Death and Beauty

Reading Time: 6 minutes

By Dmitri Garlic, Texas A&M

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

-Wilfred Owen

It seems obvious that death is an ugly thing. Dead people begin to decay. Their bodies bloat with foul smelling gases and they become a playground for all sorts of vermin, insects, and parasites. Beyond these physiological realities, there is also the psychological aspect of death that seems ugly to us. While I have never seen the body of a recently deceased loved one, it seems obvious, even to me, that there is something unsettling about seeing a loved one who was once alive reduced to an unmoving, unfeeling corpse. To top this ugly cake off, theologically, death is a punishment from God for the sin of our first parents. What is punishment, if not ugly, even when it is just and necessary? And yet, I would like to argue in this essay that death can be and quite frequently is beautiful.

First, I would like to briefly define beauty. It seems to me that we call something beautiful because it is, at minimum, good, radiant, and attractive. There have been many other ways of defining beauty throughout the history of philosophy but, as the purpose of this essay is not to discuss the nature of beauty, I will confine myself to describing the conditions I have elaborated without considering alternative viewpoints. 

Firstly, I would like to discuss the minimum conditions. I am using the word good in the Aristotelian sense, wherein a thing is what it is supposed to be. A good flower will be effective at attracting pollinating insects and a good squirrel will be able to climb trees and find acorns. For radiance, I mean a thing whose goodness, for want of a better term, “pops”. A radiant thing’s goodness is immediately apparent to anyone who looks at it. Unlike goodness, which is objective, radiance can be much more in the eye of the beholder. Different people or even the same person in different emotional states will be differently perceptive to goodness. For example, an expert in forestry would be more aware of the masses of insects, small plants, and micro-organisms that inhabit the forest floor.  This expert might clearly see the many ways the organisms in this ecosystem flourished and would thus be more struck by its goodness than would a less knowing passerby. One could even imagine a saint who saw the working of God in all things and was thus hypersensitive to the goodness of all existence. Thus, there is a subjective aspect to radiance. Despite this, I think there are some things which are more clearly radiant than others. Where a forest floor requires more knowledge to be aware of and struck by its goodness, nearly everyone can be struck by the goodness of bright flowers or a pretty girl. 

The last minimum condition, attractiveness, flows from radiance but seems to me to be separate from it. A thing is attractive when, in addition to striking us as good, as a radiant thing does, it also draws us towards it. An attractive thing is something we want to possess; to absorb in some way. Thus, we pick flowers or, when we are in love, want to be present with and frequently embrace our beloved. As this aspect flows from radiance, it is also subjective. Different people will be attracted to different things and in different ways. At this point, I would like to note that subjective does not mean the same thing as arbitrary. When people are struck by a thing’s radiance or attracted to it, they are not reacting in this way for completely arbitrary reasons. There is some objective fact about themselves that causes them to react this way. One person may find mountains more radiant and attractive because they find the cold and the isolation more conducive to reflection. Another person might find the beach more radiant and attractive because they personally enjoy beach games or the constant motion of the sea.

As an aside, while all these conditions are essential in my view to making a thing beautiful, I think they fall short of effectively conveying the way we experience beauty. When we experience a beautiful thing our first thought is very rarely a breakdown of the features of the thing and a consideration of how they fulfill any sort of criteria. We are instead, and in a highly subjective and personal manner, struck by the beauty of the thing. It becomes immediately apparent to us that we are in the presence of something beautiful, whether it be a natural object, another person, or a piece of art. In the cases of the most beautiful things, I would call this a feeling, for want of a better term, of the sublimely transcendent. It fills us with a mixture of awe, love, and even fear at something so great and marvelous and beyond us. The most beautiful things feel like they could and will swallow, consume, and destroy us, that we could fall into them and not make so much as a ripple, that could then carry on as if we never were, and, despite the thought of our own end, we are almost willing to accept that end purely to have the opportunity to experience the thing. I think this is because all beauty is ultimately where we become aware of God working in the world around us. Thus, the most beautiful things are those that most fill us with the holy terror that being in God’s presence causes. “My flesh trembles for fear of You, and I am afraid of Your judgments.”

With that aside, I think death clearly can fulfill all the criteria I have elaborated. Firstly, I think there is such a thing as a good death, even though death is itself a punishment from God for mans’ sins. A good death is one where a person dies because they were living in a right and virtuous way, like a martyr who refuses to deny the Faith even as they are tortured to death or a soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his comrades. Furthermore, as both these examples show, a death can be radiant in that it shows the virtue of the person dying in such a clear way. In both the case of the martyr and the soldier, we are immediately struck by their holiness and/or their courage. Further, it seems to me that a death becomes more radiant the more it displays the full virtue of the person dying. Thus St. Lawrence displays both his tenacity and his humor when he mocks the pagans who are roasting him alive, saying, “You can turn me over; I am done on this side.” Similarly in Arab history, the boy Longlocks displayed his loyalty, strength of will, and love for his family, when he bled to death standing between a group of bandits and his mother and sisters whom the bandits sought to kidnap. Most obviously we can see it in the death of Christ where the full redeeming love of God is shown to humanity. Finally, we can find these deaths attractive and even hope that our deaths may mirror theirs in some way. Therefore, Christians have handed down the narratives of the many martyrs so that later generations might strive to follow their example. 

I think that these sorts of deaths display the sublime transcendence I discussed earlier, especially when that death involves sacrifice. A death where a person literally spends their life as a coin to purchase some greater good or purpose, whether that be for the safety of their family and friends, like the boy Longlocks, for their country, like millions of soldiers throughout history, or for God, like the martyrs and Christ. Something transcendent is consuming their lives and yet, it is beautiful because it is good, radiant, and attractive. In the same way, their virtue in facing their deaths fills us with awe at their greatness and, sometimes, a hope that we will not be able to have similar deaths.

Thus, I think beautiful deaths are possible, most especially in those situations that involve sacrifice for some greater cause, as the martyrs exemplify. However, and before concluding, I would like to make one caveat: just because there are such things as beautiful deaths does not mean that we should, when unable to achieve such a death normally, try to bring about such deaths by ourselves, as some pagans like Yukio Mishima or Aristodemus have done historically. While the Church honors martyrs, she deplores suicides. Beautiful deaths flow from the virtue of the people dying and the way that they spend their lives to protect some higher ideal. Spending your life for a higher ideal that does not need you to die for it is a waste. If God decides that we will not have a beautiful death, then that is that. While the process of virtuously aging is much quieter and more spread out than the glorious deaths I have touched on, and thus seems less radiant by comparison, it is still a good and noble thing and is something that fits with the will of God. Instead of a particular form of death, we should strive for the virtues that will enable us to have as beautiful a death and as beautiful a life as our circumstances allow for.

This caveat aside, I think we Catholics should acknowledge the possibility of a desirable and beautiful death. Thus, contra William Owens, even a boy choking to death on the ruins of his own lungs can be beautiful if we can see through his actions the brave devotion he had and his willingness to face a death like that for the sake of something beyond himself.

Edited by: Paul Gillett

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