Living Up to Death

Living Up to Death

by Paul Ricoeur

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When French philosopher Paul Ricoeur died in 2005, he bequeathed to the world a highly regarded, widely influential body of work which established him as one of the greatest thinkers of our time. He also left behind a number of unfinished projects that are gathered here and translated into English for the first time.

Living Up to Death consists of

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When French philosopher Paul Ricoeur died in 2005, he bequeathed to the world a highly regarded, widely influential body of work which established him as one of the greatest thinkers of our time. He also left behind a number of unfinished projects that are gathered here and translated into English for the first time.

Living Up to Death consists of one major essay and nine fragments. Composed in 1996, the essay is the kernel of an unrealized book on the subject of mortality. Likely inspired by his wife’s approaching death, it examines not one’s own passing but one’s experience of others dying. Ricoeur notes that when thinking about death the imagination is paramount, since we cannot truly experience our own passing. But those we leave behind do, and Ricoeur posits that the idea of life after death originated in the awareness of our own end posthumously resonating with our survivors.

The fragments in this volume were written over the course of the last few months of Ricoeur’s life as his health failed, and they represent his very last work. They cover a range of topics, touching on biblical scholarship, the philosophy of language, and the idea of selfhood he first addressed in Oneself as Another. And while they contain numerous philosophical insights, these fragments are perhaps most significant for providing an invaluable look at Ricoeur’s mind at work.

As poignant as it is perceptive, Living Up to Death is a moving testimony to Ricoeur’s willingness to confront his own mortality with serious questions, a touching insouciance, and hope for the future.

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Editorial Reviews

Notre Dame Philosophical Review

"This book is an excellent translation . . . and will be interesting and even fascinating to scholars who are already familiar with Ricoeur's work."
Inside Higher Education

"These are pages written, not while gazing into an abyss, but while being swallowed up by it."

— Scott McLemee

Global Spiral
This last work by Ricoeur, published posthumously, does justice to the stature he gained in his lifetime as a leading 21st century philosopher.

— Cornel duToit

Inside Higher Ed.ucation
These are pages written, not while gazing into an abyss, but while being swallowed up by it.

— Scott McLemee

Inside Higher Education - Scott McLemee

"These are pages written, not while gazing into an abyss, but while being swallowed up by it."
Global Spiral - Cornel duToit

"This last work by Ricoeur, published posthumously, does justice to the stature he gained in his lifetime as a leading 21st century philosopher."

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Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
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ISBN: 978-0-226-71349-6

Chapter One


Where to begin this late apprenticeship? By what is essential, right away? by the necessity and difficulty of mourning a wanting-to-exist after death? by joy—no, instead, with cheerfulness joined to a hoped-for grace of existing until death?

No: the essential is too close, therefore too covered over, too hidden. It will reveal itself bit by bit, at the end.


I will begin with what is most abstract, in this sense, easiest to speak of, to articulate. [IN THE MARGIN NEXT TO THIS SENTENCE THERE IS A CORRECTION: No, by the make-believe that covers it over—and hides it.]

The most abstract? The equivocations of death, of the word death.

I see three major meanings—maybe more?—that need to be distinguished, for it is their mutual overlapping and the confusion that results from this that leads to the foreboding anxiety about death. In this regard, here I think of things like when faced with other situations of conceptual confusion, conceptual clarification already has a therapeutic value. Here, as elsewhere, this is the minimal task for philosophical reflection: analyze, clarify. [END OF THE PARAGRAPHS CROSSED OUT.]

1. There is first of all the encounter with the death of a loved other, of unknown others. Someone has disappeared. One question comes up obstinately again and again: does he still exist? and where? where else? in what form invisible to our eyes? visible in another way? This question connects death with the dead person, the dead ones. It is a question for the living, perhaps for those in good health I shall say later. The question What sort of beings are the dead? is so insistent that even in our secularized societies we do not know what to do with the dead, that is, with the cadavers. We don't throw them in the garbage like domestic waste, which they physically are, however. The make-believe proceeds by a slide and generalization: my death, our deaths, the dead. Generalization by dissipating the differences: the loved one -> the third person. The dead like disappeared third persons, the deceased, the day of the Dead. The place of sepulture, among the criteria of humanity, along with tools, language, moral and social norms, the testimony of antiquity and the persistence of this certain fact [?]: one does not get rid of the dead, one is never finished with them.

And yet it is this kind of questioning about the lot of the dead that I want to exorcise, for which I want to do the mourning for myself. Why?


Because my own relation to a death which hasn't yet happened is obscured, obliterated, altered by the anticipation and internalization of the question about the lot of the already dead dead. It is tomorrow's death, in the future perfect tense, so to speak, that I imagine. And it is this image of the dead person I will be for others that takes up all the room, with its load of questions: what are, where are, how are the dead?

My struggle is with and against this image of tomorrow's dead, this dead person that I shall be for the survivors. With and against that make-believe where death is in some way sucked up by the dead person and all the dead. To begin the struggle against this make-believe, I will take up again the analysis at the point where I introduced the reference to survivors. The first fact is this one. Others still alive survive the death of their own. In the same way, others will survive me. The question of survival is thus first of all a question about the survivors who ask themselves whether the dead do continue to exist, in the same chronological time or at least in a temporal register parallel to that of the living, even if this mode of time is held to be imperceptible. All the answers given by cultures concerning the survival of the dead are connected to this question not called into question: passage to another state, expectation of resurrection, reincarnation, or, for more philosophical minds, change of temporal status, elevation to an immortal eternity. But these answers are to a question posed by the survivors, concerning the lot of the already dead dead.

I come back to the key word in my answer about why the mourning I want to enter into—as a work of mourning ...: the internalization before my death of a question post mortem, of the question: what are the dead? To see myself dead before being dead, and to apply to myself in anticipation a survivor's question. In short, the dread of the future perfect. I said, in passing, that it is a question for those in good health. In effect, its capacity to give rise to dread is strongest when it comes to disturb, confront, insult the insolence of our appetite for an invulnerable life. This adjective "invulnerable" brings into play the difference from what I shall say below, later, toward the end, if my discourse gets there, the joy of living to the end, hence about the appetite for a life colored by a certain insouciance that I call cheerfulness. But let's not go too fast. We aren't there yet. We are only at the beginning. That is, with abstractions, mixed-up meanings, confusions that need to be clarified.


The third idea about death is mortality, obliged-to-die one day, having to die. Philosophies of finitude have undertaken to make this category of existence the high point of their reflection. In this way, they make it a corollary, a variant of finitude. They carry to the extreme their proposal when they think of finitude, of being toward the end or for the end, from within, I mean with a gaze that forbids itself a bird's-eye view, one from above, on a boundary whose two sides could be looked at—from above. Seen from within, finitude goes toward a limit beginning from the inside and not toward a boundary that our gaze can cross, leading to the question: quid afterward? In a sense, my meditation is akin to that of these thinkers about finitude. But, contrary to appearances, finitude is an abstract idea. The idea that I must die one day, I do not know when, or how, carries too flimsy a certitude (mors certa, hora incerta) for my desire to take hold of—what I shall call below (distinguishing the two phrases): a desire to be, an effort to exist. I am well aware of everything that has been written and said about anxiety about one day no longer existing. But, if the path has to be taken up again of an accepted finitude, it is after the struggle with the make-believe death concerning which I have so far spoken of only one of its figures, the internalized anticipation of a death tomorrow for which I will be dead for the survivors, for my survivors.

2. [IN THE MARGIN BEFORE THE NUMBER 2: about the figures of the make-believe] A second meaning is attached to the word death. Dying as an event: passing, ending, finishing. In one way, my dying tomorrow is on the same side as my being-already-dead tomorrow. On the side of the future perfect tense. What we call a dying person is one only for those who attend his agony, who maybe help him in his agony—I shall return to this below. To think of myself as one of these dying people is to imagine myself as the dying person I shall be for those who attend my dying. Nevertheless the difference between these two make-believe situations is large. To be present at a death is more precise, more poignant that simply surviving. Taking part is a more point-like test, more event-like. To survive is a long trajectory, at best that of mourning, that is, of the accepted separation from the dead person who takes a distance on, becomes detached from the living so that he can survive. But, in the end, it is still for me an internalized anticipation, the most terrifying one, that of the dying person I shall be for those who attend my death. Well! I am saying that it is the anticipation of this agony that constitutes the concrete core of the "fear of death," among all the confused meanings that overlap one another.

This is why I want first to confront this idea of death as an anticipated agony. To do this, I shall force myself to free the inevitable anticipation of dying and of its agony from the image of the dying person looked at by the other. Help will come first from the testimony of physicians "specialized(?)" in the palliative care given those with AIDS, incurable cancer, in short, those in the terminal phase of their illness. They do not say that it is easy to die. They do say two or three things that are important to me. First, this: so long as they remain lucid ill dying people do not see themselves as dying, as soon to be dead, but as still living, and this can be, I have learned from Mme Hacpille, even up to a half hour before their dying. Still living, this is the important word. Next, again this: what occupies one's still preserved thoughts is not concern for what there is after death, but rather the mobilization of the deepest resources of life to still affirm itself. The deepest resources of life: what does that say? Here I am anticipating. I cannot not anticipate. For it is this experience that is going to help me separate the anticipation of agony from the anticipation in the gaze of an external spectator distinct from the dying person. The ground of the ground of the testimony of the physician from the palliative care unit is that the internal grace that distinguishes the dying person consists in the emergence of the Essential within the very framework of the time of agony. This vocabulary of the Essential will accompany me throughout this meditation. I anticipate, I am anticipating again: the Essential, in one sense (what I will try to say below with greater exactitude) is the religious; it is, if I dare put it this way, that which is common to every religion and what, at the threshold of death, transgresses the consubstantial limitations of confessing and confessed religions. I have said it often enough, I do not scorn what I call, to put it quickly, "codes" (I have in mind Blake's Great Code as used by Northrop Frye);3 no, but the religious is like a fundamental language that exists only in natural, historically limited languages. Just as everyone is born into a language and accedes to other languages only by a second apprenticeship, and most often, only through translation, the religious exists culturally only as articulated in the language and code of a historical religion; language and code articulate only on the condition of filtering, and in this sense limiting that amplitude, that depth, that density of the religious that I am here calling the Essential. Having said this, what the physician in the palliative care unit bears witness to is the grace granted some dying people that assures what I have called the mobilization of the deepest resources of life in the coming to light of the Essential, fracturing the limitations of the confessionally religious. This is why it is not important, this witness observes, for the quality of this moment of grace that the dying person identifies himself, recognizes himself—however vaguely his or her declining may allow—as one who confesses this or that religion, this or that confession. It is perhaps only in the face of death that the religious gets equated with the Essential and that the barrier between religions, including the nonreligions (I am thinking, of course, of Buddhism) is transcended. But because dying is transcultural, it is transconfessional, transreligious in this sense: and this insofar as the Essential breaks through the filter of reading "languages" of reading. This is perhaps the only situation where one can speak of religious experience. Moreover, I am wary of the immediate, the fusional, the intuitive, the mystical. There is one exception, in the grace of a certain dying.

Here, an objection. I am struggling against the make-believe of dying attached to the spectator's gaze for which the suffering person is a dying person; one foresees, one knows with a variable precision that he will soon be dead. It is from this view from the outside on the dying person and the internalized anticipation of this view from the outside on the dying person that I want to deliver myself. So be it. But, someone will say, you appeal to testimony, the testimony of a physician from a palliative care unit. Therefore you are still dependent on an outside point of view in your attempt to separate the dying from the dying person. You do not have any direct access to the lived experience of the dying person in and for itself, if I may put it this way, other than by way of an interpretation of signs gathered by the witness whom you summon to the bar of your argument. A good objection and a good question at the end of the objection. Yes, it is still to a gaze that I am calling on. But it is to another gaze than the one that sees the dying person as dying, as soon to cease living. The gaze that sees the dying person as still living, as calling on the deepest resources of life, as borne by the emergence of the Essential in his experience of still-living, is another gaze. It is the gaze of compassion and not that of the spectator anticipating the already-dead.

Compassion, you say? Yes, but once again it is necessary to understand the suffering-with that the word signifies. It is not a moaning-with, as pity, commiseration, figures of regret, can be; it is a struggling-with, an accompanying—if not a sharing that identifies oneself with the other, which is neither possible nor desirable, a just distance remains the rule for friendship as for justice. Accompanying is perhaps the most adequate word to designate the favorable attitude thanks to which the gaze directed toward a dying person turns toward him, who is struggling for life until death [note in the margin: understanding + friendship], and not toward a dying person who will soon be dead. One can speak of sharing despite my reservation concerning the tendency toward fusion or sharing that identifies with the other. But sharing of what? Of the movement of transcendence—immanent transcendence, oh, paradox—of the transcendence innermost to the Essential rending the veils of the codes of confessional religions.

There is certainly a professional aspect to this cultivating of a compassionate, accompanying look: training that masters the motions that tend toward fusion; there is also a deontological aspect concerning behavior (among others between those two extremes so quick to come together: heroic treatment measures and passive, even active euthanasia); but there is also a properly ethical dimension, concerning the capacity to accompany in imagination and in sympathy the still living dying person's struggle, still living until dead.

Could not this other look be that of the physician "trained" to accompany the sick at the end of their lives? Another testimony comes to my mind here, that of Jorge Semprún in L 'Écriture ou la vie (1994). It is the testimony of a survivor of the deportation camps (I shall speak later of this other meaning of the terms survive, surviving, linked to another meaning of death than the ones considered here) referring to, at the price of a long agony over writing recounting, the death of Maurice Halbwachs, among the many who died in Buchenwald in 1944. Completely worn out, Maurice Halbwachs was accompanied by Jorge Semprún. First, in the narration, the most likely, but most indelible signs of giving-receiving, concerning which Peter Kemp says in Éthique et médicine that this is the indelible bond of humanity—I was going to say, in anticipation, of the friendship in accompanying a dying person: "Dying, he smiled, looking fraternally at me ... I took the hand of the dying man who hadn't the strength to open his eyes. In answer I felt only the slightest pressure from his fingers, a light pressure: an almost imperceptible message [giving-receiving already there]." And here the testimony about the rushing in of the Essential: in his eyes: in his eyes, "a gleam of dignity, of vanquished but undiminished humanity. The immortal light of a gaze fixed upon the approach of death, the look of someone who knows where he stands, who's seen everything death has to offer and faces it squarely, weighing the risks and the stakes, freely, with sovereign power" [22]. But it is also necessary to help by a nonmedical, nonconfessional word the still undead dying man: "Then seized with panic, not knowing whether I might call upon some god to accompany Maurice Halbwachs, yet aware of the need for prayer, trying to control my voice, to pitch it properly, I recite a few lines from Baudelaire. It was the only thing I could think of.


Excerpted from LIVING UP TO DEATH by PAUL RICOEUR Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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