Death, Diversions, and the Credo

Death, Diversions, and the Credo January 11, 2014


In the face of death, Tocqueville and Pascal saw two paths toward despair. Pope Benedict XVI offers a third way of confronting mortality 

The French writer Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote, “[M]an comes from nothing, traverses time, and is going to disappear forever into the bosom of God. One sees him for only a moment, wandering, lost, between the limits of the two abysses.” Throughout history, most philosophers, theologians, and psychologists have, with Tocqueville, agreed that man’s awareness of death plays a significant role in shaping his behavior. Death holds this prominence in shaping human life because of it is both inevitable and unpredictable. Recognizing the contingency of our lives, we develop an existential anxiety.

The effects of this crisis Tocqueville is describing may be worse than death itself. Blaise Pascal focuses on how we may forfeit our enjoyment of life in our attempts to cope  with mortality: “We never think of the present, and if we do it is simply to shed some light on the future… And so we never actually live, though we hope to, and in striving for happiness it is inevitable that we will never achieve it.” The question facing Pascal and Tocqueville is whether we can come to terms with our mortality while preserving our humanity. Pope Benedict XVI responds to this question by arguing that we can come to terms with our mortality only through entering into a relation with the Triune God. In order to understand the radical nature of Pope Benedict’s reply, we should first investigate Pascal and Tocqueville’s understanding of how we respond to the contingency of our existence and the shortcomings of these responses.

Pascal saw the misery of contingency in his cosmic insignificance: “When I consider… the small space which I fill and even can see, swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which knows nothing of me, I am terrified, and surprised to find myself here rather than there, for there is no reason why it should be here rather than there, why now rather than then.” Likewise, Pascal sees the pursuit of happiness consisting in “diversions,” futile attempts to escape our insignificance: “[Man] wants to be happy, he only wants to be happy, and cannot want to be happy. But how will he set about it? The only way would be to become immortal. But he cannot, so he has to stop himself from thinking about it.” While not a solution to the problem of his mortality, a man engaged in “diversions” can avert his eyes from the problem and live in a moment of short-lived happiness.

Pascal’s notion of “diversions” is implicit in Tocqueville’s examination of the differences between aristocratic and democratic poetry in Volume II of Democracy in America. Tocqueville believes that in an aristocracy, the poet “speaks outside and above the human condition” portraying the eternal, the good, and the spiritual rather than the temporal, the human, and the tangible. In democracy, the converse is true; the poet portrays the banal and the earthly. In the aristocracy, the poet is a member of the leisure class and has time to engage in an education that allows him to come to terms with his mortality. In a democracy, though, the poet is equal to all other men; he has no leisure through which he can receive such an education. Instead, the democratic poet must portray what will earn him a profit. The easiest way to do this is to portray the “diversions”— something simple that provides a distraction (however fleeting it may be) from man’s mortality. Thus, Tocqueville describes the subject matter of democratic poetry by stating, “Democratic peoples will scarcely worry about what has been, but they willingly dream of what will be, and in this direction their imagination has no limits; here it stretches and enlarges itself beyond measure.” The democratic poet, then, continually helps distract man from reflection on the past and the present through his depiction of the future.

The distinction between aristocratic and democratic poetry has existential significance for Tocqueville. In the aristocracy, man grounds his existence in an order that is found outside of himself, be it in God, the Eternal Truth, or a Stoic natural order. Conversely, in democracy, man grounds his existence in himself. This grounding is not a tenable way of allowing man to reconcile himself with his mortality, because he has no way to understand death. Instead, the democratic man slowly becomes overtaken with a “feverish ardor” that manifests itself in the form of material goods. Tocqueville states, “He who has confined his heart solely to the search for the goods of this world is always in a hurry, for he only has a limited time to find them, take hold of them, and enjoy them. His remembrance of the brevity of life constantly spurs him.” Rather than coming to terms with his death, the democratic man distracts himself from his mortality and engages in a futile “pursuit of happiness.”

For Pascal, the “diversion” take’s mans focus away from coping with his mortality to being distracted by something outside of himself. In doing this, the personhood of the “diverted” man becomes related to an external object. Pascal uses the skeptic philosopher as the ultimate example of a “diverted” person. According to Pascal, the skeptic philosopher finds his grounding outside of himself in external reason and doubt. By grounding himself in this outside framework, the diverted man can stably avoid confrontation with his mortality, for his gaze is not on himself. For Tocqueville, on the other hand, the “feverish ardor” of the democrat takes man’s focus away from coping with his mortality by making him focused on himself. This, for sure, is a far less stable grounding than the Pascalian diversion allows, for man cannot place himself in an external framework. Thus, the democratic man’s gaze is on himself, and he becomes hyper-aware of his mortality. It is for this reason, then, that Tocqueville believes the democratic man so “feverishly” pursues well-being.

For Pope Benedict, Christianity serves as a way to overcome the Pascalian “diversions” and the Tocquevillian “feverish ardor” (this is something both Pascal and Tocqueville seemed to realize, as they mention the necessity of religion in solving man’s existential angst). As he begins to articulate his solution to Pascal and Tocqueville’s understanding of mortality, Pope Benedict first returns to man’s mortality: “[We are] always threatened with the uncertainty which in moments of temptation can suddenly and unexpectedly cast a piercing light on the fragility of the whole.” As Benedict says, we are stuck with this “dilemma of being a man” unless we encounter Christianity and join into a relation with the Triune God.

The act of confessing one’s belief in Christianity is the way in which a Christian can stably ground his existence. This is because his relational nature is not ultimately grounded in man, but outside of man. Pope Benedict explains that the Christian belief “structures” man’s existence according to the full articulation of the “word-made-flesh” in Jesus Christ. Being both fully God and fully man, Jesus provides a stable grounding for man to plant his existence. This understanding of the Incarnation is the way in which man overcomes his fear of his mortality. Insofar as Jesus overcame death through the resurrection, man now has a way in which he too can overcome death by entering into a relation with the Triune God through the Christian faith.

This relation with the Triune God through Jesus Christ specifically grounds man outside of himself, thereby rectifying man’s desire toward eternity that Pascal understood to be the source of his “diversions.” Likewise, this relation with the Triune God grounds man in a real, flesh-and-blood human being—Jesus Christ—who has overcome death. This grounding of one’s existence in the humanity of Jesus Christ corrects the Tocquevillian tendency toward grounding our existence in ourself. As Benedict explains, grounding one’s existence in only one of these two facets—the Deity or the humanity of Christ—at the expense of the other is an inadequate grounding for one’s existence and ultimately leads to a dangerous notion of progress or a paralyzing existential angst.

Through confessing the orthodox Christian faith, Pope Benedict shows that Christianity is the solution to the problem of man’s mortality. Pascal’s “diversions” and Tocqueville’s “feverish ardor” can only be resolved if they are grounded in Jesus Christ. Through this understanding of the Christian faith, then, man has a framework through which he can come to terms with his mortality and seek hope in the life to come.

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