Thinking About the Dead

Peter Singer

I have just published a book about my maternal grandfather, David Oppenheim. A Viennese of Jewish descent, he was a member first of Sigmund Freud’s circle and later of that of Alfred Adler. But despite his abiding interest in exploring human psychology, he underestimated the Nazi threat and did not leave quickly enough after the Nazi annexation of Austria. Deported to the overcrowded, underfed ghetto of Theresienstadt, he soon died. Fortunately my parents left Vienna in time. They were able to go to Australia where, after the war, I was born.

Many of my grandfather’s letters and papers have survived. One of them asks: What is a good life? Since David Oppenheim was a classical scholar, he discusses this question in the context of a classical text: the passage from the first book of Herodotus describing the visit of Solon, the wise law-giver of Athens, to Croesus, the fabulously wealthy king of Lydia. After entertaining Solon and hearing about his travels, Croesus asks him: “Who is the happiest man you have ever seen?” Croesus expects to hear that he, Croesus, is the happiest of all—for who is richer or rules over a greater and more numerous people than he? Solon dashes Croesus’s expectation by naming an Athenian called Tellus. Taken aback, Croesus demands to know the reason for this choice, and so Solon describes the key points of Tellus’s life. He lived in a prosperous city, had fine sons, and lived to see each of them have children. He had wealth enough. And he had a glorious death, falling in battle just as the enemy was being routed. The Athenians paid him a high honor: a public funeral on the spot where he fell.

From this story my grandfather distills Solon’s conception of a happy life as consisting of ten elements:

1. A period of peaceful prosperity for his country.

2. A life that stretches far into the third generation.

3. One does not lose the complete vigor of a valiant man.

4. A comfortable income.

5. Well-brought-up children.

6. Assurance of the continuation of one’s line through numerous thriving grandchildren.

7. A quick death.

8. Victorious confirmation of one’s own strength.

9. The highest funeral honors.10. The preservation of one’s own name through glorious commemoration by the citizens.

As we can see from the last two points, Solon believed that what happens to people after they die—what kind of funerals they have and how their names are remembered—makes a difference in how good their lives were. This was not because Solon imagined that, after death, one could look down from somewhere and see what kind of a funeral one was given. There is no suggestion that Solon believed in any kind of afterlife, and certainly I don’t. But does skepticism about life after death force one to conclude that what happens after you die cannot make a difference to how well your life has gone?

In thinking about this issue, I vacillate between two incompatible positions: that something can only matter to you if it has an impact on your awareness, that is, if you experience it in some way; and that what matters is that your preferences be satisfied, whether or not you know of it, and indeed whether or not you are alive at the time when they are satisfied. The former view, held by classical utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham, is more straightforward, and in some ways easier to defend philosophically. But imagine the following situation. A year ago a colleague of yours in the university department in which you work was told that she had cancer and could not expect to live more than a year or so. On hearing the news, she took leave without pay and spent the year writing a book that drew together ideas that she had been working on during the ten years you have known her. The task exhausted her, but now it is done. Close to death, she calls you to her home and presents you with a typescript. “This,” she tells you, “is what I want to be remembered by. Please find a publisher for it.” You congratulate your friend on finishing the work. She is weak and tired, but evidently satisfied just with having put it in your hands. You say your farewells. The next day you receive a phone call telling you that your colleague died in her sleep shortly after you left her house. You read her typescript. It is undoubtedly publishable, but not ground-breaking work. “What’s the point?” you think to yourself. “We don’t really need another book on these topics. She’s dead, and she’ll never know if her book appears anyway.” Instead of sending the typescript to a publisher, you drop it in a recycling bin.

Did you do something wrong? More specifically, did you wrong your colleague? Did you in some way make her lifeless good than it would have been by not seeking a publisher for her book? Would her life have been worth more if you had taken the book to a publisher and it had appeared, gaining as much and as little attention as many other worthy but not ground-breaking academic works? If we answer that question affirmatively, then what we do after a person dies can make a difference to how well his or her life went.

Writing about my grandfather has forced me to think about whether it makes sense to believe that, in reading my grandfather’s works and bringing his life and thought to a larger audience, I am doing something for him and in some way mitigating, however slightly, the wrong that the Nazis did to him. It is easy to imagine that a grandfather would like to be remembered by his grandchildren, and that a scholar and author would like to be read after his death. Perhaps this is especially so when he dies a victim of persecution by a dictatorship that sought to suppress the liberal, cosmopolitan ideas my grandfather favored and to exterminate all members of his tribe. Do I have here an example of how, as Solon said, what happens after one dies does make a difference to how well one’s life goes? I don’t think you have to believe in an afterlife to give this question an affirmative answer.

Note

1. Peter Singer, Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna (New York: Ecco, 2003).


Peter Singer is DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. His books include Animal Liberation, How Are We to Live?, Writings on an Ethical Life, One World, and, most recently, Pushing Time Away.

Peter Singer

Peter Singer is DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. His books include Animal Liberation, How Are We to Live?, Writings on an Ethical Life, One World, and, most recently, Pushing Time Away.


I have just published a book about my maternal grandfather, David Oppenheim. A Viennese of Jewish descent, he was a member first of Sigmund Freud’s circle and later of that of Alfred Adler. But despite his abiding interest in exploring human psychology, he underestimated the Nazi threat and did not leave quickly enough after the …

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