Summer 2006

When Death Becomes Inhuman

Robert Spaemann

We have been killing fellow members of our species again. This time it has been in the land where Eden is said to have been located, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates. It was no worse than the countless massacres of the last century. In fact, it was more restrained. And it was being done, so it was said, in order to prevent more killing later on. One thing is certain: deliberate killing of fellow members of the species, together with the deliberate killing of oneself, is a privilege reserved to man alone. It is a privilege due to the fact that man, as we have good reason to suppose, is the only being who has knowledge of death, both others’ and his own.

The German poet Reiner Kunze says in one of his poems, “You’re nothing special / It’s just that you cling to beauty / Knowing you’ve got to leave it all.”1 The knowledge Kunze speaks of pervades every moment of our lives. Heidegger made knowledge of death the key to his hermeneutic of Dasein. It is only when we know about death that we start to discover what it means to live. And yet the fear of death, held in secret, isolates each man, for death is not a collective act. Everyone has to die alone, and whoever has realized this can no longer look to society for the meaning of his existence. He knows that one day he is going to abandon society and society is going to abandon him.


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1. “Wesen bist du unter Wesen / Nur daß du hängst am Schönen / Und weißt: du mußt davon.”