“God exists. He lives in Belgium.” This is the tagline of a delightful Belgian movie entitled The Brand New Testament. They could have added: and he’s an asshole.
Turns out, God lives with his wife and daughter (his famous son appears to be gone…) in a small apartment from where, lounging around unshaven and in pajamas, he makes up new arbitrary rules about how the world works, implementing them via a computer terminal. One such rule says that the telephone will always ring just seconds after you entered your hot bath. Another one that the right amount of sleep is always going to be “ten more minutes” after the alarm clock goes off. You get the picture.
But God’s teenage daughter, Ea, has had enough and escapes the apartment, wondering around town for the first time in her life. The movie, featuring among others Catherine Deneuve, has an interesting and happy ending, which I will not spoil for you. Instead, we are going to talk about one feature that picked my philosophical interest.
Ea realizes that a lot of her father’s power derives from fear of death in humans. Because we don’t know when we’ll die, it is easy to manipulate and cow us, particularly, of course, by dangling in front of us the promise of an afterlife. But as Ea says at one point, that’s a fantasy. There is no afterlife. The Stoic philosopher Seneca agreed:
“Death is non-existence, and I know already what that means. What was before me will happen again after me. If there is any suffering in this state, there must have been such suffering also in the past, before we entered the light of day. As a matter of fact, however, we felt no discomfort then.” (Letter 54.4)
Since there will be no consciousness after death — as there was none before we were born — then there will be no harm either. And therefore we should have no fear:
“First of all, free yourself from the fear of death, for death puts the yoke about our necks.” (Letter 80.5)
In order to help lift that yoke, Ea defies her father in a rather drastic fashion: she gets hold of the computer and sends a text message to the entire earth population. The message has the exact date and time of each individual’s death. Billions of clocks start ticking, and we see how people react once in possession of that knowledge.
What would you do with that sort of information about your life? The reactions we see in the film are as varied as the characters and backgrounds of various individuals. One guy discovers that he will live for much longer, so he begins to do all sorts of suicidal stunts, which of course he somehow survives every time. The Catherine Deneuve character, stuck in a loveless marriage, discovers that she has little to live and finally finds the courage to leave her husband and enjoy what is left of her life. And so forth.
The Stoics thought long and hard about what to do with life before the final and inevitable test of our character arrives. They decided that it is precisely because we both know that we will die, and yet do not know when, that our life becomes a matter of urgency, something to be experienced to its fullest and most meaningful, right here, right now. If we don’t mindfully decide what to do this here is what happens:
“You will find that the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose. (Seneca, Letter 1.1)
That’s because we seem to sleepwalk through our own life — as the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus chided his fellow citizens of Ephesus for doing — not paying attention to what we do and why. Again, imagine you found yourself in the world described by The Brand New Testament. Wouldn’t knowledge of your exact moment of death change things dramatically? Wouldn’t you start focusing on the things that matter, especially if that moment turned out to be closer than you might have imagined? But why should the sort of knowledge that Ea suddenly makes available to humanity make any difference? Why on earth would we not already live the only life we have to the utmost?
I suspect the answer is because at some level we don’t take seriously our own mortality. It’s not that we actually think we are going to die. It’s that we just don’t want to think about it, and act as if it was not going to happen. But it will. And we ought to act accordingly, on penalty of misliving our own life.
What might that “acting accordingly” look like? That, of course, is a question that each one of us has to answer individually. But there is some philosophical as well as scientific guidance available.
Following to the Stoics, we should live in agreement with nature, by which they meant in synch with the rational and cooperative, prosocial nature that is characteristic of the human species. As Marcus Aurelius puts it:
“Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires.” (Meditations, 4.24)
The Stoics were cosmopolitans, thinking that all of humanity is one big brotherhood and sisterhood, and that a meaningful human life is one in which we apply our most distinctive ability, reason, to improve the human cosmopolis. But since few of us have the power of an emperor, or even of an elected official, this is largely done through cultivating better relationships with people around us, beginning of course with our family and friends, but also with coworkers or simply people we meet in the street (or, increasingly these days, online).
Research conducted by modern psychologists, concerning the regrets of people near the end of their lives, backs up the Stoic intuition. Few if any regret one more meeting at the office, one more post on Facebook, or even one more million in the bank. Most or all regret not having spent more time with their family and friends, as well as not having dedicated their energy to meaningful projects. In turn, these meaningful projects rarely encompass, say, stamp collecting. They often involve, again, relationships with others, such as volunteering for a prosocial or even political organization, to help make the world a slightly better place. We are not talking about “saving the world,” a rather inane and dangerous concept. We are talking about doing whatever we can with our limited powers of agency. Because it matters, as Marcus reminds us:
“Set yourself in motion, if it is in your power, and do not look about you to see if anyone will observe it; nor yet expect Plato’s Republic [i.e., Utopia]: but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event to be no small matter.” (Meditations, 9.29)