Mortality: Christopher Hitchens and the Failure of Stoic Materialism
So BIG THINK’S book of the month—Mortalilty by Christopher Hitchens—is a moving account of a singularly personal effort to die as a free man. Hitchens wanted to see death as it is, to avoid sentimentality and especially to avoid taking refuge in the degrading, deluding consolations of the tyrant-God of the Christians. That the latter temptation might have been real to him is suggested by all the words he uses to fend it off. Unlike Pascal, he wanted to experience, unflinchingly, the misery of man without God. He wanted to die with his personal identity intact as a free thinker expressing himself through writing about his suffering.
In the name of freedom, Hitchens seemed to deny himself the deluding compensation of love. He writes a bit of the consolation of friendship, but not of his love for his wife or kids or any other persons. He has nothing to say, of course, about love of God. What free man could love a tyrant? And he doesn’t claim the truth itself, in some Socratic sense, is lovable.
Let me call attention to a revealing passage near the end of the book—where we find his final words expressed as fragments:
Always prided myself on my reasoning faculty and my stoic materialism. I don’t have a body, I am a body. Yet consciously and regularly acted as if this was not true, or if an exception would be made in my case. Feeling husky and tired and tour? See the doctor when it’s over!
The first point, of course, is that Hitchens defined himself by his pride. He had pride in his ability to reason—intellectual pride. He also had pride in his character—in his stoic materialism. He was tough enough not to think he was more than he really was—a body.
But when Hitchens said “I am a body” he did so from a detached point of view. The “I am” he experienced as rational freedom, a freedom not given, of course, to most beings with bodies.
The stoic, from the Roman beginning, always claimed that a rational being had a kind of self-sufficiency—an inner fortress—that kept him from being governed by forces beyond his control. If I am a body, then I really am not free and am not responsible for myself.
And so Hitchens did not live as if he were a body. He did not, God love him, live in fearful attentiveness to every conceivable risk factor that might extinguish his biological being. He smoked and drank heavily, and he ignored his body to enjoy life. From the point of view of the health-and-safety puritans around these days, he was pretty much a madman.
Hitchens admits he lived as if he would be an exception to the general rule that our intellectual freedom is dependent on bodily health. But we might say that his relative indifference to the body was one cause of his undeniable intellectual greatness, his courageous advocacy on behalf of human liberty everywhere. That indifference might be understood to be in the service of the truth, which is that a life without biological death couldn’t possibly be one lived in personal freedom. Living well, after all, isn’t all about living just a bit longer.
So the least we can say is that materialism can’t account for the stoic. And the stoic’s disdain for Christianity—characteristic of intellectually proud men for the last 2000 years—is quite different from both the easygoing atheism of the bourgeois-bohemian materialist (supplemented often, of course, by self-forgetting, new-agey spirituality) or the degrading delusions of the transhumanist.
It was in the service of the truth that Hitchens died more than a bit ironic about his proud stoic materialism.