Most of us don’t like to talk about death. But if we persist, it can help us find life.
“It is a natural instinct, Mr. Barlow, to shrink from the unknown. But if you discuss it openly and frankly you remove the morbid reflexions. That is one of the things the psycho-analysts have taught us. … Realize that death is not a private tragedy but the general lot of man.”
Evelyn Waugh, The Loved One
The all-consuming philosophical fact, for Martin Heidegger, was Being. And the difference between Being and not-Being is so great, so far beyond our ken, that it has the power to order our whole lives. Human Beings (Dasein) will one day not Be. What would that even mean? If I won’t exist later, does that completely change me now?
Heidegger’s tortuous wrestling with this question made him the most influential philosopher of the 20th century. In essence, it was nothing new. The idea that Death can give order and meaning to Life has long been one of the most profound human thoughts. Eric Voegelin believed that the central religious and philosophical insight in human history was this existential one: that Life could be Death, and Death could be Life.
Most of us don’t like to talk about this. We prefer to focus on what is going on around us to what is going on within us. But it’s there. People die. That’s why nearly all people become more mature as they grow older: people around you die, and you realize that you will, too. In the right circumstances, these facts are sobering in the best possible way; they help us to think clearly.
Christopher Hitchens died yesterday. He had fought esophageal cancer for a few years, so he knew, roughly, his time frame. Concurrently, the January 2012 issue of Vanity Fair just came out last week, and it featured an article by Hitchens (his last) regarding his final thoughts on Being-toward-death.
I would often find fatalism and resignation washing drearily over me as I failed to battle my general inanition. Only two things rescued me from betraying myself and letting go: a wife who would not hear of me talking in this boring and useless way, and various friends who also spoke freely. Oh, and the regular painkiller.
Hitchens is remembered for his vigorous pen and his sharp tongue. He is a man who enjoyed argument, whether with one interlocutor or a million readers. However, the air seems to have come out in his last article. While now carrying the form of a meditation, Hitchens still wrote adversarial prose – but his only opponent was a platitude (“What doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger”).
In 2009, a film was made about the God debates between Hitchens and Pastor Doug Wilson. Collision closes with grainy scene in the back of a car, where Hitchens gingerly drops into a reflective mode.
During an engagement with fellow atheist Richard Dawkins, Hitchens recalls, Hitchens stated that if it came down to one last Christian on earth, he wouldn’t try to persuade the believer to reason.
And Dawkins said, “What do you mean you wouldn’t do it?” I said, “I don’t quite know why I wouldn’t do it.” And it’s not just because there’d be nothing left to argue with and no one left to argue with. It’s not just that. Though there would be that. Somehow if I could drive it out of the world, I wouldn’t. And the incredulity with which he looked at me, stays with me still. I’ve got to say.
Did Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great, have a hint of Christ in his heart? Unlikely. But maybe he had a sliver of an idea, a sense of “just maybe,” that factual, biological life could contain a deeper reality. That Life could be Death and Death could be Life.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.