Athanatizein

Why do people take endless photos and selfies of themselves in various locations? Why do people scribble their names on walls? Why broadcast minute details of their lives over social media? The answer to this is man’s natural inclination to immortalize, what the Greeks called αθανατίζειν (athanatizein)—the active process of making oneself immortal. The aristocratic class pursued this by means of military campaigns. The learned pursued this by means of poetry and philosophy. The craftsman could attain it by means of great art. The lower classes were in the worst position in regards to this, the slaves having almost no opportunity at all to become a lasting part of history. And yet even they possessed that same desire, demonstrated, for example, by Roman brick making slaves leaving their names on their bricks.

There was one channel of immortalization available for all, lower classes included, and this was religion—religion in the widest possible sense of all encompassing tradition. For example, there was the communal singing and dancing procession that went through Greek cities in ancient times, there was a communal singing tradition in times of Christianity (which, in places, still persists). If the lower classes could not become historical figures, they could merge into a cultural torrent that maintained a permanent direction, becoming a part timeless cultural patterns to be replicated and relived again and again.

The death of tradition and the fall of religion in the West has closed this channel, spilling the energy of man’s desire for self expression into other outlets. In the absence of a real political (i.e. public) sphere—to which the lower classes were never admitted anyway—and in the absence of a communal tradition, human expression takes the form of scribbles on walls—on physical walls of our streets in the form of graffiti, and on the digital walls of our virtual reality in the form of social media feeds. And even though writing on this digital canvas is like writing on sand before the coming tide, the mind can do nothing else but make its mark, as if to say: “I exist!”

Published May 2016

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