This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free, by Martin Hägglund

Book of the week: Joe Moran applauds a bold attempt to demonstrate why it is the finitude of our lives that gives them value

July 25, 2019
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In her 1991 book Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum wonders why the gods and goddesses of Greek myth keep falling in love with us mortals. Why is the beautiful, ageless Calypso so smitten with Odysseus, when she should by rights prefer the eternal perfection of her own kind? The immortals, Nussbaum decides, are drawn to our fragile humanness, our resilience and vivacity in the face of our certain deaths.

In Homer’s epics, each beating human heart sustains a microbead of ego, full of fear and desire, that can be snuffed out at a stroke as we “go down to death”. To the Greeks, human life was all the more precious and profound for being trapped in the materiality of our mortal bodies. That is why Odysseus chooses his earthly life with Penelope over the endless love of Calypso. To a human being, a god’s life would be not just lifeless but inconceivable. For us, only a life that contains loss and death can have meaning.

Martin Hägglund is a specialist in modernist literature and continental philosophy, and his reference points are mostly post-Enlightenment thinkers. But his bold contemporary take on existentialism, This Life, essentially makes an extended case for Odysseus’ fatal choice. Unlike the prominent figures of the new atheism, Hägglund does not attack the irrationality of religion. Instead he focuses on whether religious faith, defined as “any form of belief in an eternal being or an eternity beyond being”, is a desirable thing to possess.

The shared element of orthodox religions, for Hägglund, is “the subordination of the finite to the eternal”. This belief, he says, impoverishes our life on earth and stops us taking responsibility for its meaning. Only through a shared sense of finitude can we truly care for ourselves and the world. “Secular faith” is the name he gives to this conviction that our lives gain richness and substance from the obdurate fact that they end.

Hägglund sees all religious visions of eternity as “visions of unfreedom”. An infinite being would need nothing and would lead an empty life, because “nothing can matter in an everlasting existence”. The “horizon of death” is the tragic necessity that gives energy and direction to our lives. Without it, we would be as jaded and nihilistic as that gated community of gods on Mount Olympus.

Perhaps because it gets an easy ride from the new atheists, Hägglund takes special aim at Buddhism. He has no problem with Buddhist meditation adapted for secular, therapeutic purposes. His issue is with the core Buddhist notion of nirvana, which devalues everything impermanent – everything, in short, that makes up our lives on earth. In nirvana, there is no death, ageing or pain; but nor is there birth, growth or passion. However painful it is to contemplate our own deaths or those of our loved ones, any antidote to death would drain the meaning from life itself.

A deconstructionist by training (his early work was on Jacques Derrida), Hägglund is especially skilled at reading theologians against the grain. His book begins with a discussion of C. S. Lewis’ classic meditation, A Grief Observed (1961), inspired by the death of his wife, Joy Davidman. Lewis struggles bravely with the idea of another life with his dead wife as “two unimaginable, supercosmic, eternal somethings”. He may convince himself, but he does not quite convince his readers that grief can be so easily solved by the promise of eternal life.

Augustine is another theologian who makes the worldly love he debases – cupiditas, the desire that attaches itself to a temporal life – seem more appetising than eternal bliss. Augustine is suspicious of the “glue of care” (curae glutino) that binds us to the world. And yet this glue is what gives an intensity to our lives that the nonstick monotony of paradise cannot match. The Kierkegaard of Fear and Trembling praises Abraham for being ready to sacrifice his son Isaac on God’s orders – but only succeeds in showing what a monstrous act Abraham is willing to perform. While clinging to their own faith in eternity, these writers and thinkers reveal the beauty and depth of a finite, bodily life.

Secular faith demands acceptance of human fallibility. It requires devotion to a life that we know will falter and come to an end. To commit ourselves to any task in this life is to flirt with the possibility that we might be wasting our finite allotment of time. “Every time you care for someone who may be lost or leave you behind, every time you devote yourself to a cause whose fate is uncertain,” Hägglund writes, “you perform an act of secular faith”.

His style is earnest and precise, with slightly too much of that philosopher’s connective paste of the “this is not to say that” and “it is instructive to turn to” kind. Given the necessary abstractness of its argument and its huge intellectual range, though, his book is also beautifully clear. This Life requires no philosophical training or lexicon to follow it, only an interest in the meaning of this life.

The book is more than just a work of philosophy, it is an attempt to apply existential questions to our politics. Capitalism, Hägglund argues, compels most of us to spend our time on things that carry no real meaning for us. Only democratic socialism, he writes, can offer “the material and spiritual conditions for each one of us to lead a free life, in mutual recognition of our dependence on one another”. Rather than making its members trade their time for survival or status, a democratic socialist society would see time as the treasurable material of our humanity and our finite lifetimes as the true measure of value.

How this is supposed to happen is a question that Hägglund does not answer. He is rather dismissive of the practical recommendations of other thinkers on the left, such as Thomas Piketty, Naomi Klein and proponents of a universal basic income. Instead of tweaking capitalism, he wants to dissolve it via a deeper redefinition of the value of our time-limited lives. This Life deals in first principles, not policies, and so it concludes with the surely unnecessary: “Needless to say, there is no guarantee that we will succeed in achieving democratic socialism.”

Still, I found Hägglund’s cherishing of mortal life a cheering corrective to the sometimes joyless scientificity of the new atheism. Stephen Hawking once said, perhaps mischievously, that human beings were just “chemical scum floating on the surface of a moderate-sized planet”. This may be scientifically true, but, as Hägglund shows, it isn’t humanly true. When someone we love dies, they leave behind a human-shaped hole moulded exactly to their dimensions, which can’t be filled by anyone or anything else. Every death is a unique, irreducible loss because every life is unique and irreducible. Hägglund is surely right that it is our mortality, our miraculous existence as carbon-based matter turned all too briefly into conscious beings who can love and be loved, that makes us priceless to ourselves and to each other. We are, as John Berger once wrote, “offal with flecks in it of the divine”.

Joe Moran is professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University.

This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free
By Martin Hägglund
Profile Books
450pp, £20.00
ISBN 9781788163002
Published 1 August 2019

The author

Martin Hägglund, professor of comparative literature and humanities at Yale University, was born and raised in Sweden.

After finishing his degree, he moved to the US for a PhD at Cornell University. Although he had already written a Swedish-language book on “chronophobia” while an undergraduate, he recalls, “coming to US academia meant that I found a much wider and deeper intellectual context for my work”. 

An expert in continental philosophy, literary theory and modernist literature in French, German and English, as well as Scandinavian languages, Hägglund is the author of Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life (2008) and Dying for Time: Proust, Woolf, Nabokov (2012). Although these books analyse earlier writers and thinkers and so might sound fairly specialist, he says that they “earned an enthusiastic readership beyond my specific academic fields, which inspired me to write for an even wider audience.

“My work has always been concerned with fundamental questions of time, life and value. In This Life, I wanted to pursue my arguments concerning central existential questions with maximal ambition, while aiming for maximal clarity and accessibility.”

Asked about how philosophers can help us address the challenges of these difficult times, Hägglund states that he sees the discipline as “crucial for grasping our historical moment, in which the fundamental questions of how we should organise our society – of how we should live and work together – are felt with a new urgency. I think it is an important moment, but it calls for much deeper analyses of the relation between the existential and the economic, and it is here that philosophy has an important role to play.”

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: Death makes us divine

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