I subscribe to Aeon digital magazine – an online magazine of ideas, philosophy and culture. A recent video bearing the title ‘An ageing philosopher returns to the essential question: ‘What is the point of it all?’ caught my attention. The ageing philosopher in question is Herbert Fingarette, who died at the end of last year, at the age of 97.
This is the link to the video: https://aeon.co/videos/an-ageing-philosopher-returns-to-the-essential-question-what-is-the-point-of-it-all (18 mins)
In this film, recorded in the last months of his life, Herbert Fingarette reflects on his life and what it means to be 97, to outlive a deeply loved wife by seven years, to know that what you can now do (after a long and successful career as a professor of philosophy and author) is increasingly limited, and to accept that death is near.
For me this is a moving film, sad and concerning, but also uplifting.
It was sad to see how very much he still missed his wife, being moved to tears on listening to music that they had both enjoyed together. I was struck by his description of her as ‘absent present’. ‘Her absence has been a presence’.
It was also sad to hear him talk about being afraid of death. In 1999 he published a book, Death. Philosophical Soundings, in which he wrote that it is not rational to be afraid of death and that there is no good reason to fear death. But now he doesn’t believe this. He is now (at the time of filming) afraid of death and doesn’t know why.
For me it was concerning to see what I perceived to be the utilitarian nature of care in old age, and I realised that I hope that when my turn comes I will be cared for by someone who loves me, rather than by someone for whom care is a job, however good they are at that job.
But it was uplifting to see a 97 year old still interested in life, reading with the support of his computer, listening to music, drawing in pencil and pastels, and still moving about his house unaided and surrounded by his own possessions. And most importantly, still learning. All his life until now, at the age of 97, he has not appreciated the beauty of the trees in his back garden. Now he says, ‘Seeing the trees is a transcendent experience’. At the age of 97 this is a new experience, which connects him to life.
It’s not surprising that so near the end of his life he is still asking ‘What is the point of it all?’ This is the preoccupation of many philosophers. His conclusion was that there is no point. It’s a foolish question. But by his own acknowledgement he had a happy life and more importantly he had experienced what it means to love and be loved. Perhaps that is the point.