Close Encounters of the Cancer Kind

In an article originally published in June 2012, Jeff Mason reflects on his cancer diagnosis and impending death.

There is nothing like a diagnosis of stage four inoperable lung cancer with bone metastases to give one a shock. I have known since I took logic as a young man that “Human beings are mortal. Socrates is a human being. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” However, I was not Socrates, and as far as I was concerned that syllogism was just an example of a valid argument. However, when you put your own name in place of “Socrates” things look very different. Now I am an oldish philosopher (67), and suddenly the real possibility of my own death in the fairly near future has become a reality. Mortality approaches.

I know that philosophers concern themselves mostly with abstract and very general questions in epistemology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, etc. By and large they do not approach philosophical questions from a personal perspective. Even death can be approached as an intellectual or conceptual problem. However, when Santa gave me my cancer diagnosis for Christmas 2011, abstract philosophy and my personal experience unavoidably came together. I now wonder if I can write in a very personal way about the universal truth that we are all going to die, what this means, and if there is anything of general import that I can express about what is happening in my own case. This breaks some common views of what philosophy is, but I do not have time to care about that now. So I am addressing you from a personal perspective, from my frame of life, and I ask your indulgence.

Let me state my tentative conclusion at the start. I do feel that having studied philosophy seriously for 46 years allowed me to keep my calm when the doctor gave me my diagnosis after a routine CT scan. For a second, I sat there feeling nothing at all. However, the next thought that came to me was gratitude for the life I have lived. Maybe other people do not feel this. Kubler Ross famously discusses five stages of grief and loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I seemed to skip the first four. This is not to say that I instantly reached acceptance, but I did come first to gratitude. Now, after six months of living with lung cancer, I am trying to understand what acceptance of death may amount to.

Each of us can only judge and describe the world from our own time frame. If I had been much younger, my response to the diagnosis might have conformed more to Dr. Ross's formula. The world looks very differently at different stages of life. Nevertheless, how one has looked, thought, and felt about life and death throughout one's life has to make a difference at the end. In my case, the lens through which I have considered life has always been philosophical. Snatches of philosophical thoughts have lodged in my mind since I was was young. These are like seeds that took root deep in my mind and have matured and grown over the years. Now I feel that they are bearing fruit, helping me to live a new and deeper life. One nugget stands out to complete this first meditation on life and death.

Plato's famously stated that “Philosophy is a preparation for death.” The Greek word that Plato uses for 'preparation' is 'Melete' and the root meaning is 'care' or 'attention'. It can also mean 'meditation,' 'practice' or 'exercise'. So are philosophers supposed to 'practice' dying, or simply to recollect the fact of mortality as they live their lives? What difference will that make?

I confess a great love of Plato and his amazing Socrates. However, I cannot go along with his tentative conclusions. We know what Socrates argues in the Phaedo. The reason that practicing philosophy is a preparation for death is that Socrates believes that the soul and the body are separable, that the soul is immortal, and that a very different after-life awaits those who have lived a good or evil life. Therefore, it behooves us to separate our own soul from our body as much as possible while we live and to detach ourselves from the preoccupations of mundane life.

The reason that I admire Socrates in the Phaedo is that after giving his 'proofs' of the immortality of the soul, he has the greatness to admit that his arguments are only the reasons he personally accepts to advance his position. He does not claim that they absolutely prove the soul is immortal. It is a postulate of Socrates' practical metaphysics. In fact, he says that if he is wrong, and death is total extinction, then he will never know he is wrong, and his folly will be buried with him.

So in what sense can the study of philosophy be a preparation for death if one does not accept metaphysical dualism? I do not accept any such thing, but I still feel that my study of philosophy has helped me prepare for my present state. Does this mean that the study of any topic in philosophy will have this effect? I do not think so. I am not at all sure that one would prepare for death very well by spending 40 years working in the salt-mines of post-Gettier epistemology, nor in picking over all he convoluted arguments in mereology and inductive logic.

To see how the study of philosophy might be of value in preparing to die, we have to go back to the root meaning of 'philosophy' as the 'love of wisdom'. Wisdom is not a topic that comes up very much in contemporary philosophy. It was more to the fore in the ancient world, where wisdom, ethics, and the question of living a good human life were brought together in a philosophical approach to living. For me, loving wisdom has to do with taking up the largest possible perspective in which to live one's life, going all the way back to the Big Bang, including all of space and time, the natural history of the universe, the geology of the earth, and the total history of animals and human beings on this planet spinning through a gigantic universe. It covers all the natural cycles of life and death and sees everything as part of this comprehensive whole. Somehow, living in this context has helped me see life and death as part of a seamless process. Death shadows life as naturally as the shadow one casts on the ground on a sunny day. There is no point in denying it, and no point in worrying about it. Perhaps acceptance lies in this direction.

JEFF MASON WAS A LECTURER IN PHILOSOPHY AT MIDDLESEX UNIVERSITY. HE DIED IN AUGUST 2012, TWO MONTHS AFTER WRITING THIS PIECE.

Related article: Death and Its Concept (written by Jeff Mason, six months before his cancer diagnosis).