Can you die of success?

In his piece, “The Patient As A Person,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says:

Striving for personal success is a legitimate and wholesome ingredient of the person. The danger begins when personal success becomes a way of thinking, the supreme standard of all values. Success as the object of supreme and exclusive concern is both pernicious and demonic. Such passion knows no limit. According to my own medical theory, more people die of success than of cancer.

Heschel contends that “making money is expensive” and that “making money may cost us values that no money can buy.”

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A Lesson in Disinterestedness

Is it really possible to teach lessons about knowledge being for its own sake and learning being its own reward? How, in our hyper-utilitarian age of credentials, competition, and consumerism can such things be instilled and affirmed?

Here is a story from when I studied in Poland.

It so happened that I would be absent on the date of a scheduled exam in “Main Problems in Philosophy” due to a conference and so I arranged to write my exam in the professor’s office in advance.

I showed up to his office at 1 o’clock and he handed me a piece of paper with two questions that he had written out for me:

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“Every day is a good day to die.”

On this anniversary of Saint John XXIII’s death, I took the opportunity to re-read Hannah Arendt’s chapter, “Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli: A Christian on St. Peter’s Chair from 1958 to 1963” in her book Men in Dark Times.

It is an amusing title for the German Jewish political theorists reflections on his pontificate and, more broadly, his whole life and death.

By calling him “A Christian” in this emphatic sense, she intended to convey the remarkable extent to which Pope John XXIII wanted to follow Christ, “to suffer and be despised for Christ and with Christ”, and to “care nothing for the judgments of the world, even the ecclesiastical world.”

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Can we learn to die?

I do not suppose that thinking and writing about death every day will necessarily make it any easier to die one day or will make me any better at it.

I do know, however, that I will not always be in a position of wanting to think and write about these topics and so now is the time for it.

In Josef Pieper’s Death and Immortality, I just came across this excellent paragraph:

As a general rule, so-called “thinking about death” is probably a poor way of learning to die. Georges Bernanos in one of his last imaginative works, the Dialogues des Carmélites, has the dying prioress say: “I have meditated on death every hour of my life, but that does not help me at all now.” And when the philosopher Peter Wust learned for certain that he would never leave his sickbed, he asked in a diary note, evidently with profound surprise, why all philosophy failed him now.

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