Looking Behind The Evening News: True Origins Of America’s Political Decline

“The readers of the Boston Evening Transcript, Sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn.”-T S Eliot

For the most part, what Americans receive as daily news is merely reflection.[1] Any more penetrating thought[2] concerning this news remains the province of certain dedicated academic specialists. Though such thought could never become appropriate for “mass” consumption,[3] it does still warrant a more prominent place in shaping American foreign and domestic policies.

                These are complex issues. We should, therefore, begin at the beginning. As always, history will deserve some special pride of place.

                Scholars and policy-makers must look back not just historically, butintellectually. Though millions of Americans could readily agree that they value particular religious’ attachments and affiliations very highly, few could meaningfully connect these vaunted ties to any palpable promises of ultimate power. These promises, compelling by definition, concern nothing less than a bestowal of immortality.

                In essence, any such bestowal would represent a grant of power over death.

                Could anything prove more welcome or more appealing, ever?

                Individuum est ineffable, reminds poet-philosopher Goethe, author of Faust: “The individual cannot be grasped.”

                Living in an American society that is unaccustomed to bothering with history, law or erudition (former President Donald J. Trump assured his obeisant followers that “attitude is more important than preparation”),[4] there remains little cause to expect more knowledge-based political inquiries. But whatever the anti-intellectual baggage of an American mass[5] that enthusiastically disregards all serious considerations of  “mind,”[6] explanations of political behavior now require openly systematic examinations at clarifying conceptuallevels.

                There is more. To progress with this challenging query, three specific concepts will need to be highlighted. Intersecting and subtle, these are death, time and immortality.  Here, any discovery of deeper meanings could never become a task for the intellectually faint-hearted. This could not be a job for those who would choose yet again to follow the political simplifiers.

                 There is ample good reason why relevant issues should be examined at a conceptuallevel. Concepts represent the “building blocks” of any comprehensive theory, and theory represents the beginning of any science. Science, in turn, identifies a presumptively optimal method of reaching conclusions, a method involving the stipulation, examination and subsequent confirmation or disconfirmation of alternative hypotheses.

                This is what all meaningful political inquiry is necessarily about. When taken together, these operations provide the textbook definition of science. Reciprocally, to believe in science is to reject the political simplifiers.

                A “next question” dawns. How shall Americans proceed if their national and sub-national governance is to be improved, especially in a world political system of belligerent nationalism shaped by corrosive acrimony and nuclear weapons?[7] What can the singular but interconnected concepts of death, time and immortality teach us about America’s overall human landscape, both present and future?[8] How shall this nation ever be able to advance beyond the childlike prescriptions and gratuitous rancor of its crude domestic politics, an advance that has now become indispensable to any actual national survival?

                To answer thoughtfully, analysts must begin with the individual human being, with the microcosm. With this commencement, though disregarded and de facto invisible, power over death would represent the ultimate reward for dutiful political compliance. Though spoken only in whispers, furtively, sotto voce, there could be no greater power to confer than this more-or-less tacit promise of immortality.

Personal Faith and the “Hunger of Immortality[9]

                “I believe,” says Oswald Spengler in his 20th century classic, The Decline of the West” (1918-1923), “is the one great word against metaphysical fear.” In this inherently abstract connection, we may learn from Emmanuel Levinas something of head spinning import: “It is through death,” says the modern philosopher,  “that there is time….”[10] It follows, among other things, that any nation that can seemingly enhance the promise of personal immortality among its people can also heighten the promises of time.[11]

                These are multiple and mutually reinforcing promises.

                These promises are anything but mundane or banal.

                They can never be understood by the political simplifiers or by their rhythmically chanting followers.

                So what can such dense abstraction ever have to do with rescuing American politics from the predatory embrace of “mass”?

                These are not easy concepts to understand, especially in the context of America’s continuing preoccupation with dissembling personalities, multiplying superficialities and escalating rancor.  In candor, no society so willing to compromise truth on behalf of  doctrinal “anti-reason”[12] can reasonably expect to endure, let alone to progress.

                 These are not easy concepts to unravel or interpret. And yet, they are more plainly explanatory of this nation’s dynamic existential problems than are the commonly ritualistic recitations of public political personalities. If chronology is in fact contingent upon death – because human mortality puts an irreversible “stop” to each individual’s personal time[13] – an antecedent question must also be posed: How does one gain calculable power over death,[14] and what does such gain have to do with the fate of any particular state or nation?

                It is with this near-preposterous question in hand that more genuinely promising political inquiries should be launched.

                What next? Before venturing a proper answer to any such many-sided question, analysts and thinkers should first distinguish between actual or tangible power and the personal expectation that such power must lie in variously decipherable ties to God.  Though not in any way a matter of science, we humans have always sought reassuring links to the sacred or divine. In identifying humankind’s purported ties here –  ties that are expectedly prior to any relevant acquisitions of power over death – the most evident and “time-tested” paths involve faith. It is hardly happenstance or coincidence that every one of the world’s major religions offers its adherents variously alluring and often comparable promises of immortality.

                There is more. Such powerful assurances come with assorted contingencies, some of which would prove far more difficult to satisfy than others. Nonetheless, in the main, whatever the specific contingencies or nuances of differentiation involved, it is a bargain being offered to individuals who hope most fervidly not to die. Seemingly, at least, it is a gainful pact, one whereby the faithful adherents of any pertinent religion (1) commit wholly to the affirmation of all true piety (“I believe),”[15] and (2) prioritize this sacred affirmation above all conceivable others.

Immortality and Martyrdom

                Additional particularities will need to be noted. On occasion, at least, the doctrinal priority “I believe” can demand a faith-confirming end to an individual believer’s physical life on earth, that is, an act of martyrdom.  At other times, assorted high-minded doctrines of charity, caring and compassion notwithstanding, this priority can require the torture and/or killing of designated “unbelievers,” “heathen,” “apostates,” etc., to safeguard “the one true faith.”[16]

                Whatever special circumstances of “sacrifice” may be involved[17] – and they need not be mutually exclusive – Reason must give way to Unreason. Ironically, as we have already seen, any such grotesque surrender is no less likely in the Age of Science than in any earlier Age of Belief.[18] Regarding this worrisome allegation, the daily news offers corroborative “evidence” ex hypothesi.


                Several core truths are being revealed. Any cumulative hopes for an individual rising “above mortality” can have critical consequences for the macrocosm, for war and peace on Planet Earth.[19]  In the nineteenth century, at his posthumously published Lecture on Politics (1896), German historian Heinrich von Treitschke observed: “Individual man sees in his own country the realization of his earthly immortality.” Earlier, German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel opined in his Philosophy of Right (1820) that the state represents “the march of God in the world.”

                 These widely-cited views in political science and philosophy tie loyalty to the state (usually unquestioned loyalty) with the incomparable promise of power over death. By definition, this must always represent a monumental promise, one generally recognized in Platonic “reflections” of political activity.[20] Whenever the historian looks beyond the distracting reflections of true images, he discovers no plausible evidence of such a promise ever having been kept.

                There is more. This is an extraordinary and always-unfulfilled promise, but one that still remains incomparable.[21] During his rabidly incoherent tenure as US president,[22] Donald J. Trump’s conspicuously pernicious brand of belligerent nationalism[23] (“America First”[24]) offered “patriotic” adherents this dangerously seductive promise. In the end, because it was founded upon a fusion of stark ignorance with doctrinal anti-reason, “America First” brought with it a vision of time that could only hasten death at several levels.

                Prima facie, Trump’s self-congratulatory phrases did nothing to “overcome” mortality.[25]

                Additional nuances warrant competent examination. In all related matters, faith and science intersect with coinciding considerations of law.[26] The fearful “deification” of Realpolitik, a transformation of ideology from a simple principle of action to a sacred end in itself, drew germinal strength from the doctrine of sovereignty.[27] First conceived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a juridical principle of internal order, this doctrine has undergone far-reaching metamorphoses, whence it now remains the peremptory legal rationale for international anarchy (better known by political philosophers as the global “state of nature.)”

Sovereignty and Power Over Death

                To understand such complex intersections, we must first understand “sovereignty.” Established by Jean Bodin as a juristic concept in De Republica (1576), sovereignty quickly came to be regarded as the supreme human political power, absolute and above all other forms of law.[28] In the oft-recited and oft-studied words of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan: “Where there is no common Power, there is no law.”

                As to any correspondences withtime, which is how we have come to consider such complex issues in the first place, Hobbes explains why this “no law” condition should be called “war,” and even when there exists no “actual fighting.”  More precisely, because  “war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of Time….,[29] scholars and policy-makers will need to broaden their most fundamental ideas of “war.” Though this would at first appear an esoteric requirement, one without any discernible links to real world policy-making, exactly the opposite is actually true.

                When it is understood in terms of modern international relations, the doctrine of sovereignty encourages the refractory notion that states  (a) lie above and beyond any legal regulation in their interactions with each other, and (b) act rationally whenever they seek tangible benefits at the expense of other states or the global system as a whole.[30] Still, following the time of egregious Trump derangements,[31] this doctrine threatened a wholesale collapse of civilizational cooperation and world order, a dis-establishment spawned  ultimately by the “timeless” human wish for immortality and by certain misconceived human associations of “wish fulfillment”[32] with “everyone for himself” foreign policies.

Time and the Hobbesian “State of War”

                Without suitable changes in the Hobbesian “tract of time,” the global State of War nurtured by refractory ideas about absolute sovereignty[33] points not only to an immutable human mortality, but also toward death on unprecedented levels. Currently, one such notion is climate change denial, a stubbornly-preferred posture of anti-reason embraced by earlier Trump-world derangements of both science and law. Left unaffected by more proper considerations of scientific analysis and refined intellect, climate change denial could ultimately produce another mass extinction on Planet Earth.[34]

                At that point, of course, time will have lost all of its once-residual meanings, and death will inherit all that still is.

                Considered by itself, immortality remains an unworthy and unseemly human goal, because it is scientific nonsense[35] (“An immortal person  is a contradiction in  terms”[36]) and because it fosters such endlessly injurious human behaviors as war, terrorism, genocide[37] and “martyrdom.”[38] The dignified task before us is not to try to remove the individual human hope to soar above death (that is, to achieve some tangible sort of immortality),[39] but rather to “de-link” this futile and vainglorious search from grievously destructive human behaviors.[40]

                How best to proceed with such a multi-faceted task? This is not an easy question, and one that can never be answered in terms of any reflections of reality. There are available here no science-based guidelines. And even if there were such availability, this is not just another ordinary problem that can yield ipso facto to rationality-based solutions. On the contrary, and infinitely-distressing, the wish to immortality is so deeply urgent and immutably universal that it can never be dispelled by logical argument.

A Perilous Political Lure: “Whisperings of the Irrational”

                Aware of this dilemma, philosopher Karl Jaspers writes in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952): “There is something inside all of us that yearns not for reason but for mystery – not for penetrating clear thought but for the whisperings of the irrational….” Always, and understandably, the  most seductive of these irrational whisperings are those that offer to confer a selective power over death.[41] But it is in the criteria of any such “selection” that far-reaching evils can be born.

                This is especially problematic here because the promised power over death requires the “sacrifice” of certain despised “others.”

                In science, death is inevitably a function of biology. Moreover, because it “presents” together with tangible decomposition and decay – and because it even calls for human comprehension of nothingness within a “flow of time” – there exist no plausible ways of replacing mystery with rationality. By its very nature, which inevitably brings forth both inconsolable fears and paralyzing anxieties, death will never submit to even the most refined sorts of intellectual management.


                It’s not that sort of “nemesis.”

                Nonetheless, at least in principle, some measure of existential relief can be discovered in transience, that is, in the unassailable awareness that nothing is forever and that everything is impermanent. What is required at this stage is the conceptual reciprocal of any imagined human decomposition or disintegration. This would mean deliberately cultivating the imagery of expanded human significance that stems from life’s limited duration. In scientific  terms, one might usefully describe this quality as life’s “scarcity value.”[42] Though seemingly paradoxical, any such gainful mental cultivation may effectively represent the optimal human strategy of “achieving immortality” or “not dying.”

                How did we Americans ever arrive at such a complex and intellectually-challenging conclusion?  We began with the view that daily news reports and “assessments” are just changing reflections of much deeper human activities. In order to deal more satisfactorily with the incessant horrors of American national politics we will first have to understand the verifiably true source of all such reflections.[43]

                These particular underpinnings of daily news events are rooted in certain conceptual intersections of death, time and immortality. It is only with a more determined understanding of these many-sided intersections that Americans can ever reasonably hope to understand the false political promises of immortality. There could be no more significant kind of understanding.

The Barbarism of Specialization

In the end, American politics – like all politics – must remain a shadowy second-order activity, hence, a distorting reflection of what is truly important. For now, in the United States, such politics continues to thrive upon a vast personal emptiness, on a collective infirmity that represents the disfiguring reciprocal of personal fulfillment. “Conscious of his emptiness,” warned the German philosopher Karl Jaspers in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952), “man (human) tries to make a faith for himself (or herself) in the political realm. In Vain.”

“In vain.”

                 In even an authentic American democracy, only a few could ever hope to redeem themselves and the wider nation, but these self-effacing souls would generally remain silent, hidden in more-or-less “deep cover,” often even from themselves. In a democracy where education is increasingly oriented toward narrowly vocational forms of career preparation, an orientation toward “barbaric specialization,” these residual few can plausibly expect to be “suffocated” by the many. Any such “asphyxiation,” and in absolutely any of its conceivable particularities, would represent a bad way to “die.”[44]

                Donald J. Trump did not emerge on the American political scene ex nihilo, out of nothing. His incoherent, corrupt and continuously defiling presidency was the direct result of a society that had long since abandoned any serious thought in favor of epiphenomena or reflections. When such a society no longer asked the “big philosophical questions” – for example, “What is the “good” in government and politics”? or “How do I lead a good life as person and citizen”? or “How can I best nurture the well-being of other human beings”? – the negative outcome was inevitable. It was an outcome that we are currently living through in the United States, and have come perilously close to “dying through.”

                Going forward, what Americans ought to fear most of all lies in this self-injuring outcome of reflected truth, and not in any particular electoral result. At this perplexing national turning point, nothing could prove more urgently important for the United States than to rid itself entirely of Donald Trump’s ongoing movement against American Constitutional democracy. These afflictions are mutually reinforcing and potentially synergistic. But even the much needed eradications would likely be transient. More fundamentally, recalling philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset timeless warning about the “barbarism of specialization,” this country must soon resurrect an ethos of genuine education, one in which learning can benefit the whole human being and not just his or her work-related corner of the universe.

                Also necessary will be a long-deferred obligation to acknowledge the fundamental interrelatedness of all peoples and the binding universality of international law.[45] To survive as a nation and as individuals, more Americans will need to become seriously educated, not merely as well-trained cogs in a vast industrial machine, but as authentically empathetic and caring citizens. “Everyone is the other, and no one is just himself,” cautions Martin Heidegger in Being and Time (1932), but this elementary lesson, once discoverable in myriad sacred texts, is not easily operationalized.

                 It is in this single monumental failure of “operationalization” that American civilization has most conspicuously failed.

                In Trump-era American governance, the former president’s core message was never about any co-responsibility of human beings for their fellows, but about “winners,” “losers” and a presumptively rational citizen obligation to “Make America Great.” In this twisted context, “greatness” assumed a Darwinian or zero-sum condition, not one wherein each individual could finally favor harmonious cooperation over belligerent competition.[46] Perhaps the very last thing any sane person would ever seek in this crude condition is immortality.

                How shall we finally change all this, or, recalling Plato’s wisdom in The Republic, how shall welearn “to make the souls of the citizens better?” This is not a question that anyone can answer in elucidating detail. Still, it is a question that ought to be placed before the imperiled American polity before the next election, before it is once again “too late.”[47]

                American democracy faces multiple hazards, including Ortega y’Gasset “barbarism of specialization.” To be rescued in time, each hazard will have to be tackled carefully, by itself, but also in coordinated tandem with certain other identifiable perils. Overall, the task will be daunting and overwhelming, but the alternative is no longer tolerable.

                Not at all.

                To be sure, Donald J. Trump’s permanent removal from elective office would represent a sine qua non for all still-applicable remedies, but even such indispensable removal could target only a symptomof America’s “true” national pathology. By itself, saving the United States from further Trump derangements is necessary, but it would still leave unchanged the country’s more deeply underlying “disease.” In the end, because Americans will finally need to bring a less “specialized” form of learning to their pertinent citizenship responsibilities, the nation will have to figure out assorted practical ways of restoring educational “wholeness.”

                Can this sort of rational calculation be expected? Maybe not. Perhaps, like the timeless message of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, the warning may “have come too soon.” But if such a premature warning turns out to be the case, there may be no “later.”

What is “Drawing Near”?

                “Is it an end that draws near,” inquires Karl Jaspers in Man in the Modern Age (1951) “or a beginning.” The meaningful answer, which lies beyond any measuring hands of clocks,[48] is by no means self-evident. Determining this critical answer is now a fundamental expectation of American political destiny.

                Nothing could be more important.

                Soon, as we have just seen, Americans will need to get solidly beyond the demeaning banalities of partisan politics, beyond the distracting and potentially murderous “reflections” of what is genuinely important. Immutably, but also invisibly, most human residents of planet earth continue to regard “power over death” as the highest imaginable form of power. Still, it will likely remain unclear how such ultimate power could be linked purposefully to America’s politics and foreign policies.

Meaning and Belonging

                 Inter alia, to look suitably beyond reflections on the evening news, Americans must discover two other principal animating forces of their national political realm. These forces concern Meaning and Belonging.[49] Significantly, they represent other true images of American politics – images additional to immortality or “power over death” – that could also bestow necessary feelings of personal self-worth.

                Such images coalesce around activities that can confer pleasing human emotions of “time well spent” and/or group membership. The overriding problem, of course, is that such activities are not always benign. Sometimes, as we may learn from history, they can include war, terrorism and genocide.

“The They”

                In his modern classic study, Being and Time (1953), Martin Heidegger laments what he calls in German das Mann, or “The They.”  Drawing fruitfully upon earlier seminal insights of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Jung and Freud, Heidegger’s “The They” represents the ever-present herd, crowd, horde or mass, an “untruth” (the specific term favored by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard) that can all-too-quickly suffocate intellectual growth and human compassion. For Heidegger’s ubiquitous “The They,” the crowning human untruth must lie in “herd” acceptance of immortality at both institutional and personal levels, and in herd encouragement of the notion that personal power over death can be derivative (recall our earlier remarks on Hegel and Treitschke) from membership in nation-states.

                On its face, history reveals that this acceptance can become an insidious or even murderous notion.

                There is always more. Any reassuring notions about potential for personal immortality are contingent upon the pertinent nation-state’s “sacredness.” Here, only membership in a “sacred” group can serve to confer life-everlasting. This connection is now markedly evident amid America’s increasingly bitter “identity” politics.

                “In the end,” says Goethe, “we are creatures of our own making.” But to best ensure that such “creatures” are dignified, decent and meaningfully cooperative with one another, all societies must first be able to distinguish true human feelings and expectations from “reflections.” In the fragmenting United States, where the nation’s most basic tonality has already become dissonance, one conclusion is unassailable: Americans should finally acknowledge the existential risks of following the political “magicians”[50] and detach themselves from perpetually grave distortions of social reality.

                Unlike T S Eliot’s readers of The Boston Evening Transcript, these Americans ought no longer allow themselves to “sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn.”

[1]. In Plato’s still-famous parable of the cave, the early Greek philosopher clarifies distinctions between “truth and shadow.” See, by this author, Louis René Beres, https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2020/09/08/truth-and-shadow-to-understan See also, at Oxford University Press, Louis René Beres:  https://blog.oup.com/2011/08/philosopher-king/

[2] In the 17th century, French philosopher Blaise Pascal remarked prophetically in Pensées: “All our dignity consists in thought…It is upon this that we must depend…Let us labor then to think well: this is the foundation of morality.” Similar reasoning characterizes the writings of Baruch Spinoza, Pascal’s 17th-century contemporary. In Book II of his Ethics Spinoza considers the human mind, or the intellectual attributes, and – drawing further from Descartes – strives to define an essential theory of learning and knowledge.

[3] See Jose Ortega y’Gassett, The Revolt of the Masses (1930; Spanish original). This statement about “mass” is essentially true by definition.

[4] This absurd assurance resembled the official Joseph Goebbels Third Reich party line that “Germany needs leaders with instinct, not intellect.” Said Goebbels at a Nuremberg party rally in 1934: “Intellect rots the brain.” Declared US presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016, at several of his own Republican party rallies: “I love the poorly educated.” Later, Trump claimed that Covid19 “will disappear on its own,” ingestion of household disinfectants can help protect Americans from the Covid19 virus, that the 18th century American revolutionary army “quickly took control of all United States airports,” and that we should consider using nuclear weapons against hurricanes.

[5] The “mass-man,” we learn from 20th century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses, “learns only in his own flesh.”

[6] On this point, we may consider an earlier remark by Thomas Mann, one that identifies the downfall of civilizations in general with “the gradual absorption of the educated classes by the masses, the `simplification’ of all functions of political, social, economic and spiritual life.” In short, warned Mann (and also as understood by Spanish existentialist Jose Ortega y’Gasset), “barbarization.” See Stanley Corngold, The Mind in Exile: Thomas Mann in Princeton (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2022), ix. As was the case for Thomas Mann, the present writer (Louis René Beres) has had important life connections to both Zürich and Princeton.

[7] See recently, by this author, Louis René Beres:  https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2021/10/24/to-prevent-a-nuclear-war-americas-overriding-policy-imperative/

[8] A common aspect to these three core concepts is the inherently vague idea of “soul.” Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung thought of “soul” (in German, Seele) as the essence of a human being. Neither Freud nor Jung ever provided a precise definition of the term, but it was not intended by either in an ordinary religious sense. For both, it was a still-recognizable and critical seat of mind and passions in this life. Interesting, too, in the present context, is that Freud explained his already-predicted decline of America by express references to “soul.” He was plainly disgusted by a civilization so tangibly unmoved by considerations of true “consciousness” (e.g., an awareness of intellect and literature); Freud even thought that the crude American commitment to perpetually shallow optimism and material accomplishment would inevitably occasion sweeping psychological misery. Judging, among other things, by the extent of America’s expanding opiate crisis, this prediction was well on-the-mark.

[9] This succinct phrase, the “hunger of immortality,” is central to Miguel de Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life (1921). During my more than fifty years as a Purdue University professor, I often identified this seminal work as the single most important book I had ever read. Interestingly, it was another great Spanish existentialist, Jose Ortega y’Gasset, who comes in as a close second.

[10] See Emmanuel Levinas, “Time Considered on the Basis of Death” (1976). In another essay, Levinas says: “An immortal person is a contradiction in terms.” Though seemingly an obvious assertion, it also runs counter to promises of the world’s principal religions, and therefore to the most common catch-phrases of US domestic politics.

[11] For an early examination of time’s impact on foreign policy decision-making, see, by this author, Louis René Beres, “Time, Consciousness and Decision-making in Theories of International Relations,” The Journal of Value Inquiry, Vol. VIII, No.3., Fall 1974, pp. 175-186.

[12] For the best available assessment of this concept, see: Karl Jaspers, Reason and anti-Reason in our Time (1952). The German philosopher clarifies the “fog of the irrational” that bedeviled Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, and later the United States during the Trump years. In a distillation of his conspicuously grand thought, Jaspers proclaimed: “Reason is confronted again and again with the fact of a mass of believers who have lost all ability to listen, who can absorb no logical argument and who hold unshakably fast to the Absurd as an unassailable presupposition….” Today, in the United States, one should think immediately of Qanoon conspiracy thinking.

[13] The charming idea that time can somehow “have a stop” is raised by Indiana writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in Slaughterhouse Five (1969).

[14] Interestingly, observes Spanish existentialist philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset in Man and Crisis (1958): “History is an illustrious war against death.” 

[15] Says Oswald Spengler famously in The Decline of the West, “‘I believe’ is the one great word (sic.) against metaphysical fear.” Such “fear” is essentially a euphemistic or sanitizing reference to death.

[16] But killing need not always be linked to promises of power over death. Sometimes, per Eugene Ionesco, “People kill and are killed in order to prove to themselves that life exists.” See the Romanian playwright’s only novel, The Hermit, 102 (1973).

[17] Already aware that blind fanaticism is the ultimate scourge of all decent politics, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard recognized that there are too many individuals, not too few, who take it as their sacred duty to sacrifice others on the blood-stained altars of personal immortality.

[18] See, for example, by this author:  Louis René Beres, https://besacenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/1053-Terrorism-as-Power-over-Death-Beres-final.pdf

[19] Here it ought also to be kept in mind that the incremental destruction of biodiversity on Planet Earth is producing a continuous natural climate catastrophe, one that naturalist David Attenborough suggests will likely end in another mass extinction. This means, inter alia, more-or-less predictable synergies between growing catastrophes of the natural world and catastrophes of specifically human misunderstanding. In synergistic interactions, by definition, the cumulative harm (the “whole”) is greater than the sum of component sufferings (the “parts”).

[20]Plato’s theory, offered in the fourth century B.C.E, seeks to explain politics as an unstable realm of sense and matter, an arena formed and sustained by half-truths and distorted perceptions.  In contrast to the stable realm of immaterial Forms, from which all genuine knowledge must be derived, the political realm is dominated by myriad uncertainties of the sensible world.  At the basis of this political theory is a physical-mental analogy that establishes a correlation between the head, heart and abdomen, and the indispensable human virtues of intelligence, courage and moderation. 

[21] Still, we must consider the contra view of Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses (1932). Here, Ortega identifies the state not as a convenient source of immortality, but as the very opposite. For him, the state is “the greatest danger,” mustering its immense and irresistible resources “to crush beneath it any creative minority that disturbs it….” Earlier, in his chapter “On the New Idol” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote similarly: “State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters…All-too-many are born – for the superfluous the state was invented.” Later, in the same chapter: “A hellish artifice was invented there (the state), a horse of death…Indeed, a dying for many was invented there; verily, a great service to all preachers of death!”

[22] The Trump White House consistently sought to persuade Americans by way of deliberate simplifications and falsifications. See, on the plausible consequences of any such deceptive measures, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s observation in On Certainty:  “Remember that one is sometimes convinced of the correctness of a view by its simplicity or symmetry….”

[23] The belligerent nationalismof former US president Donald Trump stands in marked contrast to authoritative legal assumptions concerning solidarity between states. These jurisprudential assumptions concern a presumptively common legal struggle against aggression and terrorism. Such a “peremptory” expectation, known formally in law as a jus cogens assumption, had already been mentioned in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis (533 CE); Hugo Grotius, 2 De Jure Belli ac Pacis Libri Tres, Ch. 20 (Francis W. Kesey., tr, Clarendon Press, 1925) (1690); and Emmerich de Vattel, 1 Le Droit des Gens, Ch. 19 (1758).

[24] See, for example, by this author, at JURIST, Louis René Beres, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/05/louis-beres-america-first-2/; and https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2019/06/louis-beres-america-first/

[25] In philosophic terms, this idea of “overcoming” is distinctly “Nietzsche.”

[26] Though still not widely understood, especially by former US president Trump, international law isa part of US law.  In the words of Mr. Justice Gray, delivering the judgment of the US Supreme Court in Paquete Habana (1900): “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction….” (175 U.S. 677(1900)) See also: Opinion in Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic (726 F. 2d 774 (1984)).The more specific incorporation of treaty law into US municipal law is expressly codified at Art. 6 of the US Constitution, the so-called “Supremacy Clause.”  For pertinent earlier decisions by Justice John Marshall, see: The Antelope, 23 U.S. (10 Wheat.) 66, 120 (1825); The Nereide, 13 U.S. (9 Cranch) 388, 423 (1815); Rose v. Himely, 8 U.S. (4 Cranch) 241, 277 (1808) and Murray v. The Schooner Charming Betsy, 6 U.S. (2 Cranch) 64, 118 (1804).

[27] See, on this doctrine, by this author: Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order (1984).

[28] We may recall here Thomas Aquinas’ commentary on Augustine: “St. Augustine says: `There is no law unless it be just.’ So the validity of law depends upon its justice. But in human affairs, a thing is said to be just when it accords aright with the rule of reason; and as we have already seen, the first rule of reason is the Natural Law. Thus, all humanly enacted laws are in accord with reason to the extent that they derive from the Natural Law. And if a human law is at variance in any particular with the Natural Law, it is no longer legal, but rather a corruption of law.” See: SUMMA THEOLOGICA, 1a, 2ae, 95, 2; cited by A.P. d’Entreves, NATURAL LAW: AN INTRODUCTION TO LEGAL PHILOSOPPHY (1951), pp. 42-43.

[29] Thomas Hobbes argues convincingly that the international state of nature is “less intolerable” than that condition among individuals in nature because, only in the latter, the “weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest.” With the spread of nuclear weapons, this difference is plainly disappearing. Interestingly, perhaps, in the pre-nuclear age, Samuel Pufendorf, like Hobbes, was persuaded that the state of nations “…lacks those inconveniences which are attendant upon a pure state of nature….” Similarly, Spinoza suggested that “…a commonwealth can guard itself against being subjugated by another, as a man in the state of nature cannot do.” (See: Louis René Beres, The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis, University of Denver, Monograph Series in World Affairs, Vol. 10, No.3., 1972-73, p. 65.)

[30] In studies of world politics, rationality and irrationality have now taken on very specific meanings. More precisely, a state or sub-state actor is presumed to be determinedly rational to the extent that its leadership always values national survival more highly than any other conceivable preference or combination of preferences. Conversely, an irrational actor might not always display such a determinable preference ordering.

[31]One such derangement was Trump’s willful movement away from cooperative world politics to an exaggerated “everyone for himself” ethos. Says French Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man (1955): “The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of `everyone for himself’ is false and against nature.”

[32] A term made famous by Sigmund Freud in both The Interpretation of Dreams and The Future of an Illusion.

[33] In this connection, notes Sigmund Freud: “Wars will only be prevented with certainty if mankind unites in setting up a central authority to which the right of giving judgment upon all shall be handed over. There are clearly two separate requirements involved in this: the creation of a supreme agency and its endowment with the necessary power. One without the other would be useless.” (See: Sigmund Freud, Collected Papers, cited in Louis René Beres, The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis, University of Denver, Monograph Series in World Affairs, Vol. 10 (1973-73), p, 27.) Interestingly, Albert Einstein held very similar views. See, for example: Otto Nathan et al. eds., Einstein on Peace (New York: Schoken Books, 1960).

[34] See, in this regard, recent BBC film productions on Nature by Richard Attenborough.

[35] Having been born augurs badly for immortality. In their desperation to live perpetually, human societies and civilizations have always embraced a broad panoply of faiths that promise life everlasting in exchange for “undying” loyalty. In the end, such loyalty is transferred from the Faith to the State, which then battles with other States in what is generally taken to be a “struggle for power” but which is often, in reality, a perceived Final Conflict between “Us” and “Them,” between Good and Evil. The advantage to being on the side of “Good” in any such contest is nothing less than the promise of eternal life.

[36] See Emmanuel Levinas, God, Death and Time (1993); originally in French as Dieu, la mort et le temps (1993).

[37] See Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, opened for signature, December 9, 1948, entered into force, January 12, 1951, 78 U.N.T.S. 277. Although the criminalizing aspect of inter­national law that proscribes genocide‑like conduct may derive from a source other than the Gen­ocide Convention (i.e. it may emerge from customary international law and be included in different international conventions), such conduct is dearly a crime under international law. Even where the conduct in question does not affect the interests of more than one state, it becomes an inter­national crime whenever it constitutes an offense against the world community delicto ius gentium.

[38] Paradoxically, the terrorist martyr kills himself or herself not in deliberate search of death, but rather to avoid death. In other words, this “martyr” kills himself or herself in order not to die.

[39] The philosopher George Santayana reveals: “In endowing us with memory, nature has revealed to us a truth utterly unimaginable to the unreflective creation. The truth of mortality…. The more we reflect, the more we live in memory and idea, the more convinced and penetrated we shall be by the experience of death; yet, without our knowing it, perhaps, this very conviction and experience will have raised us, in a way, above mortality.” (See: George Santayana, REASON IN RELIGION, 260 (1982). This Dover edition is an unabridged republication of Volume III of THE LIFE OF REASON, published originally by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1905.

[40] How does killing in war and terrorism hold out a promise of immortality? According to Eugene Ionesco, “I must kill my visible enemy, the one who is determined to take my life, to prevent him from killing me. Killing gives me a feeling of relief, because I am dimly aware that in killing him, I have killed death. Killing is a way of relieving one’s feelings, of warding off one’s own death.” This comment from Ionesco’s JOURNAL appeared in the British magazine, ENCOUNTER, May 1966. See also: Eugene Ionesco, FRAGMENTS OF A JOURNAL (Grove Press, 1968).

[41] The idea of death as a zero-sum commodity is captured playfully by Ernest Becker’s paraphrase of Elias Canetti: “Each organism raises it head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.” (See Ernest Becker, ESCAPE FROM EVIL 2 (1975).  Similarly, according to Otto Rank: “The death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the Sacrifice, of the other; through the death of the other, one buys oneself free from the penalty of dying, of being killed.” (See: Otto Rank, WILL THERAPY AND REALITY  130 (Knopf, 1945) (1936).

[42] This term is drawn here from a lesser-known 1913 essay by Sigmund Freud “On Transience.”

[43]In the language of formal philosophy, this brings to mind Plato’s doctrine of Forms. As explained in dialogues Philebus, Phaedo and Republic, the Forms are always immaterial, uniform and immutable. To be useful to humankind, by definition, they must express not the concrete or physical events of any specific moment in time, but rather an idea that necessarily soars above all such tangible particularities.

[44] In more expressly concrete terms, average American life-expectancy, unenviable for several decades, has now fallen behind most of the advanced industrial world. While Trump boasted of a wall to keep out Mexicans and assorted “others,” more and more Americans were planning to cross in the other direction.

[45] Apropos of this universality, international law is generally part of the law of the United States. These legal systems are always interpenetrating. Declared Mr. Justice Gray, in delivering the judgment of the US Supreme Court in Paquete Habana (1900): “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction….” (175 U.S. 677(1900)) See also: Opinion in Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic (726 F. 2d 774 (1984)). The specific incorporation of treaty law into US municipal law is expressly codified at Art. 6 of the US Constitution, the so-called “Supremacy Clause.”

[46] Here it could be helpful to recall the words of French Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man: “The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of `everyone for himself’ is false and against nature.”

[47] “Sometimes,” says Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, “the worst does happen.”

[48] Chronology is not the same thing as temporality. To acknowledge a useful metaphysics of time, one that can assist us in a better understanding of world and national politics, we may recall William Faulkner’s novel view in The Sound and the Fury that “clocks slay time…time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.” Real time, the celebrated American author is telling us, eludes any measurement by clocks. Real time, in essence, is always “felt time,” an inner stream of duration It is precisely this durée that is suggested by Plato’s clarifying cave analogy.

[49] See, by this author, Louis René Beres:  https://globalejournal.org/global-e/september-2018/primal-politics-belonging-and-immortality

[50] Says Karl Jaspers in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952): “The masses have followed the magicians again and again. Socrates and Plato were the first to take up the struggle against them in a clear awareness of what was at stake.” A kindred metaphor here would be “pied pipers.”

Prof. Louis René Beres
Prof. Louis René Beres
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.