A little-known philosopher’s book on death made him a celebrity in South Korea

Kagan believes South Korea is experiencing a “mid-life crisis.”
Kagan believes South Korea is experiencing a “mid-life crisis.”
Image: Reuters/ Kim Hong-Ji
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Shelly Kagan, a social and political philosophy professor at Yale, is a respected figure in his field. But outside of academia, few Americans have heard of him. His books often aren’t reviewed in mainstream publications and certainly don’t make the bestseller list.

In South Korea, however, Kagan is a celebrity.

Much of Kagan’s work addresses death, which is certainly a theme of interest in all cultures. But, somehow, his ideas struck a particular chord in South Korea. “I don’t really know how to explain it, to be honest,” he says.

His popularity in the country began a decade ago, when Kagan’s Yale course on death was filmed and turned into an open-access series of lectures. The class became hugely popular in China and South Korea, and the Korean translation of his 2012 book on death became a national bestseller, selling 180,000 copies by the end of 2015. When Kagan visited Seoul in 2013, he recalls, he was recognized in the street and treated like a star.

“I would show up an hour early to the venue to give a talk and there’d be people lined up round the block waiting to get in to hear me,” says Kagan. “After the talk was over, people would sit around for an hour or two hours afterwards wanting to have me autograph copies of the book or take a photograph with me. It was extremely gratifying and, as you can imagine, an experience completely unlike any other I’ve had before in my life.”

At first, Kagan was puzzled by all the emails he received from South Korea but, over the years, he has slowly pieced together an explanation. Though his theories are untested and, as with any viral sensation, a definitive explanation is impossible, Kagan believes there are several factors that help explain South Korea’s fascination with his work on death.

Broadly speaking, Kagan’s book on death is divided in two halves: The first focuses on metaphysical questions, such as “what is the nature of the soul?” and “could you survive the death of your body?” The second is devoted to questions about the value of life: Does fear of death make sense? Is immortality desirable? Can suicide be rational? And how should these answers shape how we live?

South Korean readers, says Kagan, seemed particularly interested in the second half of the book. The country seems to be having a “mid-life crisis,” says Kagan, and there’s an “existential need to discuss such questions.”

Kagan believes his success in the country relates to the nation’s economic growth over the past few decades. After the destruction of the Korean War, South Korea worked relentlessly on reviving the economy, and was astonishingly successful. The country was powerfully rebuilt, and working hard was considered a patriotic duty. Now, there’s a generation of young people in their 20s and 30s who have lived their entire lives in a financially successful South Korea.

“These people are facing the question: Is making money all it’s really about? Is pushing myself successfully all it’s really about? What’s really worth having in life?” says Kagan.

Kagan’s sober discussions of suicide are particularly relevant to a country with the second-highest suicide rate in the world, and where the problem only seems to be escalating. The philosopher says that suicide was of the topics people most wanted to discuss during his visit to South Korea.

“In the United States, when you talk about suicide, the overwhelming dominant position is that suicide is wrong,” says Kagan. “I was struck by the fact that the reverse seems to be the case in South Korea. The majority of people, when I’d talk with them or ask for shows of hands in groups, seemed to think that suicide is not problematic.”

Kagan believes that most US discussion around suicide is “hysterical” and he makes a point of talking about the subject in a calm, rational, way. In South Korea, there’s a cultural tradition that views suicide as an acceptable way of preserving honor and Kagan made sure to point out that he disagrees with this view. If someone commits wrongdoing, then suicide does not undo the damage, he points out: “You’re not making things better when you kill yourself, you’re just avoiding the difficulty of having to correct the damage that you’ve done.”

The philosopher believes there are circumstances—parents of young children, for example—where obligations to others would make suicide an immoral act. But he also believes suicide is often irrational. In his lectures and book, he draws graphs to make this point. Kagan believes people often kill themselves when they’re at the bottom of a U-shaped curve, such as when they’re in the midst midst of teenage bout of depression. “Teens often have a difficult time getting a sufficiently global perspective, zooming out from what’s happening in their lives right now,” he says.

In other cases, such as when someone’s health is fast deteriorating due to a terminal illness, Kagan says it might be rational to recognize, tragically, that things will only worsen. And so suicide can be both rationally and morally permissible, he argues.

No doubt Kagan’s association with Yale University has also boosted Kagan’s appeal. “In South Korea, with this heavy focus on education, the gold standard is that people hope to make it to an Ivy League school,” he says.

Finally, Kagan notes that while East Asian cultures have a long history of sages, contemporary education in South Korea focuses on reading and deferring these ancient texts. “I’m not doing philosophy in this text-based way,” says Kagan. “I’m talking about issues similar to the ancient sages, essential questions about life and death and how to live. But instead of doing it by way of quoting the sages, I’m doing it in my voice.”

Even Kagan’s appearance and demeanor evokes ancient wisdom. His crossed-leg pose during lectures and grizzled, grey beard fits right in with ancient images of sages.

“I was in the right place and the right time,” he says. “Looking the right way.”