Death and Morality in the War on Ukraine
Remembering that everything—including ourselves—comes to an end can help us focus our decision making.
In one of ancient philosophy's most famous incidents, Socrates' followers gather around him in the hours before his execution. The frescoes depicting the scene have the feeling of a dinner party being held in the same room in which a lethal injection is about to take place.
Socrates' followers mourn, but he chastises them: none of this should have been surprising. The point of philosophy—and, in fact, human life more generally—has all along been to face death and ready oneself to die well. You only get caught off guard if you sidestep this grueling but essential task.
As videos of Russian shelling of civilian targets—schools, apartment buildings, shopping centers—have dominated media coverage the past week, a similar act of remembrance has been forced on all of us. Mainstays of the international order that once seemed immutable (German defense policy!) changed dramatically in mere hours, where many analysts thought it might take decades. Likewise, if just weeks ago Putin's empire looked limited but formidable in its own sphere, it now looks fragile and contested (with the highly consequential exception of nuclear capacities).
Such lessons of finitude and contingency have not yet ricocheted to the West, at least not in full form. For younger generations, it's the first time the possibility of nuclear conflict has ever felt real. In most other ways, however, the West seems as invulnerable as ever.
If Western democracies had begun to look aimless and unsure, they seem newly formidable. NATO states have found uncommon unity remarkably quickly. Sanctions and other forms of economic warfare have been able to push numerous Russian industries—and the currency itself—to the point of collapse in just a few days. Even China seems to be treading more carefully. Narratives of Western decline feel significantly less resonant than they did a month or a year ago.
But it is time for the lesson to hit home. Whatever America is—whatever life is—illusions of invulnerability don't serve us well. This is true at the more intimate level of Socrates' colloquy. It is also true at the level of grand statecraft.
When we want to praise a country, it's interesting how frequently we affix the adjective "stable" to "democracy." Many nations, we reason, have flickers of what we like—respect for human rights, popular sovereignty—but only some have risen to that level of being fixed points, resilient and unshakable. To view the world this way is to adopt a particular theory of contingency: history is replete with wild political convulsions, but we have been able to discover certain tools—a "rules-based-international-order"—that are able to arrest these oscillations. Accordingly, it is possible to stabilize history, at least to an extent. If the attractions of this fiction are evident—good for business and mental health alike!—it is a very poor basis for political decision making, especially abroad. Trying to sidestep finitude can bite you in both directions. On the one hand, it can make you complacent (as many European powers seem to have become). On the other, it can yield delusions of grandeur—the sense that though American power might get thwarted in peripheral battles like Iraq or Afghanistan, when it comes to the essential tests, it's omnipotent.
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