Is the "culture of death" a characteristic of our century?

a) During the twentieth century ideologies have spread which see reason incarnate in the State, in the "super-race," in the Party. The State, for example, "had reason" to demand total submission of individuals, and it was "reasonable" for the individuals to submit totally to the State, which transcended them. Regarding themselves as incarnating reason, the State, the Race or the Party was founded to say who would live or must die. The State, the Race or the Party was master of life and death. The henchmen of the Nazi regime, for example, displayed a death's head on their uniform, as it was a summary of their program. The regime, of which they were both the instrument and the expression, expected them to disregard their own lives by putting themselves unconditionally at the disposal of the State, and scorn the lives of others as well.

The totalitarian ideologies regarding the State, the Race and the Party as sacred had the common point that they taught individuals to liberate themselves from all material and intellectual attachments, and from all moral reference. They were beyond good and evil, and the service of the State, the Race and the Party required that the individual be disposed to empty himself unto death. To expose my life to death and to inflict death on others was thus the climactic expression of sovereign liberty at the service of the Cause: that is the State, the Race or the Party.

It is important in this regard to discuss Hegel, who was both the source and the interpretative key of these ideologies and of the neo-liberal ideology.1

b) In the present paroxysms of expression, the neo-liberal current cannot be understood unless it is situated in the funeral cortege of totalitarian ideologies that the twentieth century wanted to deify. For this new ideological current, in effect, the affirmation par excellence of the sovereign liberty of the individual is found in unrestrained consumerism, that is, in the possibility of wasting, which means to destroy without having to render an account to anybody. To consume, to waste, is also a way of freeing oneself from all material attachment, from all moral or juridical reference. It is a way of affirming the sovereignty of the Ego.

As we have seen, this affirmation of the sovereignty of the Ego leads the individual to want to dispose of the life of others: I dispose of the life of the infant or of the handicapped, or of the bedridden old person, or of the poor, if they are of no use to me. On the other hand, I will produce a child if the social security reserves are gone when I come to the age of retiring. I will admit the poor to existence, if by means of their low salaries they permit me to consume and waste, that is, to affirm me as master.

c) We are approaching bit by bit the possible limit of this evolution. It is attested to by the slide of the aggressive trend, described above, to the suicidal drift observed in wealthy Western society. The latter wished to affirm its sovereign liberty in two complementary fashions. It burns its past by making it impossible for lack of men to inherit it, and thus ends the transmission of its patrimony. It burns its future by refusing to people it and by sacrificing it totally to the present.

The individuals characteristic of this society break the natural solidarity, synchronic (between individuals and contemporary societies) and diachronic (between individuals or societies linked by generations), by reason of the fact that they don't have to answer to anyone but themselves for their own life and death. They, therefore, provide themselves with institutions and "rights" in accordance with the affirmation of what they regard as the sovereign expression of their liberty: to give death and even to give themselves to death.

Georges Bataille, who surpasses Sade on this point, perfectly sums up this nihilism: "Life was the search for pleasure, and pleasure was proportional to the destruction of life. Said in another way, life attained its highest degree of intensity in a negation of its principle."2

d) It is, then, by the same "culture of death" that we explain, not only the dismal regimes our century has known, but also the obstinate insistence on legalizing abortion and euthanasia as well as making mass sterilization commonplace. The spread of AIDs finds therein one of its most evident explanations. The common root of all these manifestations of the "culture of death" is nihilism, itself based on the revolt against finitude. Men cause death and give themselves over to death because they believe it impossible for the desire for the beyond to be fulfilled, a desire nonetheless finely engraved on their souls. And so they believe themselves freed from this desire by the sovereign enjoyment they seek in death. Now, death thus conceived is in reality the supreme expression of despair. According to the new liberal ideology, it is, in the final analysis, this despair that must be shared by the poor if they are to be subdued.

Is there a task more exalting and joyous, especially for Christians, than to show why we must prefer the choice of life?3

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  1. To understand the influence of Hegel on these ideologies, one can consult Alexandre Kojève, Introduction à la lecture de Hegel (Paris: Gallimard, 1968), esp. 529-575 devoted to "L'idée de la mort dans la philosophie de Hegel." There we read: "Acceptance of death without reserve, or of human finiteness aware of itself, is the ultimate source of Hegelian thought…. According to this thought, it is by voluntarily accepting the danger of death in a fight for prestige that man appears in the natural world for the first time; and it is by resigning himself to death and revealing it in his discourse that man finally arrives at the absolute Savior or Wisdom and thus achieves History. For it is in taking the idea of death at his point of departure that Hegel elaborates his "absolute" science or philosophy, which is alone capable of taking philosophical account of the fact of existence in the world of a finite being conscious of its finiteness and sometimes disposing of it as he pleases" (cf. p. 540).
  2. Georges Bataille, L'érotisme (Paris: Ed. de Minuit, 1957), Pt, II and III. Cited in Jeanne Parain-Vial, Tendances nouvelles de la philosophie (Paris: Ed. du Centurion, 1978) 128.
  3. Cf. Deuteronomy 30: 15-20.

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