In the past while, I’ve enjoyed focusing on goals that will take me years or decades to master. Language learning. Knowledge of history. Knowledge of the history of philosophy. Physical health and strength and endurance.
It occurred to me recently that I probably wouldn’t recommend any of these to someone who’s on the brink of death, whether because of old age or illness or injury.
If it were up to me, and if they had the capacity, I’d recommend that they should start where I myself had the good fortune to begin, soon after I finished my undergraduate studies.
It’s where perhaps everyone should start. After all, while some people can be pretty confident that their death is imminent, no one can be entirely sure that theirs is not.
The place to begin, in my view, is with the study that revolves around questions of happiness, virtue, divinity, truth, existence, humanity, beauty, eternity, goodness.
It’s the study that springs from the thoughts of such wonderful minds as Plato, Epictetus, Plotinus, Dionysius the Areopagite.
It’s the study that Socrates spoke of as a preparation for death.
Paradoxically, I have found that it is the thing that can help us feel most at home in this world during our time here.
With this philosophical “preparation for death” accomplished, we are freed to focus on the life ahead of us.
It is not good to strive for a beautiful body when we have not yet resolved to address the ugliness we find in our heart.
It is not beneficial to develop an impressive intellect when we have not yet ourselves been awed and inspired by the greatness of the things that are within humanity, and of the things that are above us.
It’s no use training to lead or help others when we have not yet learned to lead or to help ourselves.
First, let’s pursue this most important knowledge, however long it takes — and then, if there’s time, we will pursue every other good thing under the sun.