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Introduction: Philosophy of Death Study Group Introduction and Learning Outcomes

Introduction: Philosophy of Death Study Group Introduction and Learning Outcomes

This study group provides an introduction to the philosophical problems surrounding death. It takes its starting point in the fact that everyone, eventually, will die. This is one of the few facts that human beings can be absolutely sure about. Given this certainty, however, death still presents us with many difficult and pressing questions. What does it mean to die in the first place? Who or what is the “person” that dies? Is it merely a physical body, or is it also something like a soul, and, if so, does the existence of a soul indicate that there is some hope of immortality? Moreover, what should our attitude toward death be? Should we think of it as a good thing or a bad thing? And what effect should it have on the way we live our lives? At some point in our lives, we all grapple with these questions. This course uses the doctrines and arguments of a number of prominent philosophers concerning death as a means to investigate these and other questions. The course is organized around the lectures of Shelly Kagan, Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, who develops his own philosophy of death over the length of the course. Its major purpose, aside from familiarizing you with the writings of major philosophers on the subject of death, is to teach you how to think about death philosophically—to decide for yourself what you believe about death and to provide careful and convincing arguments for those beliefs.

This study group is divided into three units. The first unit covers metaphysical questions about death, i.e., questions about what death is, what persons are, and the existence of the soul. This unit includes material about the positions of dualism and physicalism, various arguments for the existence of the soul, as well as a close reading of Plato’s Phaedo, one of the most influential arguments for immortality.

The second unit deals with questions about how we ought to value death. We will address the views that personal identity is rooted in the soul, in the body, and in the "personality," we will also consider the possibility that death has little or nothing to do with the death of the person. We will conclude the unit with a look at Leo Tolstoy's, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

In the third unit, we cover how the fact that we will die should influence the way we live. In order to do this, we will read a selection from Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things titled “Folly of the Fear of Death,” Michel de Montaigne’s “That To Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die” essay, a selection of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Walter Kaufmann’s “Death without Dread” essay.


This study group relies upon the Saylor Foundation’s Free-Education Initiative.  In order to learn more about the Saylor Foundation, you may visit:

Before beginning the course content, please review the course Learning Outcomes at:



Unit 1:

Plato’s Phaedo


Unit 2:

Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich


Unit 3:

Michel de Montaigne’s “That To Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die” essay

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Part III, Chapter X

Walter Kaufmann’s “Death without Dread” essay

Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things: “Folly of the Fear of Death”

Task Discussion