This leaves us with two options, both of which nuclear annihilation renders absurd. First, we can master death by choosing to end our lives through suicide or sacrifice. The latter gives us the best chance of being remembered by posterity. The hero who sacrifices himself for a cause gives his death and his life a larger meaning. However, this meaning depends on there being a culture or civilization that will live on to interpret and remember this courageous act.
Without this expectation, he could not make sense of his sacrifice. Thermonuclear war destroys the possibility of heroism.
Like other Jewish émigrés writing in the postwar era, Morgenthau found in the Holocaust the closest parallel to the prospect of nuclear annihilation.
“There is meaning,” he wrote, “in Leonidas falling at Thermopylae, in Socrates drinking the cup of hemlock, in Jesus nailed to the cross. There can be no meaning in the slaughter of the innocent, the murder of six million Jews, the prospective nuclear destruction of, say, 50 million Americans and an equal number of Russians.”
With all reduced to ashes, human remains will be unsalvageable, eliminating our most meaningful practices of mourning and commemoration. There will be no posterity.
The second way that secular individuals transcend death is by leaving behind evidence of their existence. We live on through our children. Our monuments pass on “an inheritance of visible things not to be consumed but to be preserved as tangible mementos of past generations.” Some of these monuments are ambitious — world orders and lasting empires. But most are the ordinary stuff of life. The trees we plant, the houses we build, whose lives outlast our own.
Perhaps most important, we produce works of the imagination — books, poetry, art — which are lasting testaments to a distinctly human capacity for creativity. When an individual creates, he participates in “an unbroken chain emerging from the past and reaching into the future, which is made of the same stuff his mind is made of and, hence, is capable of participating in, and perpetuating, his mind’s creation.”