Not judging a life until it’s over (musings on reading the Economist’s obituaries)

Reading and re-reading the obituaries in the Economist of the last few weeks: We’ve had a Burmese heroin magnate, a female Soviet bomber pilot, a lonely and misunderstood inventor and computer engineer, and a fugitive billionaire¬†commodities trader. The Economist of course has the tradition of writing the most exquisite obituaries, finding Chekhovian beauty below the surface in the least obvious lives. They always transcend the simple descriptions and headline-friendly lines that most media turn to at the time of someone’s death.

I was reminded of this when listening to the podcast of a story in Aeon magazine, by Julian Baggini, discussing the role of philosophy in coming to terms with death (one’s own and that of those close to us). He quotes Aristotle in saying that you can not give a balanced judgment of a life until it’s truly over. People maintain the ability to redeem themselves or, alternatively, erase all earlier achievements at any time up until the end. A sad example of this was the recent story in the Atlantic of how Linus Pauling was able to negate two Nobel prizes with later ill-judged and stubborn vitamin opinions, making him much less of a mainstay in today’s pantheon of great minds. Also thought of this when I read the NYT review of the Hannah Arendt film, how opinions of a person’s thoughts and expressions during a life are constantly reevaluated.

I guess the relevant example in today’s world is the times you go through your Twitter feed to prune it, and find yourself removing accounts of deceased people. Hopefully those last tweets are significant of your earlier output. The inimitable and irreplaceable Christopher Hitchens‘ last tweet was a link to a Vanity Fair article. Shows that he worked until the end, which is an inspiration for us all.


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