Life: Political, Endless, and Eternal | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | April 25, 2010
Life: Political, Endless, and Eternal | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | April 25, 2010
"What would it really be like if we ere to succeed, perhaps
not in excluding death totally, but in postponing it indefinitely, in reaching
an age of several hundred years? Would tat be a good thing? Humanity would
become extraordinarily old; there would be no more room for youth. Capacity for
innovation would die, and endless life would be no paradise, if anything a
-- Benedict XVI, Easter Vigil Mass, 2010 
"When the Lord rose from the dead, he put off the mortality
of the flesh; his risen body was still the same body, but it was no longer
subject to death."
-- St. Augustine, Sermon on Octave of Easter 
"For Nietzsche, nature has become a problem and yet he
cannot do without nature. Nature, we may say, has become a problem owing to the
fact that man is conquering nature and there are no assignable limits to that
conquest. As a consequence, people have come to think of abolishing suffering
and inequality. Yet suffering and inequality are the prerequisite of human
greatness. Hitherto suffering and inequality have been taken for granted, as
'given,' as imposed on man. Henceforth, they must be willed."
-- Leo Strauss, "Note on the Plan of Nietzsche's Beyond
Good and Evil." 
We distinguish life from death. The study of living things
is different from the study of dead things. Moreover, different kinds of life
can be identified. The vast majority of things have no life. Life is what moves
itself to its own end. We generally distinguish between vegetative, sensory,
and rational life. When all three of these sorts of life belong together in one
life, we call it a human life. Man is the microcosm, the being in which all
levels of being exist in an organized whole. Aristotle defined man in several
ways, most memorably as a political animal and as a rational animal.
Man is a political animal because he is a rational animal.
That is, he can move and be moved by his reason and will. He is a self-mover
because he can think, will, and rule his members. He is a political animal,
likewise, because he can speak and persuade. Force is not his only alternative.
What is not himself, he can express in words. Those words can be understood by
others. As a result, man can speak the truth. Every truth implies a relation to
something else. In knowledge, that something else becomes ours, but after the
manner of our way of being. The object we know does not change in our knowing,
but we change because we know. We become both ourselves and what is not
ourselves. Likewise, we are social beings who can laugh in all our
relationships. We find lightsomeness about our existence.
In his homily at the Mass of the Lord's Supper, Benedict
remarked: "Much to our surprise, we are told that life is knowledge. This means
first of all that life is a relationship. No one has life from himself and only
for himself. We have it from others and in a relationship with others." When I
know something, I know that what I know is related to the thing that is known.
I know what it is. And I also know that what
it is is not something that I placed in it,
but something I discovered already in it.
Much modern philosophy, doubting the connection of sense and
intellect, has striven to eradicate any hint that some "substitute
intelligence" can be found at the origin of even inert things. It denies the
connection between things and mind because this assumption of a connection
implies an intelligible cause. The origin of such a cause is neither in
ourselves nor in the thing known. Though we exist in the world as intelligent
beings, we do not give ourselves the power of intelligence. It comes with what
we already are.
This awareness that we assume some human, natural, or divine
order in things is what Nietzsche famously denied. He ultimately wanted to
replace any thought of a divine intelligence with that of his own will. This
denial implied, in fact, that no intelligence is found in things. Modern
thought had already eliminated this possibility of intelligence in nature,
including human nature, by claiming (with Hume) that the "opposite of every
matter of fact is possible." It isn't, but that was the claim. In such a view,
any thing that we encounter, as far as we know, could, at the same time, be
something else. This position leaves us with both an empty mind and an empty
Nietzsche was logical in believing that much modern thought
left the world empty and waiting for something to be imposed on it. He was not
wrong in thinking that anyone who really thought this way should conclude that
God is dead. Whether "truth" and "spirit" are merely "prejudices" of the
philosophers, as Nietzsche said, can be doubted once we have reflected on the
possibility of the "I am the truth" passage in Scripture. It is not just
another system overcoming the previous system down the ages.
In the title of these comments, I have referred to three
kinds of life—political, endless, and eternal. All three of these lives
are, in a way, related. This relationship is what I want briefly to spell out
here. These considerations initially arise from the various homilies that
Benedict gave during the recent Holy Week. I am particularly struck by the
initial passage that I cited above about endless life. Benedict had reflected
on this result in modernity before, particularly in Spe Salvi. He points out that, even if we manage to prolong
the life of an individual another two hundred or so years, such prolonged life
will be mostly, to parody Hobbes, "nasty, brutish, and exceedingly long." It
will be a life of indeterminate length beyond the four score years and ten. As
Benedict says, such life will be more of a condemnation. It will itself be
sterile and make everything sterile in the enormous effort it would take to
keep it going.
Endless life in this world with nothing further, supposing
we bring it about, has no natural purpose. It is "childless." Instead of
replacing one generation with another through begetting and natural death, we
keep everyone alive as long as possible. Since there is nothing else, death
itself becomes the only evil, to be avoided at all costs. Our whole
civilization must be retooled to keeping us alive, on and on. Yet living is not
just for staying alive, but for living well and nobly. It is also for living
the highest things, which may not be in this life.
Death ends the natural life we are given. It does not end
the transcendent life we are promised. With proper distinctions, death is both
an evil and a blessing. It comes at the end of a longer or shorter development
from conception. It is given unto every man once to die, as Scripture says.
Benedict points out that death in this sense is both a relief and a punishment.
It results from a sin in the origin of the being of our race, yet it is also a
relief. It does not interfere with the purpose for which God created us, that
is, eternal life.
What is political life? The civil society also has something immortal about it.
It is designed to last longer than the lives of its members. All individual members
of civil society are mortals. The polity, like the cosmos itself and the
species, was considered by the Greek thinkers to be immortal. The word meant
not subject to dying because none of these things were in the category of
substance. Each person will die in his due turn. But the relational order of
the polity and the species keeps going, sustained by the new beings who
continue to appear in the polity or species.
Indeed, though few do, political societies are designed to
last down the ages. Something noble is found in this awareness of an
inner-worldly immortality provided by the civil order. The laws, speech,
buildings, literature, artifacts, and thought of existing peoples are carried
beyond their actual lives. They are found in books, poems, films, statues, and
song. These are passed on so that we know from whence we came. Our monuments
defy time. They are there to announce ourselves to the future and to teach the
future what went before it.
Moreover, in the Greek sense, begetting itself was designed
to enable a species to last forever within the world. It took so many
individuals in each generation to keep the human species alive. The particular
human species to which we belong has two ideas or realities here. It must
provide for an inner-worldly immortality. This is what the polity is really
about, a place where the deeds and words of individuals can remain. The polity,
as it were, is the playground of beings destined for eternal life. It is where
they decide what they will be not in this world but in eternity.
Thus, the polity is also an arena in which immortality
applies not just to the species but to the individual of this species. Each
human being is neither body nor soul, but both combined in a whole without
which the person is not what it is intended to be. The existence of each person
is not merely in a passing inner-worldly period, though while he is in the
world he bears the substance of the human reality.
"Everyone wants to have life. We long for a life which is authentic, complete,
worthwhile, full of joy," Benedict said at the Mass of the Lord's Supper at St.
This yearning for life coexists
with a resistance to death, which nonetheless remains un-escapable. When Jesus
speaks about eternal life, he is referring to real and true life, a life worthy
of being lived. He is not simply speaking about life after death. He is talking
about authentic life, a life fully alive and thus not subject to death, yet one
which can already, and indeed must, begin in this world.
Eternal life is not political life. This fact does not imply that neither
political nor eternal life does not exist. Rather, political life is the scene
in which human persons ordered to eternal life decide whether they will live it
or reject it, whether they will be judged worthy of it or not.
At the Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum, Benedict said: "From the day on
which Christ was raised upon it, the Cross, which had seemed to be a sign of
desolation, of abandonment, and of failure, has become a new beginning from the
profundity of death is raised the promise of eternal life." Eternal life is not
political life. It is not the life of the abstract species down the ages. It is
not endless life with no death. It is the human being's ultimate gift, of living
the inner life of the Godhead, the Trinitarian life.
Paradoxically, Nietzsche argued that if we abolish suffering
and struggle, we will have to re-invent them for they are the incentives that
cause us to prosper in the world. He argues that thus suffering will now have
to be "willed" and chosen. He replaces fortune with his political will. What
the Cross is, however, is precisely the same thing in a different mode. Why it
is different, however, is that Nietzsche can promise us no escape from suffering,
even if it has its uses. We can only understand and reenact its necessity.
Death was not God's will in the beginning. If we recall the story of our first
parents, it was their and our will. But the kind of heroic life that Nietzsche
envisions in this world is really not the life for which we exist. We do not
exist for the "eternal return." We exist for everlasting life.
In his Urbi et Orbi Message on Easter Sunday, the Pope said:
"Easter is the true salvation of humanity ... Easter has reversed that trend.
Christ's resurrection is a new creation. ... It is an event that has profoundly
changed the course of history." Christ's risen body, Augustine said, is no
longer "subject to death." But it once was so subject because Christ was true
God and true man. The resurrection is not an idea. It is not a theory. It is
an "event." That is, it is something that happened in history. We have
witnesses for it. These witnesses tell us what they saw. This event changed the
"course" of history. How so? It has allowed us to escape endless death as an
ideal and object of science. It has allowed us to accept political life but not
confuse it with the kind of life that is ultimately promised.
Almost all modern thought is a search for a substitute to
the resurrection of the body that is promised even to each of us. The "true
salvation of humanity" has already arrived. It has already changed the "course
of history." What it has not done, however, and cannot do, is to prevent those
who reject it as the essential meaning of their very personal being from
seeking for a this worldly alternative to the resurrection of Christ and the
resurrection of the body.
There are only two ways to go: to an unending political
future in this world that deifies the state or to a scientifically engineered
endless life in this world for each human being afraid to die. Neither of these
alternatives are worthy of us. This too is what Easter is about in the light of
the alternatives that man in his thought proposes to us.
Benedict XVI, Easter Vigil Mass Homily, St. Peter's, April 3, L'Osservatore
Romano, English April 7,
Breviary, Second Reading, Sunday within Octave of Easter.
 Leo Strauss, "Note on the Plan of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil," Studies in Platonic Political
Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 190.
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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and
Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!