Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky

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Review by Peter Reason

I am not sure how I came across this book; I think I followed a link on Twitter. It appealed to me immediately appealed and ordered it from Mr B’s, our Bath independent bookshop, then promptly forgot all about it. When I learned it had arrived, I asked my wife to pick it up for me while she was in town. “What’s it called?” she asked, and I couldn’t remember. She brought back this tiny book with a shocking cover and title. I opened it and was immediately engaged. It may be tiny, but it explores a huge theme: How should we die at the end of times? Or as Margaret Atwood puts it, ‘Truth-filled meditations about grace in the face of mortality’.

Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky are Canadian scholars of international repute: he typographer, poet, and translator; she, a philosopher and poet. Learning to Die is beautifully designed, typeset and bound. It feels quite apt to study almost unthinkable topics through a beautiful physical object. The book contains two short essays and an afterword that critiques Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now.

The first essay, by Bringhurst, The Mind of the Wild, sets out our predicament, that we are at the end of times. He considers the nature the wild Earth, ‘living life to its full… self-directed, self-sustaining, self-repairing, with no need for anything from us’. Humans are, of course, part of this, but, in a telling phrase, he describes us as ‘liminal creatures’, on the margins of the wild, sometimes tempted to believe the ‘witch tale’ that we can live entirely outside it.

The wild world is extraordinary resilient, and yet it has been pushed by humans beyond its limits: ‘Does anybody honestly suppose that nature can be tricked into giving more and yet more every year, without end?’ The dominant human culture is increasingly toxic to the wild, bringing about mass extinction of life on Earth, the sixth such great extinction. If anything survives, ‘it will again be the wild… that is responsible for the healing’.

This extinction includes humans. ‘Cultures change. And ours will soon be changing big-time… If there are any human survivors of the next mass extinction, the cultural slate will be wiped pretty clean. No one may have heard of Shakespeare or Bach, Picasso or Plato’. Life will not go on forever, but somehow, we are making it shorter by far than we need to.

Bringhurst is demanding we look reality in the face, challenging us with the realities of death: ‘You, your species, your entire evolutionary family, and your planet will die tomorrow. How do you want to spend today?’ We are up against a wall; more and more of those who care are standing against the unsustainable mainstream. We may not be able to save the world, ‘but you might just manage to save your self-respect.’

Jan Zwicky picks up this essentially moral question. The title of her essay, A Ship from Delos, refers to the death of Socrates. Because executions are proscribed during the annual embassy to Apollo at Delos, his is delayed; but when the ship returns, his death is inevitable. ‘Humans collectively are now in Socrates’ position: the ship with the black sails has been sighted. Catastrophic global collapse is now on the horizon… nothing remotely like adequate measures are being undertaken… when we go, we are going to take a lot of innocent beings with us.’  

Zwicky’s essay explores question, ‘What constitutes virtue in such circumstances?’ The answer, she tells us, is surprisingly straightforward: ‘what has constituted virtue all along. We should approach the coming cataclysm as we ought to have approached life’. She translates ‘virtue’ as ‘excellence’: it’s about being an excellent human being. The excellence she pursues is based on the ‘suite of virtues that Socrates cultivated… and… embodied clearly on the day he learned he was going to die’, arguing that ‘these virtues are a good starting place since they are the foundation of moral thought of the industrial culture that is the root of the crisis’.

From Plato’s account, Zwicky derives a list of core Socratic virtues:

  1. Awareness coupled with humility regarding what one knows.
  2. Courage
  3. Self-control
  4. Justice
  5. Contemplative practice
  6. Compassion

So much of the discussion about the ecological catastrophe is couched in practical terms, about carbon reduction, alternative economic models, politics and human rights, species conservation. Rarely do we go to the moral and ethical heart of the matter, usually staying at a level of guilt-inducing should/should not injunctions. Zwicky’s essay fills an important gap.  So how might we practice these virtues ‘in the face of sighting our own ecological ship from Delos?’

Awareness is about ‘knowing what’s what’, about looking the truth in the eye, acknowledging what is the case. This is a significant challenge; for it is often argued that to be aware that death is imminent is to extinguish hope. Zwicky explores these issues carefully, not allowing easy answers. Hope is not destroyed. Beauty remains. The human inventive spirit remains. The Earth is prodigious, life will proliferate again. And awareness must be coupled with humility: we do not know what the future will hold. On the other hand, denying responsibility, denial of our complicity is part of refusing to know what’s what. Zwicky challenges us: those of us who have enough to eat and freedom to think must see clearly what our situation is: ‘Its desperate character, its blinding pain, must become an integral part of what we know.’

This will take courage. It will take physical courage to stand up to the inevitable pain and duress; it will take civic courage to live with wars and violence; it will take moral courage to exercise the virtue of awareness with humility. It demands, self-control seems to be something the dominant culture lacks: not just ‘grim, Procrustean self-denial’, but knowing when enough is enough, embracing simplicity. And it will require compassion, particularly so we do not indulge in contempt for those struggling to come to awareness, who deny ‘what’s what’.

The virtue of justice is more complex. Zwicky compares the Platonic notion of justice as the ‘order of the soul’ with the modern view articulated by philosopher John Rawls that it is about fairness. There is a complex argument here, which includes the question, since we cannot remedy the situation we are in, why bother with justice at all? Here it seems that Plato’s view of justice has real bite: the order of the soul is about inner harmony, the self-sustaining interdependence of awareness, humility, courage, and self-control, maybe better called nobility. What is good is beautiful. Zwicky contends: ‘the older I get, the more it looks like Plato was onto something: there are people in all walks of life who… are seized by the need to do the right thing… [W]hen you are in the presence of someone who is acting from direct perception of the good, you can tell.’

Contemplative practice of any sort involves attention. ‘We attend to the real, physical world, it’s immense and intricate workings, subtlety; its power, its harshness and its enormous beauty. We attend to the miracle of it, that there is something—this, here, now—rather than nothing. We attend to the rhythms of this world as they play out in our lives…’ Contemplation allows us to see the beauty of brokenness. ‘The more we attend to the world, the less we find ourselves wishing to control it.’ In place of control, we may desire to become, as Aldo Leopold puts it, a “plain member and citizen” of the land community.

These virtues form an organic whole; they concern ‘excellent human being – here, now, in this world. There is little point asking how to live or how to die if we won’t, or can’t, act on the answer.’ This means that knowledge, if it is to be morally excellent, must be taken into the heart as well as into the mind. Or, to put this another way, that for virtues to be virtues they must be practised in concert.

‘So how are we to die?’ asks Zwicky. In the end, this must also include a sense of humour: ‘a Socratic sense of humour will be manifest not as slapstick and belly laughs, but as the lightness of touch that comes from not taking one’s self too seriously. We will sense it as a smile: the absence of fear and the refusal to despair. Even in the face of death.’

I started this review with an account of how I stumbled on this book by chance. It has utterly engaged me, and several of the people who whom I have discussed it, for several days. I find that it cuts through the unending, superficial debates of our time. It asks us to take our life seriously, to consider, how will you live? And leads us through ways of considering the question. I find this invaluable.

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Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. He writes a regular column in Resurgence & Ecologist, and has contributed to EarthLines, GreenSpirit, Zoomorphic, LossLit, The Island Review, and The Clearing. His book In Search of Grace was published in 2017 by Earth Books. His previous book Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea is published by Jessica Kingsley. Find Peter at peterreason.net, and on Twitter @peterreason.

Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky, Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis, (University of Regina Press, 2018) ISBN: 9780889775633, paperback, 103 pages.

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