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How to live an extraordinary life without self-destructing

 9 minutes read in becoming  

Twenty-five thousand years ago, the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus recorded the aphorism Ethos anthropoi daimon in his fragments—which we have taken, nemine contradicente, to mean character is fate. The word ethics, though etymologically derived from the Greek ēthos, is entangled with theological and eschatological conceptions, owing to the later Roman and Christian religiosity that adopted and adapted its meaning to suit their purposes. In its original form, as intended by Heraclitus, ethos is character. It is something engraved on the soul, formed by the repeated action of habit. Hillman1 defines character as the “deep structures of personality that are particularly resistant to change” and habit the “invisible source of inner consistently”. Character is engraved on the soul and the daimon is our genius, according to the ancient texts. In modern terms, the daimon is likened to fate; it is where your wisdom and creativity reside; it is your unconscious self, your undermind. According to Ancient Greek myth, the daimon is potentially divine and is the intermediary between the mortal and the divine. In the Symposium, Plato wrote that Eros and other demons were intermediaries between human beings and the gods. But to better understand what the daimon is, we must return to the ancient myths; that of Plato’s Myth of Er.

Plato concludes the Republic with the Myth of Er. When Er dies in battle, his body is piled away with his other slain comrades. But, even after ten days, his body remains undecomposed and is sent to his home for cremation. Twelve days after his death, he wakes up on the funeral pyre and tells the extraordinary tale of his sojourn in the underworld. Here, the souls of those who have departed this world await their lot in the new life, as allotted by Lachesis, the daughter of Necessity, whose name derives from Lachos – one’s spiritual lot or portion of fate. In Timaeus Plato tells us that the demiurge created the world and all living creatures from their eternal paradigm. Our paradeigma is thus a moving image, which is a semblance of eternity, and is also the “lot” that encompasses our fate. This lot is infinitely extensible, or conversely, fully collapsible. It is everything we are and are given in our lifetime, including the portion of the world we occupy, all that comes into it or is taken away from it, and all of this is rolled up into that single image, your paradeigma. It is Lachesis who allocates to the soul its lot, based on the soul’s particular temperament, and sends with each soul a daimon as guardian to its life and as fulfiller of its allotment. Our soul is guided by the daimon to our particular body, our singular circumstances and place in the world. The daimon is your inner spirit, your psuché. It represents your potential, that life of the higher soul which you can live only when you recognise its presence and heed its call. It is the essence of our passions and potential. Living in harmony with our daimon brings happiness and fulfillment to our lives. Living in harmony with the daimon is called eudaimonia, since the Greek prefix eu- means good, well, pleasant, or true. Living in harmony with your daimon means embracing the life, customs, and traditions that are a part of your paradeigma, in the place you were meant to be. The Ancient Greeks called this divine act of contemplative soul-searching Moira, personified as a goddess, and derived from the root mer (from merimna, meaning to consider with “thought and care”). While the daimon binds us to our lot, it has no dominion over the outcome of our life. So we need to carefully consider what is apportioned to us by fate that we have no control over as well as that portion of destiny which is in our hands, representing all we have done, could have done and can do2. Rousseau says that this harmonious questing of our “natural desires” is the path to happiness, for when our desires are in tune with our inclinations, we are less removed from being happy, for “unhappiness consists not in the privation of things but in the need that is felt for them.”3 Dostoevsky, the preeminent psychoanalyst, informs us that “man lives most of all when he is seeking something and striving; at such moments he feels within himself a most natural desire for everything harmonious, for tranquility, and in beauty there is both harmony and tranquility…”; and when we are no longer seeking that which is in harmony with our natural desires, when life is “choked by the absence of a goal,” the future no longer impels us forward and we seek to only maximise gratification in the present. “Everything passes into the body, everything plunges into physical debauchery, and, in order to fill in for the higher spiritual impressions which are lacking, people excite their nerves, their body with everything that can possibly arouse.”4.

David Kirkpatrick says that, at 15, River Phoenix could never understand why he was “always waiting” and “never arrive”. “Except when the camera rolls. I never quite know who I am. I am only alive when I am somebody else.” Eight years later, he collapsed on the sidewalk outside a Hollywood club and died of an overdose. Contrast Pheonix’s turbulent and short-lived struggle with that of Billie Holliday, who at twelve years of age would run errands and scrub floors at a brothel just so that she could listen to Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith on the victrola in the front parlour. “I remember Pops’ recording of ‘West End Blues’ and how it used to gas me” she recalls “It was the first time I ever heard anybody sing without using any words. I didn’t know he was singing whatever came into his head when he forgot the lyrics. Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba and the rest of it had plenty of meaning for me—just as much meaning as some of the other words that I didn’t always understand. But the meaning used to change, depending on how I felt. Sometimes the record would make me so sad I’d cry up a storm. Other times the same damn record would make me so happy I’d forget about how much hard-earned money the session in the parlor was costing me.”5 A beautiful, fulsome, young lady, she lived a lifetime by the time she wrote Strange Fruit at the tender age of twenty two; a song that would make her physically sick every time she sang it, so much of her heart went into her singing. “When I sing it, it affects me so much I get sick. It takes all the strength out of me… I was in no mood to be bothered with the scenes that always come on when I do that number in the South… When I came to the final phrase of the lyrics I was in the angriest and strongest voice I had been in for months… When I said ‘…for the sun to rot,’ and then a piano punctuation, ‘… for the wind to suck,’ I pounced on those words lake they had never been hit before”. At forty-four, she had cirrhosis of the liver because of chronic drinking; heart and lung problems from chronic smoking; and ulcers from where she had started injecting herself with street heroin that her husband, according to Miles Davis, used to keep her on so that he could control her. “He kept all the drugs and gave them to Billie whenever he felt like it; this was his way of keeping her in line”, he wrote in his autobiography, adding that Holiday confided in him that “I told him he could leave me alone. He could have our house, everything, but just leave me alone.”

Franz Kafka’s daimon compelled an unrelenting exhumation of the skeletons of the past. A disinterring that reveals itself in the myriad of obscure and dense metaphors that he has left his readers to decipher. Like Holiday, the evocations though cathartic, were also physically trying. To stymie their tide meant to also cessate the flow of life itself. Aldo Carotenuto writes that in his last days, Kafka could neither eat nor speak6. For John Updike Kafka “epitomizes one aspect of this modern mindset: a sensation of anxiety and shame whose centre cannot be located and therefore cannot be placated; a sense of an infinite difficulty within things, impeding every step; a sensitivity acute beyond usefulness, as if the nervous system, flayed of its old hide of social usage and religious belief, must record every touch as pain.” Tolstoy understood the power of the daimon and the need to channel and direct its forces. “At the time I felt that this world had some meaning” he wrote in his confession, “Living as I was then, like any individual I was tormented by the problem of how to live a better life. I did not yet understand that in answering “live in conformity with progress”, I was speaking exactly like a person who is in a boat being carried along by wind and waves and who when asked the most important and vital question, ‘Where should I steer?’ avoids answering by saying, ‘We are being carried somewhere.’”7.

The daimon is the driving force in our lives, but it is also the real unconscious; what Needleman describes as the “sensitive current of feeling that is meant to permeate the entire being as an indispensable organ of knowledge”. A according to the ancient teachings, this real unconscious is the wholeness of being whose memory has been eradicated on the plains of forgetting and left behind in childhood. But it still subsists within man, and where his wisdom and creativity come from in those brief moments when he gives up the struggle for life. Needleman calls the emotions of fear, self-satisfaction, self-pity, and competitiveness, the emotions of the ego, which when blended with the “extremely volatile and combative energies of sex”, appear to be so innate that they are deemed to be the real nature of man, once he has shrugged off the veneer of public propriety.

In the ancient teachings, the real unconscious is the hidden psychic integrity, which has been forgotten and left behind since childhood, and which requires for its development not egoistic satisfactions, not “recognition from others”, not sexual or labidinal pleasure, not even physical security, food, and shelter… Thus, according to tradition, there is something potentially divine within man, which is born when his physical body is born but which needs for its growth an entirely different sustenance from what is needed by the physical body or the social self.Jacob Needleman, Awakening the Heart.

To nurture the divine daimon, we need to strive for true freedom. We need to learn stop demonising fate and strive to realise our inner potential. Virginia Satir, the eminent family therapist, cast fate in the light of five freedoms that are available to us if we so choose: The freedom to say what you feel and think instead of what you should; the freedom to feel what you feel instead of what you ought; the freedom to ask for what you want instead of always waiting for permission; the freedom to take risks on your own behalf, instead of choosing to be secure and not rock the boat. Our inequalities are what make us unique and, paradoxically equal, for there is no other being who is exactly the same as me, therefore it is only I who am blessed with one or more unique skills and abilities, whose confluence with my experiences yield the essence that is my singular character. In the absence of any sense of self-worth, it is human nature to cling to the notion of racism, confusing hubris for spiritual belonging. To see the true image of the world is to look with the heart instead of the mind, to see people for who they are, and not what they are said to be by types and classes.

We need to strive to prevent the image that was transmitted with our daimon from being distorted and fragmented by an egocentric world and begin to construct an image of ourselves based on what we see, feel, and believe about the things we encounter in life. This image should be adaptable; it needs to be constantly compared and contrasted with your paradeigma, which is the only true representation of your being and which you must edge closer towards as you encounter new vistas of experience and revise the image accordingly. Only then can you truly live the life you were fated to live. Only then can you truly make a difference to the lives of the people around you.

  1. James Hillman founded the school of school of psychology known as Archetypal Psychology—an ideology and movement that focuses on the psyche and the soul, favouring a return to the polytheistic myths that are the language of the soul. It attempts to cast our psychological lives in the fantasies and myths of the gods, goddesses, and demigods of the Greek pantheon and other ancient civilizations, using these archetypal figures “to account for an individuals character and destiny”. Hillman worked with Carl Jung in the 1950s and later became the first director of the Jung institute in Zurich. His Archetypal Psychology is heavily influenced by the Jungian tradition as well as the works of Giambattista Vico, Plato, and Platonic thinkers like Plotinus. In his view, conventional psychology no longer sought to explore the mysteries of human nature, but concerned itself with the trivial, superficial, and baser aspects of the human condition. For this reason, his work has been largely ignored by those in the profession, to whom his thinking was subversive. Hillman’s works remain the most accessible to the lay person, and stand as testament to his lifelong work of “reimagining” psychology from its current state as a “trivialised, banal, egocentric pursuit”. 

  2. Virginia Satir, Making Contact (1976). 

  3. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, or, On education, New York: 1991. “On the contrary, the closer to his natural condition man has stayed, the smaller is the difference between his faculties and his desires, and consequently the less removed he is from being happy. He is never less unhappy than when he appears entirely destitute, for unhappiness consists not in the privation of things but in the need that is felt for them.” 

  4. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenii (PSS), Leningrad: 1972. I stumbled across this snippet from his notebooks in the excellent essay Two Kinds of Beauty by Robert Louis Jackson in his critical compendium of Russian writers, Close Encounters: Essays on Russian Literature (Academic Studies Press, 2013). Dostoevsky’s poetics and notions of beauty also form the basis of my meditation exploring beauty and morality

  5. From Lady sings the blues, Ringwood, Vic: 1992. 

  6. Aldo Carotenuto, The Call of the Daimon: Love and Truth in the Writings of Franz Kafka, Chiron Publications, 2013. My takeaway: The daimon once evoked, avenges himself on the writer, provoking insomnia and anguish in him and planting the seed destruction. 

  7. Leo Tolstoy, A Confession, New York: 1887. 

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