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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Five Ways to Look at Death

Eric Cohen, writing in The New Atlantis, describes five ways of looking at death. He relates the five following persons to them: Jacob from the Bible, Socrates, Christ, Benjamin Franklin, and the Sisyphus of Albert Camus.

Jacob, he says, died knowing that he was going to, but accepting it. He didn't ask anyone for an organ transplant, or to clone him and harvest the clone for needed parts. Of course, he couldn't have, those procedures not having been dreamed of yet. Cohen knows this, of course. But he says that Jacob's death looks to the future -- he commanded that he be buried in his homeland, and prophesied about the doings of his sons. He writes: "Our medical machinery makes Jacob’s version of the good human death ever more unlikely." That is, of course, because of the frequency of prolonged poor health, or other incapacitation, at the end, even though we are living longer than we used to.

Cohen describes the suicide/punishment of Socrates, and they says this about the death of Christ: Unlike Socrates and Jacob, Jesus confronts us with the horror of death endured in all its horribleness: not sought as an exit, yet not escaped at the cost of betraying one’s given purpose. In Jesus, we learn what it means to forgo all control and retain all control simultaneously—what it means, passively and actively, to die as an act of surrender.

Franklin, says Cohen, guessed that there might come a future time when death would be postponed by technological means, and wished that he might have lived in such a time.

Cohen is describing the state of medical ethics, both as a profession, and in society's application of it. He says, correctly, that the largest debates over these matters recently have been over death at both ends of life -- the Schiavo case, and the possibility of destroying human embryos as a means of prolonging the lives of others.

A readable and well written essay, on an important subject. I recommend that you read it in the original.

Thanks for reading.

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