My Political Ideological Journey Part #1: The Role of Government and the Basis of Government Authority

(Note: this is the first of a handful of posts that cover my evolving interests and thoughts regarding political theory.)

As far as I can remember, my interesting in political theory began in high school. The pivotal book that directed me towards considering the role of government was “The Second Treatise of Government” by John Locke. Looking back at this book, there’s quite a bit that Locke states which I disagree with. However, this book does a good job of guiding its readers to consider the appropriate role of government and the basis upon which government derives its authority.

Locke introduces this topic by saying, “To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man” (Chapter 2, Section 4). Locke begins by asking his readers to consider the state of the world prior to the introduction of government. After all, government is not an eternal entity and had to be created at some point. If nothing else, this thought experiment guides Locke’s readers to contemplate why people would institute government, which would imply its original purpose and role.

Continuing, Locke argues that government was formulated based on voluntary individual decisions, motivated by self-preservation (Chapter 15, Section 171):

Political power is that power which every man having in the state of nature has given up into the hands of the society, and therein to the governors whom the society has set over itself, with this express or tacit trust, that it shall be employed for their good and the preservation of their property. Now this power, which every man has in the state of Nature, and which he parts with to the society in all such cases where the society can secure him, is to use such means for the preserving of his own property as he thinks good and Nature allows him; and to punish the breach of the law of Nature in others so as (according to the best of his reason) may most conduce to the preservation of himself and the rest of mankind; so that the end and measure of this power, when in every man’s hands, in the state of Nature, being the preservation of all of his society- that is, all mankind in general- it can have no other end or measure, when in the hands of the magistrate, but to preserve the members of that society in their lives, liberties, and possessions, and so cannot be an absolute, arbitrary power over their lives and fortunes, which are as much as possible to be preserved; but a power to make laws, and annex such penalties to them as may tend to the preservation of the whole, by cutting off those parts, and those only, which are so corrupt that they threaten the sound and healthy, without which no severity is lawful. And this power has its original only from compact and agreement and the mutual consent of those who make up the community.”

Locke, in this quote, argues that government’s power is derived from the voluntary submission of individuals. Implicit in this argument are two key points. First, a state of governance is a contractual position, which allows individuals to leave government authority at any point in time. Second, government’s only purpose is the protection of individual life and property. These were both key factors in my viewpoint of the role of government and greatly shaped my thinking going forward. Like I mentioned before, I have some issues with a few of his ideas. That being said, this book was helpful in getting me to think about political theory and the role of government.

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I’d love to hear what you think of this post and my early thoughts on the role of government. Feel free to leave a comment or send me an email. Thanks for reading!

The Frying Pan Fable Follow-Up

Imagine you are in your house when suddenly you hear an intruder. Fearing for the safety of your family, you rush over to your closet and start loading your Tommy gun. As you are preparing your weapon, you have a random thought: “This Tommy gun is pretty effective for self-defense, but I think I might just use my trusty frying pan instead. Sure I’ll have to get closer to the intruder and put my life at considerable risk, but I just like my frying pan a whole lot.” Throwing your Tommy gun aside, you pick up your frying pan and go to defend your house.

Last week I made the point that created items generally work best when put to use according to their intended design. Additionally, this opening illustration highlights another key point about roles: when you utilize something beyond its intended role, you often usurp the designed function of something else. 

In terms of the role of government, this is an important concept to understand. When weighing benefits and costs, we must realize that as the role of government expands, the roles of other societal forces shrink. Just as the frying pan rendered the Tommy gun useless when its role expanded unnecessarily, so government enlargement can hinder the effective and intended functions of other societal institutions. This can be seen in two specific areas: social welfare and economic regulation. (I will merely touch on these issues as an illustration of the above point. A fuller discussion of either topic will have to be put off until a later date.)

Social Welfare

Most people would likely agree that it is important to help the poor and the less fortunate. And through welfare, the federal government is very involved in attempting to achieve this goal. However, as government gets involved in these poverty-reduction endeavors, it pushes out other more appropriate institutions, such as the church. Tony Evan notes, “The primary job of caring for those in need was never intended to be a function of government. Can you imagine Paul going to Caesar and asking for a federal grant to fix the problems of poverty within the church in Jerusalem?” (“Turn Neither to the Right Nor to the Left” page 241).

The Bible calls believers to look out for the interests of others (Phil. 2:4, 1 Cor. 10:24), and to materially give to those in need (Rom. 12:13, James 2:15-16). Thus, through the church, we have an institution that is designed for dealing with poverty.  Government welfare, on the other hand, is patently inefficient and unable to make noticeable improvements in terms of poverty reduction, because government was not designed to eliminate or alleviate poverty. Marvin Olasky describes our current welfare system as “the ultimate bureaucracy –an anonymous public supporting anonymous machinery supporting anonymous clients” (“Turn Neither to the Right Nor to the Left” page 208). As follows, the government suffers from a lack of knowledge about individuals and a (potential) lack of motivation to actually help the poor improve their productivity and get off of welfare.*

In summary, the government was never designed to financially provide for the poor. And by acting outside of its role, it inhibits the normal functioning of other effective private institutions, such as the church.

(There’s much more that could be said about the relative efficiencies of private versus public charity, improving private poverty relief, and the morality of government income redistribution. These topics are beyond the scope of this post, but if you’re interested in learning more, I would recommend two books: “Poor Policy: How Government Harms the Poor” by D. Eric Schansberg and “The Tragedy of American Compassion” by Marvin Olasky.)

Economic Regulation

While government economic interference is a very broad topic, the main point that I want to highlight is that government interference in the economy via interventions, such as price controls, usurps the effective and intended function of the price system.

What is the price system, you ask? Economist Robert Murphy explains the role of prices, “A market price is the balance between how eager you are to buy something and how reluctant the producer is to sell it. If something has a high price tag, it’s because it is scarce; if it has a low price tag, it’s because ‘they’re a dime a dozen.’ In short, market prices are not arbitrary” (“The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism” page 9). Among other purposes, the price system has at least two important and related functions in the market: signaling and coordinating.

Prices act as signals to market participants, demonstrating the value that market participants place on the goods in question. Additionally, prices enable individuals to calculate profit and loss, which direct the actions of entrepreneurs. Economist Gene Callahan describes the market process as, “the ceaseless striving of entrepreneurs to locate price discrepancies and profit from them, thus adjusting production to the wishes of consumers” (“Economics For Real People” page 159). Thus, the price system signals to entrepreneurs areas of unsatisfied consumer wants and to intervene to provide the requested good or service. Without a price system, entrepreneurs would be unable to determine which new enterprises might be viable and profitable.

Prices also function to ration goods and services. Rather than allocating goods to consumers based on preference, nepotism, or some other form of discrimination, the price system allocates goods based on the consumer’s willingness to pay. Callahan again states, “the market guides scarce resources toward their most important uses through the voluntary rationing of the price system,” as “the new, higher price of the good motivates people to use less of it” (“Economics For Real People” page 199).

In summary, the price system is fluid and able to react to changes in supply and demand. Economist F.A. Hayek noted, “Fundamentally, in a system in which knowledge of the relevant facts is dispersed among many people, prices can act to coordinate the separate actions of different people” (“Economics For Real People” page 163). Prices serve to alleviate the problem of insufficient knowledge of market factors and to coordinate supply and demand.

Central planning supplants the role of the price system, but cannot allocate goods nearly as efficiently. After all, no individual or group of individuals could possibly track the changing preferences of millions of consumers and producers like the price system can. Furthermore, interferences like price controls distort the signaling function of the price system, disallowing consumers from “voting” for certain goods through their spending practices.  Murphy again notes, “When the government interferes with prices, it cripples the ability of free people to make intelligent economic decisions, just as surely as if politicians interfered with phone lines, e-mail, or other means of communication” (“The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism” page 10). This behavior by the government has the negative effect of causing unnatural shortages and surpluses.

These shortages in particular lead to a rationing problem. If the government sets an artificially low price, the quantity demanded will increase, but the quantity supplied will decrease, leading to a shortage. In a free market setting the price would rise, rationing the good in question based on consumers’ willingness to pay. However, the price control disallows the price from rising, which forces the government to ration the good in question based upon some other criteria besides willingness to pay.

In conclusion, the government was never designed to direct the intricate adjustments of the market. And when it acts outside of its role, it inhibits the normal functioning of an effective societal force: the price system.

Conclusion

My intent was to briefly touch on two areas of public policy as a means of showing some of the unintended consequences of expanding the function of government. I didn’t want to go into considerable depth in terms of discussing the role of government, nor did I want to write extensively on these policy issues. Those will have to be topics for another day. However, hopefully this helped you think through the intended function of government and some of the unintended consequences of government expansion.

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If you have thoughts about how government expansion can detrimentally affect other societal institutions, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email. Additionally, if you want to specifically discuss the role of government or either of these policy issues, you’re welcome to leave a comment. Again, thank you so much for reading this blog!

 

*(You might ask why government and the church can’t work together to deal with the issue of poverty? Does government involvement in welfare necessarily supplant the role of the church? That’s a good question and I’ll try to touch on it briefly. I would say that government’s attempt to alleviate poverty through the welfare system not only have negligible positive effects, but often actually have considerable negative effects. Examples of these effects would be: incentivizing recipients to stay on welfare (a culture of dependency), incentivizing recipients to not establish marriages, and coercively taking money from individuals to fund the welfare system.  Hypothetically, if the government were able to alter this system entirely, it might be able to work with the church. But the bureaucratic, budget-maximizing nature of the government makes it difficult for me to envision an efficient government-operated welfare system. Further, the question of roles becomes important (as I’ve tried to stress throughout these posts). Is it within government’s intended function to deal with poverty?)

The Frying Pan Fable: On Asking the Wrong Questions

Frying pans are really great for cooking things, after all, that is what they are designed for. From scrambled eggs to sautéed vegetables, there are numerous types of foods that can be prepared in a frying pan. However, besides this obvious use, a frying pan can be utilized for a variety of other tasks. If someone breaks into your house, a frying pan can be used as a self-defense tool. If you are concerned about small objects falling on your head, a frying pan could be used as a helmet.

Despite these alternative uses, frying pans are generally just used for cooking. Why is that? What prevents people from seeing frying pans as multipurpose tools and using frying pans for all sorts of tasks? Well, besides the fact that frying pans are not all that good at accomplishing these other tasks, people use frying pans for cooking because they were designed for that task. I could try to use my lawn mower as a fan or my shoes as soup bowls, but these items were not designed for those jobs and would do a poor job.

Economist Gene Callahan illustrates this idea that different tools have different roles and different levels of effectiveness, “Simply because a sledgehammer does a good job breaking up stones does not mean that it’s the right tool for slicing tomatoes” (“Economics For Real People” page 35)

The majority of fabricated items in this world were created with particular purposes in mind. That’s not to say there is no place for experimenting with alternative uses or making do with limited resources. However, I think I’m correct in saying that, generally, things work best when they are put to use according to their design. If I am holding a vacuum cleaner and wondering how to use it, I should ask for what it was designed for. On a bigger scale, if I am wondering how I should live, I should attempt to find out what I was created for.

This leads into the main purpose of this blog post, which is about how to evaluate government. I spent to preceding paragraphs making the point that things in life should (generally) be utilized according to their design. Why do we not apply this same framework to government? Why do we not spend more time considering the proper role of government? From handling education to regulating the food industry clearly government is capable of many things. But, like using the frying pan for self-defense, some of these tasks might be outside of the realm of its design. To evaluate government in terms of capability, or even its propensity to act according to my personal values is to ask the wrong questions. Rather, we should step back and attempt to determine the proper role and purpose of government. From there we can evaluate aspects of government action, such as effectiveness, from a more stable foundation.

When thinking about government involvement in healthcare, for example, I could start by thinking about the effectiveness of government regulated healthcare. Additionally, I might consider my personal feelings on the matter. However, if I don’t start by considering whether or not regulation of healthcare is within the realm of government’s role, I will have missed the fundamental issue.

I would challenge everybody reading this post to think hard about government’s role. Think through why government exists and what purposes it achieves. From there try to determine if the policies that you support agree with this foundational framework. Hopefully, this exercise will enable you to have a more consistent and thoughtful view of government.

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As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email. Thanks for reading!

Blog Update and Upcoming Schedule

Hey everybody,

I’m sorry that it’s been so long since I last posted on here. My blogging style is probably different from normal in that I prefer to write a bunch of posts and then publish one per week versus writing and publishing one per week. So it takes me a little while to create a new batch of posts to start publishing. That being said, I have a number of posts in the works right now that I will try to start publishing soon.

I’ll warn you that, in terms of the content of this blog, my upcoming posts will likely be pretty political in nature. I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about politics, particularly the role of government, so that is where I’m going to be focusing my writing in the upcoming weeks. My tentative schedule is as follows:

  • 1-2 very broad posts about the role of government
  • 4-6 posts that consider some books that have influenced my thoughts over the years and how my views have progressed
  • 3-5 posts that look at particular policies or issues within our current government system
  • …and I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to write after this, although I do have some *undeveloped* ideas

I’m going to try to get back into my one post per week schedule (on Mondays), so hopefully, this post will provide some accountability for me to stay on schedule.

If that sounds interesting to you – great! If that sounds terribly uninteresting to you –  feel free to leave a comment or send me an email with some ideas for other things that I should write about.

Thanks so much for visiting this blog!

Buying Local, Trade, and Protectionism

I always buy locally-made products…unless I can find non-locally-made products of the same quality for a lower price.

“Buying local” is one of the current trends in our culture. Various companies and brands craft entire marketing campaigns around the fact that their products are produced locally, made out of local materials, and/or created with local labor. Now, why would the fact that a company is selling “local” products be persuasive and enticing to consumers?

One potential explanation would be that local consumers buy into a variation of “protectionism” on a smaller, local scale.* This explanation would argue that local consumers want to support their community and facilitate economic wellbeing within the local business environment by shopping primarily or exclusively at local dealers. This might be more of an emotional situation where consumers not only buy a product, but also purchase a good feeling of sorts.**

One of the problems with this line of thinking is the same problem that large-scale protectionism faces. When considering the economic well-being of a certain area, one must look at both the producer and consumer side of things. Buying local products at a higher price (and from my experience these locally made and marketed products tend to be more pricey) may benefit certain local producers but it also hurts local consumers (including you). If a whole bunch of consumers buys overpriced, locally-made coffee, the local coffee shop benefits at the expense of the five consumers.*** Therefore, it is difficult to argue that the local community is better off on net.

And why should local producers be my primary concern? Not to say that I should intend to hurt my community, but this sort of thinking can have the effect of hurting many foreign (or non-local) producers. Think of producers many states away who are efficiently producing cheaper, equal quality goods. Why should I turn away their products, which are of equal quality and a lower price?

Competition and trade forces producers to innovate and cater to consumers. Therefore, consumers should want as much trade as possible and as many product options as possible. This forces producers to use their time and resources in the most effective way possible. If local producers know that I will buy their goods because I am emotionally motivated to support them, then those producers will not be worried about their non-local competition and will be less likely to innovate, produce quality goods, and charge low prices. While this is a much smaller scale example, the “buy local” marketing scheme is similar to an import tariff in that it attempts to limit local consumption of non-local goods.

Now some might say that it saves resources to buy local. And this may or may not be the case. Dr. Arnold Kling in his recent book Specialization and Trade: A Re-Introduction to Economics argues that buying local can actually waste resources:

“Many people believe intuitively that it saves resources to “buy local.” Surely, we think, cheese or vegetables from a local farm must save on the energy required for transportation. However, if the grocery store sells cheaper products that comes from hundreds of miles away, some factor must offset the higher transportation costs. Chances are, the land elsewhere is more suited to growing crops, so that fewer acres are being used to produce a given amount of output. The local land might be better used for housing or as wilderness.
Water or other resources may be used more heavily locally than on distant farms. Whenever produce from distant farms is cheaper than locally grown produce, the price system is telling us that “buying local” wastes resources.”

So next time you are tempted to buy a product merely because it is locally-made, consider the bigger picture. Look into non-local options and try to use your purchasing power to support producers who make the highest quality product in the most efficient way possible. Don’t discriminate against high quality, cost-effective producers just because they live far away from you.

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If this post resonates with you or irritated you, leave a comment below and tell me what you think of it. You can always send me an email as well; I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading!

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*Ironically, one of the most startling side effects of protectionism is that a significant portion of local producers is actually harmed by this type of behavior. Every dollar spent subsidizing the inefficiencies of one producer is a dollar that could have been spent supporting the innovative and efficient ones.

**The price that consumers pay for “local” goods could potentially involve a base price, which would be identical to the price of the product elsewhere, plus a premium to support the local market. This premium portion of the price would then be similar to a charitable contribution in the sense that the only benefit the consumer receives for this added cost is a good feeling for having “supported” the local community.

***How do producers benefit at the expense of consumers? After all, this is voluntary trade, which should be mutually beneficial. The key here is that consumers do benefit, but they could benefit even more by buying a less expensive product of equal quality elsewhere. Thus, this transaction is at least somewhat inefficient, because consumers bear an extra cost without a corresponding benefit.

Death & Poetry Part 4: Death Be Not Proud

(Note: this is the fourth and final post about Poetry and Death based on a research project that I recently finished for my Medical Humanities class in Fall 2016. This post analyzes “Holy Sonnet X: Death Be Not Proud” by John Donne and attempts to highlight how this poem enables readers to cope with death. I hope that you will find this post interesting and thought provoking.)

John Donne, in his poem “Sonnet X: Death Be Not Proud” expresses explicit religious beliefs as the basis for his view of death. Where Dickinson hints at religious beliefs, Donne overtly states his beliefs and derives significant hope and courage from these views. In the past “people seemed to believe in God unquestionably; they believed in a hereafter, which was to relieve people of their suffering and their pain. There was a reward in heaven, and if we had suffered much here on earth we would be rewarded after death” (Kübler-Ross 13). Belief in God and an afterlife softens death’s blow and has the potential to give individuals like Donne significant confidence.

Donne portrays death as arrogant and argues for an attitude of confident hope in the face of death’s misguided pride. He seems to believe that if humans face death “with a kind of stoicism, death will meet with a natural death” (Patel 261). Donne does not fail to recognize death’s ferocious effect on many individuals, after all, “the very idea of death makes each and every creature of the world terror stricken. They try their best to escape death” (Patel 261). Yet, the poet’s prescribed remedy is to recognize God’s power over death, which renders death braggadocious but weak.

Beginning this poem, Donne writes, “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so” (Lines 1-2). Determined to pull no punches, the speaker, from the start, states his intentions and challenges death’s sense of power. Continuing, the poet says, “For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow / Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me” (Lines 3-4). Hinting at eternal life, Donne notes that those who die actually continue to exist. Accordingly, death cannot really kill anybody.

Donne makes an interesting argument in the following lines, “From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, / Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow” (Lines 5-6). Here he makes the claim that if rest and sleep are pictures of death and bring some level of enjoyment, then death cannot be too significantly terrible. Unpacking this argument, the speaker says, “And soonest our best men with thee do go, / Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery” (Lines 7-8). Death facilitates rest, the end of labor, and the transportation of the soul into eternal life.

Continuing his systematic dismantling of death’s sense of power, Donne argues that death serves others, meaning it has no reason for pride. He writes, “Thou’art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, / And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell” (Lines 9-10). In these lines the speaker points out that death’s achievements depend on these various agents. Further more death has to obey “the decree of these masters of death. Actually they summon death and order it to take away the life of the human beings” (Patel 263). To summarize these lines, Donne “boldly rejects the mightiness, powerfulness, and dreadfulness [of death]. He merely considers death a slave of destiny” (Patel 262).

In the next lines Donne compares death with drugs and argues that drugs do death’s job, only better. He says, “And poppy’or charms can make us sleep as well / And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?” (Lines 11-12). The poet thunderously concludes this poem by stating that everybody will wake from death eventually, rendering death dead. He writes, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, / And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die” (Lines 13-14).

As far as the structure of this poem goes, it reads much like a discourse or a challenge. Each attack builds on the previous one, with the apparent attempt to break death’s pride. Unlike the previous two poems that accentuated the disruptive nature of death and used disjointed rhyme and rhythm schemes, this poem comes across as controlled and calculated. Interestingly, Donne personifies death, similar to Dickinson’s method, but to a very different effect.

In summary Donne encourages his readers to have confidence in the face of death, for death’s power is an illusion. He goes on to methodically explain exactly why death has no power and ultimately, his basis for these statements is a belief in God and eternal life. If life continues after death, Donne asks us, why fear death?

 

For further reading, check out the following sources:

Donne, John. “Holy Sonnet X (Death Be Not Proud).” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.

Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Patel, Ramesh B. “Re-Critiquing/Redefining The Nature Of Death: A Study Of John Donne’s ‘Death Be Not Proud’.” International Journal Of Multidisciplinary Approach & Studies 2.2 (2015): 261-264. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.

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I hope you enjoyed this post and learned something from it. I’d love to hear what you have to say, so feel more than welcome to leave a comment or shoot me an email. Thanks for reading!

Death & Poetry Part 3: Because I Could Not Stop For Death

(Note: this is the third post about Poetry and Death based on a research project that I recently finished for my Medical Humanities class in Fall 2016. This post analyzes “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” by Emily Dickinson and attempts to highlight how this poem enables readers to cope with death. I hope that you will find this post interesting and thought provoking.)

Rather than speaking as someone still alive, Emily Dickinson, in her poem “Because I Could Not Stop For Death,” writes from the perspective of someone who already died. She highlights the complex nature and inevitability of death, and encourages her readers to accept it, but realize that it is not the end. After all, “death is normal [and] it is also the natural order of things” (Gawande 8). While she does not go so far as to say death is good or something worth looking forward to, Dickinson portrays death as moderately annoying but nothing extremely terrible. And because of the inevitability of death, we are better off accepting it than fighting it.

Similar to Thomas, Dickinson’s beginning lines bear significant weight and set the tone for the rest of the poem. She writes, “Because I could not stop for Death –  / He kindly stopped for me – ” (Lines 1-2). Dickinson implies that individuals are often too busy and preoccupied with life to die, yet death is merely an interruption, a “kind stop” of sorts. Further, “by anthropomorphizing Death as a kind and civil gentleman, the speaker particularizes Death’s characteristics with favorable connotations” (Shaw 20). Compared to commonly held negative views of death, Dickinson’s perspective is unique and potentially refreshing. However, one possible explanation for the speaker’s view of death is that we, as humans, “seem to fear and deny the reality of death. […] We use euphemisms, we make the dead look as if they were asleep, we ship the children off to protect them from the anxiety and turmoil” that surrounds the death process (Kübler-Ross 6). So while the speaker’s perspective might seem pleasingly positive, this euphemistic personification might be an attempt to deny the reality of death’s awfulness.

In another sense, however, these opening lines subtly acknowledge a component of death’s dreadfulness. Dickinson declares that individuals cannot decide when they die; therefore, this stopping is not discretionary. After all, “it is simply not her nature to stop for Death,” meaning that death is inevitable and quite deviant from human nature (Engle 74). Throughout this poem, Dickinson’s view of death comes across as multifaceted, which is admirable given death’s complex nature.

The next few lines highlight the complicated and intriguing view of death that Dickinson possesses. She implies that existence continues beyond death when she writes, “The Carriage held but just Ourselves –  / And Immortality” (Lines 3-4). Reiterating the inevitability and uncontrollability of death, she notes, “We slowly drove – / He knew no haste” (Line 5). Death operates at its own speed and does not change its course based on the whims of its victims. In the next lines the speaker discusses some of the multifaceted effects of death, saying, “And I had put away / My labor and my leisure too, / For His Civility – ” (Lines 6-8). Death marks the end of both work and leisure, which, if work is difficult and leisure is enjoyable, means death’s effects are net neutral.

Dickinson observes that death allows us to remember the past when she writes, “We passed the School, where Children strove / At Recess – in the Ring –” (Lines 9-10). She believes that death gives individuals an opportunity to consider the nature of life. She says, “We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –  / We passed the Setting Sun –” (Lines 11-12). The phrase “fields of gazing grain” seems to symbolize the beginning of life, while the “setting sun” seems to symbolize the end of life. Therefore, it seems that death offers a comprehensive view of and appreciation for life and its brevity.

Continuing, Dickinson employs interesting imagery as she writes, “Or rather – He passed us – / The Dews drew quivering and chill – / For only Gossamer, my Gown – / My Tippet – only Tulle –” (Lines 13-16). These lines employ cryptic imagery, making their meaning difficult to determine. However, it is apparent that the speaker feels cold and potentially underprepared in the face of death. Dickinson, consequently, shows that by advocating acceptance, she does not assume the absence of fear or unpreparedness. By nature, death instigates some level of uneasiness. Nevertheless, Dickinson’s tone shifts slightly as she recommends acceptance in the following lines, “We paused before a House that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground – / The Roof was scarcely visible – / The Cornice – in the Ground –” (Lines 17-20). This description spins death’s effects quite positively. If a grave is a home, then death marks a homecoming of sorts and should be welcomed.

Although the speaker’s situation was previously alluded to, it becomes apparent in the following lines when Dickinson writes, “Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet / Feels shorter than the Day” (Lines 21-22). These words make it clear that the speaker has already died and is commenting on the nature of life, death, and eternity. It seems that “viewing the progression of these stages – life, to death, to eternity – as a continuum invests these isolated incomprehensible events with meaning. From the eternal perspective, the speaker comprehends that life, like the ‘Horses Heads’ (23), leads ‘toward Eternity’ (24)” (Shaw 20). Undoubtedly, death has brought forth a greater meaning and significance to life, which can often feel brief or confusing. The final lines emphasize that death transports individuals to eternity, which is the final the destination, “I first surmised the Horses’ Heads / Were toward Eternity – ” (Lines 23-24). Death and life are merely vehicles; eternity is the endpoint.

As far as the stylistic structure of this poem goes, Dickinson made a number of choices to accentuate the themes of the poem. The frequent dashes and unpredictable breaks in the lines highlight the interrupting and impulsive nature of death. Using a rhythm similar to a drumbeat, this poem emphasizes the systematic, indefatigable human march from life to death to eternity. Although this poem portrays the human experience of death, it employs a “nonlinear, dream-like progression,” which is fitting because humans may experience death or other traumatic situations in a nonlinear form (Engle 75).

To summarize this poem we must note that Dickinson’s complicated perspective describes death as a slight aggravation, but nothing close to an enemy. Because death interrupts life, individuals should acknowledge the brevity and value of life. Ultimately, death, as our benevolent chauffeur, transports us from life into eternity, which is where we belong. Thus, acceptance is the appropriate response to death. If there is an afterlife, then “death may be kind in taking us from a world of proverbial woe into one of equally proverbial eternal bliss” (Hoepfner 96). Dickinson alludes to some sort of religious beliefs as she advocates for acceptance of death because it is not the end.

 

For further reading, check out the following sources:

Dickinson, Emily. “Because I Could Not Stop For Death.Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.

Engle, Patricia. “Dickinson’s BECAUSE I COULD NOT STOP FOR DEATH.” Explicator 60.2 (2002): 72. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Sept. 2016

Gawande, Atul. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. New York: Metropolitan , Henry Holt, 2014.

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