September 10, 2021

In my last newsletter, commemorating Labor Day, I spoke of the cult of overwork in the United States, contrasting it with the failed prophecy in the 1950’s and 1960’s of a coming Age of Leisure. That prophecy failed in part because it did not take into account the “capitalist work ethic,” the idea that if you delay gratification indefinitely and work hard and endless hours, you will be rewarded with success, and that success will signify your membership in an elite superior to the common masses—who also work long, hard hours, but only because they are your employees and you force them to do so, despite their lack of ambition and natural laziness.  In Nancy Kress’s brilliant science fiction novella “Beggars in Spain” (later expanded to novel length), the wealthy elite can afford a treatment for their offspring that will eliminate the need to sleep, thus freeing up a third of every twenty-four hour cycle for extra enrichment and accomplishment. We admire Thomas Edison because somebody said that he only slept four hours a night. What more could he have achieved if he hadn’t had to sleep at all?  

But today I would like to widen the perspective, because the American workaholic is only the latest model of an ideal of active striving that goes back to the very beginnings of Western culture—and is in conflict with a very different ideal more influential in the East. In my Expanding Eyes podcast, I have been taking a look at Homer’s Odyssey, whose hero Odysseus wins the admiration and assistance of the gods because of his ceaseless striving. In one of the stunning moments of Western literature, he actually rejects a trouble-free life with the beautiful nymph Calypso on her paradisal island, an offer that includes immortality, ending his speech of rejection with the great cry, “Let the trials come!” Likewise, he refuses to let his men succumb to the temptations of the pleasure principle: they are not allowed to become drug-addled hippies with the Lotus Eaters or to wallow sensually as pigs in Circe’s happy herd, although they weep plaintively at being turned back into men again. His example has been so inspiring that in the Victorian age, Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” (the Latin form of “Odysseus”) finds him setting out again on a new voyage even in old age, saying “I cannot rest from travel; I will drink / Life to the lees.”

What we are talking about here is voluntary striving, a hunger for experience, for life in its fullest possible intensity.  It is a desire not limited to the elite, even if they more often have the means to live it out. It is Robin Williams teaching his students carpe diem in Dead Poets Society. In my high school years, 1965-1968, I liked a television show called Run for Your Life, in which Ben Gazzara was told by doctors he had a year to live and so tried, as the show’s beginning voiceover put it, “to pack thirty years of living into one.” It is, for better or worse, the idea of the “bucket list.”

Goethe’s Faust, the most famous work of German literature, is a revisionist version of a medieval legend about a man who sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for having his wishes granted during life. Goethe’s Faust is a professor, an intellectual. At the age of 50—old age in Goethe’s time—he realizes that he has devoted his life to dry, pedantic knowledge and has not lived. On the verge of suicide, he is tempted by the devil Mephistopheles, who makes him young again and entices him into a range of life situations so wide-ranging it took Goethe 60 years to finish the poem. This being a deal with a devil, of course it has a catch. If Mephistopheles can tempt Faust into wishing that even a single moment might linger because it is “so fair”—in that moment the devil has won. But Faust feels confident that such a moment will never arrive. He has confidence in his inability to be satisfied, no matter how much he has experienced or achieved. As Goethe’s English contemporary, the poet William Blake, put it, “More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul: less than All cannot satisfy Man.” Far from condemning this insatiable desire and the endless striving that results from it, the poem vindicates it. At the age of 100, Faust finally gives in and wishes for a moment to linger—and immediately drops dead. But heaven cheats, and the contract is violated. Angels snatch away Faust’s soul, and, uniquely among the many versions of the Faust legend, Faust is saved. Why? Because he never ceased striving.  

In a moment of profound insight, the German historian Oswald Spengler said that the spirit of Western civilization was “Faustian.” His visionary work The Decline of the West (1918) began as a contrast between Greek culture, with its ideal of limits, boundaries, and moderation in all things, and the modern temperament that refuses to accept any limits as final. Spengler clearly admired the Faustian spirit, and there is no doubt that we are all so conditioned by it that we can hardly imagine any alternative. Surely the desire to live as fully and intensely as possible is admirable. Surely it is good to set ambitious goals in life and strive to achieve them—students at a university hear such a message from the moment they set foot on campus. Surely individual self-improvement is praiseworthy, striving to become better every day in every way. Surely the Western ideal of progress, of endless striving to improve society rather than merely resigning ourselves to suffering and injustice, has produced an enormous improvement in the human condition.  

And yet something is wrong, and sometimes we sense it. It gets expressed sometimes even on a popular level. One of the great comic strips of all time, Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, began in 1937 as the story of a teenager who aspires to become a knight of King Arthur’s court. One of the strip’s first episodes is Val’s visit to a witch to gain a prophecy of his future. The witch tells him that she sees high adventure—but never happiness or contentment. The prophecy haunts him for a long life, for the strip is still running, with Val now a grandfather. What is the use of all the striving, all the accomplishments, if there is never a moment of rest in which to enjoy them?  Paradoxically, we can try so hard that we become too busy to live.  

At this point, we expect some tedious homily about stopping to smell the roses. But that is merely evasion. I think that Western culture is going to have to examine its most fundamental ideals, not to repudiate them but to confront the real problem, which is not the ideals but their lack of balance. In the Biblical tradition, the original active striver is God, who, starting from nothing, creates a whole universe, not because of any need, for God needs nothing, but apparently out of sheer creative exuberance, the joyous form-giving energy of his divine nature. This active striving took six days. But on the seventh day, God rested, and “saw that it was good.” There is a Sabbath moment in which striving ceases and gives way to contemplation and receptive enjoyment, a moment of pleasure, of the appreciation of beauty, and of a peace that passes understanding, the peace in which there is nothing more to strive for.  

Skepticism replies that the world God contemplated was not yet fallen, and no longer exists. We have lost paradise and are condemned to the wilderness, in which we labor by the sweat of our brow, and bring forth in pain. We are in exile, and any paradise that beckons to us here is a false paradise, regressive and escapist. I think this attitude points to an extreme one-sidedness. The true ideal is a balance of opposites. Even the Biblical ideal is lopsided: the ratio of striving to Sabbath contemplation is 6 to 1. Whereas, in the East, the Taoist ideal, of which more in a moment, is rather an equal balance of yin and yang, feminine and masculine, receptive and active, dark and light. There are places in Christian tradition where such a balance is intimated. In the Purgatorio, Dante has a dream in which he speaks to Leah from the Old Testament. By Dante’s time, the two sisters Leah and Rachel had come to symbolize the two equally valid paths to salvation, the active and the contemplative. Two centuries later, in the Medici Chapel, Michelangelo portrayed the Medici brothers Guiliano and Lorenzo as active and contemplative respectively: Guiliano is outward-looking and alert, while Lorenzo is introverted and pensive. There are differing temperaments or psychological types, as Jung called them. But there is also an ideal of balance within each individual personality and each individual life. The Age of Leisure we once looked forward to would make an active-contemplative, or, in the contemporary jargon, a work-life balance truly possible.

We should realize that our society actually fears relaxation and quiet, because they are associated with death. Activity is life; relaxation is death. The more active we are, the more alive we are. Thus, our hyperactivity is secretly motivated not so much by a love of life as by a fear of death. Relaxation violates a taboo: according to Freud’s theory of a “death drive,” it is what the unconscious most deeply wants, but which is at the same time forbidden, condemned as regressive, a desire to return to the womb. But Freud also spoke of a “return of the repressed”: forbidden desires return in disguised form. Our culture ambivalently admires those figures, often found in the arts, who self-destructed because they lived so hard, who burned out or died young in the pursuit of an intensity of experience without limits in life, whose art is always striving to reinvent itself, pushing beyond the limits of expression. A whole line of doomed, damned poets has achieved cult status: Poe, Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath. A similar tendency appears among visual artists, from Van Gogh to Jackson Pollack, and in music there is of course the entire catalogue of falling blues, jazz, and rock stars who blaze briefly across the night sky and disappear. Yet perhaps what such figures are seeking, consciously or unconsciously, is a glamorous form of suicide.

The pattern is not confined to the arts. The restless world conqueror is typified by Alexander the Great, who wept when there were no more worlds to challenge his ambition and died at the age of 32. Napoleon inspired the Eroica symphony by a composer whose own heroic striving gradually pushed his music to the limits of the performable. The United States glorified its “Manifest Destiny” of conquering ever-new frontiers, first into a national myth of westward progress, then, having reached the westward limit, into a myth of American exceptionalism that strives to subsume the entire world into the American circumference. Capitalism is the natural ally, not of democracy, but of this kind of expansionary ideology, ever seeking new markets, pressing for constant improvement and innovation.

Does such ambitious, energetic striving ever produce genuine good in the world? Yes, of course it does. But at what price? And the price is always paid, not by the titanic strivers but by the ordinary people who happen to stand in the way, as the Native Americans stood in the way of American progress. Goethe saw this: at the end of his life, Faust is a mover and shaker obsessed with a supposedly utopian project of reclaiming land from the sea (a technological imitation of the act of divine Creation). In order to complete his dream project, Faust orders his henchmen to seize the pastoral estate of an aged couple, Philemon and Baucis. The henchmen are supposed to offer compensation, but instead disappear the couple, Mafia fashion. Faust is thus able to say he is innocent of their murder, but of course he knew without knowing what would happen.  

C. G. Jung said that the psyche seeks an equilibrium of opposite tendencies. Any tendency, however admirable, if pursued one-sidedly for too long, risks a sudden psychic reversal he called enantiodromia, a term borrowed from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, whose philosophy was based on a dynamic tension of opposites. In the East, Taoism is based on a similar intuition, symbolized in the famous yin-yang image.

The ancient Taoist ideal that challenges our notion of heroic striving is wu wei, not doing, which does not mean doing nothing. It means that we stop trying to force things to happen or not happen, to control life with our will, to “try too hard,” as we say. You cannot play a musical instrument that way; you cannot make love that way; you cannot write anything creative that way. “That’s why the wise soul / does without doing,” as the Tao Te Ching puts it, at least in Ursula Le Guin’s translation of its chapter 2.

Chapter 37 of the Tao Te Ching says:

                    The Way never does anything,

                    and everything gets done.

                    If those in power could hold to the Way,

                    the ten thousand things

                    would look after themselves.

                    In not wanting is stillness.

                    In stillness all under heaven rests.

Heroic striving aspires to the godlike, and in doing so repeats the original Fall. The Biblical folktale of the temptation of the first two human beings by a talking snake is not as simpleminded as it seems. As Milton showed in Paradise Lost, the real temptation was not “Have an apple, lady” but “Eat, and ye shall be as gods.” It was the same aspiration to the godlike by which Satan himself fell. Eventually, however, our self-willed apotheosis comes up against the ultimate limit, that of death. Even there we may maintain our defiance. Dylan Thomas counsels his dying father, “Do not go gentle into that good night. / Old age should burn and rave at close of day.” However, it is the finality of death that proves to us that, for all our greatness and glory, we are not gods. Not that kind of god anyway, the kind who mocks Job for failing to understand, much less emulate, his infinite ways. But such a cosmic overlord is only God as understood within the perspective of the will to power, and other perspectives are possible.

“Tao” is usually translated as the Way, and it may be that when Jesus speaks of the Way, and even says “I am the Way,” he means something similar, something close in spirit—in all senses of the term—to the following, from the Tao Te Ching, chapter 50:

          To look for life

          is to find death.

          Why are the organs of our life

          Where death enters us?

          Because we hold too hard to living.

If you live in the Way, you don’t need to fear a bull, a tiger, or a sword:

            Why? Because there’s nowhere in you

             for death to enter.

Commentators are quick to add that this does not really imply immortality—or, if it does, it is an interpolation by another hand expressing a later, cruder form of Taoism contaminated with magic.

I am no expert on Taoism, but to me it seems possible that that is something of a nervous Westernizing appropriation. Surely the Way is more than an aphoristic expression of a secular humanism that says it is unseemly to cling too hard to life and unreasonable to refuse the inevitability of death. Perhaps what the passage is really saying is that our ideas of both life and death are utterly inadequate, that we have no idea what life and death really are. Life and death are names, and the famous first chapter of the Tao Te Ching tells us that “Heaven and earth / begin in the unnamed.” Beyond all names lies the “Mystery of all mysteries! / The door to the hidden.” The rest is silence.

[All quotations are from Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, a new English version by Ursula K. Le Guin (Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998). I might add that the Tao Te Ching is such a cryptic, riddling text that it has inspired translations more divergent than any other text I can think of, so readers may want to compare several versions to decide for themselves which is, if not more accurate, at least more fruitful.]