“The Best thing for mankind is not to be born; however, the next best thing, after being born, to die as quickly as possible.” – (Aristotle)
Read the words of Silenus. The satyr type deity of Greek antiquity, in two stories found in a woods by the renowned fool king Midas. In both stories the king begs Silenus, the aged tutor of the god of revelry and nature Dionysus, to part with divine knowledge. Reluctantly he replies that man should wish never to exist, and being that he does exist, that he should die and be in a far more blessed state.
This is a counter intuitive philosophy for the ancient Greeks whose lives revolved around life. They were the centre of the world for knowledge, philosophy, theatre, art and culture. It does make sense that some philosophy would be nihilistic, considering the nature of despair is enduring throughout time and society. It has stumped scholars for these past few thousand years. Nietzsche used it predominantly in his Birth of Tragedy to legitimise Dionysian/Apolline philosophy. Centrally he stated that the Greeks lived in a state of fear of the natural world and it’s terrors and, knowing that their lot would be more blissful if they didn’t exist, they built up a glamour over the world to make it bearable, this being Olympus, Arcadia, the gods, art, culture.
I struggle to buy into this. Nietzsche’s polemic was for his time, his country, his people and rebuilding the culture of a nation through philosophy, music, theatre and the arts. I empathise with this but it is too far removed I feel from the issue at hand, being the statement of Silenus quoted above.
In another recent blog post I referred to the enduring nature of themes. Jung would call them archetypes; I would be a little less pretentious and say enduring tropes. They exist in stories the world over and throughout time. One such trope would be this, the wisdom of Silenus, in the words of the Bard, “to be or not to be?”
The immortal god Silenus, on viewing foolish Midas the mortal king, who badgers him for divine knowledge; divine knowledge coming at a price if we remember Prometheus, resents that man should live ‘but a day’, and seek knowledge that it would do better for them not to know. Silenus is not just a divine being created by man to bring order to chaotic nature, he is the spirit of said nature and his troupe of satyrs exemplifies this, as such he is saying that all knowledge comes at a cost, and from the moment that we drag ourselves out of the hardship of the wilderness to learn to read and write, to cogitate, to perceive other than what comes directly to our senses, we are forced to the despair of contemplating our mortality, to be, or not. It would be better that we had no part in learning, of asking questions. Instead if we could live in natures’ excellence unbridled by our persistent desire to understand and thrive, if we were one of Silenus’ goat men, fixated on lust and revelry we’d live a happy lot. Yet, we are not, we are men, so it’d be better if we ceased to be and join the dead who worry over nothing. “To die, to sleep – to sleep – perchance to dream.”