Where My Demons Hide

16 Nov

“If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well.”

—Rilke

During my series on Dead Greek People, I tried to avoid using Greek words or an overload of philosophical jargon. That’s usually a good way to get people to ignore what you’re saying. There is one word, however, that I think deserves a little exploration. That word is eudaimonia.

This is Aristotle’s word for…something good. No one has ever really found a satisfactory translation. It means “happiness” or “welfare” or “human flourishing,” or something along those lines. It’s hard to know exactly what it is, but it sure sounds like something that would be nice to have, though. It makes sense that Aristotle would make this thing the end goal of all human life; the state to which we all aspire.

But let’s take an even closer look at the word. Take a look at the word sandwiched in between the two vowels on either end of it. Daimon. That’s right: demon. At the center of Aristotle’s good life, one finds demons.

To be sure, these aren’t demons the sort of demons we normally hear about today, with the possible exception of the “daemons” in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. They’re not horned creatures running around causing mischief, and they aren’t necessarily evil. A better translation of “daimonic” into modern English would be “spiritedness,” or something like that.

Still, the daimon is dangerous. There’s no room for apathy in it. It has the power to take over people and consume them. It is an urge that rebels against any form of submission, and seeks to assert and perpetuate itself at every turn.

Our old friends Socrates and Plato and Aristotle saw the dangers in that drive, but they never advocated its repression. Plato called it a form of “divine madness,” a natural force that went beyond good and evil that was at the center of each person’s individuality—both the good and the bad.

To frame these daimons in modern terms, we turn not to a Dead Greek Person, but to a Dead American Person who knew a lot about them. His name is Rollo May, and he has the rather grandiose title of “existential psychoanalyst.”

May’s seminal work is entitled Love and Will, and it is one of the more compelling attempts ever made to make sense of the malaises of modernity. Rather than pretending these drives don’t exist or trying to cover them up, he advocates confronting them head-on, and trying to live in accordance with them. This isn’t easy, of course, and requires a lot of support. But they can be harnessed, and that is exactly what May calls for. And while there are probably many demons, named and unnamed, May focuses on one: Eros.

Eros, mind you, is not straight-up eroticism—though it can certainly entail it. It’s a bit more complicated. It’s a force that pulls people outward, animates them, keeps them dreaming and aspiring for more. In the ancient Greek myths, Eros was the child of Ares and Aphrodite, both warlike and beautiful, but willing to assert itself. Erotic love can consume people, but it’s also a force that makes life worth living, its risks always worth taking.

Since incredibly good sex doesn’t come around every day, it can be tough to find outlets for one’s Eros. May looks to art as an obvious means; he also says that writing “comes from maladjustment to life,” and while this raises some awkward questions for those of us who like to write, I think there’s something to that. Some of us just cannot stop thinking and always have to sit about trying to understand things, often getting lost in the mire. If you’re not one of those people, I envy you, though at the same time, I can’t imagine things being any other way. May doesn’t mention this, but I would argue that sports and physical activity can also be a very good channel for that inner spiritedness. They allow for controlled aggression and set off all sorts of hormones that satisfy some of the more primal human urges without causing great harm to other people.

Whichever form it takes, the important thing is that Eros not be repressed. This, May insists, only causes lots of problems later on, as the demon comes to control people, exploding in sudden, ugly fits. The opposite of love, he writes in his most famous line, is not hate: it is apathy. People who suppress their urges do not learn how to harness their will, and are in turn compulsive and neurotic, perhaps even to the point of self-destruction.

On this blog, I’ve made a big deal out of detachment. There is, however, a danger of detachment drifting over into apathy. The key, then, is in placing that detachment into the service of Eros. I stay detached not because I don’t care—quite the contrary. It’s very important to me that I get things right, and I think every possibility has to be explored to get there. That, I suppose, is how the patient cycle is supposed to work.

Image of Rollo May from http://www.listal.com/viewimage/3006433h.

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3 Responses to “Where My Demons Hide”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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