Do more people desire death or immortality?

Does everyone like being alive?  Happy people surely do, almost by definition.  If you’re happy, then you are apparently having a good time.  Nobody wants to stop having a good time, otherwise they wouldn’t call it “good” in the first place.  If you wanted it to stop, then you would call it a bad time, and you wouldn’t describe yourself as happy.

Some good times burn the fuse and we know they are temporary.  You can be having a good time at a bar but also want to go home because you feel yourself getting tired and run down, you feel the night slipping away, and that it is time to go home.  It doesn’t mean that you wanted the good time to stop.  It simply means that the availability of that good time had passed.  If you want to avoid having a really bad time the next day, you better get your self home.

With Christmas approaching, many people will both love and hate celebrating the holidays over the next few weeks.  They will love it because it is emotional in a  good way, they will hate it because it is emotionally exhausting.  It will be the best of times and the worst of times.  Some will be very sad to see it end, others will count themselves lucky to have survived it.  What makes us want to end an experience is bad feelings, what makes us want to continue experience is good feelings.

It is common to feel tired of life, but I have a hard time believing that people ever actually *want* to die.  Rather, my suspicion is people simply want to stop having a bad experience, and when life becomes a continuous, uninterrupted bad experience, they think they want to end life, when they really just want to end the bad experience–sometimes immediately.  Like staying too late at a bar, we begin to feel an exhaustion set in, and being able to get away becomes more and more attractive.

If both going to the bar and leaving the bar, rushing into the holidays and then desperately wishing them to be over, are both motivated by a desire to increase good experience and decrease bad experience, then the constant essence of our behavior would seem to include wanting to have as good experiences as possible.  We pursue happiness constantly, as much as we perceive as being available, and when anyone says they wish they were dead, they really mean they want to leave their current bad experience and go to a good, or at least better, experience.

The problem with desiring death is it implies desiring the end of existence, or oblivion.  Because oblivion is the absence of experience, we cannot imagine it, so we cannot feel in anticipating death any pain.  Death is expected to be pain-free.   If we are in pain in life, then we can think that we desire death, which is to say to simply be pain-free.  But having a pain-free experience is impossible if we cease to exist.  In other words, when we reason that death is desirable because it is pain-free, we are being non-sensical — failing to realize that by anticipating less pain “there” we are assuming a continued existence in death.  We might kill ourselves to escape experiencing pain, but it is not and cannot be to escape life or to “be” dead.  Therefore, no one desires to die, and everyone desires happiness and perpetual existence, i.e. immortality.

Is Friendship Good? The Problem Facing College Fraternities

Joining a fraternity in college can be a great opportunity, but an opportunity for what?

Opinions vary wildly about this, and for good reason.  Just think about what a fraternity essentially is: a self-confident group of recent high school graduates, united by their youth, humor, and let’s say common appetites.  The risks are obvious, and even thought of their “benefits” conjures up worry and suspicion.

So is it worth it?  If fraternities are inherently unstable, giving open air to the burning passions of youth, then why have them in the first place?  This needs to be answered not only to defend fraternities from critical bystanders, but to help improve fraternities as they are.

The main problem fraternities face is that an oversimplified view of friendship squelches their motivation to address difficult issues.  Such friendship is often an excuse for allowing excessive and irresponsible behavior to go unchecked.  Enforcing even the most basic standards can be obnoxiously depicted as a violation of “friendship.”  I personally witnessed in my own chapter years ago what was essentially a friendship faction go to battle with a justice faction, leaving brotherhood itself appearing to be incompatible with collective self-government.  This I know is a common cause of fraternity breakdown, from which rarely anyone walks away unscathed.  Worse, there is sometimes no such battle at all, and this simpleminded friendship becomes more deeply entrenched, even valorized.  Then, once their unbounded fraternal passions are sparked as they inevitably are, they quickly ignite and become enflamed.  The fraternity becomes a Dionysian temple for low indulgence and base behavior, until there is nothing left but the smoldering embers of a once proud chapter.

The tragedy here is that the energies stimulated by fraternal brotherhood are immensely valuable, with vastly constructive potential.  Consequently, fraternities are uniquely able to infuse a great love of life, learning, and engagement into the college experience.  Brothers, likewise, also generally exhibit a strong commitment to philanthropy and to community service.

What many miss is that fraternities have great value because of their inherent difficulties.  Addressing the obvious excesses, and discovering ways to manage, constrain, and elevate these powerful passions and desires, is precisely how character is built and citizens are forged.  Furthermore, these youthful passions can be channeled into great, ennobling actions and commitments.  Fraternities provide opportunity for college men to push beyond friendship simply, toward the much more difficult goal of building men of character and distinction.

Fraternal energies need only be harnessed and directed, primarily in 3 different ways: (1) pro-active alumni mentorship and oversight, (2) a smart and methodical selection and education process for new brothers, and (3) strong institutional norms and expectations for how the chapter should function.

Each of these three components requires time and commitment to develop — a break in the continuity thereof, and a fraternity chapter can find itself feeling lost and hopeless.  Moreover, the membership is constantly changing as brothers advance in their studies and graduate (or leave school), making continuity only that much harder to maintain.  The alumni can help with this, as can university advisors and the general fraternity’s headquarters.  But most of all, the brothers of the undergraduate chapter must be committed to being more than friends; they must continuously strive to become leaders of substance and virtue.  This necessity, this problem, is the source of the ennobling value of being in a fraternity.  There is therefore nothing more counter-productive than taking up the banner of friendship against this fundamental fact.

Fraternal friendship, or genuine fraternal brotherhood, is not a bond made simply by youth, humor, or untutored appetite.  Instead, it is constituted by the very virtues necessary for its own energies to be appropriately directed — toward the personal growth of each brother, and the chapter’s public honor.  Such virtues need to be identified, cultivated, loved, and respected, both abstractly and in the concrete, visible actions of each and every fraternity brother.

sigma chi

2 Types of Immortality

What does it mean to desire immortality?

In my dissertation on this topic 2 different types of immortality emerge, each of which can be desired: (1) literally living forever, and (2) living on symbolically, for example in the memories of the living.

Religions like Christianity promise the first kind of immortality, being personally saved and restored in the afterlife forever.  In one part of my dissertation, I show how philosopher John Locke credits Jesus Christ for making immortality the reward of living a good, moral life.  It was by appealing to human beings’ desire for immortality that finally people were willing to follow a philosopher’s moral doctrine (Locke likens Jesus to a philosopher).  Do what this philosopher tells you, and you will be eternally rewarded.  This was a game changer for philosophers generally, who had hardly been listened to previously.  In many cases, in fact, philosophers had been persecuted (Jesus is a prime example).  Now, if you could connect your philosophic doctrine to Christ’s successfully made promise of immortality, people will listen — all because people have a desire for immortality.

But the desire for immortality can manifest itself in other ways.  Having children perpetuates your presence in the world; having grandchildren and great-grandchildren even more so.  In Genesis 22:17 God promises Abraham “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies.”  The divine’s gift to Abraham here is a symbolic form of immortality; why else should he care?  Inventing something — a new gadget that everybody uses — is another extension of yourself.  For example, take Steve Jobs’ memory — and even when his name is forgotten, his influence — which will clearly endure due to his inventions.  Politicians and other people of prestige carefully cultivate their legacies, trying to work their way into history books.  We carve our names into trees and finger our initials into wet cement.  Why our names?  We also extend this desire for immortality to those we love, naming charities and scholarships in their honor.  We erect monuments, dedicate books, and name our children in honor of the dead, to extend their memory.  These all are vehicles by which the significance or our own lives and that of others extends down through time.  Indeed, one of the worst things you can wish on a person is to be forgotten, for their memory to be extinguished.  This list goes, and you can probably think of some great examples yourself (please send them to me when you do!).

Of course, these two broad types of immortality are not mutually exclusive.  Anyone can pursue any or all of the types of immortality, if they have a strong enough desire to.  But the distinction between literal and symbolic immortality is a meaningful one, and I think very important to political theory.  Since this last point requires a bit of explanation (it involves Plato and the Declaration of Independence), I’ll leave it for a later post.