Death and the modern student

A strange thing I have found with my students at this point in time is that they claim not to be at all concerned at the prospect of their total extinction upon dying. René Girard in Deceit, Desire and the Novel points out that the old philosophical argument that one is not horrified by one’s non-existence prior to birth, therefore, returning to nothingness upon death should not be frightening, has done nothing to console anyone in actual fact. Anyway, as a friend, Bill Mott pointed out recently, the situation is hardly the same. Before birth you had nothing to lose, but now that you exist, you have.

Which makes me wonder, does the modern student consider himself to be in the possession of a life so feeble that its cessation is of no real concern? I’m afraid I’m going to reject the idea that they are all Stoics of such profound disposition and such mountainous rationality, that mere feelings of horror are as nothing to them.

In the past, some of them used to say that thoughts of there being no afterlife led to them to imagine existing anyway, just in some scary vacuum of darkness as they silently ask “Is anyone there?”

Thoughts on this matter would be most appreciated.

Update

I am happy to verify that my twenty year old son IS worried about the possibility of non-existence after death. Total annihilation, it seems to him, renders his life retroactively meaningless. Thus, even a Hell upon death would seem preferable.

Lack of Moral Ties

One reason he offers for his contemporaries’ lack of concern is an absence of moral ties. This lack of moral ties he attributes partly to the emphasis on “independence” – we all being our own relativistic moral universes. He also connects it with no sense of tradition, the fact that every student he knows has moved at least twice, and no religion.

Students do express unease about the prospect of the extinction of everyone they love and care about. My son thinks this is because although the students may have nihilistic tendencies concerning themselves, they don’t want to impose that nihilism on their relatives and friends (that independent moral universe thing again).

I told him that from the professor’s point of view, there is a remarkable absence of independence of thought, morally or otherwise. In fact, the uniformity is scary and of pod people proportions.

He sees in all the other countries he has visited; Serbia, Austria, Germany, Russia and New Zealand – quite a different dynamic. The people are grumpier and less smiley and superficially friendly than Americans, but at the same time seem to exhibit more compassion and empathetic understanding of the people around them. This he attributes to a greater sense of tradition than that found here. I guess tradition emphasizes commonality. “Independence” a kind of alienating sense that all men are islands – of a piece with the farcical scene in The Life of Brian when the crowd repeats in monotonous tones “We are all individuals.”

Depression, Alienation and Nihilism

Life will be more meaningless without a sense of connection and without tradition and attachment to a local community, in that context the cessation of life might be quite a nice thought, he thinks.

For a depressed person, never having been born would seem appealing. Thus, extinction would be the next best thing. This is of course is what Silenus says to King Midas upon interrogation in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy.

21 thoughts on “Death and the modern student

  1. I would place what you report in the context of a universal retraction of consciousness, for which a good visual symbol is the student staring at her cell phone, tweeting and texting – about nothing.

    My students have been reading Owen Barfield’s History in English Words, in which the author argues (among other things) that the last three hundred years have seen a radical diminution of the number of meaningful words in English (despite the addition of a million technical terms), and that the meanings of the remaining still-meaningful words have themselves diminished. The students cannot grasp this argument. I arranged a demonstration, hoping that it would assist them in grasping the basic concept. I set out on the classroom floor two lines of chits, representing, I said, moments in time between 10,000 BC, when the Parental Language of the Indo-European languages began to differentiate into separate branches, and 2016 AD. The back of the room was 10,000 BC and the front of the room was 2016. In the first part of the demonstration, I moved forward in stages, picking up each chit and retaining it. The first chit, I said, was a new and necessary coinage; and the subsequent chits were new usages of that original coinage, but the original coinage and all the usages were retained.

    Then I returned to the back of the room. This time, instead of retaining the first chit when I picked up the second chit, I discarded the first chit, and so on, to the front of the room, where I held only one chit.

    With ten chits in one hand and one chit in the other, I asked the students, from the point of view of the usefulness of words, which hand offered the greatest usefulness. Unanimously they said, the hand with one chit.

    Maybe “death” and “extinction” are mere sounds to the upcoming cohort.

    • Have you ever had students read “Politics and the English language” by George Orwell? I would be interested to learn their reaction to it. Chomsky’s notion that languages cannot degenerate, trickling down to nearly every modern English speaker, troubles me.

      • @ Jim – I edited your comment a little for sense – is this what you meant? I have not had students read that Orwell, though Orwell certainly had some prescient things to say about the abuse and corruption of language in “1984.”

      • That’s actually what I thought I wrote, so no worries. I’m writing on an ipad. Don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.

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  3. I think one of the best evidences of The Fall is man’s aversion to death. It is of a different category than mere survival instinct. We are hard wired to believe that death is unnatural to us. If people are losing this sense, the rot is deeper than we might have suspected.

  4. I’ll understand the term “modern student” here to signify every flesh and blood living man, woman, boy, girl, and male or female infant (regardless of whether such infant has or has not passed through the birth canal) existent now on Earth; for where the script of life is positively known to adhere to an human form, in such form therein will persist the image of God: and the soul of that image will ipso facto indelibly ever long, with varying degrees of intensity and duration throughout its existence as such image here, to know its Creator – proving each and all as de facto “life-long” students. I would suggest that the modern student hardly considers his perduring self at all, let alone to be in possession of an enduring life, be it conceived of as a feeble or a fabulous one, and logically, his cessation thereby could hardly be noticed; for something that’s hardly noticed as existent can hardly be noticed in its negation. To be in the possession of the knowledge of the only future event that can be known for certain by each and all, the body’s death, and to have a fullness of understanding of that event, a singular knowledge and understanding of the perduring self in the image of God via soul must be had in any present. Such ubiquitous lack of present knowledge and the corresponding resultant effect of a likewise dismally insufficient (at best) understanding of its implications, at least partially, seems to be the concern; and seemingly it is a valid one. The situation, obviously, is not accidental, nor is it entirely the fault of the student. We now exist within the midst of the top end of a Life-denying, Soul-stealing tailspin that is the Technocratic Inquisition, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary corporate body of the Grand Deceiver, the Adversary of the Creator’s Own Image, and of our own souls – Satan.

    • Thanks, Angelo. Absolutely. When a phenomenon is ubiquitous like this one can hardly blame the individual student – it is their fate to exist in a vacuum that seems to strip existence of any significance. If you have lost a sense of wonder at your own nature and existence, then why care if you disappear?

  5. Reblogged this on deinvestiture and commented:
    I’ll understand the term “modern student” here to signify every flesh and blood living man, woman, boy, girl, and male or female infant (regardless of whether such infant has or has not passed through the birth canal) existent now on Earth; for where the script of life is positively known to adhere to an human form, in such form therein will persist the image of God: and the soul of that image will ipso facto indelibly ever long, with varying degrees of intensity and duration throughout its existence as such image here, to know its Creator – proving each and all as de facto “life-long” students. I would suggest that the modern student hardly considers his perduring self at all, let alone to be in possession of an enduring life, be it conceived of as a feeble or a fabulous one, and logically, his cessation thereby could hardly be noticed; for something that’s hardly noticed as existent can hardly be noticed in its negation. To be in the possession of the knowledge of the only future event that can be known for certain by each and all, the body’s death, and to have a fullness of understanding of that event, a singular knowledge and understanding of the perduring self in the image of God via soul must be had in any present. Such ubiquitous lack of present knowledge and the corresponding resultant effect of a likewise dismally insufficient (at best) understanding of its implications, at least partially, seems to be the concern; and seemingly it is a valid one. The situation, obviously, is not accidental, nor is it entirely the fault of the student. We now exist within the midst of the top end of a Life-denying, Soul-stealing tailspin that is the Technocratic Inquisition, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary corporate body of the Grand Deceiver, the Adversary of the Creator’s Own Image, and of our own souls – Satan.

  6. Not to go off on a tangent, but what you describe is part and parcel of the reason I for one am of the firm persuasion that if we’re going to have the franchise at all, 18-20 year-old adolescents are, by virtue of their ignorance, relative non-acquaintance with actual, real-life experiences and so forth, ABSOLUTELY not qualified to participate! Same for other groups, but that’s for a different discussion.

    I tend to think this phenomenon is quite natural to your (modern) students. I mean, most of them probably don’t even know what it feels like to have a broken bone, or to be held to anykind of account for anything they’ve ever done, no matter how vile, self-destructive or pernicious. Modern kids (and they are kids, trapped in adult bodies) don’t fear death because they haven’t yet *lived*.

  7. My interpretation is that the mainstream modern metaphysics has no place for conceptualizing life beyond biological death – it simply makes no sense.

    There is no place for the soul either – so there is nothing which could potenitally survive biological death.

    This is the nature of the loss of religion in modernity – and the cause is a very general nihilism – a feeling (not really a belief) that nothing is really real. People are even alienated fro their own thoughts.

    This is one deep reason why mass evangelisation has been ineffectual.

    Before there could be a revival of religion (Christianity, I hope) in the West there would (or ‘will’ – because it will eventially happen) need to be a major metaphysical re-structuring – in millions of minds and in all significant public discourse.

    • Mainstream pop culture actually has room for life after death and for the soul, largely because only intellectuals are comfortable with the lack of them, it is not really possible to have truly mass appeal without something akin to that. Hollywood for example tends to use the dying wish, or last wish, or last decisions of a man as something that lives on from himself. We saw this in the first pictures of Saving Private Ryan, the last pictures of The Last Samurai and so on. Typically, as liberalism tends to over-value volition, in all such cases it is the volition, the will, the wish, the desire that lives on.

      BR

      Dividualist

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  9. To understand this, I would suggest reading on Baudrillard’s concept of simulacra. In short, a simulacrum can be a copy of something real or a novel thing: a copy of itself. A self-contained simulacrum is essentially a virtual reality and, when operating, like single cell organisms it neither is born nor dies, it just continually alters.

    We live immersed in a world where our virtual reality exceeds our physical reality, therefore the majority of things we see are neither created nor destroyed, simply transformed or preserved. This results in people placing no true value on anything, as if everything is real and permanent, the concept of impermanence does not sink in. We simply cannot comprehend the extreme nature of destruction if we merely discuss it and never see it.

    It’s hard to explain in a short comment.

    • The smartphone virtual reality that Tom Bertonneau refers to might conceivably distance us from reality. You seem to be describing an ontological dysmorphia, with our bodies taking on the status of mummified bits of data.

      • Not quite. Perception is all to human reality. When we believe we can create artificial intelligence or redefine established terms to suit our needs, there is no longer a distinction between falsehood and reality. When there is no distinction between falsehood and reality then everything is false, everything is real and you are just as immortal (in your head) as an AI is.

  10. I have a clear memory of my first encounter with the thought of universal annihilation. I was twelve or thirteen, lying awake in bed, when it suddenly came to me, not only that I would die, but that everyone and everything I knew would ultimately be destroyed and forgotten. It was an experience of pure horror. My oldest son came to me in bed one night, having had more or less the same ghastly experience. Much later I came to see significance in this “rage against the dying of the light.”

  11. >One reason he offers for his contemporaries’ lack of concern is an absence of moral ties. This lack of moral ties he attributes partly to the emphasis on “independence” – we all being our own relativistic moral universes.

    When my father died, a part of my subjective universe died with him. I am not even 40 and my childhood pop-media heroes – Arnold, Sly Stallone – are already showing signs of getting old and being beyond their prime, unmistakably marching towards the grave with their bodies showing more and more entropy. We are going to a nostalgic AC/DC concert this spring, but maybe we should have waited until next years October, as we could witness a peculiar sight then: a 70 years old rocker. (Brian Johnson.) As I get older, I can expect more and more of “my world” aging into uselessness and finally dying.

    So if I make it until 75, which is almost twice my current age, I can expect virtually everything and everyone I loved gone. At that point, it is probably to be gone yourself, rather than to be a keeper of memories nobody understands or cares about.

    Since I understand this is at some level a deeply unhealthy view, it was a major motivation in us deciding to have a child despite the fact that it looks a lot like we are not ideal parent types. (We manage, thanks.) Having children is basically insurance that there will be someone you care about in your personal world when you get old, unless the unthinkable happens and they go first.

    I am not a liberal, I never cared about my independence, but I suspect my natural instincts were heavily damaged by the “liberalism in the water supply”. I can detect, intellectually, its major errors, but I cannot be free from its psychological or spiritual rot.

    I think beyond the problem of living in subjective universes, the primary reasons for not caring are 1) the world is changing so fast that our personal universes become outdated, see above how 2) lacking meaningful human ties, and more and more people not having children, many people expect they will just be a random old guy with his hobbies, not a grandfather, not an uncle, not these types of enduring human ties 3) the emasculation of the world. We are getting over-civilized, we have no prize, no loot anymore to fight over, no privateers hunting for treasure fleets, we cannot even gain status anymore in that old sense where you could be knighted for a successful industrial enterprise, and thus the game of life indeed seems pointless 4) vitality is also disappearing from the pop culture, you really cannot make a Rambo movie anymore, thus even the pop culture distraction feels more and more boring. It is not just a typical aging guy complaint. My parents liked pop culture up to their later forties. Because pop culture until 1995 or so was actually enjoyable.

    It’s a very depressive period of history, and not because it is particularly difficult, but because it is particularly pointless.

    BR,

    Dividualist

    • @ Dividadmin13 – I know what you mean about pop culture being particularly depressive. The number of dystopian apocalyptic movies is truly astonishing.

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