"To [Death] They Would Go Alone, Yet With All Mankind for Company"

A nice line for Justice Robert Jackson's "The Faith of My Fathers," an unfinished essay of his that has just been published.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The whole essay is much worth reading, and only 8 pages (at pp. 7-14 here). Note that it's the version left in Jackson's papers when he died in 1954, and it hasn't been edited for style or substance.

UPDATE: At the (implicit) suggestion of commenter mad_kalak, I'm posting a bit more of the context for the quote; Justice Jackson is writing about his family's beliefs about religion:

The "fear of God" was no more in my people [his family] than fear of anything else. They faced the vicissitudes of life without leaning on religion, its hardship without mitigation by what the Communists call "the opiate" of religion…. When death approached there was no call for help, no conversion, no repentance, no last rites. They had lived their lives, poor things perhaps but their own, and what they had done would have to stand.

Death they simply took as in the natural order of things…. Who ordained it, what it meant in terms of the personality, and what if anything lies beyond it they knew not. But to it they would go alone, yet with all mankind for company, and they expected to get through it as well as most. I was never impressed that they expected Heavenly reward and I am sure they had no shudders about Hell fire though both ideas were rife in the community.

NEXT: Today in Supreme Court History: January 28, 1916

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  1. “The whole essay is much worth reading . . . .”
    For sure, thank you for posting.

  2. Context provided for the quote below, for those who may not want to read the whole essay. In short, the Justice writes of the agnostic deism of his family and upbringing.

    ———————-
    The “fear of God” was no more in my people [his family] than fear of anything else. They faced the vicissitudes of life without leaning
    on religion, its hardship without mitigation by what the Communists call “the opiate” of religion. When grave sickness came, there was no appeal to the clergy. If one called it was received and appreciated as a neighborly act, not as a professional ministration. Had one taken advantage of the occasion to exert missionary pressures it would certainly have been resented. When death approached there was no call for help, no conversion, no repentance, no last rites. They had lived their lives, poor things perhaps but their own, and what they had done would have to stand.

    Death they simply took as in the natural order of things. I cannot recall a single manifestation of fear of it in any of them. Who ordained it, what it meant in terms of the personality, and what if anything lies beyond it they knew not. But to it they would go alone, yet with all mankind for company, and they expected to get through it as well as most. I was never impressed that they expected Heavenly reward and I am sure they had no shudders
    about Hell fire though both ideas were rife in the community.

  3. Nice read.

    The grandmother who never relinquished her chores and one day decided to move on and meet death “serenely” reminds me of my grandfather. He was accepting of the Christian revelation, though, but perhaps somewhat similarly skeptical of the “superstructures.”

    Robert Jackson was quite interested in Spiritualism at this time it seems. Incidentally, I know very well the exact historical location of the Fox Sisters that Jacskon mentions. It is oddly a few short miles away from the place where Joseph Smith received his “revelations.” The larger region was referred to as the “burned-over” district, starting with an 1876 book by Charles Grandison Finney:

    “I found that region of country what, in the western phrase, would be called, a ‘burnt district.’ There had been, a few years previously, a wild excitement passing through that region, which they called a revival of religion, but which turned out to be spurious.” … “It was reported as having been a very extravagant excitement; and resulted in a reaction so extensive and profound, as to leave the impression on many minds that religion was a mere delusion. A great many men seemed to be settled in that conviction. Taking what they had seen as a specimen of a revival of religion, they felt justified in opposing anything looking toward the promoting of a revival.”

  4. What sense does that make? Do the nonexistant ghosts of other people latch on to you at the time of death? Whats with atheists everywhere having a bizarre reflex where they’re trashing (other) religion one minute then desperately grabbing on to flowery spiritualist language the next? Is this some sort of deep seated inadequacy?

    If you believe in the standard atheism in vogue today you live spending your days furiously refreshing r/atheism, beginning sentences with ‘As an atheist I’, and cheering in Twitter comment threads as you watch Dawkins get kicked around once he dares to step up to militant feminism. Then you die alone are wormfood are eventually forgotten and mankind is destroyed and everything is meaningless. Whats the point in throwing in nonsense metaphysical metaphors at the 11th hour? If you’re going to be a hardcore believer in materialist oblivionism at the very least own it.

    This reminds me of one of the ‘mythbusters’ carrying on about how awesome his atheism is in some commencement speech then all of a sudden he started babbling about some giant Indian spirit bird that went around eating souls and this was supposed to be deep or something. Really, what the heck.

    1. What sense does what make?

      1. Everything is presented very simply. I don’t know why you’re confused.

    2. Take a look at popular movies and TV shows. See what’s on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon etc and the traditional networks. Practically the majority of the content watched now involves the supernatural of some kind, from fantasy to scifi and so on. In particular, there’s been a huge focus on the afterlife recently, extradimensional/unseen or spiritual worlds and beings, and such.

      Generally, it seems there is an intense, universal, and entirely persistent interest, which has scarcely abated since what Jackson describes as the Temples at Luxor that the faith of men built 4,000 years ago.

      This was a candid and personal essay, unfinished and unpublished, so I don’t really want to criticize Jackson for it. And see my post above regarding the history of the region. But I would say there’s some tension here for example:

      1. “The clamorous sophistries of the revival and camp meeting which often stirred the neighborhood rolled over us without an emotional stir, though sometimes the “conversions” and “backslidings” of some of the characters afforded a little amused conversation.”

      2. “As for Christian Science . . . I have known really remarkable transformations in several persons who have taken it up[28] and can only conclude that it contains more than I can grasp from its literature.”

      3. “Some of the remote relatives became interested in Spiritualism. I have read somewhat of its literature, and have known some of the practitioners of its art, and have attended a few séances . . . charlatans find its credulous followers easy prey. But it is not easy for one to demolish the theories or discredit the experiments of such men as Sir Oliver Lodge.[27] . . . There might be something learned from it.”

      1. “Tension” between what and what?

      2. The tension is illusory, possibly because you aren’t very familiar with the religious movements of the time period. He grew up during the Third Great Awakening, which had two prongs to it: the revival of the ideas of movements from the Second Great Awakening (ideas which lead to gambling and alcohol prohibitions in law) and the emergence of new religions, which were usually a type of Christian-flavored belief with a sprinkling of Theosophy and pseudo-science (which also espoused many prohibitions but less so in law). Christian Science was the latter and he seems to have had more respect for it than the former, which is likely the flavor of the camp meetings he refers to in your first excerpt. As for Spiritualism and Christian Science, he seems to have been perhaps too believing when considering their “experiments” but he obviously didn’t believe in it as a moral system. Pseudo-science didn’t have the same light shone on it as it has since his death.

        1. I’m reasonably well-versed in the various types of hooey that circulated in those days, but I still don’t know what your point is. Jackson didn’t seem to me to be endorsing Spiritualism so much as disclaiming the expertise, or perhaps interest, needed to debunk it, while leaving room for the possibility that it could, whether true or false, have something to teach us, like religion in general.

        2. I wasn’t clear, and only intended to reference 1 and 2 as being in tension.

          My interpretation was that there’s a bit of tension between finding conversions to Christian Science to be remarkable and compelling, while finding conversions to Christianity to be unremarkable except to afford a little amused conversation. This could be explained away in many conceivable ways; we don’t get any details about the particular characters and events he references. My broader point in response to AmosArch is, yes, there seems to be an enduring curiosity and sense of something beyond what is seen, even on the part of professed atheists.

    3. That’s a lot of words, considering that you missed the point: they didn’t believe anything special was necessarily waiting for them nor for anybody else but still accepted death as it came. A popular idea, especially popular when he was young (during the Third Great Awakening), is that religion is a singular comfort as one dies and that without it a person is not able to accept their impending death. He’s arguing that religion isn’t necessary to be satisfied with your life as missionaries of any time period argue, nor is it merely an opiate as Marxists claim; it is what it is.

  5. The older you get, the more accepting of death you get. You feel your own mortality.

    1. About a decade ago, I had, within a six month period, cancer, a burst appendix, and a near fatal car accident. (So maybe the next thing that tries to kill me will actually succeed.)

      The takeaway lesson from that is just how fragile and uncertain life is. There are no guarantees for tomorrow; there really aren’t. Don’t assume you can put things off. And living with that understanding — I may not be here tomorrow, even though I have no reason to think I won’t be — really does result in living a radically different life.

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