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Life: Political, Endless, and Eternal | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | April 25, 2010

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"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 condemnation."
-- Benedict XVI, Easter Vigil Mass, 2010 [1]
 
"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 [2]
 
"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." [3]
 
I.
 
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 nature.

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.







II.

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.

III.

"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. John Lateran.
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.
 
ENDNOTES:
 
[1] Benedict XVI, Easter Vigil Mass Homily, St. Peter's, April 3, L'Osservatore Romano, English April 7, 2010.
 
[2] Breviary, Second Reading, Sunday within Octave of Easter.
 
[3] 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.



Related Ignatius Insight Articles, Essays, and Excerpts:

• The Resurrection Puts Everything Together Again | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Truth of the Resurrection | Excerpts from Introduction to Christianity | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Balthasar, his Christology, and the Mystery of Easter | Introduction to Hans Urs von Balthasar's Mysterium Paschale | Aidan Nichols O.P.
The Cross — For Us | Hans Urs von Balthasar
The Question of Suffering, The Response of the Cross | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
• Christ, the Priest, and Death to Sin | Blessed Columba Marmion
• The Church Tells Us the Story of God | Fr. Richard Janowicz
Immortality, Resurrection of the Body, Memory | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Easter 2009
Resurrection and Real Justice | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Easter 2008
Easter: The Defiant Feast | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Easter 2006
Easter Delivers Us From Evil | Carl E. Olson



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 website.



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