While the question of “life” after death is one that is greatly disputed, the premise that death is the definitive destiny for all humans is universally accepted. Due to the nature of human finitude, German philosopher Martin Heidegger views death as a fate that allows one to find meaning, and thus be our most authentic self. Heidegger depicts death as closely linked to personal authenticity, and therefore selfhood. To be authentic in Heideggerean terms is to live “true” to oneself. Since Heidegger asserts that truth can be lived, and one may subsequently fail to live their truth, he therefore asserts that there is a fundamental way of being, or existence. Thus, he claims “the ‘essence’ of human beings lies in its existence” (42). He uses the term ‘Dasein’ (directly translated as “being there”) to describe the experience of being that is peculiar to humans. It describes the agent that exists towards death as their own most possibility. (This also may be interpreted as Heidegger’s technical term referring to us – not as individual human beings – in reference to a way of being of all human beings). Heidegger indirectly splits the idea of being a self and being alive as varying human experiences. He asserts that there are certain qualities, traits, and activities that represent more than what we merely enjoy doing. Therefore, when we engage in activities that do not fit our “essence”, we are living an intrinsically unauthentic life. As Dasein, life possess a structure of an accomplishment, or “wholeness”, that exists because of death. Through this understanding, he differentiates between being alive, and being an authentic self.
In order to better comprehend Heidegger’s theory, one may imagine a scenario where they only have a few days to live. Upon this discovery, if one feels deep regret on the current projection of their life, then they are living an unauthentic life. In contrast, if one expresses pure contentment at the direction of their life, despite the possibility of death around the corner, then they are being true to themselves. For Heidegger, the imaginative projection of death is essential in determining who you are. Upon realization of death as the inevitable, “one is liberated in such a way that for the first time one can authentically understand and choose among the factical possibilities lying ahead” (308). Humans enter a state of anxiety where the endless possibilities of life become apparent, therefore our choices are guided by making these possibilities factuality. In turn, the choices we make define us, give meaning to our lives, and ultimately foster authenticity.
Although Jean-Paul Sartre follows a similar line of reason, he has a slightly different perception on the meaning of death. Both Sartre and Heidegger assert that the choices we make define us. Sartre’s work echoes Heidegger’s when he claims “man is nothing else but what he makes of himself” (28). Therefore, his works represent the firm viewpoint that existence precedes essence. Our collective actions and decisions illustrate who we are as humans, and thus we are ultimately responsible for how we conduct ourselves in this world. To acknowledge the freedom of choice – and the consequent responsibility we face – is to live an authentic life. Sartre argues that Heidegger’s view gives too much power to death in shaping the direction of one’s life. Since death is the end of us, it is the end of our freedom to give meaning in our lives. Far from Heidegger’s premise that death allows for meaning, he concludes that death takes this very meaning away. Similar to Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir views death as a pall over the meaning of our lives, and goes as far to claim death as an “unjust violation” (106). After death, Sartre believes that the meaning of one’s life is merely what others make of it, and therefore we sacrifice control in affecting that meaning. Therefore, we cannot wait for death to occur “not because death does not limit my freedom, but because freedom never encounters this limit” (Sartre, 700). Death is not an event to dread and ponder because it deems insignificant while one is alive. Thus, upon further analysis of Sartre’s text, the dichotomy between Heidegger and Sartre becomes ever clear.
In finality, I will argue that Sartre overlooks the importance of death in realizing life’s meaning. Sartre illustrates death as an entirely independent event that has no existential repercussions on how one should lead life. In contrast, Heidegger claims that humans exist towards death as their ‘ownmost possibility.’ We exist as agents capable of recognizing and striving for meaning by recognizing our undeniable mortality. Hence, Dasein is confronted with death as a possibility of being, and it “stands before itself in its ownmost potentiality-of-being” (Heidegger, 232). By recognizing the potential of death, we illuminate the meaning of alternate possibilities because they exist within the constraints of our mortality. Similar to Heidegger, I assert that it is our mortality that allows for such meaning. The possibility of death, which lingers indefinitely throughout our lives, imposes a sense of urgency and anxiety on the choices we make. Sartre fails to address the significance of death because he views it as a contingent occurrence, while Heidegger uncovers the underlying reason why our freedom matters to us in the first place. The significance Heidegger places on death is valid because our time on Earth is limited, and the choices we make are solely our responsibility. Through awareness on our mortality, Heidegger claims that ‘being-towards-death’ grounds the temporality of Dasein. Thus, this very temporality is foundational for the meaning we give our lives. We can imagine an immortal life where one possesses the possibility of infinitely repeatable choices and pleasures. The immortal may pursue infinite endeavors throughout their life, as their time on Earth is infinite. The contrasting mortal cannot afford to do so. Thus, it is through the recognition of our mortality where one is able to comprehend the temporality of their existence, and therefore the weight of their decisions.
Following my personal confrontation with death, I copiously comprehended the fragility of existence. Heidegger’s notion of ‘being-towards-death’ outlines the life I led subsequent to my final trip to the cosmos. While Sartre’s emphasis on personal responsibility and freedom deem fruitful at first, it is the finitude of death in itself the underlies the condition needed for meaning. The limited time I have on this planet dictates the choices I make, and thus the life I choose to manifest. As death is the final “ownmost possibility”, it becomes apparent that the most suitable way to lead my life is to make decisions based on my personal desire, rather that of others around me. While my young days exemplified a deeply complex desire for acceptance, I soon realized my contentment with life is manifested from within the Self, and not through acceptance of the Other. By becoming face to face with death, I grasped the finitude of my being and the fact that all of life’s possibilities will never be fully actualized. There exists something outstanding beyond my existence. The potential of death allows me to grasp my existence in its totality and thus focus my existence as it belongs to me (the individual) rather than the inauthentic “they” (the other). Though confrontation with my grandfather’s death was a deeply personal grievance that greatly altered my life, it was still the death of another human being. Experiencing his death, although an excruciating painful experience, was still ‘objective’ in the sense that I was still avoiding confrontation with my own mortality. Heidegger claims when death is faced as an individual, a possibility which is Dasein’s own is recognized. The external world, which acquires meaning based in Others is eclipsed, and one may overcome absorption into others. Thus, facing mortality allows human existence to focus fully on itself as its own Self. Martin Heidegger’s work has become analogous to my personal confrontation with the fragile temporality of life. It has served as an existential awakening – surging a desire for meaning in a fundamentally hollow world.
Beauvoir, Simone de. 1965. A Very Easy Death. Trans. Patrick O’Brian. Pantheon 102 Books: New York.
Heidegger, Martin. 1996. Being and Time. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. State University of New York Press: Albany.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1956. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. Washington Square Press: New York.
Sigrist, Michael J. Death and the meaning of life. Philosophical Papers 44.1 (2015): 83-102.