Death and transcendence

My latest post at the Orthosphere quotes my favorite chapter in Spaemann’s Persons:  the difference between “someone” and “something”.  The connection between death and self-transcendence is a bigger subject than the topic of that post, so I’m giving this its own post.

“Significance” is meaning “toughened” by he consciousness of finitude–by which is understood that it asserts itself in the face of death, and is thus emancipated from time.  To enjoy the company of a friend oer an evening meal with a glass of wine in the midst of beautiful scenery satisfies a number of elementary needs; entertainment for the eyes and palate, the presence of a trusted companion, the free flow of thought.  The meaning of what satisfies needs is, the first instance, relative to those needs and therefore radically contingent.  Now let us assume that this is a farewell meal in the expectation of death.  Life has come to an end, and with it all that makes such an occasion meaningful.  Soon everything will be as though it never was, and no memory will endure.  One could say that the whole thing hardly repays the effort…

But an alternative response is possible.  A different feeling might surface in the course of that last encounter, a sense of preciousness that lifts the occasion out of its contingency:  “It is good so!”  Such a feeling would not be threatened by the imminent end of life and the the meanings that derive from life, but would actually be awakened by it.  “It is good so!” does not mean “It is good for me now, but the good will disappear when I do.”  It means, “It is, and will remain, good that this fleeting moment occurred and that its significance is unveiled.”  Meaning, together with the feeling it engenders, is pulled out of the contingent and relocated in the timelessness of significance…

From the point of view of vital meaning, it is absurd if someone loses his own life in a fruitless attempt to save someone else’s.  The failure of the action robs it of the positive value it might have had as serving someone’s good.  In the event nobody’s interest was serve.  If we celebrate this deed all the same and honour its memory, that is because there is significance in the very fact that it occurred.  It was a fine deed, once such as serves to justify the world.  It will always be good that it occurred.  The leap from vital meaning to significance corresponds to the leap from present tense to future perfect…

With the anticipation of death the whole of life is shifted into the timeless dimension of the future perfect tense…Persons exist by having their lives as a significant, and therefore precious, possession.  Anticipation of the end penetrates life to its innermost core.  It confers on us an experience of the significance of things which the “bad infinite” of temporal immortality would shatter, since if nothing were precious, nothing could be significant.  If anything done once could be repeated endlessly, indefinite anticipation would suffocate every human relation from the word go, for our relations are those of finite beings.  There could be no promising “forever”; there could be no promising at all, in fact, to engage our whole existence and bring our freedom to its height, if “forever” did not mean “till death”.  Anticipating death puts us in the position to relate to our lives as a whole, the position in which we have our life.  And that is how persons exist.

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  1. […] Death and transcendence […]

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