And finally: a matter of life and deathHenry Marsh
The Roman philosopher Cicero said that to philosophize is to learn how to die. He was repeatedly said by his sixteenth-century essayist, Michel de Montaigne, sometimes seriously, sometimes jokingly. “Don’t worry if you don’t know how to die,” Montaigne jokingly concludes. “Nature tells us well and adequately what to do on the fly.”
You don’t have to learn the biological mechanisms of dying to die. But knowing them in the face of death may help. If philosophers don’t figure out how to do it, do doctors have better luck, at least not to everyone’s satisfaction? Neuroscience has found that Boswell.” In his latest book, a doctor becomes a patient and faces a diagnosis that will likely end his life.
Many years ago Marsh read philosophy at Oxford University, but a year later he moved into the more practical world of medicine. Although he found the book to return to philosophical issues about consciousness and the fear of death, it was through narrative rather than argument, and his skill reflects his long experience as a clinical case history narrator. Honed by storytelling. Marsh knows how to set a scene, create suspense, and surprise the reader.
Case in point: He starts with a bait and a switch. We know he is seriously ill and assume the scan will reveal a tumor. poetic injustice. In fact, what the scans reveal is the normal wear and tear of aging, the brain shrinking with age. Its detection is delayed by the false fortitude of doctors who believe that it is advanced prostate cancer and that only the patient will get sick. (Regarding his friend’s dispassionate reaction to the news of an incurable tumor, Marsh said:
That’s not to say scans aren’t scary. Marsh compares his experience to visions of the night sky and is horrified and amazed by the images in his slowly decaying brain—a reference to the philosopher Immanuel Kant. In “The Starry Sky Above Me, And The Moral Code Within Me,” he declares, “Two things fill my heart with ever-new, ever-increasing admiration and awe.” increase.
I think the cerebrum is a good neuroscientific substitute for the voice of conscience. Marsh finds it very difficult to understand that “‘I’ is his 86 billion nerve cells in the brain,” whose wiring is “longer than the distance from the Earth to the Moon.” At one point he suggests that “the real world is nothing more than a pattern of electrochemical impulses.” At times like this, I wish he was a little more philosophical. We are embodied beings, not brains, and, as philosophers have argued for at least a century, the Descartes “veil of ideas” that entraps us in our minds cannot be replaced by a veil of neurons. Hmm.
But these are minor elements of the book. For the most part, Marsh doesn’t pretend to answer metaphysical questions about the mind. can “You can’t cut butter with a knife made of butter,” jokes a neuroscientist friend. Instead, reach for metaphor. Before minds were computers, they were telephone switches, and before that they were steam engines, but Freud’s psychoanalytic theory “made the id and ego sound like parts of a flush toilet.”
Marsh is often funny, sometimes at his own expense. When he ignores Freud about his interpretation of dreams and complains that other people’s dreams are “very boring”, he finds himself recounting his long nightmares about his own wife. The fairy tales he tells his granddaughter have allegorical elements, such as “an orphaned unicorn who develops a dreadful drooping horn disease.” Like many others, Marsh was treated for prostate cancer by “chemical castration,” which deprived cancer cells of androgens and resulted in side effects of breast development, impotence, and muscle loss.
His description of the subsequent radiotherapy is almost lyrically extolling the technique. Not as much as medical personnel. “It was only when I myself was diagnosed with cancer,” he wrote. It’s not that he’s judgmental. Marsh acknowledges his own failings of compassion as a surgeon and the detachment necessary to function as a doctor on a day-to-day basis.
What lessons does he have for the rest of us as we learn how to die? not lead to the abuse speculated by In part, it’s a counterargument to the excessive desire to live forever. Seventy years should be enough — young deaths are different — and we have to make room on earth for others. “I spent time in the sun,” Marsh writes. “Now it’s the next generation’s turn.”
I’m not sure he’s any better than Philosopher when it comes to dealing with death, but I don’t think Marsh is any worse. Instead, there is prose crashing on the surface of gentle waves, the depth of its undercurrents, an ocean vast enough to put our lives on a moral perspective. Bypass decorations, Himalayan hikes and more. Marsh sits and talks and is in no rush.
Kieran Setiya teaches philosophy at MIT and is the author of Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way.
And finally: a matter of life and death | | Henry Marsh 227 pages | St. Martin’s Press | $27.99