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Mortal Democracy: Confronting Death in Political Life


Within liberal political theory there is a general sense that death’s meaning should be kept strictly private, ‘quarantined’ from political life; yet whether we are comfortable with the idea or not, attitudes about death powerfully shape how individuals engage in political relationships and practices. Mortal Democracy thus provides a way of acknowledging death directly as a part of contemporary political life, one amenable to democratic practices. I develop three distinct political accounts of death and its political meaning from Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, and Hannah Arendt; each read alongside an interlocutor from ancient Greek thought. The first chapter “The Wisdom of Silenus: Friedrich Nietzsche and The Politics of Death” develops a Nietzschean adaptation of Homeric “beautiful death,” where persons are capable of transforming the contingent, painful experiences of death into moments of enacted personal or shared value. The second chapter, “A Vocation Unto Death: Max Weber, Modernity & Soldierly Politics” examines Weber’s turn towards an absolutist soldierly model of meaningful death as a part of modern political life. I argue this view of death artificially suppresses the grounds of democratic compromise and amplifies extremist political conviction; a point I demonstrate by juxtaposition with the Periklean Funeral Oration from Thucydides. Chapter 3, titled “Death on the Stage: Hannah Arendt and the Disappearances of Death,” develops an account of death alongside Aristotle’s Poetics, where death “appears” as an absence subject to plural interpretations and narratives, yet retains a fundamentally hidden, private aspect. In the final chapter, “Mortal Ignorance: Socrates’ Apology for Death,” I develop a political orientation towards death through a critical reading of Plato’s Apology. I argue that death’s plural and contested meanings need not be quarantined from public life, but rather the polity can inoculate against death’s excesses through a deliberately inclusive, open-ended, orientation towards death that takes its structure from the aporia at the heart of Socrates defense: mortal ignorance. I argue this perspective provides a critical vantage point from which we might acknowledge death’s plural, contested place as a part of democratic political life. Doing so, we stand to more fully recognize the variety of perspectives and capacities we have before death. We also gain powerful tools for resisting those extremist and violent politics which have traditionally leveraged death’s meaning for political ends, and which pose an increasing threat to democratic political practices in our contemporary world.

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