of the dead is tongued with fire
beyond the language of the living.
San Francisco is a city without graves. In 1900, the board of supervisors passed an ordinance prohibiting burials within the city limits. In 1912, the board announced its further intention to eliminate the city’s previously existing cemeteries, and in 1914 removal notices were sent to all burial sites, declaring them “a public nuisance and a menace and detriment to the health and welfare of city dwellers.”
A long series of legal battles followed, but by 1937 the San Francisco supervisors had triumphed, and the graveyards were gone. The suburb of Colma—a two-square-mile town in which 73 percent of the land is cemeteries—took many of the bodies, but not all. Perhaps eleven thousand corpses still lie unmarked beneath the Lincoln Park golf course, over near the coast, and the broken headstones were used as rubble in Buena Vista Park, where fragments of their epitaphs can still be read in the retaining walls and drain gutters.
The last remaining exceptions to San Francisco’s ban of the dead are a few old Spanish-colonial tombs at the Mission Dolores, a federal military cemetery in the Presidio, and a tiny columbary in the Richmond district, left after the Odd Fellows’ graveyard around it had been evacuated. Efforts have been made in recent years to establish a new pet cemetery in the city, row after row of small markers to show the passing of dogs and cats and domesticated parrots. But human interment remains illegal, and, for most residents, San Francisco’s only public reminder of death is the Golden Gate Bridge: a famous magnet for suicides, the jumpers’ broken bodies pulled under by the current and lost in the north Pacific.
In its way, San Francisco’s turn against graves provides a nice synopsis of the twentieth century, all the forces of modern times pushing toward a single end. So, for example, whatever politicians may have thought they governed, American cities were actually driven, for much of the twentieth century, by the juggernaut of city planners and public-health officers, their eyes gleaming with visions of Tomorrowland’s immaculate metropolis. So, too, the great engine of modern finance put enormous pressure on real estate—skyscrapers! bank towers! the downtown office!—in narrow urban spaces such as the Golden Gate peninsula.
For that matter, San Francisco was merely echoing the twentieth century’s general conviction that the nineteenth century had taken funerals far too seriously—the Edwardians’ general belief that their Victorian parents had been a profoundly sick people: as infatuated with displaying death as they were obsessed with hiding sex.
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.
“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.
Consider that first proposition. Political theorists have always tended to take fear—a concern with our own mortality—as the chief manifestation of death in the political realm. Modern liberalism long ago rejected the old magical accounts of political formation: that the gods themselves established Gilgamesh’s city, for instance, or that the priestly anointing of Menes, the first pharaoh, sanctified the rule of Egypt. As a consequence of this liberal turn, our explanations for the prehistoric beginnings of culture have grown a little thin. Still, the general modern view (in the standard reading of Hobbes’ Leviathan, for example) seems plausible enough: Civilization began with a primordial world of fear in which humans gave up certain natural freedoms in exchange for mutual civic protections against their threatened deaths.
Dread of our own deaths, however, cannot be the complete story, for the archaeological evidence is overwhelmingly on the side of grief rather than fear. By a huge majority, the surviving remnants of early human settlement are mausoleums, graves, crypts, sepulchers, and cenotaphs (as Fustel de Coulanges first observed more than a hundred years ago in his classic study, The Ancient City). Insofar as the ancient stones speak, they say the earliest civilizations were not the armed forts Hobbesianism predicts but the opposite: religious cults and associations for the joint care of tombs.
The exact relation of early religions and early memorials is difficult to pin down. Each appears to have pushed the other forward in the first moments of civilization—funerals as a key factor in the translation of religion from rural to urban settings, and urban religion as a key factor in the defining of liturgical funerals. But regardless of whether religion advanced care for the dead or care for the dead advanced religion, the oldest human relics suggest a broad genealogical thesis: The deepest roots of a civilization are in its funerals and memorials. The dead define culture.
The influence of death is not limited to the origins of civilization. Consider our second proposition: The fundamental pattern for any community is a congregation at a funeral. 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.
And the cause lies in our third proposition: A healthy society requires a lively sense of the reality and continuing presence of the dead.
The significance of life derives from the presence of the future, while the richness of life derives from the presence of the past. How we live is important only if we see the consequential future flowing toward us—beginning, always, with the fact that we will die and must prepare our children to assume the burdens of culture. How we live is thick and meaningful only if we see the momentous past, the ancient ghosts, dwelling among us—beginning, always, with the fact that our parents have died and left their corpses’ care to us. Death is the anchor for every human association, from the family all the way up to the nation-state. It provides a reason for association; it keeps us from drifting by tying us to a temporal reality larger—richer and more significant—than our individual present.
Examined with an awareness of a relation between death and politics, many contemporary problems show in a new light. The odd disquiet that accompanies biotechnology’s promises of a looming immortality, for instance. Or the crisis of the family, which can now be shown to be strongly related to the rise of assisted suicide, euthanasia, and all our attempts to sweep the infirm and the dying from view. Or the weightlessness of modern culture, which leads its most unstable members to seek meaning and importance in mass murder. None of this should be a surprise. Ordinary political community begins with and depends on the fact that people die. Society rests on the death of men.
Even in a cursory examination, our shared lives reveal death’s traces. People have died—and thus cemeteries exist, while large portions of human political history can be read simply as the long struggle to constrain the blood feud of revenge. People may die—and thus a government must weigh its role in compelling one citizen to protect another and offering what defense it can against the fragility of the body. People will die—and thus we try to plan ahead, from the huge bulk of inheritance law to the actuarial tables used for insurance planning.
Modern liberalism has always had a mistrust of metaphysics. But if, in fact, political relations are shot through with death, then much of that mistrust is simply mistaken—for in graveyards we can discern a ground for politics that is not susceptible to standard critiques of metaphysical claims as entirely private matters of individual preference or species of irrational religious sentiment.
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.
Death has always been the human problem, but in modern times, it seems to become a new kind of problem, its place in ethics, art, and social relations grown vague and uncertain. The ancient record hints at a tightly wound bundle of funerals and culture and death and politics. In modernity, however, those hints begin to disappear—either because there appears nothing left to hint at, or because the time has come to give up hinting and make explicit what political theory from the ancients to the medievals had left implicit.
One may read huge swaths of the central philosophical texts that marked the turn to modern times without encountering a word about mortality. Immanuel Kant’s key 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment?,” for instance, never mentions death or funerals, despite all its talk of religion and the public order. To the commonly cited features of high Enlightenment philosophy—a preference for rational order, a rejection of superstition, a fascination with the scientific method, the general substitution of epistemology for metaphysics—we might add one more: a dying away of cultural knowledge about death.
And yet, the modern age also gives us the writers who openly link death and politics for the first time in the history of political theory. Indeed, this quickly becomes something like the rule for Counter-Enlightenment thought: Every turn against the Enlightenment—every political philosopher who seeks some alternative to the poverty of modern culture—eventually stumbles on the idea of death and lifts it up with a great cry of discovery.
Extracted from its constraints in earlier culture, however, the political use of death grows monstrous and cruel. Down through the ages, practical politicians have sometimes observed the usefulness of political murder, no doubt, just as they have occasionally noticed the ways in which a nation can be drawn together by war. But there’s something different in the thinkers who theorize about the necessity for executions or martyrs or wars—the philosophers who seek out death for a political purpose.
The nineteenth-century conservatives of the Counter-Enlightenment perceived the social power of murder, although their Christianity generally stopped them from embracing the result. Joseph de Maistre, for example, writes in his 1821 treatise on sacrifices: “No nation doubted that there was an expiatory virtue in the spilling of blood. . . . It is rooted in the furthest depths of human nature, and on this point the whole of history does not show a single dissenting voice.” Nevertheless, de Maistre adds, the Christian revelation pulls culture back from such murder: “Wherever the true God is not known and served by virtue of an explicit revelation, man will slaughter man and often eat him.”
Juan Donoso Cortés’ 1854 Essay on Catholicism, Liberalism, and Socialism is often read as taking the next step: not merely observing the effect of violence but also advocating such violence for its power to create social unity. In the end, however, like de Maistre, Cortés refuses at least the self-conscious recourse to death by a culture. Not until the 1920s does the conservative Counter-Enlightenment, freed from Christianity, fully accept the politics of murder, with Carl Schmitt’s proto-Nazi claim of a nation’s “existential-ontological” need for enemies to kill.
The radical anarchists and socialists arrived there sooner, and what we might call the twentieth century’s “Counter-Enlightenment of the Left” brought to full blood the theory of the social utility of murder. The clearest example is probably Georges Sorel’s 1908 Reflections on Violence, with its syndicalist account of riot as the creative power by which the proletariat invents the “body image” of its class under the apocalyptic “myth of a general strike.”
Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s 1947 Humanism and Terror employs a parallel analysis in defense of the Moscow show trials under Stalin, arguing for the necessity of executions (regardless of the guilt or innocence of the accused) to bond and define the socialist state. In his 1961 Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon rejects all euphemism and proudly proclaims the psychological and social benefits of politically motivated murder in the Algerian war against French colonialism. As Jean-Paul Sartre explained in his once-famous introduction to Fanon’s work, for those in the Third World, “shooting a European means killing two birds with one stone, doing away with oppressor and oppressed at one and the same time: There remain a dead man and a free man.” More recently, the Canadian philosopher Ted Honderich has tried to reestablish this line with his 2002 book After the Terror and 2003 lecture “Terrorism for Humanity” in praise of the political effect of jihadist murder.
I suppose the postmodernists belong somewhere in the Counter-Enlightenment fold—although whether on the left or the right, philosophically, is difficult to say. (Their politics, particularly their sexual politics, tended toward the extreme left, but Jean-Paul Sartre saw something profoundly un-Marxist in their work, and he labeled them “the young conservatives” when they first appeared.) Regardless, from Roland Barthes to Michel Foucault, they were fascinated by death. Even Jacques Derrida, the most deconstructive of them all, came finally to the conclusion that death, at least, cannot be deconstructed.
In the end, however, they seemed to enjoy too much the caustic of their skepticism—the comedy of showing, over and over, how the ungrounded rationality of the Enlightenment finishes in irrationality. And though they followed the general Counter-Enlightenment rule of uncovering death, they deployed that death in a fundamentally unserious way. It was, in the final analysis, merely another caustic for them: Where Western thought fails to make death central, the postmodernists mocked the West for its failure to see how death undoes all its work; where Western thought does make death central, the postmodernists mocked the West as a deadly refuser of life. Contrast, for example, Derrida’s attack on Christianity as death-denying in his late book, The Gift of Death, with his attack on Martin Heidegger as death-obsessed in his prior book, Aporias.
The key to all this is the fact that the Counter-Enlightenment is correct—or rather, half-correct: horrifyingly accurate, murderously right. The poverty and weightlessness of modern culture really can be solved with death. Blood genuinely does enrich the ground in which civilization grows.
The dead necessary for strong communities, however, need not be our parents or our friends—the ordinary, domestic deaths that tie us to the temporal extension of civilization and thereby lend life a thick meaning. Indeed, profoundly disassociated and psychologically disturbed people have no past to which they might be bound by such deaths.
Or perhaps I mean that they do have a past, but their relation to it is entirely negative. In rejection of their perceived origins, they must make themselves over again, and so they find the dead they need for fresh community and reborn culture by joining together, not in grief, but in murder. The rule still holds: Community and culture are built from past corpses, which extend us in time. But the revolutionary and the counter-revolutionary alike need new blood to do their new work.
It was not always so. Scattered across the ancient literary record are hints of the strong connection between political justice and the reaction of the living to the dead—a parallel to hints of the relation between the origins of culture and the purpose of funerals.
We could begin with the oldest texts: Gilgamesh’s civilization-threatening grief for his friend Enkidu, for instance, or the central place the Egyptian Book of the Dead accords well-treatment of corpses in its catalogues of moral actions. The descriptions of varying funeral practices Herodotus gives in his Histories are often cited as proof of cultural relativism and thus a discounting of funerals. But Herodotus also describes the Persian leader Cambyses’ violation of tombs during the conquest of Egypt—and offers it as evidence that Cambyses was insane: Forms vary from culture to culture, but not the respect that must be accorded the dead.
Always, when we read an ancient text, we encounter moments of strangeness, foreign passages that seem to slip away from modern understanding. Many things contribute to this alien quality, but among them is the fact that ancient texts consistently assume death stands close to the surface of the political order.
Think of the odd conclusion of the Odyssey, where, before he can resume rule in Ithaca, Odysseus must take an oar and reenact elements of the oar-topped burial of Elpenor, one of his lost sailors. Or take the story Herodotus relates of the Spartan leader Pausanias’ response when an Aeginetan suggests mounting on a pole the head of the slain Persian general Mardonius—a suggestion taken by Pausanias to threaten the very root of civilization: “Such doings befit barbarians rather than Greeks, and even in barbarians we detest them. . . . Come not before me again with such a speech nor with such counsel, and thank my forbearance that you are not now punished.”
For that matter, think of all the myths surrounding Thebes. The Greek tragedians were fascinated by the city, and they had good reason. The mythological history of Thebes overflows with stories relating politics and death: from its beginning with Cadmus and the murderous warriors born from the dragon’s teeth, through the kingship of Oedipus and the tragedy of Antigone, and down to the story of the unburied corpses after the failed expedition of the Seven against Thebes.
Herodotus’ version of the Theban civil wars briefly mentions the boast that Athens had compelled Thebes to tend the unburied dead. But it is Euripides’ play The Suppliants, written perhaps five years later, that makes the full-blown claim of Athens as moral tutor to the world—authorized to force others to obey universal Greek civilization in the care for the dead. “You should use your power to compel the men of violence to perform this duty, when they prevent the dead from receiving their share of burial and funeral rites,” Aethra tells her son Theseus, king of Athens, when Thebes refuses to allow funerals for its defeated attackers. “You should check those who would confound the customs of all Greece; for this it is that holds men’s states together.”
This notion—that funeral rites are what hold men’s states together—rises near to the surface again and again in the ancient texts. In Latin literature, for example, the hints of a connection between death and politics run from Lucretius’ curious ending of De Rerum Natura, with the political collapse that follows the cultural breakdown of funerals during a plague, to the appearance of funeral rites at every key turn as Virgil shows the struggles of Aeneas to establish a new city and bring the gods to Italy.
Lucan suggests poetically that funerals are unnecessary to honor the dead, after Caesar’s refusal to allow rites for his slain opponents at Pharsalus, because the sky itself is their monumental covering. But the Aeneid gives the older Roman tradition, when the sibyl warns that the pollution of the unburied body of Aeneas’ follower Misenus must delay Aeneas’ descent to the underworld.
In the Bible, too, we encounter these moments of strangeness: the alien passages that draw death close to the political order and funerals near to culture. In the Old Testament, the texts run from the carrying away of the bodies of Jacob and Joseph, in the exodus from Egypt, to the linking of exile, tomblessness, and injustice, in the prophesies of Jeremiah. In the New Testament, they run from the man with an unclean spirit who dwells among the tombs in the Gospel of Mark to the unburied dead that shall lie in the street of a great city in the Book of Revelation. St. Augustine’s brief treatise on the dead, De Cura Pro Mortuis, contains a convenient catalogue of biblical passages that mention burial, and for his analysis Augustine relies particularly on the narrative use of tombs—for both reward and punishment—in the story of the prophets who spoke against Jeroboam in the First Book of Kings.
In his 1970 study The Meaning of the City, Jacques Ellul drew attention to Genesis 4:17, where the murderer Cain is named the founder of the first city—thereby both connecting urban culture to death and signaling the suspicion of cities that will echo through the Bible. Not until the Ark of the Covenant is brought to Jerusalem, carried away from its rural setting “in the fields of Jaar,” does the Bible sound much of the counter-theme of praise for cities: “Walk about Zion, and go round about her: tell the towers thereof,” as Psalm 48 commands. “Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces; that ye may tell it to the generation following.”
The second chapter of Isaiah weaves together both the theme of urban suspicion and its counter-theme of urban praise. “It shall come to pass in the last days,” Isaiah writes, that “all nations shall flow unto” the holy city, “for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” What follows immediately is the great description of universal peace, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” It’s worth noticing, however, that this is to be “in the last days”—for only God’s final holy city does not originate in, and is not bound to, the violence that lies at the root of human city.
These topics of violence and death in the Bible play a major role in the writings of René Girard, and it is hardly possible to consider questions of death and the origin of culture without mentioning Girard’s fascinating work on the ancient mythology of sacrifice and scapegoats.
In a biographical interview he gave in 1995, Girard declared that all the themes he has developed over the last four decades were present in his mind even in the late 1950s as a “dense intuition,” a “block” to be penetrated little by little. His publications began to appear in the early 1960s with widely acclaimed expositions of the way triangular relations form among characters in novels, particularly Dostoevsky’s. He then moved to anthropology, holding that ancient cultures are based on sacrificial violence against a scapegoat.
The connection came with his increasing study of psychology and his argument that desire is “mimetic”—that we learn what it is we want by watching what others want. The simplest examples involve the innumerable ancient stories, from Egypt down to Rome, that speak of siblings, often twins, one of whom is destroyed in the course of founding a new city. Girard insists we read these myths as recording genuine human murders: In the mad swirl of mimetic violence, each revenge in turn revenged, the nascent city threatens to devour itself. But with the choice of a scapegoat to sacrifice, the cycle can be broken with an unconscious agreement to aim all the culture’s vengeance at a single target.
Some of Girard’s followers seem to envision a precultural state of primal violence, opening Girard’s thought to the complaint that what little we know of ancient history offers no evidence that cities were actually born in riot and mayhem. To interpret sacrificial myths, however, we need not posit an original fury. We need notice only that every ancient culture manifests in its myths a deep terror of the mimetic escalation of violence. In response to this threatened violence of all against all, the old foundational myths pose the solution of another violence: the violence of all against one, the violence in which a victim is selected as the source of the cultural breakdown and sacrificed. The sacrificial victim, Girard writes, “unwittingly conjures up a baleful, infectious force that his own death—or triumph—transforms into a guarantee of order and tranquility.”
Girard’s final turn, to explicit Christian theology, allowed him to unveil the solution: At the center of his thought lies the Cross, the Sacrifice that breaks the cycle of sacrifice, violence, and mimetic murder. For Girard, the problem of forming a culture—of preventing and containing the spiraling disaster of internecine murder and cultural collapse—is like a quadratic equation with two solutions: the negative one of sacrificial mythology and the positive one of nonviolence, made visible by biblical revelation. Christ’s sacrifice breaks open the scapegoat mechanism for all to see the murder that lies at its root.
Girard is surely right that modern political theory has systematically underestimated the social power of revenge: At the root of ancient culture, he notes, there was a burial society—although it usually had to commit murder in order to get the body to bury. Along the way, Girard grants real insight into both how the ancients used sacrifice and why Counter-Enlightenment thinkers embrace death as they strain for some new foundation. Through the old cultural mechanism of murder, violence really can drive out violence—Satan can drive out Satan, to use Girard’s expression—by aiming the escalating aggression of a culture at a single enemy and victim, a scapegoat for all that ails it.
The trouble is that Girard seems to lack much political theory—or, at least, much political theory short of Isaiah’s. “It shall come to pass in the last days” that “all nations shall flow unto” the holy city, but eschatology is a bad guide to ordinary politics. Indeed, in Girard’s reading of history, the Judeo-Christian revelation has increased or even created our modern political problems, for the scapegoat myth—the negative solution to the problem of culture—ceases to work particularly well once we understand how it works.
If the ancient mechanism has begun to fail, as Girard insists, replaced by a new mechanism that will work only in the End Time, then what help is there for us now? Girardianism pushes us to conclude that modern culture, in its essence, has become irretrievably thin and self-contradictory, while the modern state has grown fundamentally ungovernable. Surely the scapegoat mechanism proves too much: With Girard’s psychological explanation of mimetic rivalry for the success of death at forming community, we are left with murder and apocalyptic change as our only alternatives—the quadratic equation with only two solutions.
A more ordinary use of death seems necessary to get us by, enriching everyday life with temporal extension. We need, I suggest, a new theory of the cultural power of grief for the between-time in which we live. We need an intermediate—and properly political—understanding of the debt the living owe the dead.
Our contemporary political question might be put this way: How much of the premodern does the modern need in order to flourish? How many of the political and scientific gains of modern times rest on the assumed continuation of premodern institutions and sensibilities?
It’s possible to take this merely as the perennial worry of modern conservativism: At what point ought one to stand athwart history yelling Stop? At what stage does one insist This far and no further? How much of the Christianity that was present at the nation’s founding does the American experiment require in order to continue today? How many modern democratic freedoms depend on traditional manners to prevent their social escalation into self-destruction?
But there is more here than simply the long-running battle between liberals and conservatives over the social application of the Enlightenment. The problem of how to treat the past is as old as modernity itself. Indeed, in a certain sense, this is the defining problem of modern times, and it resurfaces in every generation’s political quarrels. Society, as Edmund Burke famously declared in 1790, is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born”—to which Thomas Paine just as famously replied in 1791, “I am contending for the rights of the living, and against their being willed away and controlled and contracted for by the manuscript-assumed authority of the dead.”
The distinction between the natural order and the social order helps clarify the quarrel. Except insofar as we are procreated beings, we do not owe to previous generations the brute fact of reality. The physical world is the given—in both senses of the word: the premise of our existence and the gift of creation. Those who went before did not make this globe, and they did not bequeath the natural order to us; they merely left it. “The earth belongs to the living and not to the dead,” as Thomas Jefferson insisted in an exchange of letters with James Madison in the fall of 1789.
As it happens, those letters ostensibly concerned the power of modern democratic governments to borrow money—hardly the first place one would think to look for deep thoughts about the political meaning of death. But the exchange between Jefferson and Madison turned quickly into the question of whether public debts incurred in one generation must be paid in another and thus to considerations of whether the dead can bind the living.
What Madison saw is this: The social world, unlike the natural, genuinely has been inherited. It is the manufactured. The social order was built, maintained, and left to us not just by a vague and nameless antiquity but by particular people, within living memory, whose serial deaths link us to the past. We receive the buildings they put together, the languages they spoke, the books they wrote, the ideas they had, the economic opportunities they made possible, the moral consequences of the things they did, the memories they left in us—just as others will receive ours. “The improvements made by the dead form a debt against the living, who take the benefit of them,” Madison wrote back to Jefferson. “This debt can not be otherwise discharged than by a proportional obedience to the will of the authors of the improvements.”
This 1789 correspondence marks a fascinating moment in the history of the American Founding. It shows Jefferson at his most rhetorically brilliant and simultaneously at his most autodidactic and eccentric. (He includes in his letters, for instance, long and slightly inaccurate mathematical calculations, based on a French census, of the number of years necessary to form a generation.) It shows Madison, as well, at his most wise and simultaneously at his most convoluted as he tries to construct counterweights to revolution in the aftermath of a revolution. Jefferson wants the new world to stay new, and so he rejects public debt as the past binding the present. Madison wants the new world to find stability, and so he accepts public debt and the consequent role of prior generations. But both of them—to their credit—see that the simple logic of an immediate political problem forces them to decide about the living uses of the dead.
In another sense, however, neither side in the modern debate has fully appreciated the role of the dead in establishing and maintaining civil society. “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind,” Burke wrote, and he was right—but with less explanation than we need of the role that death plays in creating those subdivisions and in bonding our little platoons.
“Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America,” Alexis de Tocqueville noted. “The political and industrial associations of that country strike us forcibly; but the others elude our observation. . . . It must be acknowledged, however, that they are as necessary to the American people as the former, and perhaps more so. . . . Among the laws that rule human societies there is one which seems to be more precise and clear than all others. If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased.”
Again, there’s something here that seems correct—and yet, at the same time, we lack an explanation for the success of these American institutions. A careful historical survey of the actual associations that Tocqueville saw when he toured America in 1831—the gentlemen’s clubs, the volunteer fire departments, the aid societies, even the churches—would reveal, I suggest, that the most significant and influential of these communities were something like mutual burial societies. The abandonment of ancestors in the immigration to America—together with the revolutionary elements of the American Founding, which turned against the thick European past—required the establishment of replacement institutions: associations formed and maintained by a recognition of shared death.
These passages from Burke and Tocqueville are much quoted by modern communitarians in their long struggle against the decline of community. Perhaps the most widely read of these communitarians is Robert Putnam, who (as noted above) took the decline of bowling leagues as his central image for the decay of voluntary associations in America. The loss the communitarians bemoan is real, and yet, the triviality of Putnam’s example gives the reason the communitarians have not had the success they deserved.
Strongly in favor of communities, they have rarely managed to give a philosophical explanation for what it is that actually creates and maintains communities. Hungry to reestablish “the intellectual and moral associations” Tocqueville observed across America, they have not reached down to the metaphysical root of human association. In their 1980s argument with the high-liberal, anti-metaphysical followers of the political theorist John Rawls, the communitarians essentially recapitulated the quarrel of Burke and Paine, the contention of Madison and Jefferson—but with even less ground to stand on and even less feeling for what it is that the dead provide.
One thing modern literature has always understood is the person who tries to solve the problem of modern meaninglessness by steeping it in blood. Raskolnikov, for instance, the murderer whom Dostoevsky poses in Crime and Punishment as the would-be follower of Nietzsche. Or the nameless character, a hundred years later, who imagines gaining fame by “going down into the street and shooting at random into the crowd,” in Jean-Paul Sartre’s short story about a modern Herostratus (the man who in 356 B.C. burned down the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, so his name would be immortal).
These lonely figures, murderously pursuing an individual solution, probably ought to be distinguished from the likes of Sorel, Schmitt, Fanon, Honderich: the political theorists who choose violence for its power to form whole cultures. But they are all killers, in essence. And thus they stand apart from those who see the necessity, as social glue, for people who have been killed.
At the end of the eighteenth century, Gibbon approached this conclusion in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with his analysis of what early Christianity as a political force gained from the Roman martyrs—as did, for that matter, Machiavelli in the sixteenth century when he warned in The Prince against the martyr-forming effect of murdering one’s political opponents.
It is not until the nineteenth century, however, that we start to see the full political case for grief. In his 1882 lecture “What Is a Nation?”—one of the classic texts of nationalism, seeking in the modern idea of the nation a substitute for vanishing culture—Ernest Renan endorses the idea completely. Arguing that the shared memory of heroic suffering is the single most defining characteristic of a nation, he insists that in the absence of the sacrificed, there can be no nation: “Where national memories are concerned, griefs are of more value than triumphs, for they impose duties, and require a common effort.”
Still, a reading of recent jihadist praise of suicide bombers as simultaneously executioners and martyrs hints that these two lines of political thought are closely related enough that they can merge—the social benefit of killing joining the social benefit of being killed. (Indeed, as the scholar Bernard Lewis and others have noted, modern Islamic radicalism has well-documented philosophical roots in the anti-Westernism of the European thinkers who developed the Counter-Enlightenment of the left.)
And where does this deeply disturbing prospect leave the respect we want to pay the young soldiers who risk their lives in war? Where does it leave, for instance, Abraham Lincoln’s insistence that “the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated” the Gettysburg battlefield “far above our poor power to add or detract”? Lincoln is obviously right: “From these honored dead,” people really do “take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” But political theory has never quite explained how devotion to a cause is strengthened by grief at the death of those who fought for the cause.
We cannot find the answer without a much greater intuition of the relation between grief and politics than contemporary political philosophy seems to allow. Without the communion of the dead, the heroism of martial self-sacrifice is irretrievably stained with slaughter: either to be denounced for its inherent blood-letting (to the dangerous loss of any concept of just war, honor, and glory) or, even more frighteningly, to be extolled for its spilling of enemy blood.
Both the sickness and the health of the human condition are writ large in political organization, and through the need to control the social threat of grief, particularly in its aspect of revenge, something about the death of other people appears to touch society at its root, if only we could expose that root to view.
Political theorists these days shun the attempt to seek metaphysical ground. They have any number of reasons for this, beginning with the serious philosophical complexity required in order even to hint at a connection or parallel between metaphysics and politics.
The obscure relation between metaphysical freedom and political freedom—between the existence of choices for a free will and the existence of choices for a free citizen—is a good example. So distant are they that Hobbes calls their relation mostly a confusion in the words freedom and liberty. John Stuart Mill takes the next step and dismisses all relation. In his 1843 System of Logic, he argues for the truth of free will as a proposition formed in the modalities of possibility and necessity. But in the first lines of his 1859 On Liberty, he sets aside with open disdain the question of free will, to ask instead the question of “Civil, or Social Liberty.”
And to this logical complexity we must add the steadily increasing allergy to the assertion of any fundamental ground for politics in modern times. It would be an interesting exercise to take the whole set of Anglosphere political thinkers—St. Thomas More, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, the American Founders, Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill, John Dewey, John Rawls—and place them in a historical progression that shows the gradual loss of metaphysics: on one end, the philosophical moves More still supposed necessary in his 1516 Utopia; on the other end, Rawls’ 1985 insistence on a liberalism that is entirely “political, not metaphysical.”
Political theory’s growing suspicion of metaphysics would be persuasive if, for example, we take the 1648 Peace of Westphalia to be the birth of the modern state. Or, at least, if (1) we accept the claim that what Westphalia resolved were entirely wars of religion, and (2) we suppose that the Westphalian solution requires the elimination of all God-talk from public discourse—and then (3) we define all metaphysical claims as merely products or species of religious sentiment. That’s a long and unlikely chain of assumptions, but one encounters it often enough in textbooks of modern political history.
The suspicion of metaphysics would be more persuasive if, for another example, we imagine that religiously informed governments follow a pattern that invariably ends in some form of the Inquisition, granting civil police powers to religious authorities. And it would be absolutely demanded if, for a final example, we decide that somewhere at the root of Nazism there lies a hatred for what Carl Schmitt called Western civilization’s absurd search for “an absolutely and definitively neutral ground”—if we decide, in other words, that metaphysically grounded political theories all eventually produce something like Nazism.
But do we have to accept these interpretations of political history in the terms in which they are offered? Must we arrive at something anti-liberal when we build up from a metaphysical proposition? The political and religious history of the United States certainly appears to offer a modern alternative to Europe’s Westphalian dynamic. For that matter, there exist in political theory many properly liberal rivals to Rawls’ anti-metaphysical version of liberalism. But the most serious problem with the modern ban of philosophical foundations is that it leaves politics unable to account for itself: unable to admit its own attempt to address the universality of loss and the common human experience of grief.
All this might be shown by asking a simple question: Where, in any particular political theory, is there room for the dead? My father is gone from us now, and I can never consider that fact “arbitrary from a moral point of view,” as John Rawls would have it. The raw particularity of grief makes a moral claim that would have to be immorally set aside if I imagined human relations primarily as a matter of choice. My situation, good or bad, must include the tending of my particular parents’ graves. Fair or unfair, it is mine to do.
We need a way to understand what is at stake politically in such grief, for even the most private mourning has public consequences. The irrationality of grievers, their exemption from normal manners—even when they do nothing more in their grief than withdraw from the public square—is an open threat to civil society. Indeed, in Mourning and Melancholia, Sigmund Freud argues that grief is a serious insanity that we do not bother to treat seriously because we believe it will soon pass. Similarly, the Stoics’ endless writings against grief are always demands for the faster restoration of rationality: We must “anticipate by our wisdom,” Cicero insists, “what the passage of time is sure to bring us.”
This Stoic line contains some confusions. The mental condition of grief may manifest itself as a kind of insanity, but that does not necessarily make it insane to grieve. Still, the Stoics are surely right that the griever’s disconnection from public rationality is real. A culture that closes down its public forms for the expression of mourning—a society that eliminates rituals and ceremonies with at least a claimed origin in the most emotionally meaningful portions of its history—has forgotten the hazards that those rituals and ceremonies once channeled and controlled. When grief can find no public outlet, it will make its own in the infection of social hysteria and the return of the blood feud. The inexplicability of mortality can, under the pressure of grief, issue in astonishingly destructive hunts for someone to blame. Grieving people are dangerous people.
People incapable of grief are also dangerous, however. Ritual and ceremony exist in part to siphon off the dangers of grief, but they also exist to allow use of the remainder of grief for public purposes. Just as the private dead can bind us to something greater than ourselves in the family, so the public dead can bind us to something even larger: The story of their suffering becomes part of our story—with the same demands as though a brother or a sister had died.
The political use of grief is thus an expansion into the public realm of the private relation to the dead. Even here, however, culture matters: Without well-formed, solemn, and generally accepted funeral rites, a society’s sporadic attempts at unifying itself around the public display of the newly dead will appear to be what those attempts typically are—arbitrary, artificial, and ineffectual.
There is a simpler and cleaner—though far less intuitive—way to move toward this same conclusion about the dependence of political life on the death of other people. It involves modal logic’s demonstration of the relations of possibility and necessity.
Let’s go back to that moment when Mill dismisses the logical and metaphysical question of free will, a passage hardly mentioned in the voluminous commentary about On Liberty. Among the innumerable minor puzzles generated when logic muses about freedom of the will, there are a few with genuine philosophical significance. Take, for instance, the conclusion that our possession of free will requires the death of things other than ourselves.
Like most such modal arguments, the proof is more awkward to express than difficult or long. In ordinary language, it looks something like this: 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 unrealized 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 accidental, 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 actually cease to be. Perpetual perishing—to borrow a phrase from Alfred North Whitehead, which he in turn borrowed from John Locke—is the cost of human freedom.
Of course, having reached this conclusion, the question remains: What are we to do with it? John Stuart Mill seems wrong. There must exist a strong connection between metaphysical freedom and political liberty, for here is a proposition—that free will logically entails a world with death in it—which promises endless consequences in ethics and politics, to say nothing of natural theology.
The attempt to name those consequences, however, finds them curiously vague and hard to calculate. Part of the problem derives from confusion in the argument’s use of the word death. The general decay of which it speaks (phthora in Aristotle’s Greek, translated as corruptio in Latin) ought to mean, in any study of human affairs, the morally significant loss of living beings. But “a world with death in it” does not demand, by the force of the logic alone, a world in which you and I will die—or in which any substantial things expire, as far as that goes. It might be, for instance, merely qualities that are generated and corrupted, as a green color ceases to be when a chameleon turns brown. The “deaths” might even be, for all the logic demands, merely changes of location, like a perpetual game of musical chairs in which no chair is ever removed and no child is ever out.
Still, if this logic is correct—that a denial of the reality of the death of other things must issue in a denial of free will—then we should be able to find the pattern playing itself out anywhere the dead are diminished. Take Stoicism, for example: the Stoic abstraction, in both its ancient and modern forms, that seems a perpetual temptation for human thought.
The intense morbidity of grief is deeply troubling both to grieving individuals and to those around them: a threat to private sanity and public order. And so there exists a reflection, common in antiquity, which sees in grief a potentially avoidable source of human unhappiness. “Bear up, nor mourn endlessly in your heart,” Achilles tells the anguished Priam in the Iliad, “for there is nothing to be gained from grief; you will never bring back your son; sooner you must go through yet another sorrow.”
Philosophical deliberation begins in this way, when we seek in fear and wonder beyond ethical reflections for an understanding of the world—a metaphysics—that will support them. Homer’s Achilles is hardly a model of philosophical deliberation, but he reminds Priam of their shared understanding: Children do not return to life, for all their parents’ grieving.
And yet, this perfectly true thought, elevated to a paramount position and allowed to generate its philosophical consequences, grows oddly intrusive and disquieting. The refusal to mourn for dead things seems eventually to gnaw away the reality of their dying—and thus, by logical necessity, eventually to abolish the reality of our own free will. 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.
In the midst of life, we are in death—that line, from the ninth-century poet Notker Balbulus, incorporated into the Mass for the Dead, expresses a truth of human experience we should expect to resonate at every moment of public and private life: a constant touchstone for political theory, a defining circumstance for thought about the human condition. And what the dead had no speech for, when living, as T.S. Eliot saw, They can tell you, being dead: the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
The practical consequences of such claims are always difficult to predict, and I have a suspicion that something in death and politics prohibits a complete account of their relation. Still, those graveless streets in San Francisco are a problem—a ragged edge that scrapes at the bonds of the social order. If the deepest roots of a culture are in its funerals and memorials, and if political society derives from the fact that people die, then we have a badly injured culture and a severely weakened politics.
Much of this has been pushed along, I believe, by modern misunderstandings of death. Popular psychology helped spread these errors; Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ 1969 On Death and Dying, with it schematic stages of knowledge about death, is probably the best-known example. But the wrong turn was first made in high philosophy—as when, for example, Martin Heidegger in Being and Time lifts up our relation to our own death as the basic human experience.
Heidegger is surely right that death belongs at the center of philosophy, but he has always seemed to me fundamentally wrong that the death involved is the death of ourselves. We need a new phenomenological description of the human condition that asserts exactly the opposite: Anxiety about one’s own death is less fundamental than grief at the death of others—just as every parent knows that fear for our own lives can be less compelling than fear for the lives of others.
Even without this last piece of the puzzle completely in place, however, we can see the moral and public benefits of grief for a people who believe the dead still dwell among them. Remember our three propositions—the descriptions of death and politics given above:
(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.
There’s hardly a blueprint for immediate political action here, but these propositions of death’s purpose point in certain directions. They tell us why a culture’s strong sense of its own weight and temporal extension is—through death’s guarantee of free will—the answer to nihilism and fatalism. They tell us something about why biotechnology’s promises of near immortality disturbs political society so deeply, regardless of whether those promises can be fulfilled. They warn us against the paving over of cemeteries and suggest Americans’ increasing turn to cremation derives from a decay of our awareness of the livingness of the dead. In particular, they confirm and explain the general intuition that the modern predicament of the family is profoundly related to contemporary demands for euthanasia and the neoeugenic rejection of the handicapped and dying.
Mostly, these propositions about death and politics remind us of the civilization-forming work that grief does. As W.H. Auden put it in “The Shield of Achilles,”
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.
And the poem ends with the nymph Thetis crying out as she sees the shield that had been made for her son,
Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles / Who would not live long.
These are dangerous waters to stir to life, but without them we lack thickness, seriousness, and purpose in our political endeavors. We create true communities only when we have shared dead. Everything else is artificial, and adventitious, and temporary, and incomplete. This is a frightening truth, for the dead we share may be those we kill instead of those for whom we grieve. But dangerous or not, it remains the human condition.
In the midst of life, we are in death.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things. Various parts of this essay were first given, in trial versions, as lectures at Princeton University, Boston College, the University of Tulsa, and Loyola College in Maryland, to each of which thanks are due.