May 22, 2007


...First Things article titled, cheerfully, Death & Politics:
The claim here is that without shared dead, the strong feeling for community fails, leaving us with only associations on the level of bowling leagues—or worse, the decay of bowling leagues into what the popular sociological writer Robert Putnam in 1995 called the “bowling alone” of contemporary America: a culture with such a damaged sense of community that it has difficulty maintaining even small, genial associations of mutual interest.

Like his fellow communitarians—the writers who, from the 1980s on, have accurately seen that a large range of political and social benefits are lost when voluntary associations disappear—Putnam seems unwilling to reach down to the metaphysical causes of the communities for which he longs. Indeed, the communitarians generally appear to imagine communities will form almost of themselves once people grasp the sociological good that comes from the existence of communities.

It is not true, of course, or true only in such rare instances that it might as well not be true. Mutual burial societies, congregations at prayer for the dead: These are the human associations engaged in the kind of metaphysically vital work that makes a community feel important and weighty to its members. Not all groups—not even a particularly large percentage—need to serve death, but a culture’s longest-lasting and most-influential communities always will, from the churches to the charitable guilds. Whether it’s grand state obsequies at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., or Remembrance Day at the Elks Club in Ottumwa, Iowa, funeral associations are what establish the pattern of community from which other associations in the society benefit.

* * *

Making philosophically defensible their distaste for grief, the Roman Stoics find themselves teetering on the edge of determinism and the denial of the capacity of the will to direct meaningful external action: “If you wish your children and your wife and your friends to live forever,” writes Epictetus, “you are foolish”—not merely because the wish derives from a misunderstanding of the world but also because it reveals how willful its motive is: “for you wish things to be in your power which are not so.”

A serious investigation in the intellectual history of ethics might trace this thought through antiquity as it runs all the way down, as if by its own momentum, to Marcus Aurelius—for whom all external things, even his own actions, come to seem at last slightly unreal. It is for “our faculty of intelligence to apprehend” how quickly all things vanish away, he writes: “how worthless and despicable and unclean and ephemeral and dead!” Time will hide everything, for the present is only a passing point in the infinity of time. Death reduces all to the same condition, what we prize equally with what we despise: “As well fall in love with a sparrow that flits past and in a moment is gone from our eyes.”

Stoic ethics reenacts the pattern of reasoning that modal logic had predicted: A denial of the reality of the dead will always issue in a denial of free will. Fatalism is the cost of a failure to grieve.

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