In the second instalment for our series reflecting on Religion, Secularism and Multiple Modernities in Europe, Christoph Jedan considers what our practices of grief and consolation, considered in historical context, can reveal about the nature of modernity.
My colleagues and I in the department of Christianity and the History of Ideas study consolation, in particular consolation for death in a historical perspective. At first sight, this might sound a little strange, but if you think a little longer about it, it will sound less so, or so I hope.
In true fact, consolation is a supreme cultural marker. As soon as death is involved, questions of the value of one’s life, the durability of beliefs, ritual stances, etc. all come to the fore.
Now, it is quite obvious that our dealings with death have changed. In the early modern period, funeral poetry might have told parents who had lost a child not to grieve, since the beloved child was now singing with the choir of angels in the afterlife, and had thus safely reached his or her destination. This is not even how pastors would offer comfort nowadays. So, something has changed, but it is not quite so easy to say what has changed. It seems compelling to tell a story of religious decline, an ‘abstraction story’, to use Charles Taylor’s term: “we have shed a few religious illusions and that’s why we have stopped to console in this way.” This story line would fit the contagious identification of modernity and radical secularisation, and it is precisely this conjunction of modernity and radical secularisation that Jose Casanova devastatingly critiques in his work.
Parochial as such narratives are, they are constantly invoked. Historians of the secular regularly point towards the rediscovery of Ancient Epicureanism as a ‘motor’ behind a new, modern and secular understanding of death. Again, at first sight this seems compelling. Ancient Epicureanism did involve an atomism that tied human consciousness to a physical constellation of atoms. With our death the constellation disperses, and we cease to exist. The Epicureans tended to look for comfort precisely in this radical finitude of human existence. Death is—or, rather, should be—indifferent to us: “As long as we are alive, death hasn’t come, and as soon as death has come, we have ceased to exist.” A second consolatory argument goes as follows: “We shouldn’t worry about the fact that we will at some point cease to exist. We weren’t around before our births for an infinite time, and we never worry about that. So why should we bother if we won’t be around for an infinite time after our demise? Time is just the same.” These consolatory arguments have been invoked time and again throughout Western history, and indeed often by anti-Christian thinkers. Ludwig Feuerbach in the 19th century invokes the first argument and seems convinced that one can derive comfort from it. All this seems to support an abstraction theory, but—and this but has been lingering on in the background for a while now—nothing is quite as it seems.
If Epicureanism was so important for the manifestation of modern, secular dealings with death, one would expect a culture of fond reminiscence of Epicurean consolation. In fact, however, the opposite is the case. Contemporary analytical philosophers discuss the Epicurean consolatory arguments a lot, but by and large only to bash the Epicureans. Contemporary philosophers say that Epicurus failed to see that what makes human life worthwhile are the desires, plans and projects that we have and realize. The important thing about a human being is what he or she wants and achieves. Our desires, plans and projects are essentially future-directed, and this makes for a fundamental asymmetry between past and future. It is therefore reasonable to worry about the infinite time I won’t exist. And don’t be mistaken, it’s not only a few marginal figures—as philosophers have always been—who think like this. We see it everywhere around us: our memorial culture celebrates biographies: what made the deceased tick, what did he or she do? We see it in films, in the popular culture, and so forth. In short: the emphasis on desires, plans and projects as gold standard of a worthwhile life is our cultural obsession.
Ancient consolers didn’t share this obsession of ours. Epicureans, Stoics and, for instance, the early Christians all shared a view that is markedly different from ours: they all said: what is important about a human life is not what you achieve, but how you go about life. What is important are the virtues with which you lead your life. Once you have virtue, this makes your life complete, and you don’t have to fear death. But if the Epicureans and the early Christians think alike on this count, it becomes obvious that we have somehow misunderstood our modern, allegedly secular dealings with death. The biggest difference between us and the past is perhaps not that there was a decline of belief in the afterlife, but that we view our lives as centred around and completed by desires, plans and projects.
I can’t explain in a few sentences how this change came about. The cult of the individual is important here, but only one among different factors. Suffice it to say that I would use, much like Casanova, Taylorian concepts in a tongue-in-cheek way. What can we learn from all this? That our almost automatic conjunction of modernity and religious decline is highly problematic.
This conclusion is very much in line with themes in Professor Casanova’s work, and even if I find the modern emphasis on achievements a dangerous road to travel, I would like to conclude by thanking him for his work that has proven to be truly inspirational.
Christoph Jedan is Associate Professor of Ethics and Chair of the Department of Christianity and the History of Ideas, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen
 Public Religions, “Secularity, Secularism, Secularization”