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The Politics of Being Mortal

The Politics of Being Mortal

Alfred G. Killilea
Copyright Date: 1988
Pages: 184
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130js58
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  • Book Info
    The Politics of Being Mortal
    Book Description:

    While much has been written in recent years on death and dying, there has been little treatment of how people cope with death in the absence of religious belief, and virtually no examination of the potential political repercussions of a wider acceptance of mortality in American society. Alfred Killilea's strikingly original book revolves around a central irony: though the subject of death has been largely shunned in American culture lest it rob life of meaning and contentment, confronting death may be crucial to enable us as individuals and as a society to affirm life, even to survive, in this nuclear age.

    Killilea argues that the denial of death has fostered a disavowal of limits in general, and that a greater awareness of our mortality would provide a much needed catalyst for change in our political response to narcissism and nuclearism. He traces how, from John Locke to the present, a politics and an economics based on growth for the sake of growth have required an avoidance of human vulnerability. Our confrontation with mortality, Killilea argues, would goad us to question our roles as mere acquirers and to take more seriously the need for equality and community in our society.

    In charting how we can come to terms with death and how profoundly our attitudes toward death affect our attitudes toward politics, Killilea vides lucid and authoritative commentaries on such provocative thinkers as Earnest Becker, Robert Jay Lifton, Michael Novak, Daniel Bell, Christopher Lasch, and Jonathan Schell. Scholars in many fields as well as interested lay readers will find the treatment of these issues and thinkers compelling. This easily accessible book is an urgent reminder that the most valuable spur to the examined life extolled by Socrates is the knowledge that we will die.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6328-4
    Subjects: Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. 1. Death as a Paradox
    (pp. 1-12)

    This book about death is more about life and how facing the fact of our mortality can allow us to live with less anxiety, more freedom. In exploring the possible rewards of a greater acceptance of death in society, I will examine implications of Paul Tillich’s question: “If we cannot accept death, can we really live?” Throughout, I will deal in various ways with one central irony: whereas the subject of death has been avoided in our culture lest it rob life of meaning and contentment, confronting death may be crucial for us, individually and as a society, to affirm...

  5. 2. Surmounting the Denial of Death
    (pp. 13-31)

    More open attitudes toward death in our society can serve as a catalyst for a wider acceptance of the social values of equality and community. This proposition is shared by several authors who have weighed the social impact of people coming to terms with their mortality. Herman Feifel has argued that an acceptance of death would lessen the need to project the fear of death outside ourselves and would mute some of the violence of our times, “perhaps even fortifying man’s gift for creative splendor against his genius for destruction.” Corliss Lamont also emphasizes the social implications of changing attitudes...

  6. 3. The Denial of Death in the Nuclear Era
    (pp. 32-44)

    The thinker who most insightfully and eloquently describes the avenues by which culture supports a person in accepting death paradoxically also describes a scenario in which all attempts to find significance in life can be undone by expanding nuclearism. Robert Jay Lifton is one of the most respected and authoritative thinkers now analyzing attitudes about death and the ways in which various cultures deal with human mortality. Lifton describes modes of symbolic immortality by which individuals find connection beyond their biological mortality. He develops in a score of books a perspective on death and life that persuasively counters the view...

  7. 4. Accepting Death: The Benefits of Human Vulnerability
    (pp. 45-66)

    Writings about “accepting death” are often religious tracts or pieces of quiet stoicism with counsels on avoiding pain and the absorption in life that sets one up for grief. This chapter purports to be neither. In exploring the ways that we can accept our mortality, I shall not rely on supernatural beliefs since they are not shared by most of humanity, nor ignore the suffering that is a frequent companion of death, a part of every life.

    We must acknowledge that it is with substantial provocation that most people flee the subject of death. A glance at any daily newspaper...

  8. 5. Death and Politics: The Clash with Capitalism
    (pp. 67-90)

    If we can now see that there is a way of regarding mortality as natural and necessary for life, we must inevitably ask what are the preconditions for, and what are the potential results of the spread of such a view in our society. We have seen that the personal rewards of this view are a beneficial stimulus to living freely and fully. A perspective that could so radically change individual lives would necessarily have the potential for a profound social and political impact.

    One cannot help but feel the tension between a view of life that recognizes and appreciates...

  9. 6. Death and Politics: The Road to Narcissism and Back
    (pp. 91-109)

    The analysis of Michael Novak’s defense of the spirit of democratic capitalism shows that the crisis of spirit and public values that bedevils contemporary culture and that provides the context for a change in attitudes toward death has no arbitrary or accidental origin. His inability to isolate the economic and cultural realms in our society or to mitigate capitalist appeals to competition and greed with images of cooperativeness only underlines the extent to which contemporary hedonism is but a full flowering of the denial of limits in capitalist thinkers from Locke on. The treatment of capitalism and contemporary values by...

  10. 7. Death and Enlivening Democracy
    (pp. 110-125)

    Greater candor about death is bound to affect citizens’ anxieties and fears, which have always been powerful engines for political change; what, then, would be the long-range political results of changing attitudes toward death? The impact of a more open treatment of death on participatory democracy is a subject that is central and vital to visions of America’s future, but one almost absent from contemporary political analysis. I will briefly portray the malaise that currently besets democratic theory, and will argue that the consciousness of mortality has its greatest political significance in bringing to life the senses of equality and...

  11. 8. Accepting Mortality and Rejecting Nuclear Peril
    (pp. 126-147)

    The coming of the nuclear age has been accompanied by a rash of paradoxes. The most prominent and devastating of these is the spectacle of human genius producing at its zenith possible extermination of all human life from this planet. Despite magnificent advances in science and knowledge, we seem piteously unsteady in trying to contain an arms race that threatens total catastrophe. Humanity has never been more learned and more powerful, and it has never been more insecure and more helpless. But the paradox of how accepting our mortality can enrich our lives may provide a basis for hope in...

  12. 9. The Limits of Self-Interest
    (pp. 148-156)

    I have argued against the idea that the denial of death is inevitable and natural. I have proposed a perspective in which death is seen as a natural and essential part of life and in which we can affirm our life despite our mortality. The key to this affirmation is the power we have to share life with other people and the fact that we all affect the ebb and tide and indeed the survival of humanity. I have also considered how this perspective clashes with basic assumptions in the ethos of the competitive market society as described by John...

  13. Afterword
    (pp. 157-158)

    On October 26,1987, seven weeks after I completed the revised manuscript for this book, our sixteen-year-old daughter, Mari, was in an accident on her way to school and was killed. Since so many of the ideas in this book were inspired by the pleasure and joy I took in Mari’s life and that of her brother Joe, I am moved to share two insights forced on me by the experience of losing Mari.

    I argue in the book that although death causes enormous grief and pain it does not extinguish the meaning and significance of any person’s life. The existence...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 159-166)
  15. Index
    (pp. 167-172)