Teaching the Greeks and Critical Thinking - Part 10: The Afterlife

Teacher: Let's say that you're a high-school senior intent on going to college, but you learn from your doctor that you have only six months to live. [Pause] Four questions: How would you spend these last six months of your life? What would you do differently? What would no longer be important, and what would, suddenly, become very important? [Silence]

Student: I'd like to think that I'd just go on with my life the way I normally would. I'd tell my Mom and Dad, naturally, but not my younger brothers and sisters, and concentrate on one day at a time.

Student: I'd travel. See all the places I always wanted to visit. Try to pack as much living as I could into the time I had left. Bungee jumping! Lots of parties and crazy stuff!

Student: I don't think I'd even tell my parents so as not to worry them. I'd just keep it to myself and try to find a way to cope. Probably go to church more.

Student: I couldn't do that without exploding. I'd be too bottled up inside and have to get it out of my system by telling them.

Student: I'd only be making things worse by talking about it and getting myself and everyone else all worked up. I'd just want to have a quiet time those last remaining months.

Student: I'm not really sure what I'd do, probably do something different every day, play it by ear, but what's important now definitely wouldn't be important any longer. The whole college thing! SAT's, AP exams, going to college, getting a job, getting married, having kids -- nothing would matter anymore. It would all be different if I were older and could look back on a long life and say, "Been there, done that!" But, now, I'd never have a chance of doing any of these things! [Silence]

Teacher: What about things that presently don't seem all that important, but now would be very important?

Student: I'd certainly take things more slowly and enjoy them. Things that up until now I took for granted.

Student: I think I'd make up with people I used to be friends with, tell them I was sorry. I wouldn't want to die with bad feelings between us. When you have little time, what's to be embarrassed about? Just do it, right?

Teacher: Now step back for a moment and make some generalizations about what you've just said.

Student: Everything looks different when you have little time left. You don't play games any longer but become a real person. Also, live in the moment and don't get side-tracked with things that don't really matter. When you're young, you're all over the place, living in the future, making plans, dreaming about tomorrow -- and forgetting today.

Student: If you think you're going to have a long life, you say to yourself, I'll start living in the moment after I'm settled, but, until then, it's full-speed ahead because there's so much to do, and you have to keep up. You can smell the roses tomorrow, but, now, there won't be a tomorrow! [Silence]

Student: The less time you have, the more precious life gets. The more time you have, things can get trivial. Too much time makes you lazy; the air goes out of things; you need deadlines to live.

Student: Live intensely! Carpe diem! Seize the day! Here today and gone tomorrow, so make every second count! [Silence]

Teacher: Now, what does all this have to do with the Greeks? The Greeks had a belief in an afterlife, but not as we know it. It was a shadowy, gloomy, almost non-existent kind of existence, not in any way similar to how it's pictured today. There's a famous scene in The Odyssey where Odysseus visits the underworld and speaks to Achilles, who was killed in the Trojan War and tells him that he'd rather be someone's slave on earth, a poor farmer trying to eke out a miserable existence than be ruler of the underworld, so horrible was it to be among the dead.

As far as ordinary Greeks were concerned, it's not clear how they saw the afterlife since they didn't leave any writings. We do know, however, that the afterlife inspired great fear among them. Moreover, the Greeks didn't live as long as we do today. Assuming you survived childbirth and childhood, which many did not, you'd probably live into your 30's or 40's, and sometimes longer. And, of course, there was always the threat of war and disease.

The question I'd like to have you explore now is, if you were a Greek in view of what's just been said, how would you have looked at this life? [Silence]

Student: Well, I think I would have appreciated this life much more than I presently do. Assuming I survived childhood, with death always around me, and the prospect of living until I was only 30 or 40, I'd look at things very differently. I think anyone would. I'd want to get as much out of this life as I possibly could, since I wouldn't be sure about how much time I'd had left.

Student: I'd be much more curious about things, too. I'd figure, it was now or never. I wouldn't waste time sitting around being a couch potato, but want to live more intensely, experience more things, and do as much as I could before I died.

Student: I once saw this old movie, Zorba the Greek. It was set in modern times about this middle-aged guy who really seemed to know the secret of life. No matter what happened to him, nothing seemed to get him down, and he always managed to bounce back. He lived in the moment, loved life no matter what, wasn't afraid of whatever happened to him, but faced it head-on. What does he do after suffering one heartache after another? He does a Greek folk dance on the beach! The guy was unstoppable!

Student: I think I'd be very angry if I had only 30 or 40 years to live. I'd feel cheated. It just wouldn't seem fair.

Student: But aren't you reacting as a modern person, who already expects a long life, whereas living back then, you'd simply accept a short life as normal?

Student: I don't know about anyone else, but if I thought I'd have only a short life to live, it would really be a downer and be very hard to motivate myself about anything. There'd be such an overwhelming sense of futility about everything that I wouldn't even want to get up in the morning.

Student: I agree. I need a big canvas to work on. A short life just wouldn't do it. I couldn't see the point of beginning anything. [Silence]

Student: Sitting around moaning and groaning all day long pitying yourself? I don't think so. Who'd want to be around someone like that? If you had family and friends, you'd have to keep it to yourself because no one would want to hear it since everyone was in the same boat. What would give you the right to feel you were so special to carry on with your own little pity party? [Silence]

Teacher: I'd like to bring this first part of our discussion to a close and move on to the next question, but before we do, a few observations. Since everyone was in the same predicament, they'd have to create some sort of humane life together lest an all-pervasive awareness of death undermine their will to live. It's all in the attitude. You have people today, for instance, who have very real problems, and yet carry on with such composure, dignity, good humor, and grace that you'd never suspect that they had a problem. Well, you might say that, in this respect, these people resemble the Greeks.

How did they rise from the ashes to glory in life in all of its manifestations, whereas Egypt was obsessed only with death, exhausting itself by erecting the pyramids as monumental burial chambers? Did the Greeks first pity themselves only to finally realize, as has just been suggested, that self-pity wasn't getting them anywhere, and simply embraced the horror of life and, in so doing, overcame it by exorcizing the demons of their despair? Did looking into the abyss so utterly transform them that they conceived a colossal contempt for death by defiantly living their all-too-brief lives all the more beautifully and grandly on the edge of extinction?

Surrounded by death, the Greeks somehow created a belief in themselves not just to survive, but also to revolutionize the ancient world. How explain their gargantuan gusto for living, their affirmation of life in all of its aspects, their exuberance and joy in saying yes to whatever befell them like our friend Zorba dancing on the beach, come what may?

Not only that, but what was the source of their volcanic explosion of creative energy and boundless curiosity in advancing the arts, the natural and social sciences, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, theater, literature, history, political theory, architecture, sculpture, the invention of philosophy as we know it, and the revolutionary idea of democracy itself - something unprecedented in antiquity?

But these aren't the only mysteries about this singular people. When every culture at that time viewed human existence in religious terms, the Greeks alone stood apart and began to view life in a philosophical way. Not everyone, of course, but individuals like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, their predecessors, the pre-Socratic philosophers and the Sophists, and later the Epicureans, the Cynics, the Stoics, and the Skeptics, and those of the various philosophical brotherhoods and those in sympathy with them.

Where did these "philosophers" or "lovers of wisdom" come from, and how did they discover the power of the mind and the courage to use it in undertaking a philosophical analysis of human existence, an unheard of innovation in the ancient world? And how did they manage to free themselves from their cultural conditioning to re-create themselves in a way that changed the world forever?

Philosophy begins in wonder -- about everything that has been handed down from past generations. Philosophy asks why, and wherever the Greeks looked they beheld mystery and felt an irrepressible need to explain it in ways that satisfied them, and not as their ancestors saw it. The traditional myths were to them mere fairy tales meant only for children and those content with "the unexamined life."

Where did such startling audacity come from since nothing in Greek tradition or the surrounding cultures suggested any of this? If you begin to appreciate what little the Greeks found to work with, you begin to have some inkling about this truly remarkable people who brought something stunningly new into the ancient world, which found these Greeks terrifyingly fascinating. As we shall see later, they even influenced the latter books of the Old Testament, and some scholars even contend that they radically changed the original Christian message as it began to be preached to the Greek-speaking world.

But for now, let's move on to our next two questions. So far we've been talking about how the Greeks looked at life in which they could expect a lifespan of only 30 to 40 years, or longer in some cases. We also saw that they didn't look forward to an afterlife because only a dreary and fear-ridden existence awaited them. As a result, they embraced this life all the more deeply. What I'd like to explore now is whether the belief in an afterlife today affects one's view of this life, and if you were someone who didn't believe in an afterlife would you view this life the same as someone who did?

To be continued --