The depth of death.

Author:Stoner, James R., Jr.
Position:Correspondence - Letter to the editor

Writing from New Orleans, one's perspective on graves is a little different from that with which Joseph Bottum begins his essay "Death & Politics" (June/July). They are visible all around our city as family tombs, which visitors sometimes even mistake for little stone houses. Most seem to have survived the terrible flood intact, indeed better than many of the actual homes. Our challenge is not to remember the dead but to protect the living and provide for the future.

Bottum's essay is full of gems: observing that life's significance arises from thought about the future, its richness from knowledge of the past; noticing that Immanuel Kant omits any mention of death in "What Is Enlightenment?"; finding in the quadratic equation a brilliant metaphor for the negative and positive tasks of forming culture; taking Jefferson's famous notion that "the earth belongs to the living and not to the dead" and posing against it Madison's sensible reply that "the improvements made by the dead form a debt against the living, who take the benefit of them," a debt payable only by "a proportional obedience."

Moreover, I found much in the basic argument to be altogether sound: that liberal political theory since Thomas Hobbes has sought to avoid not merely violent death but thinking about death itself; that one consequence has been a fascination with death and violence on the part of liberalism's critics, often with disastrous consequences; that true freedom requires giving thought to the metaphysical question of free will; that thinking about death is a route back to such thought; and that the failure to grieve, in stoicism as well as liberalism, leads to fatalism, as it were in spite of itself.

What I find less clear is what Bottum means by proposing "a complete revaluation of political theory: a return to an extra-political, even metaphysical, foundation for thought about politics."

Does he propose returning to premodern or classical political philosophy, as he suggests at one point ("How much of the premodern does the modern need in order to flourish?")? He will certainly find metaphysical foundations there--but not the centrality of death, tombs, or grieving. In The Republic, for example, Plato has Socrates refer his lawgiver founders to the oracle at Delphi for instructions about funerals and burial, but this seems intended rather to limit than to enhance the influence of the grieving on politics; in his explicit discussion of grief in book 10, Socrates criticizes Homer for his portrayals of grieving on the grounds that they nourish the pitying part of the soul, asserting instead that none "of the human things are worthy of great seriousness," a statement Plato repeats in the Laws.

Aristotle is no friendlier in the Politics. The priestly function is necessary in the city, he argues, but it is given to retired statesmen, as if to let the old think about the dead. Without the moderns' suppression of thought about death and dying, or in other words their substitution of avoiding death for seeking good as the aim of politics, classical political philosophy nevertheless attends principally to the living good; in the words of one modern analyst, political philosophy begins with the distinction of the good from the ancestral.

But perhaps Bottum's point is to reopen what Plato's Socrates called, in that same book 10, "the old quarrel between philosophy and poetry." The poets are expelled from the best city, not because they fail to tell the truth about human souls, but because they understand too well what it is about humanity that resists the claims of the city and its common good. Socrates admits a certain shame before Homer and promises to listen if anyone can make a case against expulsion. Aristotle tries, with his argument that poetry purges dangerous passions rather than feeds them. Does Bottum actually mean to recommend the way of poetry? Or does he simply mean to remind us that politics cannot capture the whole truth about who we are?

Finally, I wonder what Bottum would say are the implications of his argument for today's America. On the one hand, he is surely right to imply that Americans now set little store by traditions of any sort, readily abandoning ancient law and settled practice if someone accuses these of contradicting liberty or equality or of getting in the way of economic or social progress, rarely even pausing to look for the reason embedded in tradition. But this is not altogether new; the same Madison...

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