Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Franz Rosenzweig on death and redemption

To: Edoardo S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Franz Rosenzweig on death and redemption
Date: 19th March 2008 13:26

Dear Edoardo,

Thank you for your email of 8 March, with your fourth essay towards the Associate Award, 'From the fear of death to redemption: the "ecumenical" soteriology of a Jewish thinker.'

Although you begin your essay with a quote from Schopenhauer, 'Only small and limited minds fear death,' in the context of a discussion of Rosenzweig this is not with approval but rather as an example of the wrong attitude of philosophy, in 'denying' the existence of the problem of death.

As you may know, the question of the fear of death is one that has gripped me (I assume you have read my article 'Is it Rational to Fear Death?' at http://klempner.freeshell.org/articles/fear.html). So I was very keen to find out what Rosenzweig's views are on this momentous topic.

Reading your essay, I learned quite a bit about the context in which Rosenzweig thought, felt a blush of pride in the great achievements of so many prominent Jews, but I struggled to find what is really essential in Rosenzweig's thought.

Maybe you did say it in your essay, but then it passed by me too quickly.

Let's start with the question of the necessity of death. Why is it necessary that we should die? If God loves us, surely he would not create this final crushing denial of all our hopes and dreams? Everything comes to an end. All achievement comes to nothing. All you love is destined to be lost -- either through your death or through the death of those you love. Is death not the most hateful and vile punishment that God could visit upon mankind? what have we done to deserve this?

In the face of this horror, what use is the rhetorical argument, 'Let's think if death didn't exist and we were forced to live forever! Our pains and sufferings would be without an end.' I'm not convinced by this. Why is suffering necessary? What about the traditional vision of Heaven as eternal bliss?

(Maybe you've seen the film, 'Death Becomes Her' with Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep -- two American society ladies who are seduced into taking a potion which makes them live forever. But their bodies are still susceptible to damage. Given unlimited time, think what that would mean. The final scene is truly horrific and wildly comic at the same time.)

Bernard Williams in his excellent essay, 'Reflections on the Makropoulos Case' (in his collection 'Problems of the Self') discusses a play where the central character is doomed to live forever. Williams argues that deathlessness would be an intolerable burden, not necessarily because it would involve endless suffering, but rather because the human personality is essentially finite, and eventually we would simply run out of things we wanted to do and face the prospect of infinite boredom.

This is a better argument, but still I am not convinced. Let us assume a God who has the capacity to make human beings according to any design of His choosing. Couldn't he design us to be capable of infinite improvement, as we progressed through our deathless lives? Why is that impossible? why wouldn't you want to be such an angelic being?

The idea that 'death is a necessary aspect of existence' is one explored by Heidegger in 'Being and Time', in his account of Dasein as 'being towards death'. From a theological standpoint, creatures are necessarily finite, necessarily capable of death (including angels). God cannot, as a matter of logic, create a being which He cannot destroy, and any being capable of destruction is ipso facto a being which faces the prospect of death -- however far off such death might be. Heidegger goes further even than this, however, arguing that it is impossible to *be* a 'self' (or, at least, an 'authentic' self) which does not recognize the necessity of its own death. Death, in Heidegger's view, is essentially linked to human freedom, to the capacity to take responsibility for one's own life, conceived as a necessarily *limited* whole.

My question would be: how does Rosenzweig's thought differ from Heidegger's? What has Rosenzweig seen that Heidegger missed? (or the other way round?) As Heidegger's views on death are far better known than Rosenzweig's, I would have thought that a discussion of Heidegger is essential. He is certainly not one of the philosophers who, like Schopenhauer, try to play down or deny the importance of the fact that we die.

I am tempted towards a thought which is strangely the reverse of Heidegger's. The very definition of death logically entails infinity: When you are dead, you are dead *forever*. But this notion is incomprehensible. There is no length of time during which you are not alive, which is the time sufficient to be pronounced truly 'dead'. At the very next moment, you might still return (as the dead rise from their graves on the Day of Judgement).

Imagine that you lie on your deathbed, happy that you have lived a good life and also glad that your suffering and striving is finally at an end. But then you remember Pascal's Wager. You cannot be certain that at the next moment you will not find yourself standing at Heaven's Gate waiting to be judged, and facing an eternity of either suffering or joy, but certainly not the 'nothing' that the secular notion of death implies.

So far as the Associate is concerned, you need to focus on Rosenzweig's arguments, spending much more time explaining exactly what his views on death and salvation are, and how they differ from the views of other thinkers. The litany of famous Jewish thinkers might be suitable for an article on Rosenzweig and his cultural context, but not for a philosophy essay where you are expected to get quickly to the point.

All the best,

Geoffrey