This is our humanity: Not to know who we are or what we will become.—David Horowitz, The End of Time, 2005.1
Therefore, despite the fact that the Christian’s attitude toward history includes preparation for a catastrophic end within history, it nevertheless contains as an inalienable element the affirmation of created reality… (The Christian martyr) does not revile natural mundane reality; he finds creation, in spite of everything “very good”; whereas it is characteristic of the gnostic, who shuns the blood testimony, that he speaks ill of creation and of natural things.—Josef Pieper, The End of Time, 1980.2
In a used book section of a second-hand store in San Jose called “Savers,” which a friend was showing me, I came across David Horowitz’s 2005 book entitled, The End of Time. It had a recommendation on its back cover by Michael Novak, a friend of mine, and well-known writer. So my friend bought it for me for $2. I vaguely recalled who David Horowitz was. He knew Islam and was long concerned about the lack of academic freedom in our universities. But this small book was, as it turned out, a quite profound meditation on death, love, time, ideology, and the last things. It was an “apology,” a defense of his life, a defense that Horowitz thought he ought to make. He wanted to explain reality as he saw it, and his place within it. Our humanity, he thought, was not destined to know who we are, or what will come of us. The claim that we can know these things, and put them into the world by our own powers, was, he figured, the source of all evil, and of what is wrong in the world.
As I had recently written an essay that dealt with Josef Pieper’s identically titled book, The End of Time, I was especially interested to see how Horowitz treated the issue.3 Both books were about 150 pages long, both published in San Francisco within a few years of each other, and both were concerned with ultimate things. Horowitz’s book was a personal meditation on the “end” of his own physical life, while Pieper’s was more on the end of history, the end of mankind in time, in this world. Yet, both books seemed intertwined in the same issue: How do we stand before death? How is it that we are unable to redeem ourselves? The belief that we can redeem ourselves becomes, in Horowitz’s mind, the very origin of the worst disorder in the world.
In looking about, all sorts of books have the “end of time” title. Julian Barbour has one published by Oxford University Press, also in 1999, on the scientific notion. There are films and videos with this title, or a variant of it. I believe there was an old sentimental song called “’Till the End of Time.” We know that space and time are related in classical scientific formulae. We even have a pope who thinks time is more important than space. Space without time suggests stagnation and inertness, whereas time without space suggests a kind of ethereal floating about, with no real, substantial place on which to land.
The cover of the Horowitz book is by Nick Collier, but it has no title. We are left to guess. Perhaps it does not need more clarification. It must be conceived as a symbol of the book’s thesis about “the end of time.” This cover photo is starkly repeated at the beginning of each of the five chapters of the book—which are entitled: “Going Home,” “Life in a Hospital,” “On Earth as It Is in Heaven,” “Being Here,” and “Into the Future.” The cover shows a vast, barren seashore with waves coming into the shore. Out in the surf, we see a solitary man walking resolutely into the ocean, with water a little above knee-high. Though the book, in fact, does not have that stoic attitude towards death, the image is surely one of a man committing suicide. The problems of his life, or perhaps better, of life itself, are incomprehensible, with no ultimate meaning, a maddening realization.
Horowitz grew up in a Marxist-believing, Jewish family in Brooklyn during the time of Lenin and Stalin. They belonged to the Communist Party right up until the truth about Stalin’s bloody record came to be admitted by the Soviets themselves. The book begins by recounting the relation of Horowitz with his father. He is puzzled by his father’s sadness, his anger at the way the world is. He represents generations of good Marxists who have believed in the picture of “sick mankind” that Marx analyzed, and whose cure he promised. It is not that Horowitz did not love his hard-working father. The puzzlement came rather because he did.
In the end, my father’s disappointment was the gift he gave me, an irony that still connects us beyond the grave. His melancholy taught me the lesson he was unable to learn himself. Don’t bury the life you have been given in this world in the fantasies of the next; don’t betray yourself with impossible dreams (8-9).
We have here already an implicit realism that can accept an imperfect world as the only one we immediately have.
This book is one that passes from personal experience—that includes his father and mother—to literary experiences that include, for example, Saul Bellow’s reflections on his own mother’s death.
When I think of Saul Bellow’s unhappy evening, years ago, I am prompted to consider how different we are, and how incommensurable the lives we are given. How, as a result, how each of us is an impenetrable enigma to the other… (15).
Horowitz returns in many ways to this theme of our difference from one another, how the burden of death separates out lives.
Our origins create a gravity that controls our ends but also leaves us to our own devices… This tells us that we have a biblical free will, and are finally the gods of what we will become (16).
Free will, I suppose, does not mean that we actually become “gods.” We remain men, and want to remain so, even in eternity. But it does mean that we freely decide the kind of human being we ultimately remain in the death that so much pervades Horowitz’s book.
This book is written by a self-professed agnostic. He is a Jewish academic gentleman born into a radical family. In a way, the Old Testament pervades this book. A Christian reader such as myself keeps seeing in it revelational answers hinted at, but unattended to.
As an agnostic, I have no idea if the universe began with a bang or has existed forever, or is it the work of a Creator; but regarding what I do know I am convinced that the biblical book of Genesis conveys a central truth about human fate (20).
One can wonder, I suppose, just how such wisdom got into the Book of Genesis in the first place.
But Horowitz’s analysis of the Fall is pretty much on the mark. The points he makes I have routinely made to classes over the years. Namely, Adam and Eve did not fall because they were hungry, or because they would die, or because they lacked anything. None of the modern revolutionary reasons applied to them. They wanted to be “like gods.” That is, they wanted to be the beings who decided the distinction of good and evil. They were denied the “Tree of Life” in the Garden as that was the path to immortality. They were expelled from the Garden from whence they were confronted with a world in many ways hostile to their ambitions.
From this background, we see that the first sin was not lust or greed, but a purely spiritual disorder of soul. Horowitz wrote:
The First Parents wanted to be like God, and could not be satisfied with anything else. Though they were immortal and lived without labor, and suffered no pain, every abundance was insufficient for them. Even in Eden, they felt denied; paradise was not enough (21).
Horowitz comes to see this “paradise is not enough” to be the leitmotif of human living. He sees it as the root problem with his father, with the Marxists, with the Muslims, and, indeed, he sees it in himself. He spends his life seeking both an explanation, and a way to live with it.
Horowitz understands the implications of philosophic voluntarism, an off-shoot of many theological arguments about God’s power. It eventually passes through Scotus to Hume, “the contrary of every matter of fact is possible.” This result is Machiavelli. This is Hobbes. This is Hegel. In his meditation on the Muslim suicide pilot, Mohammed Atta, who drove his plane into the World Trade Center, Horowitz compares him to various Marxists of classical vintage.
What did Mohammed Atta hope for but a better world; and what progressive soul does not wish for that? (96)
Horowitz rightly sees that the mystical notion of perfection leaves his father with an unhappy life. It leads to a world scourged by ideologies that want to set things right by some human plan.
For if everything is possible, then nothing is necessary, and no conclusions follow. Consequently, no consideration can become a caution and no principle a restraint. The desire for more than is possible is the cause for greater of greater human misery than any other (40).
This understanding has been the central idea of conservative thinking, from Aristotle to Augustine to Burke. The world we live and die in is a broken world, but it is the best and only world for us now in which we can be the human mortals who are doomed to die.
It is in the enigma of death that Horowitz looks at his life. He has the vantage point of two experiences that, to some extent, contradict his own principles, and, at least, hint at the reasons for his agnosticism. Indeed, I would say his agnosticism is a correct, or at least a plausible and legitimate conclusion, on his own terms. The first issue is his own mortality. He recounts with great detail a prostate operation for cancer that he had to undergo later in life. He manages to find one of the world’s leading doctors who successfully puts him back together again. But he is not sure it will work, so he has to be prepared for his own death, which he intends to accept with his own principles. Since he does not believe in any afterlife or, evidently, judgment, he has to be content with his own life as he lived it, mistakes and all.
Horowitz’s wrestling with death brings him, with much sympathy, to Pascal and his famous wager.
Between eleven and midnight, Pascal encountered, in his words, “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and not of the philosophers.” No one knows exactly what he meant by this, but it has been assumed ever since that he was referring to the actual presence of God, and not just the idea of him (33).
Horowitz associates himself with Pascal in confrontation with “the last things.” But he does not conclude that to believe is the better choice of the wager.
Pascal is right that death is many injustices in one. But what can we do about this fact excerpt learn to live with our fate, and make use of what we have learned? (35).
Faced with death, Horowitz opts not to believe as the better choice. Of course, “belief” or unbelief as the result of a philosophical argument is not “salvific” since the whole point of faith is that it is, in fact, an articulated knowledge, based on reasonable authority, about our end, based on how we live. Horowitz, as far as I can understand him, opts for the life of the good agnostic in preference to that of the bad agnostic. One can admire such a choice while still remaining somewhat puzzled as to where the “good” and “bad” came from, if anywhere.
The theme running all through the book, as I mentioned, is that of death, or perhaps I should say, the unacceptability of death. In the detailed analysis of Islam, and of the Marxists, Horowitz relates their willingness to accept death, and to cause it to their enemies, as being rooted in a belief that death can be overcome, or made meaningful, for the cause remaining in this world. This position is the exact opposite of that of Plato who rightly understood that no final justice will be found in this world. We tend to be horrified by the numbers, and ruthlessness of deaths in the Muslim, Nazi, and Soviet wars against their enemies. We are not ourselves horrified by abortion statistics, which reveal to us that we also kill on a scale unheard of, even by these political movements. But it all comes back to the same issue. This is a belief that we can make such deaths noble. We can justify them in the name of some corporate future good in which all evils will be removed through the elimination of class, race, even gender, that supposedly cause all of our ills.
Horowitz at this level is exactly right. His response is agnostic. That is, as we reach the horizon of death, we do not know what lies beyond it. The secular and religious efforts to lift the veil, either by revolution or by piety, are illusions. Realism means that we acknowledge that we do not know. On this basis, he builds his own life. He does not think that in logic this entails living with no principles. So like all “moral” agnostics and atheists, he ends up with an implicit list of what we should, and should not do. Just why this should be so hovers over the logic of this interesting account. The Platonic solution in the “Myth of Er” in the Republic, or the religious solution in the Last Judgment, is not available to him. It is difficult to see, in this context, why the Machiavellian solution—that we may need to use evil to attain our good—is not valid. Likewise, if there are no ultimate consequences to living viciously or virtuously, it is difficult to see what difference it makes. But Horowitz does not want to live a life in which it makes no difference how we live, even if we do not know.
As he goes through his own near-death experience, caused by a cancer, and sustained by his wife, we see at least a flicker of the full picture of his life.
In my fifth decade, I observed my children having children of their own. The new families were entirely familiar, the miracle of immanence in the flesh, and the fierce bond of filial connection. Yet, nothing was the same. The mark of parenthood was responsibility for a life. But this responsibility was no longer mine. My children were accountable for their own lives, and for my grand-children as well (44).
In one sense, this account seems overly detached. Horowitz married four times. He has four children by his first wife. Two of his marriages were in synagogues. His fourth marriage is the one that comes up most dramatically in this book. His fourth wife, April Millvain, seems to have been a Christian. She is the one most involved in his later health problems, and those on his later reflections on death.
Near the end of the book, Horowitz recalls a conversation with his friend, Peter, who had become a Catholic.
My answer to Peter is this: I understand the finality of death, and do not make light of the end. But my journey has led me to these conclusions, which I cannot deny so late in its course. I have no faith in a life hereafter. But I will not be desperate over my own disappearance. If there is nothing further, what of it? Why should I waste my time in this life in misery over what I cannot change? (149).
This response approaches the classic Stoics and Epicureans.
But to this affirmation, Horowitz’s wife, April, rebukes him for being “arrogant.” She reminds him of God’s gifts to him, to which he seems to have no gratitude. She adds:
I need you to do this for me. If you don’t believe, you won’t be there when I come for you, and I’ll be alone. And I do not want to be without you (150).
It is well to look on this passage with the eyes of both Aristotle and Christianity. Friendships are meant to last in the form we know them—the whole, body and soul. We deal here not with the immortality of the soul, but with the Resurrection of the body.
To this reasoning, Horowitz responds with Pascal:
If there’s a God, I’m sure he will be merciful, and will not condemn me for my lack of faith.
This God of mercy, in other words, will overlook all our sins—whatever they are—our moral rationalizations, and our ideological errors. This solution, no doubt, makes us infinitely insignificant. Nothing is required of us. Our powers and capacities, and what we do with them, matter not. If such a solution applies to Horowitz, then, by the same argument, it must apply to the jihadists and the Marxist killers, who were just trying their best to make us happy in this world.
Horowitz reflects again:
Her (his wife’s) distress caused me to reconsider what I had said. In fact, I had no answer. I was arrogant. If there was a God, how could I, in my mere mortality, know His plan?
Though a professed agnostic, and brought up in a Marxist environment, Horowitz was a Jew. How else can we read the words that follow?
Maybe the whole idea was to see through the chaos and, through an act of faith, discover the divinity in it all? …I was forced to question what I had taken for granted, and ask, Is it I who is blind?
He tells his wife that he will think about it. She replies: “I do not want you to think. I want you to open your heart.”
His wife recalls his mother, her sufferings. He recites Psalm 8:3: “Oh Lord, when I consider the heavens, the work of your fingers….” He turns back to his children from one of his past lives.
My children and grandchildren are filling up the spaces I have left. It is through them that life comes to me now. They pull me towards it, and remind me that I am leaving (151).
Horowitz is 68 when he writes his book on the end of time. He is nearing eighty today.
I know how I will leave. When my time comes, I will be engaged at full-throttle, or the best I can muster” (154).
And he has what can only be called an act of contrition:
If I allow myself regrets, it is for the occasions I did not do what I should have, and for those when I failed to do what was right. It is for not becoming grateful enough.
The Catechism never put it better.
Horowitz continues in the Greek biological mode of living on in our progeny.
For a time, my departed spirit will live on in others, especially April, and my children, and theirs, who will remember me and keep me in their hearts, until they, too, are gone. And then it will be over. But I won’t feel cheated. Now, or ever. I will not regret a moment that I lived to the full, or did what was good.
Such is the apologia pro vita sua of a self-professed agnostic contemporary. His agnosticism was tinged with doubt. His Jewish soul seemed evident on every page. Marx, after all, was a Jew. Horowitz understood Marx’s soul pretty well, the urge to make everything good, but evidently by his ways, not God’s ways
Horowitz presented himself as an agnostic, not an atheist. If one forbids to himself, as an intellectual exercise, the answers of revelation to reason, the positions Horowitz takes are not indefensible. No reasonable believer is unfamiliar with them. Horowitz’s doubts, that he reveals in his last conversations with his wife, all point to the basis of revelation, which is presented not so much as “faith,” but as reason addressed to reason. Horowitz, as far as I can tell, systematically does not consider the possibility that his questions do have answers that make sense. He takes his final stand on the mercy of a God who, if He exists, would probably be merciful. Whether He would also be more demanding of an intellectual like Horwitz can be disputed. Probably so. “To those whom much has been given, much will be required” (Lk 12:48).
In any case, the account of a life has been given, and repentance asked. Horowitz struck me not so much as a “doubting Thomas,” but as a doubting agnostic. What cured Thomas of his doubt was the “unless I place my hand in the wound in His side…” What cures the rest of us is still the Lord’s reply to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen but who have believed” (John 20:29). At the end of our time, and the end of time itself, our history will still require an “affirmation of created reality.” The agnostic, it strikes me on finishing Horowitz’s fine book, only lacks one thing. That thing was often spoken of by Chesterton. Just how is it that we can be grateful if there is no one to be grateful for what we have received? Horowitz’s book seemed little else than a vivid reminder of the truth of this proposition.