Is Survival the Only Virtue?
Whoever is steadfast in righteousness will live, but he who pursues evil will die. ─Proverbs 11:19, ESV
In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. ─Ecclesiastes 7:15, ESV
These two quotes are in the same Bible and may have been written by the same person. They speak of hope and despair. The first quote seems to claim that righteousness or virtue is directly related to life, specifically, life in this world. The second quote destroys this relationship: at least some who do “evil” prolong their lives. If being good does not lead to long life, of what use is it? Why should I be “good”?
Isn’t the quality of a person’s life as important as the quantity of his life? What good is it if someone lives to one hundred and does not enjoy his life? People naturally seek that which makes them feel good. If life becomes too painful, some seek to end their lives, thinking that this might bring them some relief. On the other hand, when death is seen as something painful and terrible, some will do whatever they can to push death away.
Is there a middle way, a way that does not seek or shun death? Can someone make peace with death while not actively pursuing death? As long as people do not deal with death, they cannot deal with life. As long as the fear of death haunts people, they cannot live with true, undiluted joy. People can deny or ignore death, but this keeps them from looking honestly towards the future.
It may seem counterintuitive or irrational, but some people do not resist physical death. Some people at certain times can find meaning in death. For example, people can give up their lives for the benefit of others. As Jesus said, Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13 ESV)
On the other end of the spectrum are those who will not give up their lives for any reason. These people may outlive their purpose, and be left with nothing to live for. In the song “Talkin’ World War III Blues” Bob Dylan describes a dream in which he climbs out of the sewer after World War III. He tells a doctor about his dream:
Well, the doctor interrupted me just about then,
Sayin’, “Hey I’ve been havin’ the same old dreams,
But mine was a little different you see.
I dreamt that the only person left after the war was me.
I didn’t see you around.”
. . .
Well, now time passed and now it seems
Everybody’s having them dreams.
Everybody sees themselves walkin’ around with no one else.
Dylan concludes, “I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours,” In other words, don’t value your own life more than the life of another. Personal, physical survival is not the only virtue or the greatest virtue. Without compassion for all of life, people lose their purpose and life itself becomes dreadful.