What is the purpose of life and death?
Photo: Gustav Klimt, Death and Life, 1910/15 © Leopold Museum, Vienna
The question "What is the purpose of life and death?" was recently posted on ResearchGate. Unfortunately, the question spurred on arguments of atheism vs. religion for many who answered.
Comments streaming in were, "No need to think about the purpose of life and death as well," "Let us only think about life, not death, for it is those who are ignorant who think about death."
I was appalled at such answers.
When I replied, my reply sparked an uproar. I received from pseudo-philosophers comments about my work such as "cruel fundamentalist outbursts" and calling for my work to become "abashed," since my work was "amateurish assertions about ancient and modern cultures" and since I used "historical, anthropological and religious 'snippets'" for such subjects to "claim as a witness for the defense..."
Those intolerant of values find my "defense" to be "expected babble and pseudo-philosophy" to a "question that is better asked in church, or in a pub, or when the mind is in hangover mode after a bout of heavy drinking."
So, what was my response to the question "What is the purpose of life and death?" ...
A human being would certainly not grow to be seventy or eighty years old if his longevity had no meaning for the species to which he belongs. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life's morning. The significance of the morning undoubtedly lies in the development of the individual, our entrenchment in the outer world, the propagation of our kind and the care of our children. This is the obvious purpose. But when this purpose has been attained, and even more than attained, shall the earning of money, the extension of conquests and the expansion of life go steadily on beyond the bounds of all reason and sense? Whoever carries over into the afternoon the law of the morning, that is, the aims of man's purpose/nature, must pay for so doing with damage to his soul just as surely as growing youth who tries to salvage his childish egoism must pay for this mistake with social failure. Money-making, social existence, family, and posterity are nothing but plain nature, not culture. Culture lies beyond the purpose of nature. Could by any chance culture be the meaning and purpose of the second half of life?
In primitive tribes we observe that the old people are almost always the guardians of the mysteries and the laws, and it is in these that the cultural heritage of the tribe is expressed. How does the matter stand with us? For the most part, our old people try to compete with the young, expanding their immature, underdeveloped lives with primordial fear, hopes, and desires. These undoubtedly exist, and the goal of those who hold them lies behind, and not in front. So for many people all too much-unlived lie remains over-some-times potentialities which they could never have lived with the best of wills, and so they approach the threshold of old age with unsatisfied claims which inevitably turn their glances backward. It is particularly fatal for such people to look backward. For them a prospect and a goal in the future are indispensable.
Without proper acknowledgment of the significance of death, life is cheated of proper meaning. Questions of death and life are no trivial thing.
For the man of today, the enlargement of life and its culmination are plausible goals, but the idea of life after death seems to him questionable or beyond belief. And yet life's cessation, that is, death, can only be accepted as a goal when existence is so wretched that we are glad for it to end, or when we are convinced that the sun strived to its setting--"to illumine distance races"--with the same perseverance it showed in rising of the zenith.
If nothing else it is hygienic, if I may use the word, to discover in death a goal towards which one can strive, and that shrinking away from it is something unhealthy and abnormal which robs the second half of life of its purpose. Consider the religious teaching of a life hereafter consonant with the standpoint of psychic hygiene. Many religions hold the promise of a life beyond; it makes it possible for mortal man to live the second half of life with as much perseverance and aim as the first.
In a day in age where from meaninglessness nothing at all follows, or rather, anything follows, the question is significant. King Solomon of Ancient Isreal desired to know the purpose of life, and he found it in view of death. Solomon's wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of the East and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. His fame spread to all the surrounding nations. From all nations, people came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.
Solomon was first what today is called a nihilist, as he concluded: everything is meaningless, wisdom is meaningless, pleasures are meaningless, wisdom and follow are meaningless, toil is meaningless, advancement is meaningless, riches are meaningless.
Solomon in wisdom lastly concluded: It is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him, for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work, this is a gift of God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart. Therefore stand in awe of God, obey the king, cast your bread upon the waters, remember your creator while young, for wisdom is better than folly. A common destiny for all, death. For the king, for the slave. For the sinner, for the righteous. Therefore, go eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart for it is now that God favors what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.
Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. (Adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes).
For each person, death is either the gate to life with God and his people or the gate to eternal separation from the only thing that will ultimately fulfill human aspirations.