Death, A Necessary Path To LifeA Heideggerian Approach

Death, A Necessary Path To LifeA Heideggerian Approach



The strongest instinct in both human beings and animals is the instinct of self-preservation or self-perpetuation. It is, in other words, the instinct to avoid death, the instinct to continue living. Yet, death is the surest thing that will happen to every human being.




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For the living, death is like an eclipse, a sudden darkness at midday. When one breathes in and fails to breathe out, we say that one is dead. When this happens, the end of an existential journey is reached. Whether the journey was tedious, smooth, boring, enjoyable, long or brief, is not the point in question. The fact is that it is a venture and when it terminates, it is final. There is no second trial, no second opportunity and no rehearsal.

If there is only one thing that is unmistakably certain, which no sceptic has ever doubted or can ever doubt, it is that death is inevitable. It is certain that we shall all die because we were all condemned to death even before we were born. Some people are not even born before they die; they die in the womb before they are born. Some die just as they are being born; some die a few minutes after they are born; some a few hours, others a few days; some a few months, others a few years. Some live to ripe old age, others in the prime of their lives and so on. Death can come and does come at any time in a person’s life.

At times it comes when life is sweetest, when the world, our country and our family need us most. It may be at a time when, through dint of trials, risks and hard-earned successes one is just mature enough to start understanding and enjoying the game of life. Often, it is at such a peak moment of life that death, without warning and without knocking, briskly and instantly, strikes and sneaks off.

Every day newspapers, television and radio stations and other media bring to all the horrifying pictures and reports of death, whether they be through motor accidents, catastrophe, terrorism, disease, mercy killings, abortion or natural disasters. At another level, death has inspired poets, musicians, writers, film producers and other creative minds in their creations. Yet, many are still uncomfortable with the subject and refer to death in sugar-coated euphemisms such as “passing on”, ‘resting’, ‘promoted to higher glory’, ‘gone too soon’, ‘called to glory’ among others. Death is an everyday occurrence and it happens everywhere. As it is happening in our environment, so also it is happening elsewhere even in the highly rated countries. We cannot understand life until we reflect on the phenomenon of death. It is a fact of life.

Martin Heidegger, an existential philosopher, had the concept of “death” as one of the basic themes in his philosophy. Death, says Heidegger, is that which enables us to understand man in his wholeness. Death for Heidegger is not something negative. It forms part and parcel of man’s existential character. Before death, man is never defined, because he is a bundle of possibilities; it is at death, says Heidegger, that man is defined. Heidegger’s notion of death singled him out as a giant among the existential philosophers. But, who is Martin Heidegger? A glance at the person of Heidegger and the factors that influenced his approach to the phenomenon of death will be of immense help in this work.

1.1              A Brief History Of Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger was born on September 26, 1889 in Messkirch, Baden in Southwest Germany, to Roman Catholic parents of very modest means. He began his preparatory schooling in Constance and Freiburg. From 1899 to 1911, he nursed the intention of becoming a priest but this urge was punctured and thus frustrated following his deteriorating heart condition during his two years of theological studies at Freiburg University. In 1911 he switched to Mathematics and natural sciences and finally took his doctorate in philosophy in 1913 with a dissertation entitled ‘The doctrine of Judgment in psychologism’.

So many scholars namely: Aristotle, St Augustine, St Paul, Dilthy, Dostoevski, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Husserl influenced Heidegger. Among all these, Aristotle and Husserl had the strongest influence on him. He had a strong affinity with Edmund Husserl whom he later assisted. In 1922, he was appointed as an associate Professor at the university of Marburg where he pursued his studies in Aristotle, formulated a fresh interpretation of Phenomenology, and was hard at work on a manuscript, which later became his famous book Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) in 1976.

The question of Being caught the interest of the young Martin when, in high school he read Franz Brentano’s On the several senses of Being in Aristotle. He transformed the concept of Being from a highly abstract and remote concept into a subject of intense concern for every human experience. In fact, the philosophical works of Heidegger could be said to be an inquiry into the meaning of Being (Sein). He took up the task of fundamental ontology (Seifrage) in order to inquire into the meaning of Being.

How do we approach the study of being? Where do we start? Heidegger thinks that we should start with man, since man is the only being whose existence is an issue, the gateway for understanding other beings. Therefore, the best way to approach the question of being is by examining the being of man.

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The very asking of this is an entity’s mode of being; and as such it gets to the essential character from what is inquired    about, namely, being. This entity which each of us is himself and which includes inquiring as one of the possibilities of its being, we shall denote by the term Dasein[1]

Thus, in Heidegger’s philosophy, Dasein is the technical term for man because man possesses all the characteristics enumerated as belonging to this very “Dasein”. Dasein possesses special characteristics, which include: Openness, Mineness and Ability to choose. Of all beings, Dasein is a special type and this is as a result of certain existential conditions of this very being. These existentials are: Being-in-the-world, Existence and Temporality. And as being-in-the-world, Dasein (man) possesses three structural elements: Facticity, Existentiality and Fallenness.

Further, according to Heidegger, man is a being-unto-death. And knowing full well the brevity of his life, he has to adopt an attitude towards his impending death. In all its ramifications, Martin Heidegger treats death not as something actual but as a mode of being and as such enters into the process of living, that towards which life inevitably tends.

Heidegger’s encounter with a Lutheran girl, Thea Elfride Petri on 21st March, 1917 culminated in a legal union that was blessed with two sons. He died at home in Zahringen, Freiburg, on 26th May, 1976 (at the age of eighty-six) and was buried in his hometown of Messkirch.

Purpose Of the Study:

The purpose of this work is to establish how death as a possibility of Dasein (man) paves way to life in the thoughts of Heidegger. In the widest sense, says Heidegger, death is a phenomenon of life and is defined only in reference to life. It is a peculiar possibility of man that involves his whole being. Death is a way of life for man, for he is a being-towards-death, a being that lives every moment of his life towards his death. Man’s whole life is a progressive journey unto death, for he begins to die the day he is born.

Death is a way to be which Dasein takes over as soon as it is. As soon as man is born, he is old enough to di

  • Statement Of the Problem:

Death is encountered as a common human experience, though nobody while still alive experiences his own death, except in anticipation. The death that is experienced is the death of others, not one’s own death. Everybody has his own death to die and he lives towards it every moment of his life. We must all die.

In the face of this existential fact, the mystery underlying this inevitable end poses great question to human existence. Death featured prominently in Heideggerian philosophy. However, the pertinent questions are: Should death mark the end of our being, would our lives be rendered worthless? Or would the fact of impending death help to recognize the value of our lives and thus, pave way to a glorious life?

We hope to explore these questions within the philosophical framework developed by Martin Heidegger.

1.4 Scope Of the Work:

This work specifically concentrates on Heidegger’s view about death as a necessary path to life. We shall draw our ideas principally from his works and from other authors where necessary.

1.5 Method of Research:

The method used in this research work is expository. The approach is also analytical and evaluative.

1.6 Division of Work:

This research work is divided into five chapters. Chapter one is a general introduction, which includes the life history of Martin Heidegger, the purpose of the study, the problem that motivated it, and the method used in researching it. In chapter two, we shall review the ideas of other philosophers on the phenomenon of death till date.

The third chapter examines Dasein as a being-in-the-world and Being-unto-death. The heart of this work is chapter four. In it, we expose and analyse Dasein’s Wholeness and Being-Towards-Death. We shall evaluate Heidegger’s idea of death in chapter five, which is the last chapter.



Down through the ages, death had been a matter of deep concern. In spite of its mysterious nature, its certainty has plunged man into searching to know what it is all about. Biologists, psychologists, many religions and above all, philosophers have reflected on death. Philosophers always come out with divergent opinions and views. Our subject matter is not left out in this regard. The extent of a philosopher’s interest and concern varies according to his thought pattern and the epoch .in, which he philosophizes.

To this end, we are going to give a general review of the concept of death according to some Philosophers, from the ancient times to the Contemporary era.


The Pre-Socratic philosophers were not interested in the human person. Rather, they were concerned more with the nature of things, what things are made of. In fact, the awareness of continuity and change pervades their thought.

However, in this pre- Socratic era, Pythagoras alone gave his own view on death based on the immortality of the soul. The human soul, says Pythagoras, is divine, immortal and spiritual.  It is imprisoned in the body and can only be set free upon death.1    So, in Pythagoras’ view, death separates the soul from the body and as such, liberates the soul from the bondage of the body

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Plato (428/27 B.C.) in his dialogues gave his own view on death. Central to his discussion on death is the drama of Socrates’ trial and execution. In the Phaedo, he gives an account of Socrates’ last hour. He likened death to the daily life of the philosopher.

He went further to say that man should be glad to welcome death because by it, man can be rewarded for his virtuous life.

I desire to prove to you that the real philosopher has reason to be of good cheer when he is about to die, and that after death he may hope to obtain the greatest good in the other world.2

Plato, therefore, maintained that what should bother man is the state of his soul after death not the inevitability of death.

THE EPICUREANS: One of the oldest solutions to the fear of death was that of Epicurus and his followers. For Epicurus, [341-270BC] the fear of death is based upon the belief that death is painful and that the soul may survive to experience pain or torture here after.

However, Epicurus says “death, the most terrifying of all ills, is nothing to us since as long as we exist, death is not with us and when death comes, then we do not exist”3.

THE STOICS: The later Stoics especially Seneca, Epitectus and Marcus Aurelius offered more comprehensive view on death. Seneca (5B.C –65AD) maintained that the fear of death could only be overcome when we constantly think of it. According to him, we must think of it in a proper manner, reminding ourselves that we are but part of nature and must one day return to nature. Thus, he compared life to a banquet from which our obligation is to retire graciously at the appointed time. Marcus Aurelius (121-180AD) offered pessimism as an important element in approaching death. He concerned himself with death and its inevitability. Epitectus (50-130AD) emphasizes self-discipline and sense of decorum when it comes to death. He maintains that we have to take modestly the place assigned to us by God or nature at the banquet of life and when the end approaches, to live it quietly and gracefully. We can say that he was more specific in suggesting as a remedy the constant thinking of death.

Pre-Medieval Era

In the pre-medieval era, Origen (185-254 A.D) offered his own view on death. According to him, man is a composite being made up of body and soul. However, at death the soul is separated from the body and continues to go through the process of purification until it enters heaven.

After death the soul eventually re-enter a new body and is repeatedly until fully purified to enter heaven4

For Origen therefore, death does not destroy the soul but serves as a means through which the soul enters heaven to enjoy eternal happiness and bliss. St Augustine (354-430 A.D) contributed by saying that death is a punishment for human sin and that the fear of death cannot be overcome except through grace. He went further to say that death has proved to be a mystery to man. Thus, its mysterious nature has made it inevitable for us to confront ourselves on our death and the lot of our being after death.

Medieval Era:

Much of the Stoics’ notion on death crept into the medieval era. For instance, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) believed in soul-body union after death. He maintained that death separates the soul from the body only to re-unite at resurrection for both to enjoy eternal happiness in the state of innocence. So for him, death is a fact of nature, which can only be conquered by being submissive to God.

St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) proving the immortality of the soul, maintained that human soul is a spiritual substance, composed of spiritual matter and form. The soul is not located at any particular part of the body, but is present in every part of the body. He further opined that its union with the body ceases at death, but will re-unite with the body at the general resurrection. He maintained “ the soul is immortal and does not perish with the body at death but survives and lives on independently of the body”5. Thus death according to him, does not destroy the soul but only the body.

Modern Era:

In the modern era such scholars like Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, Schopenhauer, Hegel, among others, reflected about death

In his criticism of the stoics, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) echoes the view of his predecessor, Montaigne whose essay on death To philosophize is to learn how to die raised dust among his contemporaries. Thus he (Bacon) concludes, “ if we have learned how to live properly and calmly, we will know how to die”6. According to him, death can be conquered only when we know how to live

Descartes, like Bacon, is interested on how to conquer the fear of death. But, unlike Bacon, his view was more of assurance of the survival of the soul. For him, at death, the body is destroyed while the soul continues to live.

Spinoza (1632-1677) in his view maintained that death is less injurious to us because the clear and distinct knowledge of the mind is greater. To this end, he writes; ‘a free man, that is to say a man who lives according to dictates of reason alone is not led by fear of death…He thinks therefore, of nothing less than of death and his wisdom is a meditation upon life7

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Goltfried Wilhelm Von Leibniz (1646-1716) a mathematical genius, in his reaction against what he took to be the excessive mechanism of dominant Cartesian views sought to reconcile science and religion. Based on this ground, he distinguished mere unconsciousness from ‘absolute death’ in which all perception would cease. He argued that no animate being can entirely perish in what we call death and that God will always conserve not only our substance but also our person. His optimism had serious influence in the eighteenth century.

Although Leibniz optimism had wide influence in the eighteenth century, there were dissenting voices against it. One of such opposing voices was David Hume.

David Hume (1711-1776) criticized the entire doctrine of immortality and considered it to be a “priestly lie”. According to him, death is the end of man, for there is nothing like after life. Thus, he writes, “fear of death is the only true enemy that has to be conquered and that there is no after life, makes us free from the power of the priests”8. For  Hume death marks the end of life.

Authur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) believes that death is the inspiring genius or the muse of philosophy. “All religions and philosophical systems”, he says “are principally directed towards comforting us concerning death and are primarily antidote to the terrifying certainty of death”9.  Death for him inspires philosophy. This assertion holds of his because almost from the very first, death was a major topic of philosophical reflection

For Hegel (1770-1831), “Death has the peculiar effect of uniting the individual with universal matter. The living individual is a particular person, once dead, however, he becomes through bodily corruption indistinguishable from abstract being”10. He maintains that immortality is the quality of the living spirit, not an event in the future. This view guided Hegel’s follower, Ludwig Feuerbach.

Ludwig Feuerbach in his thought on death maintained that “immortal life is the life which exists for its own sake and contains its own aim and purpose in itself-immortal life is the life, rich in contents”11.

Contemporary Era:

The contemporary era shows a great concern over the phenomenon of death. The existential philosophers for whom the theme of death featured prominently in their thought gave comprehensive view on death.

Karl Jasper (1883-1969), who was a medical psychiatrist before becoming a

philosopher, refers to death as throwing us back upon the fulfillment of existence. He maintained that one could obtain assurance of true existence only from death. According to him, whatever remains essential in the face of death has been essentially fixed; whatever falls away is mere existence. He further explains that, if there were no passing away, that one would be an infinite duration as existence and so would not exist. He asserts, “death is not an ultimate situation for potential existence if it does not serve to awaken its potential depth, but merely serve to make everything meaningless”12

Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980), an atheistic thinker sees death as a meaningless absurdity. Death for him is a tragedy and philosophy would first consider it as a door opening up to the nothingness of human reality.

[Death] is only on its negative the nihilation of my possibilities since indeed I am my possibilities only through the nihilation of being-in-itself which I have to be13

Death for him is absurd and “every attempt to consider it as the resolved chord at the end of a melody must be sternly rejected”14. So, Sartre strongly expressed the absurdity of death by considering it as meaningless to human life.

It is pertinent at this juncture, therefore, to note that these philosophers like every other person only gave their views based on their observations. They used what every finite being experiences to conclude on what is outside of experience. Therefore, the differences in their understanding of death are welcomed. However, the fact remains that the issue of death is inexhaustible and, as such, any contribution in this regard is helpful in understanding Dasein as a Being-in-the-world and Being-unto- death


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