To go straight to the intellectual core of Horowitz’s book I diminishes attenuate its full impact. He embeds a sophisticated theological argument in a personal memoir, of family, homes, horses and dogs, in such a way that the matter of morality looms up as an existential question, rather than as an intellectual construct. It is affecting prose; Horowitz is trying to show us, rather than merely tell us, the presentiment. He leaves the reader hanging with the terrible question: What are our lives, and what are they worth?
Now that Russian communism is dead and Russian nationalism is dying, the Russians as a people have no answer to the existential question. When people do not know why they should live, they do not bring children into the world. Russia is dying of disappointment: at a constant fertility rate, Russia’s population will fall from 142 million today to only 66 million at the end of the century.
What Horowitz says of Dostoevsky applies to all of the European nations. The leaders of France and Spain, the principle antagonists in the horrible Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, each believed with solemn fervor that their nation was chosen by God for his works, such that any act in furtherance of raison d’etat, no matter how abominable, was sacred ipso facto.
And Germany (where the news always arrives late) discovered its sacred mission to propagate its culture in 1914, and fell victim afterwards to the hideous delusion of its racial superiority. The terrible thing is that Dostoevsky was a typical European. Not just Russia, but all of Europe is dying of disappointment. So are many Muslim nations, notably Iran and Turkey, as I recount in my bookHow Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too).
As Horowitz observes, Jews appear less concerned with Christians with the particulars of the afterlife. Some elaboration of this would have been welcome. Eternal life and the resurrection of the dead are fundaments of Judaism, but we strive to bringing eternity into our daily lives than envision the particulars of the World to Come.
Other peoples do the same thing, whether they admit it or not. From the Jews, Franz Rosenzweig remarked, the nations of the world first heard of eternal life, but they sought to be eternal in their own Gentile skins, and tried to appropriate the Jewish concept of election to their own tribe. Adolf Hitler’s “master race” perverts the concept of chosen people (as does Dostoevsky’s notion of Russia as the “unique God-bearing nation”). This had catastrophic results.
America’s founders also envisioned a new chosen people in a new promised land – Lincoln’s “almost-chosen people”, and (as Eric Nelson reports in his 2010 book The Hebrew Republic) drew extensively on post-biblical rabbinic sources as well as the Hebrew Scriptures. What distinguishes America from the failed nations of Europe is the absence of ethnicity: because we are founded on a proposition rather than a race, language or common history, America is immune to the tribal idolatry that ruined Europe.
There are some things we cannot think about without projecting our own limitations. That is true of the vision of an eternity in static contemplation, as well as the displacement of messianic hopes onto a supposed earthly paradise. We cannot imagine a conversation with God.
We cannot imagine eternity without reference to our own perception of time, any more than we can imagine time at the moment of the Big Bang. And we cannot build a paradise on earth without magnifying our own imperfections, as Dostoevsky’s example illustrates. We cannot live in the World to Come because we do not know what it is like. And if we try to force fallible humans to live in an earthly paradise, ultimately we shall have to kill them all for their failings.
Horowitz is still wrestling. He informs us that he is not a believer. Where God is concerned, Horowitz is a tough customer. He does not want easy comfort or cheap grace. But his religious sensibility is so keen that people of faith will find his book of use – not offensive, but disturbing in a productive way. And that is what makes him such a perceptive writer on mortality.
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