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.
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.