“May I Ask About Death?”

Lu said, “May I ask about death?” Confucius said, “If you don’t understand what life is, how will you understand death?” (11.12)

Confucius’ answer is exquisitely wry. Just as Lu’s question probably made him smile, this answer probably made Lu smile with a glimmer of satori. Why is it that we like to ask this kind of speculative question? — after all, the living being we ask it of has had no direct experience of death, and even if he could give an answer how could we begin to understand it? It is like someone who has never experienced love asking a person in love to explain it to him: how could he know whether or not he has understood the explanation? With one brief sentence, Confucius sweeps away the speculative fascination with death. 

   It must have come as a flash to Lu that to understand life takes at least a lifetime. All of Confucius’ teachings push us to examine our own hearts and the web of relationships that we find ourselves in: parents, children, siblings, spouses, friends, servants, superiors, teachers, students. The way to become a full human being takes us through the arduous complexities of all these relationships, which consume our attentions every day, and which change constantly. It is a characteristic of our fundamental relationships that each time we think we have mastered something, it shifts onto new ground. With so much work to do — right here, right now, with our aging parents, our anxious spouses, our adolescent children with their hearts boiling in tumult — why should we distract ourselves with theoretical questions beyond the reach of experience?

   Montaigne, who meditated on death throughout his life, realized in one of his later essays that the people he knew who died with simple dignity tended to be ordinary people who also lived with simple dignity. Because they lived well, they died well:

If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly; don’t bother your head about it…We trouble our life by concern about death, and death by concern about life…Philosophy orders us to have death ever before our eyes, to foresee and consider it before the time comes, and afterward gives us the rules and precautions to provide against our being wounded by this foresight and this thought. That is what those doctors do who make us ill so that they may have sonething on which to employ their drugs and their art. If we have not known how to live, it is wrong to teach us how to die, and make the end inconsistent with the whole. If we have known how to live steadfastly and tranquilly, we shall know how to die in the same way. (Montaigne, “On Physiognomy,” tr. Frame)


3 thoughts on ““May I Ask About Death?””

  1. Krishnan,

    I love your Montaigne. But alas, Confucian was not that sophisticated a philosopher. Confucian was first and last just a pragmatic humanist – he was more into human decorum, duty and responsibility and social behaviour. Confucius is eternally impregnated in the mental ethos of the Chinese because he was a ‘ground roots’ Sage (a Master of Learning – in the Chinese way of speaking) rather than a ‘philosopher’.

    Not that I do not wish to glorify Confucius but I doubt he would have wished to seek glory himself. All he ever sought was for Chinese society to have a deep sense of order in their daily affairs, a sense of peace and harmony with the Tao.

    When Confucius spoke of ‘death’ he did not do so in a Western world and with a Western sense of fear of death. He spoke of death within a then agricultural Chinese society, and within the context of ‘rites and rituals’, that ‘worship’ their ancestors. Death is a constant part of Chinese living and practice. It is hard to explain to the West why in living or life you have to pray to and live with the dead?

    Analects 11.12 is a difficult one to understand. First of all Zilu, although the main retainer of Confucius, like Ananda was to the Buddha (remember that Ananda was eidetic, had a photographic memory, but could not understand logic – Zilu was sort of ‘dumb’ like that), was someone that Confucius often lost his patience with and chided, as far as students went, for Zilu though assiduous and loyal was ‘bottom of the class’.

    In any case, Analects 11.12 started off with Zilu asking about the finer points of serving the spirits (as in ‘rites and rituals’ in ancestral worship). So Confucius was being sarcastic when he answered to this preliminary question – “While you are yet not able to serve men, how could you be able to serve the spirits?” i.e. ‘You do not know how to serve me when I am alive and yet you worry about serving me when I am dead?’ So Zilu’s subsequent question about death – “May I ask about death?” – must be seen in this context to appreciate Confucius’s further retort – “If you don’t understand what life is, how will you understand death?”

    Compare what Confucius said to his 2nd favourite student (his favourite was Yan Hui) Zigong in Analects 12.7, where Zigong asked about governance (by the State). The Master said, “Provide people with adequate food, provide them with adequate weapons, induce them to have faith in their ruler.” Zigong said, “If you had no choice but to dispense with one of those three things, which would it be?” “Dispense with weapons.” “If you had no choice but to dispense with one of those two things (remaining), which would it be?” “Dispense with food. Death has always been with us from the beginning of time. If the people had no governance to have faith in, the State (law and order) cannot stand.”

    Here Confucius spoke freely and unequivocally about ‘death’ to Zigong, just like as if it was a matter of fact – “Death has always been with us (Chinese) from the beginning of time.” A continuing living antiquity like the Chinese people have this advantage of living with ‘death’. It is embedded in their mental psyche. That is why asking and talking about death is intertwined with knowing about the ‘yin and yang’ of life.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very helpful, Vince. Yes, I understood about the humorous reprimand to Zilu, for whom this is a characteristic question — but I hadn’t thought to link it to 12.7, in which I think you are absolutely right. There’s one thing that both Indians and Westerners don’t understand when reading Confucius and Laozi: their lack of squeamishness concerning death and the signs of death. The difference is that of a western and Chinese butcher shop! South Americans do have this close intimacy with death too. Montaigne really does strike me as more Chinese than orhers; actually, I do not see him as a “philosopher” in the normal sense, but an “essayist” in line with the Asian ones, and his conclusions come from living and not just from thinking. The line of writers that goes from Xenophon through Plutarch to Montaigne would find themselves at home with the sages of the Dao.


  2. It seems like the question is flawed. For starters, “may I ask about death?” is more about asking permission than a question seeking an insightful answer. Still, the trouble in asking about death and Confucius’ wry reply and expanded upon by Montesquieu “If we have not known how to live, it is wrong to teach us how to die, and make the end inconsistent with the whole” altogether seems to suggest that the way to learn how to live is to live. Asking about death can only be known by those who live, and death will match the means of the one who lived.

    So, you can only know about (your) death if you know how you live(d).

    And, you only know the totality of how you lived once you’ve died…

    So, the answer is “no”. Confucius cannot tell Lu about death. Lu’s death will be unique to Lu, and Confucius hasn’t died yet (at the time of writing – maybe.) If Lu wants to know about death, his death, he better be mindful of how he lives. Of course, Confucius does not say “no.” He inverts the concern to display its futility, and gives Lu something new to think on. Something to put him back on the way.


    Liked by 1 person

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