“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)