The new Hellenistics; or life in the coming dictatorship

A few months ago, I wrote that I would focus on the art of living and dying like the Hellenistic philosophers from the Alexandrian period and late Antiquity, as there was nothing I could do to stop the collectivity that surrounds me from falling into the abyss. It has been difficult to abstain from political debate, although total abstention was never my goal. But recently, while talking to a friend of mine who is an academic studying Schopenhauer and who is engaged in political debates, I agreed with something he said. He told me that, although he didn't like Schopenhauer's political apathy when he started studying him years ago, over time he came to understand the great pessimist's reasons.
Daniel in the lions' den, by Peter Paul Rubens

It can be easy or difficult to predict what will happen, depending on the variables. I will risk making a prediction, though. There are two possibilities for the near future when it comes to my country. At best, we will remain a mediocre country, tutored by those who have the legal monopoly on weapons, the military, and are the disciples of quack astrologers who claim to be conservative philosophers. At worst, we will have a civil war and become a bigger version of Syria. Whatever happens will be within these two parameters. We can have the first scenario, the second, or we can have a combination of both with a greater or lesser degree of one of them. But, barring an extraordinary event, we won't have it better or worse than those two possibilities.

Plato was a student of Socrates. Aristotle was a student of Plato. In turn, Aristotle was Alexander the Great's tutor. Although the influence of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle continued in several areas of ancient knowledge, politically, all three were thinkers of the polis. The Greek city-states were culturally and linguistically linked to one another, but they were independent and autonomous, except in periods when they were warring and one dominated the other. This, however, did not last. And as the cities lost power and were supplanted by a new type of political organization — the Macedonian empire —, the influence of philosophical schools that rivaled with Platonists and Peripatetics grew. The best known of those schools were, without a doubt, Stoicism and Epicureanism.

Philosopher Emil Cioran referred to the Stoics and Epicureans as “twilight thinkers”, since these schools flourished in times of decay. Their influence grew during the formation of Alexander's empire, which symbolized the decadence of the city-states, and continued after the empire's fragmentation. It only diminished centuries later, with the fall of the Roman empire and the increase of Christianity's influence, both within the empire and on its borders. Although Macedonia was not exactly Greece, and although the Romans were not Greeks, virtually the entire period between the end of the Greek city-states and the fall of Rome can be called “Hellenistic” due to the gigantic influence of Greek culture, science and philosophy.

One of the reasons given for the enormous influence of schools such as the Stoics and Epicureans during this period is precisely the end of the city-state, an event that symbolized the end of participatory politics. The most emblematic case was Athens. In the Athenian polis, citizens — a minority comprised of free men, born of Athenian parents — participated in the deliberations regarding the fate of the collectivity. Subjugated to different empires, those people lost control over their political destinies, but gained the freedom to live as they saw fit, as long as they paid their taxes and did not seek to deliberate on politics, which would mean they were seeking independence.

The greatest example ever of how this sort of organization worked took place in the Roman province of Judea around 30 CE. There, Jesus was arrested by the Jewish high priest's guards and tried for apostasy, but only the Romans had the “power of the sword” to legally execute him. That is why the priests took him to Pilate, the Roman provincial authority, and accused him of instigating a revolt against the emperor. But there is another story, an anecdote in fact, that shows more clearly the connection between empire and philosophy as the art of living and dying.

The anecdote is about Diogenes of Sinope, one of the founders of the Cynical school, who lived in the streets of Athens like a dog (the word “Cynic” in Greek means “dog-like”). Legend has it that, one day, Alexander the Great visited Diogenes in the city of Corinth, while he was sun-bathing in the middle of some street. Alexander supposedly asked if there was anything he could do for the famous philosopher, to which Diogenes supposedly replied: “Yes! Move out of the way of my sunlight.” While Alexander's soldiers laughed, the emperor said that he was the smartest man in Greece, and if he weren't Alexander he would have liked to be Diogenes.

Here is the great lesson of empire: be free individually, do what you want in your life, just don't seek political autonomy and independence. It's a rather bleak interpretation of the whole thing, but it's a valid one. Cynicism did not prosper as much as Stoicism and Epicureanism, yet the political values these philosophies preached were less of an affront to the imperial model than philosophies that could be used to justify the political independence of cities. The Stoics, unlike Plato and Aristotle, embraced the cosmopolitan idea that a man is a citizen of the world, not just of the city. In addition, they are famous for seeking acceptance of destiny's designs, adapting to circumstances. Stoics sought apatheia, a state of grace where man becomes indifferent to passions, the cause of pain and strife.

Epicureans also adapted well to empires. If we cannot change destiny, if there is nothing we can do effectively change politics, the best thing to do from this perspective is to live a good life with our friends and small pleasures, without seeking confrontations with anyone, especially the powerful. Of course, this kind of philosophy of life only thrives when there isn't a degree of histrionic fanaticism surrounding the minds of most people and most powerful men. Stoicism, for all its success, was crushed and incorporated by Christians — who then violently banned its practice, as well as the practice of any other kind of mentality other than Christian mentality.

A new military dictatorship closely linked to evangelical churches in a troubled South American country is not comparable to an empire. My only expectation is that, in the dictatorship that is approaching us, there will be at least a modicum of autonomy so that individuals can “die of hunger in their own way”, to paraphrase Cioran. However, judging by the way reactionaries around me are agitated, it is possible that the twilight of the current republic will be more like the advent of Christian orthodoxy, which occurred in the decadent Roman empire around the 3rd and 4th centuries CE.

Perhaps, the brave new rubbish coming our way won't even allow free thought and the practice of something as harmless as Stoicism or Epicureanism, let alone the philosophical pessimism of someone like Schopenhauer. After all, the denial of the Will to life carries within it a rejection of the idea that perpetuating life through reproduction is worthwhile, and this is something that modern Christians will never accept, especially evangelicals. In their eyes, reproduction is a universal imperative. Even your worst enemies must reproduce. Yes, they will mistreat the children after they are born, as Brazilians tend to do with black and poor children who either live in slums or on the streets — but at least they will have been against abortion and other means of contraception, which in their Christian minds makes them saints.

But nothing prevents us from dreaming of a small gap in which we will be able to believe in what we want, albeit discreetly, and adopt an apathetic and extremely negative stance regarding the society that surrounds us. One thing seems certain to me: anyone who has reached a certain age and has a certain way of thinking will benefit psychologically from letting go in the months and years to come — again: barring some extraordinary event. I hope this event occurs, but I don't count on it.

by Fernando Olszewski