5.2 Dealing with the Knowledge of Mortality

Whether the development of the knowledge of personal mortality is viewed as a descent or an ascent does not matter a great deal. Either way it produces the effect of what is now generally referred to as self-consciousness. The awareness of personal mortality, combined with the understanding that the lives of others, and the physical reality in which they abide, will all continue independently after one’s own death, causes individual humans to see themselves as separate and alienated from the physical and social environments in which they live. Each person understands that death has to be faced alone, which leads to the awareness that life is also faced alone. Consciousness is thus focussed on the individual self, and on the need to prolong its survival. In this way existence can become an uncomfortable and futile experience:

And God has so arranged this existence that it is impossible in this world to be related in truth to truth without coming to suffer—and eternity judges everyone according to whether he has been related in suffering to truth.[15]

Mysticism appears to be a somewhat novel method of dealing with this harsh reality, and it is normally only utilised by individuals who find the traditional strategies unsatisfactory. The traditional methods involve reinforcing the self, rather than transcending it, through procreation and/or social status. Children are seen as extensions of the self and, since it can be anticipated that children will further extend a person’s procreative chain of existence, people who have children are able to reassure themselves with the thought that their own being is a link in a chain of immortal existence.

But there is large scope for disappointment for those who rely on this strategy. Infertility, premature death of offspring, the failure of children themselves to marry and procreate, or simply intergenerational conflict, can all create conditions in which the immortal chain appears to break. The most basic problem with this strategy for men is the uncertainty over paternity.[16] When men adopt tactics designed to ensure the security of paternity, such as imposing binding marriage contracts on women and restricting their freedom, the stress is passed on from men to women.

To combat the anxieties caused by the knowledge of personal mortality, and also ameliorate the further stresses caused by the ‘cure’ of procreation, a further cultural strategy involves a competitive struggle for social status and power. The principle here is simple: people who can gain power over others can command them to provide service in the task of preserving the well-being of the person holding power. Men who pursue this strategy believe that if they can dominate male rivals, and gain ascendancy over a particular woman, then exclusive sexual access will be guaranteed and procreative certainty will be assured. Surplus wealth, which can be accumulated by the exercise of power, can also be used to insulate the person in power against premature death from accident, disease, war, exposure or hunger.

The obvious flaw in the status strategy is that it can only work for the benefit of a minority of people at the expense of the majority. Mystics are usually drawn from the ranks of the majority for whom the quest for status offers little comfort. The pursuit of mystical experience can be seen as a further attempt, beyond the more normal strategies of procreation and status, to combat anxiety over mortality by escaping from the consciousness of self altogether.

[15] Soren Kierkegaard, The Last Years: journals 1853–55, p. 132.

[16] Warren Cohen, ‘Kid looks like the mailman? Genetic labs boom as the nation wonders who’s Daddy’, pp. 62–3.