Monday, February 14, 2005

Changing life patterns

A century ago the poet Rainer Maria Rilke had a disturbing encounter in the Louvre museum. As he was staring at a severe archaic kouros, somewhat lasciviously it seems, the statue spoke to him: "You must change your life." Yes, but how? For surely something more is meant than being more resolute and efficient in the pursuit of a course already chosen. No, one must select an altogether new option.

Ancient Greece, the culture that produced the statue, produced an influential triad of options. Attributed to the mysterious Pythagoras, this triad probably originated among the followers of Plato in the Academy. We must imagine the visitors to the games, whether the Olympic ones or some others. The attendees would go out of one of three motives. One could (1) participate as an athletic competitor, seeking to defeat ones’ rivals. Or (2) one could take advantage of the crowds to buy and sell things. Finally, and best of all 3), one could go as a spectator. In fact, the motives are arranged in a hierarchy, with spectatorship, the contemplative life, at the top. The middle choice, competition, stands as a model of political activism. Finally, business represents the lowest option.

Other Greeks recognized a variety of life choices, without attempting to prioritize them. In what is sometimes termed the priamel approach, the poet Sappho said, "some think that the most beautiful thing on earth is a troop of cavalry, or foot-soldiers or ships; but for me it is to obtain the object of desire."

Yet others took a frankly subjective approach: "I don’t care what others like--I prefer what is good for me."

From these considerations it is evident that changing one’s life presumes a hierarchy of choices. Once one recognizes such normative differences one can resolve to pass from a less desirable option to a better one.

In his “Either/Or” of 1843 Kierkegaard reduced the choice to a dichotomy: the aesthetic vs. the ethical. While both approaches are discussed at great length, it is clear that the Danish thinker preferred the second. Ironically, many readers get bogged down in the first part, which is less desirable, never progressing to the second.

Turning to the century just passed, the social upheavals of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies produced several kinds of self-help books. In one category, plain Johns and Janes could make themselves over by becoming hippies or radical revolutionaries. More recently this genre was parodied in an article “The Wino Lifestyle--Is It For You?”

Just now Harvard University Press has issued the most ambitious attempt of all, John W. O.Malley’s "Four Cultures in the West." The blurb reads as follows:

The cultures considered here originated in the ancient world, took on Christian form, and manifest themselves today in more secular ways. These are … the prophetic culture that proclaims the need for radical change in the structures of society (represented by, for example, Jeremiah, Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King, Jr.): he academic culture that seeks instead to understand these structures (Aristotle, Aquinas, the modern university); the humanistic culture that addresses fundamental human issues and works for the common good of society (Cicero, Erasmus, and Eleanor Roosevelt); and the culture of art and performance the celebrates the mystery of the human condition (Phidias, Michelangelo, Balanchine).”

A concluding thought is this. Some say that one must make one’s choice in adolescence. Be that as it may, the contrasting templates still serve as a way of measuring what one has accomplished.

Postscript. Did the statue speak to Rilke in German. Since many Germans regard ancient Greek as closely akin to modern German, that is possible. However, communication may have been imperfect. The poet heard the statue to say: "Du musst dein Leben aendern." But perhaps it actually said: "Du musst dein Leben enden"--you must end your life That would be another, conclusive, life change.


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