The Agon

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.


            Theodore Roosevelt

For the ancient Greeks, life was a struggle. If one was not striving, one was not living. They strove in war, they strove in poetry, they strove in courts, in politics, in the theatre, in their religious festivals, in business, in beauty; even their gods continuously strove with one another. The goal of all this striving was not so much to win, though that was a happy outcome, but to Live. No struggle; no life. Any reader of Homer is struck by the many funeral games held for fallen heroes. Where we sit in quiet contemplation and mournful silence, Homeric warriors competed for prizes in sprinting, riding, javelin, and yet more. The great life of the fallen hero deserved a tribute of what the dead have lost: the dead have lost the opportunity to compete.

 Many parts of Greek culture have been lost to us, but perhaps no aspect has faded more completely than the Agon. We seek release from striving. We wish for ease, convenience, smoothness, quiet, serenity, leisure, and, the ultimate goal of our working lives, retirement. Retirement from what? For the ancient Greeks, retirement would have meant the end of living and held little enticement for them.  

 Whence this desire for ease? In part, the source can be traced to Christian morality. If the meek shall inherit the earth, if we are to turn the other cheek, if we are to yield to Caesar Caesar’s due, then what point is there in striving? The Greeks knew from experience that the brave and strong inherited the earth, tried to never turn a cheek, and only gave to Caesar what Caesar could take by force. Immediately after Caesar took it, they began struggling to seize it back. Our morality has a strain of quiescence that is alien to the culture of the Agon.

 Christianity is not, however, the only cause of the fading of struggle as a central goal of life. To continually test oneself is to inevitably fail. One must possess a certain level of security in one’s own identity to be able to face the revelation of one’s limits. While we claim that we live in a society that allows each individual to strive for success, this is patently untrue in practice. We do not strive for success as much as we work diligently to avoid failing. We seeks job security, insurance, benefits, a retirement plan, position, sound investments, in short, a “piece of the rock.” To lose is to stand out from the crowd and draw condemnation. By not striving, we avoid being singled out and, for a great plurality of our society, that is very much the goal. 

 One driving force of the Agon was the love of honor. To be seen as honorable was one of the prime motive forces for free Greeks, much as being perceived as being wealthy is today. Perhaps we have substituted fame, or at least notoriety for honor. But when honor has no strong lure, why should one suffer for it? Our insecurity is largely a by-product of the social isolation and anonymity in our vast society. Appearances count very much more than achievement in a world of strangers. If no one knows you are honorable, what good is honor? Today, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet could, in theory, wear a t-shirt that said “I am a Pulitzer Winning Poet,” but I doubt this would have nearly as much impact on her status as spending the prize money to purchase a ‘statement’ car. What use is it to compete, when the gains of achievement are generally unrecognized?

 There is also the matter of our desire for equality. A society built on struggle can be seen as being equal if it allows everyone to compete. Compared to the Greeks, we have made great strides in expanding in this type of equality. However, we have also and, perhaps to a greater extent, emphasized equality of outcome. We want everyone to succeed at everything – despite the fact that this removes any incentive for struggle. Grade inflation effectively removes struggle from education, protective tariffs work to remove competition from our businesses, vast monopolies try to eliminate competition between corporations, and the general taint the word “elite” has acquired in common speech all suggest a society that views competition as destructive.

 One of the few areas where the culture of the Agon continues to thrive is in athletics. Many academics decry the emphasis contemporary society places on sports. They argue this while overlooking the central place athletics and competition of all sorts played in the life of the ancient Greeks. Sports competition is perhaps overemphasized today, but mostly because true competition has been eliminated from so many other aspects of life. We hunger, perhaps as never before, for the Agon presented in sports because it is so often absent from our own lives. This has led us, absurdly in the Greek view, to professionalize competition. Others are paid to endure the pain, discipline and risks of competition in our stead. From a safe distance, we can root for our team. Not that the Greeks did not have something of this sort as well – they invented the Olympics after all. However, the Olympics were an intensification of the daily competitions of all sorts, rather than a substitute for them.

 We also have what is often called the ‘entrepreneurial’ class. The definition of an entrepreneur is often given as “someone who has gone bankrupt three times.” This definition captures the idea that to compete seriously is to lose. Never losing, is never competing. Yet, like athletics, the vast majority of Americans do not pursue this path of struggle and opt instead for a safer, if lest bracing, route.

 For the Greeks the challenge had, for the most part, to be public. One can win no honor in seclusion. One cannot test oneself against nothing. The Greeks knew humans are great self-deceivers and not to be trusted in self-evaluation. If you think yourself a great boxer, then box. If you feel yourself a great poet, then recite your poetry and be judged. To falter in the face of the public, to lose one’s nerve, or flinch from conflict, this was to lose honor. One could lose honorable, but the failure to strive honestly and with one’s complete capacity would bring condemnation. Even, as Homer recounts, fleeing before an overmastering foe is not shameful. It is not taking the field at all that defines true failure. To be in the ring is to be alive – to risk nothing in the public realm is to be little more than a ghost in the world. 

Emancipation as a Negative Freedom

Free play for the self is a goal to be achieved and not a gift.” Jacques Barzun.

    One of the main thrusts of western culture over the last five hundred years has been personal liberation.  In fits and starts, the individual has been emancipated from; sexual, racial and religious persecution, gross legal inequality, enforced ignorance, guild restrictions, repressive marriage laws, strict familial obligations, and yet more.  A Jewish woman in Madrid five hundred years ago could not own land, travel, receive an education, work in any but the most limited number of trades, change her religion, choose whom she married, leave her house without permission from her father or husband, or own property.  However imperfectly realized, the emancipation of the individual has been astonishing. 

    Significantly, no equivalent cultural shift has been present to support the individual in the realization of these new won freedoms.  If one were a Jewish woman in Madrid today, we could travel, marry, live, work, worship, learn, and own as one wished.  However, having the opportunity to chose is not the same as making sound choices.  The removal of external barriers is a negative freedom: it removes barriers to the free play of the self, but does not create it.  The realization of one’s individuality requires imposing the precise restrictions that used to be impressed from without – partners, work, education, religion – on oneself.  Freedom and the expression of the individual take place in the process of choosing and then pursuing one’s choices.  While our culture indoctrinates us in the joys of emancipation, it provides little or no examples of the necessity of relinquishing our freedoms in the name of developing the self. 

    Two seemingly contradictory social ills grow from this tension.  One need only reflect on the widespread social conformity to realize the existing gap between possibility and actuality. Faced with so many possibilities, millions and millions of Americans attempt to construct an identity through going along with everyone else.  The craze for SUV’s stands out as a supreme example.  Individuals who never drive off-road, live alone or with one other person, commute long distance’s on freeways and rarely if every tow anything suddenly discover a desperate need to own a large, four wheel-drive vehicle with room for seven, power for towing and poor gas-mileage.  The impulse to conformity extends even to modes of rebellion, hence the aging middle class’ love of the Harley Davidson. The ready-made self delivered by conformity provides a simple solution to the problem of emancipation.  Why make all these choices when others have already made them for you?
Simultaneously, much that passes for eclecticism or individuality is simply enslavement to emancipation.  People travel endlessly, switch partners, jobs, religions, and even families.  Faced with choices, millions of Americans cannot bring themselves to choose.  They wander, ghost-like, from place to place, person to person, refusing to be pinned down to anything, including to any sense of self.  Not choosing (the logical corollary of conformity) serves the same function: it prevents the individual from ever having to face the difficulties, and potential disappointments, of deciding.

    Emancipation does not create liberty, it creates the possibility of the free expression of the individual through the selection of one’s own restrictions.  It is the taking on of restrictions that creates liberty. One can chose to live in a myriad of places, but any single choice precludes countless other possibilities.  Nonetheless, the choice must be made.  We face the necessity of having to impose on ourselves the same list of limits that used to be imposed by Mediæval societies.  We, however, have the advantage, and temptation, of being free to change our choices at any time.  The responsibility inherent in emancipation is daunting.  Each individual is responsible for constructing, from scratch, a sense of self and, if displeased, has none but themselves to blame.  Small wonder so many attempt to sacrifice their individuality on the Janus-faced altar of conformity and non-conformity.

    Thus, our great struggle with emancipation that can be seen throughout our culture. Amongst other problems, modern education emphasizes content over character.  An information based education is invidious in a world replete with facts and lacking in developed individuality.  Because knowledge only takes on meaning within a context of values, the emancipation of the individual, the liberation of values if you will, erodes the meaningfulness of facts.  When students complain about learning algebra, “when will I ever use this?” they are quite rightly declaring they do not understand the meaning of what they are learning.  They do not understand why they should learn algebra because, as a society, we do not understand why they should learn algebra.  That algebra requires the acquisition of an orderly, logical capacity for thought is the simple, obvious answer.  However, to promote algebra on this basis requires one to argue that a capacity for orderly, logical thinking is both desirable and useful for the formation of a thoughtful individual.  As a society we would, in essence, be declaring a preference for a certain kind thoughtfulness over others.  Our love of faux liberty says we should let each chose for oneself, not force all minds into a single mode.  That none argue for such an indoctrination, were it even feasible, is beside the point.  We rebel against the very idea that a certain way of thinking should be favored.  To the millions of students who say “why should I learn algebra?” We answer implicitly, “You shouldn’t.”  And, by and large, they do not. 

    In a culture with an overriding set of moral guidelines, the use of the education system to reinforce those morals is oppressive.  Access to knowledge in such societies is itself libratory because broad learning will expose the limits and inequities of any moral system.  Witness the profound impact of internet cafes in countries throughout Asia and Africa.  Where governments and social mores try to impose strict guidelines and maintain a hold on knowledge, the access to a world of data is nearly revolutionary.
However, in a culture that emphasizes liberty, access to data is necessary but insufficient.  We need to know why we should chose any particular career, place to live, clothes, spouse, etc.  Yet, this is not to argue for the reintroduction of a narrow education based on any particular set of morals.  Such attempts, usually promoted by Christian conservatives, are both misguided and pointless.  Rather, education could and should focus on both the range of possibilities and what these possibilities mean.  Why, for instance, would someone want to be a vegetarian, a vegan, a fruititarian?  What ethical issues are at stake in such decisions?  These and myriad other questions could be profitably explored, but such explorations would require the discussion of values, and hence must be avoided.  Faced with an infinity of individual choices, an education which precludes the meaningful discussion of these choices is, in sum, fruitless. 

    Our education, though, is simply a reflection of our general inability to deal with the implications of emancipation.  Discontent, that plague of the modern world, grows from the failure to construct any viable sense of self.  A bigger car, better house, another trip, the next move, a different partner, a new religion, a Buddhist retreat, a trip to Paris, a new career will be the one that really does it this time.  None or all can be an answer.  How we choose, what we choose, and why we choose, all form a part of the identity we build.  Whether prepared well or ill, the choices are still ours.  The drive towards free play of the self is strong.  We have each been gifted a great responsibility and, if we do not shrink from it, we may choose the nature of our own limitations, and thus truly free ourselves.