February 21, 2008


Death & Politics (Joseph Bottum, June/July 2007, First Things)

“Society rests on the death of men,” the Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once declared. He probably intended nothing more than a sour comment on the mass of humankind: that violent, childish, unpleasant crew, never to be fully trusted. But it seems, nonetheless, a curious formulation. In what sense could society rest on the death of men, rather than being damaged or threatened by human mortality?

There are too many movable parts for all this to come clear in an instant. It’s like one of those giant jigsaw puzzles, thousands of pieces scattered across the table—except we’ve lost the box they came in and can’t quite remember the picture they’re supposed to make.

Here, for instance, is a piece: The question of private property has always been one of the central concerns of political philosophy. If death and politics are joined down at the root of human experience, then we should find death involved somewhere in ideas of property—intruding and impinging on any theory of ownership.

And, sure enough, death soon appears, as questions of property quickly raise questions of inheritance. In fact, the relation probably began the other way around. As Holmes himself notes in his famous 1881 study of the common law, the legal analysis of inheritance came first, historically—and definitions of property and contracts in early English law grew from concerns about inheritance: the attempt of dying parents to pass their possessions on to their children, the attempt of living children to preserve the gains of their deceased parents.

Holmes was interested primarily in the transmission of English common law into the American legal context, and so he made no particular use of this fact that common law about inheritance precedes common law about property. But taken simply on its face, it seems deeply suggestive about the priority of death in our experience of social organization.

Unfortunately, suggestive is all it can be. No single piece will reveal the whole picture or solve the entire puzzle. Later in this essay, I take up what may be the largest piece—the fact that, at a very abstract level of logic, freedom of the will is closely tied to a world with death in it: If nothing really dies, then we have no freedom of choice; if we lack significant freedom of choice, then death will prove unreal.

The argument is complicated, and, even when complete, it leaves us a long way from demonstrating the connection between death and political society. Nonetheless, it reveals a pattern that will play itself out at far less abstract levels. Ancient Roman Stoicism is a good example: A philosophy that generally disparages grief and downplays death will eventually arrive at a denial of free will. Early modern Ottoman Islam and Buddhist Tibet form, perhaps, other examples: A culture that generally embraces fatalism will also tend to deny meaningful death.

Even free will, however, is only one more suggestive part of death’s relation to politics. Think of all this in terms of the violence praised by a surprisingly large range of modern political theories. Why does death manifest itself—a sudden, miraculous, culture-forming power—whenever a thinker turns against the Enlightenment? What logic compels political philosophers, from the most radical right to the most radical left, to embrace murder when they renounce the poverty and weightlessness of modern culture? And why does literature show us again and again characters who imagine they can resolve the anxieties of modernity by drenching it in blood?

Or think of death’s role in the odd, disturbing moments we always encounter in ancient texts. What exactly is the outrage that Achilles commits in the Iliad when he drags Hector’s corpse in angry rings around the walls of Troy? For that matter, why does Achilles—Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles / Who would not live long—choose the immortality of fame from death in battle, instead of the long and happy, quiet and soon-forgotten, life he was offered by the gods?

Think of this, too, in terms of the family. In all Western cultures, a person was once “gathered to his fathers.” But constant relocation and the urban distaste for cemeteries have made care of graves difficult. Why shouldn’t we expect family tradition to weaken at the same time as family graves begin to disappear?

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.


None of these individual pieces—the origins of property law, the logic of free will, the murderousness of radical politics, the ancient literary hints, the weakened family—are sufficient to show the exact relation of death to political community. With enough of them put together, however, a picture starts to appear.

What I am proposing is a complete revaluation of political theory: a return to an extra-political, even metaphysical, foundation for thought about politics. Death—the death not of ourselves but of others—becomes the key for understanding human association when we grasp three propositions about death and politics:

(1) The losses human beings suffer are the deepest reason for culture,
(2) The fundamental pattern for any community is a congregation at a funeral,
(3) A healthy society requires a lively sense of the reality and continuing presence of the dead.

Perhaps the central way in which the acceptance of death has shaped the West's uniquely healthy culture is that we know that our society will not be perfected while we are alive, but only when the Messiah comes. This reality has inoculated us against all the various isms to which other societies have succumbed.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 21, 2008 1:19 PM

Why, I was just watching the bizarre 70's movie "Zardoz" last night. Part of it (the part that doesn't involve Sean Connery running around in fetish gear) involves a society that has managed to make themselves technologically immortal and has gotten rid of all emotions. The result? They're bored stiff and wish to die. Meanwhile, all the norms are running around the wasteland, shooting each other with guns from the Big Giant Head and generally having a good time. Which group would you rather be in?

You're certainly right about all good movies being conservative, but that doesn't mean there can't be conservative stinkers too.

Posted by: Bryan at February 21, 2008 4:34 PM