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Quotable: Joseph Bottum Edition

May 25th, 2007 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Andy at ThinkChristian pointed out this fascinating article by Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things, in which he argues that the death of others is the foundation for our political existence.

While Andy thinks the topic is “a bit morbid,” I find myself invigorated by the opportunity to think hard about death. It is, after all, one of the most perplexing and fascinating realities in human existence, and one that I have in recent months devoted more thought to than ever before. Bottum’s article is tough slogging, as it is a bit less systematic than I might like, but essential reading nonetheless for its insight and its poetic prose.

Still, even the most ardent modernist might feel some misgivings about a rejection of the dead as complete as San Francisco’s. And such misgivings reflect, however dimly, a deep political insight—for a city without cemeteries has failed at one of the first reasons for having cities at all. Somewhere in those banished graveyards was a metaphysical ground for politics, and buried in them was a truth that too much of modern political theory seems to have forgotten: The living give us crowds. The dead give us communities.


Indeed, the logic loops back on itself to spiral downward: The failure to maintain the family graves increasingly leaves the family name without meaning, and the emptiness of the family name increasingly becomes a reason not to have family graves. The modern failure of funerals serves as both a cause and a symptom of the shattering of culture, first into the nuclear family, then into atomized individuals, and at last into nothingness—with, for instance, the increasing use of “anonymous death,” a European innovation now beginning to appear in America, where the dead are abandoned without ceremony in deliberately unmarked graves, or their corpses are cremated with the ashes spread across large and indifferent spaces.


Possibly we have even discovered a way to dilute the caustic skepticism of modern thought. An effort to build a politics solely around the fact of death may be a poor idea—incomplete sociologically and dangerous politically; the addition of metaphysically thick accounts of love, procreation, work, and the human purpose would be very helpful. But an age of suspicion must take what it can get, and death is the one fact no skepticism will dissolve.

What is missing from a culture that acknowledges death’s presence and power is a sense of solidarity with the past. Writes Eliot in Little Gidding:

We with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.

Denying death is nothing less than denying history, and denying history is nothing less than denying ourselves and our own situation. It is a rejection of metaphysics, as Bottum argues, and a rejection of the difficult reality that is at the basis of the political order. It is not the only fact that must be accounted for, but the primary fact on which the rest hang. We ignore it to our own peril.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.