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Tag Archives: Roman Stoicism

Do We Have Balls To Live Withouth Religion? INVICTUS

Inner Bravery and Endurance

The film INVICTUS should be watched by the young and the less young.

It is an inspiring message on the inner bravery we can find in ourselves in order to endure any deep sorrow or big problem life can hurl at us.

Directed by Clint Eastwood, INVICTUS is based on John Carlin‘s book ‘Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation. Invictus‘.

The film is a tribute to Nelson Mandela and to the South African people – blacks and whites alike – and it reveals the complex fragments of the souls of 3 men.

The Victorians, Mandela, the Afrikaans

Nelson Mandela in 2008

N. Mandela in 2008. Click for credits and to enlarge

1) A Victorian poet – William Ernest Henley (1849–1903) we never see in the film – who bravely faced life deprived of his left leg since the age of 12 and who wrote INVICTUS (see below,) an inspired poem on endurance.

2) Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader who spent 27 years imprisoned in a quasi cubicle and who was resilient enough to survive and fight also because inspired by the poem INVICTUS.

3) The South African (Afrikaan) captain of the Springboks‘ – the country’s rugby union team – who, inspired by Mandela in his turn and by that same poem, brings the Springboks to victory, in the 1995 Rugby World Cup hosted by South Africa, by defeating the All Blacks 15-12 in the final.

An event that possibly helped the South African black and white people to better understand each other along the hard path towards a society where racial hate and mistrust may be progressively banned.

Morgan Freeman‘s (starring Mandela, and Mandela’s friend btw); Clint Eastwood; the solid plot-script – these in my opinion the elements that make the film compelling.

I forgot someone. Nelson Mandela.

Invictus

William Ernest Henley (1849 – 1903). R. L. Stevenson’s ‘Long John Silver’ character was inspired by his real-life friend Henley, ‘a glowing, massive-shouldered fellow’

OUT of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade
,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid
.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley, 1875

Note on Man & Religion

So beautiful, inspiring.

Henley’s position on religion seems pre-Christian to me and close to epicureanism and stoicismSir Bertrand Russell had declared:

“My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race.” [read more ]

Henley’s position is also that of the Renaissance and of humanism, when Western man – a truly reborn dantesque Ulysses – found the guts to build his own destiny again (and regrettably to conquer the rest of the planet destroying other cultures etc.)

“Man can find all the force he needs within his own human soul and reason, within his character and will,” said many Greek and Roman wise men plus several humanists, no god really helping, no religion really helping.

[The italic text in INVICTUS is mine. It is where I believe the poet mostly expresses the said classic attitude.]

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Now, what do readers think about all this? Can we live without religion, without a help from ‘someone’ up there?

Can we too – the simple men in the street – be the ‘captains of our soul’? Or is it only possible to the master, to the ‘real tough’?

So in the end:

Is religion basically a question of lack of balls? Or is there more than that?

ψ

Related posts:

Religion, Fear, Power
Force & Anger. Ghosts in the Mind (on Magister’s teachings on bravery and inner force)
On Solitude (where the totally self-sufficient Greco-Roman sage is analysed, a quasi-superman, like many Victorians were also)

A final note.

(I know, I’ll lose ALL my readers …)

INVICTUS attitude is classical. It reminds the Greco-Roman sage who has “like unsinkable goods in his soul that can float out of any shipwreck.”

Stilpon (Στίλπων) who according to Seneca lost his family and all his goods, when asked if he had suffered any harm, replied: “No, I haven’t.”

Compare now this classical attitude with a passage from the Old Testament (Psalm 91,9.) [the New Testament is identical in this].

You’ll measure the total overturning of many classical values Christianity carried out.

ψ

Here in fact man totally entrusts himself to God’s divine pro-vidence:

Because thou hast made the LORD,
which is my refuge, even the most High,
thy habitation;
There shall no evil befall thee,
neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.

For he shall give his angels charge over thee,
to keep thee in all thy ways.

They shall bear thee up in their hands,
lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.
Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder:
the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.

Because he hath set his love upon me,
therefore will I deliver him:

I will set him on high,
because he hath known my name.

He shall call upon me, and I will answer him:
[exactly what Christ says in the New Testament, MoR]

I will be with him in trouble;
I will deliver him,
and honour him.
With long life will I satisfy him,
and shew him my salvation.

Eluana, or Man’s Ultimate Freedom. Ending One’s Life. 2

Posted on

Lucretia stabs herself after rape. Joos van Cleve, Flemish artist, 1485 - 1540. Click for credits

Rape and death of Roman Lucretia

To her husband’s question, “Is all well?,” Lucretia replied:

“Far from it; for what can be well with a woman when she has lost her honour?
The print of a strange man is in your bed. Yet my body only has been violated;
my heart is guiltless, as death shall be my witness.” …

Taking a knife which she had concealed beneath her dress, she plunged it into her heart,
and sinking forward upon the wound, died as she fell.

(Livy Book I. 57-60)

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A discussion about the acceptable reasons for ending one’s life (see our previous post) can profit from the opinion of our forefathers, the Ancients, and from that of the Renaissance men, who channelled ancient thought into modernity.

This post is not a paean to suicide. I am sure Eluana Englaro and Terry Schiavo loved life: was theirs an acceptable life though?

Most of the quotes are taken from the French Renaissance writer Montaigne (II:3), whose Gutenberg English text is available in the translation of Charles Cotton (1630 – 1687). See also the original French text.

Note to readers

To many, old writings are a terrible bore.
They are wrong in my view.
Ancient writings, actual time machines connecting the past to the present, are mind expanding and one of the pleasures of life.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

“The wise man lives as long as he should, not as long as he can” said Seneca, who nobly committed suicide when accused of an attempt on emperor Nero’s life. And Cicero said that while “life depended upon the will of others, death depended upon our own.”

Greco-Roman writers like Plutarch expressed great appreciation for anyone who showed this kind of ultimate dignity.

Tacitus admires Boiocalus, a German chief, “who said to the Romans that he and his tribe might lack enough land to live upon, but land sufficient to die upon could never be wanting.”

Plutarch tells us of this Spartan boy “sold as a slave and by his master commanded to some abject employment, who said: ‘You shall see whom you have bought; it would be a shame for me to serve, when freedom is at reach,’ and having so said, threw himself from the top of the house.”

Ancient thought didn’t always condone suicide. Plato didn’t accept it and the Roman poet Virgil (Aeneid, IV, 434-437) destined those who committed suicide to a region of the afterlife where they were overwhelmed by sadness (tenent maesti loca).

But the prevalent Roman ideal was that of the stoic sage who counted on reason and self-control and who was not afraid of pain or misfortune (see our post ‘On solitude‘). Should life become unbearable, or should one face great dishonour, the Romans of both sexes were not hesitant to commit suicide.

Death was considered an act of ultimate freedom and this was deeply ingrained in the Roman tradition. “Nature has ordained only one entrance to life – said Cicero – but a hundred thousand exits.”

Death was less important than the way of death, which had to be decent, full of dignity, rational (and sometimes theatrical,) while to the Christian mind, self-killing being a sin, suicide is often a desperate, irrational action fruit of depression.

Among famous examples of suicide are Lucretia, Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony (and Cleopatra,) Cato the younger (see picture below), Seneca, Lucan, Petronius Arbiter etc. plus a good number of emperors, Nero, Maximian, Otho, Quintillus etc.

Common people as well considered dignity more important than life in many cases.

Cato of Utica reading the Phedo before comitting suicide. Jean-Baptiste Romand & François Rude (1832). Photo by M. Romero SchmidkteRoman stoicism deeply influenced the West despite the victory of Christianity. “For much of modern Western history, Stoic ideas of moral virtue have been second to none in influence” (Ecole Initiative, Early Church On-Line Encyclopedia.)

We see examples of noble death in Shakespeare, who, like all his contemporaries from Renaissance, felt the influence of ancient thought. The imagination of the Victorian British was captured by Cato’s death (see image on the right), «clawing out his own entrails to avoid Caesar’s despotism — as a courageous and noble death.”

Montaigne, imbued with Roman stoicism, refers how “Alexander laying siege to a city in India, those within, finding themselves very hardly set, put on a vigorous resolution to deprive him of the pleasure of his victory, and accordingly burned themselves together with their city, despite his humanity.” He seems to praise that the Indians preferred a death with honour rather than a life without it.

Montaigne adds a moving example:

“Nothing can be added to the beauty of the death of the wife of Fulvius, a good friend of Augustus. Augustus having discovered that his friend had vented an important secret he had entrusted him withal, one morning that he came to make his court, received him very coldly and looked frowningly upon him. Fulvius returned home full of despair, where he sorrowfully told his wife that, having fallen into this misfortune, he was resolved to kill himself.
To whom she frankly replied, ‘Tis right, seeing that having so often experienced the indiscipline of my tongue, you could not take warning: but let me kill myself first,’ and without more ado she ran herself through the body with a sword.”

Montaigne, quoting Pliny the elder, observes that the mythical Hyperboreans, “when weary and satiated with living, had the custom, at a very old age, after having made good cheer, to precipitate themselves into the sea from the top of a certain rock, assigned for that service” (see our series on the Hyperboreans.)

“Unbearable pain and the fear of a worse death seem to me the most excusable incitements for suicide” is Montaigne’s conclusion.

He was a sincere Christian. But he found inspiration and solace in the teachings of antiquity.

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