In this very first chapter of Discourse Sherlock outlines “The several Notions of Death, and the Improvement of them.” It is at this point that I begin updating the text in order to present a more secular view of the information contained within.
And so we begin with what Death is: in this Sherlock states that it is important to consider three things:
1) that is our leaving this world,
2) our putting off these early bodies,
3) our entrance into a new and unknown state of life;
for when we die, we change our state; we are removed from the world we currently know, and we leave our physical remains to return to the earth (or perhaps now to be shot into space, formed into a coral reef, or some other less than ‘traditional’ end). While we cannot prove what happens to us (call us our consciousness or souls or what you will) there are some things on which we can all, and should, agree.
Regardless of your beliefs, it cannot be denied that when we leave this world, our bodies rot and putrefy in the grave (unless we otherwise intervene – see mention of rockets above), and of this we need no proof – for we can see it with our own eyes. And yet, there is a common belief across much of humanity that we are, in a sense, immortal. In the past and in the present still, we worship gods and beings and ways of life, most of who were and are no more than dead men and women themselves. Many of us believe that something of a person survives beyond the funeral of the body – otherwise we never would have made such a fuss of those that have gone before us, as we have done throughout most of human history (and indeed pre-human history it seems too).
There can be such a strong sense of this ‘immortality’ imprinted upon us, whether it is within the very core of our being from the beginning or whether it is something that is acquired, that very few people – however much they reason with themselves – can spare themselves from fearing what becomes of us after death. And yet, this is what we should all aim to do.
And so regardless of your beliefs, Sherlock (now) aims to show how such thoughts affect our minds; what wisdom we can gain from the thoughts of death – that it can naturally teach us how we ought to live. For those who know that they must die, and leave their bodies behind to rot in the grave, and go themselves into this unknown state, will go without fear.
The first Notion of Death, That it is our Leaving this World; with the Improvement of it.
First then, let us consider Death only as our leaving this world; a very delightful place you’ll agree, especially when our circumstances are easy. Here a person can find what they most naturally love, what they take pleasure in, the supply of all their wants, the gratification of all their senses; nearly everything that an earthly creature can wish for or desire.
The truth is, few people know any other happiness, much less anything above it. They often feel only what strikes them upon their senses. This they think is a real and substantial good; and perhaps it is. But as for more pure and intellectual joys, they know no more what to make of them than the idea of ghosts and spirits (or atoms and molocules). They account them thin, vanishing things, and wonder what people mean who talk so much of them. I am sure you have all encountered such people in life.
Many people are apt to be too much pleased with this world, while life is easy, and so something else is necessary to wean them from it and to cure their fondness of it, besides the thoughts of dying – which make the sufferings and afflictions and disappointments of this life so necessary for the best of people, as cruel as they can sometimes seem.
This is one thing which makes the thoughts of death so terrible: we think ourselves very well as we are, and most of us think that we cannot be better, and therefore very few of us desire change. Sometimes extreme miseries may conquer our love of life, and some few people may long to rid themselves of this world (or this world of themselves); but there is no denying that for most this world is a wonderful place and that makes it a very troublesome thing to leave it.
However, if we rightly consider this matter, we can rectify our mistakes about these things and teach ourselves how to value them and how to use them, in order that we might fully live life, by ridding ourselves of our fear of death.
(To be continued…)
Coming in the next post, we will speak of many Things – through the use of an analogy of travelling through a foreign land many, many, many times.