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Being, courage, and love.

TWENTIETH CENTURY GERMAN PHILOSOPHER Martin Heidegger reminds us in his major work, Being and Time, that the ancient Greeks were interested in the question of being. Later philosophers moved on to different problems, so Heidegger accepted as his task a return to the ancient question of being. As he did so, he was forced to address other problems such as non-being and the relation of being to existence. It is not my purpose to explain Heidegger's thoughts here, but rather to reflect on the question, what does it mean to be?

It is in old age that one becomes most acutely aware of the fact that life moves inexorably toward death. Of course we all know intellectually that humans are mortal, but that is a bit different than knowing existentially that we are mortal. Some among us refuse to accept this stark reality by taking flights of fantasy into other realms where disembodied spirits dwell. For some absurd reason they think our species is special. And they reason incorrectly that since we were our parents' darlings, we must be the favorites of the universe. How dare the power of eternal death threaten not only the body but the mind and spirit as well? In our more sober considerations we move beyond our arrogance and fleetingly accept the fact of our total physical and mental extinction. Perhaps it is in such moments that anxieties arise. After all, I know the Grim Reaper will arrive; I simply don't know how and when. Though this may be my personal experience, it certainly isn't unique; others experience it also.

Sigmund Freud thought that we are driven by two antithetical drives. On the one hand there is the "life instinct," or eros. It is very strong in normal youth, for it is the drive that leads a young man and young woman into each other's arms. It is the drive for life and self-preservation that expresses itself through the reproduction of the species. On the other hand there is the "death instinct" or thanatos. In the normal healthy person this drive is weak. But as people live long and productive lives, they see friends and loved ones die. There comes a time when they are forced to acknowledge that the strength of their body and the brilliance of their mind are not what they once were. It is in such situations that thanatos begins to push its way to the surface. Evidence is seen in a very old grandparent who poses the question: "Why doesn't the Good Lord take me? I'm ready to go."

Thus, Freud thought that within each of us there were these dual drives of eros and thanatos. In fact, he speculated that they operated throughout all living nature and perhaps in inorganic nature as well. He certainly was on target when he referred to human beings: for aren't eros and thanatos the psychological expression of the ontological conflict of being with non-being?

In a literary context one is quick to recall those familiar words of Hamlet: "To be, or not to be--that is the question." There are also modern writers who share Heidegger's interest in the question of being. Perhaps Eugene Ionesco has probed as deeply as any playwright the conflict between being and non-being in a number of its manifestations. Ionesco draws a kind of distinction between physical death and death of the personality. In his play Rhinoceros, for instance, he depicts a small, provincial town whose citizens turn into a huge herd of conforming, unfeeling, and unthinking rhinoceroses. The one exception is Berenger, a kind of everyman character. By allowing Berenger to escape the transformation, he suggests that one need not be spiritually dead though the whole town might be. Ionesco was frightened during the Hitler era by the transformation of people in his native Romania into a herd of sympathizers with the Nazi military machine. Ionesco suggests that one of the ways non-being expresses itself is by sucking out what is good and decent in a human being and leaving only a biologically alive beast.

Ionesco has also examined the reality of physical death. In fact, all his mature works have been produced with an awareness of his own death on the horizon. At a celebration party following the opening of Rhinoceros in London, a number of critics expressed high critical acclaim for the play. At the party Martin Esslin commented to Mrs. Ionesco that her husband must have been happy about the positive reception as the curtain closed. Her reply was, "no, he was not happy because he knew that someday he would have to die"

Ionesco's preoccupation with physical death is present in several of his plays. In Exit the King Berenger is the king and he is dying. In this work the playwright draws a parallel between a king and his kingdom with that of an individual and his body. He depicts the disintegration of a kingdom--the body--as Berenger dies. In so doing he creates the eerie sensation of physical death right on stage before the audience's eyes.

Again, in his play The Killer, death is personified as the mysterious killer who is stalking a beautiful, affluent neighborhood. In the end the killer meets Berenger on a lonely, deserted side street. In spite of the victim's attempt to reason and plead for mercy, death, which is both irrational and unfeeling, asserts its devastating power over Berenger who submissively falls to the ground crying out hopelessly, "There is nothing that we can do."

Certainly it is possible to find a number of parallels between Ionesco's thought and that of Heidegger. Though he does not employ the technical language of the philosopher, Ioncesco was acutely aware of the conflict between being and non-being. He knew that human beings are part of the drive in the universe toward being. The drive is manifested in such things as the desire to reproduce, to create, and to learn. In Ionesco's work the counter drive manifests itself through death--either of the personality, or the body, or both--but we also see it in the ageing process, the slowing down of mental acuity, the loss of the power to reproduce, and the malfunctioning of the body.

The playwright also realized that we may become so preoccupied with our own physical death that it can adversely affect our zest for living. Such categories come rather close to Heidegger's attempt to relate being to existence; namely the challenge to exist authentically, as Berenger does when he manages to not succumb to rhinoceritis, versus inauthentically, as in the case of those who are transformed into rhinos.

In other words, given the two conflicting forces working in the universe and in the individual, how are we to cope with them, especially that of non-being? How can we live authentically knowing that as far as we are concerned thanatos will be victorious over eros?

First I suggest that we need courage. Of course, the first thing that many of us think about is the courage of those who fight in the military. Yet if we think exclusively of courage in terms of warriors and war, we are being much too restrictive. When war fever hits a nation, does it not take courage for a person to be a conscientious objector? In Profiles in Courage, John E Kennedy spoke of politicians and politically courageous acts. Bertolt Brecht, in his play Mother Courage and Her Children, depicts a mother and her brood who follow armies around Europe during the wars of religion following the Protestant Reformation. She scavenges food, barters with soldiers, and suffers greatly in order for her family to survive. Do not her efforts to help her children survive require a kind of courage, perhaps as great as the warriors moving into battle?

American poet e.e. cummings once said, "To be nobody-but-myself--in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you somebody else--means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting." I suggest the battle of which cummings speaks requires great courage.

Now what does courage have to do with the question of being? If we accept the dual drives of being and non-being, and if the universe is ultimately indifferent to the human being caught in the conflict of these drives, then it will take a profound courage to affirm one's being in the face of nonbeing, realizing that with respect to the private ego, thanatos will have the ultimate say over eros.

But courage is not all we need. With it alone, existence would be stark and bleak indeed. Therefore we also require love, which, like courage, is a manifestation of being. And as with courage, there are many kinds of love. To begin there must be a healthy love for the self. Often we are reluctant to promote self-love mostly because we confuse it with selfishness. Since we are humans, we ought to have a healthy love for ourselves; it is from this fount that love flows out to others.

Second, there is an appropriate place for erotic love. It enables two people to break out of their isolation and loneliness and establish community. As Erich Fromm has pointed out, if one loves maturely then love implies concern for the person loved and responsibility for the needs of the other.

Third, there is the love for others which suggests that love be extended from oneself, from one's spouse, offspring, family, village, and as much as possible beyond one's village, state, and nation until it encompasses people throughout the world. Of course, to extend love beyond the confines of our homes becomes increasingly difficult, but one of the ways we are able to make this extension is by changing love into the coin of justice. As such, we work for a just society in which our laws protect people of all races, sexes, and human needs. It is by means of creating just conditions in the world that we love those whom we have never met, nor can call by name.

It is by experiencing the varieties of love in depth that enables the private ego to be in spite of the threat of nonbeing. Without love a person becomes more isolated, lonely, even bitter, and gives up. With love, the person may well live with dignity when confronted by the inevitable onslaught of non-being with its inexorable outcome.

If one looks at Hamlet's question from the perspective of Heidegger's philosophy, one realizes that the two primary drives in the universe--being versus non-being--are contending for the possession of the person. In youth there is a preponderance of eros and the desire to be. In old age thanatos and non-being have asserted themselves with different degrees of force. Though one realizes that non-being will have its say with the private ego, this awareness can serve as a catalyst for summoning the courage to love and live authentically until one's being disappears into non-being.

To quote the Greek philosopher Epicurus: "Why fear death, when I am death is not. When death is, I am not.

Mason Olds is Professor Emeritus at Springfield College and author of the book American Religious Humanism
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Author:Olds, Mason
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Words:1865
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