One reason we fear death is that it seems to nullify all that we have been. Why bother to brush one’s teeth or set up as a small arms manufacturer when one will end up as a handful of dust? We are natural-born teleologists, for whom whatever cannot be laid up in eternity is likely to seem unbearably flimsy. It is hard to accept that what we do and feel has whatever value it has even though it will pass into oblivion—hence the attitude of the protagonist of Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall, who as a schoolboy refused to do his homework on the grounds that the universe is expanding and will one day break up entirely. Samuel Scheffler adopts a rather less apocalyptic version of this view in Death and the Afterlife (2016), arguing that the assumption that the human race will survive our personal death, at least for a reasonable period of time, is vital to our current sense of value.
It may well be the case that the stock exchange, along with cancer research, mortgage applications, and beginners’ lessons in ancient Greek, would collapse were we to know that the world was about to end; but Scheffler pays too little heed to the positive aspects of such a catastrophe. The historical document that most famously claims that the world is fast approaching its finale is the New Testament, but in its view the ethical implications of this belief are very different from having the stuffing knocked out of one’s sense of value. On the contrary, viewing the world in the light of Judgment Day is what allows true value to become manifest. Since there is no time to engage in property deals or the marriage market, to decimate the rainforests or invade other nations’ territories, all that matters is friendship and righteousness. The vision of the end of history liberates the self from the tyranny of temporality. “Pure” value—value in itself—is what stands free of consequence and circumstance, as in the slogan “Let justice be done though the world should perish.” The moral imperative implicit in this view is not “Act always with an eye to posterity,” but “Act always as if you and history were about to be annihilated.” For the Christian Gospel as for William Blake, eternity is in some obscure sense here and now, concealed in the unfathomable depths of the present. Eternity, as we have seen, is not to be confused with perpetuity. The central Christian event is not survival but resurrection—a radical transformation at odds with the consoling continuity of “living on.”
To act in fine disregard of an aftermath is to fold the end of time back into the present, and thus to create an abbreviated image of eternity. One thinks of the cowardly Hirsch of Conrad’s Nostromo, who, to the reader’s astonishment, suddenly spits in the face of his executioner in the knowledge that for him there will be no consequences of this act beyond an instant bullet in the brain. Those who make their deaths their own have faced down the worst of horrors, and thus enjoy a rare degree of freedom. The Jew who refuses to kill a fellow Jew when commanded to do so by the Nazis, and who is therefore beaten to death himself, is no doubt aware that nothing will come of his action—that his colleague will be murdered in any case, and that the genocide will roll on unabated. This is not to say, however, that he dies in some gratuitous act of defiance. Rather, he dies to affirm the truth that love and pity have not vanished from the world, and that the true catastrophe would be when such terms were no longer even intelligible. He also dies in order to claim his death as his own, retrieving it as a free act from the forces that would enslave him. “Our death,” writes Maurice Blanchot of an end to life freely chosen, “becomes the moment when we are most ourselves.”
On this view, one that sets its face against all historicist or evolutionist thought, one should strive to treat every moment as absolute, disentangling it from the ignominy of circumstance, standing in and out of history at the same time by living from the end-times rather than simply in them. This is what Paul has in mind when he speaks of us dying every moment, and what the Gospel means when it has Jesus refer to his death as his baptism. “The only philosophy that can be responsibly practiced,” remarks Theodor Adorno, “is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.”
All human acts have an aura of deathliness about them, since for good or ill they cannot be undone. This is one of the rare ways in which the absoluteness of death finds an echo in everyday life. Otherwise, death is too drastic a deprivation for the Lebenswelt to accommodate. We are not accustomed in everyday life to such startling transfigurations as being borne shoulder-high into a chapel to the sound of an organ. Whatever magnificent achievements we are able to chalk up when alive, none can equal the sheer drama of disappearing forever and ever. Death is one of the few residues of the absolute in a secular age, and as such is at odds with its prevailing orthodoxies. Not to exist at all is far too surreal and extreme a state of affairs for the hard-nosed pragmatists who currently govern the globe, which is one reason why the prospect is so commonly disavowed. Only societies that maintain some notion of sacrifice, and thus some sense of death as the condition of life, are able to lift this repression.