Philosophy is, ultimately, about dying. By exploring the good and ill of life, it must necessarily touch on death. Down the ages writers and artists have grappled with the same conundrum: how to outwit the Grim Reaper.
The English poet John Donne (1572-1631) wrote a series of meditations known as Holy Sonnets whose theme is death and the afterlife. Never published during his lifetime, they were widely circulated in manuscript and are among his most popular poems. Sonnet X in the Westmoreland sequence begins:
“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so:
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death; nor yet canst thou kill me.”
To a great extent this is the theme of one of our best contemporary philosophers, Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Over the years he has published some 27 books exploring religion and society, morality and ethics, power and the human condition. Most recently his writing has taken an autobiographical turn, although in doing so he still speaks for many in contemporary society.
Honestly, courageously and with an open mind, Holloway questions faith and belief, throwing well reasoned cold water on assumptions, fallacies, and misprisions. In Looking in the Distance (2004) he writes: “We may be no closer to understanding why there is a world, but we are now able to accept the fact that the world itself is the source of the values and meanings we prize most, not some hypothetical transcendent reality which did none of the work yet claims all the credit.”
The universe’s supreme indifference to the fate of humankind is a major topic, with its consequent emphasis on the true value of life and its non sequitur: death. And when death reaches out, “Our brief finitude is but a beautiful spark in the vast darkness of space. So we should live the fleeting day with passion and, when the night comes, depart from it with grace.”
One might have thought Holloway would stop there but, fortunately, he has not. Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt (2012) ruminates on “having loved this present world” and the richness, joy and despair it brought him. It is a wonderful book that defies summarization and encourages reflection. It, too, deals with death. In fact it begins with an extended visit to an old cemetery where his life of contemplation and reflection can be said to have begun. The book is infused with a brutal self-honesty of the kind that reveals truths to others. Recognising and learning from his mistakes, Holloway celebrates life.
As a man of religion, Holloway is sometimes thought to have turned anti-religious. Not so: “I wanted to keep religion around, purged of cruelty, because it gave us space to wonder and listen within. Purged of the explanations that don’t explain, the science that does not prove, the morality that does not improve; purged, in fact, of its prose, religion’s poetry could still touch us, make us weep, make us tender, and take us out of ourselves into the possibility of a courageous pity.”
And death, with which the book ends? Having bowed out graciously and departed without fuss, “I don’t want a stone or a sign left anywhere to mark the fact that I had a life on earth before I went down the stairs to join the unnumbered dead. My name will be written in ink, and ink is the best symbol for a life. Brief. Defiant. Fading.”
Richard Holloway might have kept quiet about his doubts, but that is not his style. He has given us two astonishing books – Looking in the Distance and Leaving Alexandria. They merit time and reflection.