Should We Live Forever? The Ethical Ambiguities of Aging
by gilbert meilaender
eerdmans, 135 pages, $18
An esteemed Protestant ethicist (and First Things advisor and contributor) has here an extended essay that is at turns philosophical, literary, and biblical, and is throughout humane. Drawing insights from and making arguments with diverse thinkers and cultural figures from Aristotle to Groundhog Day, Gilbert Meilaender shows why aging is good, even as it also can be right to slow it down; why humans have bodies, even as they are also burdens; and why the deep longings of faith take us outside any place we might stand on the trajectory from womb to tomb.
Meilaender would have us ponder: If we were never to die, could our lives escape boredom, repetition, and meaninglessness? But if there is eternal life after death, how does that life avoid empty, boring repetition? Or: Do not our everyday human virtues (for example, patience) depend in complicated ways on our lives having a length of a certain sort? How then can we understand that something that is good (life) requires its termination (in death)?
In these chapters, two of which began as articles in this journal, Meilaender acknowledges that we rightly welcome each finite extension of life. As the Psalmist says, it is a blessing to see one’s grandchildren. For a life to end at any given point is always a loss; there was more potential there that could have been actualized. Yet for a life to have meaning it must be a story, and a story entails a beginning, a middle, and an end. So an end is good, even if tragic.
Meilaender suggests a resolution to this dilemma. Rather than either seeking to conquer mortality or to embrace it, there is a third alternative. We may acknowledge an old human desire, the “ecstatic” restlessness of hope for God.
Victor Lee Austin is theologian-in-residence at St. Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York City.
translated by john andrew morrow
angelico, 466 pages, $21.95
The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World is a translation of, and commentary on, documents that purport to be “covenants” the Prophet Muhammad made with Christian communities, assuring them of their protection. Forged by Christians intent on proving to their Muslim overlords that the Prophet himself had guaranteed their well-being and the preservation of their property, they are all quite late.
The earliest copies of “the covenant of the Prophet with the monks of Mt. Sinai” date to the sixteenth century (over nine hundred years after the death of Muhammad). The “covenant of the Prophet with Assyrian Christians” dates to the seventeenth century (and is in an Islamic Persian script that did not exist in Muhammad’s day), and the “covenant of the Prophet with the Christians of the world,” which includes twenty-two signatures meant to be those of the Prophet’s companions, dates to the sixteenth.
The “covenants” are interesting for what they reflect of the history of Christians living under Muslim rule. Still, the translator, John Andrew Morrow (an author of theEncyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine) insists that they are all genuine and prove decisively that Islam is tolerant of Christianity. His excitement is shared by the Muslim perennialist philosopher Charles Upton, who declares in the foreword that this book will lead to “a new alliance between those of the Abrahamic faiths who are dedicated to preserving the divine revelations entrusted to them both from traitors within their midst.”
To this end, Morrow includes in his work a declaration that he names the “Covenants Initiative,” and invites his Muslim readers to add their names to this declaration online. He argues that signing on “might save a few lives.” Evidently, his interest in arguing for the authenticity of these covenants is not unlike the interest of those who forged them in the first place.
Gabriel Said Reynolds is professor of Islamic studies and theology at the University of Notre Dame.
by mary beard
liveright, 320 pages, $28.95
Mary Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge, the classics editor for the Times Literary Supplement, and a successful popularizer. Confronting the Classics, a selection of book reviews published between 1990 and 2012, has two aims: to provide an accessible and informative look at the ancient world as it has been debated in recent publications, and to show what classics is and why it matters in the contemporary world.
The essays, gathered in five sections, introduce classics as currently “done.” For example, the section on Greece takes up several contemporary concerns: the impact of the researcher on his ancient subject (Sir Arthur Evans and Knossos), the difficulty of knowing what an author meant (Thucydides’ tortuous prose), women’s history (Sappho’s subversion of Homer), the parochialism of ancient sources (Roman historians of Alexander), and the sameness and difference of ancient culture and our own (Greek gelastics).
Beard has chosen reviews that demonstrate the “energy and edginess” of contemporary classical studies and is frank about her sympathy with postmodern methods. She dismisses an older concern for historical objectivity in favor of the “linguistic turn” taken by younger historians. Donald Kagan’s recent work on Thucydides is outmoded, for example, in its concern for veracity rather than function in the speeches in the History of the Peloponnesian War.
Beard sees classics as “what happens in the gap between antiquity and ourselves.” Antiquity both attracts and repels us with its beauty and its ugliness, its freedom and its slavery, its rationality and its irrationality, its eroticism and its oppression of women, and so forth. Classics, then, studies and engages in the debate about antiquity that has continued from ancient times to the present.
Until our own time, however, classics was engaged not in a debate about différance but in the “Great Conversation,” the Western symposium about human flourishing, the liberal endeavor to make men fully human and to form virtuous subjects and citizens. Beard ignores this entire tradition.
Beard doubts that we shall “amputate Classics from the modern world,” for that would create “bleeding wounds in the body of Western culture.” Yet we have already amputated Jerusalem, even though that scission has crippled our culture sorely. Why would we not cut Athens away as well? Classics will survive not because it is edgy but because it reveals man to himself as capable of virtue. In the words of the classical humanist Petrarch: “Thou knowest, Lord . . . whenever I have made a sober use of learning . . . I have sought in it nothing more than to become good.”
Richard Upsher Smith Jr. is professor of classics at Franciscan University of Steubenville.