Between Gods And Animals, The Sweet Spot

From the vantage of the Greco-Roman pagans, because we’re neither gods nor exclusively animals, human beings are in a very, very sweet spot. Arguably the best spot.

Think about it. The gods can make choices; they can fight and have dalliances with other gods; they can watch the goings on on Earth and can manipulate things, but because they’re immortal, they’re really in need of nothing. They can always push the reset button on their eternal lives. Nothing is at stake for them. Like video gamers, they can walk away from the carnage or amors on their perceptual “screens,” go have a sandwich, run to the toilet. They’re gods. They’ve got it good.

By contrast, animals are mortal. They don’t model the future in their heads like gods, nor do they make choices based on those models. They run on instinct. They don’t even know they’ll die. If they experience stress or anxiety, it’s in the moment, not in anticipation of the future.

Humans are very different from either gods or animals, but they also share traits with them. Humans are amphibians. Like gods, they can model and anticipate the future and make choices; like animals, they’re mortal. This combination means that everything is at stake for humans. Our choices matter.

Which means we can be heroes. Gods can’t be heroes, nor can animals, but we can. Hercules was a mortal–and a hero. The three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae were heroes. Antigone in Sophocles’s play is a hero.

A hero rises to his or her existential occasion–and achieves immortality through fame.

So a hero needs an audience. Heroes aren’t off in a corner alone with their creativity, energy, and courage. They’re out in the world; a force of nature against nature. They are players on the stage of life.

This is why Nietzsche pointed us back to the ancient Greeks for our models for living after Darwin and the death of God. The medieval idea of imagining yourself to be immortal (when you die your soul will just ascend to heaven, no big whoop) diminishes what’s at stake in this life and on this planet. Instead, the Greeks had it right. Choose your life and way of death because it matters. Don’t run away from suffering and difficulty, run towards it; work with it. Everything is at stake because you’re a mortal. Perform on the stage well; be brave, energetic, and creative. Hovering between gods and animals, you’re in the sweetest of existential spots. Know you’ll die. Now choose.

With regard to the proto-existentialism of the ancients, I like this passage in Carlin Barton’s Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones (pg. 32, UC Press 2001):

As the art historian Bettina Bergmann points out, the Romans had a taste for moments of high tension, frozen instants of “explosive emotions,” “excruciating suspended animation,” “moments of decision”: Medea contemplating her children with a dagger in her lap; the sacrificial bull poised to receive the blow of the ax; the wounded gladiator anticipating the death blow; Phaedra clasping her letter to Hippolytus; Helen resisting the blandishments of Paris. Because of their desire to find and express the “truth” of their being in action, the Romans were eager to interpret any and every confrontation as an ordeal, an opportunity for the exercise of will. But there were, in the Roman mind, good contests and bad ones. A good contest obeyed restrictions: it needed to be a) framed and circumscribed within implicit or explicit boundaries accepted by the competitors, b) between relative equals, c) witnessed, and d) strenuous. The context between Mucius and Porsena was a hard but good one. Porsena was the enemy, but, in Livy’s mind, he and Mucius were playing by the same rules. The Etruscan chieftain could recognize Mucius’s gesture and appreciate the courage that it took. Overwhelmed with admiration for Mucius’s act, and for what it told of the Roman spirit, King Porsena freed his mutilated captive, raised the siege, and sought an alliance with the Romans.

In this is the hint as to how to live. And here as well:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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