By Nicole Morgan, CACOR Board of Directors. Death is terribly underrated in political philosophy although there is a kind of universal consensus about it: human beings, groups, civilizations, humanity are not keen on the idea of dying.
We fear it though. We have gone through a flurry of books and articles about The End of…. Some of them reflecting the angst of an aging population in Western countries, discovering that the values and souls of our children dwell in the house of tomorrow which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams (Kahlil Gibran, On Children).
Aging being relentless and optimism eternal, it begins to dawn on us that death not only is unavoidable but it may be the elusive Common Good of humanity in the making, the central piece missing in the painful construction of Ideas and ideologies attempting to replace religions.
The first article (see below) is a review of the most recent book by Walter Scheidel, the title of which says it all. The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Scheidel argues that history offers few peaceful antidotes to the accumulation of property, money, and leverage in the hands of the few. “For thousands of years,” Scheidel observes, “civilization did not lend itself to peaceful equalization. Across a wide range of societies and different levels of development, stability favored economic inequality.” Civilization is the culprit; its absence, the cure. Scheidel wrote the book as a warning to progressives: “If we seek to re balance the current distribution of income and wealth in favor of greater equality, we cannot simply close our eyes to what it took to accomplish this goal in the past.” …The remedy was tragic (in the sense of fate as in Greek philosophy): the Four horses of the Apocalypse. The first horseman represents war and symbolizes the classic argument about the benefits of conflicts. Ian Morris, Scheidel’s colleague at Stanford, in his recent book War: What Is It Good For? has also argued for the utility of war.
A counter is made by Hobbes (in absentia) who uses the fear of death, as the great equalizer on which to build politics. “I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire for power after power, that ceaseth only in Death.” But fortunately there is another fear, equal if not superior. The ultimate aversion, this “Fear of Death, and Wounds,” causes people to seek peace. Fear of each other’s power is the only antidote to the power struggles inherent to human appetite. The negotiations between power and fear with the ultimate goal of achieving peace are called “Manners.”
Put more simply in a language palatable to our times.
I am afraid of death, you are afraid of death, let’s make a deal. (It is not Trump’s version, which should read: if you do not accept my deal, I will kill you even if it kills me)
The Leviathan is built on this premise.
The Stoics have put a more positive twist to death. We should not fear it for it is THE great incentive to act well as a citizen and an anti procrastinating device for the individual. When we think of it the word deadline is a perfect metaphor.
Epictetus advised parents to get children used to the idea of fear of death. “What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die?” he wrote in his Discourses. I am not sure the great philosopher had children and I doubt, if he did, that he ever kissed them goodnight. Philosophers tend to write a lot on education but are usually bad fathers. As a rare breed (a female political philosopher) who kissed her children goodnight, I certainly will not endorse Epictetus. First very young children are not afraid of death for themselves, as documented by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (On Children and Death) and as experimented by me. It is a blissful experience I recall with pleasure… provided you hold your parents hand. This leads me to the second remark: young children are terrified of death…of their mother. (I still have not recovered from the death of Bambi’s mother).
On the other hand, passed adolescence it may not be a bad idea to bring the prospect of death into the picture at an individual level and at a political one.
For the self absorbed inclined and the anxious procrastinators, I am re-posting an article on anxiety (see below)
When it comes to politics, it is not a bad idea to remind policy makers that if we do not act now at a global level and do it right, in the present (the goal of the Stoics), the Great Equalizer may overshoot a tat and we will indeed be all equal in the ensuing global mass extinction. Though and I am quoting an old friend entomologist: I do not know if God exists but if he does, he sure loves insects.
It is a good idea but it is countered by the propensity of human beings to dream. Coping with this reality is deterred by five hundred years of stubborn faith in limitless horizons, the propensity of the human animal to deny entropy as long as it can fool itself with words, and the dependence of political stability on economic growth. – the latter fed by consumption. Morgan. The Contraction of Time. CACOR Proceedings September 1995.
The most recent escape into dreams is transhumanism. The third link on immortality is a must. Let’s quote David Pearce, a leading proponent of transhumanism and co-founder of Humanity ‘If we want to live in paradise, we will have to engineer it ourselves. ‘If we want eternal life, then we’ll need to rewrite our bug-ridden genetic code and become god-like … only hi-tech solutions can ever eradicate suffering from the world. ‘Compassion alone is not enough.’
Pass the popcorn. It is going to be an interesting movie.