I just finished re-reading Leon Kass’s splendid essay, “L’Chaim and Its Limits: Why Not Immortality?“
I was reminded of that 2001 piece when I read this interview published yesterday about Archbishop Emeritus Charles Chaput’s new book Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living.
Leon Kass begins his piece by exploring the primacy of life in Judaism and our wider culture’s interest in prolonging life and forestalling death.
Then, he raises some questions:
How much longer life is a blessing for an individual? Ignoring now the possible harms flowing back to individuals from adverse social consequences, how much more life is good for us as individuals, other things being equal? How much more life do we want, assuming it to be healthy and vigorous? Assuming that it were up to us to set the human life span, where would or should we set the limit and why?
How many years are reasonably few? Let us start with ten. Which of us would find unreasonable or unwelcome the addition of ten healthy and vigorous years to his or her life, years like those between ages thirty and forty? We could learn more, earn more, see more, do more. Maybe we should ask for five years on top of that? Or ten? Why not fifteen, or twenty, or more?
If we can’t immediately land on the reasonable number of added years, perhaps we can locate the principle. What is the principle of reasonableness? Time needed for our plans and projects yet to be completed? Some multiple of the age of a generation, say, that we might live to see great-grandchildren fully grown? Some notion—traditional, natural, revealed—of the proper life span for a being such as man? We have no answer to this question. We do not even know how to choose among the principles for setting our new life span.
Kass is not flippant about death. And he is not just seeking to be edgy or provocative. Rather, he intends to propose some serious reasons to us why it is our finitude on earth that makes our lives meaningful.
The shortness of life, Leon Kass argues, increases interest and engagement. Next, he says, the shortness of our lives enhances our seriousness and aspiration. Thirdly, he explores the influence of the fact of our mortality on the human experiences of beauty and love. And finally he touches on the value of moral excellence and the capacity for self-gift that is made possible by the brevity of life.
The more we reflect on these questions, the more we can see life and death in their proper context. The more we contemplate “the virtues of mortality”, the more we open ourselves to the values that – and to the persons who – transcend our particular lifespans.
And so, as Archbishop Emeritus Chaput concluded his interview, “Don’t be afraid of dying. Be afraid of not really living.”
Photo: Playa de Escobilla Sanctuary in Oaxaca, Mexico in December 2019