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Ancient manuscripts and modern politics

By Louis René Beres


Oddly, perhaps, there are striking similarities between Western Epicureanism and Eastern Buddhism. Even a cursory glance at Lucretius, On The Nature of Things, reveals a characteristically “Buddhist” position on human oneness and human transience. Greek and Roman Stoicism, too, share this animating concept, a revealing vision of both interpersonal connectedness and civilizational impermanence.

But what has this understanding to do with current world affairs, especially patterns of globalization and interdependence? Consider that in their common passage from the ethereal to the corporeal, Epicureanism, Stoicism and Buddhism all acknowledge one great and indissoluble bond of everlasting being, an essential and harmonious conflation of self and world. While each instructs that the death of self is meaningless, even a delusion, all also agree that the commonality of death can overcome corrosive divisions. This recognized commonality can provide humankind with authentically optimal sources of global cooperation. Whether or not we can ever get beyond our fear of death, it is only this commonality that can ultimately lift us above planetary fragmentation and explosive disunity.

For political scientists, economists, and other world affairs specialists, such a “molecular” view can open new opportunities for the expanding study of globalization and international relations. Rather than focus narrowly on more traditional institutions and norms, this neglected perspective can now offer scholars a chance to look more penetratingly behind the news. The outer world of politics and statecraft is often a reflection of our innermost private selves.

Virtually every species (more than ninety-nine percent, to be more exact) that once walked or crawled on this nearly-broken planet has already become extinct. Exeunt omnes? Where shall we go?

Even among the most sophisticated scholars of globalization and world politics, certain essential truths remain well hidden. As a species, whether openly or surreptitiously, we often take a more-or-less conspicuous delight in the suffering of others. Psychologists and writers call it schadenfreude.

What sort of species can tolerate or venerate such a hideous source of pleasure? To what extent, if any, is this venal quality related to our steadily-diminishing prospects for building modern civilizations upon ancient premises of human oneness?

“Our unconscious,” wrote Freud, “does not believe in its own death; it behaves as if it were immortal. “What we ordinarily describe as heroism may in some cases be no more than denial. Still, an expanded acceptance of personal mortality may represent the very last best chance we have to endure together.

Such acceptance can come from personal encounters with death. All things move in the midst of death, but what does it really feel like to almost die? What can we learn from experiencing near death (no one can “experience” death itself, an elementary insight shared famously by Lucretius, Schopenhauer, and Santayana), and then emerging, whole, to live again?

Can we learn something here that might benefit the wider human community, something that could even move us beyond schadenfreude to viable forms of cooperation and globalization?

Death happens to us all, but our awareness of this expectation is blunted by deception. To accept forthrightly that we are all flesh and blood creatures of biology is more than most humans can bear. Normally, there is even a peculiar embarrassment felt by the living in the presence of the dead and dying. It is almost as if death and dying were reserved only for others.

That we, as individuals, typically cling to sacred promises of redemption and immortality is not, by itself, a species-survival issue. It becomes an existential problem, one that we customarily call war, terrorism, or genocide, only when these assorted promises are forcibly limited to certain segments of humanity, but are then denied to other “less-worthy” segments.

In the end, we must learn to understand, all national and international politics are genuinely epiphenomenal, a symptomatic reflection of underlying and compelling private needs. The most pressing of these private needs is undoubtedly an avoidance of personal death.

It is generally not for us to choose when to die. Rather, our words, our faces, and our countenance, will sometime lie well beyond any considerations of conscious choice. But we can still choose to recognize our shared common fate, and therefore our critical interdependence. This incomparably powerful recognition could carry with it an equally significant collective promise.

Much as we might like to please ourselves with various qualitative presumptions of hierarchy and differentiation, we humans are pretty much the same. This is already abundantly clear to scientists and physicians. Whatever our divergent views on what  happens to us after death, the basic mortality that we share can represent the very last best chance we have to coexist and survive. This is the case only if we can first make the very difficult leap from a shared common fate, to more generalized feelings of empathy.

We can care for one another as humans, but only after we have first acknowledged that the judgment of a common fate will not be waived by any harms that are inflicted deliberately upon others, upon the “unworthy.” In essence, modern war, terror, and genocide are often disguised expressions of religious sacrifice. They may represent utterly desperate human hopes of overcoming private mortality through the killing of “outsiders.” Such sacrificial hopes are fundamentally and irremediably incompatible with the more cooperative forms of world politics.

A dual awareness of our common human destination and of the associated futility of sacrifice, offer medicine against endless torment in the global “state of nature.” Only such awareness can genuinely relieve an otherwise incessant war of all against all. Only a person who can feel deeply within himself or herself the unalterable fate and suffering of a broader humanity will ever be able to embrace genuine compassion, and thus to reject destructive spasms of collective violence.

There can be no private conquests of death through war, terror, or genocide. To cooperate and survive as a species, a uniquely courageous and worldwide embrace of mortality, empathy, and caring will first be needed. For students of globalization and world politics, this imperative can represent a timeless understanding of almost unimaginable potency. It’s time to think more about such primal unity, and its still-latent promise for humane globalization and interdependence.

Louis René Beres, Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue, was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971). He is currently examining previously unexplored connections between human death fears and world politics. Born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II, Professor Beres is the author of ten books, and several hundred articles, on international relations and international law. He is a regular contributor to the OUPblog.

If you’re interested in this subject, you may be interested in Globalization for Development: Meeting New Challenges by Ian Goldin and Kenneth Reinert. Globalization and its relation to poverty reduction and development are not well understood. Goldin and Reinert explore the ways in which globalization can overcome poverty or make it worse, define the big historical trends, identify the main globalization processes (trade, finance, aid, migration, and ideas), and examine how each can contribute to economic development.

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