This is the translation of an article by Umberto Eco published in the magazine L’Espresso on June 12th 1997. You can find a scan of the original article here: http://www.noha.it/public/ECO1997.jpg.
I’m not sure if I’m saying anything really original, but one of the biggest problems of the human being is how to face death. It seems that the problem is a difficult one for the non-believers (how to face the Nothing that awaits us thereafter?), although statistics tell us that the matter is embarrassing for a whole lot of believers too, who firmly believe that there is life after death, and yet they think that life before death is per se so enjoyable that it would be unpleasant to abandon it; therefore yes, they long for reaching to the choir of angels, however as late as possible.
It seems clear that I’m presenting the issue of what it means to be a being-for-death, or even just recognising that all men are mortals. It seems easy, as long as it regards Socrates, but it becomes difficult when it comes to us. And the hardest moment will be when we will truly realise that in one instant we are still here and the next one we will not be anymore.
Recently, a pensive disciple (a certain Criton) asked me: “Master, how can we best approach to death?”. My answer was that the only way to be ready for death is to persuade oneself that everybody else is an asshole.
In response to Criton’s astonishment I have further clarified. You see, I told him, how can you come near to death – even if you’re a believer – when you think that, while you’re dying, attractive youngsters of both sexes are having fun in nightclubs beyond any limits, enlightened scientists are violating the latest mysteries of the universe, incorruptible politicians are creating a better society, newspapers and TV are providing only very relevant information, responsible entrepreneurs are striving to make sure that their products don’t degrade the environment and work hard to restore a nature made of drinkable creeks, wooden slopes, clear skies and serenely protected by the providential ozone, soft clouds dropping the sweetest rains? The thought that all these wonderful things happen, while you are going away, would make it impossible to bear it.
Conversely, just try to think that, by the moment you’re perceiving that you’re leaving this valley, you’ve got the immarcescible certainty that the world (five billion human beings) is full of assholes, and assholes are those who are dancing in the nightclubs, assholes are the scientists who believe they have resolved the mysteries of the universe, assholes are the politicians who propose a panacea for all our troubles, assholes are all those who fill papers and papers with banal and marginal gossip, assholes are those suicidal producers who destroy the planet. Wouldn’t you be in that moment happy, relieved, satisfied by the idea of abandoning this valley of assholes?
Criton then asked: “But Master, when should I start thinking like that?”. I’ve replied that it shouldn’t be too early, because the one who, at twenty or even thirty years old, thinks that everybody is an asshole, is then an asshole himself, and will never reach wisdom. It’s necessary to start with the thought that everybody else is better than us, then evolve little by little, feel the first faint doubts around our forties, start a deeper review between our fifties and sixties, and reach to that absolute certainty when marching towards the hundreds, however ready to close the balance as soon as we get the invitation telegram.
To persuade oneself that everybody standing around (five billion) is an asshole, is the effect of a very fine and delicate art, not the disposition of the first whoever Cebetes with an ear or nose piercing. It takes a lot of study and work. You can’t accelerate the timeline. You must get to it sweetly, just right in time to die peacefully. But up to that day, it’s important for us to still think that somebody, who we love and admire, may not be that much of an asshole really. Wisdom resides in recognising, only at the right moment and not before, that he was an asshole as well. Then, only then, we can die.
Therefore, this great art consists in studying, a little bit every time, the universal mind, scrutinise the happenings in the society, monitor the mass media day by day, as well as the statements of the self-confident artists, the apophthegms of the freewheeling politicians, the philosophemes of the apocalyptic critics, the aphorisms of the charismatic heroes, studying theories, proposals, appeals, images, appearances. Only then, in the end, you would get the overwhelming revelation that everybody is an asshole. At that point you will be ready for your meeting with death.
Until that end, you will have to resist to this unbearable revelation, you will insist on thinking that somebody say meaningful things, that this book is better than others, that this people leader really seeks common welfare. It is natural, human, and typical of our species to refute the persuasion that the others are just indiscriminately assholes, otherwise how could life be worth living? However, when in the end you will know, you will comprehend why dying is worth it, if not even magnificent.
Criton then told me: “Master, I don’t want to rush to conclusions here, but I’m growing the suspicion that you’re an asshole”. “You see?”, I said, “you are already on the right path”.