The Agony And The Ecstasy
To continue a theme here at Sancho Panza: is it better to live or to dream?
It occurs to me that there are two kinds of people (at least). There is the man in the present tense, Socrates’ unexamined liver. He bounces through life, from one experience to another, from one high emotion to another, and may not know the value of his days or the sum of his wisdom. He does not write about his life, he lives it, for good or bad.
The other man does write about life, but rarely his own. He chooses as his subject this other kind of man and studies his life as if it were important to him how it were lived. I wonder that the contemplative man has spent so much time thinking that he has left out an important part of life. The image of Socrates (who, while having left no writing behind, is the quintessential thinker) is of a man at the Parthenon talking about how a life should be lived. But if I had to choose between the life of Socrates and the life of Alexander, I would pick the latter.
Libraries are filled with books by the second kind of person, the watcher. And sometimes our stories are told by mild men in the shadow of greater men: The Great Gatsby, for example, or the Marlowe books by Conrad. But where is the great and thrilling autobiography? Alexander didn’t write any books about himself, and Jay Gatsby wouldn’t have either.
The greatest work of contemplative art is Hamlet. Its character is a thinker, a watcher who watches himself. There is hardly any action in the play, all inaction, and while I admire Hamlet’s intelligence, I would not want to be him. The play seems autobiographical because Hamlet’s consciousness would serve as Shakespeare’s, though the environment is different.
It takes a lot of work to become a Shakespeare or a Conrad or any sort of great artist. The sun rises and falls many times—each noticed by you—before there will be any sort of recognition for your work. I wonder if it is worth it. In choosing between the lives of Socrates and Alexander, what is the value of Socrates’ life?
Alexander was tutored by Aristotle, then went on to conquer the greater part of the known world. I am sure his life was full and his heart beat loudly. But Percy Shelley may have had him in mind when he wrote this poem:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Socrates’ legacy is as great today as it ever was. People who have never read him (as he is written by Plato) speak his name. And he has contributed greatly to the evolution of our civilization. (Which can also be said about Alexander, who brought Greek culture to other parts of the world. But one who takes up a pen is likely to come closer to Socrates than one who refuses the pen would come to Alexander.)
It may come to that: do I want the fruits of my labor to benefit me entirely, or have some effect on future generations? I do not believe in an afterlife. There is here and now for me, and that might make me lean towards a Dionysian existence. But I believe wholeheartedly in the evolution and destiny of humankind. I see every life as a wave in an ocean of countless waves, all beating at a granite cliff of unknowing. We all serve a purpose, we all work for a common cause, whether we know it or not. Sometimes there is a storm, a Shakespeare or Socrates, that lifts the waves higher and prompts them to crash at the rocks with greater passion. There is worth in that, immediate worth sometimes.
Or perhaps it will be this way: Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and Walt Whitman led giant lives and left giant literature. They may have deceived themselves about the value of each—I am positive they were all great embellishers, and as their stories grew, their art weakened—but they remain perhaps my greatest role models: authors who lived.