How to Approach Death

Umberto EcoRecently a pensive disciple of mine (a certain Criton[1]) asked me: “Master, how can we best approach death?” I replied that the only way to prepare for death is to convince yourself that everyone else is a complete idiot.

Seeing Criton’s amazement, I explained. You see, I told him, how can you approach death, even if you are a believer, if you think that, as you lay dying, desirable young people of both sexes are dancing in discos and having the time of their lives, enlightened scientists are revealing the last secrets of the universe, incorruptible politicians are creating a better society, newspapers and television are bent on giving only important news, responsible business people are ensuring that their products will not damage the environment and doing their utmost to restore a nature in which there are streams with drinkable water, wooded hillside, clear, serene skies protected by a providential ozone layer, and fluffy clouds from which sweet rain falls once more? The thought that you must leave while all these marvelous things are going on would be intolerable.

So try to think, when you sense the time has come for your departure from this vale, that the world (six billion beings) is full of idiots, that the dancers at the disco are all idiots, the scientists who think they have solved the mysteries of the universe are idiots, the politicians who propose panaceas for all our ills are idiots, the journalists who fill page after page with vacuous gossip are idiots, and the manufacturers who are destroying the planet are idiots. In that moment, would you not be happy, relieved, and satisfied to leave this vale of idiots?

And then Criton asked me, “Master, when must I start thinking like this?” I told him that one mustn’t start too soon, because a person of twenty or thirty years of age who thinks that everyone else is an idiot is an idiot himself who will never attain wisdom. We should begin by thinking that all the others are better than us and then shift bit by bit, having our first doubts around forty, revising our opinions between fifty and sixty, and attaining certainty as we aim for one hundred, ready to call it quits just as soon as the telegram containing the summons arrives. Convincing ourselves that everyone around us is an idiot is a subtle, shrewd art, not at the disposal of the first Cebes to come along with a ring in his ear (or nose). It requires study and toil. You mustn’t go at it too quickly. You must get there gradually, just in time to die with serenity. Right up to the day before, you must still think that someone you love and admire is not an idiot. Wisdom consists in recognizing only at the right moment (and not before) that he too is an idiot. Only then can you die.

The great art lies in studying universal thought a bit at a time; scrutinizing changes in customs; monitoring the mass media day by day, the statements of self-assured artists, the apothegms of politicians who shoot their mouths off, the philosophemes of apocalyptic critics, the aphorisms of charismatic heroes; studying theories, propositions, appeals, images, and visions. Only then, in the end, will you experience the insight that everyone is an idiot. And at that point, you are ready for death.

Util the end, you must doggedly insist that some people say sensible things, that a certain book is better than others, that a certain leader really desires the common good. It’s natural, human, and proper to our species to resist the idea that all people are idiots, otherwise why go on living? But at the end, you will understand why it is worth the effort and how it can be a splendid thing to die.

Then Crito said to me: “Master, I wouldn’t like to make hasty decisions, but I suspect that you are an idiot.” See, I replied, you are already on the right track.

—Umberto Eco
Quoted in “On the Disadvantage and Advantage of Death”
In Turning Back the Clock


[1] The two names mentioned — Crito and Cebes — refer to Crito, a dialog where Crito argues for Socrates to let him buy his teacher’s freedom.

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