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From the April, 2006 issue of Touchstone


Death’s Dominion by Graeme Hunter

Death’s Dominion

Graeme Hunter on the Canadian Fear of the Grim Reaper

Suppose you wake up some morning uncertain of what to believe about life’s deep questions. The really Canadian thing to do is to turn to the public media for advice. Seldom will you be disappointed. Not long ago, for example, on the same day, both of this country’s national newspaper oracles contained complementary revelations on a matter of moral importance.

The National Post explained how the sages at our Supreme Court had discovered in their sacred writings an opinion that capital punishment was “cruel and unusual.” To help dull-witted readers with the implications of this discovery, lawyer Clayton Ruby was on hand to explain that capital punishment was henceforward incompatible with our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And that meant that “no future right-wing government” can bring capital punishment back. Reassuring, eh?

But who were the victors? To answer that question you had to read the other national newspaper, the Globe and Mail. There you would learn that support for the death penalty had dropped from 73 percent in 1987 to a mere 52 percent today, according to a recent Ipsos-Reid poll. Fifty-two percent is still a majority, you might say, but the article strongly suggested that the sands of time are running out for these unfashionable people.

The direction of history is now clear, and the reluctant majority is asked to jump on the bandwagon or face . . . what? Isolation? The charge of intolerance? Worse things, perhaps, if anything worse is conceivable to opinion-makers. The only punishment you could be certain of avoiding, at least while current opinion holds, is death at the hands of the public executioner.

The message from both papers together was something like this: Either be cowed by the courts or swayed by the sheep! Join the march of progress now!

The One True Evil

It is not the fact that the death penalty, like any penalty, might sometimes be imposed on innocent people that so appalls our progressive elites. No, what they find inconceivable is that any crime one could commit (including murder) could be thought bad enough to be worthy of punishment with what they see as the one true evil: death. Death is so bad in their eyes that nothing good can come out of it.

Opposing the death penalty, on the other hand, has more than one moral perk. Not only does it make you progressive, it also allows you to indulge in a favorite Canadian pastime: feeling morally superior to Americans. “Oh, yes,” you will then be able to say, “south of the border they may permit the barbaric practice of executing serial killers and the like, but up here we have learned to understand, if not approve, such alternative lifestyles.”

It was unfortunate that these insights came one day too late for me. The previous day I had been teaching freshmen what the ancient philosopher Socrates said concerning death, just before the city of Athens unjustly executed him. Socrates, it must be remembered, lived almost 2,500 years ago and therefore lacked both the protection of our courts while he lived and the benefit of our opinion-makers in making up his mind about death.

On the day of his unjust execution, he told his friends that both good and evil men should be confident about death. Even if they were condemned unjustly by the state, he said, the evil of that condemnation fell far more on their judges than on those they sentenced.

A good man does not suffer by dying, because the good life he has led has prepared him for it. It has turned him away from the sordid “getting and spending” that the task of living makes unavoidable, toward the kind of spiritual journey that can equally well be pursued in the afterlife, a life in which, by the way, Socrates fervently believed. (Here again we must make allowances for his ignorance and recall that, but for the ministrations of our modern opinion-makers, our own views could easily be as backward as his).

Now, of course, evil people never are morally prepared to die. But that does not make it wrong for the state to sentence them to death. For if a criminal’s condemnation finally causes him to repent of his evil deeds, he will begin a process of purification that the afterlife will only accelerate. But if there is no repentance, an early death will at least prevent him from harming his soul more grievously than he has already.

Socrates believed just as strongly as does our own Supreme Court that just men should not be unjustly condemned to death. He differed only about the reason. He was not motivated by fear of death, as we are, but rather by hatred of evil, as we are not.

Socrates Spared

Opinion-makers have taught us not to fear evil, but to indulge it. Only death, they teach us, is truly to be feared. Had I only understood such wisdom just one day earlier, I might have avoided my untoward enthusiasm for the thought of Socrates.

I could have shown the students how, if Socrates had been spared for another decade, he might have consumed at least 3,500 more meals, and slept an equal number of times, sometimes, perhaps, with exciting new partners. He might also have bought a number of new playthings, and thereby boosted the Athenian GNP.

Alas, I missed the opportunity. But perhaps my students may read the national papers for themselves and become wise. •

Graeme Hunter teaches philosophy at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Radical Protestantism in Spinoza's Thought (Ashgate). He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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