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Pain, Honor, and the Human Spirit

Rod Dreher has been following a reflection by Tony Woodlief over HERE: The article by Tony and the comments by Rod were so provocative (in the good sense) that I got carried away and wrote what became too long a comment.

Here’s what I wrote, but I have to urge you to read the original article and post (and also Rod’s follow-up posts on his blog):

Mr. Woodlief’s comments arose from his reflections on the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Rod brought in the always fitting Dante.

TomB said:

in general my sense is that entertainers in general are much into their vocation because of the love of attention and appreciation they get from others.

And Tony Woodlief said:
Man is, in the end, a creature who flees pain.

I’m fascinated by this pairing. It’s true that we all see in a very sad death like this (and in a sense what death isn’t sad except maybe that of a saint) whatever our “worldview” (god save me from a worldview) prepares us to see.

Nonetheless, these two comments seem to me to summarize what makes us move. Some of us live to flee pain (me, most of the time). Some of us live for “attention and appreciation.”

I’m profoundly intrigued by something Jesus said to the Pharisees way back when. They didn’t accept His claims to be loyal to His Father. He replied, “How can you believe when you seek the honor that comes from men and not the honor that comes from God.”

Maybe the body lives to flee pain and to gain pleasure. Maybe the soul lives for honor (attention and appreciation that are deserved?). Or maybe the two aren’t as far apart as we think. Maybe we don’t choose our tastes or positions because we are aesthetically or logically convinced, but because those we respect hold them.

If this is true (I’m reflecting), maybe that immeasurable thing, or at least part of it, to Mr. Woodlief refers, is the soul’s infinite craving for a well done from somebody who matters to us, i.e. somebody we honor. That’s what Hoffman got from the Academy. But it wasn’t enough.

That reminds me of Achilles in the Iliad. He lost his honor, given to him by Agamemnon and therefore subject to Agamemnon’s will. He discovered that any honor others give us is as firm as the wisdom and strength of the giver.

Since Achilles had chosen honor over a long, painless life, this enraged him existentially. The whole Iliad is an expression of the inexpressible, uncontrollable rage that he felt when he discovered the treachery, not only of his “king”, but of the cosmos itself. Thus Homer: Sing goddess the rage of Peleus’ son, Achilles and…

Achilles tried to get an honor that could never be threatened. I can’t tell if he got it. Maybe Homer gave him the honor Agamemnon couldn’t. Was that enough?

Perhaps the hunger is so limitless that only a limitless Being can satisfy it.

If that’s the case, it might offer an answer to this really practical and appropriate starting question from Charles:

“Or maybe we are simply not missing anything worth missing. What have really lost? The fear of the unknown out there? Was it of any value in the first place?”

It’s not a sociological/historical question so much as a personal existential question. Is there a way to get an honor that can actually satisfy the hunger of our souls? Does the profess we have experienced provide that guidance?

While my worldview leads me to suggest it doesn’t, I’m open to other thoughts. This question seems so important to me that I have rudely written a long comment on Rod’s blog. Please pardon me

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