Winston Churchill and The Denial of Death

Winston Churchill was the greatest English man who ever lived.

Let me explain.

“Churchill mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” as Lord Viscount Halifax noted after his famous June 4, 1940 speech in the Commons. Mr. Churchill achieved that which was thought impossible by his enemies, his friends, and those fence-sitters who were expecting to see where the stone might fall before taking sides.

In passing, in general people fall into one of three categories: friends, enemies, and fence-sitters. It is inevitable to make enemies and develop friendships. For most of my life I used to fear the former and love the latter. I have just come to realize that enemies are the salt and pepper of our lives. The true enemies of all good people are the fence-sitters, those buggers who are content to spend their lives on a fence, not picking sides until the contest is clearly adjudicated by one party or the other.

Churchill made history that day by snatching victory from the grips of defeat. He proclaimed British superiority in the face of formidable adversity. He ignored the reality of the war. Churchill alone saw how lost the war was and then decided to rouse up his country’s spirits by the force of his will. In this he was alone. People often show up after the facts claiming how bold and courageous they were. But in reality, most people will abandon a lost cause without doubling down or throwing good money after bad money, as the saying goes.

Winston Churchill fires a Thompson machine-gun next to Eisenhower in May 1944. One would be hard pressed to see a modern politician exhibit any remnant of martial skills in this pussilanimous day and age.

Well, Churchill did just that. He weighed all his options and realized that one must forge on if one is to win. He knew that victory belongs to the patient and the bold. He knew that to cave in and sue for peace before a winning Hitler would invite abject slavery for his country. Best case scenario, the United Kingdom would have been relegated to the same role the Allies had reserved to Germany under the Versailles system at the end of WWI.

He also saw that which Nietzsche (and others) hinted at in his seminal The Will to Power. Nietzsche’s monistic interpretation of the will to life is directly opposite to Schopenhauer’s pessimistic views. Where Nietzsche seizes the will to life as a weapon against nihilism, in its guise as the evaluative claim that the world should not exist, Schopenhauer ascribed a vehemently outcast forecast to the concept. Nietzschean philosophy makes it an overarching idea. In 1886, he defined psychology “the queen of sciences,” thus:

“as morphology and the doctrine of the development of the will to power.”

(Beyond Good and Evil, 23, (1886) by Friedrich Nietzsche).
Friedrich Nietzsche’s normative work, Beyond Good and Evil (1886).

Even before him, Arthur Schopenhauer had discovered that will was the central axis of the universe. Schopenhauer called this “the will to live”, which is a self-evident fact, being the innate driver of our species. We are all animated into a ‘brownian motion’-like effect, which compels us to avoid death and to procreate.

In fact, this driver, this will to live is so paramount that our brains are wired to conserve some energy by boosting hormone production in the moments leading to death supercharging our frontal and parietal lobes so much that it has been speculated that this might be a last ditched effort to summon our memories of our families, hopes, expectations, and yes our will to live, one last time.

Nietzsche’s early thinking was influenced by that of Arthur Schopenhauer, whom he first discovered in 1865. Schopenhauer puts a central emphasis on will and in particular has a concept of the “will to live“. Writing a generation before Nietzsche, he explained that the universe and everything in it is driven by a primordial will to live, which results in a desire in all living creatures to avoid death and to procreate. For Schopenhauer, this will is the most fundamental aspect of reality – more fundamental even than being.

“To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.” – The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker (1973), which won him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1974.

Coming back to Churchill’s June speech, without it England would have sued for peace. In fact, the camarilla behind the 1930s appeasers, centered around Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, were already engaged in peace talks with the Italian ambassador to London. Winston Churchill put a stop to that by rallying Britain against a worn out flag, and by bringing back the Army from Dunkirk.

To most bystanders, in May-June 1940, Churchill’s England was in the same position as the two young men depicted below. What most people did not realize at the time was that Churchill had one of the most robust survival instincts and will to live in the whole British Empire. Only a few still know how a young Winston, was captured but escaped from a Boer prison camp, reaching British lines after many adventures, back during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.

Two Dutch young men were told by their boss to go up and fix this power generator. The turbine went up in flames.
Knowing that their time on earth was coming to an end, they hug. Moments later, one of them jumped to his death while the other was incinerated alive.

Churchill was never forgiven for his misguided tactical blunder at Gallipoli (1915), where during WWI, he had attempted to put the Ottoman Empire out of the war, by landing a mixed English, Australian, and New Zealand force on Turkish soil. After spending 10 months in trenches just above the beachheads, the ANZACs withdrew in December 1915, after losing 46,000 dead and 260,000 wounded.

England owes its survival to Winston Churchill’s dogged persistence.
He is the embodiment of the adage ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way.’

Such is our will to survive that we look for escape in the most irrational quarters. Such is our desire to draw breath one more time that we fight desperately for one more chance to do so. We were made or better still we have grown so attached to our tiny mortal coils that the function of living has created – over millions of generations – our will to survive. That which used to be a mere muscle reflex, gathered strength and epistemological fabric along the way, justifying our humanity.

To want to live, to endure, to have meaning, is to be human.

Our will to live is stronger than that of any other animal’s on the face of the Earth. It is both the measure of our continuous state of rebellion against the cruel and unwelcoming state of nature as well as the outcome of thousands upon thousands of years of parents protecting their children, their families, their neighbors and countries. We are direct beneficiaries of their ultimate sacrifice.

I guess Churchill was right to quote Macaulay’s epic verse, which is one of the most beautiful to ever grace the annals of English language and sentiment.

And how can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods? Thomas Babington Macaulay

Ernest Becker goes beyond the heroic dimensions of the human condition. He finds meaning in man’s irremediable dichotomy. According to him “we are gods with anuses” while simultaneously having evolved to exist on a higher plane of self-awareness and conceptualization. We are instinctual beasts like all other animals but unlike them we are condemned to die refined cruel deaths. We begin to die the moment we are born. We live our entire lives with Damocle’s sword hanging over us and we know it. No other animal lives in such a state of certainty about death.

Ernest Becker’s book is about humanity’s heroic dimension. Condemned to know we are going to die, we press onwards courageously and indefatigably. No other species does this. This is our trait alone.

And yet, Churchill’s speech on that fateful day of June 1940, managed to deny death from taking over his countrymen. He cast away the angel of death from their hearts and minds, relentless in his almost evangelical mission to convince them that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” as President Roosevelt used to say.

“Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. 

Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever.

It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with. The lower animals are, of course, spared this painful contradiction, as they lack a symbolic identity and the self-consciousness that goes with it. They merely act and move reflexively as they are driven by their instincts. If they pause at all, it is only a physical pause; inside they are anonymous, and even their faces have no name. They live in a world without time, pulsating, as it were, in a state of dumb being.

This is what has made it so simple to shoot down whole herds of buffalo or elephants. The animals don’t know that death is happening and continue grazing placidly while others drop alongside them. The knowledge of death is reflective and conceptual, and animals are spared it. They live and they disappear with the same thoughtlessness: a few minutes of fear, a few seconds of anguish, and it is over. But to live a whole lifetime with the fate of death haunting one’s dreams and even the most sun-filled days—that’s something else.”

― Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

I leave you, my friends, on this reflective note. I hope I have stirred you into thinking about life, death, and the meaning of life. In case you should fancy some accompanying music, I believe VNV will prove appropriate to the task.

Victory Not Vengeance (VNV) – Illusion.
If humanity ever decided to adopt an anthem, this ought to be it.

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