The concluding part of my final address to my philosophy students at the American University of Paris last year.
We have primarily pursued the issue of free will, determinism, and personal agency in Greco-Roman antiquity, but I have also attempted, secondarily, to instill in you an understanding and appreciation of the Greek spirit more generally. But these two matters are in fact related. If, as many of you have, we abandon the idea of free will, or at least acknowledge that we exercise far less deliberate control over our actions than most people tend to believe, then we must of course also ask ourselves how we are to live with this newly acquired knowledge, and it is in finding an answer to this question that we may embrace the beauty of the Greek spirit.
We might be inclined to reply, at first, that we have become powerless and that the world and its vicissitudes appear to us now even grimmer than before. On a certain more existentialist level, this is true. But that only scratches on the surface of the matter. If we train ourselves to see the advantages of this surrender of our freedom, then we may ultimately become more beautiful, more Greek. When we look upon the murderer and the rapist, we come to see not only perpetrators of the most horrible crimes, but also victims – a criminal is a victim of his own deed insofar as he was unlucky enough to have the composition, background and so on that led him to the deed. He is, in this sense, a victim of his crime just as much as the recipient of the deed. The punishment he suffers is thus unjust, because he didn’t freely choose to commit the crime. And so when we punish him, as of course we must in order for society to function, we do so without hatred or vengeance, but simply because it is necessary, to stop the criminal and to offer a future deterrent. That is to say that ethics become purely pragmatic and utilitarian. It might mean, to use a more vulgar example, that we defend ourselves when we are attacked but do not continue to kick our assailant when he is already down on the ground. If we stop hating the criminals and evil-doers of the world because of their lack of free will, we can elevate ourselves. All hatred disappears from us, and only love remains. And the love does remain – it does not disappear like the hate, and you will notice this in your daily interactions. Your love will be no less passionate simply because the objects of your love had no say in their own creation. I do not love beauty because it chose to be beautiful, but simply because it is. I remind you here of the words of Manilius in the Astronomica, who speaks of the fragrant flowers and the poisonous plants. They simply are, and so are we.
Such a transformation of a person cannot happen overnight, of course, but with patience and practice we can, through losing all hateful feelings in this way, become human beings who absorb and are together with all the beauty in the world, who can see the beautiful in everything, as artists do, without becoming tainted by any concomitant hatred. This will make us more creative, more artistic – quite simply more beautiful, because, to borrow a Platonic phrase, we constantly give birth in beauty. This does not grant us our freedom in a non-materialist, metaphysical sense, but it makes us as whole and free as we could ever hope to be. And this is where the Greek spirit comes in.
You already know by now that I, your humble professor, have little respect for his fellow academics, and we have already discussed over this past semester some of the problems with academia today. The Greeks do not belong to the professors. My fellow professors – and I do not speak specifically of this university but of practically all institutions of higher learning both on this and the other side of the Atlantic – they use the Greeks as occupational tools to advance their careers. They have assembled many facts into their heads, but they have no understanding whatsoever of what it would mean to be Greek, of how that might influence our spirits on a much more personal level. And if they do not bother to ask such questions, as indeed they do not, then they also have no right to study the Greeks to begin with. Could that people walk among us today, they would find truly risible what we have done with them, because there is no relation between their lives and our academic activities. We have discussed Greek pessimism: their harsh lives, constantly tormented by plague, war, and food scarcity, their lack of power before fate, as they saw it, their refusal to believe that everything will be better once they die, and their consequent insistence that we have but this one attempt at greatness here on earth – we have discussed all this and we understand that this is one reason why they were so creative. The shortness and bitterness of their lives, and the belief that there is nothing afterwards to look forward to, made them almost pathologically obsessed with fame and glory – and thus creativity. We Christianize the Greeks and render them in our own bourgeois image if we imagine them as silently meditating in still marble temples, though that is a small piece of the truth. They, and especially the Athenians, were a rowdy bunch who always wanted more – do more, have more, accomplish more, because life is brief and we have but this one chance. And this is why a great strong Greek hero always weeps like a child when something bad happens: because the very little time he has been allotted has been tainted by death and mourning. He considers himself metaphysically powerless, and he has no notion of a free will, which as you know by now is largely a Christian concept, and this, ultimately, makes him love beauty for its own sake. But all this is perfectly alien to academics nowadays, who will only laugh condescendingly at the student who might want to write plays as great as those of Euripides, at the one who reads Pindar’s odes to the Olympic champions and consequently wants to become a great athlete himself, the one who converses in his mind with Aristotle himself about the veracity of his opinions, the one who reads Sappho’s despondent love poems and throws himself in tears to the feet of his beloved and grasps her knees. The academics, who are scholars, will never understand those who approach the Greeks as human beings rather than specifically as scholars.
And so I want my last words to you to be an exhortation of sorts, an exhortation to be not academic, but Greek. As I have said, the great men and women of the past do not belong to the professors. They belong to you, if you are willing to take them. The scientist who labors away day and night in his laboratory in pursuit of the discovery, the athlete who trains hard every day and denies every decadent impulse in order one day to be a champion, and the young girl who writes a love poem to the object of her passion – they are the ones in whom the Greek spirit lives.
I thank you for this semester, and wish you all the very best.