Death (being towards)
I said Yoram Hazony’s prescription for political life—essentially to have a large family, or at least two children—was inadequate; and I said it was inadequate because, even if you have a large family, the entire family could be killed or horribly injured—unlikely, yet not impossible. The point is the same as every religion, but we’ll take Buddhism: the prince lives in his palace pleasure garden where everything is perfect, thanks to his father—especially, he does not know about death—and then one day he sneaks from the palace and comes to know about suffering, injustice, and death; and it is this crisis that prompts him to become the Buddha. The story parallels the Garden of Eden—the discovery of mortality—and it could also be said, from this view, that disobedience to “the Father” in the garden is the first step to true knowledge. No redemption, no reconciliation at a higher level, without disobedience.
The basic problem with Hazony’s prescription—actually just the general line you will hear from any Western conservative—is that your family doesn’t die for you; and neither does your Church or your nation, if you use those as substitute families—you die; nobody else does it for you. This is the absolute fact about your existence that conditions your entire life. As Heidegger would say, since I am channeling Heidegger, death’s facticity—your guaranteed absolute annihilation—conditions all your decisions; it is your finitude before death that gives your decisions any weight, since if we lived forever no choice would carry any heft. If we are to live lives that have any weight—blotted with meaning—we have to make our decisions with regard to our ultimate finitude. It is only then that we live authentically.
This is not a moral prescription, it is not quite the same as the preacher who says: “Pull your socks up, or you’re going to the fiery place.”—although this idea does have moral implications, since decisions taken in-the-light-of-your-being-towards-death carry a different weight to frivolous inauthentic decisions, it is not at the fundamental level about morals. I think, for a start, Heidegger lived in a time—as do we, only more so—when most people did not think there was an afterlife; personally, he wanted to live in a time of high Medieval Catholic theology—since he did not, he deployed a philosophy that contained the same gravitas as a theology with an afterlife.
After all, atheists typically object that religious people cry at funerals and yet, surely, per their own views on Heaven, they should be happy their relative has gone to the next level—so their beliefs are just childish pretence; and yet, even if you think there is an afterlife, death is the end of this earthly existence and you will never know that person as you know them now in the afterlife—hence, even for the believer, the loss is real; although perhaps they have more comfort, after the funeral, than the atheist.
Hence Heidegger’s injunction to live towards our finitude applies even if you think we are not only constrained by our earthly lives. Inauthenticity is not immoral, but it is connected to a frivolous life; even Benjamin Franklin’s famous joke, “Two things are certain in life: death and taxes,” constitutes, for the owlish Heidegger, an inauthentic evasion; of course, taxes are not certain in life, states collapse and bureaucrats make errors, and the German professor hoves into view from the shadows to say, “Death. Death is certain.” That is an authentic statement—no evasion in it. And this is the problem with Hazony and mainstream conservatives—death is certain, and they evade it.
Your family doesn’t die, your Church doesn’t die, your business doesn’t die—you die; no one else can do it for you, and you are condemned to do it. The black backwash is so strong, its tides so deep, that nobody wants to swim in this sea—those who think they know it, know it not; and those who think they are prepared for it are unready. The one event, as Heidegger might put it, that you must undergo but do not experience.
The temptation now is to leaven the discussion with a joke—that would be a concession to the inauthentic. Life is a constant struggle to keep death before us, to not evade it but to make every action in its light—the green-yellow light from blackened wood in the fireplace. What modern Western conservatives offer is an evasion, they offer the pleasure garden that the Buddha grew up in—they offer an anti-Eden; just work, make money, have kids—don’t think about the inevitable, at least other things go on anyway.
Strange to relate, their view matches the great nihilist Houellebecq; it is he who says, “Fuck, consume—hopefully the doctor isn’t a bastard at the end and shoots you full of painkillers so you’re not there when ‘it’ happens.” There is no fundamental difference in his orientation to that enunciated by conservatives—if anything he understands the pleasure garden more consistently; if we’re going to evade, let’s really let rip when we do it—indulge with an able body. Yet the evasion permeates all—we do not talk about “it”, yet we should live towards death; we cannot do otherwise.