Five Faces of Death
It might well be expected that a book on death and how we view it would be gloomy and depressing. But Peter Kreeft’s Love Is Stronger than Death, recommended by Russell Kirk for a National Book Award in 1980, is far from that.
Kreeft, Professor of Philosophy at Boston College, is one of the surviving members of a small circle of writers and friends who used to meet occasionally to sip wine and discuss the nature of the Christian faith, life in general, the works of C. S. Lewis, and their own works in progress. The group was composed of Kreeft, Thomas Howard, Dom Julian Stead, and Sheldon Vanauken, who styled the group the “Junior Inklings.” Their discussions were free-wheeling and blazed with wisdom; Kirk’s “Professor Dryasdust” was not to be seen.
Not surprisingly, Love Is Stronger than Death is a lively, accessible book that draws in the reader and shines a new light on a forbidding subject. He serves up his arguments with a mixture of apt quotations from wide-ranging sources—from C. S. Lewis to Sartre—as well as logic, common sense, and reason. “People will tell you that theories don’t matter and that logic and philosophy aren’t practical,” warned Chesterton’s Father Brown. “Don’t you believe them. Reason is from God, and when things are unreasonable there is something the matter.”
What may appear unreasonable may sometimes simply be a paradoxical truth. It is one of the great paradoxes of life that in order to live, one must first die—to self-centeredness, to obsession with mutable things, to anything that separates one from fruitful fellowship with one’s fellow man and with God. And yet, death is that which men and women fear most. We take great pains to push away the coming of the inevitable, especially in our present Age of Unbelief. For those men and women of no settled beliefs, the thought must sometimes arise that when our time comes—why, what is it lies beyond the grave? For them, and perhaps for some of us, as poet W. H. Auden wrote, “Death is the sound of distant thunder at a picnic.” How is it that in an earlier age, the essayist and dramatist Joseph Addison was able to write, “Eternity? thou pleasing, dreadful, thought!”
Kreeft examines the five faces by which we perceive death. They are: Death as an enemy, as a stranger, as a friend, as a mother, and as a lover. Kreeft devotes a full chapter to each of these faces, stating a colorful, closely reasoned argument for the existence of each, with such fascinating complexity that a short summary could not do justice.
With that said, a key introduction to the subject appears in the following passage, which begins with a familiar quotation:
“You never step into the same river twice,” said Heraclitus, “for other and yet other waters are ever flowing on.” To which his disciple Cratylus added, “You can’t eve step into the same river once!” The river, great symbol of life, is also the great symbol of death, for it is the symbol of samsara, of time. This river drowns every present in pastness, every life in death, every memory in forgetfulness. The Greeks were shrewd to portray death as the river Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. Memory is our dike against that river, our attempt to stabilize and eternalize time, to “redeem the time” from death. But the dike never holds for long, and the river always wins.
Rivers are irreversible. Clocks are reversible. “You can’t go home again” does not mean that you can’t turn the clock back (because you can) but that you can’t turn the river back. This is true not only of our last exit from home, our final death, but also of a thousand little deaths before it. To be born, we must die to the womb, never to return. To be weaned, we must die to the breast, never to return (though we seek a thousand substitutes). To go to school, we must die to the all-embracing security of the home. To raise a family, we must die to the centrality of the home we came from. To move to a new home, a new job, or a new city, we must die to our old ones. And when we are old and death carries away our relatives, family, and friends, nothing replaces them sometimes except our own loneliness. The supremely lonely act is to die. When we die we consummate the secret loneliness we inherited at birth. We part from everything—gradually in life, finally in death. All living is parting; all living is dying.
All living is parting; all living is dying. With each succeeding page, it becomes clearer that our perceptions of life and death have become clichéd and backward over time, through dint of repetition and ten thousand hackneyed portrayals we have each beheld on the screen and on the printed page—a point made a century ago by G. K. Chesterton. For in the end, just the opposite of what we have imagined occurs: To the person held in the hand of God, at the moment of death, the eye does not grow dim but bright. “Death does not approach; death recedes forever. Life does not ebb but flows over our old container, overcomes it, kills it. It is not a defect of life but an excess of life that kills us. . . . From God’s point of view—the true point of view—it is His eternal life in the form of our heavenly body, our spiritual body, meeting our body at the point of death that slays and conquers this body. Our own new body kills our old body. Our new body is the sword in God’s hand by which He executes judgment upon our old body. And the ultimate meaning of this execution, the ultimate meaning of death, is love.” Death can indeed be, as Sheldon Vanauken famously said, a severe mercy.
With this said, Kreeft wisely tackles a question certain to arise: if death is so great, why not commit suicide? His reply is masterful in its wisdom:
Why not suicide? Because death is not a good in itself but an evil in itself. It is our enemy. . . . [But] it is aufgehoben, taken up, transformed, integrated into and used by a greater force [i.e. the hand of God]. The evil, used by the good, becomes good. . . . But though evil is used for good, this is no excuse for evil. “Offenses must come, but woe unto him by whom they come.” “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound. . . . What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid.” Though Judas’ betrayal and the crucifixion brought about salvation, Judas was not saved by it. Though our death is used by God for our good, we may not use it: “thou shalt not kill.” Death is the divine surgeon’s knife, not to be used except by the Great Physician. Only one can wield the sacred sword Excalibur: the One who sits in the Seige Perilous, the chair in which only the King can sit.
Powerful words, indeed.
Near the end of this slim volume, Kreeft mirrors the example of the man he admires and quotes so often in Love Is Stronger than Death, C. S. Lewis. In the same way Lewis was forced to confront his own confident words on death upon the demise of his beloved wife, Kreeft was severely tested by the near-death of his young daughter. He recounts his thoughts on this trial with great candor, beginning one paragraph with the words, “No one ever told me how incredibly similar grief and joy feel. Both are tired, numb, timeless, limbo feelings, a sheer state of “be-ing” with nothing added.” Many readers will recognize these words as echoing, perhaps unconsciously, the opening words of Lewis’s work A Grief Observed. There, Lewis wrote, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.” Grief and joy or grief and fear: in each pairing, there is “a sheer state of ‘be-ing’ with nothing added. In Kreeft’s situation, he was anticipating the worst; in Lewis’s case, the worst had already come to pass. And yet each man came through his ordeal wiser and more mature, better prepared to face the remaining years of their lives.
Love Is Stronger than Death is a work that could be described, in an all-too-trite phrase, as life-affirming. It is more than that. It continually points toward Christ, who teaches us (in the words of the author’s friend Thomas Howard) about “a kind of life that participates in the indestructible.” For this is not a book on the meaning of death. It is a book on the meaning of life.
James E. Person Jr. is a biographer and longtime book reviewer and essayist. His reviews have appeared in The University Bookman since 1990. He is the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (1999) and Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow (2005).
Posted: January 30, 2011 in The Classics Revisited.