I have just finished watching a reality television series on Netflix called Alone: The Arctic. I believe it was originally produced by the History Channel. Now before you roll your eyes and dismiss what I have to say out of hand, I would ask you for a fair hearing. Hear me out, dear reader: for I too once retained your same squint-eyed skepticism.
The premise of this series is to deposit a group of ten experienced survivalists in a region of the Canadian Arctic (the shores of the Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, to be precise), and see which one of them can survive there for the longest time. The winner is awarded a cash prize of five hundred thousand dollars. They are all given roughly the same set of equipment, and are permitted to consume whatever fish or land animals their ingenuity will allow them to capture; the ten are comprised of both men and women. There is a reasonable expectation of food; the contestants are near a large lake as well as relatively thin forests. Yet in there is a great gulf between the expectation of food, and the realization of food.
Watching the many installments of this series is a fascinating exercise, for nothing is so difficult as trying to survive in the cold wilderness. No one who has not experienced them can even remotely comprehend what these regions are like. While there are long periods of boredom and monotony, in which the participants stare off into frozen expanses and drone on about their life experiences, the general tenor of the event is fascinating. With regard to the landscape, one is reminded of the ghastly “White Silence” that Jack London described for us: that bleak, empty, cavernous desolation of the Arctic; that cruel and remorseless god of the north who seeks to shatter the minds and spirits of all who dare to dwell there. We are quickly made to realize that survival in these conditions is a grim calculus of calorie counts and duties: if certain things are not accomplished—building an adequate shelter, finding consistent food sources, avoiding injuries, maintaining mental stability—then the contestant will not last longer than a few days. There is little room for error. But all of the participants were eminently qualified; they had spend their lives living close to the wild, and had a great deal of experience with trapping, hunting, fishing, and the associated arts of survival.
As I was watching the various participants go about their routines, I was struck by how different one of them was from the others. I said to myself at once: this man is going to prevail. It really was that simple; I sensed it immediately. His name was Jordan Jonas, and he was a thirty-five-year-old man from Lynchburg, Virginia. He had an impressive background of preparation for this kind of a contest. He had gone to Siberia repeatedly to live with local tribes that live off the land; he had lived with Evenki reindeer hunters and learned their arts of survival; and he had traveled widely in the taiga (coniferous forests of the northern latitudes).
He knew the arts of survival. Within the first few days he had snared four arctic rabbits. He could build advanced shelters and platforms for protecting his food; he could make nets, snowshoes, animal skin vests, and many other practical things. I saw him track and kill a large moose with a bow and arrow, a kill that probably gained him enough calories to win the contest. He even killed a marauding wolverine with a hatchet that was threatening his food stash. The curious reader will wish to know the ten tools he selected to bring with him into the wild. They were the following: paracord, saw, axe, sleeping bag, frying pan, ferro rod (for making fire), fishing line and hooks, bow and arrows, trapping wire, and a multitool.
Yet it was not only this grand resume that impressed the viewer: it was his attitude, his way of looking at the world, the way he comported himself. This was a man who took everything in stride; he was unflappable, never descending into morose self-pity or futile periods of extended reflection. His personality was a genial one, able to laugh at himself and his situation; he had faith in his knowledge, and knew that the correct methods, consistently applied, would eventually bring him results. What mattered to him was the here and the now. If he did not find food one day, he smiled, told a few jokes, and hoped for better fortunes tomorrow. And after seventy-seven days, he was visited by a rescue crew that informed him he had won. He had outlasted all the others; some had been worn down the strains of loneliness; some had succumbed to bodily degradation; and some had committed mistakes that forced them to quit. “I knew for sure if it was a starving contest, I was going to win,” the lean, wiry Jonas later joked to Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Press.
Survival in adverse conditions demands three conditions: knowledge, mental attitude, and the favor of fortune. Knowledge is gained from training and experience; and of course, the more one has of this, the better he will be. Mental attitude means that you must approach your predicament with a certain philosophical detachment; you must maintain a sense of balance, humor, and affability that allows the small irritations to roll off your back, as do droplets of water on an earnest aquatic duck. The favor of fortune is that one quantity that cannot be controlled; but it is clear that if a man takes care of the first two factors, his chances of gaining the third are very great.
One finds pleasure in connecting threads of meaning, and continuities of thought, from disparate sources. A interesting passage from Julius Caesar’s commentaries on the Gallic War (De Bello Gallico) came to mind was I was watching Alone: The Arctic. It is this observation:
There are also creatures called elks. Their figure, and the mottled shape of their skin, are similar to goats, but are physically larger and possess stunted horns [mutilaeque sunt cornibus]. Their legs do not have knobs or joints, and they do not lie down to rest; and if they happen to fall for some reason, they can neither stand or raise themselves. They use trees as beds: they bring themselves into contact with them, and, leaning against them, they rest their bodies. When hunters have discerned from their tracks where they are in the habit of going to relax, they either weaken the roots of all the trees in that lace, or cut into them far enough to leave the impression that the trees are solidly standing. When the animals lean against them, as they are in the habit of doing, they topple over the infirm trees with their body weight, and fall to the ground along with them. [VI.27]
After reading this passage, we may wonder how Caesar received his information. He must have seen elk, but his comments about their legs, sleeping habits, and how they were hunted seem much like the kind of tall tale a Gallic scout would have told him in the hopes of earning the commander’s favor. On the other hand, perhaps there is more to this passage than it appears; it could be that the elk hunters of Gaul had devised some sort of trap or deadfall that relied on deception and falling logs. We do not know. In the days before mass media and speedy transmission of information, travelers in distant lands often had to rely on anecdotal evidence, hearsay, and rumor; and even if such information was communicated accurately, it could become degraded through its passage from mouth to mouth, with the unfortunate result that what the final recipient heard bore little relation to the original truth. It would be interesting, in any case, to know what Jordan Jonas would make of Caesar’s views on elk hunting.
But enough of these matters. Watching this survival series brought to mind a view expressed by the learned Philo of Alexandria (Philo Iudaeus) on the meaning of this line in the Book of Genesis (9:21): “He was naked in his house.” According to Philo, this sentence has a specific philosophical and mystical meaning; and I think it has relevance to the survival experiences of the contestants in Alone: The Arctic, who were stripped naked, so to speak, of all the accoutrements of civilization when they were deposited into that frigid, tenantless landscape. This is what Philo says about the meaning of that quote from Genesis. It is from his Questions and Answers on Genesis II, 69:
This is praise of the wise man both in the literal sense of the words, and also in their hidden meaning, that his exhibition of nakedness took place not out of doors but in his house, being concealed by the roof and walls of his house. For the nakedness of the body is concealed by a house which is made of stones and beams of wood; but the covering and clothing of the soul is the discipline of wisdom. Therefore there are two kinds of nakedness, one which takes place by accident, which is the result of an involuntary offence, because the just man, using, if I may say so, his honesty as if it were a garment with which he is clothed, stumbles out of his own accord like men who are intoxicated, or who are afflicted with insanity. For in such men their offences are not deliberately committed; but it is his task and pleasing duty to clothe himself, as with a garment, with the discipline and honesty of study.
There is also another kind of nakedness of the soul which is caused by perfect virtue, which expels from itself the whole carnal weight of the body, as if it were flying from a tomb, as indeed it has long been buried in it as in a tomb. As also it avoids pleasures, and also a great number of miseries arising from the different passions and many anxieties arising from misfortunes, and indeed all the evil effects of these different circumstances. He, therefore, who has been able with distinction to pass through such various and great dangers, and to escape such injuries, and to emancipate himself from such evils, has attained to the destiny of happiness, without any stain or disgrace. For I should pronounce this to be the ornament and badge of beauty in those individuals who have been rendered worthy to pass their existence in an incorporeal manner. [Trans. by C.D. Yonge]
A man placed in the middle of a harsh wilderness, or any hostile landscape, is “naked” in one sense; but as Philo says, “through the discipline and honesty of study,” he can begin to “clothe” himself. “The covering and clothing of the soul is the discipline of wisdom,” he reminds us. And yet, at the same time, perfect virtue can cause a certain “nakedness” of the soul. As the second quoted paragraph above states, the acquisition of virtue enables the soul to be free, finally, from its mortal chains, and allows it to soar to lofty heights. He who can emancipate himself from such evils approaches the destination of true happiness. As I said in Pantheon:
All men have a higher principle within themselves in addition to their earthly existence. Some choose to use it, and some do not. “So then, men have another principle, but not all men use all that they have but some use one principle, some the other, or rather a number of others, the worse ones.” [Plotinus’s Enneads III.3]…We can imagine good or evil things as “brothers that originate from a single parent.”
This nakedness of the soul is what we must strive for: and this is nothing other than the liberation of the divine soul from all earthly impediments and fetters, and the preparation of the soul to return to the source from where it first descended. As Plotinus says (Enn. V.3.17), “This is the soul’s true end, to touch that light and see it by itself, not by another light, but by the light by which it is enlightened: for we do not see the sun by another light than his own. How can this happen? Take away everything.” It was the subconscious understanding of this truth that enabled Jordan Jones to survive for seventy-seven days alone with nothing but a few tools. Such was his intuitive awareness of this principle, and such was the strength of his conviction to implement it, that he would still be in the Canadian Arctic now if no one had gone to bring him back.
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