Graceful Courage: A Venture in Christian Humanism by Roger Hazelton
Walter Wink is the author of The Powers That Be (Doubleday). This essay appeared in Loving God With One’s Mind, by F. Thomas Trotter, copyright 1987 by the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church. Used by permission. This document was prepared for Religion Online by William E. Chapman.
Chapter 3: Courage to Endure
But he who endures to the end will be saved. -- Matthew 10:22
Stoicism Then and Now
Some philosophies, like the proverbial old soldiers, never die but live on as attitudes long after they have ceased to function as schools of thought. Who has not heard of "Platonic" love? A pleasure-loving person is called "epicurean," just as a surly, sarcastic individual may be termed "cynical." These epithets not only risk being quite unfair to those so labeled, but also may not accurately designate the philosophies from which they have been borrowed.
Stoicism is one such term. Ever since a merchant turned philosopher, Zeno, did his teaching in the Stoa ("Painted Porch") at Athens in the third century B.C., the Stoic view of life in the world has exerted a decisive if diffused influence upon Western humanity. As Gilbert Murray wrote some years ago, Stoicism "possesses still a permanent interest for the human race, and a permanent power of inspiration.íí1 Even today a man or woman who undergoes severe pain without flinching is said to "take it stoically." Of all the influences inherited from classical antiquity the stoical temper and posture may well be the most persistent and widespread among us. Not even two thousand years of Christianity have been able to efface that impulse, for it is continually being renewed at the sources of experience itself. In fact, Stoicism is not an "ism" at all any longer, but has come to mean the essential ground of human courage as such, although not now expressed in a particular set of ideas and beliefs.
From its beginning, however, Stoicism was understood as the joining of theory to practice. Never perhaps have the connections between true thinking and right acting been more clearly grasped. Those ancient teachers knew as well as we do that reflective thought is shaped by actual experience, and must answer to experience if it is to bear the imprint of honesty without degenerating into irresponsible irrelevance. Nevertheless, they were also cognizant of the fact that a life from which all thought was absent could scarcely be called living. Their view of life and the world took shape from both sides of this two-sided truth. Courage, they believed, was a way of thinking as well as acting. Their philosophy was drawn from the vantage point of courage with a view to furthering and strengthening that same courage. Naturally, it came to have a wide appeal in a period that historians have frequently compared with our own -- one marked by general "failure of nerve" when anxious seeking after personal security and identity reached almost epidemic proportions, induced by social upheaval and religious rootlessness. Coming as it did in the midst of easier, cheaper alternatives, including the revival of old superstitions and the invention of new ones, the Stoic call to courage could not have been more timely or persuasive.
Nor does this same call go unheeded in our present age. Can it be doubted that there is a definite trace of Stoicism in most of us? The battery of belief in "progress" has gone dead for many in the world today. The problem-solving optimism of past decades has worn dangerously thin. In private and public life alike, former enthusiasm for programs and techniques as improving the quality of life in all directions is noticeably lacking. Now there is only more to watch, more to go wrong, as in airplane crashes and terrorist takeovers. The suspicion grows that the world we have made is too much for us to manage; an undertone, or monotone, of stoical endurance is distinctly audible. So, chary of ultimate commitments and wary of grand illusions, we keep "hanging in there" amidst noise and danger, in some sense or other stoics in spite of ourselves.
Now one may be forgiven for believing that this minimal, residual stoicism is pretty good, all things considered. For there is surely something right in scaling down oneís expenses to the size of oneís purse, making do with whatever one has and knows when destinations and directions reach a kind of vanishing point. Courage stripped down to bare endurance is still courage. However battered from without or eroded from within, it deserves respect and practice always. And that is as it should be, for such courage makes blood sisters and brothers of us all.
What are the salient features of such enduring courage? To endure, as even the dictionary knows, is to sustain or undergo without breaking or yielding. The Latin root word means to harden or make hard, which suggests thickening or stiffening, possibly freezing. Humanly speaking, to endure means to persist or stay in being, yet through the changes that threaten to undo being.
Endurance is a metaphorical word that eludes literal interpretation. It refers not to a solid or single state; it may or may not be an attitude deliberately assumed; and it is best described in somewhat paradoxical fashion. There is toughness in enduring courage, to be sure, but it is a coming together of opposite yet complementary tendencies -- a sustaining as well as a submitting, a permitting joined with a persisting. I can endure hardship only by accepting it, yet also by resisting its weakening effects. This may seem to be an unstable compound of incompatible responses when judged by the ordinary rules of grammar and logic; but here as always, actual experience knows better. Living with liability in the enduring mode requires the exercise of moral flexibility and firmness, both together, each drawing its strength from the other.
For example, in Christian history the word "martyr" has been used to identify those women and men who choose death in preference to abandoning their faith. It comes to mean a witness for whom the price of faith is death; and who shall say whether death or faith is the winner? So "the noble company of the martyrs" has borne testimony to the truth that whoever endures to the end shall be saved. Martyrdom is the extreme instance of the precept in the Christian gospel that life is gained only by being lost.
Or consider this word from the lame slave Epictetus. He wrote: "Of course you will suffer. I do not say that you must not even groan aloud. But in the center of your being do not groan!"2 It would be hard to find a more expressive instance of stoical, enduring courage. What Epictetus is saying is that whatever must be undergone can be, in strictly human measure, overcome. Distress need not entail despair, for the distressing cause may be held at spiritís length, neither fought like an enemy nor allowed to dominate oneís situation. Here is the ancient Stoic principle that what finally matters is not what happens to you but how you take it; and it is as up-to-date as the latest airplane crash or terrorist kidnapping with its weight of human woe.
So, although the courage to endure may be compared with solidifying under pressure, it is no mere shrinkage of the self; and if it resembles narrowing and hardening in some respects it demonstrates remarkable elasticity in others. In other words, it shows the same resilient steadfastness that is evident in all courage. This is the stuff of which human character must always be made -- the very process by which, in Emmanuel Mounierís striking phrase, "anguish has been made flesh, or rather, steel."
Submission and Resistance
Enduring courage merits a much higher valuation than an age like ours, prizing "openness" and "vulnerability," is disposed to give it. Doubtless a willing exposure to new experiences and a ready acceptance of rapid rates of change are called for in todayís life-world, just in order to survive as fully human beings. By the same token, however, an equally strong case can be made for nurturing habits of self-restraint and self-reserve, if change and novelty are not to be allowed to threaten us with faceless, rootless substitutes for genuinely human existence. All too often the accepted dogma that it is better to produce change than merely to endure it becomes an alibi for "going along," like the man in Audenís poem "The Unknown Citizen": "When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went."
Along with this unfortunate mind-set goes a tendency to undervalue the stoical temper simply by stereotyping it. One such stereotype dismisses the classic Stoic apathy as merely a synonym for indifference bordering on inertia. Although it may be mechanically transcribed as "without feeling," in ancient thought apatheia meant something else. A much better rendering would be "tranquillity" or "imperturbability." The wordís authentic meaning comes through splendidly in the familiar prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr:
O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, courage to change what should be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.3
Here, too, an oversharp contrast is drawn in modern fashion between courage and serenity, as if quiet acceptance of what is inevitable were not itself courageous. Yet for all that, Niebuhrís prayer has more than a smidgin of moral truth, as it recalls the wise discrimination proper to all courage, and also the rhythm of drawing back and letting go which is, like breathing, utterly necessary to the pursuit of truly human life.
Anguish does not go away when it is made into steel. Every bereaved person is aware of that. The experience of losing a loved one by death can shatter oneís habitual defenses and expose the nerve of painful loneliness. Realizing this, counselors and therapists to the bereaved are rightly concerned that the survivorís "grief work" should be done, instead of recommending losing oneself in new relationships or projects. And yet the work of grief is simply grieving, which partakes largely of enduring courage. The fact of loss has got to be faced and not avoided. The discipline of sorrowing should not be foreshortened but prolonged until its necessary task is done. This means that giving way to grief is needed for the purpose of getting over grief; and this is followed, as Emily Dickinson observed, by a "formal feeling" which may well signal the re-forming of the grieving self to "go it alone" into a forbidding future.
In any case, enduring courage should not be confused with a brittle insensitiveness. Persons who have gone through divorce may resolve never to let themselves be hurt again; as a result they may develop a protective shell against further disappointment in their intimate relationships. Accepting what cannot be changed does not mean building dikes against despair any more than it means trying to sidestep future danger. For most of us, serenity is hard to come by and remains a lifelong hope rather than an achieved goal. Such glimpses as we have of it, however, disclose a whole new world of psychic energy quite at variance with the emotional turbulence we know so well. The calmness that follows upon a deliberate slowing down and holding fast can indeed be a precious, luminous experience. Of course it may be cultivated for its own sweet sake and often is, yet the common witness of humankind holds that it is not meant to last indefinitely. The shocks and changes we need to keep us sane will come anyhow, but lifeís tempo can be at least in part controlled by courage to endure them.
Stoic thinkers have laid great emphasis on self-control -- a stress that seems to have gone out with the Victorians of yesteryear. A term more suited to present taste, probably, is "inner-directed": whether one rolls with the punches or keeps a stiff upper lip, the self is in charge of itself, not at the mercy of others or of Otherness. An ability to make a distinction between self and world and then to act upon it is among the surest marks of human maturity; in science it is called objectivity, as in morality it is termed integrity. A proper self-control may be only " the thin edge of the wedge" in D.H. Lawrenceís words, but its leverage for changing what can and should be changed is truly remarkable. That Stoic lesson needs to be learned well by every generation.
Another stereotype of Stoic thought has to do with "resignation" -- that is, taking things as they come without expecting too much, submitting to whatever seems unchangeable or inevitable. This "quietism," so runs the charge, should not be called courageous at all; it appears instead to be the very essence of discouragement, a surrendering of all initiative and will before the things that cannot be changed.
At this point we may be tempted to engage in one of those sterile debates, more verbal than real, which opposes "submission" to "resistance" as if each ruled out the other. Single-issue people fall easily into this temptation, but it is only a form of intellectual impatience, if not cowardice. If resignation merely means submitting, giving up such power as one has to change the shape and style of oneís own life, then one surely ought to avoid it.
But resignation in the Stoic sense rests always upon knowing the difference between what can and cannot be changed, as in Niebuhrís prayer. That is, it calls into play what Marcus Aurelius liked to call the ruling faculty of reason. Taking the course of least resistance is by no means intended by this word of moral counsel. For is it not clear that to be resigned to a situation or condition means selecting this among other possible ways of dealing with it? True enough, resignation can become habitual, even pathological, thus losing its uniquely human quality as the exercise of responsible, reasonable freedom. But in most cases, resignation is an attitude taken after some survey of the relevant possibilities, in which a passive role is actively chosen as the best available manner of responding to unfavorable, limiting circumstances. Being one option among several, resignation like any other pattern of conduct may be vitiated or perverted. Nevertheless it is altogether compatible with a wise, discriminating selectiveness.
Moreover there are times and places in which resignation has a singular appropriateness, though it can hardly be regarded as the sole and single norm of moral virtue. The great monotheistic religions of the West have recognized its strength and nobility in human character, as the words Islam and shalom indicate. And as for Christianity, the worth of submission to the will of God has been constantly held before the faithful. Writing from prison shortly before his execution for conspiring to kill Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflected:
Iíve often wondered here where we are to draw the line between necessary resistance to "fate" and equally necessary submission. Don Quixote is the symbol of resistance carried to the point of absurdity, even lunacy . . . resistance at last defeats its own object, and evaporates in theoretical fantasy. Sancho Panza is the type of complacent and artful accommodation to things as they are.... we must confront fate -- to me the neuter gender of the word "fate" (Schicksal) is significant -- as resolutely as we submit to it at the right time.... It is therefore impossible to define the boundary between resistance and submission on abstract principles. Faith demands this elasticity of behavior. Only so can we stand our ground in each situation as it arises, and turn it to gain.4
Bonhoefferís point, of course, is that resistance and submission are but different tactics in an overall strategy of courage. If one had to choose between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as role models, one had better not choose at all, for each is a caricature of real humanity. In life, unlike literature, resisting may assume the form of submitting, as in nonviolent demonstrations that lead to arrest and imprisonment for the demonstrators. Always, new occasions teach new duties; the selfís integrity is not splintered but strengthened by moving from an active to a passive role, as Dietrich Bonhoefferís own life makes entirely clear.
The reference to fate in his letter opens up a theme of prime importance in considering courage. The word admittedly does not carry the same force for us today that it must have had for ancient peoples. Rightly or wrongly, we are prone to believe that we are not subjected in like manner to inexorable powers that work above our heads and behind our backs to ride roughshod over hope and purpose. Doom and destiny are not among the common words in modern speech. An age that puts great confidence in planning is not likely to dwell overmuch on the inevitable and inexorable features of life. Nevertheless, these features are there to be reckoned with by even the most fortunate among us, and resignation is an appropriate response to them. The artist Lucas Samaras has said that there is a strange dignity in being visited by a catastrophe. That is because there is a true courage in accepting what cannot be changed, a courage visible and indeed indubitable in folk who must contend with suffering caused by destructive forces over which they have no control.
No control, that is, except self-control, as Stoic thinkers kept insisting. "In the center of your being, do not groan!" Why is it that self-control should be so quickly identified with self-repression, when actually it is a form of self-expression? The self-control (autarkeia) taught by the Stoics has little to do with those inhibitions that modern counselors warn against. The psychic, perhaps physical, dangers involved in "letting it all hang out" are surely as great as those associated with "bottling up" our feelings. Before talk of self-expression can make any sense, there must be a self to express. The contours of selfhood are defined by what must be endured no less than by what can be achieved. Repression is scarcely the term to use for holding oneís temper under provocation, or for reserving judgment on another personís intentions until sufficient evidence is at hand. In any case, self-control is not the repressing of courage but its expression and verification. Not only modesty in distinguishing what lies within oneís power from what does not, but also dignity in exercising that power in the form of reserve and restraint, belong to it.
When all is said and done, taking the measure of oneís life merely in terms of successes and failures gives no indication of its real, durable worth. Existing humanly consists of both ordeals and exploits; the relationship between them is far closer than we sometimes think. Poets seem better able to understand this than professors. Edwin Markham in "The Man with the Hoe" puts it well:
Defeat may serve as well as victory
Courage in the Christian Mode
What, then, is the role of enduring courage in the Christian mode? Historically the Stoic impulse was not extinguished by the rise of Christianity in Europe. Instead, it was incorporated into the newer viewpoint, but with a difference. There was both loss and gain in this recontexting of courage to endure. Christian morality and ethics had little room for that element of self-assertion which was thought to be implied in ancient pagan virtue, since pride was regarded as the essence of sinful rebellion against God. Also, the rule of reason praised by the Stoics gave way to the rule of faith in determining standards of moral conduct. Preachers and teachers in the early church had much to say about obedience and humility before God but surprisingly little concerning courage.
Yet hints and echoes of a Christianized Stoicism can be detected in some unexpected quarters, especially those within Hellenistic spheres of influence. Roman culture, too, brought unmistakably Stoic ideas into Christian thought. The pagan statesman Cicero and the Christian bishop Ambrose of Milan are not as far apart as might be supposed from their different outlooks and circumstances. Writing on courage, they agree in presenting this Stoic virtue in the masculinized, militarized form to which cultured Romans were accustomed.
Christians of course had motives of their own for prizing and practicing the courage of endurance. They found its very type or pattern in the suffering and dying Lordship of Jesus Christ, "who went not up to joy before he suffered pain." His example was followed and confirmed by the experience of the martyrs. Although the persecution of Christians did not become general or systematic until the third century, Christianity had its martyrs from the outset, as the case of Stephen reported in the Book of Acts attests.
The assertion that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church has been amply confirmed in Christian history. As early as the second century a person who accepted death as the price of faith was venerated as a martyr, or witness; congregations were established at or near the place of death; often their tombs became the altars of these churches. Mementos and relics of these martyrs were preserved and to see or touch them was considered meritorious for oneís salvation. Also, the churchís memory of its blood-soaked origins was kept alive by the names given to parishes and basilicas. The very instruments of torture or execution were emblems of the costly, blessed victory won over sin and death. The cross itself became the sign of Christian triumph shared by all those who went not up to joy before they suffered pain.
Martyrdom, then, left its profound mark on the life and thought of the historic Christian community. The accounts of individual martyrs were unforgettable -- Saint Lawrence portrayed with the griddle on which he was burned to death, Saint Perpetua and Saint Felicity attacked and killed in the arena, Saint Sebastian done to death by archers -- the innumerable beheadings, stranglings, maulings by wild beasts, all of which gave a tragic credibility to the Christian faith and were naturally believed to witness to the supernatural origin and end of that faith. Canonization as saints and a place in the liturgical calendar followed in due course.
Following Jesus, therefore, cut much deeper and went much further than merely obeying his counsels and precepts as recorded in the gospels. It required nothing less than patterning oneís whole life on the model of the cross. Si crucem portabis crux portaloit te -- if you carry the cross, the cross will carry you -- was the watchword of an enduring faithfulness. Persecution and execution might no longer be a believerís lot, yet "we must join our wounds to his" (Pascal) if Christís victory over death is also to be ours. There are no shortcuts into eternal life. But a way has been reached and set up in this world, the way of the cross, in which the souls of the righteous may find blessed rest in the hands of God.
The great theme of the imitatio Christi appears and reappears in medieval Christendom. It was brought home to the faithful by the fourteen stations of the cross on church walls, as of course by the very shape and substance of the Mass itself, repeating over and over the sacrifice on Calvary. The increased emphasis on the divinity of Christ, it is significant to note, meant also that great stress was placed on his fellow humanity with those who would seek to follow him. So Saint Bernard of Clairvaux advised his monks to meditate upon the wounds of Christ as the sure, effective "embrace" of his divinity. The man Jesus, taught Bernard, gives every believer a model to be imitated day by day and deed by deed, thus confirming pious contemplation with the works of suffering love for God and neighbor. True faith then joins practical with mystical life, for only so can come the personal perfecting that Christ commands and offers. One must do the will if she or he is to know the doctrine.
The same theme is voiced in forms of devotion inspired by the monastic and mendicant orders of the late Middle Ages. Saint Francis of Assisi, it was said, followed the Christ-pattern so closely that a crucifix spoke to him and his own body bore the stigmata or scars of the wounds inflicted on his Lord. And from the Brethren of the Common Life in Holland came the influential Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis with its challenge: "Go where you will, seek where you will, and you will find no higher way above nor safer way below, than the way of the Holy Cross."5
Radical reformers leading popular revolts against the clergy-dominated church also took up the theme, as the writings of such leaders as Wycliffe and Menno Simons illustrate. This was neither the first time nor the last when the example of Christ was lifted up to fortify struggling against oppression. And in the gentler humanism of a scholar like Erasmus of Rotterdam one catches the same note, but now with a distinctly "modern," even "liberal" accent:
Let this be your rule . . . set Christ before you as the sole center of your whole life, to whom alone you may bring all your studies, all your efforts, all your leisure and your business.... I think Christ to be not an empty word, but nothing else than love, simplicity, patience, purity, in short, everything which he taught.5
Martin Luther, on the contrary, was ambivalent about the imitatio Christi. He wanted to cling to the thought of Christ as "our pattern" while at the same time scorning the notion that Christ serves only as an example or teacher. Thus he liked to declare that imitation does not make sons, but sonship makes imitators, on the ground that good works proceed from faith and not faith from good works. Still, the ancient motif lives on in Protestant piety today, as any current hymnbook or prayerbook shows. John Bunyanís poem gives it vigorous expression: "He who would valiant be against all disaster/Let him in constancy follow the Master." Being a Christian means, now as always, taking up oneís own cross, letting Christ go before and following after. Faithful endurance is still a martyreia witnessing constancy and valor -- in short, a courage that draws inspiration from lifelong commitment to Christ.
A serious question has been raised about this Christian version of the courage to endure, "that gruesome way of perishing," as Nietzsche dubbed it. May not all this fixation upon the cross have skewed the healthy-minded virtue of courage into something like its own denial? In short, does not endurance so described have the suspicious features of a martyr complex? This term is rather generally used to mean a morbid craving for self-injury associated with the Freudian "death wish." Must we conclude that such a complex is at work in those for whom this malady is named? Is it perhaps clinically true that a readiness to die for oneís faith involves preferring death to life? Here once again the issue is joined between a Christian and a humanist view of courage.
Whatever the case may be in certain individual figures -- one does worry about Polycarp or Justin, for example -- there has been an impressive Christian consensus on the matter among major Christian thinkers. Thomas Aquinas, for one, could not be more emphatic on the point. A Christianís love of life, he stated, is not only a natural characteristic shared with humankind at large, but also a moral obligation that springs from faithís sense that existing as such is Godís gift. So a Christian naturally loves his or her life, says Thomas, not simply because it cannot be helped but because it is good and right to do so. Since life is indeed given to us it cannot be ours to give away -- unless preserving it threatens what Josef Pieper, interpreting Thomas, calls "a deeper, more essential intactness." Hence health and happiness are to be highly valued although they do not carry the highest possible value. They exist, after all, in order to support higher goods "the loss of which would injure more deeply the inmost core of human existence."7
To endure courageously and faithfully in the Christian sense is neither to invite death nor to despise life. It cannot mean setting up my own cross alongside that of Jesus as if his sacrifice could not be made perfect without mine. Nor can it mean that martyrdom is the only or the best pattern for a Christianís obedience unto death. Lifelong discipleship may have greater and more durable worth. However, Christian courage to endure is hardly thinkable apart from the prolonging of the cross through the experience of martyrdom which has entered so intimately into the churchís memory and conscience. Some things in life are worth more than living, although this does not diminish but enhances the value of life. The good is always better when it is harder. As the great Augustine declared, it is not the inflicting of injury that makes the martyr, but the fact that he or she acts according to the truth.
That truth is not exclusively Christian but is inclusively human. Our life at best is precious just because it is precarious. Always subject to hazard, pain, and loss, the human way of existing in the world both requires and rewards enduring courage. Martyrdom and conscious imitation of the way of the cross are but striking instances of the stuff out of which all human life is made, with or without the support of a religious faith. Enduring courage enlists all oneís powers, bodily and spiritual alike. It both presupposes danger and opposes danger. And its apparent passivity actually expresses a firm resolution to preserve at all costs oneís essential intactness as a human being.
Meaning Versus Meaninglessness
We have no dearth of martyrs in our secularized world. True, they suffer more frequently for their political allegiance or ethnic identity than for religious conviction. But is martyrdom the right word for those ordeals of imprisonment, torture, execution which have become nauseatingly common across the earth ? In former ages Stoics and Christians met their trials believing to some degree in the eternal rightness of things, appearances to the contrary. It is a fair question whether any such resource is still available. By and large, the modern world has tended to answer the question in the negative, although fanatical devotion to secular, chiefly political aims is visible on every hand.
It cannot be denied that evidence of real support for philosophical or religious assurances is hard to come by any longer. The facts with which we must contend at present -- senseless violence, rule by fear and terror, physical and psychic abuse of the powerless by the powerful -- would seem to impel us, rather, toward a dogged stance of secular humanism and away from old beliefs and incentives. At all events, have we not enough to do cleaning up pollution, resisting oppression, alleviating world hunger, or putting down corruption in high places without stopping to consider matters of final allegiance and ultimate concern?
As always, when the gods depart the half-gods arrive. Then ancient myths return to haunt us, although in strangely different form. So Albert Camus, keenly sensitive to the spirit of the age, retold the classical story of Sisyphus, the Corinthian king whose disrespect toward Zeus, father of the gods, caused him to be condemned to everlasting punishment.8 He was made to push a heavy stone up a steep hill; just as it reached the top it would escape his grasp and hurtle down, to be pushed up again, and so on ad infinitum. Here is an up-to-date version of the courage to endure in the face of foregone failure. Life gives no reasons and asks none. Absurdity is the bottom line of human existence. Endurance thus becomes an exercise in senseless, vain repetition, going through motions that add up to nothing, from which there can be no relief, and for which no justifying truth can be given.
That there is a kind of Sisyphus in most of us is plain enough. Senseless repetition doomed to failure is the motif behind those metaphors of the treadmill or the rat race which are presently in common use. The retold myth is bound to have a ring of truth to those who feel trapped and victimized by conditions over which they seem to have no control. Does it do more, though, than match a recurring mood of hopelessness, and can it be taken seriously as a persuasive portrayal of how matters really stand with us?
Camusís retelling of this ancient story doubtless shows a necessary truth: sheer endurance is a significant part of the human condition everywhere and always. But "significant" may not be the right word, as the endurance here set forth is strictly speaking without any meaning; in Camusís view, it represents the very height (or depth) of what is meaningless and absurd. This new-style Sisyphus appears to be under condemnation, sentenced as it were to life for life, although no "higher court" has condemned him. Nothing in his character or, situation can account for what he must endure. The servitude under which this Sisyphus labors is crazy and absurd, for the very reason that it has no reason; it is uncalled for and unfounded.
The ancient myth was different. It had its dramatis personae, its story line with actions producing consequences. But Camusís Sisyphus is in no way responsible for his fate even though he must endure it; there is no question of guilt and retribution here. Further, in the atheistic world view that informs the retold myth there is no seat of judgment from which condemnation could possibly come. What must be endured has no cause and no purpose; it can neither be accepted nor rejected; resignation and submission are alike unthinkable where human freedom is altogether lacking. This is evidently the point of Camusís retelling -- that existence itself is at bottom an absurdity simply to be endured in a pseudoworld beyond, or perhaps beneath, good and evil.
But notice that the modern Sisyphus is not portrayed as anything but a faceless being subjected to nameless pressures and foregone failures. His endurance is utterly without any trace of courage. His robotlike existing gives off no sparks of resentment, no signs of even minimal or instinctual freedom. His helpless condition can scarcely be termed tragic, as it inspires neither pity nor terror but only a mood of acquiescence: "Thatís the way it is." Used as a literary or mythic motif, the absurd may well mirror those feelings of senseless, helpless nonexistence that much in daily human life seems to confirm. But as a philosophical category, the absurd leaves all real issues open and unresolved. When meaninglessness is proposed as meaning, indeed as the meaning, of being human, then language itself ceases to function reliably and thought is set adrift to be victimized by winds of bleak despair.
Nevertheless every myth is the selective amplifying of some humanly lived reality, and that of the absurd is no exception. Has not the age in which we live shown beyond all doubt its bent toward self-deception and self-defeat? Dreams of a just and peaceable world are repeatedly shattered by the facts of conflict and oppression. The noblest aims are infected with the most sordid motives. Absurdity must be the name of the game when we, unable to profit from our own mistakes, are brought to grief by our own successes. Call it a cabaret or a carousel if you will, but life today does have some characteristics of a bad joke, and the joke appears to be on us.
Of all the monstrous happenings in our century, none is so terrible as the Nazi persecution and attempted extermination of the Jewish people. Only now after a whole generation has come and gone do we dare to speak and think about the Holocaust. It is well that we should do so, for these events must not be forgotten. To those who are religious by temperament or by conviction, the Holocaust must call sharply into question any assurance of the goodness of God. To them and to all others, the Holocaust must cast appalling doubt on the humaneness of humanity. All that stands out with Sisyphean clarity is that every person now alive is a survivor of the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
For the Holocaust has made all "we/they" thinking obsolete, whether it takes the form of distinguishing between heroes and villains or onlookers and perpetrators. This is particularly true of Jewish-Christian relationships in Western and Middle Eastern communities. The old fanaticism lives on, to be sure; but after 1945 it has become much harder to sustain self-righteous attitudes or policies. A kind of troubled, tentative unanimity has been assuming shape, expressed in large-scale commercial ventures, scientific institutes, artistic organizations, and even religious cooperation. The "Jewish problem" has in short become a human problem. Questions of guilt and retribution have not been put to rest but they have lost much of their former sting, in a world where good and evil are so desperately mixed.
A person who is Jewish in either the religious or ethnic sense is bound to experience his or her identity with a new and anxious force. Living in the lengthened shadow of this nightmare, one must ask whether the Holocaust can ever be understood as a whole peopleís burnt offering, or living sacrifice, to some transcendent good. Is it in fact a kind of martyrdom that folk of oneís own blood or faith were led like sheep to genocidal slaughter? Can there indeed be martyrdom when there is no choice? Asking that question, Emil Fackenheim answers, "There can be a faithfulness resembling it, when a man has no choice between life and death but only between faith and despair."9
A similar question and answer marks the situation of those who for whatever reason may not be considered Jewish. Obviously Christians are most urgently involved since it is their particular heritage of ghetto and pogrom that bore such bitter fruit in Nazi Germany. To have once endured and remembered martyrdom provides no guarantee against inflicting it again on others. Furthermore, Christian responsibility for the Holocaust consists not merely in having furnished history with preliminaries and preconditions for it. The guilt also includes that ignorance and silence that allowed Hitlerís engineers of death to proceed without abandoning their aims or disguising their methods.
If it is still argued that Christians were as helpless as the Jews, this only underscores the growing recognition of a common cause and destiny for both alike. Now as never before these two peoples and their faiths have come to share the mystery of evil undeserved and good undone. They also share the costly witness to the truth that unless we can endure as truly human beings we shall not be saved but must all perish. Whether this is taken to be a divine command or a human insight may not greatly matter in the long run. What does matter is that it should be nourished, affirmed, and acted upon, precisely when the dignity and efficacy of such endurance have largely ceased to function as articles of faith.
Elie Wiesel, whose writings have been instrumental in achieving such a community of conscious resolution, retells the biblical narrative of Jacobís dream-ladder in the following way:
In his dream Jacob saw a ladder whose top reached into heaven. It still exists. There are those who have seen it, somewhere in Poland, at the side of an out-of-the-way railroad station. And an entire people was climbing, climbing toward the clouds on fire. Such was the nature of the dread our ancestor Jacob must have felt.l0
Is not sheer endurance, even without choice between life and death, always the transfiguring of necessity? And does it not, perhaps in spite of itself, remain a stubborn witness to that resilient steadfastness which is human courage?
l. Gilbert Murray, Stoic, Christian, and Humanist (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1940), 89.
2. From the Discourses of Epictetus.
3. This widely-quoted prayer is on the flyleaf of Reinhold Niebuhr, Justice and Mercy, ed. Ursula Niebuhr (New York: Harper & Row,1974).
4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, The Enlarged Edition (London SCM Press; New York: Macmillan & Co.,1971),217 - 18.
5. Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, book 1, chap. 12.
6. Desiderius Erasmus, Enchiridion, 4.
7. Josef Pieper, Fortitude and Temperance (London: Faber & Faber, 1955), 19, 21.
8. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955).
9. Emil Fackenheim, Godís Presence in History (New York: New York University Press, 1970), 74.
10. Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends (New York: Random House, 1976), 138.
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