Tim Beasley-Murray reflects on the recent death of one of Slovakia’s leading contemporary writers.
There is an old commonplace – one that goes back to Seneca and reemerges throughout Western culture, say, in Montaigne or Heidegger – that says that it is death that gives meaning to life. More specifically, as one version of this commonplace would have it: one can only understand the life of an individual in the light of the manner of his or her death.
To my mind, these sorts of ideas and the thanatocentrism that they represent are completely misplaced. How can life gain its meaning from the often banal, often painful, often violent means by which life comes or is put to an end? Here, I am with Nietzsche and his insistence that the meaning of life can only be sought within life itself. Conceptualizing life in terms of death, thanatocentrism does little more than justify the claims of death over life. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori…. Well, we know where such ideas lead us: to societies that are willing – as on the killing fields of the First World War – to sacrifice the living by their thousands and hundreds of thousands.