In a recent episode of Existential Talks, me and co-host Laurence Raran, talk about existentialism and how we all are existentialists when it comes to wrestling with meaning and values in our lives. One section of this discussion which stood out was on the question of what one is willing to die for, which we both agree to be the most fundamental question in this field.
Here is a quick breakdown of the discussion for you to read, if you want the full discussion, feel free to check it out on my channel Philosophy for All.
A lot of times people talk about existentialism as a pursuit of what they are willing to live for. However, I think that’s the wrong way to go around doing things. Rather, the right way to act is to ask yourself the opposite. What things are you willing to die for? We go through life either at work or at school and depending on the people and motives of the time, what you’re willing to live for changes frequently. However, when you’re thinking about what you’re willing to die for, it seems to point towards something more fundamental. Even though it is focused on the end of existence, death, instead of the beginning of it, life. I was wondering your thoughts on this?
I completely agree with that. This is something that we should investigate more. Because a lot of the New Atheists from 2006 were objecting to theism by saying, “How could anyone die for this?” “your religion makes 911” “They made the seven seven bombings?” “Why should we die for it?”
But disregarding terrorism for a second, a lot of people go about their lives not thinking about this question at all. Perhaps because the idea of death is so uncomfortable and disconcerting that it may seem better to just ignore it. But this ultimately goes back to Nietzsche’s idea of once you figured out the “why”, then you can suffer almost any “how”. Of course, he probably is thinking of that massively yes to life, eternal recurrence.
But I think even more deeper than Nietzsche is the Christian question of death and meaning. I believe it is Tertullian, who said that Christianity is built upon the blood of the martyrs and the impression of the martyrs, the impression of the people that died for this specific religion. It’s a difficult religion to hold! This is something especially the Asian world would have been persecuted for. But these people still were willing to die for it.
There is definitely something here to analyse in much further detail.
I definitely agree with that. I think finding what you’re willing to die for is something which comes along once in a blue moon. People can’t just give a list of 10 things that they are willing to die for, it’s normally way smaller. Definitely shorter than what people are willing to live for. That’s the true indicator of its significance.
I also think it is a subjective struggle. I cannot just come out here and say everyone must be willing to die for this specific idea or person. It is something that when you truly come across it, only you will know and only you will be able to justify what it is and what it means to you.
Of course, just as any sacrifice, identifying what you would be willing to die for could bring great sadness, but at the same time, it brings great peace. And I think it’s the constant wrestling between those two ideas which makes all the difference.
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Do you think there are people who will never find this kind of answer? Do you think such people exist where they go around lives never finding what they would be willing to die for?
I think it’s something that everyone has the chance to experience, but not everyone will experience it. I think everyone can experience it if they’re willing to open up their hearts to a certain degree of, of love, and of affiliation and affinity to certain people or certain ideas. What comes to mind is the analogy of a mother who’s willing to do anything to protect their child, they’re willing to run into a burning building or whatnot. The mother is only doing that because she has opened up to her child and is willing to die and be vulnerable for it.
Of course, it might not be good for some people to open up their hearts, maybe doing so will bring more pain than joy. But that’s the existential question we are all faced with, the cross that we must carry. The choice is ours.