Mortality: Christopher Hitchens and the Failure of Stoic Materialism
Peter Lawler is Dana Professor of Government and former chair of the department of Government and International Studies at Berry College. He serves as executive editor of the journal Perspectives on Political Science, and has been chair of the politics and literature section of the American Political Science Association. He also served on the editorial board of the new bilingual critical edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and serves on the editorial boards of several journals. He has written or edited fifteen books and over 200 articles and chapters in a wide variety of venues. He was the 2007 winner of the Weaver Prize in Scholarly Letters.\r\n\r\nLawler served on President Bush's Council on Bioethics from 2004 – 09. His most recent book, Modern and American Dignity, is available from ISI Books.\r\n\r\nFollow him on Twitter @peteralawler.
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.
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If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
- The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
- The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
- It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
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