MUSE/Phil 29C, Sec 8

"Matters of Life and Death"

Analytical Essay Topics

I.               Nagel, "The Absurd"

A.     How, if at all, does the mismatch between human aspirations and reality affect our ability to lead meaningful lives?

B.     Is there any good way to avoid living a life that is absurd, or is absurdity somehow a necessary ingredient in a good life?

II.             Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

A.     Ivan Ilyich grapples with the fact that he is dying, a fate that he fears will negate his uniqueness.  Yet Gerasim's care for him seems to come from a recognition that we all have to die some day.  Does the meaning of one's life come from what is unique in it or what is common to all humans?

B.     Does Ivan Ilyich discover the emptiness of his life too late, or is he able in his last days to make his life meaningful?

III.           Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe

A.     Is Lucretius right in claiming that fear of death is completely negative?  Is there a better attitude to take toward death than "death is nothing to me"?

B.     Even if Lucretius is correct that my death is the permanent end of my existence, could there be ways in which death is bad for me?

IV.           Schopenhauer

A.     Are there any problems with Schopenhauer's argument that pleasure is merely the (temporary) absence of pain?  What might be a better way of understanding the relation between pleasure and pain?

B.     Schopenhauer claims that the will to live, an indestructible entity that drives all human beings, survives death, although everything that defines us as unique individuals perishes.  Is this reason to fear death?  How, if it all, should I identify myself with the will to live?

V.             The Seventh Seal

A.     Returning from the Crusades to plague-infested Sweden, the knight suffers a crisis of faith.  What knowledge does he think he needs to find before he can face death?  If he were to get that knowledge, would it actually make a difference?

B.     How do Joff and Mia approach the project of living a good life?  How does this differ from the knight's approach?  Does one of these approaches seem likely to work better than the other, and why?

VI.           Kübler-Ross, "On the Fear of Death" and "Attitudes Toward Death and Dying"

A.     Kübler-Ross claims "in our unconscious mind we can only be killed; it is inconceivable to die of a natural cause or of old age."  Have advances in medicine made it easier of harder to respond to our unconscious denial of our own mortality?  (Does the patient or the doctor have a harder task responding to it?)

B.     Kübler-Ross writes, "Is war perhaps nothing else but a need to face death, to conquer and master it, to come out of it alive -- a peculiar form of denial of our own mortality?"  Evaluate the possibility that war and other destructive behavior might, paradoxically, come from denial of mortality.

VII.         Mitford, "What the Public Wants"

A.     How does the mismatch between what the "man-in-the-street" wants for his funeral and the sort of funeral survivors end up buying illuminate people's attitudes towards their own deaths and the deaths of their loved ones?

B.     What is the point of a funeral in the first place (for the deceased, the survivors, the community, etc.)?  Do the goods and services offered by the funeral industry serve this purpose or distort it?

VIII.       Aries, "Forbidden Death"

A.     Aries claims that in modern times an "acceptable death" has come to be seen as one in which the survivors can keep their emotions under control.  Consider how this desire to control emotions might be related to medical advances in treating the sick and dying.

B.     Does the modern attitude toward death described by Aries flow from a belief that we have a duty to be happy (or to contribute to the collective happiness of society)?  Would we be better off changing this attitude, or this belief that happiness is a duty, or both?

IX.           Conklin, "'Thus are our bodies, thus was our custom': mortuary cannibalism in an Amazonian society"

A.     From the point of view of the Wari', are their funeral customs primarily for the benefit of the deceased, the surviving members of the deceased's immediate family, or the society as a whole?

B.     Are there ways in which the disruption of traditional Wari' funeral practices by missionaries and the Brazilian government is like a death in the Wari' community?  What sort of response might repair this disruption?

X.             Behar, "Death and Memory: From Santa Marîa del Monte to Miami Beach"

A.     Is a sense of tradition and of "being at home" an essential ingredient of a good death?  Or can villages like Santa Marîa del Monte break with tradition in ways that allow their elderly inhabitants to "die well"?

B.     Behar discusses the death of a grandparent as the death of memory.  How important for our understanding of live and death (both our own and in general) are our links to the past?  Why might grandparents, rather than parents, be the crucial link?

XI.           Edson, Wit

A.     How does Vivian Bearing respond to her illness?  Does this response enhance or undermine her prospects for a meaningful life or a good death?

B.     Contrast the care Vivian receives from Jason and from Susie.  What does each of these interactions do to help Vivian understand her own life?

XII.         Harold and Maude

A.     What specific lessons about life does Harold learn from Maude, and how do these address the attitude toward life he has at the beginning of the film?

B.     In light of Maude's decision at the end of the film, how might her attitude toward life have been more like Harold's than it seemed at first?  How might this decision undermine the lessons about life Maude tried to teach Harold?

XIII.       Heilbrun, "Preface" and "On Mortality"

A.     Heilbrun writes, "I find it powerfully reassuring now to think of life as 'borrowed time.'  Each day one can say to oneself:  I can always die; do I choose death or life?  I daily choose life the more earnestly because it is a choice."  Evaluate this approach to living a meaningful life.  Could there be unforeseen consequences (good or bad) from taking choice as the measure of a meaningful life?

B.     According to Heilbrun, the sense of limited time one has in one's sixties can help one live more in the present and depend less on the future.  Is this attitude toward life only available to, or only appropriate for, people who are no longer young?  Is "living in the now" a recipe for a meaningful life at any age?

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