at the right time, we cannot die at the right time; in such cases, it would have been better to never have been born. If we “consummate” our lives, we can die “victoriously” (p. 183). Next best is to “die fighting and to squander a great soul” (p. 184). Nietzsche wants a “free” death, one, he says, that “comes to me because I want it” (p. 184). If we have a “goal and an heir,” we will want death at the right time for them (p. 184). If we want fame, good timing is even more important. A quick death is, as Nietzsche sees it, preferable to the slow, patient death usually prescribed. With maturity, our approach to death changes: “in the man there is more of the child than in the youth, and less melancholy: he knows better how to die and to live” (p. 185). Knowing how to die and to live means being “free to die and free in death, able to say a holy No when the time for Yes has passed” (p. 185). Nietzsche says of his own death (through the voice of Zarathustra), “I want to die myself that you, my friends, may love the earth more for my sake; and to earth I want to return that I may find rest in her who gave birth to me” (pp. 185–186).

Heidegger, in his magnum opus, Being and Time, argues that we cannot consider what comes after death without a full ontological understanding of death itself. We sometimes talk about the “experience” of death, but this presupposes a concept of death. Psychologies of dying are less about dying itself and more about the “life” of the “dying person” (Heidegger, 1996, p. 230). “If death is defined as the ‘end’ of Da-sein, that is, of being-in-the-world, no ontic decision has been made as to whether ‘after death’ another being is still possible, either higher or lower, whether Da-sein ‘lives on’ or even, ‘outliving itself,’ is ‘immortal’” (p. 230). Heidegger speaks of the end being “imminent” for Da-sein. Death is, Heidegger holds, “the possibility of the absolute impossibility of Da-sein”; death reveals itself as “the ownmost nonrelational possibility not to be bypassed . . . it is an eminent imminence” (p. 232). This position is contrary to our common perceptions of death. We encounter “death” as a familiar event in the everyday world. Through its very familiarity, death remains inconspicuous and we talk about it only fleetingly. Our attitude toward death is frequently of the kind, “One also dies at the end, but for now one is not involved” (p. 234). In saying “one dies,” the suggestion is that death shows up from somewhere, but in not yet being objectively present to the person making the utterance, it poses no threat. “One dies” thus fosters the view that death strikes the “they”; “dying” becomes an event that belongs to “no one in particular” (p. 234).

We seek to show concern and provide comfort to those who are dying, but this, Heidegger points out, is as much a matter of trying to bring comfort to ourselves at it is of comforting the one dying. By endeavoring to bring the dying person back to Da-sein, death is tranquilized (p. 234). Thinking about death is regarded as a sign of fear or insecurity; the expectation is that one will remain calm, indifferent to the reality of one’s death (p. 234). Death is seen as a certainty, but there is uncertainty about what this certainty means. From a Heideggerian perspective, we can say that in “this enduring present moment, we are ‘ahead’ . . . of ourselves; what we are doing is future oriented” (Quay, 2015, p. 11). An existential approach to the question of death construes Da-sein, being-in-the-world, as “always already toward its end, that is, . . . constantly coming to grips with its own death” (Heidegger, 1996, p. 239). There is “angst” in the face of death, but angst in this context is not the same as fear. Angst arises from the fact that in being-in-the-world, we are already “thrown” into the possibility of being-toward-its-end (pp. 232–233). It is this “throwness” that distinguishes an existential concept of dying from ideas of “pure disappearance” or the “experience” of death (p. 233). Being-toward-death belongs, “primordially and essentially,” to Da-sein, even if Da-sein flees from it or covers over it (p. 233).

Camus (1991), in The Myth of Sisyphus, fashioned the question of death into the starting point for all philosophical inquiry: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy” (p. 3). Camus observes that while some people die because they conclude that life is not worth living, others die “for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living” (p. 4). Camus pays homage to Kierkegaard but does not share his Christian faith. For Camus, then, a key question is how life can be made meaningful in the absence of a God or the possibility of eternal life. Suicide may have a confessional element—an admission that life is too difficult—but it can also be a form of political protest (p. 5). At a deeper level, the question of suicide is intimately related to the sense of absurdity and alienation we experience when the illusions that might have provided comfort in the past are removed. Faced with an absurd world, suicide is one answer but hope is another. We may judge this world to be absurd but retain hope for another—in this life or beyond—that will be better (cf. Roberts & Freeman-Moir, 2013). In taking the path of suicide, we opt for death, but in doing so, we enter a domain that is unknown: “in reality, there is no experience of death” (p. 15). We may see other deaths, but these are merely substitutes for the real thing, and they never quite convince us (p. 15). We are certain we exist but we can never be certain of the knowledge that tells us about our existence. The Socratic command “Know thyself” can at most help us to form an “approximate” view of ourselves; this dictum also has more than a hint of nostalgia and ignorance (p. 19). The world is not “reasonable” (p. 21), and no amount of logic can fully explain, or explain away, the existential problems we face.

Despite the failures of reason and religion in providing adequate answers to the riddles of life, hope does not have to be extinguished. Camus notes with interest that not one existentialist thinker advocates escape as the preferred option: “Through an odd reasoning, starting out from the absurd over the ruins of reason, in a closed universe limited to the human, they deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them” (p. 32). Some, such as Jaspers, find hope in our very inability to understand. Others, such as Shestov, make God a source of hope not because it is rational to do so but precisely because the idea of God does not correspond to conventional categories for reasoning; we turn to God to attain the impossible (pp. 32–34). Kierkegaard, terrified by the Christianity of his childhood, returns in his later work to embrace what had hitherto been a source of despair. Kierkegaard’s answer is to take a “leap” by faith. Kierkegaard disrupts the equilibrium between “the irrational of the world and the insurgent nostalgia of the absurd” (p. 38). Aware that this world fails us in attempting to explain our existence in purely rational terms, Kierkegaard makes a deliberate choice to embrace the irrational in another form. For Kierkegaard the mature, Christian, death is not the end; it “implies infinitely more hope than life implies for us, even when that life is overflowing with health and vigor” (cited in Camus, 1991, p. 39). For Camus himself, the absurd is “sin without God,” and the answer is “living in that state of the absurd” (p. 40). This means that, rather than giving in to falsehoods as a source of consolation, we must be prepared to accept despair as a part of human existence (p. 41). For Camus, there is no “love of life” without “despair of life” (Camus, 1968, p. 56). Camus turns the problem of suicide, and its relation to the meaning of life, on its head: “It was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have a meaning to be lived. It now becomes clear, on the contrary, that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning” (p. 53). Living, as Camus sees it, is “keeping the absurd alive” through contemplation and metaphysical revolt (p. 54). This is “not aspiration, for it is devoid of hope” (p. 54). The revolt Camus has in mind is “the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it” (p. 54).

Sartre (2007), like Camus, rejects the Christian path forged by Kierkegaard, espousing an existentialist ethic that centers on human beings and the choices they make. Sartre’s existentialist humanism starts from the position that as human beings, we are always “outside” ourselves. It is by projecting and losing ourselves, beyond ourselves, that we realize ourselves. Pursuing transcendent goals allows us to exist. There is no world beyond this one; the “only universe that exists is the human one—the universe of human subjectivity” (p. 52). Where for Kierkegaard subjectivity is inwardness, for Sartre transcendence is to be found in pursuing goals outside ourselves—“in the form of liberation, or of some special achievement” (p. 53). Human beings are, as it were, “abandoned,” and must make their own way in the world. Far from being a recipe for despair, Sartre sees this orientation to the human condition as “optimistic” (p. 54). According to Sartre, the real problem is not whether God exists, for even if the existence of God could be proven, there would still be a need for “man to rediscover himself and to comprehend that nothing can save him from himself” (p. 53). This is an ethic not of quietism or resignation but of action. “Man,” Sartre says, “is nothing but a series of enterprises . . . he is the sum, organization and aggregate of the relations that constitute such enterprises” (p. 38). This approach to existentialism emphasizes responsibility and commitment. Virtues are not given but created and exemplified by human decisions and actions: “the coward makes himself cowardly and the hero makes himself heroic; there is always the possibility that one day the coward may no longer be cowardly and the hero may cease to be a hero” (p. 39).

There is, for Sartre, no universal human “nature” or “essence”; we can speak of a human “condition,” but this is always in the making (pp. 42–43). Thus, human beings, faced with the reality of nothing beyond death, nothing beyond this world, must exercise freedom in the existence they carve out for themselves. We have no God to guide us, but we are not alone. Seeking freedom for oneself is, at one and the same time, a matter of willing it for others too (p. 49). Beauvoir (1948) takes this line of argument further: “Freedom is the source from which all significations and all values spring. It is the original condition of all justification of existence” (p. 24). In seeking to give life meaning, we will want freedom “absolutely and above everything else” (p. 24). Our original state is one of “ambiguity,” but this does not, for Beauvoir, serve as an impediment to action. There is, Beauvoir claims, “hardly a sadder virtue than resignation” (p. 28). Existing is risky and uncertain, but this is where freedom resides. Freedom, Beauvoir adds, “can always save itself, for it is realized as a disclosure of existence through its very failures, and it can again confirm itself by a death freely chosen” (p. 32).

Teaching, Responsibility, and Immortality: Shaping Other Lives

Thus far, the focus of the discussion has been mainly on death as an “individual” question. We have considered a range of views on what it means to die, and on how we as individual human beings might face the prospect of our own death. The question of immortality, it has been noted, is often regarded as a deeply personal matter: as something we need to “figure out” on our own. But there are other ways of thinking about death and the concept of “living on.” As Samuel Scheffler (2013) has argued, we do not need to believe in the idea of an afterlife in the traditional sense—that is, in the notion of living on as conscious beings beyond our biological deaths—in order to take seriously the question of another form of afterlife: the anticipated reality that others will continue to live, on Earth, after we have died. The existence of an afterlife in that sense, Scheffler shows, can bear significantly on how we think about our own deaths, what we come to value, and how we grapple with limits of time in our lives (pp. 15–16). This observation has important implications for education, and particularly for how we understand the nature and purpose of teaching. For teaching is very much a social process, involving a relationship between two or more people. It is a form of ethical intervention (Roberts, 1996, 2003). In teaching, we hope to pass on something to others—not just knowledge, but something, perhaps, of “ourselves.” As teachers, we consider the consequences of our actions for the students with whom we work, aware that our influence will play its part in shaping their lives—lives that will usually go on after we have died. We teach because we want to make a worthwhile difference in those lives. In attempting to leave a “positive imprint” on students’ hearts and minds (Liaccio, 2000, p. 48), we also hope that they too will, in turn, leave their mark on others.

David Blacker argues that “immortality remains an important animating ideal for teaching and learning” (Blacker, 1998, p. 8). He identifies two broad approaches to the question of immortality in the ancient world, both of which begin with Socrates, and both of which remain relevant in considering contemporary pedagogical contexts: the first is “the other-regarding paideia of the sophists that seeks immortality in human affairs”; the second is “a relatively disembodied Platonism that looks toward mindful communion with eternal ideas” (p. 8). The former has a practical focus on the educated person, whereas the latter is more concerned with the pursuit of truth through reason and reflection (pp. 11–13). In the first approach, teaching is vital; in the second, it is more a means to the end of entering the world of Forms (p. 11). Both approaches are evident in the way we discuss educational experiences in the 21st century. The Platonic vision comes to life when, for example, someone is struck with a sense of wonder at the beauty of a mathematical proof. Education can be seen as a process of advancing knowledge, with each discovery contributing to this ancient quest (p. 16). Pushing the boundaries of knowledge in this way brings us closer to the immortal, timeless, universal Forms. The Sophists’ pathway also remains significant, connecting, as noted in the first paragraph of this section, with a central motivation for many teachers: the desire to make a difference in other lives. Teaching is concerned not just with the advancement of knowledge or the pursuit of truth but also with the development of relationships and the passing on of something valuable from one person to the next. Immortality in this context has to do with the idea of “living on” in the lives of those with whom we come into contact as teachers.

Blacker argues for a balance between both approaches. The desire to leave a mark on others, to “live on” through them, can, if it is not coupled with a respect for the value of reason and knowledge, become self-centered and manipulative. Equally unhelpful is the possibility, in our quest to know, of becoming oblivious to others. Scientists and other researchers need to consider the human consequences of their endeavors (pp. 22–24). Knowing that something is the case is not enough; we also need to keep in mind other questions: With whom do we seek to know? For what reasons? With what possible outcomes? The idea of seeking the truth remains a noble goal, but it is a goal we cannot pursue alone: dialogue with others who are similarly committed to knowledge is necessary (p. 25). Dialogue is not a contest with winners and losers but a shared enterprise where both the teacher and the learner are “irrevocably human, but somehow also more than human” (p. 26). “Teacher and student care for one another,” Blacker maintains, “by taking care to allow the arising of the subject matter itself—the logos—that is to be disclosed in their interaction” (p. 26). The immortality of education resides in the fact that while both the teacher and the learner participate in the process, something that is more than the two of them—knowledge, the logos—survives (p. 27). Teachers are immortal not just in the sense of remaining a part of students’ lives, influencing how they think and feel and act, but also in the sense of becoming interwoven with what is known. Education, Blacker contends, “is neither ‘mine’ nor ‘yours,’ but both of us may become it” (p. 27). A teacher needs to be prepared to “vanish into wisdom for the sake of wisdom’s pupil, as the pupil searches for his past and for his future”; the teacher must die, Blacker concludes, in order to live (p. 27).

Immortality can be conceived in other ways that are significant from an educational point of view. Arendt (1998), in discussing the ancient Greeks, notes that “the task and potential greatness of mortals lie in their ability to produce things—works and deeds and words—which would deserve to be and, at least to a degree, are at home in everlastingness” (p. 19). Producing something to leave behind in this manner allows human beings, as mortals, to “find their place in a cosmos where everything is immortal except themselves” (p. 19). The eternal can be distinguished from the immortal by the fact that where the former lies “outside the realm of human affairs” (p. 20), the latter “means endurance in time, deathless life on this earth and in this world as it was given” (p. 18). Arendt speculates that the embrace of the eternal by philosophers such as Plato may have been prompted by doubt about the possibility of the polis attaining immortality. Perhaps, Arendt wonders, “the shock of this discovery was so overwhelming that they [the philosophers] could not but look down upon all striving for immortality as vanity and vainglory, . . . placing themselves thereby into open opposition to the ancient city-state and the religion which inspired it” (p. 21). Regardless of whether this is what motivated the ancients, there is an important sense in which achieving immortality in the sense described by Arendt can be seen as an educational task. To produce something that endures after we are gone requires learning, and with that, teaching in some form. Blacker’s focus (1998) is on how teaching can leave its mark on the student, and on how both the teacher and the student have a responsibility to their subject matter—to what is investigated and known. But teachers also play a crucial role in shaping what the world, the polis, becomes. “Teachers” here need not be limited to those employed in educational institutions such as schools and universities but could also include the full range of influential figures—parents, friends, workmates, and so on—who might be encountered in a human life. The prospect of death, and the awareness that time is limited, can prompt us to seek out ways to “make the world a better place,” in a manner that will be evident after we have gone. In this way, we might speak of “living on” through not only those whom we teach but also through the systems, structures, and cultural practices we help to create in our time on earth.

There are also other ethical considerations that are relevant in pondering how death should be understood, approached, and engaged in educational environments. Socrates conceived of philosophy as a form of preparation for death, and Montaigne stressed the importance of being “ready” for death. We have seen that different thinkers have, over the ages, felt readier for, or more comfortable with, death than others. In contemporary Western culture, it is not uncommon to be in “denial” over death, to want to avoid thinking about it altogether (Becker, 1997). This is not the same as saying, with Lucretius, that death is (or should be) “nothing” to us; death, for many people, is simply too difficult, too sensitive to be approached. If we cannot escape from it, the next best thing is to minimize the time we spend focusing on it; we seek to amuse ourselves, distract ourselves, lose ourselves in other activities. Seeking to disrupt this denial is no light matter. When dealing with teaching situations, a strong sense of responsibility toward those being taught is needed if death is to be addressed with appropriate sensitivity and care. Underlying much of the work on “death education” is the premise that enhancing awareness of death, reflecting on it, and discussing it are all worthwhile activities. Engaging in programs of death education will, it is hoped, reduce anxiety over death and thus improve the lives of participants. But when working with children in particular, there are important prior ethical considerations. In some circumstances, any benefits that arise from raising the question of death may be outweighed by the possible harm that might be done in doing so. As Puolimatka and Solasaari (2006) point out, in teaching situations attention needs to be paid to the developmental maturity of those with whom one is working. There is no easy “solution” to such dilemmas: “On the one hand, children have a right to know fundamental facts about their own existence. On the other hand, a full acquaintance with the facts about human mortality is psychologically agonizing” (p. 211).

There are dangers, too, in treating death as if it is just another topic to be learned and “passed” for assessment purposes, in an already crowded curriculum. This can diminish its significance for an existing individual, as Kierkegaard might have noted, but it can also denude death of its broader historical importance. In particular, if death is somehow separated from us, either by its abstraction or by its reduction to the status of an assessable subject in an education program, it can become all the more difficult to appreciate how horrific many deaths have been—horrific, that is, in the manner of the death, or the scale of the atrocities committed, or the depth of the grief felt by friends and family. It is possible to treat death in the abstract as “nothing,” as Epicurus and Lucretius believed we should, but in our lived relationships with others, particularly those to whom we are closest, it can be everything. Experiencing the death of a child, spouse, parent, or close friend can change a life dramatically, and forever. Taking death seriously as a subject for educational investigation, both in written work and in classroom practice, arguably requires more of us as teachers, learners, and scholars than almost anything else we might encounter in our educational lives. Teaching can be conceived as an “immortality project” in the sense that it is “a form of compensation to help resolve a certain kind of existential terror” (van Kessel & Burke, 2018, p. 1). Terror can take many forms, almost all of which can in some way be associated with death. With this point in mind, where we begin our investigation can become a matter of no small significance. For Levinas, whose parents and brothers were killed by the Nazis, the starting point in considering death is murder (Wang, 2008, p. 146). Death, for Levinas, cannot be grasped; it does not fall within our usual horizons for understanding. It is imminent and menacing, threatening from beyond while remaining invisible and mysterious (Levinas, 1969, pp. 233–235). Death, Levinas says, “takes me without leaving me the chance I have in a struggle, for in reciprocal struggle I grasp what takes hold of me. In death I am exposed to absolute violence, to murder in the night” (p. 233).

From a somewhat different perspective, we might also speak of death in relation to examples of symbolic violence. Death can serve as a metaphor for acts of destruction that leave an imprint not just on the human body but on the Earth and on concepts, relationships, and fields of inquiry. We might consider, for example, the violence done to the arts and humanities in contemporary higher education—their marginalization in policy and institutional practice—as a form of death. More could be said also about the “death of the professor” (Lyotard, 1984) in a world where knowledge is treated as a commodity and technology is seen as a replacement for university teachers. Simone Weil (1997) argues that if we love the truth, we need to endure, through a painful process of de-creation, “the void”; truth, she suggests, is “on the side of death” (p. 56). The “death” of truth can also be witnessed, in a rather different light, as the disregard for evidence, facts, and rigor that is the hallmark of the so-called post-truth age. With rapid changes in medicine and technology, “death” is itself being redefined. Education as a form of preparation for death can now be seen as a process that might extend for decades longer than previously anticipated. Indeed, now and in the future, with the blurring of boundaries between the “human” and the “nonhuman,” and with developments such as cloning, it will become increasingly challenging to determine who or what is “dying” (cf. Brown, 2008).

Reference has already been made to the idea of teachers “dying,” both for the sake of their students and for the advancement of knowledge. This could be taken further to include investigation of other forms of sacrifice made by those committed to education. Education can be seen as a bridge between life and death: a sacrificial process of coming to recognize our own incompleteness as human beings (Roberts, 2012). There is also a sense of loss, a death that must be accepted, in the act of committing to critical reflection as an ideal. As Unamuno (1972) recognized, the reflective consciousness with which we have been endowed is a two-edged sword. It can open us up to the riches of philosophy and literature and lead to extraordinary scientific and technological discoveries. But it can also lead to great suffering. Education can be joyous and uplifting; yet it can also be a source of utter despair (Roberts, 2013, 2016). Education is “dangerous,” not merely as a process that can be politically subversive (and, in some cases, lead to literal deaths), but also as an endeavor that calls into question—threatens to annihilate—some of the assumptions, values, and ideals we hold most dear.


Educational priorities vary over time. Different approaches to teaching come in and out of vogue. The ideals we espouse, the structures we build, the technologies we harness, and the languages we employ to describe our educational activities all change as the years go by. But some fundamental questions remain important regardless of the particulars of a given time and place. In education, we are, or should be, ultimately concerned with the question of why we exist (Webster, 2009, p. ix). The question of existence is, as this article has shown, intimately related to the question of death. Philosophers of education can contribute to the ongoing conversation on death in a number of ways. They can consider what is meant by “death,” how “death” relates to “life,” what role death plays in our formation as human beings, how death is relevant to conceptions and practices of teaching and learning, and how death influences pedagogical decisions and actions. This is by no means an exhaustive statement of possibilities. Given space constraints, the focus in this article has been limited to Western perspectives on death. There is, of course, a good deal more that can be said about death from a range of Eastern philosophical and religious perspectives. There are, in addition, important insights on death that can be gained from the teachings and practices of indigenous cultures. The focus here has been mainly on nonfiction philosophical and educational texts, but, in addressing the theme of death, philosophers of education need not limit themselves to such sources. Death is explored in countless novels, plays, and films, all of which can be helpful in addressing philosophical and educational questions. With an abundance of potentially worthwhile avenues for further investigation, the theme of death is likely to receive increasing attention in the international philosophy of education community in the years ahead.


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