Soaring Above Politics: Death, Time and Immortality

Louis René Beres, Emeritus Professor of International Law, Purdue University

By Louis René Beres, Emeritus Professor of International Law, Purdue University

November 11, 2020

An immortal person is a contradiction in terms.”
Emmanuel Levinas, Being-Toward Death as the Origin of Time (1976)

Nowadays, at least as metaphor, it’s easy to confuse the symptoms with disease. Though we are all more-or-less prone to treat Donald J. Trump’s political derangements as true pathologies, such inclinations miss a more central kind of understanding. This is that all politics are essentially epiphenomenal. What we ordinarily take as the proper political subject is just secondary reflection.

Even after the recent election, there will be consequences of such a fundamental misunderstanding. Any continued reliance upon superficial or reflective understanding will be manifestly unhelpful to Americans. To best ensure that there can still be some useful learning from American politics, we will first have to look much more thoughtfully behind the news.

Whatever the pertinent society and structure, meaningful explanations will require capable examination of three basic concepts. Intersecting and subtle, these are the ideas of death, time and immortality. What can these core concepts teach us about both present and future? To begin, there are subtle but powerful interdependencies.

Though generally disregarded or de facto invisible, there can be no greater power in politics or in human life generally than power over death. In this connection, we may learn from the Emmanuel Levinas something of head spinning import: “It is through death,” says the philosopher, “that there is time….” It follows, among other things, that a nation that can enhance the promise of personal immortality can also heighten the promise of time.

It’s not really difficult to discern. This derivative linkage is primal, plain and indissoluble. It is a connection worth pursuing.

There is more. These are not easy ideas to unravel or interpret. Still, they are more meaningfully explanatory of any nation’s dynamic existential circumstances than are commonly ritualistic recitations of public personalities and daily news. If all chronology is ultimately contingent upon death – in essence, because human mortality necessarily puts a “stop” to individual time – an antecedent question must be posed: How does one gain power over death?” It is with precisely this extraordinary question that any genuinely promising inquiries should be launched.

What next? Before venturing a proper answer to such a bewildering question, we must first distinguish between actual or tangible power, and the merely personal feeling or subjective expectation that this power lies in certain decipherable ties to God. We humans, of course, can only acquire the latter. Any such acquisition, however, must lie outside all of the usual boundaries of authentic science.

In identifying humankind’s relevant ties to the divine – alleged ties that are indispensable to power over death – the most conspicuous and “time-tested” path is some form of religious faith. It is hardly a coincidence that every one of the world’s major religions offers adherents more-or-less comparable promises of immortality. Still, any such powerful assurances must come with assorted contingencies, some of which are far more difficult to satisfy than others.

In the main, whatever the specific nuances of differentiation, it is always a bargain being offered to humans who hope (desperately) not to die completely.

It is a seemingly gainful pact, one whereby the appropriately faithful individual (1) commits wholly to the most essential affirmation of piety, “I believe,” and (2) prioritizes this sacred affirmation above all others.

There are additional particularities to note. On occasion, the doctrinal priority “I believe” can demand a faith-confirming end to an individual person’s physical life on earth, that is, an act of martyrdom. At times, assorted high-minded doctrines of charity, caring and compassion notwithstanding, this priority can require the torture and/or killing of designated “unbelievers,” “heathen,” “apostates,” etc., in order to safeguard “the one true faith.”

Whatever special circumstances of “sacrifice” may be involved, Reason must then give way to Unreason. Such a surrender is no less likely in the Age of Science than it was in any earlier pre-scientific era, or Age of Belief.

There is more. Any concern for individual rising “above mortality” can have critical consequences for war and peace here on Planet Earth. In the nineteenth century, in his posthumously published Lecture on Politics (1896), German historian Heinrich von Treitschke observed presciently: “Individual man sees in his own country the realization of his earthly immortality.” Earlier, German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel opined, in his classic Philosophy of Right (1820), that the state represents “the march of God in the world.”

Significantly, these views tie an unquestioned loyalty to the state with the monumental promise of power over death.

It is, incontestably, an extraordinary promise, but one that is seemingly incomparable. Today, Donald J. Trump’s openly pernicious brand of belligerent nationalism, “America First,” had offered “patriotic” adherents this dangerously seductive promise. In the end, because it was founded upon stark ignorance and doctrinal anti-reason, “America First” will bring for some a Time that hastens death, rather than help to “overcome” it.

There are additional nuances to be examined. In all pertinent matters, both faith and science must intersect with various coinciding considerations of law. The “deification” of Realpolitik, a transformation from a simple principle of action to a sacred and sacrilizing end in itself, drew its germinal strength from the doctrine of sovereignty. First conceived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a principle of internal order, this core doctrine underwent a specific and far-reaching metamorphosis, whence it also became the formal or justifying legal rationale for international anarchy, also known as the global “state of nature.”

To understand these increasingly complex intersections, we must first better understand “sovereignty.” Established by Jean Bodin as a juristic concept in De Republica (1576), sovereignty quickly came to be regarded as supreme power, absolute and above all other forms of law. In the oft-recited words of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan: “Where there is no common Power, there is no law.”

As to correspondences with Time, which is how we have come to these issues in the first place, Hobbes explains why this “no law” condition is correctly called “war.” Why?

Because “war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of Time….”

There is more. Understood in terms of modern international relations, the doctrine of sovereignty encourages the refractory notion that states (a) lie above and beyond any legal regulation in their interactions with each other, and (b) act rationally whenever they seek tangible benefits at the expense of other states, or the global system as a whole. Still following a time of conspicuous Trump derangements, this doctrine once threatened a wholesale collapse of civilizational cooperation and world order, a collapse spawned by the “timeless” human wish for immortality and by misconceived human associations of “wish fulfillment” with zero-sum policies of “everyone for himself.”

Without suitable changes in the Hobbesian “tract of time,” the global State of War, nurtured by refractory ideas about absolute sovereignty, points not only to uninterrupted and perpetual human mortality, but also toward Death on literally unprecedented levels. One such stubborn notion is climate change denial, a preferred posture of anti-reason expressed by certain ongoing Trump-world derangements of science. Left unaffected by proper considerations of scientific analysis and refined intellect, climate change denial could produce another mass extinction event on Planet Earth.

At that devastating point, Time will have lost all of its residual meanings, and Death will inherit all that still is.

By itself, immortality remains an unworthy and unseemly human goal, both because it is scientific nonsense (“An immortal person is a contradiction in terms”) and because it fosters such endlessly injurious human behaviors as war, terrorism and “martyrdom.” The dignified task is not to try to remove the timeless individual hope to somehow soar above death (that is, to achieve some sort of immortality), but instead to “de-link” this futile and vainglorious search from sorely destructive human behaviors.

Now, how best to proceed with this multi-faceted task? To be sure, there are no science-based guidelines. And even if there were, this is not just another ordinary problem that can yield ipso facto to rational solutions. On the contrary, the wish to immortality is so utterly compelling and universal that it will never be dispelled by logical argument.

Already aware of this dilemma, philosopher Karl Jaspers writes in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952) : “There is something inside all of us that yearns not for reason but for mystery – not for penetrating clear thought but for the whisperings of the irrational….” Always, the most seductive of these irrational whisperings are those that offer to confer a selective power over death. It is in the express criteria of such “selection” that far-reaching evils can be born.

For science, death is always a function of biology. Moreover, because it “presents” together with decomposition and decay – and because it also calls for some human comprehension of nothingness within the flow of time – there exist no plausible ways of replacing mystery with rationality. By its very nature, which inevitably brings forth inconsolable fears and anxieties, death will never submit to even the most refined sorts of intellectual management.

It’s just not that sort of nemesis.

Nonetheless, at least in principle, some measure of existential relief can be discovered in transience, that is, in the unassailable awareness that nothing is forever and that everything is impermanent. What is required at this stage is the conceptual reciprocal of any imagined human decomposition or disintegration. This means deliberately cultivating an imagery of expanded human significance and worth that stems from life’s inherently limited duration. One might scientifically describe this quality as life’s “scarcity value.” Though seemingly paradoxical, any such gainful mental cultivation may actually represent the optimal effective human strategy of “not dying.”

How did we ever arrive at such a complex intellectual conclusion? We began with the view that daily news reports and “assessments” are just changing reflections or symptoms of some deeper human “pathology.” In order to deal more satisfactorily with incessant horrors of any national politics – e.g., the conspicuously lethal derangements of Trump-era American policies – we will first have to understand the verifiably true sources of such reflections or symptoms.

These particular underpinnings of all daily news events are rooted in certain conceptual intersections of death, time and immortality.

It is only with a more determined understanding of these many-sided intersections that humankind can ever hope “not to die.”

“Is it an end that draws near,” inquires Karl Jaspers in Man in the Modern Age (1951) “or a beginning.” The meaningful answer, which lies very far beyond the measuring hands of any clock, is by no means self evident. Determining this answer is now up to all of us.

Where this task is centered upon ridding the world of lethal Trump-era derangements, nothing could be more important.

Featured Photo: Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory (1931)


Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of twelve major books and several hundred journal articles dealing with international relations and international law. Some of his publications have appeared in The Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); The Atlantic; US News & World Report; The National Interest; e-Global (University of California, Santa Barbara); Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); The Brown Journal of World Affairs; The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; The New York Times; The Bulletin o the Atomic Scientists; The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Parameters: Journal of the U.S. Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (West Point); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); and Oxford University Press. Professor Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland at the end of World War II.