Magazine article The Humanist

Being, Courage, and Love

Magazine article The Humanist

Being, Courage, and Love

Article excerpt

TWENTIETH CENTURY GERMAN PHILOSOPHER Martin Heidegger reminds us in his major work, Being and Time, that the ancient Greeks were interested in the question of being. Later philosophers moved on to different problems, so Heidegger accepted as his task a return to the ancient question of being. As he did so, he was forced to address other problems such as non-being and the relation of being to existence. It is not my purpose to explain Heidegger's thoughts here, but rather to reflect on the question, what does it mean to be?

It is in old age that one becomes most acutely aware of the fact that life moves inexorably toward death. Of course we all know intellectually that humans are mortal, but that is a bit different than knowing existentially that we are mortal. Some among us refuse to accept this stark reality by taking flights of fantasy into other realms where disembodied spirits dwell. For some absurd reason they think our species is special. And they reason incorrectly that since we were our parents' darlings, we must be the favorites of the universe. How dare the power of eternal death threaten not only the body but the mind and spirit as well? In our more sober considerations we move beyond our arrogance and fleetingly accept the fact of our total physical and mental extinction. Perhaps it is in such moments that anxieties arise. After all, I know the Grim Reaper will arrive; I simply don't know how and when. Though this may be my personal experience, it certainly isn't unique; others experience it also.

Sigmund Freud thought that we are driven by two antithetical drives. On the one hand there is the "life instinct," or eros. It is very strong in normal youth, for it is the drive that leads a young man and young woman into each other's arms. It is the drive for life and self-preservation that expresses itself through the reproduction of the species. On the other hand there is the "death instinct" or thanatos. In the normal healthy person this drive is weak. But as people live long and productive lives, they see friends and loved ones die. There comes a time when they are forced to acknowledge that the strength of their body and the brilliance of their mind are not what they once were. It is in such situations that thanatos begins to push its way to the surface. Evidence is seen in a very old grandparent who poses the question: "Why doesn't the Good Lord take me? I'm ready to go."

Thus, Freud thought that within each of us there were these dual drives of eros and thanatos. In fact, he speculated that they operated throughout all living nature and perhaps in inorganic nature as well. He certainly was on target when he referred to human beings: for aren't eros and thanatos the psychological expression of the ontological conflict of being with non-being?

In a literary context one is quick to recall those familiar words of Hamlet: "To be, or not to be--that is the question." There are also modern writers who share Heidegger's interest in the question of being. Perhaps Eugene Ionesco has probed as deeply as any playwright the conflict between being and non-being in a number of its manifestations. Ionesco draws a kind of distinction between physical death and death of the personality. In his play Rhinoceros, for instance, he depicts a small, provincial town whose citizens turn into a huge herd of conforming, unfeeling, and unthinking rhinoceroses. The one exception is Berenger, a kind of everyman character. By allowing Berenger to escape the transformation, he suggests that one need not be spiritually dead though the whole town might be. Ionesco was frightened during the Hitler era by the transformation of people in his native Romania into a herd of sympathizers with the Nazi military machine. Ionesco suggests that one of the ways non-being expresses itself is by sucking out what is good and decent in a human being and leaving only a biologically alive beast.

Ionesco has also examined the reality of physical death. …

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