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Steve Jobs' last achievement?

"Death didn’t happen to Steve, he achieved it." - Mona Simpson

"Worthless are my prayers and sighing,
yet, good Lord, in grace complying,
rescue me from fires undying!"
- Dies Irae

I hesitate to comment too freely about the death of any person, as dying is the greatest and most intimate trial that most people will ever endure. But I never cease to be amazed that not even death manages to humble the worldly. The one thing that is unmistakably, undeniably, unquestionably beyond man's ability to prevent - the eventual death of the body - must be considered as something "achieved" by a man who was, in this life, a great achiever. The brazen denial is stunning when you think about it.

"Guilty, now I pour my moaning,
all my shame with anguish owning;
spare, O God, thy suppliant groaning!"

Death is a punishment. Yes, death is also the gateway to eternal life, an inscrutable mercy, perhaps a moment of overwhelming grace, melting the heart and inciting contrition, turning the soul towards God - but it is a punishment first. Death is imposed on man, by God Himself, against man's natural will, as a punishment for sins original and actual. It cannot be "achieved" by man in any sense, except indirectly by breaking the Fifth Commandment, which is an easy thing for anyone sufficiently depraved - hardly another feather in any man's cap of worldly achievements.

Nothing reveals man's ultimate dependence and powerlessness like death. That is as it should be. The idea of man "achieving death" is outrageously arrogant. Unable to achieve physical immortality, despite great scientific and technological progress, in desperation modern man claims to achieve what his Creator has inexorably decreed. Without being too hard on Ms. Simpson in her mourning, let's hope that Steve Jobs achieved not his own death, but only a final "yes" to God - a surrender - and that his last words were uttered in awe at the divine mystery.

Comments (17)

Mona Simpson's comment sounds like a sort of new secular religion, an attempt to manufacture a genuine substitute for Christianity. The comment really doesn't have much of a meaning, either. What does it mean? It's vacuous. It reminds me of the new secular traditions that have developed around death: Write a letter to the dead person. Release a bunch of balloons (or, if you can afford them, doves) in honor of the dead person. Or combine them: Write a letter and _attach_ it to a balloon. Say that the person "achieved" death.

It's all of a piece--contentless attempts by the living to make themselves feel better about the loved one's death in the absence of any substantive theology that could give one a reason to feel better about the person's death.

What a beautiful post and wonderful link to that Gregorian chant. This struck as an acute problem with modern man: "Nothing reveals man's ultimate dependence and powerlessness like death. That is as it should be. The idea of man "achieving death" is outrageously arrogant." I think of the Lord's prayer, "thy will be done"; there is a reason we don't say 'my will be done' (as if we could will our death other than via suicide).

And of course, while death may be a punishment, God in His infinite mercy and wisdom also decided to offer us eternal life through His Son ("For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" - Romans 6:23)

Momento Mori

Did you actually read what Mona Simpson said before you called her incorrigibly arrogant? Just as a reminder, here's an excerpt containing that sentence:

What I learned from my brother’s death was that character is essential: What he was, was how he died.

Tuesday morning, he called me to ask me to hurry up to Palo Alto. His tone was affectionate, dear, loving, but like someone whose luggage was already strapped onto the vehicle, who was already on the beginning of his journey, even as he was sorry, truly deeply sorry, to be leaving us.

He started his farewell and I stopped him. I said, “Wait. I’m coming. I’m in a taxi to the airport. I’ll be there.”

“I’m telling you now because I’m afraid you won’t make it on time, honey.”

When I arrived, he and his Laurene were joking together like partners who’d lived and worked together every day of their lives. He looked into his children’s eyes as if he couldn’t unlock his gaze.

Until about 2 in the afternoon, his wife could rouse him, to talk to his friends from Apple.

Then, after awhile, it was clear that he would no longer wake to us.

His breathing changed. It became severe, deliberate, purposeful. I could feel him counting his steps again, pushing farther than before.

This is what I learned: he was working at this, too. Death didn’t happen to Steve, he achieved it.

He told me, when he was saying goodbye and telling me he was sorry, so sorry we wouldn’t be able to be old together as we’d always planned, that he was going to a better place.

Dr. Fischer gave him a 50/50 chance of making it through the night.

He made it through the night, Laurene next to him on the bed sometimes jerked up when there was a longer pause between his breaths. She and I looked at each other, then he would heave a deep breath and begin again.

I really don't think Mona Simpson deserves that cheap shot by Jeff Culbreath. He didn't even have the decency to quote her in context.

Obviously, the eulogy reflects a secular worldview. But I don't see why it's more objectionable than any other secular eulogy. It seems unfair of Lydia to associate Simpson's eulogy with stuff like balloons. I hate secular death-kitsch as much as anybody, but let's not forget that religious death-kitsch is just as bad. If a secular world-view is the cause of secular death-kitsch, then what is the cause of religious death-kitsch?

Simpson's eulogy was not free of kitsch, but it wasn't on the level of doves and balloons either. I think it was pretty good, considering that it was written by a grieving sister soon after her brother's death.

Bravo, Aaron.

I read a different version of the eulogy and am a bit confused by the apparent existence of more than one version but, yes, I did go and read "it" or something that I understood to be it.

Of course it's good as a secular eulogy goes. But the "he achieved death" line is just weird and won't wash. It's one of those things that sounds sort of soaring until you stop to ask yourself what it means.

Whether it's non-kosher to point this out about a line from a eulogy soon after the person's death is, I suppose, the only question at issue.

I hate secular death-kitsch as much as anybody, but let's not forget that religious death-kitsch is just as bad. If a secular world-view is the cause of secular death-kitsch, then what is the cause of religious death-kitsch?

Human silliness? But I'd have to judge on a case-by-case basis. The only religious death-related kitsch I've ever seen at least had content. Even if a given instance is sweetie-sweetie, something about the arms of Jesus at least tells us _why_ we're supposed to be comforted.

Lydia and Jeff S.: Thank you for your comments. Amen to "contentless and vacuous", except that there is, I believe, an underlying message that is, the more I think about it, deliberately offensive. However, I think writing a letter to a departed loved one can have some value.

Aaron: Yes, I read the entire eulogy days ago, and the context changes nothing. The author of these remarks is herself a professional writer, and she knew her words would be published far and wide. She was reaching for something pithy and edgy while also taking a swipe at God.

But I don't see why it's more objectionable than any other secular eulogy.

Did I say it was more offensive than any other secular eulogy? It could be, but I don't have enough experience with "secular eulogy" to have an opinion. I do think Simpson's words are a good example of a secular mindset that increasingly permeates our culture, most pronounced among our educated elite. This is a self-consciously post-Christian mentality that tries to patch together a worldview from the disparate elements of cheeky new-age ideas, eastern religions, pantheism, scientism, and radical individualism, the only common thread being opposition to Christian orthodoxy.

Well, I can't fully express my opinion on this post itself - its arrogance, ugliness, and utter lack of decency - without violating the comments policy, so that's the last I'll say on the post itself.

Lydia, I think the figure of speech worked. She wasn't talking about Death with a capital D; she was talking about her brother's actual, particular death, with his labored but apparently determined and "purposeful" breathing, as a reflection of his character. That's pretty obviously what she meant by it, whether or not that's "what it means." Maybe if instead of "death" she had said "dying" - more literally accurate but also clunkier - nobody would have commented on it, I don't know.

It wasn't great poetry, but this was a bereaved woman speaking at her brother's funeral, describing how he died next to her. I think we should give her the benefit of the doubt when grading her paper.

Say what you will about gooey Passiontide celebrations, Christian rock, and other varieties of religious kitsch, but there's definitely less of it compared to secular kitsch. (At least among the more hide-bound religions.) What does that say about religion and secularism?

"Achieve" seems to imply both that the end result is desired and that it took effort to obtain it. Only the latter is the case here, if that. Jobs wasn't trying to die; he was attempting, with difficulty, to continue living. I guess you're supposed to be struck by the incongruity of "achieve" in this context -- and you are -- but the incongruity doesn't yield meaning on further consideration.

That said, it does feel pretty distasteful dissecting an eulogy by the deceased's sister.

Jeff C.,

Speaking of the Dies Irae, I thought of you when I saw this post today from "On The Square":


"Achieve" seems to imply both that the end result is desired and that it took effort to obtain it. Only the latter is the case here, if that. Jobs wasn't trying to die; he was attempting, with difficulty, to continue living.

Yep, that was my point, above.

...its arrogance, ugliness, and utter lack of decency...

Yes, it is a remarkable achievement.


Maybe Jobs was quoting Shakespeare.


This is an interesting perspective on Jobs' own view of death:


The Elephant

JT (and Lydia), just to clarify: Actually I've got nothing really against reading and discussing a recent eulogy. It may be a little creepy, but I wouldn't complain about it. Simpson writes for a living, and she allowed the eulogy to be published. What I found so offensive was the self-righteous, personal condemnation of her, based on one possibly ill-chosen figure of speech that was taken completely out of context. I would have objected to the post almost as much even if the text weren't a eulogy.

So I'll continue with my own distasteful reading. Your point can be made even stronger: "achieve" literally implies consciousness, and Jobs was unconscious at the time. This might not be obvious at first, because Simpson's narrative jumps back chronologically to when he was speaking. So your "attempting" is also a figure of speech. He was "attempting" to stay alive only in the sense that his body was behaving, purposelessly, in a way that evolved (or was designed) with the function (or purpose) of staying alive. He was not literally achieving or attempting anything.

What he "achieved," as I read the eulogy, was control over his dying. He "actively" shaped his death (his dying) as he actively shaped his life, rather than passively letting it "happen to him." Those were his achievements, not the fact that the iPhone was a success or that he prolonged his life by a few minutes - nor that he died, of course, as an overly literal reading would have it. This reading is consistent with the rest of the eulogy, which discusses the way Jobs (and his wife and children) lived day to day, and which of course discusses his work with Apple, but which makes no reference to iPhone sales figures. In that sense, I still think the figure of speech works.

By the way, I think this "he died the way he lived" figure doesn't have any real basis. I've also watched a dying person breathing exactly as Simpson describes her brother's breathing, and that person in life was not like Steve Jobs. So even the unconscious dying "achievement" may not reflect character, but who knows?

Aaron, I watched my mother die exactly the same way. It really doesn't reflect intent or character at all, it is fully instinctual: the human body breathes instinctually when the person is asleep or unconscious. This happens even when death is nearby, about to take the body in a final way, but the body's attempts to maintain breathing require more effort because so much else of the body is broken.

Which explains why Jeff called it "attempt". As our good friend Ed Feser points out, natural living entities have a teleological aspect even if they are not conscious agents: they have a nature that tries to maintain bodily integrity and life. That natural inclination is sufficient to use "try" and "attempt" even without intention.

In reading the sister's account, and Elephant's link to an earlier Jobs story, it is relatively likely that Jobs really did not harbor a beyond-this-life perspective about death and its meaning. As a consequence, any meaning he could find for it would be one of those "we can't beat it so we might as well make it a friend" sort of diversions, one that works great on actual human beings that need not remain enemies, but is meaningless about things that are simply states of nature.

I suppose that it is fully predictable that atheists, agnostics, and those who simply can't be bothered to consider whether there is something after death will want to manufacture some sort of meaning out of death. That doesn't mean that we have to respect the result of those efforts as actually creating meaning.

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