Death is an inevitable event that all must face. Whether it’s a result of illness, old age, or an unforeseen tragedy, every individual will experience death. Many individuals associate death with the end, and while that view has some validity in it, some facts still remain unknown. Greek philosopher Socrates contends that death is foolish and absurd to fear.
The physical being inevitably perishes from Earth, but the soul and our identity can remain alive for eternity. The understanding of death and fearing an occurrence unfamiliar to us relates to how we process and deal with the unfortunate matter. The way one views death could be attributed to that individual’s understanding of personal identity. Scottish philosopher David Hume rejects personal identity, stating ‘we’ are a mere bundle of sense impressions, ones that do not remain the same over time.
Sense impressions are abstract perceptions of events that occur when one experiences life situations, and those varying impressions can constitute one’s unstable opinion about death. Socrates is well known for his interpretations of death during his trial in the Apology. Socrates had many accusations brought upon him by the Athenians, but the charge of corrupting the youth was the detrimental. Despite standing trial and disputing his accusers, he was found guilty and immediately sentenced to death. Socrates’ response to his conviction was ingenious and startling, saying “to those who voted to kill me, that vengeance will come upon you immediately after my death, a vengeance much harder to bear than that which you took in killing me” (Plato 20).
Socrates wasn’t afraid of death, for he knew he would have to face it one day, but he was more concerned with his accusers’ reasons for the verdict. His reflection of death was noted as a “blessing”, where the “good man cannot be harmed either in life or death” (Plato 21). This simple, yet powerful message from Socrates only relates to the present day and how one should acknowledge death. The connection between personal identity and death is an underlying scheme that many won’t recognize. To be able to analyze death, personal identity must be evaluated from a philosophical viewpoint. David Hume was harshly critical about personal identity during the 18th century, including criticizing John Locke, Derek Parfit, and Thomas Reid. Each philosopher had a different view about personal identity and its relation to one individual.
In The Self, Hume renounces the idea of ‘personal identity’. Rather, his theory of personal identity revolves around sense impressions that are always evolving. Sense impressions are simple reactions that equated to mere ideas.
However, those sense impressions are distinct from each other and consistently changing based on the events that we encounter daily. For example, a perception attributed to the human being can include feelings, where one is either happy, sad, lonely, or more. However this perception doesn’t remain constant throughout one’s life. An individual might experience a period of sadness, but this emotion won’t persist. A lack of consistency within our sense impressions leads one to conclude that the ‘self’ can’t be stable.
The instability results in an identity that can’t be perceived, and ultimately asserts to the conclusion that there’s no “any idea of the self,” based on human understanding (Hume 419). One’s understanding of human personal identity may seem hard to grasp, but in reality, there’s no personal identity that exists within us. We are humans that are constantly evolving, based on life circumstances. Those circumstances always alter our perception of thinking and how we understand situations to be. An individual might perceive event ‘A’ one way when they first encounter it, but if this same event occurs again, their perception might be different, based on altering sense impressions. Similarly, this concept can be applied to our identity and one’s view of death.
Most people will agree that our identity of ourselves has changed drastically as we’ve aged. We aren’t the same individual we consider ourselves to be. That knowledge attributes to the way we perceive and react to events in our lives. Moreover, most don’t wish to be the same individual over our entire existence. We want to evolve into more educated, reasonable, and rational beings that take life experiences and learn from them.
These varying experiences correlate to the idea that our identity isn’t stable, and varies with experience over time. The instability corresponds to our varying approaches to death. Hume’s theory of the ‘Self’ can be connected to the frightening idea of death in several aspects. Our understanding of death varies tremendously throughout our lives. At a young age, death is often difficult to grasp because of limited understanding. We only understand the ‘literal’ at a young age, not conscious of the complex meaning death has.
Children will view death as merely going to sleep in heaven, not realizing that one won’t wake up. Upon aging and maturing, death should be viewed in a different manner than that from the adolescent, with more knowledge and understanding. Death might be viewed as receiving the rest that one deserves, after the physicality of life. Even though one would be resting physically, their soul could forever live through other family members or in by itself. Similarly, this constant cycle of aging should result in a varying sense impression of death, one that is distinct from the first impression. Like identity, through death, we are able to “imagine something unknown and mysterious, connecting the parts, beside their relation” (Hume 420). Our imagination of death at a young age will vary tremendously compared to our understanding of it at an older age.
Humans evolving personal identity, or lack thereof, hugely impacts society’s view of death. The main reason death will be hard to grasp in societal terms is because many will disagree with the notion of not having a personal identity. Most will conflate this idea as not being individually distinct from other people. They will misunderstand Hume’s theory of personal identity, associating that we’re all the same. However, our perceptions of objects and events will vary from each individual, making humans unique from one another, despite having no true personal identity. Thus, our perceptions of death will vary from each individual. The impression that one has of death won’t be guaranteed to be the same compared to another human being.
A fluctuating opinion of death in society isn’t necessarily a negative aspect. Differing reflections of any particular event is one that is a good thing. Because there’s no one person that’s the same on Earth, opinions shouldn’t always be identical because impressions will vary. It’s okay for one individual to view death as merely going to sleep, while another person attributes death as the ultimate end.
Most symbolize death as a scary event because its unknown. However, it’s interesting to fear the unknown considering one will never know how death truly feels, because there’s a “complete lack of perception, like a dreamless sleep” (Plato, 21). Any living being will never be able to explain the state of death, because the perceptions are forever inactive and lifeless at that point. On the contrary, its understandable that death is viewed as scary we can’t attribute a feeling or idea to death, just like there’s no idea to the self. The thought of death can be a scary and yet unpredictable event. The idea of death varies based on varying opinions about personal identity. Most will assert that every individual has a personal identity unique to them. While that might be true, personal identity can’t be regarded as an invariable entity.
Hume proclaimed that the ‘self’ was composed of impressions that formulated ideas. Impressions are perceptions that we observe in life, and those impressions are always changing do to of life situations. As a result, our impressions formulate ideas that won’t remain stable. Hume’s theory of personal identity is also applied to death. Our ideas of death vary because of the impressions that we see with every death occurrence.
No one incident of death occurs the same, hence our idea will always change. Along with a lack of stable identity, other external factors could also attribute to fearing death, including family, friends, religion, and more. Regardless of one’s opinion of death, Socrates would reiterate that death isn’t a bad, for we’ve never experienced it. And we can’t conceptualize something unless we understand it.
But that understanding will never occur because death results in impressions that no longer exist. Our impressions and ideas are permanently deceased.