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Vol. 23, No. 1, 2024
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the tragic sense of world politics



Louis René Beres is Emeritus Professor of Political Science and International Law (Purdue University). He has written twelve books and several hundred scholarly articles and monographs. He also lectures widely on matters of terrorism, strategy and international law. As an expert on nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, he is closely involved with Israeli security issues at the highest levels. He was Chair of "Project Daniel," a group advising Israel's Prime Minister on existential nuclear questions. This article was first published in The Jurist.

The most tragic thing in the world and in life,
readers and brothers of mine, is love.
Love is the child of illusion and the parent of disillusion;
love is consolation in desolation;
it is the sole medicine against death, for love is death’s brother.

Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life



On the surface, world politics is largely about war, terrorism, genocide and genocide-like crimes. Below the surface, however, this most expansive arena of human struggle is about individual human beings who comprise nation-states and assorted sub-state organizations. It is about the microcosm, about Miguel de Unamuno’s “man of flesh and bone,” about the Basque philosopher’s “man of love, suffering, pity and death.” In the final analysis, as we can learn from Unamuno, world politics should be understood as the cumulative expression of “flesh and bone.”

There is more. World politics is about power. Ultimately, “the man of flesh and bone” – regardless of age, gender, nationality, ethnicity or religion – seeks one form of power above all others. Whether witting or unwitting, this goal is power over death. The true “tragedy” of this faith-based search is not that the “hunger for immortality” lies beyond any tangible satisfaction (that conclusion is perfectly obvious and indisputable), but that it ignores a unique potential to widen into empathy for all other human beings.

Why is ignoring this remarkable potential “tragic” ipso facto? The answer is both simple and complex. In essence, it is because such visceral indifference renders impossible any necessary withdrawals from war, terror and genocide. More precisely, these withdrawals are not merely necessary, they are indispensable to human survival.

There is more. Logic and science notwithstanding, the search for power over death is plainly universal. In the final analysis, this search represents the most critically animating force of world politics. The search, which can lead either to great virtue or unparalleled evil, is generally well-hidden in daily news headlines. For example, in Hamas terror-violence against Israeli noncombatants, an obsessive desire for “martyrdom” creates evil beyond measure. Still, at least in other places, the search for power over death can contribute to a clarifying awareness of our common human fate and a correlative awareness of “cosmopolis” or human “oneness.”

“I believe,” warns Oswald Spengler in his 20th century classic, The Decline of the West” (1918-1923), “is the one great word (sic.) against metaphysical fear.” Though among the most important intellectual observations of all time, the primal linkages between world politics and power over death still remain generally unrecognized. To be sure, by definition, such rarefied theorizing is intended for the “Few,” not for the “Many.”

In all likelihood, humankind will continue to focus on the symptoms of aggression, mass killing and genocide rather than on their causes. The plausible result of such a secondary focus (more international criminality) is predictable. But will it also be avoidable?

What remedies remain available? Whatever they may be, they should first be uncovered at the conceptual or theoretical level, and not at the superficial level of pundits and politicos. More specifically, three basic concepts will need to be highlighted in all of their presumptively complicated interactions. These primal concepts are death, time and immortality.

There is more. These bewildering concepts represent the “building blocks” of any useful theory. Any such generalized explanations represent the foundations of a necessary science. In turn, science could identify variously optimal methods of reaching useful conclusions about aggression, genocide and global survival. Such methods would involve the stipulation, examination and subsequent confirmation or disconfirmation of alternative hypotheses. Taken together, these interrelated operations provide the orthodox or classical definition of “scientific method.”

A “next question” dawns. How shall humankind proceed if its national and sub-national governance is to be rescued and improved in a world political system of unceasing acrimony, belligerent nationalism and nuclear weapons? What can the three concepts of death, time and immortality teach us about the world system’s sovereignty-centered landscape, both present and future? How shall this continuously self-defiling planet allow itself to advance beyond the childlike explanations and gratuitous rancor of traditional geopolitics, an advance that is manifestly indispensable to physical survival?

To answer thoughtfully, analysts should start with the individual human being, with the microcosm in all of its common and universalized expressions. Though disregarded and invisible, power over death presents the ultimate reward for dutiful social and political compliance. Generally, though uttered sotto voce, only in whispers, there can be no greater power to confer anywhere on earth. Prima facie, power over death offers the unmatchable promise of immortality.

Faith, “Metaphysical Fear” and the “Hunger of Immortality

We may learn something of head-spinning import from Emmanuel Levinas: “It is through death,” says the philosopher, “that there is time . . . ” It follows, among other things, that any nation that can allegedly enhance the promise of personal immortality could also heighten the vague promises of time.

Could there possibly be any more enviable forms of power?

But before providing answers, there are more basic questions. To begin, what can such a dense abstraction have to do with US domestic politics? These are not easy concepts to understand, especially in the context of America’s continuously misguided preoccupation with dissembling personalities and correlative rancor. Significantly, no society so willing to compromise truth on the altar of “anti-reason” should reasonably expect to endure.

These are not easy concepts or ideas to unravel. Nonetheless, they are more tangibly explanatory of any nation’s existential problems than the ritualistic recitations of most political personalities. If chronology is in fact contingent upon death – in brief, because human mortality puts an irreversible “stop” to each individual’s time – an antecedent question must be posed: How does one gain tangible power over death, and what does any such gain have to do with the fate of a particular state or nation?

Now, it is with this opaque question in hand that core theoretical inquiries should be launched.

What next? Before venturing a proper answer to such a many-sided question, we must first distinguish between actual power and the personal feeling or expectation that such power lies in certain decipherable ties to God. Unsurprisingly, we humans have always sought reassuring links to the divine. In identifying humankind’s pertinent ties – ties that are necessarily prior to acquiring power over death – the most evident and “time-tested” path involves religious faith.

It is hardly a coincidence that every one of the world’s major religions offers adherents alluring and more-or-less comparable promises of immortality.

Though structured upon anti-reason, such assurances are powerful, and come with assorted contingencies, some of which would prove more difficult to satisfy than others. In the main, however, whatever the specific contingencies or nuances of differentiation involved, a bargain is being offered to those individuals who hope most fervidly not to die. “Normally,” it is a gainful pact, one whereby the faithful adherent commits to the affirmation of all true piety (“I believe)” and prioritizes this “sacred” affirmation above all others.

Immortality and Martyrdom

Though Miguel de Unamuno sees an incomparable potential for redemption in the: hunger of immortality, there is an extraordinary peril associated with this primal hunger. This peril is the present day scourge of religion-based terrorism desperately seeking “martyrdom.” In such cases, the hunger for power over death leads directly to more death, not to any welcome forms of interpersonal or international harmony.

Related particularities should be noted. On occasion, the doctrinal priority “I believe” can demand a faith-confirming end to an individual believer’s physical life on earth, that is, an act of martyrdom. At other times, assorted high-minded doctrines of charity, caring and compassion notwithstanding, this priority can require the torture and/or killing of designated “unbelievers,” “heathen,” “apostates.” The intention of this lethal requirement is to safeguard “the one true faith.” We see this presently in the ritualistic violence of jihadist terrorism.

Whatever special circumstances of “sacrifice” may be involved – and they need not be mutually exclusive – reason gives way to anti-reason. Such a grotesque surrender is no less likely in the Age of Science than it was in an earlier Age of Belief. Regarding this worrisome allegation, the daily news offers us all endlessly corroborative “evidence” ex hypothesi.

Several core truths are revealed by these clarifications. Any cumulative hopes for an individual rising “above mortality” can have critical consequences for the macrocosm, for war and peace on planet earth. In the nineteenth century, at his posthumously published Lecture on Politics (1896), German historian Heinrich von Treitschke observed: “Individual man sees in his own country the realization of his earthly immortality.” Earlier, German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel opined in his Philosophy of Right (1820) that the state represents “the march of God in the world.”

These widely-cited views in political science and philosophy tie loyalty to the state (usually unquestioned loyalty) with the promise of power over death. By definition, this must always be a monumental promise, one generally recognized only in the Platonic “shadows” of political activity. Plainly, whenever the historian looks beyond the distracting shadows of true images, he discovers no plausible evidence of any such promise having been kept. Still, that discovery need not be unwelcome. “It is in his failure,” says Soren Kierkegaard, “that the believer finds his triumph.”

These are complicated interconnections. Immortality represents an unfulfillable promise, of course, but one that will nonetheless remain both extraordinary and incomparable. During his incoherent tenure as US president, Donald J. Trump’s openly pernicious brand of belligerent nationalism (“America First”) offered its believing adherents a dangerously seductive promise. In the end, because it was founded upon a fusion of stark ignorance with doctrinal anti-reason, “America First” accepted a vision of time that could only enlarge the force-multiplying spheres of violent death in world politics.

Additional nuances warrant competent intellectual examination. In related matters, faith and science intersect with variously coinciding considerations of law. The fearful “deification” of Realpolitik, a transformation of ideology from a simple principle of action to a sacred end in itself, drew its germinal strength from the doctrine of sovereignty. Conceived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a juridical principle of internal order, this doctrine underwent several far-reaching metamorphoses, whence it also became the justifying legal rationale for international anarchy and war. More formally, this structural decentralization was identified by classical political philosophers as the “state of nature.”

Sovereignty and “Metaphysical Fear”

To understand such complex intersections, we must first understand “sovereignty.” Established by Jean Bodin as a juristic concept in De Republica (1576), sovereignty quickly came to be regarded as the supreme human political power, absolute and above all other forms of law. In the oft-recited and oft-studied words of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan: “Where there is no common Power, there is no law.”

As to any correspondences with time, which is how we have come to consider such complex issues in the first place, Hobbes explains why this “no law” condition should be called “war,” even when there exists no actual “fighting.” More precisely, because “war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of Time . . . ,“ scholars and policy-makers will need to broaden their most fundamental ideas of “war.” Though this would first appear to be an esoteric requirement, and one without any discernible links to real world policy-making, exactly the opposite is true.

When it is understood in terms of modern world politics, the doctrine of sovereignty encourages the refractory notion that states (a) lie above and beyond any legal regulation in their interactions with each other, and (b) act rationally whenever they seek tangible benefits at the expense of other states or of the global system as a whole. Following the time of insufferable Trump derangements, this doctrine threatened a wholesale collapse of civilizational cooperation and world order. This dis-establishment was spawned by the “timeless” human wish for immortality and by variously misconceived human associations of personal “wish fulfillment” with “everyone for himself” foreign policies. “O my soul,” warned Pindar, “do not aspire to immortal life but exhaust the limits of the possible.”

Time and “State of War” in World Politics

Without suitable changes in the Hobbesian “tract of time,” the global State of War nurtured by certain ideas about absolute sovereignty points not only to an immutable human mortality, but also toward death on unprecedented levels. One such refractory idea is climate change denial, a currently preferred posture of anti-reason expressed earlier by Trump-world derangements of science and law. Left unaffected by proper considerations of scientific analysis and refined intellect, climate change denial could ultimately produce another mass extinction on planet earth. At that point, time will have lost all its once residual meanings, and death will inherit absolutely all that still is.

This “inheritance” will be irreversible.

Considered by itself, immortality remains an unworthy and unseemly human goal, both because it is scientific nonsense (“an immortal person is a contradiction in terms”) and because it fosters endlessly injurious human behaviors such as war, terrorism, genocide and “martyrdom.” The only dignified task, therefore, is not to remove individual human hope to soar above death (that is, to achieve some tangible sort of immortality), but to “de-link” this futile and vainglorious search from destructive human behaviors.

How best to proceed with such a multi-faceted and unsatisfying task? This is not an easy question, and one that can never be answered in terms of Platonic shadows or reflections. Here, there are available no science-based guidelines. Even if there were such availability, this is not just another ordinary problem that can yield to reason-based solutions. On the contrary, the infinitely-distressing wish to immortality is so deeply compelling and geographically universal that it can never be dispelled by logical argument. What unreason could never accomplish, remarks Friedrich Nietzsche prophetically, can never be accomplished by reason.

Metaphysical Fear and “Whisperings of the Irrational”

Aware of this lethal dilemma, philosopher Karl Jaspers writes in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952): “There is something inside all of us that yearns not for reason but for mystery – not for penetrating clear thought but for the whisperings of the irrational….” Understandably, the most seductive of these irrational whisperings are those that can offer to confer a selective power over death. But it is from the irrational criteria of such “selection” that far-reaching evils can quickly or incrementally be born. This is because the promised power over death demands the “sacrifice” of certain despised “others.”

For science, of course, death is merely a function or outcome of biology. Moreover, because it “presents” together with physical decomposition and decay – and because it calls for human comprehension of “nothingness” within a flow of time – there can be identified no plausible ways of replacing mystery with rationality. By its very nature, which inevitably brings forth inconsolable fears and paralyzing anxieties, death will never submit to even the most refined sorts of human “management.”

Nonetheless, at least in principle, some measure of existential relief can be discovered in transience, that is, in the understandable awareness that nothing is forever and that everything is impermanent. What will be required at this stage is the conceptual reciprocal of any imagined human decomposition. This would mean cultivating the imagery of expanded human significance that inevitably stems from life’s finite duration. In scientific terms, one might best describe this particular quality of life as a “scarcity value.”

Though seemingly paradoxical, any such gainful “cultivation” could represent the optimal human strategy of achieving “immortality.”

How can humankind arrive at such an intellectually-challenging conclusion? We began with the view that daily news reports and assessments are just changing reflections or shadows of deeper human engagements. To deal satisfactorily with the recurrent horrors of any single nation’s politics, we would first have to understand the verifiably true sources of such reflections.

There is more. These underpinnings of daily news events are rooted in conceptual intersections of death, time and immortality. It is only with a more determined understanding of these intersections that America and Americans could hope “not to die.” Naturally, no such hope could ever be reasonable in a literal or scientific sense. Instead, it would need to be drawn from the primal and determinative sentiment of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West: “I believe.”

The Barbarism of Specialization

In the end, world politics must always remain a second-order activity, a distorted and distorting reflection of what is actually important. For now, such politics continues to thrive upon a vast personal emptiness, on a collective infirmity that represents the disfiguring reciprocal of personal fulfillment. “Conscious of his emptiness,” warned the German philosopher Karl Jaspers in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952), “man (human) tries to make a faith for himself (or herself) in the political realm. In Vain.”

“In vain.”

In even an authentic American democracy, only a few could hope to redeem themselves and the wider nation, but these self-effacing souls would generally remain silent, hidden, in more-or-less “deep cover.” In a declining democracy where education is increasingly oriented toward narrow forms of career preparation, an orientation toward “barbaric specialization,” these precious few can expect to be “suffocated” by the “many.” To be sure, any such “asphyxiation,” in any of its conceivable particularities, would represent a very bad way to “die.”

Traditionally, tyrants do not emerge on the political scene ex nihilo, out of nothing. Regarding such emergence, history deserves pride of place. Incoherent, corrupt and murderous leaders are usually the result of a society that has long since abandoned serious thought. When such a society no longer asks the “big philosophical questions” – for example, “What is the “good” in government and politics”? or “How do I lead a virtuous life as a person and citizen”? or “How can I best nurture the well-being of other human beings”? – a hideous outcome becomes unstoppable.

What is to be done? Prima facie, humankind will need to acknowledge the fundamental interrelatedness of all peoples and (correspondingly) the binding universality of authoritative international law. To survive as an organically-structured planet of interrelated individuals, many more persons will need to become seriously educated, not as well-trained cogs in some vast industrial machine but as empathetic and caring citizens. “Everyone is the other, and no one is just himself,” cautions Martin Heidegger in Being and Time (1932), but this elementary lesson (once discoverable in myriad sacred texts) is not easily operationalized. Indeed, it is in this single monumental failure of “operationalization” that human civilization has most consequentially failed.

In the United States. especially during its Trump-twisted context, “greatness” was assumed to be a Darwinian or zero-sum condition, not one wherein each individual could reasonably favor harmonious cooperation over belligerent competition. How shall we finally change all this, or, recalling Plato’s wisdom in The Republic, how shall we “learn to make the souls of the citizens better?” This is not a question that anyone can answer in elucidating detail. Still, it is a question that ought to be placed immediately before principal decision-makers on our imperiled planet.

Can any sort of rational calculation plausibly be expected? More than likely, recalling the timeless message of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, this expectation may “have come too soon.” Significantly, if such a premature warning turns out to be the case, there could be no “later.”

What is “Drawing Near”?

“Is it an end that draws near,” inquires Karl Jaspers in Man in the Modern Age (1951) “or a beginning.” A meaningful answer, one which lies far beyond any measuring hands of watches or clocks, is by no means self-evident. Yet, determining this answer has now become a sine qua non of global political destiny. Nothing could prove more important.

Soon, humankind will need to get solidly beyond the demeaning banalities of geopolitics, beyond the distracting and potentially murderous “shadows” of what is truly important. Immutably, but also invisibly, most human residents of planet earth will continue to regard “power over death” as the highest conceivable form of power. It will remain unclear, however, just how such ultimate forms of power can be linked to America’s domestic politics and to its continuously zero-sum foreign policies.

Meaning and Belonging

There is more. To look suitably beyond “shadows,” humankind must first discover two other principal animating forces of the political realm. These interrelated and interdependent forces concern meaning and belonging. They represent other true images of American politics – images additional to ones of immortality or “power over death” – that can bestow variously tangible feelings of personal self-worth. Such images coalesce around those activities that can confer pleasing human emotions of “time well spent” in group membership. The overriding problem is that such activities are not always benign, and can include war, terrorism and genocide.

In his modern classic study, Being and Time (1953), Martin Heidegger laments what he calls (in German) das Mann, or “The They.” Drawing fruitfully upon certain earlier seminal insights of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Jung and Freud, Heidegger’s “The They” represents the ever-present herd, crowd, horde or mass, an “untruth” (the term favored by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard) that can all-too-quickly suffocate private intellectual growth. For Heidegger’s ubiquitous “The They,” the crowning human untruth lies in “herd” acceptance of immortality at both institutional and personal levels and in herd encouragement of the notion that personal power over death is sometimes derivative (recall Hegel and Treitschke) from membership in nation-states.

History reveals, that this can become an insidious notion.

Any reassuring hopes about potential for personal immortality are themselves contingent upon a specific nation-state’s or insurgent group’s alleged “sacredness.” Here, membership in a presumptively “sacred” group can serve to confer life-everlasting. In The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler underscores the ultimate form of power in world politics – power over death. Such power, long associated with belligerent international relations, could be indispensable to the conquest of “metaphysical fear.” Though not readily apparent, what we are witnessing daily in world politics – e.g., Iran-backed jihadist terror group.


by Louis René Beres:
Foundations of Nuclear War Avoidance
Emptiness and Consciousness
King Charles III: Sovereignty as Immortality
Glorifying Riches
Unspeakable Lies
An Unphilosophical Spirit
America Around the World
Behind All Speeches Are Unspeakable Lies
The Worst Does Sometimes Happen
Martyrdom & Hunger for Immortality
The Trump Presidency: An Informed Perspective
Looking Beyond the News
Politics, Law and Triumph of Chaos
An Illustrious War Against Death
Insurrection and the American Horde
Post Mortem: Trump Presidency
Presidential Crimes and Pardons
Pandemic as Opportunity
Understanding a Lethal American Presidency
A Nation's Bitter Despair
The President as Monster
Lessons from Covid-19
The Overriding Threat: Trump, the Mass & Nuclear War
Fragmentation or Unity
A More Thoughtful Nuclear Policy
Are Terrorists Abnormal?
War, Politics and the Planet Earth
Intellect & Politics: Trumpian Opposites
Emptiness & Consciousness: Unseen Limits of American Mind
Trump and the Destruction of the American Mind
Empathy & Intelligence
The Crowd Is Untruth
In Praise of Folly: Trump Presidency
Repairing the World at Its Source
Emptiness and Consciousness
Nuclear Deterrence Conflict
Trump's Anti-Intellectualism
Lawless Retreat
Trump - Triumph of Anti-Reason
In the Absence of Wise Councel
Futile Goal of Winning Wars
Money & Politics: A Look Behind the News
Trump's War Against the Intellect
America Becomes What Its Founding Fathers Feared
Victory as Vanishing Point in the Age of Terror
Against a Nuclear-Free World
The Politics of Pre-emption
Crowds, Belonging and Victory Over Death
The Tip of the Jihadist Iceberg
Fixing the World
When Science May Not Be Enough
Facing future Wars
America's Senseless Wars
Is There a Genocide Gene?
Slow Death of America
To Fix a Broken Planet
Our Fractured Union
Affirming Life in the Age of Atrocity
War, Truth and the Shadows of Meaning
Occupy Wall Street
What Is Important?
Social Network Anxiety
Disappearance of the Philosopher Kings


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