Contempt for Death

Posted: January 15, 2011 in Culture, Idle Nonsense, Philosophy

Foreknowledge of death has been a perennial subject of contemplation for humanity, which is expressed in a variety of ways as we each wend our ways through life. In youth, a false sense of immortality often leads to heedless risk-taking. In midlife, crises typically occur as we become more fully aware of death stalking us (e.g., a first serious health scare or a dying parent) and wish to make meaning out of our lives. In our advanced age and infirmity, we frequently acquiesce, seeing a naturalness in the circle of life. And in difficult circumstances, we sometimes actively embrace death as refuge or release from worldly struggles. Informing all these is an omnipresent fear (or perhaps merely the biological impulse for self-preservation) of the boundary to the unknown death represents, if in fact anything beyond even exists. I have nothing to say about these attitudes that isn’t already amply explored in literature and other arts. However, one attitude that has made a strong impression on me lately yet receives only intermittent attention is contempt for death.

Contempt is a tricky attitude to define, as it’s a mixture of disaffection, denial, disrespect, and dishonor. As it relates to death (as anthropomorphized in common thought), contempt is a statement that the prospect of death has little power over the choices we make in life and/or that life cannot be lived well if we are too concerned with our own doom, which is inevitable and somewhat arbitrary anyway. The best expression of this attitude, familiar to many of us through popular culture, is the fictional Lt. Cmdr. Worf from Star Trek, who is given to uttering implacably in the face of peril, “Today is a good day to die.” Although Worf comes from a hypermasculine warrior culture, this attitude can sometimes be glimpsed in real life beyond the warrior classes in admirable forms that aren’t mere nihilism.

Perhaps the most obvious examples come from heroic behaviors triggered by protectiveness (e.g., men toward women, parents toward children) and the fight-or-flight instinct, which are displayed by average folks who, when faced with extraordinary circumstances, risk life and limb. If one is trained to respond to danger, as are servicemen, firemen, policemen, lifeguards, etc., risk is substantially reduced. It’s a part of the job. So although still heroic, jumping into the fray may not qualify as contemptuous of death. I am also aware of philosophical poses that exhibit contempt for death, though they tend not to translate into direct action, especially now that philosophy¬†has disappeared almost altogether from our intellectual life and been driven underground as unconscious motivation. As society continues to unravel, now that we’re past several well-acknowledged tipping points, I suspect that many more of us average folks will be forced into untenable situations that reveal our characters and underlying attitudes toward death.


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