Cultural Discourse looks at a broad range of cultural issues.
23rd November 2010

On Death & Civilization

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Death and the Generation of Human Culture

An Essay by Franz Borkenau


Odd Nerdrum, Self-Portrait in a Tree Trunk

"Self-Portrait in a Tree Trunk" by Odd Nerdrum

 

Franz Borkenau is a little known Austrian philosopher who died in 1957 at the age of 56. His magnum opus, End and Beginning, from which I have excerpted the following essay, was published posthumously in 1981. It is an extensive meditation on the relation of death to civilization and it is a masterpiece. Because it is so little known, and because I believe Borkenau to be a philosopher of culture fit to rank alongside Oswald Spengler, Jean Gebser or William Irwin Thompson, I have decided to post this piece so that his work might reach a larger audience.

The painting I have chosen as an illustration, Odd Nerdrum’s “Self-Portrait in a Tree Trunk,” is evocative of the myth of Osiris, who at one point is encased inside a sarcophagus that is sent floating down the Nile, where it eventually comes to rest on a bank where a tree grows up around it and encloses it, symbolizing the fall, sinking and capture of the soul into the ever-densifying sheaths of etheric and physical matter inside of which it is contained and from which it is the goal of all the great higher religions to redeem. The upright posture of the figure in the painting is ambiguous, for it could suggest either the rising and resurrection of the soul from the death of the body, or else the fall of the soul as it is captured by matter on its way to incarnation on the physical plane down below. Either way, it seems an appropriate and evocative image with which to illustrate Borkenau’s essay, which begins below.  

Here is a schematic of Borkenau’s model that is worth keeping in mind for purposes of clarifying his theory as he elaborates it in the course of the essay:

Antinomy of Death: Existence vs. Being (in the Platonic sense)

Primitive Societies: “Death Denial” (paranoid)

1. Egypt & Mesopotamia: “Death Transcendance” (immortality affirmed; world denied)

Intermezzo: Dark Age c. 1200 BC (Sea Peoples)

2. Judaic & Greek Societies: “Death Acceptance” (immortality deemphasized, world affirmed)

Intermezzo: Dark Age c. 400 AD (Germanic Barbarians)

3. Christianity: “Death Transcendance” (immortality affirmed; world affirmed)

4. Post-Renaissance: “Death Acceptance” or “Death Embracing” (immortality denied, completely; world affirmed; soul abolished)

Thus, cultures of the first generation are in resonance with cultures of the third; while cultures of the second generation are in resonance with those of the fourth. Borkenau is careful to stress, though, that this resonance is not a mere repetition, but rather a higher development on the turn of the spiral. Christianity is no mere regression to the Egyptian emphasis on immortality, for it adds a complex dimension of ethics due to its inheritance and synthesis of the Judaic and Hellenic worldviews. The Renaissance, likewise, does not just retrieve Hellenism, but rather picks it up and develops it into a civilization of the machine that takes the annihilation of the Afterlife and the disintegration of the personality to a new level of complexity. 

But here, then, is Borkenau himself:


Five Theses on the Sequence of High Cultures

1. Each high culture starts with a myth stressing one side of the antinomy of death, and ends with a rationalization seeking to assert the opposite side. (Ancient Egypt began with the most magnificent unfolding of the belief in immortality–Akhenaton ended with its total denial).

2. All high cultures of one “culture generation” are passing through the same cycle (Mesopotamia, Crete, and the Indus Culture show the same cycle as Egypt, though in a much weakened form). The phases of the unfolding of the antinomy are thus tied not to individual cultures but precisely to those bundles of cultures, the culture generations.

3. Each successor culture (“affiliated civilization”) begins with a primal myth corresponding in content to the rationalizations of the late phase of the preceding culture generation, and logically ends with a rationalization corresponding in content to the primal myth of the preceding culture. 

4. Between successive cultures or culture generations, there frequently lie barbaric phases, characterized by a partial relapse into the death paranoia of the late stone age. But the inversion between the preceding and succeeding cultures described in thesis 3 with regard to the content of the antinomy of death takes place as if no such barbaric interlude had intervened.

5. Within the history of high cultures, the death antinomy runs through a cycle comprising two culture generations, starting from “death transcendence” and passing through “death acceptance” back to death transcendence.

The Rise of Death Transcendence in the Great River Civilizations

On the threshold of the high cultures, the analogy with primitive tribes surviving in the present can no longer help us: there is no present culture that would correspond to the state of primitive cultures at the moment of their transition into the first high Cultures, the great river civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley. We have to rely on historical sources–but those are still quite inadequate for the critical transitional stage, the “predynastic” and early dynastic phase of those river cultures. Only the Pyramid Texts and analogous Sumerian sources yield information of the kind needed in our context–but in them, we encounter no longer the beginnings of the high culture but its first climax.

We thus know next to nothing about the end of the persecutory paranoia of the last primitive stage. We merely know that in the course of the decisive millenium of transition, the fourth before Christ, paranoia radically lost its central role in the spiritual life, even though it did not disappear completely. The emergent first type of higher civilizations does not mark the end of death denial, but it corresponds to significant changes in the underlying assumptions. The burial rites disclosed in the Pyramid Texts still imply Pharaoh’s direct ascent to heaven without passage through death; but Pharaoh, although human, is also a god, and genuine immortality is now vouchsafed only to demigods, such as rulers and heroes. The paranoiac witch-hunt of the death-denying tribe has thus become superfluous, for Pharaoh is certain of direct immortality (and so are, though somewhat less explicitly, his Sumerian royal opposites) while all his subjects are equally certain of extinction. Mortality is socially stratified–perhaps the only point where religion and society are wholly merged. In part this stratification relates to the more powerful “mana” of the ruler, in part to his greater material means for obtaining adequate burial. The aristocracy, too, although excluded from direct immortality, can through mummification achieve a species of immortality after death. Only the fellah, unable to arrange for adequate burial and unknown to the gods, is denied all hope in the afterlife.

On this basis, we see a new, no longer paranoiac culture, comprising in urban agglomerations and a centralized bureaucratic state incomparably larger communities than ever before and spurring them to achievements never before envisaged. We understand that this comparatively sudden jump from small tribe to great state, from agriculture and live-stock raising to the planning of magnificent projects would not have been possible unless the universal, self-destructive persecutory mania separating man from man had been overcome. We also understand, despite the absence of historical documents, the main factor in the process of the overcoming of that mania. The young high cultures are distinguished from even the highest primitive cultures by the fact that they accept the certainty of death, thus uprooting the delusion that every death was due to black magic and at the same time liberating an incalculable amount of psychic energy that had hitherto been used up by the struggle against the realization of the certainty of death. That energy is now flooding into the great effort of building the high culture: a great sacrifice, probably the greatest ever made by man in his history, was not made in vain. Recognition of the necessity of dying shows to man, in a degree not hitherto imaginable, the way to an improvement of this world, and within this effort specifically to the perfection of substitute satisfactions for the finally abandoned belief in an eternity down here. It is no accident that the rise of great art dates from that decision, and that art is linked so closely with the hitherto unknown striving for posthumous fame. In turn, provision for material existence becomes the basic principle of the newly created hydraulic bureaucracies and attains a scale never before imagined.

The revolution in the conditions of existence linked to the acceptance of the certainty of death affects ideas about life after death rather less than most other realms. The basic principle of preserving the dead body in the grave as if he were alive is taken over from the late primitive stages and merely perfected, like other fields of activity, by the rapid increase in technical competence: absurd procedures like ochre-painting are replaced by scientific methods of preservation culminating in mummification. A share of total social labor that is still incredibly large by modern standards is devoted to tomb building and tomb cults–a symptom of the still felt pain of the only recent renunciation of the faith in immediate, this-worldly immortality.

Yet, the consequences of that effort are quite unexpected. The preservative effect of primitive burial rites might have been credible up to a point, as long as nothing else was known or feasible. But the early stage of the high cultures invents deliberately organized material progress, striving from summit to summit of technical perfection. As it devalues the primitive in general, it also devalues the ancient methods for keeping the dead body alive; how could an expert on mummification feel anything but contempt for a practitioner of ochre-painting? But the very devaluation of the primitive substitutes would really be sufficient: is the mummy really more alive than decayed bones? The tremendous breakthrough of the reality principle, expressed in the new control over nature and society, cannot arbitrarily be stopped at any point–not even at the edge of the grave.

The problem is immensely sharpened by the new structture of society. Primitive societies know only rudimentary class differences (apart from a mild form of slavery). The early river civilizations are based on the extreme exacerbation of those differences. Mummification is a privilege of a thin upper stratum, big tomb buildings that of a tiny group of kings and territorial lords. But if doubt begins to arise even with regard to those highest techniques of preservation, it is completely obvious that all those who cannot affford those techniques are damned to eternal death. Ever since mankind began to make this-worldly and other-worldly provisions against death, absolute death was never accepted (except for the enemies devoured by cannibals). Now immortality becomes a class privilege, and the struggle for the right to a life after death the first demand of the lower strata.

In fact, as Breasted has shown, democratic insurgence against the class privileges of immortality occurs a good deal earlier than any corresponding movement for social levelling in the material sphere; the class struggle manifests itself first on the plane of religion. The popular deities who gradually encroach upon the royal house gods derive their credit from their power to provide immortality for all. In the course of a gradual transition the belief in direct immortality dies out–and with it the solar tombs of the Pyramid type. In its place arises a more and more elaborate image of a better world beyond the grave. Ritual remains the precondition of survival in the beyond–man can still die an absolute death where due ritual has been neglected. But with the growing democratization of belief, insistence of right moral conduct in this world becomes a requirement for “positive” immortality, while the concept of a “negative” immortality–hell-appears for the first time.

By the time that stage was reached, the belief in immortality could maintain itself only if separated from the material preservation of the corpse. That separation is, again according to Breasted, the core of the spiritually and socially revolutionary cult of Osiris which is victoriously advancing in the declining phase of the Egyptian “Old Empire.” It teaches that not mummification, but just conduct during life assures a blessed immortality; and from the introduction of the moral point of view, it follows inescapably that the main contrast to this blessed immortality is no longer, as in the faith of the Pyramid builders, absolute death as punishment for nonritual burial, but hell, the immortality of the damned. The belief in immortality is thus freed from its class character; it relies directly on the soul’s inner certainty of its immortality and expresses it consciously in a completely new way while devaluing the continued physical existence of the corpse. In its most developed form, the Osiris religion gets very close to the idea of a purely spiritual soul whose fate in the beyond depends on its conduct in this world.

The new prayers for the dead in the Osiris religion are based on the solemn assertion of immortality like the old Pharaohnic rituals of the Pyramid Texts, but now take account of the fact of death. Side by side with a qualified death denial there arises a qualified acceptance of physical death–anterior to the choice between heaven and hell. Those later Egyptian rituals thus represent the first pronounced attempt at a synthesis between the two basic contradictory attitudes towards mortality: out of the mutual limitation and qualification of death denial and death acceptance, there arises a new concept which accepts death but also aims at transcending it.

Yet this synthesis proves unstable. The moral requirements treated as prerequisites of “positive” immortality are really quite extraneous to the basic idea. The myths concerning the afterlife and the rituals attached to them consequently degenerate into scurrilous attempts to deceive the gods as to the deceased’s moral conduct on this earth. The burial cult does not vanish either–only its heroic forms embodied in Pyramid-building disappear and are replaced by more modest, generally accessible forms: it is thus illogically preserved side by side with the belief in a judgment of the dead. The ritual itself loses prestige with the growth of rationalism; the religion and the arts bound with it grow shallow.

Those contradictions seem to reflect two factors: the gradual weakening of the mythopoeic, creative force (which takes place in every culture cycle) on one side, and the effect of the social descent of certain religious ideas on the other. The first of those two factors refers to the insight, first formulated by Schelling, later reformulated by Spengler on the basis of a more comprehensive knowledge of the variety of cultures, that the beginning of each culture cycle consists in the formation of some basic communities–peoples, states, churches, the culture as as a whole–whose emergence rests on the simultaneous rise of certain myths indissolubly linked to them. Conversely, it follows that the basic myth of a culture can only arise at its beginning and gets weaker in the course of its development, until finally a “phase of enlightenment” almost completely suffocates it. (The term “myth” is, of course, not intended here to deny the objective truth content of the ideas concerned, which may vary from one case to the other).

In the case of Egypt, the cult of the sun and the belief in the God-Pharaoh’s rise to it, objectified in the building of the Pyramids, were such archetypes dominating the Egyptian culture cycle from its mythopoeic beginnings to its “enlightened” end in the sun cult of Akhenaton. The Osiris cult represents a middle phase of that course that follows the first profound shock to the basic myth. In such a phase, the new myth (the judgment in the nether world) no longer has the strength to replace the old one (cult of tombs and rise to the sun)–rather the old continues to exist side by side with the new and their contamination leads to progressive devaluation of both. The void thus opened must then be filled by pragmatic and rationalist ideas. For the myths which constituted the original social hierarchies lose their power to convince, with the double consequence that on one side the social hierarchies themselves are shaken (as happened drastically at the end of the Old Empire), and on the other the arising new social orders are no longer legitimated mythically, but practically and morally. The resulting merger between a weakened myth and a morality which is sanctioned by it but is practical and egalitarian can be found in some form in the middle stage of every culture–on this point, the Western Reformation may be said to correspond to the Osiris cult.

As disbelief in the effectiveness of the burial cults deepens, the moment comes for an at once spiritual and social revolution that is lacking in the new culture: the short-lived but portentous attempt by Pharaoh Akhenaton to abolish all the death cults and destroy their priesthood, and to replace them by the worship of the sun–not the actual sun which rises and sets, but a fantastic, ever-shining sun which destroys all chthonic gods of the dead. Its exclusive worship would have meant nothing less than the radical denial of life after death. The revolution failed, like all such revolutions, due to its incapacity to overcome the mythological legacy, half-dead as it already was, and the hierarchies linked to it through their vested interests. The end was a mechanical return to the old myths and cults, and ossification.

This cycle is not by any means limited to Egypt, or even to Egypt and Mesopotamia. It appears to be generally true of civilizations that they terminate with a concept of death opposite to that with which they started. This is hardly surprising. Every culture attempts some synthesis between the two extremes sketched earlier, but no synthesis lasts forever, because no solution can do away with the simultaneous presence of two incompatible inner experiences. But when a particular synthesis breaks down, the pendulum, having in the meantime swung from one extreme (e.g., death denial) to a compromise with the other (death acceptance), does not return to its starting point: in our above example such a return would have involved a revival of the old Pharaohnic death cults which had in the meantime become wholly incompatible with the new forms of social life. The tendency is rather for the pendulum to swing wholly to the opposite extreme–in this case to the abortive experiment of founding a new religion exclusively upon acceptance of death as final.

The Partial Regression of Barbaric “Dark Ages”

There seem to be two different types of end phases of a high culture, characterized by a choice between ossification and disruption. The first need not further concern us here, since it involves merely the “ghost,” as it were, of an archaic religion which has lost its original meaning. Disruption, i.e. the advent of a “dark age,” is more relevant. Egyptian civilization may be said to have ossified–its “archaistic” period brought back the gods and the rituals of the Pyramid age, now both emptied of content and misunderstood into the bargain. By contrast, the civilizations of Mesopotamia and the string of smaller cultures forming a hemicycle from Crete to the Persian gulf were disrupted, and a “dark age” ensued over that wide area. In this latter process, there decayed (along with other higher cultural elements built on writing, systematic thought, and state organization) the high cultural systems of dealing with the antinomy of death. Though such decay does not proceed down to zero level–as little as with any other elements of culture–it proceeds deeply enough to bring, in any barbaric interval, the death denial–which the high culture had rejected and repressed into the unconscious–back to the surface.

It may be remarked that, in contrast to higher civilizations which offer a wide variety of responses to the problem of mortality, the various dark ages resemble one another in the prevalent attitude to death. This need not surprise us. When the higher forms disintegrate, the archetypes reemerge and rise to the surface. But not unchanged! The basic tendency of barbaric ages consists in a regression to the primitive, but that tendency finds a limit in the insight into reality that has been acquired in the preceding high culture and never completely lost again. A “relapse into barbarism” is something different from a reversion to the primitive level. The first is a regular occurrence in the story of mankind, the second an idle hope or an idle fear. But though the basic conflict of barbaric ages is not identical with that of late primitive ages–the conflict between death denial and the dawning knowledge of the necessity of death–it is closely related to it: it is the conflict between the already acquired knowledge of the necessity of death and the death denial welling up anew from the unconscious.

The situation created by that conflict offers both close analogies with the late primitive period and limited differences from it. The barbaric interludes show no explicit, conscious denial of the necessity of dying, hence no quasi-official death paranoia, no “theory” that each death must be due to black magic. But in fact, the death denial has broken through far enough to create a practically analogous state of affairs. In fact, black magic and the defense against it take the place of any developed belief in deities. In fact, any death is viewed as caused by a physical or magical murder, and this leads to the conviction that everybody is a murderer. As a result of that conviction, everybody does become a murderer, and the paranoiac idea of homo homini lupus becomes a horrible reality. Fear and fear-born hatred displace all love. Hence the primal crimes (the murder of siblings, of the father, son, or husband), which in high cultures are held down not just by coercion but by manifold ties of love, are breaking through any inhibitions, become everyday occurrences (particularly the murder of siblings) and main subjects of the saga. That is an untenable state of affairs which, just like the late primitive death paranoia, by itself forces man back on the road to a greater recognition of reality, hence of a higher culture.

But rational insight into the necessity of such a turning back to high culture as a condition for avoiding the ruin of all could never by itself achieve a collective cure from the collective madness that has broken through again. That requires the establishment of firm new hierarchies and religious rules, which only the myth-creating power can bring about. But the essence of barbaric ages (which excludes a purely negative judgment about them) is precisely that regression to deep strata of the unconscious, which manifests itself simultaneously in the recurrence of primal delusions and in the revival of the myth-creating force. The dismantling of the barriers which in a high culture separate the rational from the unconscious sets free both the germs of the disease and the remedy. And if at the early stage of barbarization the madness manifests itself more strikingly than the curative myth, the reverse is the case in the late phase of barbaric ages: then, the new myth helps, as throughout history, to promote the rational needs of social reconstruction.

But the “new” myth is not new in its core content: there, it coincides with the rationalist formulations of the end phase of the preceding culture generations. Moses and Homer will continue Akhenaton’s struggle against the cult of the dead, and early Christianity will link up with the spiritual insights of Plato and the Stoa. What is new is in each case not the thought, but its form of insertion in the psychic structure of the collective and the individual: the replacement of rationalism by a myth which couples the originally rational through to the archetypes of the unconscious. The potential for this kind of coupling can never be absent, since those archetypes–including above all the two sides of the antinomy of death–are incessantly active as psychic representatives of transcendent realities. The world of the archetypes is that Mother Earth of Antaeus the contact with which renews the creative force of the giant Humanity. In that renewal, the rationalist opposition of the late Egyptian revolution against the cults and gods of the dead turns into the pure, this-worldly beauty of the Olympians; the platonic idea transforms itself into the incarnated Logos. Such a transformation, to be worked only in the depth of the unconscious, constitutes the greatness of the barbaric interludes–regardless of all the atavistic horrors that dominate their surface. 

“Death Acceptance” in the Hellenic and Hebraic Cultures

At the moment when–to return to recorded history–the Hellenic civilization emerges from the dark age following the collapse of the great river civilizations, its culture is primarily distinguished by a revolutionary change in the ritual of burial: the physical preservation of the body (by mummification) is replaced by its destruction through fire. Concurrently, the elaborate imagery of survival characteristic of the old river valley religions is superseded by the concept of Hades: the shadowy notion of a realm of shadows, symbolizing not a fuller but an infinitely less complete existence than the life of the living. Here, we have no more than a grudging concession to the inner certitude of immortality. Again, the gods, which in the river civilizations were of inhuman shape and led a transtellurian existence, are now closely identified with human life on the planet, their immortality as questionable as that of the shadows in Hades. It is not without significance that the other seminal culture to emerge from the preceding dark age–that of Israel–though in other respects sharply distinguished from the Hellenic, shares those essential attitudes. There is no substantial difference between Hades and Sheol, unless it be the attribution of markedly negative magical properties to the latter, which have no counterpart in Greek religion. Immortality is in both cases reserved for a few heroes (the concept of death opposed to the official one is never completely absent), although the Jews did not adopt cremation.

In contrast to the death transcendence of the first culture generation, we call this attitude “death acceptance.” If Hellas is more closely associated in our minds with the acceptance of death as final, the reason is that classical antiquity has vanished, while Jewry has survived into an entirely different epoch, and, though hesitantly, adopted its basic beliefs, including that in immortality. The real creed of ancient, and to a large extent of medieval Jewry, of course, was not immortality but the future glory and worldly dominance of Israel: the particular Jewish solution of the problem, that is to say, was the transference of immortality from the individual to the community. The parallel Hellenic solution was the extolling of the individual’s undying glory, the hero surviving death through his own fame. The underlying attitude is basically identical, as the contrasting one was basically common to Egypt and Mesopotamia. The deep-rooted “generational” unity of the apparently so different Hellenic and Hebraic cultures, the natural and necessary character of their fusion at the end of their course is shown in the near-identity of their ideas of death.

The increasingly hectic effort in both cultures to give a quality of eternity to life in this world–in the Hellenic in the form of posthumous glory and “eternal” beauty, in the Hebraic in the form of eschatological prophesies–is, of course, also the chief symptom of the silent continued effectiveness of the belief in immortality in both cultures and its rebellion against their death-accepting solution. The conflict between those semirationialist attempts at a solution and the basic myths, and their mutual undermining and enfeeblement, end in the fusion of the two cultural currents in a new faith in immortality that marks the decisive line of separation of Christianity not only from the Hellenic world but also from ancient Judaism.

It thus appears to be confirmed that a particular attitude towards the problem of mortality is not peculiar to individual civilizations, but rather to a group of them. Civilizations forming a group of this kind may be regarded as being, in a very rough sense, contemporaneous, but what really matters is the identity of their respective positions in the sequence of cultural epochs. (The terms “culture” and “civilization” are here, as throughout, used interchangeably.)

Thus the death-transcending group of river valley civilizations and their minor kindred represents the first layer of “higher” cultures emerging directly from the neolithic. The subsequent Judaeo-Hellenic group is characterized by its position as heir to the death-transcending civilizations. The cycle of cultural units definable in terms of their attitude to death is thus wider than the culture cycle of individual civilizations identified by Spengler and Toynbee.

Secondly, the swing of the pendulum from one attitude towards death to the other, which takes place between the rise and fall of one and the same civilization, also applies to the relation between one group and the next. The river-valley cultures were “death transcending,” while the Judaeo-Hellenic group was characterized by “death acceptance,” just like the Akhenaton religion, as though no dark age (more pronounced in the case of the Hellenes than that of the Hebrews) had intervened. The second group starts where the earlier one left off, and thus begins its march with a set of beliefs the exact opposite of those of its predecessor in the corresponding early period. In consequence, its own life-cycle proceeds, so to speak, in the reverse direction.

Thus Greek and, albeit in a different manner, Hebrew society tried to encompass all the glory and fullness of life within the limits of an existence confined to what is discernible to direct human experience. But the search for perfection within those limits suggests that a gnawing sense of imperfection and a yearning for something unattainable within mortal life was never absent. And thus one can see Hebrew and Hellenic civilization running the full course from the elaboration of a crude belief in earthly perfection–though they held different notions as to what that perfection implied–through a gradual loss of faith in this solution, and in the end to its precise opposite: a firm belief in immortality; at which point the division between the Jewish and Hellenic world is obliterated by the rise of Christianity.

Christianity and the Rise of a New Death Transcendence

What appears striking about the rise of Christianity is the transition from death-acceptance to a new phase of death-transcendence without the intermediary of a fully developed dark age. This at any rate seems true of the Eastern Mediterranean, where the fundamental transition occurred. But a full-blown collapse did take place at the Western and Northern end of the geographical area in question. Both circumstances must be considered separately.

If the phenomenon we have called a “dark age” arises from the collapse of a death-transcending culture into death-denying and paranoiac barbarism, it would seem logical that the reverse process gives rise to a different conclusion. Loss of faith in survival leaves a void which must be filled; on the contrary, where such a faith asserts itself, there is no void and no room seems left for a paranoiac retrogression. Yet the emergence of a genuine dark age in the Roman world, similar to that of the second millenium BC, suggests that our formula is still inadequate. It would appear that typically, two distinct forces are at work: loss of faith on the one hand, and a barbarian invasion of the higher culture on the other. There is no need to labor the point that such an invasion occurred both in the case of the pre-Hellenic world of the second millenium BC, and in that of the Roman world in the first centuries of our era.

I should like to venture the suggestion that the second of those invasions was facilitated because the Christian response to disintegration failed to take full effect in the Western half of the Mediterranean world: here the precondition of Christianity’s full impact–the fusion of the Hebrew and Hellenic traditions–was lacking, and the new metaphysical message came through, as it were, only very faintly. Thus, instead of transforming itself into transcendence of death, the old attitude of accepting human life as finite disintegrated into something very like the barbarism described earlier. The spiritual energy which enabled the Christianized East to ward off the German invaders (and the Mazdaan Persians into the bargain) was absent in the Western half of the old Roman empire. Here, therefore, the barbarians infiltrated without encountering much resistance, destroying in the process both the civilization of their victims and their own tradition-bound way of life, and thus establishing the necessary conditions for a genuine “dark age.”

What follows is written on the assumption that the group of Christian civilizations (plus their Islamic counterpart and appendix) have by now completed so much of their course that their development can be viewed as a whole. 

It is hardly necessary to emphasize that transcendence of death is at the core of the Christian message. The Gospels and St. Paul are at one on the subject. “Oh death, where is they sting!” One catches an echo here of the old river-valley religions, separated from Christianity, as it were, by the Hellenic interlude. Western scholarship since the Renaissance and the fashionable neoclassicim of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have done less than justice to this theme, but a good many obscurities have recently begun to vanish, and the gaps in our understanding are being filled: the abyss separating Christianity from the Hellenic mind is becoming clearer. In essence, we now see, the Christian attitude towards death harks back to the ancient Near East. This suggests a qualification of Toynbee’s well-known views concerning the relationship between a new culture and its predecessor: in addition to “affiliation” among cultures contiguous in space and time, there seems to be something like a return to more ancient models, separated from the present by a whole interval, in which the most ancient stratum was temporarily buried and lost from sight.

But the phrase “return,” too, needs qualification, for the intermediate phase–in this case the seemingly harmonious, actually tragic death acceptance–has left profound traces. There could be no simple return to the almost light-hearted treatment of mortality in the religions of the ancient Near East, where death seemed to be reduced to the status of a disagreeable contretemps. The deepening awareness of finality had indeed, as we have seen, produced a gradual insistence upon making the afterlife available to all, but it was left to Christianity to place transcendence of death at the center of its perception of the human situation.

St. Paul, as we know, still believed in the integral Assumption of the faithful–their rise to heaven straight from life–after the impending end of the world. It was the decisive achievement of the second generation Christians that faith in victory over death was preserved, although belief in the imminence of the “kingdom” had waned. Thus the doctrine of the Fall, which was far from being the core of Judaism, become the core of the new faith: death being the “wages of sin,” salvation was conditional upon a thorough experience of, and victory over, death. There is no need to dwell upon the decisive importance of this concept in relating death transcendence to moral effort, and in promoting a theology based upon the substitute sacrifice of the Lamb of God. Death, in this context, is no longer an incident, hence no longer a stumbling block to faith. On the contrary, it is firmly integrated into the belief in Salvation and ultimate triumph. A partial relapse into a simpler, quasi-Egyptian form of death transcendence is not excluded–we have the example of Islam–but once the step was taken, there could be no complete going back.

Yet the swing of the pendulum has been felt even in the history of Christianity. By integrating morality more profoundly into metaphysics than any previous creed, the new religion went farther than any other in establishing a genuine synthesis instead of an alternation of extremes; but it can hardly be said to have solved the problem altogether. The swing of the pendulum in our own age is all too clear, and it is a mistake to date it only from the nineteenth century. Leaving aside the question whether a complete synthesis is conceivable at all, the fact remains that the new faith had scarcely triumphed when its foundations were coming under attack.

At this point of our historical analysis, there arises the basic problem for a philosophy of history to which this entire essay is pointing: if the double cycles of death transcendence and death acceptance repeat themselves, if the new myth repeats in its core-content the old philosophy, if the Christian belief in immortality is in its core “only” a return to the Egyptian belief in immortality–is then our double cycle of the antinomy of death not truly a kind of Hinduist “wheel of rebirth,” only transposed from the individual to the culture cycle? And is this not confirmed as our own, death-transcending culture is dissolving before our eyes in a rationalist final phase and showing unmistakable symptoms of a return to death acceptance, to the rejection of the idea of immortality?

The answer to this ought to be sought in the actual course of history. We have already seen that the Christian belief in immortality, though closely linked to the Egyptian in content and evolutionary history, in no way repeats the latter. The Egyptian belief had never really overcome the idea of a material afterlife in the beyond, had never really completed the separation of the sphere of earthly existence from that of transcendent being, and therefore never really separated the certainty of immortality from the certainty of death, but mixed them up. The best it could achieve was a linkup between the faith in immortality and the moral sphere; but that remains, even in its highest versions (never reached in Egyptian thought), a this-worldly principle. In truth, ideas of the beyond so closely tied to this world still contain a massive element of death denial, and it was the clash between this death denial and the reality principle which caused the Egyptian faith to fail in its rationalistic late phase.

That failure of the first culture generation justifies the existence of the second. This second culture generation did not only deny individual immortality–it also, by its harsh rejection of the death cults, prepared the ground for a truly spiritual conception of the problem of death: in fact, it has itself, in its own rationalist phase, newly formulated the problem on a higher level as a spiritualist theory of ideas, and has built the moral imperatives hailing from the Osiris religion on the idea of the Good instead of on the promise of a this-worldly Beyond. In this spiritualized form, they became the basis of Christian morality; from demands imposed on the individual by gods or men, they became an expression of the spiritual share in human nature, appearing in the daily conduct of the individual in his existence.

Christianity in turn began its intellectual development with the concept of pneuma and thus with the radical proclamation of a purely spiritual principle. Here for the first time this world and the other, existence and being, appearance and substance, death and immortality were kept apart clearly in the concrete form of belief. Thus the “return” of Christianity  to the death transcendence of the first culture generation is not the return of a circle in itself–it is the return to the same conception on a higher level and shows a completely unmistakable spiral of development.

Accordingly, the problem of Christianity is different from the Egyptian one, even its contrary: ancient Egypt with its faith in immortality still definitely clung to the material. In Christianity, the fact that the tendency to confuse transcendent being and earthly existence has still not been finally overcome, and perhaps can never be overcome within the human condition, appears not so much as a tendency to treat being like a piece of existence, but to treat existence like a part of being–to tear away the soul from earthly existence even while it is still on earth. In the ancient Orient, the relation to the beyond was problematic; the problem of Christianity was always, and in the West much more than in the East, the relation to the world. Thus it is the rebellion of the mere “down here” against the beyond that has become the driving force of the processes of disruption in our rationalist period.

Post-Christian Prospects: A “Death-Embracing” Culture. . .

If there is an alternation of death-transcending and death-accepting cultures, the disintegration of the Christian faith in immortality should give rise to a revival of the attitude prevalent in classical antiquity. In fact this has, since the Renaissance, been the solution favored by free-thinking humanists. But we have seen that simple revivals of the past do not occur. Just as Christianity, in returning to the death-transcending concepts of the ancient Near East, was compelled to synthesize them with the death acceptance of Hebrew and Hellenic religion, so our modern post-Christian attitude has somehow had to come to terms with the ingrained Christian belief that life without immortality is nothing. This conviction, once the concomitant belief in an afterlife is abandoned, results in despair, which indeed has increasingly colored the more recent phase of Western–and latterly of Eastern–Christian history. There is an obvious tendency for the Christian concept of personality, with its moral responsibility, to follow the Christian belief in immortality into limbo. In consequence, modern secularism is patently about to end in nihilism, i.e., in denying the relevance, almost the existence, of personality.

The denial of personality finds its original expression in the quest for some higher unity, to which mortality would be less relevant. The individual is advised to find satisfaction by merging himself in some group–social, national, or racial–endowed with semidivine attributes: absolute value and virtual eternity. But this solution remains largely verbal until tested by the final proof of self-abandonment: death for the sake of the community. And, since personality is a stubborn thing, even death does not nullify it, as long as it has the character of deliberate martyrdom, freely accepted or even consciously sought. Only where physical extinction is preceded by the total crushing and abandonment of personality has real proof been achieved that the individual is null, mortal, and the community the only real (underlying) entity. Thus the phase in which individuals yearn to be consumed by the fire of their collective belief is succeeded by one in which the community feels the urge to sacrifice to its absolute claims the largest possible number of its own members, against their personal inclination.

Koestler, in Darkness at Noon, has described the first of these two phases; he was mistaken, however, in treating it as the “highest” one, in believing that the “real” Communist, in contrast to the unwilling victims of the regime, is the man who by his own free will chooses not only death but also self-abandonment in the service of the party. This is still an echo of the Christian point of view. Orwell–in 1984–saw that there is no “real” totalitarian in this sense, for to be a “real” Communist or other believer one must first be a full and real human being, which is precisely the thing the system described by him as “death worship” abhors. In this final stage, all are equally deprived of freedom and no one is allowed even to retain the right to choose suffering willingly for the sake of the larger whole. Indeed, as Orwell has demonstrated, such free acceptance of martyrdom becomes the ultimate heresy! Self-inflicted suffering in the service of the cause is in effect still an echo of an earlier attitude. The genuine, full-fledged totalitarian system is bound to dispense with it. This culture, as it were, embraces death, and thus stands at the extreme remove from the naivete which denies it.

In searching for early historical examples of a death-embracing attitude incorporating itself in a full-fledged civilization, one can hardly fail to be struck by the evidence offered by some great Asian and the pre-Columbian American cultures. Indeed, in the latter case, one is able to discern two different yet interrelated models on the same plane. Inca civilization was based on the complete merging of the individual with the community, and may thus be described as an early forerunner of our modern totalitarian experiments. Aztec culture seems to have worshipped death more directly. Both were, however, shot through with what appears to have been a remnant of faith in immortality, rather reminiscent of Egyptian religion.

A different form of death-embracing is shown by the civilizations that have issued from India, but they, too, are not based on a denial of immortality: in striking refutation of those who regard belief in immortality as ordinary wish-fulfillment, every form of Indian belief since the Upanishads has treated metempsychosis, hence immortality, as both a certainty and a curse! Indian thought and its Buddhist derivatives in China, and even more so in Japan, are occupied with the problem of liberation from this curse, be it by dissolving the individual in the absolute, or by vouchsafing him eternal death on condition of the faithful performance of certain ascetic techniques. Among certain Japanese sects the final outcome has been a veritable religion of suicide, an active search for death. Thus death worship, without its modern materialist hue, appeared clearly as a kind of faith.

Yet the modern form of death-embracing is far less apt to create a viable civilization, because it is based on a post-Christian denial of immortality. The gulf separating death transcendence from death acceptance has become much more profound owing to the teaching of Christianity. Its thesis was that the eternal belongs to a spiritual world which is sharply separated from the world of existence whose true ruler is death. It was just this sharp separation of the spheres which called forth a passionate protest in the name of the devalued this-worldly values–a protest that constitutes the basic content of the attack on Christianity. But that protest finds a very different opponent from the one encountered by Akhenaton and Moses: it no longer has to uproot the belief, and the superstition, in a this-worldly beyond and its goods, but rather the faith in a purely spiritual realm and the human soul as its representative in this world. The Christian way of treating the question can no longer be circumvented, and this ultimately drives its Communist opponents to be not content with denying the soul in theory, but to seek to destroy it in practice. This obsessional effort to stamp out even the last spark of the soul is indeed the secret driving force of all totalitarian systems of belief: in them, the destruction of the soul is transformed from an act of rebellion against the spirit into the central cult of a “positive” religion.

This modern form of the worship of death therefore tends to call forth phenomena analogous to those produced in past ages by the denial of death. Just as the denial of death could only be maintained by “uncovering” a magic murderer for each case of actual death, so the modern worship of death can only be maintained by seeking to destroy each soul that gives a sign of life. In either case, the result is murder without end, as the soul can as little be abolished as death, so that the ever-new confirmation of the reality of either provokes ever renewed persecution. Nothing confirms the reality of the antinomy of death as decisively as the obvious similarity of the phenomena brought about by the denial of either of its two basic elements: the denial of death and the denial of immortality equally end in madness.

The modern totalitarian regimes, however, lack consistency. This is because genuine belief proves impossible where no freedom is left to anyone, and the priestly caste itself loses the distinctive status required for the functioning of a religious system. The upshot is an abrupt transition from the total self-sacrifice demanded from everyone to the total hypocrisy actually practiced by those living under the system, where on pretense of saving the community each individual in fact tries to save his own skin and to demolish someone else. But that, too, may result in a social paranoia not differing materially from the witch-hunt of the tribe.

. . .or an End to the Cycles?

The analogy we have drawn between the social paranoia of the death-denying tribe and that of a soul-denying and death-embracing totalitarian system does not apply to their historical context. The late primitive death denial was based on as yet very incomplete advances of the reality principle, and could therefore be overcome gradually, even if with acute crises–just as the individual’s fear of death only gradually turns into certainty of death; once that stage has been reached, only comparatively short relapses remain possible. But the certainty of immortality knows no such stages: relating to being, not to existence, it is in its core indivisible. That is why all earlier death acceptance only took the form of a devaluation, never of total denial of immortality. The modern attempt at its total denial–the first in human history but for isolated precursors–creates a total, irreducible conflict with the reality of the human soul.

No way can be envisaged of how this conflict could be mitigated by a compromise. The belief in Hades can be revived as little as the belief in Zeus, and failing  a belief in Hades the alternative between death worship and death transcendence pointed out here remains inescapable. The historic hour permits only decisions which surpass the alternatives of previous history by their definiteness of principle. In essence, the choice today is either psychical and probably also physical perdition of humanity, since mankind now possesses the means to achieve the total self-destruction implied in some creeds, or a–by historical standards–quick triumph of a determined death transcendence. In other words: it is probable that the present phase of death acceptance, nay death embracing, will no longer develop into a full culture cycle: more likely the second half of our present double cycle, the beginning of which we are living through, will not get beyond that early stage. Thus the hypothesis arises that we may well stand at the end of the cyclical movement of the high cultures, and that something entirely new may be beginning–as new as the first high cultures were when compared with the primitive tribal cultures, but analogous to the latter rather than the former because like the primitive cultures and unlike the high cultures so far, the new evolution will not have a cyclical character.

Here we seem to have reached the limit where speculation ceases to be valuable. Yet one further factor must be discussed which suggests that we are caught up in a process that may usher in a world vastly different from any we have known in the past. In this discussion we have only considered the antinomy of death, and have left aside the factor of our growing control of reality for the time being. If we stopped there, this would in my opinion be a wholly unjustified concession to the “spirit of the times,” which in the midst of the most grandiose successes of science insists on the nihilistic abuse of its effects. For modern science means immense power, which indeed in a nihilistic overall context can only have nihilistic effects.

But does science itself really have no implications for the shaping of that context? What if science is today confronted in all directions, contrary to its conscious self-confinement to this world, with experiences reaching beyond this world of our existence and bearing characteristics of eternal being? What if it is forced, contrary to the assumptions of a doctrine ruling for centuries and contrary to its own method, to pierce the wall between this world and the beyond, between existence and being, and to show in practice not only that a world beyond this world exists but that it touches this world everywhere? Would not this breakthrough from existence to being fit exactly the situation in which mankind once more would like, in a cyclical turning away from the knowledge of being, to immerse itself in the captivity of pure existence, but can no longer do so? Would it not fit the above developed alternative between perdition and a recognition of being no longer subject to a cyclical dialectic? How different would a world be in which empirical research, carried out according to the strictest methodic rules, would by itself converge with metaphysics guided by the reality of the spirit!

There have been philosophers who claimed absolute validity for the senses, and others who denied all validity to them; similarly with regard to reason. Now we have progressed much further in understanding nature, and the testing of our capacities is much more of a practical than of a metaphysical kind. What has been the result? In our physics we have drifted away from the direct witness of the senses. We know for certain that not a single piece of objective reality is “similar” to the witness of our senses, which, in consequence, might appear to be thoroughly discredited. Actually, of course, the contrary is the case, and modern science is one long and glorious vindication of the empirico-mathematical method, the only method capable of providing the knowledge we have gained–and, incidentally, leading us, through the senses, to cognition of a cosmos no longer material in the old meaning of that term.

I do not see why something similar should not in principle apply, in its own sphere, to the witness of the unconscious. Yet for all the recent advances of depth psychology in our culture, there is still a stubborn refusal to accept the evidence of the unconscious concerning death, to which reference has been made in the first section of this paper. The great stumbling block in this matter appears to be the absence–in contrast to the physical sciences–of all means of empirical verification. But this may be a parochial attitude. There is evidence that Eastern psychology has evolved stringent and critically tested techniques which allow direct access to the disembodied mind and even to a metapersonal sphere of experience. Those techniques have doubtless been impaired by their close connection with a death-embracing culture, and in any case have ossified together with the civilization that gave rise to them. Like every caput mortuum of a defunct society, they need the kindling spark of contact with a living culture to come to life again. One need not believe that they allow absolute cognition of anything, but they do seem to hold the key to hitherto unknown spheres of inner experience. They will not provide “evidence” for immortality, but they make it more intelligible. Will Western thought prove capable of utilizing them and bringing them up to date?

Once it is recognized that belief in immortality is part of the innermost core of personality, it is arbitrary to opt, like Freud, in favor of mortality. For the last three centuries it has been generally admitted that a testing of the validity of sensual and rational cognition must precede metaphysics. Recently, a new dimension of cognition has been opened up by the science of the unconscious. Needless to say, that new dimension has no reference to our knowledge of the external world, and in this respect its contents must indeed be regarded, unless otherwise verified, as dreams and fantasies. But does that also apply to what the innermost core of personality knows about itself? Such an attitude was quite appropriate to a materialistic age which treated as foolery everything that could not be tested in the outside world; but after all, psychoanalysis won its triumphs in criticizing these assumptions.

As experimental techniques had to be evolved before it was possible to discuss the real nature of the physical universe, so all our talk about the nonmaterial world is presumptuous until an adequate technique for testing it has been established. We are merely on the threshold. Descartes, concerned to justify the validity of human knowledge of the external world, held that “surely God cannot deceive us” by giving us faculties leading inevitably into error. Such an argument, of course, is technically valid only for those who accept his particular interpretation of the divine. But may it not be adapted to our predicament? Surely mankind could not survive if any of its basic intuitions were radically misleading–and the despair which goes with the intellectual denial of our inner certainty of immortality is a case in point. If we believe that our deepest feelings are in harmony with the nature of the universe, we may gladly bear our ignorance, gladly enjoy a sense of curiosity about the beyond, borne up by the faith of Spinoza, who was not given to superstition: scimus et sentimus nos immortales esse (We know and feel that we are immortal). 

–Excerpted from Franz Borkenau, End and Beginning: On the Generations of Cultures and the Origins of the West (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), pp. 75 – 95.


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