After Life — A Philosophical Reflection
Ricky Gervais’ After Life has often been described as a “tear-jerker”. It’s a very emotional show that deals with the questions of mortality and life’s inherent impermanence. It’s a story of grief and a reflection on what it means to live and what happens after life. That is, what happens once one loses meaning in their life? Sooner or later, we are faced with such questions, so what lessons can we extract from After Life?
After Life Summary
The story is oriented around a middle-aged man who had recently lost his wife to cancer. Together, they had what could only be described as the “perfect marriage”. The main character, Tony, often reflects on how he didn’t want to work late or do anything else other than come home and spend time with his wife. The romantics among us would be in awe at such a sentiment. They had no kids, but they did have a dog. They seemed to have had some good friendships and relationships with their extended family.
Tony can’t help but feel down and depressed despite trying at times to feel better. He even tries to date other people but constantly catches himself bringing up his wife, whom he will watch videos of every night, to some wine. He gets very close to committing suicide on several occasions due to his depression and grief but is always saved by something — a friend knocking on his door or his dog barking or needing some food.
At one point, he decides that he will not commit suicide but that if he is to go on living, he will do so on his terms. If it doesn’t work out, he can always just go back to suicide. What follows is Tony acting this out; he is rude to people because he thinks it’s funny, he threatens a kid bullying his nephew with a hammer, and several other morally questionable things. It doesn’t exactly work out how he thinks, though. This philosophy only seemed to make things worse.
This is the point where I’ll stop the summary, as this is the point I wish to focus on.
Dipping His Toes in Nihilism & Existentialism
What Tony did when he decided that he could live by his own rules (and, hence, that life no longer had any meaning) is essentially a nihilistic and existentialist approach. Existentialism believes that life has no inherent meaning but that we can formulate our moral principles. In other words, this philosophy does not believe in objective morality. If this were the case, Tony could do whatever he wanted and get away with it.
However, he found that this way of life only made things worse. Even though he may find it funny to threaten a child with a hammer, he was soon forced to deal with the consequences of such an action. His family found out and he almost lost the opportunity to take care of his nephew ever again. He also found that being rude to people for his comedy wasn’t as funny as he thought.
This story perfectly paints why it isn’t entirely true that we can do whatever we want and be fulfilled in life. There are objective moral principles that we must adhere to, whether we want to or not. That isn’t to say that we always know exactly what those principles are (and maybe if we did, we’d have less suffering in the world), but the fact that there are universal rules that we must follow seems to be empirically evident.
The Case of Socialization
There’s a counterpoint to this that’s worth addressing: what if moral principles are socialized into you? If that were the case, then it would be understandable why we cannot turn off this externally-enforced compass, especially when we are middle-aged. I’m not here to disagree with the notion that socialization does play a role in what we deem ethical. One can consider the simple example of how Muslims are brought up not to eat pork yet have no moral problem eating some other animals. Contrast this with Americans, who generally have no ethical dilemma when it comes to pork consumption but would be appalled at the thought of eating dogs.
Socialization plays a significant role in our morality, but it’s far from the complete picture. There are ethical values that appear to be biologically given. Babies, for example, show signs of morality. Since babies have been socialized to virtually no degree, it follows that moral principles are, at least to some degree, built into us.
“Every normal person has a sense of right and wrong, some appreciation of justice and fairness, some gut feelings that are triggered by kindness and cruelty.”
Stoicism and Morality
Of course, the Stoics believed in objective morality. They were humble enough to admit that the arc of morality was long and that, perhaps, they weren’t aware of what exactly that morality entails, but they still believed that it existed. One of the meanings of the maxim “live according to nature” is actually to live according to human nature, including the universal moral principles that exist in all of us.
We simply can’t lie, cheat, steal, and do other terrible things and morally get away with it. Many have thought they could do whatever they wanted and be happy, but this doesn’t work for most people. Instead, the path to a meaningful life seems to adhere to objective moral principles.
Thanks for reading. If you’re interested in learning more, listen to similar reflections on The Strong Stoic Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts.