Refutations and Rebuttals

Martin Hägglund, This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free

Profile, 464pp, £10.99, ISBN 13 9781788163002

reviewed by Marc Farrant

In 1979 the band Talking Heads released a song entitled ‘Heaven’. Some of the lyrics are as follows: ‘Heaven is a place / A place where nothing / Nothing ever happens’. The song is melodic and wistful; compassionate in form and irreverent in content. It is both soothing and satirical at the same time, suggesting that feeling and emotion need not be profound to be real. In This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free, Swedish philosopher Martin Hägglund takes up this argument against profundity to profound effect. Not only is the timeless repose of heaven impossible, it is also undesirable. Despite its various forms, Hägglund argues that all world religions privilege the eternal over the finite, timelessness over time. From Christianity to Buddhism, finitude is seen as nothing but a restriction. Yet it is the possibility of change – for something to happen, whatever that may be – that guarantees meaning. Reading an article in U.S. Catholic magazine entitled ‘Heaven: Will It Be Boring?’, that argues emphatically no, since heaven calls for ‘eternal activity’ rather than eternal rest, leaves Hägglund simply to declare: ‘this answer only underlines the problem, since there is nothing to be concerned about in heaven’. Our care for others and our commitment to projects, both individual and collective, depend upon the chance that our loved ones can be lost, that our projects may fail: ‘Concern presupposes that something can go wrong or can be lost; otherwise we would not care’.

The book is full of similar refutations and rebuttals. Hägglund is above all a visionary debunker, he cuts through both common sense and religious mystification with perspicacious ease. Readers of his previous works, which are interestingly seldom discussed in reviews of This Life, will be familiar with this audacious clarity. As a thinker indebted to the continental philosophical tradition, this lucidity might seem surprising. Hägglund is a stickler for logic, but not logic as a mere tool of system building. The guiding logical principle in all Hägglund’s work is this: for something to be, it cannot be in itself. Contrary to Aristotle, one’s logic should not abide by a law of non-contradiction but rather be used to demonstrate precisely how contradictions exist even when there appears to be none: I am alive, but only by virtue of the fact I am slowly dying; I am a self, an individual, but only by virtue of my reliance on other selves who recognise me as such. No contemporary thinker pursues this fundamentally deconstructive logic more acutely and more devastatingly than Martin Hägglund. Building a positive programme out of such a deconstructive line of thinking is beset with difficulties, however. Yet in This Life Hägglund comes closer than in previous works to offering such a programme and therefore closer to the spirit of a key thinker featured therein: Hegel, and his sense of creative negation. This programme comprises the second half of the work, which is devoted to the notion of spiritual freedom.

Firstly, though, I want to address the notion of secular faith that is outlined in the work’s opening three chapters (which address the religious writing of C. S. Lewis, Augustine, and Kierkegaard). Arguing immortality is not necessarily new. Epicurus in the 4th century BC famously sought to dispel the longing for immortality by proffering this advice: when I am, death is not, and when death is, I am not. In other words, why fear something that cannot affect me? After all, if death is bad then for whom is it bad? The dead aren’t exactly famous for complaining. Yet Hägglund goes further. For him, it is a ‘sense of the ultimate fragility of everything we care about’, that lies at the heart of what he calls secular faith, and this secular faith is not seen as an alternative to religious faith but precisely what underpins the desire for immortality in the first place. As James Woods writes in his review for The New Yorker: ‘[Hägglund] wants to out religionists as closet secularists’. To be finite is ‘to live in relation to death’, Hägglund writes, and it is this only thanks to this relation that the desire for immortality takes on meaning. Contrary to Epicurean wisdom, being alive depends on death, which means that any appeal to immortality is an appeal to negate life itself. In other words, immortality and death are the same thing: states in which ‘Nothing ever happens’.

Although there is an ambivalence about whether or not secular faith is something we can choose, or whether in fact such a faith is always chosen for us already – since finitude denotes the very condition for possibility of caring and choosing – Hägglund’s argument nonetheless presents a wonderful opportunity to riposte the New Atheist monopoly on rationality. For writers such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, atheism is defined by the disproval of God’s existence. Yet this mistakenly conflates the order of religious belief (theism) with the order of knowledge. If I knew something was the case (that God exists, for example) I wouldn’t need to believe in it. The irony is that as self-elected guardians of rationality, by confusing the orders of belief and of knowledge the new atheists are liable to repeat the same fallacy as their more dogmatic religious counterparts. The British comedian and broadcaster, David Mitchell, offers a more nuanced position: If I agree that God is beyond the order of knowledge, then agnosticism, rather than atheism, is the truly rational response to the unknown. This concedes that matters of belief are beyond argument, but refuses to see an argument beyond the ‘what’ or the ‘who’ of God’s being. For Hägglund, secular faith (or what was previously termed radical atheism) concerns not the ‘what’ of belief but the consequences of belief, the ‘why’. As he writes: ‘The assumption that eternity is desirable is much more pervasive than any alleged certainty concerning its existence’. To suggest, as Hägglund does, that ‘nothing can live on in a timeless presence and nothing can matter in an everlasting existence’ is to fire a full broadside at both religious mystics and new atheists alike.

Hägglund’s account of secular faith has transformative effects for what we mean by desire, a topic he covers at length in his previous book, Dying for Time. The challenge to show the undesirability of God requires that Hägglund unpack both desire and a sense of freedom inimical to religious observance. What does it mean for something to be undesirable? The ambivalence between the cannot and the should not is equal to the ambivalence between secular faith as the unchosen structure that lies behind my commitments and secular faith as my chosen orientation to these commitments. It might be undesirable to desire immortality, since such a state would in fact nullify what makes life worth living, but does this mean it’s impossible? Must my faith always be in bad faith? Hägglund asks us to devote ourselves ‘to a life that will end’, but one might ask how this secular faith is not also a kind of bad faith since finitude is the pre-requisite for faith and therefore beyond belief. One gains little from stating that I need to be alive in order to desire life. Doesn’t the notion of faith require a relation to the future that is not only temporally open to change but, at least tentatively, assumed to be full in some way that the present is not? Franz Kafka’s letters to his lover Milena Jesenská spring to mind as an example of desire as inherently irrational. On 6 July, 1920, Kafka writes: ‘it’s rather gloomy in Prague, no letter has arrived yet, the heart is a little heavy, it’s actually impossible for a letter to have arrived, but try and explain that to the heart’. The heart has its own reasons, as Blaise Pascal once wrote, and they may be impervious to Hägglund’s searing logic.

If it’s not certain that immortality is undesirable because one should not desire it, then is it undesirable because one cannot desire it. The question of possibility brings to mind the philosophical notion of the principle of sufficient reason, as Spinoza outlines: ‘Nothing exists of which it cannot be asked, what is the cause (or reason), why it exists’. Accordingly, we might ask: if the fact of finitude is a necessary condition for a desire for immortality, is this condition of possibility sufficient to fully explain this desire? In other words, if the impossibility of attaining a full life conditions my desire for it, and all of my investments in this life too, is my desire necessarily exposed as secular (despite what I may think)? If – using Derridean parlance – impossibility is the condition of possibility for such a desire, might the undesirable be a condition of possibility for desire also? I’m not sure. At a logical level it seems the second statement does not follow the first, yet as we’ve seen, what has logic got to do with desire anyway?

One brilliant addition to Hägglund’s ongoing argument in This Life is the discussion of means and ends throughout. If one interprets secular faith not as a project but as a position of critique, then Hägglund’s logic is ruthless at exposing how all religions refuse to treat finite life as an end it itself but only as a means. But once secular faith is again conceived as a project the same question is begged once more: how can I treat finite life as an end in itself, contra religion, if finitude is not something I can commit myself to but rather that which merely structures all of my commitments?

Hägglund’s answer is best articulated in the second half of the book where he turns to the socio-political domain and posits a notion of spiritual freedom. This stems from the dual meaning of finitude. We are alive, paradoxically, because of a relation to death. Similarly, we are individuals, paradoxically, because of a relation to others. Because secular faith is rooted in the very thing which makes it possible, the here and now, Hägglund brilliantly links freedom to ‘the question of what to do with our time’. The freedoms to act, to speak, or to love, are thereby only intelligible as forms of freedom if we are free to engage the question of what we should do with our time. Yet from the dual account of finitude it follows that the commitment of secular faith goes beyond questions of individual freedoms and rights, as Hägglund argues: ‘The exercise of our spiritual freedom depends both upon material conditions of production and social relations of recognition. [. . .] We must have access to the material resources as well as the forms of education that allow us to pursue our freedom and to “own” the question of what to do with our time’. Turning to Marx’s critique of capitalism, and the distinction between necessity and freedom, Hägglund explores what happens to work in our ‘shared economy’ after we have attained what is necessary to sustain life. As capitalism is systemically committed to exploiting us by nullifying surplus time through the endless generation of surplus value (profit), Hägglund’s uses Marx to propose a revaluation of value. Freedom for Marx is not a utopian project but nothing less than the ownership of one’s own time, as Hägglund writes: ‘An emancipated life is not a life that is free from work, but a life in which we pursue work on the basis of our own commitments’.

Such a life is facilitated not through utopianism but through democratic socialism, a model for which Hägglund outlines at length in the book’s final chapter. Secular faith is needed to attain the spiritual freedom afforded by democratic socialism since both capitalism and religion ultimately both presuppose the same thing: that finite life, one’s time on earth, is nothing but a means to an end and not an end in itself. As Hägglund bracingly summarises: ‘This is why Marx emphasizes that the critique of religion must be accompanied by a critique of the existing forms of our life together. That those who are enslaved or live in poverty may need faith in God to carry on with their lives is not a reason to promote religious faith but a reason to abolish slavery and poverty’. The final chapter ends by addressing Theodor Adorno’s essay ‘Free Time’. Hägglund senses in Adorno’s writings a complicit utopianism that equates the ‘overcoming of capitalism with the overcoming of finitude. [. . .] [A] secular notion of freedom [. . .] with a religious notion of salvation’. The book’s conclusion then turns to a wonderful analysis of Martin Luther King Jr. King’s commitment to social justice is revealed as implicitly grounded in the secular task of revaluating the measure of value that underpins capitalist society. King’s acknowledgement of Hegel as a key influence is then used to finally ground the secular faith that underpins This Life. For Hägglund, Hegel allows us to ‘recognise that the object of our faith is inseparable from the practice of faith. The end to which we are devoted is our life together – our only life – and not any other-worldly beyond’. One might say that in the end Hägglund presents a beautiful and worthy proposition: that insofar as we expire without redemption, it is because we die alone that we ought to try and find a better way to live together.
Marc Farrant is an editor at Review 31.