Western societies have largely failed to reckon with mortality. We shun, deny, and obscure it from view.
But a few radical thinkers, scattered across the centuries, have seen death as a frame that illuminates life and an ultimately beautiful promise.
Postindustrial, mainstream Western societies have largely failed to reckon with mortality. The inevitability of death is shunned through youth- and wellness-centered consumerism, resisted by high-tech professional medical systems that treat death as an enemy or failure and trivialized in Hollywood action movies and the “cute fear” of Halloween kitsch.
But we mostly refuse to look directly at the thing itself.
Terror management theory calls the simultaneous awareness of inevitable demise and the instinctual urge to survive “mortality salience”. This perfect storm of anxiety and denialism has led to all manner of social and personal ills and inspired magical thinking about supernatural afterlives.
In Gore Vidal’s dystopian satire Messiah (1954), a new religious movement forms around a charismatic young undertaker named John Cave—“a pair of initials calculated to amaze the innocent”—who preaches an atheistic message of radical death acceptance. Mortality, he insists, is to be embraced, not feared. Death heralds neither an eternity of bliss in paradise nor punishment in hell but rather, simply, an end to all earthly travails:
We are small. In space, on this tiny planet, we are nothing. Death brings us back to the whole. We lose this instant of awareness, of suffering, like spray in the ocean: there it forms … there it goes, back to the sea.
Cave’s message and extraordinary personal magnetism quickly attract a small but well-financed cohort of supporters, including a Madison Avenue PR expert, a Jungian analyst, and Eugene Luther, the narrator and protagonist. Luther is a historian (and Vidal stand-in) tasked with crafting Cave’s message into something palatable to the American mainstream.
The idea of a good society is something you do not need a religion and eternal punishment to buttress; you need a religion if you are terrified of death.
Their efforts are spectacularly successful, especially once the mesmeric John Cave starts preaching his message via the novel and exciting medium of television. The newly faithful gather to watch recordings of Cave’s lectures and to receive the ministrations of Cavite therapists in centers that spring up across the country. Most institutions of the old regime fold quietly, while the few that offer strong resistance are put down. Within just three years, the new atheistic, radically death-accepting religion of Cavesword (“Cave’s Word”) has achieved a near-total spiritual, legal and political hegemony within the USA and is swiftly spreading throughout the world.
It’s difficult to continue outlining the plot of Messiah without spoiling the tale, which plays out as a thought experiment on the global establishment of a nontheistic religion. The remainder of this article will focus instead on the version of Cavesword imagined by Gore Vidal, through the Eugene Luther character, as a genuinely utopian message.
Vidal was a scholar of classical studies with a particular focus on the religions, philosophies and politics of ancient Greece and Rome. As such he was intimately aware of the teachings of Epicureanism, which was (alongside Stoicism, Skepticism and Cynicism) one of the major schools of classical Greek philosophy.
Epicureans and Stoics, in particular, were dubious regarding the concept of a supernatural afterlife and taught that mortal existence was inherently meaningful. “Death,” wrote Epicurus of Samos, “is nothing to us; for while we live, death is not, and when death is, we are not.” Epicureans strove to live their lives as well as possible within the modest ambition of pursuing sensual and intellectual pleasures while they could. Their notion of Heaven on Earth was embodied in Epicurus’ garden, just outside Athens and close to the Eridanus River, where generations of his followers gathered for nourishing meals and companionable conversation.
The progressive rationalist Eugene Luther intuitively perceives Cavesword in Epicurean terms and re-frames Cave’s teachings accordingly, though he’s not above contextualizing them for the popular audience in terms of “signs and wonders”. The substance of his vision of Cavesword, however, is described in one of his early conversations with John Cave:
I think people will listen to you because they realize now that order, if there is any, has never been revealed, that death is the end of personality even for those passionate, self-important I’s who insist upon a universal deity like themselves, carefully presented backwards in order not to give the game away.
Luther understands Cavesword to be a “one life” philosophy, a radical break from supernaturalist teachings of a literal afterlife, and marvels at the potential benefits to all humanity:
How wonderful life will be when men no longer fear dying! When the last superstitions are thrown out and we meet death with the same equanimity that we have met life. No longer will children’s minds be twisted by evil, demanding, moralizing gods whose fantastic origin is in those barbaric tribes who feared death and lightning, who feared life. That’s it: life is the villain to those maniacs who preach reward in death: grace and eternal bliss . . . or dark revenge.
Having disposed of fundamentalism, Luther proceeds to extrapolate a life-affirming message from Cave’s thesis:
And without those inhuman laws, what societies we might build! Take the morality of Christ. Begin there, or even earlier with Plato or earlier yet with Zoroaster . . . take the best ideas of the best men and should there be any disagreement as to what is best, use life as the definition, life as the measure: what contributes most to the living is the best.
Drunk with possibility, Luther concludes:
If they listen to you, Cave, it will be like the unlocking of a prison. At first they may go wild but then, on their own, they will find ways to life.
(…) Life is all while death is only the irrelevant shadow at the end, the counterpart to that instant before the seed lives.
It’s worth noting at this point that Messiah is a dystopian novel because the religion that forms around John Cave’s message is not the Epicurean memento mori ergo carpe diem teaching that Eugene Luther initially took it to be. Late in the story, there’s a heartbreaking (and spine-chilling) confession that reveals just how close to that utopia they managed to get.
Today, however, humanists and other secularists have the option of living our own, microcosmic versions of Luther’s utopian ideal.
An ancient idea
Vidal was far from the first to suggest this way of looking at our situation. Accepting the natural facts of life and death with equanimity is a countercultural perspective reaching back at least to the garden school of Epicurus. Submerged in the West during the long Christian era, this perspective surfaced again among bohemian artists, poets and social radicals at the turn of the 20th century via the popular cult surrounding The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. In 1905, the conservative Catholic writer and cultural commentator G.K. Chesterton referred to it darkly as “the carpe diem religion”, suggesting that it was the refuge of unhappy souls—notably Chesterton’s sentimental rival, Oscar Wilde—who could not look forward to eternal paradise. The same viewpoint re-emerged again, with still greater vehemence, during the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 70s, and we’re still living in that aftermath.
The overwhelming evidence of medical science is that consciousness is a bioelectrical phenomenon that ceases at death. When the meat of the brain dies, that’s it—no more “you” as a sentient, sensate being. You’re done.
Humans are typically bad at accepting that. We are hard-wired to anticipate “next moments” as a survival mechanism and therefore struggle to imagine a state in which there are no next moments. The closest many people can come is to picture themselves floating in a black void forever, a terrifying but fortunately irrational image because death means no self, no sentience, no sensation.
The humanist point of view is centered on the simple premise of “mortality sapience”—that by remembering death, we can learn to seize the day. If we can truly, deeply accept that we’re each living the one life we get, then that acceptance informs our perspectives and priorities for the better. Given that death is both inevitable and final, it further follows that our most secure human-scale legacy lies in living lives that will be well-remembered; I believe that there are many worse bases for moral wisdom.
As mythopoesis, however—the creation of a satisfying, meaningful story in which to live—the humanist perspective is bland to the point of irrelevance and invisibility.
The original proponents of the Enlightenment believed that the place of supernatural religions would be taken by exposure to the wonders of democratized art, literature, philosophy and nature. And for a small minority, that holds true. The gigantic majority of human beings, however, aren’t so taken with that approach. It doesn’t scratch their spiritual itch, or the deeper meanings and connections aren’t made explicit enough. Many of those people retain a superstitious fear of death.
It’s probably safe to say that the majority of that group simply want to be told what to believe and so embrace, more or less enthusiastically, the kind of authoritarian faith promoted by many traditional religious institutions. A sizable minority, though, opt instead for a catch-all, “spiritual-but-not-religious” DIY eclecticism that encompasses all kinds of supernatural beliefs, often including a faith in some version of heaven or in literal reincarnation. Perhaps they look at humanism and think “yes, that’s sensible.” But they’re not just looking for ethical guidelines—they want something that stirs their blood, something that feels mysterious and (literally) awesome, that offers a sense of community and heartfelt meaning. Something akin to a religion.
They await a radically decentralized, post-humanist spirituality—a soulful secularism, a rational mythopoeia, a poetic faith, taking the skeptical and scientific worldview as read, accepting “one world, one life,” and then answering the question: “Now what?”