The Cult of Life: When the Drive to Life Becomes Deadly
The Cult of Life
The past year has been a year rich with extraordinary events that have forced us to adjust our life to completely new scenarios. We had to give up our freedom of movement, rethink our social relations, and develop a different awareness and perception of our surroundings. We have been exposed to the risk of loss and death, and were also confronted with the uncertainty carried with a pandemic. With such a drastic interruption of our natural flow of life, new observations were made possible– observations that point to a clear imbalance.
The works of Johan Huizinga (1872-1945), a Dutch historian and one of the founding fathers of cultural history, are particularly inspiring for this kind of reflection. In a collection of essays called ‘The Shadows of Tomorrow’ (1935) where he analyses the signs of decadence in contemporary European culture, Huizinga puts forward important considerations on people’s attitude towards death that resonate with the current Covid-19 landscape.
In an essay titled ‘The Cult of Life,’ Huizinga points out how, in contemporary society, the increase of comfort and the possibility of satisfaction and security have led to a devaluation of life, expressed in a “cult of life” as an end in itself. People who are frantically engaged in all sorts of enjoyments and satisfaction of earthly pleasures are quick to slouch into a view of life that is reduced to the pure and unrestrained assertion of vital values. Games, sex, food, and all sorts of pleasures become activities that we are diligently committed to– activities that we ‘owe’ to ourselves as they contribute to our happiness. At the same time, work, relationships, and responsibilities take a back seat in our life and become activities that we reluctantly engage in. They become obligations that stand in the way of our own enjoyment which has become life itself.
In this kind of outlook, comfort, security, pleasure, and the pursuit of our own happiness, understood as the satisfaction of our primary needs, are exalted to the point of becoming guiding ethical values; activities that we must continuously engage with. People recognise without hesitation earthly life as the goal of all aspiration and action. As a result, the preservation of life becomes an obsession, the ultimate duty that we must perform in order to keep enjoying the pleasures of life in order to keep up with the celebrations of the self.
Huizinga argues that: “Culture requires a balance between spiritual and substantive values.” That is, a balance between mental, intellectual, moral, and aesthetic values on the one hand, and material values on the other. He also says that: “Only a harmony between these two components creates higher values that go beyond the gratification of needs and the will to power”. When the cult of life expressed through the gratification of needs takes precedence over spiritual values, well-being, power, security, peace, and order become the guiding principles of existence, principles that are rooted in natural instinct rather than spiritual ones.
The problem that arises as a consequence of this imbalance is that when collective action is driven by these ideals of well-being, power, security, peace, and order– ideals that are abstract and highly subject to different interpretations– the unity necessary to the functioning of society is lost. But not only that, reliance on natural instincts is reaffirmed in a dangerous way. When instincts become more important than our intellectual, moral, and mental faculties, we give up on what has given rise to culture in the first place, namely the ability to control human nature.
Death’s Avoidance and Life Disengagement
Death has always been a mysterious and intriguing subject for humans who for centuries preoccupied themselves with understanding and coping with it through rituals, religion, and philosophy. We have many accounts of the ways our predecessors thought about death and prepared for it through meditations on their lives and the meaning of them. There is no religion or philosophy that does not concern itself with death, precisely because the approach towards it is inextricably tied to the way we think and live our lives.
On ‘The Cult of Life’ and ‘Life and Fight’, Huizinga points out how, with the withering away of religion, and with the growing imbalance between spiritual and substantive values that led to the loss of uniting values, the thought of death became increasingly unbearable. Individualistic ideals of well-being, security, peace, order– ideals anchored in the lived present of singular subjects– replaced values oriented at building a shared future, like sacrifice, strife, loyalty, courage, and the like. With this shift in values, death becomes a resolved issue. And indeed, why should we conquer the dread for death if death is the ultimate end of all we could ever care for? Why would we even contemplate the possibility of sacrificing our life for something we believe in, if the ultimate value of life rests in life itself?
If we look at the past hundred years, we can clearly see that our approach to death and life has completely changed. Death and the thought of death are meticulously kept out of our horizon and avoided under the banner of being ‘negative’, ‘unhealthy’ thoughts. Thinking about death is now seen as a hindrance to the normal flow of our life– a useless unpleasant detour leading to depression or anxiety. But as we spend less of our time thinking about death, we spend more time worrying about it, pouring countless mental and material resources into trying to preserve our life. If in the past we tried to conquer death through philosophical or religious meditations, we now try to conquer it by delaying it. This delay does not help us conquer death or make sense of it, but instead it leaves us ever more entrenched in feelings of anxiety and helplessness.
The Dangerous Rationalisation of Natural Instincts
Since we live in a hyper-rationalised society driven by science and facts, we are under the impression that rationality is the main determining factor that should influence our choices and our behaviours. But in fact, we are merely using our reason to justify our instincts instead of using it to question why they might arise. In other words, instead of keeping our instincts (fears and desires) in check and determining their appropriateness through rational deliberation, we use rationality in order to come up with reasons that justify acting on our drives.
Instincts often contradict each other and are triggered by particular situations. They are a reaction to a particular stimulus that has helped us throughout history to stay alive, procreate, and thrive. These automatic reactions have helped us to stay out of danger, and arguably they still do in many instances. However, when followed in a more complex context that may trigger different instinctual responses, instincts end up disorienting us more than guiding us towards the right course of action, thus ending up threatening our very existence.
The process of rationalising instincts helps us to give validity to the instinctual responses that we have, but it does not help to challenge them. Our modern society focuses all its efforts in dominating nature in order to guarantee and satisfy our most basic instincts in the most effortless ways. Paradoxically, as the control over nature becomes more perfect, we give up the task of controlling our own nature. Advanced technological control that we can now exercise deceives us into feeling in command of our life and actions. The influences that stem from our bodies and history are not only underestimated, but largely unacknowledged. We thus keep living in the illusion of control and freedom while we are ever more directed by our most primitive drives.
What Does Our Approach Towards Covid Show About Our Approach to Life?
After working as a research assistant for a project looking at the effects of Covid-19 on the population, I had a lot of material for reflecting on our approach to life and death. During the in-depth semi-structured interviews, I investigated the participant’s fears, hopes, and approach towards the new situations they found themselves in during the pandemic. Some of the questions explored the way certain policy measures affected people from an economic, social, and emotional standpoint and examined the way their response to policy measures changed across time. Remarkably, I found many parallels between Huizinga’s analysis of 1930s society and ours.
At the beginning of the pandemic, most of the participants displayed a much more critical attitude towards the regulations and restrictions imposed by the governments, particularly towards those limiting freedom of movement and association. Respondents spontaneously engaged in critiques that did not only challenge a certain narrative but also displayed a clear normative evaluation of the reality.
The disruption of daily life brought about by Covid measures triggered in the participants a heightened sense of moral alertness– a need to actively judge and question the given reality. A proliferation of different ideas and points of view on the situation could be observed, in particular, when it came to the issue of children. In the first round of interviews that took place in April 2020, twenty out of thirty-three participants put forward reflections on the right balance between protecting the categories most at risk and guaranteeing a normal life to those least affected like children and young generations. A year later, only five participants criticised the government’s resolutions or expressed normative judgements. As the spread of Covid-19 continued to advance and the threat of death mounted, the idea of protecting our collective health at all costs became the dominant mantra and was accepted as an objective that was the fruit of rational deliberation– but was it actually?
In the public debate, there were many discussions on the most effective approaches to contain the spread of the virus, but very little talk and disagreement in regards to the priorities set by the governments across the globe, namely that of preserving lives at all costs. To be clear, I am by no means arguing that this was not a good objective to pursue. The point that I want to stress is the lack of different perspectives and questions. Considering this pandemic has been perceived by most as an extraordinary experience the likes of which have never been dealt with, why has there been so little talk about what we as a society should prioritise in times of crisis? What does this crushing consensus about preserving lives at all costs without considerations for the future tell us about our society?
Personally, I believe as Huizinga that this shows our inability to confront and control our instincts that results in an unhealthy and perhaps even deadly cult of life. This condition is partly determined by our inability to tell apart rationality from rationalisation and partly by our inability to control impulses that lead to wild individualism. Policies that aim at protecting everyone’s life appear to be oriented at protecting collectivity. However, their results show an incapability of collective action and deliberation on common issues, essential for the emergence of a shared vision. Engaging with the future becomes impossible since that would require the ability to get out of oneself, or rather, the ability to recognise certain values as higher than oneself.
The Hegelian servant-master dialectic is one of the most clear accounts that highlights the dangers of clinging to bare life. The fear of death, or rather, the inability to let go of life is what tells apart the servant from the master. While the latter accepts the possibility of dying and engages in life, the former subjugates itself to contingencies and external forces with the result of being restrained into a life lacking vital force. What this means in more concrete terms for our current situation is that by not trying to control our fear of death, we expose ourselves to the risk of being stripped away of all that makes life meaningful. We give up the opportunity of building a compass able to drive our actions and allow the emergence of a vision for the future of our species.
With climate change looming over us, questions that confront death, what the value of life consists in, and what we are ready to sacrifice for our future will become unavoidable as the cult of life will only lead us to be blind to the downfall of the human species happening before our eyes.