This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free has two parts that could have been two books. It feels a little bit like Hägglund had two strong ideas and a one-book deal. The book is split into two parts where each part describes one of the ideas. Both ideas are thought-provoking, very well researched, and clearly described and explained. It was easy to stay engaged in the philosophical text.
In this post, I’ll focus on the first part of the book, which is about why mortality makes us free. The second part explains why capitalism can never lead to equality and why redistribution of wealth under capitalism can’t work in the long run. I might come back to that in a later post.
Our mortality might be the one thing that we can all agree on in this world full of division and false dichotomies. We don’t know when or how, but eventually we’ll all die. We are fragile and our lives are finite. Hägglund argues, successfully in my opinion, that the transience of our life is what makes it valuable.
Death makes life meaningless, because everything we have ever striven for ceases when life does, and it makes life meaningful, too, because the finitude of our lives makes every moment precious. Knowing that it can all end makes us care. Hägglund calls this secular faith. I would prefer to just call it caring, but that might be why I’m not a philosopher.
Most religions consider our finitude a lamentable condition that ideally should be overcome. Our lives on earth are considered a necessary prelude to eternity after death. An explanation of what eternity means is seldom included. It’s often considered to be similar to our lives on earth, except it will last forever. We’ll be together with our loved ones and there won’t be any pain or suffering. This premise means that it can’t be like our life on earth. The happiest day of our lives is so enjoyable because it sits in contrast to other days. Just try and picture the happiest day of your life (or just a happy day) and imagine it will last forever. The lack of contrast would make it bland and even boring. An eternal now would deprive us of a past and a future. There is no risk and no failure and thus no growth.
When we think about eternity after death this not what we have in mind. It turns out that we don’t want eternity. We want to continue to live our lives as we do on earth. When we wish that the lives of those whom we love will last, we do not wish for them to be eternal but for their earthly lives to continue.
The thought of our own death and the death of our loved ones is painful. We don’t want to die and we often don’t want things to end. At the same time, we shouldn’t want things to be eternal. Eternity would take away all reasons to care and be passionate. A life worth living must be finite and include secular faith or reasons to care. If your ultimate goal is to exist until you die, just so you can move on to eternity in heaven, you have no reason to deeply care about anything that happens during your life.
We enjoy spring because of the contrast of the cold and dark winter. We savior a summer day because we know that fall will be coming to fade the bright colors to a more demure red and yellow and brown. Life can be beautiful because it can be tough.
It is often asserted that life without spirituality suffers from disenchantment. However, it’s the transience of our lives that gives us a reason to care. If only one tiny circumstance in evolution or the lives of our ancestors would have been different, we would not have been here. There is no pre-determined meaning to life, but it can be beautiful. The most meaningful things in our lives often turn out to be the small things. A smile, a laugh, or sharing a spontaneous moment. We can make living worthwhile by caring and trying to make a difference to other people. Perhaps even to future generations. While our death is unavoidable, our legacy might live on.
It’s also a commonly held belief that religion is required to lead a moral life. The atrocities committed and wars fought in the name of religion should make it abundantly clear that religion can also have the opposite effect. The books and stories that are at the core of many religions are said to explain what it means to lead a moral life, but their interpretations differ wildly and some of them are used as excuses for bigotry and cause immense suffering. Leading a secular life, there isn’t a single dedicated text that tells us how to lead our lives. It’s up to us to create our moral compass. I like the humanist concept of trying to live your life in a way that does the least amount of damage and the most amount of good for both people and the planet. Not being sweetened by the idea of heaven or threatened with punishment in hell, leading a moral, secular life depends on intrinsic motivation. Knowing that life is short and death unavoidable provides this motivation for many.
Of course, some non-religious people feel that the meaninglessness of our existence is a reason to not care at all. But religion is certainly not a requirement for leading a good and moral life.
Seeing things in perspective as they happen is almost impossible. Looking back at past events it’s often easier to see them as precious. Time takes the edge of any hurt or worries that you encountered at the time. Appreciating the present is more difficult as it’s raw and unprocessed. Memories are also often isolated, not taking into account the full context of everything else that was going on in your life and the world.
This is especially challenging today. With a raging pandemic that’s causing pain and suffering and that’s increasing inequality, a sociopath in the White House, and the very urgent problem of climate change moved to the background it can be hard to find joy and happiness. If you feel this way try focusing on the small things. I can feel intense happiness when I’m running or when I’m sat on the sofa with a cup of tea after a long day. It’s ok to allow yourself these moments of happiness despite the state that the world is in. Denying yourself the little pleasures isn’t going to make the world a better place and might make you depressed.
I’m not religious and I believe that when I die my existence ends. While I’m not afraid of death I’m also not a fan, so I mostly don’t think about it if I don’t have to. While this book might not have changed my beliefs significantly I found it interesting and uplifting to read and think about why the finitude of our lives is a good thing. I liked both the writing and ideas. The second part of the book on the subject of democratic socialism is just as interesting as the first part and also worth a read.
Something else that fascinated me about the book was the confidence with which Hägglund asserts that the common interpretations of the works of some famous philosophers are wrong and how his interpretation is right. I understand that he has spent a lot of time studying all of these works as well as the broader concept. I don’t mean to say that he is wrong. A lot of Hägglund’s interpretations sound at least plausible. I simply don’t know and I’m not convinced that I would be bold enough to reject the norm and present my own interpretation as the right one. It’s interesting.