Even free will, however, is only one more suggestive part of death’s relation to politics. Think of all this in terms of the violence praised by a surprisingly large range of modern political theories. Why does death manifest itself—a sudden, miraculous, culture-forming power—whenever a thinker turns against the Enlightenment? What logic compels political philosophers, from the most radical right to the most radical left, to embrace murder when they renounce the poverty and weightlessness of modern culture? And why does literature show us again and again characters who imagine they can resolve the anxieties of modernity by drenching it in blood? ~Joseph Bottum
In my biased estimation, it occurs to me that a great many people were very enthusiastic about violence and killing and sacrificing human lives for the sake of goals inspired by the thought of the Enlightenment and its derivatives. Something about “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored” comes to mind. Mr. Bottum’s question about political philosophers and murder gives the impression that there have been a great many anti-modernist, anti-Enlightenment people openly calling for murder, but he does not give any examples and seems to take a number of things for granted that may not be true at all. For instance, I suspect that he thinks fascism is opposed to the Enlightenment, when it is one of the latter’s outgrowths; he probably thinks that the liberal belief in the perfectibility of man is significantly different from the fascist and communist efforts to create a “new man.” I am not sure that he assumes these things, but that is what I would have to guess. His argument here is unclear, but there seems to be no other way for him to make his claim about philosophers and murder hold up unless he attributes an anti-Enlightenment position to the moral insanity of various sympathisers with what Niemeyer called ‘total critique’.
You can find Counter-Revolutionary men, such as Maistre, who will give strangely positive evaluations to bloodshed, but then you would also have to take account the problem that Maistre was a firm politically reactionary adherent of the Catholic Church and opposed Enlightenment liberalism and the Revolution on the grounds that they were contrary and hostile to the Faith. Mr. Bottum is presumably not going to argue that traditional Catholicism of the 18th and 19th centuries either denied free will or devalued the significance of death. Indeed, Maistre at his most bloody was seeking to understand how the Revolution was a result of God’s providence and His punishment and cleansing of the French. In this he was not, I think, partaking of Tibetan Buddhist attempts to escape samsara.
Besides the considerable problems of Mr. Bottum’s death-freedom link, it seems to me that the transition he makes from talking about free will to talking about supposedly bloody-minded opposition to the Enlightenment (whose political legacy is actually smeared with the blood of millions) seems to be based on a deeply mistaken assumption. It seems that he assumes that affirming free will and affirming political liberalism, like that of Enlightenment liberal philosophers, go hand in hand and he seems to think that denying one entails denying the other. This is simply not so, as a cursory scan of Western philosophy would confirm. Perhaps that is not what he is saying, but the juxtaposition of the two claims seems to hint at this. Update: This is exactly what he is arguing, as he says in the following:
There must exist a strong connection between metaphysical freedom and political liberty, for here is a proposition—that free will logically entails a world with death in it—which promises endless consequences in ethics and politics, to say nothing of natural theology.
Update: The argument becomes more explicit (and more absurd) later:
In the end, however, like de Maistre, CortÃ©s refuses at least the self-conscious recourse to death by a culture. Not until the 1920s does the conservative Counter-Enlightenment, freed from Christianity, fully accept the politics of murder, with Carl Schmitt’s proto-Nazi claim of a nation’s “existential-ontological” need for enemies to kill.
In other words, it is only by ignoring what Counter-Enlightenment conservatives actually urge people to do, ahistorically and pretty much incorrectly connecting Carl Schmitt to the Counter-Enlightenment, and following standard liberal tropes in casting Schmitt as a “proto-Nazi” that one can even get remotely close to a connection between theorising about the importance of death (which Bottum acknowledges as something that is very important) and the summons to political killing by actual opponents of the Enlightenment. Meanwhile, liberals from 1793 on have been massacring their enemies with wild abandon because they do not take death seriously enough. The children of the Enlightenment brought us the guillotine, the suppression of the Vendee, the Napoleonic Wars, levee en masse, nationalism and, in the end, total war and the ideological zealotry to fuel such wars. If death is of no consequence, has no social or cultural meaning and is not a subject for deep thought and reflection for Enlightenment liberals, it would not be surprising if they opted to use death to achieve their political goals. It could not trouble their consciences overmuch, since they had never spent much time pondering its meaning, its consequences or its significance for the integrity of society. Unsurprisingly, a philosophical revolt against the social contract of the “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born” results in widespread political murder. The folly of disregarding obligations to the dead (tradition) leads to the murder of many in the present generation and so constitutes an attack on posterity.