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Wesleyan University

The Hour of Our Death by Philippe Ariès; Helen Weaver

Review by: James P. Carse
History and Theory, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Oct., 1982), pp. 399-410
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THE HOUR OF OUR DEATH. By Philippe Aries. Translated by Helen Weaver.

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. Pp. xvii, 651.

Aries has contributed a bold, ambitious, and flawed book to the current
surfeit of literature on death. Because of the book's scope and the intelligence
of its author it demands a reading, and deserves to be studied for its weak-
nesses no less than for its strengths.
Writing about death is like writing about life. The target is both too small
and too large. One can focus either on the very moment death occurs,
observing precisely what happens when life vacates an organism, or on the
broad range of personal and societal patterns of response to death. In the
one case the matter at issue might be so slight as to elude us altogether. It
has largely fallen to physicians and physiologists to study the organic processes
on either side of the moment of death. Their interest, however, is not in
determining what in fact death is, but in determining when precisely it can
be said to have occurred. The reason for their interest is primarily legal, for
the technological capacities of modern medicine often force the question as
to whether support systems may be turned off or organs transplanted to other
bodies. The definition of death that emerges from the medical deliberation
of these issues is therefore concerned with determining when a medical
procedure becomes homicide.
If our focus shifts from the moment of death itself to the responses to
death, large conceptual difficulties quickly overtake us. How do we know
what is a response to death and what is not? There is no shortage of thinkers
who argue, in a variety of ways, that all human actions are properly to be
understood as responses to death. If the problem of looking precisely at the
moment of death is that we cannot ascertain what death is but only when it
occurs, the problem of looking at human responses to death is that nearly
every statement will do - which, of course, is equivalent to saying that no
statement will do. It seems then that in both cases it is impossible to talk
about death itself.

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And yet, the question of death persists. It is a recurrent theme in most of

the world's great literature, and an insistent subject of personal reflection.
Moreover, there are many human customs and institutions that are self-
consciously designed to cope with the problem of death.
Aries, in describing his own approach to the subject, indirectly refers to
himself as an "historian of death." The expression is provocative. In what
way can we say that death has a history? As we can anticipate, Aries has no
interest in the physiological question as to the exact time one dies. He is
interested instead in the effect of death on our time. The question he is
addressing is not the history of death, but the role of death in history. What
is provocative here is the oddness of a history of this sort. One can imagine
writing a history of warfare, or of economic relations, or of one or another
royal house. But in each case the subject of the history can itself be un-
ambiguously defined. When we assess the efforts of historians of such
subjects the primary question is whether the subject has been dealt with
adequately, not whether the subject is in fact a subject at all.
It is astonishing that Aries completely sidesteps the conceptual issue here.
He makes no attempt whatsoever to undo the tangle of philosophical questions
that cling to any discussion of death. This is a costly oversight. If one goes
forth to collect data for the analysis of an undefined subject it is not at
all clear which data are appropriate. In some sense, all data are equally
appropriate. This is roughly equivalent to a search for whatever happens to
appear. By setting forth without a conceptual rudder, any course will do. We
will not know where we are going until we have arrived there. But in that
case we are not going at all; we are only drifting. Aries's book has throughout
the quality of drift.
On the other hand, there is something about the book that is immediately
and deeply appealing. Having made this oblique reference to himself as an
historian of death, he sets aside any concern with death as such, and leads
us into a study of attitudes toward death. Moreover, he does so in what seems
a most sensible manner. Though he does not clearly announce his intention,
we quickly see that he will draw as close as possible to the moment of death,
and observe how its passage is dealt with both by the dying and by those
intimately associated with the dying. The very modesty of this attempt com-
mends it. We do not suspect that he has some moral or political or profes-
sional program behind his research, as so much recent literature on death
does. If the book is threatened by irrelevancy it also raises in us the hope that
it might assist us in stealing quietly up to a powerful subject matter, leaving
us there to reflect as we wish, without having to hear the customary hermeneu-
tical sermons that explain what we are experiencing.
This encouraging modesty is reinforced by Aries's account of the book's
origin. He does not disclose any personal interest in the great questions about
the nature of death, nor does he report any outrage at the care of the dying.

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He begins with a question of disarming simplicity: why is it that persons
habitually visit the cemeteries where members of their families are buried?
Once before a question as innocent as this led Aries to an earlier and widely
praised book on the family. In that case, he wanted only to know when the
"sense of family" first appeared in history, and was surprised to learn that it
seems to have emerged with "a specific phase of modern life." He suspected
that the same could be said of funerary customs. His preliminary research
disclosed that what are considered the traditional customs associated with
dying are scarcely traditional at all. They, in fact, do not occur before the
appearance of the "romantic cult of the dead" in the late eighteenth century.
Since it was not certain what conclusions could be drawn from this arresting
fact he decided to look into it more deeply.
For three years he and his wife studied Parisian notarial records from the
sixteenth century to the present. What they found was even more suggestive.
Firm conclusions continued to escape him, however, requiring the search for
still more data. He studied wills, fashions in tomb sculpture, dramas of the
deathbed scene, the historical evolution of cemeteries, and numerous other
practices and beliefs from literary, archaeological, and liturgical sources.
"Each body of information sent me on to another," he reports. Obviously
limits had to be established. He chose "the early Middle Ages, as illustrated
by the death of Roland" (5), as his point of departure. He has limited him-
self to one thousand years.
What we have in the book are the results of this research: a virtual blizzard
of fascinating detail, cautiously organized into historical phases. Occasionally
the material drifts over his temporal boundaries obscuring the distinctions
and confusing the reader, but on the whole a clear and rather surprising
geography comes into view. The strongest feature of his book is the inductive
shaping of the historical phases.
In other words, the appeal lies not only in the promise that he will supply
us with an abundance of curious facts and grotesqueries, but in the deeper
promise that the goal of our exploration will be revealed to us only after we
have begun it. Perhaps the sea itself will provide us with a rudder. It is the
promise that even if you do not know what you are looking for you will
find something that will make sense of the search. In academic terms, it is
the awesome possibility that historical research is the way to philosophical
clarity. It is as though the only way of arriving at a clear concept of death
is to study how attitudes toward death have taken shape over the most recent
I want to stress, however, that Aries does not announce an intention of
this sort, but seems rather to have wandered into it. This, at least, is what
is suggested by a crucial paragraph in the preface where he discusses the
limits within which he will conduct his study. "My original purpose," that
is, examining the social custom of cemetery visits, "had been obscured by

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other, more essential problems, which led me to the very foundations of

existence. I sensed a relationship between attitudes toward death in their
most general and common expression and variations in the awareness of self
and other, the sense of individual destiny or of the collective destiny of the
race" (xvi). For a brief, vertiginous moment Aries seems tempted into the
larger project of showing how all of human existence is related to death.
Indeed, the French title of the book indicates that he has fallen for that temp-
tation: L'homme devant la mort. But, in fact, he steps back at this point,
obviously aware of the need for limitations. He finds these limitations offer-
ing themselves in the early Middle Ages where we confront the "frontier of
another world." But observe that what he has done is to solve the problem
of conceptual vagueness by establishing historical boundaries. It is not in the
least clear at this point how cutting off our investigation at, say, the year
800 will save us from questions that lead "to the very foundations of exist-
ence." But this is only the preface, after all, and some 600 pages of alluring
text lie ahead, inducing the hope that a compelling new view of death will

Before we can make any judgment of the book's success, we must briefly
summarize the major discoveries of his journey through this historical period.
He begins by quickly painting in the classical background that preceded
the thousand years under study. We find there an attitude toward death that
originates in ancient history, perhaps prehistory, and persists in one form or
another into the present age. He seems to find it now only in the death of
simple people like the peasants whose indifference to dying is described most
memorably by Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn. Aries characterizes this enduring
image as that of "the tame death" (la mort apprivoisee). Although his account
here is spare of detail, and gives an implausibly uniform picture of this sweep
of history, we are certainly acquainted with the common scene of antiquity
in which the wounded hero, the martyred saint, the poisoned philosopher,
or the aged king, plainly aware that death is upon him, bids his grieving
companions farewell with measured and sagacious words. The intuitive notion
here is that while a person's death constitutes a painful loss to others, it is
not in itself a source of dread for the dying. This kind of death occurs in
public. Both the living and the dying approach death as something with
which they are familiar.
The era of the tame death extends well into the Christian centuries, al-
though not without striking changes in funerary custom. The Roman practice
of burying their dead outside the cities, often alongside major roads, reflects
the fact that the corpse was considered repugnant in antiquity. Because of
the Christians' belief in the resurrection of the body, "this aversion to the
proximity of the death soon gave way among the early Christians, first in
Africa and later in Rome" (30). This resulted in the location of cemeteries

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within the towns, even within the churches. Although Christians lost interest
in identifying their dead with tombstones, usually placing corpses in a common
pit, they were concerned to have the bodies located as close as possible to
the remains of saints, hoping for protection and assistance in the next life.
It was inevitable, of course, that the churchyards would fill up, and when
they did it became necessary to make room by gathering up the bones of
those long dead and storing them in charnels, or ossuaries, within the church.
By no means did the people find this custom repellent. Indeed, the "ceme-
tery, together with the church, was the center of social life. It took the place
of the forum. During the Middle Ages and until well into the seventeenth
century, it corresponded as much to the idea of a public square as it did to
the notion, now become exclusive, of a space reserved for the dead" (62).
Cemeteries were surrounded by commercial enterprises and habitations, and
sometimes were themselves inhabited by persons who maintained makeshift
shelters within the walls. It is startling to learn that, for all this activity in
and around the cemeteries, the shallow graves and the unceremonious haste
with which the dead were buried meant that the sight and smell of rotting
flesh was commonplace, with bleached bones showing through the soil. As
Aries notes, this seems to indicate a "rapprochement between the living and
the dead."
In the meantime another attitude is slowly preparing throughout the Middle
Ages. This attitude Aries places under the category "death of the self." It
comes from the belief he takes to be original to the Middle Ages that "every
man possesses a personal biography" (138). The shift to this new attitude
is signaled by the gradual replacement of the Second Coming of Christ with
the Last Judgment in mortuary iconography beginning about the twelfth cen-
tury. As long as there was a widely held expectation of Christ's triumphant
return and the raising of the dead, death was still understood as a collective
state and not an individual destiny, and was therefore not fearsome. As the
individual began to emerge in the Middle Ages, concern for the assessment
of one's own life led to a preoccupation with postmortem judgment. At first
there was a period of time elapsing between one's death and the judgment,
allowing for the possibility of intercession on the part of one's family and
the church. This intervening period gradually gave way to the belief that one
would be judged immediately upon dying, and would be judged especially
for those acts directly preceding death, giving great emphasis to one's conduct
in the process of dying. It was because of the importance attached to death-
bed conduct that a number of manuals for dying, artes moriendi, were pre-
pared to assist the mortally ill.
Aries gives the vivid picture here of death drawing closer to life, shedding
its benign tameness and its undisturbing familiarity, and taking on something
of an adversarial role for which one must prepare oneself. As the Middle
Ages proceeded, the encroachment of death gave rise to a widespread interest

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in the macabre. In the familiar scene of the danse macabre we note that the
semi-skeletal figure of death engages the living in its obscene gambols. The
dead not only initiate this activity, Aries points out, "they lead the dance;
indeed, they are the only ones dancing" (116). Aries is at pains to indicate
here that the prominence of the macabre does not mean that life has itself
become frozen in the fear of death and therefore deathlike. He insists, rather
shrewdly, that the macabre exposes a "passionate love for this world and
a painful awareness of the failure to which each human life is con-
demned" (130). What we find in the funerary customs of the Middle Ages
is an urgent love of life, even an ill-concealed avaritia for one's own material
As the Middle Ages gives way to the Renaissance there is a "turning of
the tide" in the collective attitude toward death. The shadow of death
lengthens and falls across the entire course of life. The importance of the
final deathbed drama vanishes. Death cannot be prepared for in the final
hours of life. The new attitude of the Renaissance is most aptly characterized
by the fact that "clergymen stopped urging deathbed conversion and started
insisting that the consideration of death be part of one's daily practice" (314).
The lusty avaritia of the Middle Ages yields to a measured sobriety and a
nourished unconcern with the things of this world. What is evolving here
"is a model of the good death, the beautiful and edifying death, which re-
places the death of the medieval artes in the bedroom invaded by the power
of heaven and hell, the memories of life, and the feverish fantasies of the
devil" (310). Life is now considered utterly vain, and is to be treated as a
possession one should lightly release. Later in the Renaissance death comes
to be regarded even as a "blessed haven, safe from the troubled seas and
the quaking earth. Life and the world have taken the place of the negative
pole that the people of the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance had
identified with death. Death and life have switched roles" (332).
Aries places the Renaissance attitude toward death in a category described
as "remote and imminent death." Death is now no longer familiar, and no
longer sharply different from life.
Near the end of the eighteenth century a fourth attitude takes shape, a
"romantic" disposition that is focused primarily on the "death of the other."
This coincides with what Aries calls "that great modern phenomenon, the
revolution in feeling" (472). He does not mean by this that emotion is unique
to the Romantics, but that in earlier ages affectivity was widely distributed
and not restricted to the members of the conjugal family. "Beginning in the
eighteenth century, however, affectivity was, from childhood, entirely con-
centrated on a few individuals, who became exceptional, irreplaceable, and
inseparable" (472). Aries denies that romanticism in this form is a super-
ficial gloss on society as it is often said to be. "We now know that it is a

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major objective fact of daily life, a profound transformation of man as a
social being" (472).
The romantic attitude toward death is reflected in the redesign of ceme-
teries as sculpture gardens, and a return to the use of tombstones - a custom
virtually ignored by ordinary persons for most of the Christian era. But it
has more important components. For one thing, it entails the belief that
the bonds with the deceased are never quite broken by death, and that the
original associations of affection still exist. A certainty of continuing existence
beyond the grave seizes the population even as religious belief begins rapidly
to wane. "The next world becomes the scene of the reunion of those whom
death has separated but who have never accepted this separation: a re-
creation of the affections of earth, purged of their dross, assured of eternity.
It is the paradise of Christians or the astral world of spiritualists and psy-
chics" (611). What emerges from such beliefs is what Aries calls a "cult of
the dead."
The most portentous element in the romantic cult of the dead is the dis-
sociation of death and evil. Now that "death is concealing itself under the
mask of beauty" (473), it is no longer the manifestation of evil it had been
for centuries of Christians. Even the belief in hell withers, no longer in-
ducing fear.
In sum, the cult of the dead has the effect of hiding death. Death remains
hidden into the twentieth century, long after romanticism itself has passed.
But along with romanticism there also disappeared the bonds of affection
that sustained such small intimate communities as the nuclear family. "The
community in the traditional sense of the word no longer exists. It has been
replaced by an enormous mass of individuals" (613). This fragmentation of
human associations means that in "the course of the twentieth century an
absolutely new type of dying has made an appearance in some of the most
industrialized, urbanized, and technologically advanced areas of the Western
world . ." (560). Where once, particularly in the era of the tame death,
death was a public and social event, it has become a private and isolated
event out of the sight and out of the minds of others. We have entered the
historical phase of what Aries calls the "invisible death."
Invisible death is that which occurs outside the circle of the family, and
usually in hospitals or institutions designed to care for the aged or mortally
ill. The process of dying has become antiseptic and narcotized, and is under
the supervision of persons who have no intimate connection with the patient.
Even mourning is out of place in such a setting. It is as though we have
conspired as a society to erase all reminders of our mortality, a most re-
markable inversion of the Renaissance attitude. "From now on, the denial
of death is openly acknowledged as a significant trait of our culture. The

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tears of the bereaved have become comparable to the excretions of the

diseased. Both are distasteful. Death has been banished" (580).
Aries is aware, to be sure, of the current efforts to restore "dignity" to
the experience of dying by keeping intact the intimate ties of the dying per-
sons with family and friends, but he does not seem to feel that they will have
a significant influence on the age.
These, then, are the five categories, or historical phases, that Aries offers
as a way of making sense of this enormous research: tame death, death of
the self, remote and imminent death, death of the other, and invisible death.
The reader must admire the author's skill in making inductive use of the
material. These five categories do not seem forced onto the evidence, but
rather do appear to rise out of it. The remarkable changes that emerge in
his chronicle of funerary customs truly beg for interpretation, and he seems
throughout to have been both cautious and perspicacious in his judgments.

I spoke of the quality of drift in the work caused by a lack of conceptual

clarification. It might appear from the abbreviated account of his phasing
of the thousand-year period under study that he did make discoveries that
validate the rudderless nature of his research, that transform the drift into
valuable insight. But large and troubling questions remain.
The first question has to do with the adequacy of the limitations within
which he chose to do his research. We have seen that he established historical
limits of about one thousand years. It is also apparent, though it is never
explicitly declared, that he was interested only in those activities that are
proximate to the moment of death in time; thus the appropriateness of the
English title of the book. But other kinds of limitations are missing, and
their absence is damaging. It is not at all clear what the geographical and
cultural boundaries are for the work. Most of his data are taken from French,
even Parisian, sources. As we move out from France the discussion becomes
sketchier, with a greater dependence on secondary material. He clearly con-
siders the American role in shaping attitudes toward death quite important,
especially in the phase he calls "invisible death," but his history of American
attitudes from the Puritan era to the present is drawn from scarcely more
than a handful of sources - varying in nature from brief scholarly notes
to works of journalism. There are no references to Jewish customs, or to
practices in any of the European countries outside France, England, and
Italy. He leaves us here with the question as to whose attitudes are being
studied. We suspect that he does not intend to be culture specific, but to
describe a universal human response. If this is true, we must judge the evi-
dence to be far too limited, and carelessly selected.
A much more serious question is the one that has haunted the book from
the beginning: what in fact is the object of Aries's study? We can assume
that he is chronicling changes in attitudes toward death, but what is an atti-

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tude toward death? How do we distinguish an attitude toward death from
any other kind of attitude? There is no question that some sort of attitude
is expressed in one's indifference to the smell of rotting flesh, or in the con-
struction of a family mausoleum, but what makes it an attitude toward death?
Do we find out how the Romans thought about death by noting where they
placed their graves, or would we not discover more by taking note of the
way in which they executed their criminals or practiced their medicine? Aries
is by no means oblivious to this difficulty, for he often reaches farther back
into a culture for clues to the interpretation of a given funerary practice.
Recall his stress on the importance of the family among those romantics who
developed the cult of the dead. But what we miss here is a rigorous attempt
to ascertain what counts as an attitude toward death, and how, therefore,
we should go about determining what those attitudes are in one or another
What are we to say, then, of the five phases that have arisen so con-
vincingly from his assembled data? Taken by themselves they seem to offer
a rare glimpse into the inner development of modern civilization. But the
fact that these data are inconsistently abstracted from the larger culture shows
up in surprising ways. Aries discusses in considerable detail, for example,
the French government's plan to move the large cemetery at Les Innocents
out of the city of Paris. The plan is interrupted by the French Revolution, and
resumed shortly afterward. What is astonishing is that this is all we are to
know of the Revolution from the book. Unless we already knew that the
Revolution was one of the most important historical moments in modern
European history, we might assume from the records cited by Aries that the
French government had simply recessed for a few years and then returned
to business as usual. The French Revolution had an enormous impact on a
wide range of European and American attitudes, but there is not the least
suggestion of this in the official policies concerning the cemetery at Les
Innocents. In fact, no other great historical event seems to be reflected in
Aries's data. There is nothing here about the Spanish Inquisition, the Prot-
estant Reformation and the religious wars that followed it, or any other war.
Most remarkable of all, the Holocaust does not receive a single citation.
It may well be the case that the Reign of Terror, and Verdun, and
Buchenwald did not actually affect modern attitudes toward death, but it is
scarcely possible that they do not in some way express attitudes toward death.
Because he has abstracted his data without showing their connection to the
whole of our cultural experience, Aries leaves us to conclude either that
the World Wars and the Holocaust have nothing to do with death, or that
the material he has gathered for his study is trivial and not worth our at-
tention for anything more than a diverting amusement.
This conclusion is reinforced by the disconcerting appearance of several
theoretical forays far along in the text. In discussing the Renaissance belief

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in the vanity of life, for example, he stresses its profound influence on the
culture by speculating that "Capitalism would not have prevailed if the
pursuit of pleasure and the immediate enjoyment of things had continued to
be as powerful as they were in the Middle Ages. The capitalist entrepreneur
had to agree to postpone his enjoyment in order to accumulate his profits.
The acquired wealth immediately became the source of other investments,
which in turn created further wealth" (333). Here is a possibility of making
the connection between funerary customs and culture that could anchor the
work to larger issues. But oddly the entire discussion of this connection is
contained in these three sentences. Neither this theory nor anything quite like
it is discussed anywhere else in the book. It is a potentially powerful salvo
that never goes off, and therefore has no effect on the shape of the study as
a whole.
A more ambitious venture into theory occurs still later in the text in a
discussion of the union of love and death in the imagery of the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries. Society has been able to exist from its earliest days
to the present, Aries declares, only by sustaining a defense system against
the unpredictabilities of nature. "This bulwark erected against nature had two
weak spots, love and death, through which a little of the savage violence
always leaked" (393). But by means of sexual taboos and the taming of
death nature's violence was kept at a distance. It was in the nineteenth
century that the "two gates" of love and death finally gave way. As a result,
the savageryof nature invaded the city of man just as the latter was preparingto
colonize nature by expanding the frontiers of technological advancementand ra-
tional organization.It is almost as if society, in its effort to conquer nature and
the environment,abandonedthe old defense system that had surroundedsex and
death, and nature,which had apparentlybeen conquered,surged back inside man,
crept in through the abandonedfortificationsand made him savage again. (395)
Although this theory is nodded at again in the conclusion it has no real
purchase on the work as a whole. Its rich interpretative possibilities are never
exploited. The reason for this may be that technology and bureaucracy do
not show up in a decisive way in those activities concerned with the "hour of
our death."
True, Aries makes much of the recent tendency to isolate the dying in
institutions, and certainly this tendency is encouraged by technology, but the
role he gives technology is quite benign. It is simply that the machines
required for adequate care are too costly and inconvenient for persons to
make use of anywhere but in hospitals. Since the machines are there the
people must be there. He ignores the more exciting possibility, suggested
in the long quotation above, that the rise of technology is itself a manifesta-
tion of something darkly menacing in the "city of man." When Aries wants a
description of the way modern persons die, ignored by those with whom they
have had the most intimate ties, he turns to Tolstoy's memorable short story,

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"The Death of Ivan Ilyich." But Ivan Ilyich's lonely death is by no means
a function of our alienating technology, for he dies without the least benefit
of technology in any form, and moreover dies at home. If this is the very
model of an "invisible death" it is hard to see that technology has any more
than a purely accidental relation to it. One is inclined to agree with Aries
here that there is something uniquely modern in Ivan Ilyich's death, and one
is also inclined to agree that our technological effort to conquer nature is
making us into a new kind of savage; but where the connection is between
these two observations Aries only vaguely surmises. Since Ivan Ilyich is not
a victim of technology as such, is it possible that the very attitudes that
abandon him to his own helplessness also sponsor the growth of technology
as a way of excusing us all from the responsibilities of intimacy? Aries seems
to be suggesting this, but he lets the suggestion dangle idly at the margin of
his work.
In sum, Aries has touched the hem of a mighty thesis, but he has walked
away from it unmoved. The thesis is simply this: by taming nature we have
untamed death. The implications of this thesis are enormous. They hold out
the possibility that we can find a single basic orientation toward death in the
modern spirit that manifests itself in such apparently isolated phenomena as
the atomization of the conjugal family, the abuse of the environment, and an
appetite for global warfare. For this reason the book does not leave us with
indifference but with regret. We regret, for example, that he wastes the
reader's time by recounting the contents of a somewhat artless documentary
film, Dying, that looks in on the final days of four unexceptional people,
and shows no interest whatsoever in the organized killing so characteristic
of our century. We regret that he busies himself with such manifest silliness
as California's Woodlawn Cemetery, and ignores the peculiar form of rational
madness that showed itself in the desire to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki
when it was no longer militarily necessary. Tolstoy's story is admittedly the
work of a literary giant, but we regret that Aries did not listen to those
literary voices that more vividly represent our civilized savagery. Consider,
for example, a remark of H. G. Wells, another vatic genius of the nine-
teenth century, who at the end of his book, Anticipations, a speculative
forecast of the technological wonders to come in the twentieth century, asks
what is to be done with
those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white,and yellow people, who do
not come into the new needs of efficiency?Well, the world is a world, and not a
charitableinstitution,and I take it they will have to go. The whole tenor of the
world, as I see it, is that they have to go. So far as they fail to develop sane,
vigorous, and distinctivepersonalitiesfor the great world of the future, it is their
portion to die out.*

* H. G. Wells, Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress

upon Human Life and Thought (New York and London, 1902), 342.

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Now this is an attitude toward death that cannot be found on anyone's tomb-
stone, or in the practice of visiting cemeteries, but it is an attitude toward
death that has altered the lives of all of us.
In the era of the tame death Socrates said thinkers should spend their
lives learning how to die. Why, in the era of untame death, should so many
thinkers spend their lives learning how to kill? The question is so important
we can only regret that Aries is not an historian of death.

New York University

SOCIAL HISTORY AND SOCIAL POLICY. Edited by David J. Rothman and

Stanton Wheeler. New York: Academic Press, 1981. Pp. xii, 336.

This is the season of applied history. We have seen nothing quite like it
before. Classic claims for the utility and applicability of historical knowledge
always rested on broad assumptions of history's capacity to offer perspective,
causal explanation, and liberation from the thralldom of the past. Yet these
claims have always defied specificity and have often been meant as much to
convey an impression of the superior learning and wisdom of those who
utter them as to convince those to whom they are addressed.
Recently, these arguments have gone into eclipse, being challenged, though
not supplanted, by claims about utility of a different order. The reasons are
more cultural and professional than intellectual, more external than related
internally to the direction of historical research. Since the Second World War,
many historians, believing themselves ineffectual in comparison with econ-
omists, sociologists, psychologists, and other scientists in providing useful
knowledge, have purposefully sought ways -through new methods and re-
search interests - to contribute to the understanding of contemporary public
issues and to the development of public policies. More recently, the career
difficulties of younger historians, their sights originally set on academic
berths, have led many - seasoned and fledgling historians alike - to seek
new uses for venerable analytical skills in the field of what is now called
"public," or "applied," history.
Forces external to formal historical study have been even more influential.
Policies pursued on grounds devoid of historical understanding and often
barren of substantiating evidence - especially in connection with the war in
'Vietnam - roused many historians to try to get the past record straight for
policy application. Direct changes in the administration of laws, such as
required archaeological and environmental impact statements, encouraged
trained historians to involve themselves in the implementation of policies
lest the inexpert do so. Above all, the implacable demands of broad social

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