Praktisk filosofi handler om å skape en bevissthet om hva som kjennetegner mennesket, nemlig å foreta valg og ta ansvar for det Gode.
Practical Philosophy is about creating an awareness about what signifies human beings: making choices and taking responsibility for that which is Good.
Friday, March 23, 2012
The Loneliness of the Dying
Elias (1897-1990) was one of the great thinkers of the 20th century and is really one of my favorite writers.
He was associated with the Frankfurt School of social philosophers. Two of his
most influential books are The Civilizing Process ( 1939/2000) and The Germans
(1989/1996). He taught at the University of Frankfurt until his exile from
Hitler`s Germany in 1933. After a brief stay in Paris he lived and taught for
many years in Britain (principally at the University of Leicester). Later he
was visiting professor at universities in Germany, the Netherlands and Ghana.
In the book, The Loneliness if the Dying (written by Elias when he was at
the age of 80) he brings forth one of the greatest problems confronting Western
societies; although people die more hygienically than ever before, they also
remain in almost complete emotional isolation. Emotional distances between
people have become greater in our age. By isolating the dying we all lose our
direction and life`s meaning before we lose our lives.
We must all deal with the fact that all lives
have an end. The oldest and most commom way is mythologizing death through a
life after death in Hades, Valhalla, Hell and Paradise. In advanced societies of
our day we try to avoid the thought of death by pushing it as far from
ourselves as possible. But it is possible to look death in the face as a fact
of our own existence and adjust our lives and our behaviour toward other people
to the limited span of every life.
How is this task performed? The last hours of
our lives are important for many people. But parting begins often much earlier.
We isolate the dying, they decline, they become less socialble, their feelings
less warm, but their need for others do not go away. This isolating of the aging and dying is one of the weaknesses in our advanced
society. The social problem of dying is diffucult to solve because the living
find it hard to identify with the dying. Death is a problem for the living, not
the dead. All creatures share birth, illness, youth, maturity, age, and death.
But humans know that they shall die. They can anticipate their own end and they
take special precautions to protect thenselves against the danger of death. It
is not death itself but the knoweldge of death that create problems for human
beings. Human beings know, as so for them death becomes a problem.
Ideas of death and the rituals we make become
an aspect of socialization. Commom ideas and rites unite people while divergent
ones separate groups. Life in advanced societies of today have become more
predictable. Security, protection against illness and sudden death is greater
than in earlier ages. We look at our lives as insecure. Wars bring threat into
our lives, but it is our insecurity toward inforeseeable physical dangers and
incalculable threats to our existence that has increased most.
Early childhood experiences and fantasies play
a considerable part in the way a person comes to terma with knowlegde of his or
her approaching death. We often tell children that we are immortal, instead of
saying that death is a natural end to all life. Behind the need to believe in
one`s own immortality, there usually lie strong repressed guilt feelings,
perhaps connected to death-wishes directed to father, mother or siblings. The
only escape from the guilt-anxiety surrounding death-wish and the fear of
punishment for one`s guilt thereof, is a strong belief in one`s own
immortality, even though one may be partly aware of the fragility of this
belief. The association of the fear of death with guilt-feeling is already
found in ancient myths. Adam and Eve were immortal. Because Adam violated
the divine fathers command, thy were condemned to die. Dying would be easier
for many if these guilt-fantasies could be alleviated or dispelled.
Repression of death is not just found on the
individual level but also in society as such. All aspects of life that spell
danger for the communal life of people are regulated by social rules. Breaking
these social rules become associated with feelings of shame, disgust of
embarrassment. One can also be removed from all social life.
Death is one of the great bio-social dangers in
human life. Death is pushed more and more behind the scenes of social life. For
the dying themselves this means that they too are pushed further behind the
scenes. They become isolated.
Dying can be full of torment and pain. Not even
today with advanced medicine is it possible to ensure a painless death for
everyone. But medicine allows far more to have a peaceful death. Death and
dying were spoken of more openly and frequently in the Middle Ages than is the
case today. Literature of the time bears witness to this. The social level of
the fear of death rose noticeably in the fourteenth century. The towns grew.
The plague became more persistent and swept in great waves across Europe.
People were afraid of death all around them. Violence in the Middle Ages was
more commonplace, conflict more emotional, war was often the rule and peace the
exception. Fear of punishment after death, anxiety about the salvation
of the soul, often apprehended rich and poor alike without warning. All in all,
life in this medieval society was shorter, the dangers less controllable, dying
often more painful, the sense of guilt and the fear of punishment after
death an offical doctrine.
Today we know how to ease the pains of death in
some cases. Guilt-anxieties are more fully repressed, perhaps even mastered.
But the involvement of others in an individals death has been reduced. The
primary question is how it was and why it was so and why it has become
different. Once we are sure of the answers to these questions, we may be in a
position to form a value-judgement.
In the course of a civilizing process the
problems faced by people change. But they do not change in a structureless,
chaotic way. They change in a specifis order even in the chain of human-social
problems accompanying such a process. In earlier times dying was a far more
public matter than it is today. The dwellings gave them little choice.
Nothing is more characteristic of the
present-day attitude to death than the unwillingness of adults to make children
familiar with the facts of death. But the danger for children dies not lie in
their knowing of the finiteness of every human life. The difficulty lies in how
children are told about death, rather than in what they are told. Undoubtedly,
the aversion of adults today to teaching children the biological facts of death
is a peculiarity of the dominant pattern of civilization at this stage.
Only when we become capable of greater
detachment from ourselves, from our own stage of civilization, and aware of the
stage-specific character of our own threshold of shame and disgust, can we do
justice to the actions and works of people of other stages.
The sight of decaying bodies was more
commonplace before. Everyone, including children, knew what they looked like,
and because everybody knew, they could be spoken of relatively freely. Today
everything is different. Never before in the history of humanity have the dying
been removed so hygienically nehind the scenes of social life. Never before
have dead bodies been expedited so odourlessly and with such technical
perfection from the deathbed to the grave.
There is today a peculiar embarrassment felt by
the living in the presence of the dying. They often do not know what to say.
The range of words available for use in this situation is relatively narrow.
Feelings of embarrassment hold words back. We meet the dying with the
expression of strong emotional participation without loss of self-control. We do the same with love and
In the presence of the dying we see with
particular clarity a dilemma characteristic of the present stage of the
civilizing process. The task of finding the right words and the right gestures
fall back on the individual. The way people live together, which is
fundamental to this stage, demands and produce a relatively high degree of
reserve in expressing strong, spontaneous affects. Taboos prohibit any
axcessive show of strong feelings, although they may be present. At present those close to the dying often
lack the ability to give them support and comfort by proff of their affection
and tenderness. They find it difficult to press dying people`s hands or to
caress them, to give them a feeling of undiminshed protection and belonging. Civilization`s
overgrown taboo on the expression of strong, spontaneous feelings ties their
tongues and hands. Living people involuntarily draw back from the dying.
The fear of dying is no doubt also a fear of
the loss and destruction of what the dying themselves regard as significant and
fulfilling. Many fantasies discovered by Freud are grouped around the image
of death, such as guilt-feeling and the notion of death as punishment for misdeeds
one has committed. Suppressed death-wishes and death-anxieties, summed up
roughly in the question: “Could I be guilty of his of her death? Did I wish
them dead by hating them?” The death of a father or mother frequently stirs up
buried and forgotten death-wishes with the associated guilt-feelings, and in
some cases fear of punishment. Such fantasies have grown more frequent in
conjunction with the sharper social individualization of recent times.
“Your Grandfather is in heaven now.”
“Your Mummy is looking down on you from
“Your little sister is an angel now.”
These examples shows how firmly established in
our society is the tendency to conceal the irreversible end of human existence,
especially from children, with collective wishful ideas, and to secure the
concealment by a strict social censorship.
With regard to death, the tendency has most
likely increased to isolate and conceal it by turning it into a special area in
the last century. The defensive attitudes and the embarrassment with which
people today often react to encounters with dying and death fully bear
comparison with the reaction of people to open encounters with aspects of
sexual life in the Victorian age.
If we realize that people`s relation to death
is not just biological, the sociological problem of death appears in sharper
aspect is the length of individual life in different societies. To die at the
age of twenty of thirty whem the average life expectancy is seventy-five is
more remote than in a society where life expectancy on the average is forty.
experience of death as a final stage of a natural process has gained
significance through progress in medical science and in practical measures to
raise the standard hygiene. We take this security of nature and natural process
for granted in our scientific society.
picture dying a peaceful death in bed resulting from illness as the natural and
normal way to die, while violent death, particulary at the hands of another
person, appears as exceptional and criminal.
image of death in a person`s memory is closely bound up with his image og
himself, of human beings, prevalent in his/her society.
We quest for meaning, a meaning of an
individual person in isolation. When they fail
this kain of meaning, human existence appears meaningless to them.It is easy to
understand that a person who believes himself to be living as a meaningless
being, also dies as one. What we call “meaning” is constituted by people in
groups who are dependent on each other in this or that way and can communicate
with each other. “Meaning” is a social category. The subject corresponding to
it is a plurality of interconnected people.
The idea of having to die alone is
characteristic of a comparatively late stage of individdualization and self-awareness.
Tolstoy tries in Master and Man to make clear the connection between the
way a person lives and the way a person dies. The way a person dies depends not
least on whether and how far he or she has been able to set goals and to reach
them, to set tasks and perform them. It depends on how far the dying person
feels that life has been fulfilled and meaningful – or unfulfilled and
meaningsless. Meaningsful death, meaningsless dying receive too little public
consideration. When something that has a function for the life of a person or
group ceases to exist, becomes unrealizable or is destroyed, we speak of a loss
Kaare T. Pettersen
Elias, Norbert, (1982) 1985. The Loneliness of the Dying. New York: Continuum.