Tag: Thomas

Thomas Russell & The Early English Watchmaking Industry

St Augustines Londonderry

Thomas Russell ‘s name is synonymous with the Lancashire watch making industry and he is an icon for watch purists and enthusiasts around the world. But how he came to become a watchmaker and why Lancashire played such an important role in the watchmaking industry is a fascinating story.

In the 17th century farmers and agricultural workers who needed to supplement their income during the winter months undertook much of the work of watchmaking. In and around Lancashire this was particularly important and the proximity of metalworking, the availability of fine metal tools and the port of Liverpool aided the growth of the industry. By the 18th century watch parts were being sub-contracted to small farms and cottages throughout the region.

Another factor in the growth of this cottage industry were the significant lower overheads that the farmers enjoyed as part-time workers in their own homes. Elsewhere wages were the largest contributor to the total cost of watch manufacturing with the cost of raw materials, apart from gold and silver used in the making of expensive cases, relatively small.

One commentator notes that, “From Prescott to Liverpool, eight miles as the crow flies, the countryside was dotted with the cottages of spring makers, wheel cutters, chain makers, case makers, dial makers – every speciality that went into the making of a watch.” By the end of the 18th century between 150,000 and 200,000 watches a year were being produced by this system, satisfying the national need for accurate timekeeping as the industrial revolution took hold.

The Lancashire sub-contracting system allowed the production of watch movements at such low prices that by the end of the 18th century, the Lancashire manufacturers were supplying most of the great watch firms in London, Coventry and Liverpool. All that these firms needed to do was to make or source their own case and dial, and then assemble the watch.

Thomas Russell joined this hive of activity in 1848 when he moved his business as a watch manufacturer to Slater Street in Liverpool. The city was a major seafaring port and the manufacture of ships’ clocks and chronometers became an important revenue stream for the business.

Thomas Russell’s father, also named Thomas Russell (1780-1830), the founder of this watchmaking dynasty, was born in Eskdale a small village in Cumberland. He served his time in watchmaking in New St. Broughton-in-Furness Lancashire under William Bellman, he then served his journeyman time with William Wakefield in Market St Lancaster where he later started a business of his own in the same street.

He had two sons; one named Thomas was married to Mary in 1831. They also had two sons, Thomas Robert (1833-1894) born in Lancaster and Alfred Holgate Russell (1840-1893). In about 1840 the family moved to Halifax setting up a watchmaking business in Lord St. It was here that Alfred was born.

By 1848 the family had moved once more and records show that Thomas Russell was a watch manufacturer with premises at 20 or 22 Slater Street, Liverpool and later at number 32 in the same street. It was here that Thomas Russell became arguably Liverpool ‘s finest watchmaker and the business produced quality watches and clocks, including the celebrated Russell Hunter pocket watch. Thomas Senior and his oldest son Thomas Robert were granted a Royal Warrant by Queen Victoria indicating their rapid progress in watch manufacturing.

Around 1859, Thomas handed over control of the business to his sons Thomas Robert and Alfred Holgate and the company changed its name to Thomas Russell & Son. Following Thomas Russell’s death in 1867 the business was divided into two; the trade side continued under the same name and was run by Alfred and Thomas ran Russells Limited. The retail business became importers of Swiss watches and music boxes.

By 1877 the company had moved the business once more, this time to Cathedral Works, 12 Church Street, Liverpool, with additional offices at Piccadilly in London and Toronto, Canada. It was now known as the Russell Watch and Chronometer Manufactory and was listed in 1880 as “watch and chronometer manufacturers and machine made keyless lever and jewellery merchants” and additionally, “by Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen and HRM the Duke of Edinburgh and the Admiralty”.

After Queen Victoria’s death, Thomas Russell still signed their watches “Makers to Queen Victoria” even though officially the warrant had ceased with the Queens death. This was tolerated for a time before they removed this from their watches.

Following the deaths of Thomas Robert and Alfred Holgate, Alfred’s son Bernard Holgate Russell and his cousin Thos Townsend Russell took over the company and the name of the business was changed in 1894 to Russells Limited. From this date it appears that they continued as retail jewellers with several branches in Liverpool and, by the early 1900’s, Manchester and Llandudno as well.

Bernard married and had a son Thomas Graham (1906-1999). In 1915 Bernard and Thos Townsend Russell invited Joseph Wright to become a fellow director of Thos Russell & Son. Joseph had extensive trade knowledge, travelled extensively and had business contacts in Switzerland and working experience with the famous American Illinois Watch Case Co.

The sons of these directors all seemed to have worked in and run the business in later years. During WW2 Joseph Wright kept the firm going despite wartime shortages of materials and men until the sons returned from the war. In about 1994 both the retail Liverpool Russells Ltd and the workshops and offices at 12 Church Street closed their doors for the last time.

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Thomas Russell & The Early English Watchmaking Industry

Show me the way ...

Thomas Russell ‘s name is synonymous with the Lancashire watch making industry and he is an icon for watch purists and enthusiasts around the world. But how he came to become a watchmaker and why Lancashire played such an important role in the watchmaking industry is a fascinating story.

In the 17th century farmers and agricultural workers who needed to supplement their income during the winter months undertook much of the work of watchmaking. In and around Lancashire this was particularly important and the proximity of metalworking, the availability of fine metal tools and the port of Liverpool aided the growth of the industry. By the 18th century watch parts were being sub-contracted to small farms and cottages throughout the region.

Another factor in the growth of this cottage industry were the significant lower overheads that the farmers enjoyed as part-time workers in their own homes. Elsewhere wages were the largest contributor to the total cost of watch manufacturing with the cost of raw materials, apart from gold and silver used in the making of expensive cases, relatively small.

One commentator notes that, “From Prescott to Liverpool, eight miles as the crow flies, the countryside was dotted with the cottages of spring makers, wheel cutters, chain makers, case makers, dial makers – every speciality that went into the making of a watch.” By the end of the 18th century between 150,000 and 200,000 watches a year were being produced by this system, satisfying the national need for accurate timekeeping as the industrial revolution took hold.

The Lancashire sub-contracting system allowed the production of watch movements at such low prices that by the end of the 18th century, the Lancashire manufacturers were supplying most of the great watch firms in London, Coventry and Liverpool. All that these firms needed to do was to make or source their own case and dial, and then assemble the watch.

Thomas Russell joined this hive of activity in 1848 when he moved his business as a watch manufacturer to Slater Street in Liverpool. The city was a major seafaring port and the manufacture of ships’ clocks and chronometers became an important revenue stream for the business.

Thomas Russell’s father, also named Thomas Russell (1780-1830), the founder of this watchmaking dynasty, was born in Eskdale a small village in Cumberland. He served his time in watchmaking in New St. Broughton-in-Furness Lancashire under William Bellman, he then served his journeyman time with William Wakefield in Market St Lancaster where he later started a business of his own in the same street.

He had two sons; one named Thomas was married to Mary in 1831. They also had two sons, Thomas Robert (1833-1894) born in Lancaster and Alfred Holgate Russell (1840-1893). In about 1840 the family moved to Halifax setting up a watchmaking business in Lord St. It was here that Alfred was born.

By 1848 the family had moved once more and records show that Thomas Russell was a watch manufacturer with premises at 20 or 22 Slater Street, Liverpool and later at number 32 in the same street. It was here that Thomas Russell became arguably Liverpool ‘s finest watchmaker and the business produced quality watches and clocks, including the celebrated Russell Hunter pocket watch. Thomas Senior and his oldest son Thomas Robert were granted a Royal Warrant by Queen Victoria indicating their rapid progress in watch manufacturing.

Around 1859, Thomas handed over control of the business to his sons Thomas Robert and Alfred Holgate and the company changed its name to Thomas Russell & Son. Following Thomas Russell’s death in 1867 the business was divided into two; the trade side continued under the same name and was run by Alfred and Thomas ran Russells Limited. The retail business became importers of Swiss watches and music boxes.

By 1877 the company had moved the business once more, this time to Cathedral Works, 12 Church Street, Liverpool, with additional offices at Piccadilly in London and Toronto, Canada. It was now known as the Russell Watch and Chronometer Manufactory and was listed in 1880 as “watch and chronometer manufacturers and machine made keyless lever and jewellery merchants” and additionally, “by Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen and HRM the Duke of Edinburgh and the Admiralty”.

After Queen Victoria’s death, Thomas Russell still signed their watches “Makers to Queen Victoria” even though officially the warrant had ceased with the Queens death. This was tolerated for a time before they removed this from their watches.

Following the deaths of Thomas Robert and Alfred Holgate, Alfred’s son Bernard Holgate Russell and his cousin Thos Townsend Russell took over the company and the name of the business was changed in 1894 to Russells Limited. From this date it appears that they continued as retail jewellers with several branches in Liverpool and, by the early 1900’s, Manchester and Llandudno as well.

Bernard married and had a son Thomas Graham (1906-1999). In 1915 Bernard and Thos Townsend Russell invited Joseph Wright to become a fellow director of Thos Russell & Son. Joseph had extensive trade knowledge, travelled extensively and had business contacts in Switzerland and working experience with the famous American Illinois Watch Case Co.

The sons of these directors all seemed to have worked in and run the business in later years. During WW2 Joseph Wright kept the firm going despite wartime shortages of materials and men until the sons returned from the war. In about 1994 both the retail Liverpool Russells Ltd and the workshops and offices at 12 Church Street closed their doors for the last time.

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Thomas Russell & The Early English Watchmaking Industry

Morphing Kafka sleeping now

Thomas Russell ‘s name is synonymous with the Lancashire watch making industry and he is an icon for watch purists and enthusiasts around the world. But how he came to become a watchmaker and why Lancashire played such an important role in the watchmaking industry is a fascinating story.

In the 17th century farmers and agricultural workers who needed to supplement their income during the winter months undertook much of the work of watchmaking. In and around Lancashire this was particularly important and the proximity of metalworking, the availability of fine metal tools and the port of Liverpool aided the growth of the industry. By the 18th century watch parts were being sub-contracted to small farms and cottages throughout the region.

Another factor in the growth of this cottage industry were the significant lower overheads that the farmers enjoyed as part-time workers in their own homes. Elsewhere wages were the largest contributor to the total cost of watch manufacturing with the cost of raw materials, apart from gold and silver used in the making of expensive cases, relatively small.

One commentator notes that, “From Prescott to Liverpool, eight miles as the crow flies, the countryside was dotted with the cottages of spring makers, wheel cutters, chain makers, case makers, dial makers – every speciality that went into the making of a watch.” By the end of the 18th century between 150,000 and 200,000 watches a year were being produced by this system, satisfying the national need for accurate timekeeping as the industrial revolution took hold.

The Lancashire sub-contracting system allowed the production of watch movements at such low prices that by the end of the 18th century, the Lancashire manufacturers were supplying most of the great watch firms in London, Coventry and Liverpool. All that these firms needed to do was to make or source their own case and dial, and then assemble the watch.

Thomas Russell joined this hive of activity in 1848 when he moved his business as a watch manufacturer to Slater Street in Liverpool. The city was a major seafaring port and the manufacture of ships’ clocks and chronometers became an important revenue stream for the business.

Thomas Russell’s father, also named Thomas Russell (1780-1830), the founder of this watchmaking dynasty, was born in Eskdale a small village in Cumberland. He served his time in watchmaking in New St. Broughton-in-Furness Lancashire under William Bellman, he then served his journeyman time with William Wakefield in Market St Lancaster where he later started a business of his own in the same street.

He had two sons; one named Thomas was married to Mary in 1831. They also had two sons, Thomas Robert (1833-1894) born in Lancaster and Alfred Holgate Russell (1840-1893). In about 1840 the family moved to Halifax setting up a watchmaking business in Lord St. It was here that Alfred was born.

By 1848 the family had moved once more and records show that Thomas Russell was a watch manufacturer with premises at 20 or 22 Slater Street, Liverpool and later at number 32 in the same street. It was here that Thomas Russell became arguably Liverpool ‘s finest watchmaker and the business produced quality watches and clocks, including the celebrated Russell Hunter pocket watch. Thomas Senior and his oldest son Thomas Robert were granted a Royal Warrant by Queen Victoria indicating their rapid progress in watch manufacturing.

Around 1859, Thomas handed over control of the business to his sons Thomas Robert and Alfred Holgate and the company changed its name to Thomas Russell & Son. Following Thomas Russell’s death in 1867 the business was divided into two; the trade side continued under the same name and was run by Alfred and Thomas ran Russells Limited. The retail business became importers of Swiss watches and music boxes.

By 1877 the company had moved the business once more, this time to Cathedral Works, 12 Church Street, Liverpool, with additional offices at Piccadilly in London and Toronto, Canada. It was now known as the Russell Watch and Chronometer Manufactory and was listed in 1880 as “watch and chronometer manufacturers and machine made keyless lever and jewellery merchants” and additionally, “by Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen and HRM the Duke of Edinburgh and the Admiralty”.

After Queen Victoria’s death, Thomas Russell still signed their watches “Makers to Queen Victoria” even though officially the warrant had ceased with the Queens death. This was tolerated for a time before they removed this from their watches.

Following the deaths of Thomas Robert and Alfred Holgate, Alfred’s son Bernard Holgate Russell and his cousin Thos Townsend Russell took over the company and the name of the business was changed in 1894 to Russells Limited. From this date it appears that they continued as retail jewellers with several branches in Liverpool and, by the early 1900’s, Manchester and Llandudno as well.

Bernard married and had a son Thomas Graham (1906-1999). In 1915 Bernard and Thos Townsend Russell invited Joseph Wright to become a fellow director of Thos Russell & Son. Joseph had extensive trade knowledge, travelled extensively and had business contacts in Switzerland and working experience with the famous American Illinois Watch Case Co.

The sons of these directors all seemed to have worked in and run the business in later years. During WW2 Joseph Wright kept the firm going despite wartime shortages of materials and men until the sons returned from the war. In about 1994 both the retail Liverpool Russells Ltd and the workshops and offices at 12 Church Street closed their doors for the last time.

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Thomas Russell & The Early English Watchmaking Industry

a view from Cemitério dos Prazeres

Thomas Russell ‘s name is synonymous with the Lancashire watch making industry and he is an icon for watch purists and enthusiasts around the world. But how he came to become a watchmaker and why Lancashire played such an important role in the watchmaking industry is a fascinating story.

In the 17th century farmers and agricultural workers who needed to supplement their income during the winter months undertook much of the work of watchmaking. In and around Lancashire this was particularly important and the proximity of metalworking, the availability of fine metal tools and the port of Liverpool aided the growth of the industry. By the 18th century watch parts were being sub-contracted to small farms and cottages throughout the region.

Another factor in the growth of this cottage industry were the significant lower overheads that the farmers enjoyed as part-time workers in their own homes. Elsewhere wages were the largest contributor to the total cost of watch manufacturing with the cost of raw materials, apart from gold and silver used in the making of expensive cases, relatively small.

One commentator notes that, “From Prescott to Liverpool, eight miles as the crow flies, the countryside was dotted with the cottages of spring makers, wheel cutters, chain makers, case makers, dial makers – every speciality that went into the making of a watch.” By the end of the 18th century between 150,000 and 200,000 watches a year were being produced by this system, satisfying the national need for accurate timekeeping as the industrial revolution took hold.

The Lancashire sub-contracting system allowed the production of watch movements at such low prices that by the end of the 18th century, the Lancashire manufacturers were supplying most of the great watch firms in London, Coventry and Liverpool. All that these firms needed to do was to make or source their own case and dial, and then assemble the watch.

Thomas Russell joined this hive of activity in 1848 when he moved his business as a watch manufacturer to Slater Street in Liverpool. The city was a major seafaring port and the manufacture of ships’ clocks and chronometers became an important revenue stream for the business.

Thomas Russell’s father, also named Thomas Russell (1780-1830), the founder of this watchmaking dynasty, was born in Eskdale a small village in Cumberland. He served his time in watchmaking in New St. Broughton-in-Furness Lancashire under William Bellman, he then served his journeyman time with William Wakefield in Market St Lancaster where he later started a business of his own in the same street.

He had two sons; one named Thomas was married to Mary in 1831. They also had two sons, Thomas Robert (1833-1894) born in Lancaster and Alfred Holgate Russell (1840-1893). In about 1840 the family moved to Halifax setting up a watchmaking business in Lord St. It was here that Alfred was born.

By 1848 the family had moved once more and records show that Thomas Russell was a watch manufacturer with premises at 20 or 22 Slater Street, Liverpool and later at number 32 in the same street. It was here that Thomas Russell became arguably Liverpool ‘s finest watchmaker and the business produced quality watches and clocks, including the celebrated Russell Hunter pocket watch. Thomas Senior and his oldest son Thomas Robert were granted a Royal Warrant by Queen Victoria indicating their rapid progress in watch manufacturing.

Around 1859, Thomas handed over control of the business to his sons Thomas Robert and Alfred Holgate and the company changed its name to Thomas Russell & Son. Following Thomas Russell’s death in 1867 the business was divided into two; the trade side continued under the same name and was run by Alfred and Thomas ran Russells Limited. The retail business became importers of Swiss watches and music boxes.

By 1877 the company had moved the business once more, this time to Cathedral Works, 12 Church Street, Liverpool, with additional offices at Piccadilly in London and Toronto, Canada. It was now known as the Russell Watch and Chronometer Manufactory and was listed in 1880 as “watch and chronometer manufacturers and machine made keyless lever and jewellery merchants” and additionally, “by Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen and HRM the Duke of Edinburgh and the Admiralty”.

After Queen Victoria’s death, Thomas Russell still signed their watches “Makers to Queen Victoria” even though officially the warrant had ceased with the Queens death. This was tolerated for a time before they removed this from their watches.

Following the deaths of Thomas Robert and Alfred Holgate, Alfred’s son Bernard Holgate Russell and his cousin Thos Townsend Russell took over the company and the name of the business was changed in 1894 to Russells Limited. From this date it appears that they continued as retail jewellers with several branches in Liverpool and, by the early 1900’s, Manchester and Llandudno as well.

Bernard married and had a son Thomas Graham (1906-1999). In 1915 Bernard and Thos Townsend Russell invited Joseph Wright to become a fellow director of Thos Russell & Son. Joseph had extensive trade knowledge, travelled extensively and had business contacts in Switzerland and working experience with the famous American Illinois Watch Case Co.

The sons of these directors all seemed to have worked in and run the business in later years. During WW2 Joseph Wright kept the firm going despite wartime shortages of materials and men until the sons returned from the war. In about 1994 both the retail Liverpool Russells Ltd and the workshops and offices at 12 Church Street closed their doors for the last time.

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Thomas Nagel And His Article On Death

Golden lane - Prague

Thomas Nagel begins his collection of essays with a most intriguing discussion about death. Death being one of the most obviously important subjects of contemplation, Nagel takes an interesting approach as he tries to define the truth as to whether death is, or is not, a harm for that individual. Nagel does a brilliant job in attacking this issue from all sides and viewpoints, and it only makes sense that he does it this way in order to make his own observations more credible.

He begins by looking at the very common views of death that are held by most people in the world, and tells us that he will talk of death as the “unequivocal and permanent end to our existence” and look directly at the nature of death itself (1). The first view that Nagel decides to discuss is the view that death is bad for us because it deprives us of more life. Most people are in the view that life is good; even though some experiences in life can be bad, and sometimes tragic, the nature of life itself is a very positive state. Nagel also adds that when the experiences of life are put aside, this state is still positive, and not simply “neutral” (2).

Nagel goes further to point out some important observations about the value of life. Mere “organic survival” cannot be said to be a component of value (2). Nagel gives the example of death and being in a coma before dying. Both of these situations would be equally bad situations. Another observation is that “like most goods” the value can become greater with time (2).

Looking now at what is bad about death instead of what is good about life, Nagel presents some obvious thoughts regarding this point. Life is good because we have the conscious ability to experience and appreciate all that life has to offer. So death is bad because it deprives us of these experiences, not because the actual state of death is bad for us.

The next point that Nagel makes is that there are certain indications that show how people do not object to death simply because it “involves long periods of nonexistence” (3). It is said that people would not look at the temporary “suspension” of life as a terrible misfortune, because the fact that it is temporary tells us that this will ultimately bring the state back to that of conscious life. Also, we do not look at the state being before we are born as a misfortune, or deprivation of life, because that life has not yet begun and, (as Nagel states later), he refutes the possible argument that the person could have been born earlier and had more life, with the fact that if that person was born substantially earlier, he would cease to be that person, but instead someone else entirely.

Nagel discusses next three problems. The first is a view that there are no evils that are not rooted in a person consciously “minding” those evils. Nagel puts this view in to easier terms by saying that this is the same as saying “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” (4). There are several examples that can illustrate this theory. People who think this way would say that it is not a harm for a person to be ridiculed behind his back, if he doesn’t know about it. If he doesn’t experience the evil, it is not bad for him. Nagel thinks this view is wrong. The natural discovery here is that it is bad to be betrayed, this is what makes the whole situation unfortunate; not because the discovery of this betrayal makes us unhappy.

The second problem is that which has to do with who the subject of harm caused by death is, and when exactly this occurs. Harm can be experienced by a person before death, nothing can be experienced after death, so when is death itself experienced as a harm? The third problem deals with posthumous and prenatal existence.

Contemplating the good or bad aspects of death, Nagel observes that we must look at the possible circumstances surrounding a death, and the pertinent history of the person who dies. This is important because we miss a lot that is important to the argument if what we take into consideration is exclusively the state of the person at the moment of death. Nagel gives an example of a very intelligent man sustaining an injury that causes him to regress to the mental capacity of an infant. His needs can be fulfilled like those of an infant and be kept happy as long as simple needs are met. His family and friends would look at this as a terrible misfortune, even though the man himself is not aware of his loss. This situation is unfortunate because of the deprivation of what might have been had he not been injured in this way. He could have gone on to accomplish great things for the world and his family, and live out his life through old age as an accomplished and acclaimed individual. This would have lead him to great happiness, but it can be observed that this same man in a state of mental capacity to match that of a child is also happy, but Nagel agrees that what happened to this man is a tragedy because of the terrible loss of the life the intelligent man could have led. This situation can relate to death in this way of thinking about deprivation. Death is bad because it robs you of what could have been.

After making these observations, Nagel states that “This case should convince us that it is arbitrary to restrict the goods and evils that can befall a man to non-relational properties ascribable to him at particular times” (6). There are endless circumstances and happenings going on that affect a person’s fortune or misfortune. Many of these never coincide directly to the person’s life. We must consider that there is no way to pinpoint the exact position of a misfortune in a person’s life, nor a way to define the origin. People have dreams and goals in life that may or may not be fulfilled. There is no way to find all of the circumstances and possibilities that go into whether or not these hopes and dreams are eventually fulfilled, but Nagel tells us that we must simply accept that “If death is an evil, it must be accounted for in these terms, and the impossibility of locating it within life should not trouble us” (7).

There are some who view the time before birth and the time after death as the same. We exist in neither, though Nagel argues that there is a difference. This whole essay has expressed exactly his view that though we do not exist in either case, death deprives us of time that we could have been living our lives.

Nagel makes an interesting observation about whether we can assign as a misfortune an event or aspect of life which is normal to all humans in general. We all know that we all will die and that the maximum amount of life is somewhere around 100 years. So is it still plausible to say this is a misfortune? He also gives the example of moles, which are blind. It is not a misfortune for a mole to be blind because they are all blind, and they will never know sight and be able to appreciate it. But Nagel also presents the example of a situation in which everyone goes through six months of pain and anguish before dying. Everyone knows that this is going to happen, but does that make the event any less of an event to dread and fear?

We are brought into this world and brought up with aspects of our lives that we appreciate. The deprivation of these things that we learn to appreciate is a misfortune, because we have learned to live with these privileges. It is unfathomable for a human being to grasp the concept of a finite life, in the truest meaning of understanding. We do not think of our lives right now as a set out plan or a finite sequence of events. We do not live day to day thinking of what we should do according to how much time we have left. Our lives are essentially an open-ended sequence of good and bad circumstances and possibilities. Death is the abrupt interruption of this sequence that we cannot help but be in the mindset will never end. This is how death is a deprivation, and ultimately, a bad thing for a person.

In conclusion, Nagel offers a good argument in his essay on death about death itself being a harm. Whether a person believes in the immortal life or not, it must still be considered that dying deprives you of the goods and experiences of life. This view seems unavoidable. A person who dies at age 92 has lived a full life to the best of his ability and has experienced more than someone who dies at age 32. The person dying at age 32 had many things that he wished to accomplish and experience in his life, and since the event of death has taken away all possibility of any of these goals coming to pass, and undermines all the work that he has put forth up to that point in pursuit of his goals, death is a terrible tragedy for him.

Work Cited

Nagel, Thomas. Mortal Questions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979.

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Thomas Nagel And His Article On Death

3D painting of Shihgang District, Taichung - 2

Thomas Nagel begins his collection of essays with a most intriguing discussion about death. Death being one of the most obviously important subjects of contemplation, Nagel takes an interesting approach as he tries to define the truth as to whether death is, or is not, a harm for that individual. Nagel does a brilliant job in attacking this issue from all sides and viewpoints, and it only makes sense that he does it this way in order to make his own observations more credible.

He begins by looking at the very common views of death that are held by most people in the world, and tells us that he will talk of death as the “unequivocal and permanent end to our existence” and look directly at the nature of death itself (1). The first view that Nagel decides to discuss is the view that death is bad for us because it deprives us of more life. Most people are in the view that life is good; even though some experiences in life can be bad, and sometimes tragic, the nature of life itself is a very positive state. Nagel also adds that when the experiences of life are put aside, this state is still positive, and not simply “neutral” (2).

Nagel goes further to point out some important observations about the value of life. Mere “organic survival” cannot be said to be a component of value (2). Nagel gives the example of death and being in a coma before dying. Both of these situations would be equally bad situations. Another observation is that “like most goods” the value can become greater with time (2).

Looking now at what is bad about death instead of what is good about life, Nagel presents some obvious thoughts regarding this point. Life is good because we have the conscious ability to experience and appreciate all that life has to offer. So death is bad because it deprives us of these experiences, not because the actual state of death is bad for us.

The next point that Nagel makes is that there are certain indications that show how people do not object to death simply because it “involves long periods of nonexistence” (3). It is said that people would not look at the temporary “suspension” of life as a terrible misfortune, because the fact that it is temporary tells us that this will ultimately bring the state back to that of conscious life. Also, we do not look at the state being before we are born as a misfortune, or deprivation of life, because that life has not yet begun and, (as Nagel states later), he refutes the possible argument that the person could have been born earlier and had more life, with the fact that if that person was born substantially earlier, he would cease to be that person, but instead someone else entirely.

Nagel discusses next three problems. The first is a view that there are no evils that are not rooted in a person consciously “minding” those evils. Nagel puts this view in to easier terms by saying that this is the same as saying “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” (4). There are several examples that can illustrate this theory. People who think this way would say that it is not a harm for a person to be ridiculed behind his back, if he doesn’t know about it. If he doesn’t experience the evil, it is not bad for him. Nagel thinks this view is wrong. The natural discovery here is that it is bad to be betrayed, this is what makes the whole situation unfortunate; not because the discovery of this betrayal makes us unhappy.

The second problem is that which has to do with who the subject of harm caused by death is, and when exactly this occurs. Harm can be experienced by a person before death, nothing can be experienced after death, so when is death itself experienced as a harm? The third problem deals with posthumous and prenatal existence.

Contemplating the good or bad aspects of death, Nagel observes that we must look at the possible circumstances surrounding a death, and the pertinent history of the person who dies. This is important because we miss a lot that is important to the argument if what we take into consideration is exclusively the state of the person at the moment of death. Nagel gives an example of a very intelligent man sustaining an injury that causes him to regress to the mental capacity of an infant. His needs can be fulfilled like those of an infant and be kept happy as long as simple needs are met. His family and friends would look at this as a terrible misfortune, even though the man himself is not aware of his loss. This situation is unfortunate because of the deprivation of what might have been had he not been injured in this way. He could have gone on to accomplish great things for the world and his family, and live out his life through old age as an accomplished and acclaimed individual. This would have lead him to great happiness, but it can be observed that this same man in a state of mental capacity to match that of a child is also happy, but Nagel agrees that what happened to this man is a tragedy because of the terrible loss of the life the intelligent man could have led. This situation can relate to death in this way of thinking about deprivation. Death is bad because it robs you of what could have been.

After making these observations, Nagel states that “This case should convince us that it is arbitrary to restrict the goods and evils that can befall a man to non-relational properties ascribable to him at particular times” (6). There are endless circumstances and happenings going on that affect a person’s fortune or misfortune. Many of these never coincide directly to the person’s life. We must consider that there is no way to pinpoint the exact position of a misfortune in a person’s life, nor a way to define the origin. People have dreams and goals in life that may or may not be fulfilled. There is no way to find all of the circumstances and possibilities that go into whether or not these hopes and dreams are eventually fulfilled, but Nagel tells us that we must simply accept that “If death is an evil, it must be accounted for in these terms, and the impossibility of locating it within life should not trouble us” (7).

There are some who view the time before birth and the time after death as the same. We exist in neither, though Nagel argues that there is a difference. This whole essay has expressed exactly his view that though we do not exist in either case, death deprives us of time that we could have been living our lives.

Nagel makes an interesting observation about whether we can assign as a misfortune an event or aspect of life which is normal to all humans in general. We all know that we all will die and that the maximum amount of life is somewhere around 100 years. So is it still plausible to say this is a misfortune? He also gives the example of moles, which are blind. It is not a misfortune for a mole to be blind because they are all blind, and they will never know sight and be able to appreciate it. But Nagel also presents the example of a situation in which everyone goes through six months of pain and anguish before dying. Everyone knows that this is going to happen, but does that make the event any less of an event to dread and fear?

We are brought into this world and brought up with aspects of our lives that we appreciate. The deprivation of these things that we learn to appreciate is a misfortune, because we have learned to live with these privileges. It is unfathomable for a human being to grasp the concept of a finite life, in the truest meaning of understanding. We do not think of our lives right now as a set out plan or a finite sequence of events. We do not live day to day thinking of what we should do according to how much time we have left. Our lives are essentially an open-ended sequence of good and bad circumstances and possibilities. Death is the abrupt interruption of this sequence that we cannot help but be in the mindset will never end. This is how death is a deprivation, and ultimately, a bad thing for a person.

In conclusion, Nagel offers a good argument in his essay on death about death itself being a harm. Whether a person believes in the immortal life or not, it must still be considered that dying deprives you of the goods and experiences of life. This view seems unavoidable. A person who dies at age 92 has lived a full life to the best of his ability and has experienced more than someone who dies at age 32. The person dying at age 32 had many things that he wished to accomplish and experience in his life, and since the event of death has taken away all possibility of any of these goals coming to pass, and undermines all the work that he has put forth up to that point in pursuit of his goals, death is a terrible tragedy for him.

Work Cited

Nagel, Thomas. Mortal Questions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979.