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New Left Review I/190, November-December 1991


Victor Kiernan

Marx and the Undiscovered Country

Religion has always had a twofold nature, public and private, and its two selves reinforce each other. On the one hand it is a social cement, joining together multifarious human beings as the mortar of an old castle wall holds together bits of stone of all shapes and sizes. On the other hand it is the prop of the solitary individual making his weary way through life, who can comfort himself with the assurance that heaven, if not earth, has an eye open to his hard lot. This lot darkens with the approach of death, the aeternum exilium of so many of Horace’s poems, inspiring a dread partly natural or biological, partly artificial: Churches, Christian especially, have devoted a vast deal of energy to fanning it, with the hot breath of hell for bellows. In modern Europe hell has been running out of fuel, and pews of worshippers, at the same rate. But it is the unchanging fact of death that has enabled creeds born in remote times and places to keep their hold, instead of dying out along with the social conditions that gave birth to them. Antiquity is no handicap, but a positive asset: their age is a guarantee of their value to mankind, and to men and women of all sorts.

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