A Civilization of Life? One That Takes Death Seriously

When it comes to European values, politicians start talking in broad terms on tolerance, human rights and our way of life which we must not allow to be taken away from us. However, it seems difficult to define what exactly ‘our way of life’ means. Perhaps they are talking about Moravian wine which the politicians like to pose with on billboards, or perhaps about – let us fill in here ourselves, for example the Moravian kielbasa sausages with which party representatives also enjoy taking photos, or about our specifically Czech ways of entertainment. However, neither tolerance, nor the vaguely conceived human rights, nor even our feminism, nor even the Czech popular cinema and all of its hilariousness, as it is termed, are probably the ideas worth dying for, or even the ideas worth living for.

It seems to me that the reason is paradoxical: our Europe does not take seriously the fact of one’s own death. To my mind, the consciousness of purpose and the awareness of death are interlinked. Our civilization which has set happiness and for people to finally enjoy themselves as its goals; our civilization which revels even at its Internet news outlets in recipes for food and sex – in both cases in theory as well as otherwise – and in healthy lifestyle, in sports, in the entertainment industry, and generally in everything that irritates nerve endings, in descriptions of all that the amazing life can still bring; this civilization of ours at the same time surprisingly excels in dramatic rises in depression rates, in the sense of loss of the meaning of life, in drug abuse, in calling for euthanasia and both assisted and non-assisted suicides and for abortions, as well as in overall contempt of life. A civilization that denies the fact of death, or at least does not bother to think about it, is a civilization of the euthanasia of the soul which is logically followed by the euthanasia of the body. The entertainment escape from death comes to a halt in the very arms of death that were to be escaped by it. In addition, we first tell our patients that enjoyment is the ultimate purpose of things, conducting the murder of the soul first, and then we leave the helpless patients on a hospital bed, extending the dying of their physical body on and on – logically, we ask why and whether it all makes sense. Of course it does not. The denial of death is the negation of life itself, which is why there are no more martyrs in Europe, only suicides.

By contrast, a civilization that takes death seriously is, paradoxically, a civilization of life where it is known that the number of one’s days on this Earth is finite and that one needs to strive considerably in order to exchange them for something timeless.

We know this from Greek mythology: the immortal gods on the Olympus pass time in lavish banquets of ambrosia and nectar but also in idleness, prejudices and reciprocal plots, overall behaving like profligate youngsters. However, life on Mount Olympus is not the real – that one is happening down on earth, as there, there are mortals who know that their time is finite and that they need to strive to leave something behind. The intense consciousness of one’s own death is the strongest impulse of life. The acceptance of death is the sign of a civilization of life; the acceptance of death is accepting life – there are martyrs but not suicides. The French philosopher and writer Fabrice Hadjadj writes precisely: a culture that refuses death is a culture of death, a culture that accepts death is a culture of life.

Paradoxically, a civilization that does not make happiness into the ultimate goal of life is one that finds it, as happiness comes somehow from the side or from behind, unanticipated, as a by-product of the acceptance of a task. And let us add that in the protest that this world is not what it could be and that if we do not bring some good projects to life, they will not come into existence at all; the protest that in this wave of effort as we bring to the fore of European values the consciousness that there is a purpose to the world, that it is worth offering one’s time and energy to heal it; in that protest, that Moravian wine and even the entertainment and the time to rest at Christmas all find their place.