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.
I’m glad you discovered the article. I was planning on telling you all about it this weekend!
It is interesting that you (or perhaps Andy) think that the thesis of the paper is that the death of others is the foundation of civilisation.
One might also have summed up the article by saying that its thesis is that the concrete remembrance of death is the foundation of civilisation.
I initially thought that this latter claim was in fact the thesis, but the first claim fits more squarely with Bottom’s perplexing argument that the possibility of human freedom–and hence, the meaningfulness of human activity, including political activity–is logically dependent on death.
I call this argument perplexing not just because it has a challenging conclusion, but also and mostly because I think it is fallacious. Bottum’s argument seems only to conclude that human freedom is logically dependent on change, which can be interpreted somewhat metaphorically as death (metaphorically because death already is a certain kind of change, the change from life to non-life). But from this it is impossible validly to draw the further conclusion that human freedom is logically dependent on human death.
While it is certain that Bottom wanted to argue the first thesis (above). What is less certain is that he actually argues for it. But I think the article makes a provocative (if not entirely cogent) case for the second thesis (above).
Here Bottum’s argument for the logical dependence of human free will on human death (First Things, June/July 2007, p.27):
“If we have freedom, then the future must be open to various possibilities, some of which we will realize and some of which we will not. And at least a few of those possibilities must be lost to us forever. Our own actions may account for the loss of certain possibilities (as the person who eats thereby forfeits the chance to fast). But our own actions do not account for all we lose. Possibilities fail without our wish, and activities result even from our not acting; freedom of choice is not preserved by the refusal to choose.
“This demands , however, the reality of what the American philosopher Richard Taylor dubbed ‘efficacious time’: the relentless flow of consequential events, sorting out the possibilities that succeed from the possibilities that fail. And time’s efficacy can occur only through actually existing things undergoing changes. ‘Time in virtue of itself is a cause of destruction rather than of generation,’ as Aristotle puts it–because, as he goes on to note, a change is a ‘departure from an existing condition’: in every change, some actuality, whether substantial or accidential, must cease to be.
“Given, then, that free will requires the efficacy of time, and that efficacious time requires change, and that every change requires the death of something, our free will therefore depends for its act on a world in which actualities cease to be.”