Against Histrionics: On Deaths and Afterlives

Amit Majmudar
September 24, 2013
Comments 1

Compare the deaths of Socrates and Christ: They mirror each other in the setup (thinker put to death for subversion of the established order), but Christ’s death is physically painful after dramatic abuse, while Socrates drinks hemlock and starts going numb while surrounded by disciples and friends (his own jailer, according to Plato, wept for him).

Their last words are similarly opposite in nature: Eli eli lama sabachthani, according to some accounts, My Lord, my Lord, why have you forsaken me, are Christ’s—an expression of anguish, of a feeling of abandonment and isolation. Socrates, meanwhile, remembered, at the very last moment, how he owed a rooster to a guy named Asclepius and asked a friend to pay off that debt. Apparently, he took the cloth off his face to say this and then put it back on. It’s almost comic in its triviality…and yet it’s sublime in its sense of the continuity of life and the world. It deflates the drama of the moment—whereas, in the Gospels, it is all drama, complete with the sun going dark (mood lighting).

No wonder the Gospel story is touted as the “greatest story ever told”–it’s engineered for crowd-pleasing high drama. The humble yet supernaturally powerful son of secret exalted otherworldly parentage who must face death and save the world = Clark Kent = Harry Potter; Harry nearly dying in the last installment, and Superman laid low by the Kryptonite, is the “crucial” (pun intended) prelude to the triumphant return. Socrates, supremely rational, wants no such heartsting-tugging; he excludes women from his cell at the end because he doesn’t want any crying, and he reproaches his disciples, too, when they get sloppy-weepy. The two men’s deaths, accordingly, have had drastically different “afterlives”: Christ’s is fixated on by millions daily, while Socrates’s is a paperback Penguin Classic.

I point out the antithetical nature of these deaths to gesture toward a larger point: “Western Civilization,” which, from the Renaissance to the late 19th century, tried to hybridize Jerusalem and Athens, fiery Christianity and cool systematic inquiry, Jesus and Socrates…was one strange chimera indeed. Considered intellectually, those centuries represented a transition from a Jesus-dominant (Middle Ages) to a Socrates-predominant (“Modernity”) civilization. I say “dominant” because the two tendencies always coexist, but who calls the shots changes: The medieval scholastics subordinated huge resources of logic and reason to the study of angels and Grace; today’s religious historians downgrade every virgin birth into a one-night stand. Those world-conquering, scientific-method-establishing centuries in the West had hybrid vigor and creative tension. Blaise Pascal, Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler were all very scientifically minded and rational in their inquiries…and, at the same time, intensely Christian.

Notice how Bohr and Fermi didn’t share Newton’s dual-mindedness. The direction of the change–from Jesus to Socrates–is clear in the nature and style of the West’s imagery, which started out with Biblical scenes, then developed and moved through increasingly refined forms of direct representation. Compare European art to any other civilization’s in a museum: the European emphasis on painstakingly reproduced portraits, cityscapes, and landscapes is striking. Finally, image-making shifts to the photograph: The preponderance of images today, statistically considered, are generated with cameras). It’s the triumph of this-worldly reality, the Socratic in us dominating. A kindred phenomenon is the rise of realism in literature and its form of choice, the novel (and, today, the essay or nonfiction book). Going from Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered and its Christian knights in the Holy Land, to the grounding of all such flights forever in Don Quixote, to 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we see the same progression. Consider also the West’s early overload of religious music (all those Masses in B major and Requiems) petering out into Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, which is religiously-themed music, not music meant to accompany an actual act of worship. Entertainment, not sacrament.

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