Martin Heidegger and the Corona Virus: Awareness of Death Post-Covid

Jun 8, 2021

Matthew Pietropaoli, Ph.D.

Covid-19 is a once-in-a-century event, a global pandemic whose medical, social, economic, and political fallout will reverberate for years to come. The human toll itself from Covid is overwhelming, with well over 3 million people dead already from the disease.

Thankfully, however, the vaccines, the social distancing, the mask-wearing, etc. may be working. The light at the end of Covid tunnel is closer, though still a ways down the road.

Furthermore, it may be easy to consider that, with this increased success over Covid, we have overcome an instrument of death. As the likelihood of death from Covid decreases, there likewise decreases the haunting specter of mortality which has hung over every newspaper, much of social media, and even briefings from governors. The summer of 2021 appears to be removing us from the ubiquitous shadow of mortality caused by Covid. As time goes on, we have perhaps been released from the daily confrontation of death brought on by the global pandemic. For that—as well as for many other reasons—we should, it seems, be very grateful.

Yet I hesitate in accepting that conclusion, because my mind keeps hearkening back to the philosopher, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger contended that a central facet of human existence is our morality: to be human is to be a being-towards-death. Death is not accidental or incidental to our humanity but fundamental to who we are and how we exist. Death, said Heidegger, is always before us, always something to be confronted and wrestled with as we assess and consider ourselves and the totality of our lives. It is a constant possibility for us, one which inevitably will one day be actualized: we “cannot outstrip the possibility of death.” In this way, insofar as we care about our own lives and how they are lived, we also experience a deep “anxiety” regarding death: we recognize its constant possibility and how it will eventually spell the end for the lives we have so carefully and meaningfully enacted. Each one of us “exists as thrown toward . . . his end [i.e., death.]” Finally, says Heidegger, the very fact of human existence entails this confrontation with death: “Factically, [we are] dying for as long as [we] exist.”

Moreover, says Heidegger, we often avoid this confrontation and relegate consciousness of mortality to the proverbial back burner of our minds and our experience. We likewise seek to attend to death in a public, almost generic fashion. “Death is encountered as a well-known event occurring within the world.” This approach to death, says Heidegger, is non-specific and indeed non-personal, although it certainly does not leave us non-plussed. According to Heidegger, it is as if we say to ourselves, “‘one of these days one will die too, in the end; but right now, it has nothing to do with us.’”

Consequently, the issue of death does not often become an issue for me and my life, a live and quite meaningful issue for who I am and how I ought to exist in light of the fact that I will die. Speaking metaphorically, the issue of death becomes “spread out” and located generally rather than being “collected together” and confronted particularly. There is here no ownership of death on the part of the individual person, as such; death is treated as a distant object rather than something eminently significant for oneself.

Heidegger labels this usual response to death as “inauthentic.” That is, afraid or unwilling to confront my own mortality and inherent possibility of death, I exist in a usual manner, i.e., a normal and surface level way of life. I fit in so as to “evade” my own mortality. I go along with the proverbial flow and ensure that I meet the proper social criteria, precisely because this way of life can save me from the uncertainty and profound anxiety associated with the personal wrestling with my own death. “This evasive concealment in the face of death dominates everydayness . . . stubbornly.” In this way, says Heidegger, a person often experiences a “tranquilization” toward life because he doesn’t want to face up to the necessary inverse of life, i.e., death. He doesn’t want to dig too deeply into life or its meaning, because such depths are often unknown and indicate the undeniable fact of his mortality.

He likewise, as a result of this fear, is unable to access and live decisively and intentionally from the depth of himself. Consequently, says Heidegger, one tends to continue to exist cut off from one’s deepest self and remain fixed in a shallow and superficial, but publicly presentable, mode of existence. Fear pushes one away from being himself most fully and authentically. He lacks “the courage for anxiety in the face of death.”

Thus, I think that insofar as Heidegger is correct in this analysis, then our return to “normal” with the diminution of Covid could likewise be a return to a regular, that is to say, removed and “inauthentic”, approach to death. Phrased otherwise: the decrease of death from Covid is unquestionably good; the decrease of our consciousness of mortality is likely not if it implies a concurrent fearful and ultimately disingenuous evasiveness in the face of the death. Patrick Henry demanded that he be given liberty or death; if Heidegger is right, we often prefer inauthenticity to death or even the confrontation with its real possibility.

Perhaps, then, a Covid-type cognition of death ought to endure even past the eradication of the virus, insofar as such awareness moves us to recognize deeply and meaningfully our own mortality and to respond well to the possibility of our own death. In this way, says Heidegger, we can realize a more “authentic” response to death.

But what might that look like? With such a response, a person says to himself, “I— not ‘anyone,’ not ‘someone,’—will die. I, with all my aspirations, projects, intentions, and ways of being in the world, could be destroyed.” One wrestles with the finitude and limitations of who he is and what he has done and still what he wants to do with his life. Furthermore, says Heidegger, a person who confronts the inevitable possibility of death in a direct, honest, and meaningful way can become “freer” in his life. Because of such authenticity, the person is not forced into falling into the possibilities which trap those who do not own up to their deaths. The personal and direct response to death allows for a concurrent access to the depths of life and oneself, a deliberate and intentional choosing of one’s mode of life, rather than a going with the social flow because of the aforesaid fear of mortality. Such a person, grasping his mortality, may be spurred to pursue a different mode of life, rather than go along with the average path which everyone pursues. This possibility is opened up to him because he has accepted his own death and not tried to flee from it by being absorbed in any social, superficial, and shallow way of life.

Nonetheless, I don’t think this issue of confronting death is only or essentially an issue of authenticity. Heidegger’s student, Hans Jonas, provides a helpful complement to and indeed completion of his former teacher’s analysis. Jonas contends that there is an inherent “blessing to mortality.”

If we were not mortal—or even if we are unwilling to face up to our mortality—we lack the deep and meaningful recognition of the finitude of our lives and what we can achieve in such lives. As Jonas explains, absent such a personal and profound recognition, and we may well lack the motivation to perform impactful deeds of courage, generosity, kindness, nobility, honesty, and responsibility. We lack the drive toward such deeds, here and now, because we think that there’s always a proverbial tomorrow on which to perform them. According to Jonas, the freedom which arises from an authentic appropriation of death ought to be directed toward what is good and valuable, to “doing justice and loving mercy.” Yet insofar as that freedom and authentic intentionality arise pursuant to a personal confrontation with mortality, then, says Jonas, we must keep ourselves well aware of and even perhaps grateful for death. After all, such finitude forces us to “number our days and make them count.”

Having graduated from a Benedictine college, I turn to wisdom from that order to close this essay. As is said in the Rule of St. Benedict, we should keep death constantly before our eyes. Covid-19, thankfully, appears to be slowly receding. I hope that the awareness of death occasioned by the pandemic does not likewise recede, because it is by means of such awareness that we can authentically face our mortality and may, to quote Jonas, “live lives that may one day be numbered in the Book of Life.”

Matthew Pietropaoli is a current St. Bernard's professor who received his BA from St. Anselm College and his MA and PhD from the Catholic University of America. His dissertation concerned the thought of German-American philosopher, Hans Jonas. Matthew has taught extensively at the undergraduate level, including courses on ancient philosophy, modern philosophy, ethics, and metaphysics. He was fortunate enough to grow up near the Adirondacks, which instilled a life-long love of the natural world.