Alive Today, Dead Tomorrow, Then Alive Again

The ancient Greek statesman and general Alcibiades once likened his career to the lives of the mythical half-brothers Castor and Pollux.[1]  These two figures are together called the Dioscuri, and they are attended by many stories and fables, some of which are contradictory or ambiguous.  According to myth, the Dioscuri are alive and dead on alternate days.  Homer says:

And I saw Lede, the wife of Tyndareus,

Who bore to Tyndareus two sons, stout of heart,

Castor the tamer of horses, and the boxer Polydeuces [i.e., Pollux].

These two the earth, the giver of life, covers, albeit alive,

And even in the world below they have honor from Zeus.

One day they live in turn, and one day they are dead;

And they have won honor like unto that of the gods.

[Odyssey XI.298—304, trans. by A.T. Murray]

Now what did Alcibiades mean by saying he felt he was “alive and dead on alternate days”?  He was making the point that, when things were going well for him, and the public was favorably disposed towards him, he was “alive.”  But when he experienced problems or difficulties, he discovered that his treatment was quite different:  he was the object of scorn, no better than a leper.  Any man who finds himself in a position of authority will confirm the truth of this.  Those who have read Cornelius Nepos’s Lives of the Great Commanders are probably struck by the public ingratitude that accompanied the lives of so many illustrious men.  For when we are successful and popular, the world glitters before our eyes, and we bat our eyelashes at it seductively in response; but when fortune turns against us, and distresses mount, we seem to be no better than dead men in the eyes of others.  In this way not only Alcibiades, but all men, resemble the Dioscuri. 

But this is the way things are, and the way they have always been.  The man who remains true to his mission, who is not deterred and distracted by the petty concerns of this world, and looks down on them as contemptible and base—this is the type of man who understands the realities of fortune.  And it is he who will prevail in the end.  The judgments of the public, the judgments of friends and family—these things are fickle and transitory, and should not concern him. 

Aelian tells us that the sculptor Polyclitus would make two sculptures of the same subject.[2]  One would be made to suit the public taste, and the other would be made to suit the requirements of his artistry.  For the sculpture made for the public, Polyclitus would add or remove features as the public trends dictated.  He would then show both pieces to the public.  And what was the result?  One sculpture would be lauded by everyone, and the other would be ridiculed.  Polyclitus would laugh to himself and say, “The statue you are ridiculing, is the one made according to popular trends.  And the one you are praising is the one made according to my own artistry.” 

We can see from this that the man of vision must remain true to his art:  he must now allow himself to be swayed by fads, trends, or the emotions of the moment.  Along these lines I remember hearing a story about the great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky.  He was known for his serious and extended—some would say boring—treatment of material.  When someone complained to him that the opening sequence of one of his films was too ponderous and dull, his answer was, “The beginning should be even slower and duller than I have made it, so that all those who do not belong in the theater should leave as quickly as possible.”  By this answer he made it clear that he would not compromise his art. 

While remaining true to one’s guiding star sounds noble in theory, it requires an iron will and an unshakeable determination to carry it through.  Everyone is courageous before the moment of truth arrives.  It can be discouraging to see the ease with which human attentions are manipulated by our baser instincts.  He who caters to the most primitive emotions will always find a willing audience.  Socrates is said to have had this exchange with Callisto, a beautiful courtesan.[3]  “Socrates, son of Sophroniscus, for all your talk of virtue, you are not aware that I am your better.  For you can’t lure any of my circle away from me, while I, if I wanted to, could lure the men of your circle away from you.”  Socrates smiled at her and said, “Of course this is true.  But this is because you lead men down the path of vice, while I place demands on them to learn about virtue.  This path is a steep and arduous one, and most men are not used to it.”  Implicit in his response was the fact that the popular path, which is almost always the path of ease and vice, is far easier than the path of virtue, which is a long, lonely, arduous, and steep ascent. 

We must accept the limitations of humanity.  We cannot berate man for his faults; we must accept them, and work within his human embankments, enclosures, and stockades. Hanno the Carthaginian was unable to do this.  He wanted to announce to the world how great he was, and to this end he acquired a large number of song birds.  We are told that he trained these birds to squawk one thing only:  “Hanno is a god!”  When they had been trained to his satisfaction, he released them into nature; he assumed they would land in various cities and towns, and would spread the news of his own greatness.  But this did not happen; once they had been released, they flew to those places that were pleasing to them in the isolated countryside.  They chirped along with all the other birds, and never cared to utter one chirp about the greatness of Hanno.  In trying to make these birds do as he wished, Hanno had wasted his effort in a vain and futile enterprise.    

He who pursues his purposes and dreams single-mindedly, and with unshakeable purpose, presents the most inspiring spectacle to all mankind.  Jack London, in his novel The Game, said this about the innate compulsions that drive men forward, even in the face of danger:

She was stunned by the awful facts of this Game she did not understand—the grip it laid on men’s souls, its irony and faithlessness, its risks and hazards and fierce insurgences of the blood, making woman pitiful, not the be-all and end-all of man, but his toy and his pastime; to woman his mothering and caretaking, his moods and his moments, but to the Game his days and nights of striving, the tribute of his head and hand, his most patient toil and wildest effort, all the strain and the stress of his being—to the Game, the heart’s desire. 

For London, the “game” was boxing, but we might just as easily substitute any deeply-desired goal for which sacrifice is required.  It is the manifestation of the blood’s creative spirit, simmering now, boiling occasionally, and—once the brutal efforts of production have been made—finally surging to a crescendo of artistic vitality and output. 

There will always be obstacles, and there will always be distractions.  In the Norse Poetic Edda, there is a poem called the Lokasenna, which means “Loki’s Taunts.”  Loki was the mischievous god, the troublemaker, the one who always sought to throw a spanner in the works.  In this poem he appears at a feast of the gods and tries to cause trouble by issuing taunts, and playing one against the other.  One stanza summarizes the essence of the troublemaker:

I will go in

To Aegir’s hall

And see this feast.

I will bring them

Slanders and rumors,

And mix their mead with misery.

[Trans. by J. Crawford

He who pursues his purpose should beware, then, of distractions and troublemakers who wish to deflect him from his path:  for it is they who “mix mead with misery.”  And in the end it is the quest for knowledge that redeems us all; it is this that transforms every single-minded pursuit of a worthy mission into a virtuous exercise.  The writer Stobaeus relates this anecdote about Solon of Athens.  When he heard his nephew at a party singing a verse by the poet Sappho, he asked the nephew to teach him the verse.  The young man responded by asking why Solon was making this request.  The old man replied, “So that I can learn it, and then die.” 

   


[1] Aelian, Varia Historia XIII.38. 

[2] Var. Hist. XIV.8. 

[3] Var. Hist. XIII.32.

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Read more in the new and accessible translation of On Duties:

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