The Battle of Kolin is not much remembered these days, although it was a brutal, bloody slaughter. It was fought between Prussia and Austria on June 18, 1757, as part of Frederick the Great’s long campaign to extend his territories at the Austrians’ expense. This time, however, he found the Austrians well prepared and well led. His army was outnumbered, and nearly 14,000 of his 32,000 men lost their lives. At the height of the fighting, Frederick is supposed to have screamed at his troops: “You scum! Do you want to live forever?”
The story became notorious around the German-speaking world. Many years later, Goethe said he was reminded of it when he read the first German translation of Lucretius’ famous Epicurean poem, De Rerum Natura. The association was to the point, for Frederick was an avowed Epicurean (as an absolute monarch, he could afford to be open about his lack of religious faith). He had even written a poem (in French) “in imitation of the Third Book of Lucretius,” whose subject was “the vain terrors of death and the fear of an afterlife.” No doubt, Frederick was an aggressive, ruthless militarist, but if he was a tyrant, then he was a tyrant of a particularly modern kind—one who claimed to be pursuing the common good as “the first servant of the state.”
For Enlightenment materialists like Frederick, the idea of the immortal soul was no more than superstition. Without it, there was no reason to give human beings any special status in the universe. As Jeremy Bentham said, “call them machines: so they were but happy ones, I should not care.” Now, two and a half centuries later, the fear of God handing down rewards and punishments in the next world has shrunk dramatically, and Frederick’s angry accusation points toward a more modern dilemma. Once human beings lose their fear of death, what becomes of the value of human life?
If all there is to being human is the series of experiences, pleasurable or painful, that we go through, then, seen from an objective standpoint, one stream of experiences is no different from any other. So, if it is necessary to eliminate one—or many—streams in order to bring more, longer and more pleasurable ones into existence… well, why not? On the other hand, from the inside, what do individuals have except this set of pleasures and pains? Who but a monster could blame us for hanging on to it with all the strength we can muster?
In short, while materialism encourages that characteristically modern form of political collectivism in which sacrifices that bring about the greater good are taken to be morally imperative, at the same time it leads to a world of individuals who have a sense of their own absolute uniqueness and importance—if only to themselves. The attempt to find a standpoint that can integrate this radical individualism with the claims of the common good is the great underlying ethical and political problem of modern life. It also gives a framing perspective to Ronald Dworkin’s marvelous little book, Religion Without God, and helps explain how a brilliant young lawyer like Dworkin should have ended up pondering issues of theology.