Answer by Geoffrey Klempner
You might (or might not) be surprised to hear that we have received this question a fair number of times in the years Ask a Philosopher has been running. Usually, the question is ignored, or receives a more or less sarcastic answer. However, in your case I have a small extra piece of evidence — your StudyPartners.net registration form, in which you state, ‘I am trying to learn more about martial arts and philosophy… I need help.’
This gives me a clue, because there are in fact some people from a martial arts background in the ISFP and Pathways. Not a martial artist myself, I have a sense of what motivates someone to undertake study of a martial art.
Why do it? A person’s got to be able to defend themself. But that’s not usually the motivation. It’s more about the discipline, being able to face whatever life throws at you come what may and respond in good form, with practiced technique and presence of mind rather than haphazardly or in a panic, with courage rather than cringing cowardice.
One thing that life throws at everyone is death. For, sooner or later, your life will surely end and no martial arts defence has ever been devised against the grim reaper’s scythe.
In the Hagakure, the would be Samurai is advised to ‘consider himself as dead':
"Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day, when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears, and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, talling from thousand foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master."
In Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, Socrates, in prison on the very last day of his life comforts his grieving friends while he awaits the hemlock:
"I want to explain to you how it seems to me natural that a man who has really devoted his life to philosophy should be cheerful in the face of death, and confident of finding the greatest blessing in the next world when his life is finished… Ordinary people seem not to realize that those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death. If this is true, and they have actually been looking forward to death all their lives, it would of course be absurd to be troubled when the thing comes for which they have so long been preparing and looking forward."
The other night I had a dream, in which I deliberately and without emotion set about ending my own life. The method was cyanide in orange juice. Why orange juice? I usually have this with my breakfast, so I guess it had to be something familiar. As I started to drink, I noticed neat rows of black dots floating in the liquid. The poison. Even though I had already taken a couple of sips, I could stop now and nothing would happen. But I chose to continue. ‘My death agony will come in a few moments,’ I thought, as I lay myself down. That is the point where I woke up with a start.
I had a good day.
Why? Why… all this? I’ll share a secret with you. It’s a question I’ve struggled with for decades. It isn’t a question about the world as such, but about my being in the world. Why am I here? Granted that one of the soon-to-be-dead living creatures populating this small planet (doomed to destruction in a universe which itself will eventually end) is the person writing these words. Why am I that person? Why did I have to be him? Why am I here at all?
The question is either unintelligible or it is a conundrum – a philosophical question that we can (somehow) make sense of but one which logically cannot be answered, not ever in the history of the human race, or indeed the history of the universe.
Many people (fortunately for them!) are never gripped by the question. And of those that are, most find a way to ignore or forget. They brush it aside and get on with their lives. The few of us who can’t ignore and can’t forget must battle on, knowing that at some indeterminate time in the future, there will be no ‘I’ asking, Why?
In some strange sense, that is the answer.