In the Absence of Angels: A Validation of the Agonistic Life of Humankind
Carl P. Ellerman
Psychological healthcare for children, adolescents and adults in Syracuse, New York
Abstract: Following an experiential introduction to the agonistic life of humans inspired by the death of a loved one, the author critiques previous depictions of the trials and tribulations of humankind to correct misrepresentations. Targets are Goethe’s literary fiction of Faust’s sacred salvation; Camus’ secular philosophic fiction of the “silent joy” of Sisyphus in Hades; and Cioran’s nihilistic notion that there is a curse attached to the act of choosing an identity and fulfilling a vocation, exemplified in this study by the fatal result of Socrates’ choice to become the philosophic gadfly of Athens. Thematizing Nietzsche’s humanistic plea to abandon “otherworldly hopes” and “remain faithful to the earth,” this inquiry includes a humble reconciliation with the agonistic life of humans.
Keywords: agonistic, biological imperative, clinical problem, Socrates’ question, reconciliation
Introduction: An Experience of Mourning
A recent confrontation with death, the crushing death of a loved one that I fought with a fierce will and determination, and seemed to have the power to forestall for the better part of two years, triggered the reckless thought that I would do anything to have her back. Even barter with the devil, if the alleged Prince of Darkness would grant my wish to return to the valley of the beast, get the best of death, and see her, touch her, speak to her once again.
So revolting was her grave; so desperate my desire for her resurrection; so blind my rage when my good faith offer went unanswered, that I toyed with the devil — teased it, mocked it, cursed it — as if I had the power to pray her back to being without the devil’s dark ministrations. Pray her back, I should say, not in any sacred sense, but in a selfish human way using the following words created by the Lord of Words for Arthur in King John: “In sooth, I would you were a little sick, That I might sit all night and watch with you” (Shakespeare 1937, 4.1).
Sometime later, still hollowed-out by her death, I began to recover my senses, while remembering that the greatly gifted German author, natural philosopher, and diplomat, J. W. von Goethe, was widely acclaimed for writing Faust: A modern closet drama that explored the agonistic life of a scholar who sold his soul to the devil after lengthy studies in philosophy, jurisprudence, medicine, and theology failed to fulfill his obsessive need to fathom the ultimate mysteries of existence. Disillusioned, desirous of death, and desperate for relief, while arrogantly claiming he was not afraid of hell or the devil, Faust made a fateful pact with Mephistopheles, an emissary of the devil, mistakenly believing that until the payment of his soul came due, he would be released from his tormenting struggle and his life on earth would greatly improve. Under the influence of the demonic, however, the life of Faust and his intimates unfolded in a downward spiral of erotic seduction, multiple deaths, infanticide, and madness.
Experiencing Faust as a cautionary tale, thus no longer willing to solicit the demonic and its derangements; although I harbored no transcendental beliefs in gods or devils and felt a bit twisted, like Dostoevsky’s underground man, who complained of being highly educated yet superstitious; I withdrew my offer to barter with the devil while remaining constant in my love and desire for my loved one’s resurrection. For the first time, I understood in a deeply personal way the great Welsh poet’s plaintive plea, “And death shall have no dominion,” i.e., no dominion over love, the body aside, for even “though lovers be lost love shall not” (Thomas 1957, 77).
Still, having been brought back to Faust while mourning, thus vulnerable to sorrow and suggestion, Goethe’s adaptation of the Faust legend haunted me. Until I realized that I had been influenced not only by the fictional Faust and his commerce with the devil, but also by the historical Goethe and the disparity between his agonistic life and his literary fiction. Particularly the way in which his fiction of salvation misrepresented the agonistic life of humans who, in struggle and in sorrow, “remain faithful to the earth,” as Nietzsche urged when writing hopefully about the death of god, rejection of “otherworldly hopes,” and the gradual overcoming of “despisers of life” who “esteem the entrails of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth” (1963, 125). Succumbing to the need to spell this out formally, in a way that would validate the agonistic life of humankind, the following thoughts obtained.
The Spell of Sisyphus
There would be no reason to dwell upon Goethe’s adaptation of the clichéd legend of Faust if the multifaceted Goethe, say the natural philosopher, had written the ending of Faust while favoring truth rather than fiction. The truth is, while demonstrating a gift for fashioning the sublime salvation of a literary character on the printed page, ending the second part of Faust by having angels declare that human beings who strive with all their power can achieve eternal salvation; in his privileged personal life, like many less privileged fellow humans, Goethe was dwelling in his own private Hades, unredeemed, in the absence of angels.
In an illuminating conversation with his friend and editor, J. P. Eckermann, on 27 January 1824, Goethe disclosed an obsessive identification with Sisyphus, the mythical king of Ephyra, who allegedly angered the gods and was condemned to live an agonistic life of tormenting struggle while imprisoned in Tartarus: A dark, dreary place of punishment, deep within the underworld of Hades, the kingdom of the dead. Speaking to Eckermann in a frank, honest way, Goethe granted that he had been glorified by the public and viewed as a man favored by fortune. But then speaking forthrightly about his life, he stated unequivocally: “Truly, there has been nothing but pain and labor; and I may say that in all my seventy-five years, I have never had one month of genuine pleasure. It has been the perpetual rolling of a stone, which I have always had to raise anew” (1901, 54).
As if he had fallen under the spell of Sisyphus, his life demonically influenced by art, the narrative art of the great Greek poet, Homer, who told the sorrowful story of Sisyphus in the eleventh book of The Odyssey; Goethe confessed that he had been burdened by a merciless lifelong experience that resembled the Sisyphean drama of straining to push a mammoth boulder to the crest of a steep mountain, whereupon the boulder would reverse course and retreat down the mountainside, as though the inert mass had a mind and a will of its own. Following Homer’s script of the suffering Sisyphus, Goethe experienced himself as a condemned man making a tormenting descent from a mountain peak, putting his sore shoulder to his recalcitrant boulder again, fully understanding that he would live neither with reprieve nor with redemption, insofar as this painful, repetitive, futile experience — up and down, over and over, again and again — would never end.
Goethe would not have identified with Sisyphus without the genius of Homer, the first and arguably greatest Greek poet. Legend has it that Homer was blind like John Milton, the seventeenth century English author of Samson Agonistes, a closet tragedy about the agonistic life of Samson, a biblical character who was blinded by the Philistines after being betrayed by Delila. Although he was unsighted and living somewhere near the coast of Asia Minor in the neighborhood of 700 B.C., Homer had unparalleled insight into the character of humans. And in the beautifully crafted entertaining epics that identify his legacy, he took pains to demonstrate the precious preclinical insight that a person’s character is a daemon — an indwelling spirit or fate. Consistent with this elegant insight, in his evocative myth of Sisyphus, Homer bequeathed to future generations, the pregnant image of a cursed, condemned, struggling human, whose attitude toward relentless suffering would be his only power, whether he realized it or not.
Having inherited the oral legend of Sisyphus, and being a fabulous weaver of tall tales, Homer was able to achieve an indelible illumination of the agonistic life in one brilliant paragraph. Cleverly referencing the “tedious task,” the “monstrous stone,” and the “sweat pouring off every limb,” Homer painted a vivid picture of the condemned man and the “pitiless” way the massive boulder retreats from the crest of the mountain to the surface below. Then Homer breaks off rather suddenly, leaving readers with the distinct impression that this simple Sisyphean drama represented the human condition in toto … and there was nothing more to say about it. In fact, Homer left Sisyphus in the underworld with no hope of escape or salvation, to live an agonistic life of “pushing,” “scrambling,” “heav[ing],” “stretching,” “sweating,” and “struggling” forevermore (1958, 127).
No wonder the Nobel prize-winning literary philosopher, Camus, struggled to find a redemptive moment in Homer’s myth during the early 1940s, when he wrote his esteemed essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” while examining the logic of suicide and soberly “judging whether life is or is not worth living” (1961, 3). Unfortunately, Camus was a man of his tumultuous time, and he was seeing through a dark glass in 1940, while a virulent nihilism and a malignant barbarism were spreading like a plague of locusts throughout the European continent. Hitler had streaked through Norway and Denmark on a ride of the Valkyries without pity; and his accomplice, Goebbels, was shutting down the Socratic quest for truth while promoting one or another “big lie” in the Propaganda Ministry in Berlin. Goebbels was also responsible for inciting ominous public book burnings, during which university students and other revelers turned to ash the renowned works of Freud, Gide, Zola, Proust, Mann, Einstein, and other Jews, in addition to the literary, philosophic, and scientific works of many other so-called undesirables.
Although he was experiencing a profound disillusionment that infected the minds of many kindred spirits, Camus was unwilling to tell the reading public that life is not worth living in spite of the weighty boulder each must bear. He was also disinclined to promote suicide as a live option for Sisyphus, himself, and fellow humans burdened increasingly by the atrocities of the Second World War. At a loss for ways to validate the agonistic life, Camus finally settled on the extravagant notion that Sisyphus thumbed his nose at the gods, embraced his rock, and not only accepted his futile existence, but somehow, in an extraordinary feat of mental legerdemain, engineered his tormented psyche to choose it. In this scornful act of defiant ownership, according to Camus, while living without hope, the absurd hero, Sisyphus, found “a silent joy,” as if he now were master of the fate of his choosing, rather than being the victim of a cruel, unremitting punishment handed him by vengeful gods (91).
Having spent more than thirty years in the clinical trenches listening to Sisyphus sighing on the sofa in the fashion of Goethe; and after daily trying my best to turn a psychotherapeutic trick, “talking people into and out of things,” as Freud wrote when complaining bitterly about his tedious talking cure in a revealing letter to Fliess, dated 4 February 1888 (1985, 18); Camus’ conclusion seems improbable, to say the least. Furthermore, by all accounts, nothing remotely resembling a silent joy came to pass in the life of Goethe as he struggled to become the mindful master, rather than the submissive slave of mindless granite.
Following the candid confession of his identification with Sisyphus, the elderly Goethe clung to life and seemed to embrace his rock, continuing to write, strive for knowledge, and search for pleasure. In fact, he not only fell passionately in love with Ulrike von Levetzow, a young eighteen-year-old teen he first met in the spa town of Marienbad, Bohemia; he also became inspired by this unrequited love to write his Marienbad Elegy: A sorrowful poem in which he expressed the thought that the gods had given him a dangerous Pandora’s box and now, after opening the box, everything was lost to the extent that he was utterly destroyed. In the aftermath of this futile romantic experience, Goethe survived until he was eighty-two-years-old, dying finally in Weimar from a failed heart.
In the Absence of Angels
I have offered these instructive details about Goethe neither to fault a celebrated author for complaining about his fortunate life, nor to reasonably argue, from my privileged position in a psychiatric clinic, that Faust’s fictional salvation was the last, best hope of a brilliant litterateur who struggled with a chronic clinical depression. Rather, I am purposefully using Goethe’s obsessive identification with Sisyphus, his salvific drama regarding the struggles of a suicidal scholar, and the failure of his late passion for young Levetzow, to make a fine point about death and the agonistic life of humans.
Specifically, like the mythical Sisyphus, the historical Goethe, and the fictional Faust, a person can lament the human condition; curse all the lies, seductive illusions, failed dreams, and fleeting pleasures; scorn the injustice, the absurdity, and the pain of it all. But while anticipating the future and dreading the end of self, mourning the loss of loved ones, and otherwise struggling to endure the daily grind, most continue to embrace the agonistic life. Not because there is some earthly release from the trials and tribulations of being human, as Faust hoped, or because we actually know that eternal happiness is written in the stars, as Goethe suggested. Rather, in spite of the unending Sisyphean struggle, in the absence of angels, we cling to life, long for it, and embrace our fleeting finite moment because being alive, in a strife-ridden here and now, is all we have, the hope and dream and promise of eternal salvation notwithstanding. As the poet, Rilke, wrote in a wrenching rhapsody in his lyrical Duino Elegies: “Oh, why have to be human, and, shunning Destiny, long for Destiny? … Not because happiness really exists, … But because being here amounts to so much, … Just once, everything, only for once. Once and no more. And we, too, once. And never again… . And so we keep pressing on and trying to perform it, trying to contain it within our simple hands” (1963, 73).
The poet’s poignant reflection on the human condition tickles truth, the unsentimental truth that each member of the species, Homo sapiens, is a reflexively conscious mammal whose lately evolved cerebral cortex endows it with the ability to anticipate the future, including its own death; and while dreading death, or shunning destiny, as Rilke put it, the living organism is driven by the biological imperative to survive and perpetuate its existence. But a healthy-minded human with an optimistic disposition, as well as a morbid-minded human longing to cultivate this sunny state, could reasonably argue that Rilke’s rhapsody is true, but trivially true. As trivially true as Goethe’s belief that his tormented life was Sisyphean.
After all, disenchanting tales of human suffering, disillusioning accounts of the hardness of life, and inspiring accounts of the valiant effort to press on, while dealing with the dread of existing once and no more, are as old as storytelling itself. The epic poet, Homer, by way of The Iliad and The Odyssey, figures prominently in this history. In fact, the ancient Greek myth of the condemnation and unending struggle of Sisyphus — like the later biblical myth of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from a paradisiacal Eden, not to mention Milton’s early modern saga of Samson — is simply one among many imaginative ways of depicting the ugly truth that each and every human being will inevitably experience the unrelenting struggles, the unending reversals of fortune, and a blindness to the consequences of pivotal choices and decisions, all of which are defining elements of the agonistic life of humans.
Saddled with ugly truth, while we customarily cling to an agonistic life, long for it, and embrace our finite moment, the productive thing to do is to put aside Camus’ literary gambit of judging whether life is or is not worth living, in favor of asking the life-affirming question promoted by Socrates in antiquity, namely: How should I live?
This existential question differs markedly from Camus’ Sisyphean query, Is life worth living? Socrates’ question places us in the midst of the agonistic life that we cling to, and invites us to make choices and decisions about who we wish to become, both morally and extra-morally, while also engaging us in thinking about how we are going to manage life’s inevitable, enduring struggles. Camus’ hoary question seems superannuated, issuing as it did from the anachronistic notion that suicide is a philosophic problem. “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem,” Camus argued in the very first sentence of his essay on Sisyphus, “and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy” (3).
Missing from Camus’ dated analysis is a critical understanding of the fact that suicide involves the radical suppression of a genetically wired program of organismic survival that not only evolved by means of natural selection, but is essential for the preservation and spreading of DNA, this being our singular organismic function on earth, according to the contemporary musings of evolutionary biologists. Accordingly, whatever else one might say about Camus and his esteemed interpretation of the agonistic life of Sisyphus, one thing seems clear: Suicide involves an overriding of genetic encoding by the gross irrationality of mental illness conceived empirically as an electrochemical problem at receptor sites within the physical brain.
In sum, suicide may have been a philosophic problem for Camus, but it is not a philosophic problem in this day and age. Rather, it is a clinical problem in a “psychiatrized culture,” in which almost “every nuance of human emotion and behavior translate[s] into one or another disorder,” as I argued previously when representing Homo sapiens as a crazed species (Ellerman 2010, 233). Specifically:
Homo sapiens is a crazed species, and practically anyone you have contact with while engaged in the daily grind could populate my caseload of patients. None are exempt from failed wishes, hopes, and dreams; all have discovered the worries and the woes of existence; each has a peculiar discontent, a particular anguish, a precious torment. In short, everyone has a boulder to push, a body that bleeds and dies, and complex human relationships to manage in life-affirming or self-defeating ways. In this broad interpersonal context of appearance and illusion, nothing is as sane or as rational as it seems. Clinical experience suggests that a man or a woman can be crazed in their personal life, while functioning at an extremely high level professionally, such that any person who plays the complementary role of the “other” would never detect how crazed a person in their field of vision can be (19).
Nevertheless, any member of the crazed species tempted by suicidal ideation; any anguished individual developing a method and an intentional plan to end a tormented agonistic life, may be seen through a pragmatist’s lens as having a clinical problem that can be treated with both a pharmacological and a psychotherapeutic intervention. Indeed, if Goethe’s tragic protagonist, Faust, were alive and depressed in the twenty-first century, he could drive himself to an outpatient psychiatric clinic, and after being evaluated psychosocially, receive a serotonergic agent that would set him straight electrochemically. After which he would hopefully begin to experience a remission of florid symptoms, a new-found sense of well-being, and no further need to jeopardize his future by selling his soul to the devil. Mind you, I am not suggesting that this would be an easy clinical struggle. Rather, in some recalcitrant cases, it could be likened to the Sisyphean drama of heaving a boulder up …
This difficulty having been admitted, it is reasonable to say, even if Socrates’ momentous question is answered responsibly, i.e., answered in a way that is life-affirming, rather than life-negating for self and others; the unknown, unforeseen, unexpected consequences of the choices and decisions that will ultimately unfold in the wake of every answer, lie in wait like atomic energy in potentia: A potent force that can either light or destroy a city. But for some philosophically-minded individuals in whom the spell of Sisyphus is flourishing, the vaunted silent joy of heaving boulders is a stranger, the agonistic life is a self-destructive defeat, and as in Homer’s account of Sisyphus, there is nothing more to say about it.
For example, the Romanian-born nihilistic philosopher, E.M. Cioran, concluded that we humans all perish by the choice of a name, the choice of a name or an identity, I shall add for clarity, that establishes one among many ways of being a self. For there is a “curse attached to acts,” as Cioran argued: “Destruction awaits anyone who, answering to his vocation and fulfilling it, exerts himself within history; only the man who sacrifices every gift and talent escapes… . One always perishes by the self one assumes: to bear a name,” or choose an identity, a vocation, a way of being a self, “is to claim an exact mode of collapse” (1998, 33-34).
Like Goethe, the philosopher who authored this nihilistic view of the agonistic life when he was forty-five-years-old, continued to cling to life, bear his name, and heave his boulder until he was eighty-four, notwithstanding the firm conviction that his acts would be cursed. Rilke had it right: “Everything, only for once. Once and no more… . And so we keep pressing on and trying to perform it” regardless of the struggle enveloping us.
But Socrates implored his fellow Athenians to think seriously about how to perform it when he surfaced his uniquely human question: How should I live? In a stunning way, Socrates’ personal answer to his burning existential question — the vocation he assumed, the name he bore, and the consequences of the way he exerted himself in history — raises intriguing questions about the logic of an agonistic life, if not the life of logic. At the nihilistic extremes of thought about the agonistic life, using Socrates’ vocational choice as the acid test of a radical idea, there may be some merit in considering the possibility that some humans perish by the choice of an identity. i.e., a way of being a self that ultimately carries with it a self-destructive, if not precise mode of collapse.
The Gadfly of Athens
The Socratic mystique authored by Plato, Xenophon, and other loyal disciples of Socrates, in whose collective mind the dominant rationalist tradition of philosophy was born and bred, includes variations of the theme that Socrates’ answer to his existential question resulted in his noble, personal quest for “wisdom,” “truth,” and “best possible state of [the] soul” (Plato 1981, 29d). These are the glowing terms the paradigmatic philosopher allegedly employed when giving his jurors a logos, or a rational account of his philosophic life during his infamous piety trial in the King Archon’s Court in Athens. But consider the following bill of particulars.
Socrates critically examined and faulted the myths and fictions of fellow Athenians for many years. In so doing, he foisted his quest for truth on individuals he encountered randomly in the Agora, among other venues, whether the individuals were philosophically-minded or not. As a result, he became “very unpopular with many people,” as he openly admitted at his trial. In fact, from time to time, he was beaten and bruised by surly individuals whose meaningful core beliefs were annihilated during an elengkhos or critical cross-examination (28a). At some point, after being publicly ridiculed as a buffoon in The Clouds, a farce written by Socrates’ sometime drinking buddy, the comic playwright, Aristophanes, one among many others responsible for inaugurating a heretical tradition of thinking unfavorably about the philosophic acts of Socrates; the paradigmatic philosopher experienced a reversal in the arc of his philosophic struggle. A fatal reversal that seems to reinforce Cioran’s nihilistic view that destruction awaits human beings who exert themselves in history by choosing a name and fulfilling a vocation.
Specifically, Socrates’ attempt to lead fellow Athenians to a discovery and admission of their ignorance (amathia), by means of his belief-annihilating critical cross-examinations, was motivated by his conviction that the spoken word, the exchange of ideas, the intercourse of minds, is gratifying, but grave. Grave because ideas have the fateful consequence of shaping people’s lives, as well as the structure and the destiny of the polis or city-state. Convinced that ignorance is evil, because ignorance leads to grievous errors of thinking that result in destructive behavior that impacts human lives irreparably; Socrates detested the arrogance of ignorance: The haughty assumption that one possesses true knowledge (epistēmē) about the gods, virtue, or justice — any conceivable topic his combative conversations raised.
Believing that his fellow Athenians were sleepwalkers, thus deserving a rude awakening so that they would become serious about their core values, careful about their thinking, and attentive to how they were conducting their lives; Socrates embraced the name and the identity of the “gadfly” as an imago of his philosophic life. In fact, during his capital trial, he proudly boasted: “I was attached to this city by the god … as upon a great and noble horse which was somewhat sluggish because of its size and needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly” (30e).
Belonging to the biological order Diptera, family Tabanidae, the gadfly is a blood-thirsty insect whose saw-like mandibles deliver a razor-sharp bite that slices the flesh of horses and other animals whether they are sluggish or not. True to form and willfully, Socrates used his critical cross-examinations to sting and reproach fellow Athenians, with the hope of awakening them to the fact that they demonstrated little concern for an examined life — a life of thoughtful introspection that would hopefully lead to wisdom, truth, and best possible state of the soul. But by choosing to bear the name “gadfly,” and further declaring arrogantly that his god-given vocation was to sting and waken his fellow Athenians, “each and every one of you, to persuade and reproach you all day long and everywhere I find myself in your company” (30e); Socrates can be conceived as having secured his own collapse by becoming an obnoxious public nuisance. Better yet, a biting, hyper-critical know-it-all, who had become a danger to the political integrity and well-being of Athens.
Case in point, Socrates’ critique of democracy based on the inflammatory view that among the masses of possible voters, excluding slaves and women not allowed to vote, Athenian citizens are not equally educated and well-trained in ruling, thus neither equally virtuous, nor equally wise in the matter of voting. Evidencing a dismal view of many of his fellow Athenians, the hoi polloi or common people to be specific, Socrates argued:
Those who have no experience of wisdom and virtue … are ever devoted to feastings and that sort of thing … , but they have never transcended all this and turned their eyes to the true upper region … , nor ever been really filled with real things, … but with heads bowed down over their tables they feast like cattle, grazing and copulating, ever greedy for more of these delights, and in their greed kicking and butting one another with horns and hoofs of iron they slay one another in sateless avidity, because they are vainly striving to satisfy with things that are not real the unreal and incontinent part of their souls (Plato 1969, 9, 586a-b).
Needless to say, in the dominant rationalist tradition, Socrates’ identification with the stinging gadfly is idealized, the implication being that the critical philosophic act of awakening others to the fact that they are carriers of potentially harmful, uncritically accepted beliefs is a noble struggle. But in the heretical tradition, not only in antiquity with Aristophanes, who thought Socrates was an arrogant, pretentious, prideful sophist who merited a prick to his inflated esteem; but extending into the late nineteenth century Darwinist thinking of Nietzsche; there are serious questions about the Socratic act of leading souls (psychagogia), i.e., the philosophic act of leading others to an understanding of their ignorance, thereby generating a change of mind (metanoia) about the possession of true knowledge.
Although a seeker of truth, thus a Socratic man himself, the double-willed Nietzsche revealed his reservation when writing: “Could Socrates have been the corrupter of youth after all? And did he deserve his hemlock?” The point being that for Nietzsche and others who had studied Darwin, the value of truth became a problem. In the Darwinian mind of Nietzsche: “The falseness of a judgment is for us not necessarily an objection to a judgment… . The question is to what extent it is life-promoting, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-cultivating” (1966, 3, 11). In the aftermath of Nietzsche, in clinical circles informed by a therapeutic, rather than a Socratic sensibility, the value of truth was challenged further. In the extreme, Freud’s errant disciple, Otto Rank, observed:
With the truth, one cannot live. To be able to live one needs illusions, … If man is the more … healthy and happy, the more he can accept the appearance of reality as truth, that is, the more successfully he can repress, displace, deny, rationalize, dramatize himself and deceive others, then it follows that the suffering of the neurotic comes … from painful truth… . The neurotic, … is not the voluntary happy seeker of truth, but the … unhappy finder of it (1968, 42-43).
When all is said and done, Socrates’ disciples experienced him as a noble, upright man questing for wisdom, truth, and best possible state of the soul. But many Athenians experienced him as a rude, intrusive meddler, or a sophist, or a comical buffoon who seemed unconcerned about the negative consequences of his philosophic acts on Athens: A struggling democratic republic that was reeling from a catastrophic plague and other life-altering effects of the twenty-seven-year-long Peloponnesian war. As a result, the self-identified gadfly of Athens was finally “cancelled,” to use a term applied to individuals who are targets of opprobrium in our own plagued day and age.
First and foremost, Socrates was convicted of committing the capital offense of impiety, i.e., not believing in the politically correct gods of the city-state. Secondly, appearing to be unconcerned about the harmful psychological effect of his critical philosophic acts on the young men of Athens — able-bodied young men whose meaningful myths and fictions he shattered, thereby leaving them in a dazed, confused, destabilizing state of perplexity (aporia); Socrates was also convicted of the lesser offense of corrupting the young men of Athens, whose health and well-being was crucial, since males in their prime were needed for the military defense of the city-state in the lengthy struggle against Sparta.
Sadly, a noble, albeit immoderate, unrelenting quest for truth seemed to have spiraled out of control, resulting in a sentence of death to be self-administered by means of the toxic alkaloids of Conium maculatum, commonly known as hemlock.
Whether there is a curse attached to the act of choosing a name and fulfilling a vocation — a curse that issued ultimately in Socrates’ trial and death — I honestly do not know. But Cioran’s prescientific notion of a curse is not only far-fetched and lacking predictive utility, it is an excellent example of the informal fallacy of false cause, the Latin name of which is post hoc ergo propter hoc. This is the mistaken inference that because an event, like Socrates’ trial and death, followed his choice of a vocational identity, the choice of a vocational identity must have caused his trial and death. Needless to say, the fact that one historical event precedes another historical event does not establish a causal connection between the two historical events. Simply put, it is a mistake to infer that because event x occurred earlier than event y, event x caused event y.
Suffice it to say, in our hyper-enlightened age of unparalleled scientific achievement, in which hypotheses, or correctible guesses, are subjected to empirical tests, the untestable idea of a curse seems better suited to a time enveloped in uncritically accepted myth. Such as the ancient Greek myth that there are powerful, vengeful Fates and Furies pulling strings behind the scene; or the modern Cartesian fiction that human experience is a dream or an illusion created by a powerful, clever evil spirit or demon, who wiles away time pleasurably by deceiving humans and watching them come to grief. More to the point, there is a reasonable way to conceive the inevitable trials, tribulations, and reversals of fortune that are ineludible elements of the agonistic life of humans, while at the same time remaining faithful to the earth by not making ontological commitments to invisible forces at work in the heavens or in the bowels of history.
Doors and Danger
Each answer to Socrates’ existential question may be likened to a hinge upon which the door of a life will open out and turn. But the existential implications of accepting the temptation to exist by opening a particular door and crossing a threshold of uncharted experience are immense, insofar as the act of choosing a name or an identity, and exerting oneself in history by attempting to fulfill this vocational choice, amounts to opening oneself to momentous future interactions with legions of unknown persons, places, and events that will ultimately determine the sum and substance of a life. As the French phenomenological philosopher, Bachelard, thoughtfully put it: “If one were to give an account of all the doors one has closed and opened, of all the doors one would like to re-open, one would have to tell the story of one’s entire life” (1964, 224).
Some doors are riskier to open, some thresholds more dangerous to cross than others. Space exploration is an excellent example of courageous humans embracing the formidable risk of leaving earth’s orbit to explore the mysteries of the cosmos in a concrete way that seems far more dangerous than Faust’s attempt to fathom the mysteries of existence while sitting in a Cartesian armchair studying philosophy. Still, it is worth remembering that Socrates came to a deadly pass in Athens while leading a philosophic life, strolling through the Agora and trapping fellow Athenians in the perplexing orbit of seemingly simple questions.
The point is, there is no sure way of securing an accurate measure of the danger a person will encounter prior to opening a specific door, crossing a particular threshold, and experiencing the trials and tribulations that inevitably issue from these fateful choices. From time to time, the inability to accurately foresee the future, and fully understand the concrete consequences of crossing a threshold, may issue in an overestimation of one’s power, a misreading of the existential situation, and a ruinous miscalculation of the persons, places, and tide of events within one’s experiential world.
In the worst case, when the inevitable reversals have been poorly intuited, imagined, or forethought, as with the historical Socrates and the fictional Faust, the agonistic life that we cling to and long for may spiral out of control, as if a person had fallen under the influence of some ungovernable pathology, like a metastatic cancer, that seems to have a mind, a will, a life of its own. In the throe of these alleged demonic experiences, despair, some form of derangement, or death may follow, as though this unholy trinity were a murky manifestation of Mephisto.
But the failure to open an inviting door, the refusal to cross a threshold of new experience, the stifling inability to choose an authentic vocation, or pursue a gratifying avocation, may not only haunt a person forever, but also create a life less intense, full, meaningful, and unique than it might have been if one had faced the danger of going to the end of some lived experience. Perhaps it is not too much to say that nothing of truly meaningful proportion will happen in a person’s life unless there is some risk, however slight or considerable, coupled with the courage to embrace whatever risk obtains. Allowing for the possibility that one or another member of the unholy trinity might become active when risk and danger are embraced; instead of despising life, dwelling in rabid rage and resentment, and railing mindlessly against imaginary gods; a reconciliation with the agonistic life is helpful, however humble, discordant, and lacking in silent joy the healing reconciliation might be.
Conclusion: A Humble Reconciliation
The unconventional image of Sisyphus heaving his massive boulder over the crest of a steep mountain, watching it barrel down the far side while it gradually picks-up speed, and being finished with his struggle once and for all, has the look and the satisfying feel of a triumphant human experience. But this mythic image of a decisive victory over gods and granite has a life in the wish-fulfilling fantasy that there is a fortunate or felicific resolution of the agonistic life. As if a human being could experience an end of trials and tribulations, an end of grief and suffering, perhaps an end of death itself.
For example, as I conclude this commentary on the agonistic life, a brave new generation of “immortalists” are actively working on an end of death — an end of finitude as we know it. Banking on the power of empirical science and future technology to render the Medieval Christian dictum, “Memento Mori” (remember that you must die), an expression that haunted the past, but will have no validity in the future; “Cryonicists,” “Extropians,” “Transhumanists,” and “Singulatarian mind-uploaders” believe that it will be possible to “cheat death” in the not too distant future (Shermer 2019, np). While each of these options is given scant chance of success in the scientific community, not the least reason being that the effort to cheat death involves a defiance of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, among other seemingly immutable laws, principles, and standards; the bold effort of the immortalists is praiseworthy and reminiscent of the Enlightenment mystique: A body of philosophic and scientific beliefs and values issuing in the optimistic conclusion that (a) humankind dwells in a rational universe, (b) rational principles and laws are working in and governing the natural order, (c) human reason is capable of discovering these laws, and (d) humankind is capable of using this knowledge to repair and over time, make better, if not perfect the human estate.
In the present moment, however, humankind simply lacks the power to win a decisive victory over death, and there appears to be no end of the trials and tribulations of being human. Nevertheless, a betting person might be wise to avoid placing a wager against human ingenuity. For the crazed species may be fully capable of monstrous evil; and on the world stage, as well as in the provinces, from time to time, the species may manifest itself as “a ghoul without a soul,” to borrow the images and idioms of myth and science fiction. But in the worst case, to extend the metaphor, the crazed species is “an erudite zombie with a genius for discovery and a wizard mind for the marvelous” (Ellerman 1990, 3-26).
Meanwhile, in an unforgiving rational view of human existence grounded firmly in a hard-minded realism tough as plutonic rock, what counts in the present moment is learning to do the hard work of managing and becoming reconciled to the unremitting struggles the agonistic life presents to all the prisoners of passage trespassing uniquely, but commonly on planet earth. While remaining faithful to the earth and abandoning otherworldly hope, as Nietzsche urged when pondering the death of god toward the end of the Nineteenth Century, one live option humans have for managing their enduring struggle is the ability to do intrapsychic work. In this regard, the only power Sisyphus had in Hades was the power to alter his attitude toward his punitive life, thereby benefiting from the indwelling power to reconcile himself cognitively and emotionally to his inescapable existential situation. But this self-healing work of reconciliation depends on the availability of what has been referred to in extremity as the final human freedom.
For example, in an account of his personal struggle and the struggles of fellow prisoners in Buchenwald and Dachau, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim argued that, “the last, if not the greatest of the human freedoms,” is the freedom “to choose [one’s] own attitude in any given circumstance” (1979, 158). Similarly, having survived a terrifying journey through the Theresienstadt Ghetto and Auschwitz, as well as Kaufering and Türkheim, both of which were satellites of Dachau, existential psychiatrist Viktor Frankl observed:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way… . Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make … a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate… . The sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, … decide what shall become of him — mentally and spiritually (1965, 104-05).
These are not the comforting thoughts of mythical characters existing in a make-believe world of fanciful fiction. Rather, acknowledgement of a last or a final freedom is hard-won wisdom issuing from the concrete historical experience of real-life prisoners who survived barbaric terms of existence in Hitler’s Hades.
If I unpack their wisdom to make it intelligible, understanding that it borders on sacrilege to speak in their stead; I discover that in the throes of monstrous evil, there are critical moments of intrapsychic turning — uniquely human moments of self-confrontation, choice and decision, commitment, and concrete action that alter the cognitive dynamics and the emotional load of the agonistic life, absent Goethe’s angels and the silent joy of Camus’ reference.
I have seen this psychological drama unfold in a maximum-security prison, where I was privileged to teach philosophy to murderers, armed robbers, and other Class A and Class B violent felons for eight years. In this authentic Sisyphean underworld, the cellblocks of which still present to memory the lurid look of a human zoo, many men had difficulty surviving emotionally as they struggled vainly against oppressive odds: The loss of freedom and autonomy; brutal physical assaults; the anticipation of cold-blooded murder; degrading oral and anal rape; the struggle for meaning, the failure of hope, and the impossibility of escape; not to mention the suffocating stench that infected the sealed compartment of air in the cellblocks — a toxic odor that resulted naturally from the physical functioning of the collective body.
But other convicts thrived, even brutal murderers with double life sentences, for they seemed to possess something akin to a good indwelling spirit — eudaimonia in the ancient Greek mind that gave birth to the legend of Sisyphus. A good indwelling spirit, I should say, that lent itself to the psychological work, the hard labor, of reconciliation. Perhaps this cohort of reconciliated convicts came to understand that their attitude toward a punitive life of confinement was their last freedom and only remaining power. As a result, they worked on their mind as a sculptor works on a block of crystalline marble, chipping away day after day, removing rough edges, giving constructive cognitive form and positive emotional shape to a resolute self, reconciled to a miserable life capable of crushing fellow inmates.
Although many years have passed since I bid a fond farewell to my incarcerated students, I recall walking away from the prison thinking that some of the beleaguered men in my classes seem to have accepted the formidable challenge, not of simply surviving and enacting the terms of existence imposed on them by external authority, but of using a survivor’s biological intelligence, indomitable spirit, and unyielding will to undertake the difficult intrapsychic work of reconceiving negative thoughts about self, world, and others; reshaping self-defeating attitudes that keep human beings stuck in an untenable psychological state conducive to morbid symptoms; sculpting anew in some positive, pragmatic way, a life-affirming emotional relationship to the seemingly hopeless fate that had befallen them.
For example, on the eve of his long-awaited parole, a grateful murderer who answered to the nickname “Red,” handed me a farewell letter at the end of a class in Moral Philosophy. “Red” was a perfectly fitting name for this convict because he had a thick shock of red hair and freckles to match, both of which suggested that he once possessed an all-American persona before his looks were worn away by the devastating toll of a lengthy incarceration. No doubt feeling the first flush of freedom, Red shook my hand firmly, as a man trying to express deep feelings would. Saying “goodbye” with a few tears welling in his eyes, he passed me the following frank, handwritten confession. “When I first came to prison,” he wrote with thoughtful self-reflection, as if a healthy impulse to Socratic self-examination had taken firm hold of his thinking and behavior:
I wasn’t much as a man. I didn’t know how to be myself, so I was whatever anyone wanted me to be. I just didn’t know much about life or people, so I could not see what was really being said or how real it could be. Now I can at least tell when to look at what is being said, break it down, then see how real it could be.
My mother visited me last week and told me how much I had changed. I told her I was taking philosophy. I was so proud and so was she.
Through you I have found how I came to be in this awful place. Words can be used in many ways that I never knew. You take time out of your life to show us how to use them in the right way and when others are using them in a way that is not meant to be. I understand what it is for you to come in here and not know if you will leave. However, I am glad that I had this place to learn in. Six years of study have made me a better person than I was, so I have been given something I will use for the rest of my life.
Meeting you was one of the most important things that ever happened to me. You opened my eyes. Before I met you, I never thought of anything as true or false. It never occurred to me. You have given me the key to really understand what is correct from incorrect reasoning. To me this is the best that one can do for another, for to reason correctly is to live correctly.
I suspect that these carefully chosen words about lessons learned in an inmate higher education program would have made Socrates weep. For this former farm-boy, who had served the lion’s share of his twenty-five-year sentence, after killing a neighbor who made the fatal mistake of shouting “dummy” over the barnyard fence once too often, not only captured the animating spirit of the age-old human dream that reason could control the passions — anger, hatred, lust and the like; but prior to his release into the emotionally reactive world of fellow humans, this convict was motivated to undertake the hard labor of living a rational life: A thoughtful life of self-examination, the virtuous goal of which is moderation in thinking and behavior.
Although I suppressed the urge to weep after reading Red’s farewell letter, at the time, I had the thought that some of the violent captives who taught me much about the agonistic life, while I was teaching them much about Plato and Kant, happened to be sculptors of an indomitable will hard as marble; poets of a psychic turn that enabled them to master the miserable idioms of prison life; musicians orchestrating a powerful symphony of conflictive action, whose coda resolves in a reconciliation with life and self and humanness. I now realize that this manner of speaking is grandiloquent and not reflective of the hard-core realities of life in a maximum-security correctional facility.
Lending her voice to an unromantic reconciliation with the agonistic life — a humble, discordant reconciliation attuned to the discovery of some important personal meaning, wisdom, or truth, Nadezhda Mandelstam, a survivor of Stalin’s storied persecutions, reflected on captivity and observed:
Our way of life kept us firmly rooted to the ground, and was not conducive to the search for transcendental truths… . Death was so much more real, so much simpler than life, that we all involuntarily tried to prolong our earthly existence … just in case the next day brought some relief! …
In a strange way, despite the horror of it, this also gave a certain richness to our lives. Who knows what happiness is? Perhaps it is better to talk in more concrete terms of the fullness and intensity of existence, and in this sense there may have been something more deeply satisfying in our desperate clinging to life than in what people generally strive for (1970, 261).
In the end, remaining firmly rooted to the ground is difficult as the angelic conclusion of Goethe’s Faust suggests. Some may not be able to achieve it, or achieve it consistently, as I demonstrated with my eagerness to accept the consoling fiction that death has no dominion, given the survival of love, in spite of the undeniable vanishing of a deeply loved one.
But death has dominion, at least for the moment, as almost anyone who has been hollowed-out by the loss of a loved one knows. Yet in the aftermath of loss, as it was with Nadezhda Mandelstam, who lost her beloved husband, the poet Osip, at the behest of Stalin; I have come to understand in a new, deeper, astonished way that during summers and winters of discontent, as well as springs and falls of fortune, the crazed species has a remarkable resilience. For there are untold millions in every nook and cranny of the planet, gutted by the savage assaults of an agonistic life, including the unbearable loss of loved ones. But the untold millions cling to life steadfastly. Some remain faithful to the earth and rooted to the ground. In the absence of angels, having wittingly or unwittingly embraced the scruples of the humanist tradition, they have learned that there are no sacred mysteries or transcendental truths here. Except to humbly say, there can be a greater appreciation of simple things that one never realized would add to the fulness of life, the richness of experience, or the intensity of existence. The simplest things, like “a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door,” as the poetically inspired novelist, Thomas Wolfe, wrote wistfully in Look Homeward, Angel (1957, 1).
Of course, this is a human angel whose wings have been clipped and who cannot freely soar; whose home is under the stars, not in some heavenly sphere; who is destroyed from time to time, but clings to life and is rarely defeated; who carries on in this simple, uncertain way, managing the circus and the circumstance of human existence, hoping for, but not banking on, a better day; who finds a simple satisfaction in the ability to maintain the life that reflexively conscious human beings cling to and long for, while anticipating the future and realizing how grotesque is the grave.
Bachelard, Gaston. 1964. The Poetics of Space. Translated by Maria Jolas. New York: Orion.
Bettelheim, Bruno. 1979. The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age. 2nd Ed. New York: Discus.
Camus, Albert. 1961. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O’Brien. 6th Ed. New York: Vintage.
Cioran, E, M. 1998. The Temptation to Exist. Translated by Richard Howard. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ellerman, Carl P. 1990. “New Notes from Underground.” Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 33 (1): 3-26.
Ellerman, Carl P. 2010. Enchantments of the Clinic: Power, Eroticism, and Illusion in the Clinical Relationship. Lanham, Md.: Jason Aronson.
Frankl, Viktor E. 1965. Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. Translated by Ilse Lasch. 7th Ed. New York: Washington Square Press.
Freud, Sigmund. 1985. The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904. Translated and Edited by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap.
Goethe, J. W. V. 1901. Conversations with Eckermann: Being Appreciations and Criticisms on Many Subjects. London: Dunne.
Homer. 1958. The Odyssey. Translated by W. H. D. Rouse. 11th Ed. New York: Mentor.
Mandelstam, Nadezhda. 1970. Hope Against Hope. Translated by Max Hayward. New York: Atheneum.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1963. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” In The Portable Nietzsche. Translated and Edited by Walter Kaufmann. 12th Ed. New York: Viking.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1966. Beyond Good and Evil. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage.
Plato. 1969. “Republic.” In Collected Dialogues of Plato. Edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Translated by Paul Shorey. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Plato. 1981. “Apology.” In Plato Five Dialogues. Translated by G. M. A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett.
Rank, Otto. 1968. Truth and Reality. Translated by Jessie Taft. New York: W. W. Norton.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. 1963. “The Ninth Elegy.” In Duino Elegies. Translated by J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender. New York: W. W. Norton.
Shakespeare, William. 1937. “King John.” In The Works of William Shakespeare Complete. New York: Walter J. Black.
Shermer, Michael. 2019. “The Immortalists – Can science defeat death?” Science Focus, July 1. https://www.sciencefocus.com/future-technology/the-immortalists-can-science-defeat-death/
Thomas, Dylan. 1957. “And death shall have no dominion.” In The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. New York: New Directions.
Wolfe, Thomas. 1957. Look Homeward, Angel. New York: Scribner’s.