What will survive of us is love…

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, echoing Epicurus, declared that death is not an event in life. He meant that, since death is the end of all consciousness it’s not something we’re around to experience. We can experience dying but not the instant of death itself – assuming, of course, that we won’t have a post-mortem conscious existence. It’s not just our deaths that we won’t experience: we won’t experience the time after our deaths either. Yet many of us care deeply about what happens after we’re gone. We want our friends and family to flourish; if we have children, we want them to have successful and fulfilled lives, to be happy, perhaps to have children of their own. We may have more generalised wishes for humanity too: hopes that global warming won’t be as devastating as predicted, that there’ll never be another world war, that one day the England football team will win the World Cup again.

Aristotle thought that events after your death could affect whether or not your life had gone well. A terrible tragedy befalling your children, or the complete collapse of some project you’d spent a lifetime building up – even though you wouldn’t experience these things – they would mean a worse life for you, objectively but not subjectively. This went further than Solon’s proverb ‘Call no man happy until he is dead’, as even if you had a calm and pain-free exit, there were evils, according to Aristotle, that could still befall you, even though you wouldn’t experience them.

If Aristotle was right, making material plans for what happens after your death could be a way of securing your own flourishing. You don’t want bad things to happen after your death to those you love not just for their sake, but for the sake of your own life going well. Yet most of us who take precautions to help those who will outlive us – in the form of savings, life insurance, wills, and inheritable property – don’t imagine that we’ll benefit personally from this. Our motives for investing in the future beyond our deaths are largely unselfish ones. We want our descendants and beneficiaries to have the financial means to live well after we are gone for their sakes, not simply for our peace of mind. We may be motivated by a sense of responsibility towards dependants, or perhaps by a desire to improve relations with the living, but mostly such gestures are acts of love that extend beyond the grave.


This post was written by Nigel Warburton. Nigel is a freelance philosopher and podcaster. His books include A Little History of Philosophy, Philosophy: the Basics, Philosophy: the Classics and Thinking from A to Z. He is the interviewer for the very popular Philosophy Bites podcast (www.philosophybites.com) and you can find him @philosophybites on Twitter.
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