Rehearsing and wagering

“Life is a rehearsal for death.” Such is a common sentiment open to infinite interpretations. The spiritual may argue that what we do must be governed by our end, a teleology of diurnal living, so that actions, thoughts, and plans must conform to a higher vision. One may argue that death undoes everything, and that we must prepare ourselves to renounce what we cling to because we are not that which we desire. At the same time, still others will simply call for a maximum of pleasure. But it is not life but death that evokes the totality of our persons, as Dylan Thomas puts it so tortuously.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Whether we are of “frail deeds” or not, the temptation to rage will be there because of the wound of consciousness. We will realize that no amount of rehearsing will have prepared us for the final act.

But some will argue that life is not a rehearsal for death and that God or the gods deliberately place us here to enjoy consciousness and the fruits of being human. Similarly, thoughtless people grasp for every particle of amusement in daily life and give no thought to death, anymore than they give thought to anything else. These promise us that they will certainly not rage — or they will rage the more loudly at the loss of what constituted their lives.

The whole issue seems premised on a version of Pascal’s wager, wherein we act in a certain way because we bet on the existence of God, not being able to afford the consequences of not believing if, after all, God does exist. Pascal argues not so much for the existence of God but for a specific behavior of God in punishing all who do not believe what Pascal believes. We assume that the issue is a theological one when in fact it is an ethical one. One may argue that regardless of theological belief, everything comes down to ethics.

Pascal may be deemed a “consequentialist.” The consequences we bring upon ourselves on earth (but primarily in the afterlife) are based not on ethics so much as belief, the notion being that no ethics are sufficient to override the content of belief.

The non-believer’s reply is that an ethical belief would be rewarded by an ethical God regardless of whether the person held this or that personal belief.

But Pascal is ready to trap the non-believer by insisting on the content of belief. He would condemn the non-believer’s lack of belief as overthrowing any good that they may ever have done. The non-believer loses the wager simply by not betting.

In this case, the non-believer is not simply an atheist or agnostic but also the “other-than” believer, for Pascal offered a rather narrow set of beliefs to which his interlocutor must adhere. The content of beliefs of the many cultures and societies in the world (of which Pascal would not even have heard) would probably have their own version of his wager — except that they would insist on a different set of beliefs. The wager extends culturally (not logically) in terms of content and detail, like betting on different objects under the shell or on different cards not even in the deck. But always the bet is weighed against the better, who must guess the hidden number or card or a letter in the mind of the host.

The “other-than” believers may simply be Pascal’s counterparts in another part of the world. Or they may be “maximalists.” If the latter, they intend to maximize their contentment on earth, either through pleasure or ethical behavior — to maximize utility or happiness irregardless of God, or rather, irregardless of the content of the particular person’s faith, irregardless of the particular person (or institution, etc.) which has set up the table and invites or coerces passersby to bet.

The whole notion of a wager is distasteful, with its odor of deception, greed, and fraud. Even if we wager with ourselves only, we still must take into account all the cultural and social input that we happen to have encountered in our circumscribed life. We must realize that we are basing everything on feelings. We cannot assimilate all the arguments of probability and philosophy if the wager comes down to how one feels. That is why we had best abstain from Pascal’s wager, any wager, for that matter. The deck is stacked, the cards are marked, and nothing we do changes the outcome. No one can claim to prove that anyone has won, and even if they could it would not change the odds.

The solitary knows that the careful scrutiny of thoughts and beliefs reveals the imprint of culture and society. Our experiences can make us pessimists or optimists but it does not matter what we think as much as whether we are aware of our feelings, our fears, our motives. The one who lures others to wager and the one lured by the thought of reward over punishment play contrived and unwholesome roles. Our moral point of view does not change the outcome of the wager because life is rigged in favor of not belief but death.

Life is, indeed, a rehearsal for death, but it is not a wager. Our own stubborn hearts, full of desire, pit life against death, winning against losing, reward against punishment. These equations are capable of destroying the imagination and distorting a relationship to the world and nature from which can spring a genuine ethic.

If we are always rehearsing, we are never engaged in the role and only wondering whether we are living yet. Yet when we stop rehearsing, then we must be responsible for everything. At that point we can change the phrase. Not “Life is a rehearsal for death” but “Life is a trajectory towards death.”

That latter sentiment will emphasize that the play is ongoing and has been for millennia. We don’t have to practice or know any lines. We have only to remain silent. We can be “minimalists.” For only in silence and solitude will we recognize what the stage really looks like, what the audience really wants, and whether we want to accept someone else’s script.

Politics of Eremitism (10)

The folly of society attempted to change itself and its course using the same contrived tools that brought it to its present precipice is an important lesson for the solitary.

Intrinsic to power and authority are the means of retaining and replicating itself, and these tools cannot be relinquished without self-destruction. Even such a devolution would not last. Some other aspirant to power and control would quickly fill the vacuum. This process could be described as an evolutionary instinct: the instinct of self-preservation and reproduction. Except that we are not speaking of individuals but of social and political institutions, of cultures and circles of power. Hence, the analogy of instincts is not accurate, but the desire for power and the extension and preservation of power is a good description.

The solitary already senses that institutions and organizations are not authentic beings. Indeed, they are abstractions, projections of individuals holding power, extending their power into families, associates, dynasties, cultural institutions, and ultimately into strong political, social, economic institutions, organizations, and structures. In turn, these entities can manipulate material conditions. Since these conditions include resources and infrastructure that moves them through society and provides individuals with consumable products and services, the abstractions then take on an aura of necessity and even a contrived naturalness, so that people assume they cannot live without them and that they evolved naturally and inevitably.

But the solitary looks at them with bafflement. These entities do not exist, epistemologically speaking. They appear to exist because countless individuals have acceded to their creation and renounced their autonomous spiritual status to them, transferring it to larger abstract entities (that is, to those behind the entities).

These entities (and they are familiar enough as institutions, organizations, groups, and collective legal fictions) are abstractions in the sense that they are arrangements and relationships between and among people. They are not concrete things. The material conditions in which we live appear as they do because of human inventiveness — or exploitation. The entities or structures themselves are no more than power relationships, as Foucault conceived of them. To the solitary, they are not inevitable in the epistemological sense.

That part of human relationship which entails a subordination to structures due to the threat of violence and harm does force the hermit to conform to power. We can think of laws that are not just, coercions that are unprovoked, societal and individual uses of power that are motivated by human aggression and vice — all these things force the solitary to conform outwardly, to submission or cooperation.

But understanding their origins helps the solitary to understand their evanescence and their lack of virtue, to understand that they exist out of what most spiritual traditions call the sinfulness of human beings, which might be called the complex web of mixed evolutionary inheritance, wherein human beings cannot distinguish their instincts or desires from a natural fellow-feeling in a social context.

An earlier post described the simple spectrum of social hierarchy found in the average person:

individual –> family –> community

The individual is concerned only for autonomy defined as reciprocity; the family-member is concerned only for the welfare of genetic kin; the community-member is concerned for group, regional, and institutional entities. It is these latter that constitute the breeding ground for power (not that families don’t). In “community” arises authority over large movements and social flows. And yet the community entities created and inherited generation after generation are abstractions. They have no real basis for existence except that we concede their legitimacy to wield power, a concession usually made at the point of coercion.

The hermit has always sensed this artificiality. Not necessarily being an intellectual, the solitary could not articulate this restless unease, this dissatisfaction with the world. The hermit knew that it was ultimately not a dissatisfaction with nature. However harsh and merciless the apparent ways of nature, the cycles of sorrow and suffering, they always seemed an inevitable context, a stage in which certain conditions were irrevocably placed, all of which called for deep reflection and understanding, not-too-facile acceptance, but not struggle or denial.

But the entities we call society and culture have always seemed to hermits of every age and culture to be, precisely, contrivances. They have been called vanities and red dust and illusions by the poets and sages, but only the hermit was willing to step back from, to disengage from, the relational aspect of the world.

This does not mean that the hermit needs to condemn anything or anyone, for that would be a form of engagement. From a philosophical and ethical point of view, the world (by which is meant the world of human contrivance) would stand largely condemned in itself. The source of the human contrivance would not be its mere facticity but originate in the contrived emergence of these entities and relations, from the social mind and desire of human beings.

The hermit is accused of indifference and hardheartedness for having the insight to see but not the desire to engage and help. And it may well be true in the case of hermits who are driven by an ideology of ego or are made misanthropes by harsh experiences. But the authentic solitary knows that what is ill with the world and with people is acquiescence to the large contrived edifice of power and authority, including false rebellion from it.

What is ill with the world is not something intrinsic to a given individual. We are all products of experience, genetics, and emotions, but, more to the point, we are primarily the products of contrivances.

How can an individual understand the world using the tools of contrivance? Science, reason, and tradition are not independent of human culture, society and manipulation. We have nothing to depend upon except that which precedes and exists independent of these contrivances. And seeing or sensing this, the solitary appears to be aloof and cynical, but is only seeing or sensing a reality that exists behind the phantasms that people expend themselves on.

Consciousness is a painful wound that nearly everyone tries to heal by conformity and identification with abstractions, by channeling emotions into grander schemes created by others more powerful and manipulative than themselves. We look upon the cycle of pain and sorrow in the animal world and wonder how it can be endured. But our own suffering is only worsened by the identification with entities defined by others, not our own doing.

We heal the wound of consciousness by identifying with the natural patterns that elude us, that rush on like a silent and invisible river or that trickle by like the quiet drops of water falling into the thawing soil at spring. We heal ourselves by disengaging from the world that others made and which frustrates the emergence of our own imaginative response to reality, a response that is as unique as the complex composite that we individuals are.


Could the magos of antiquity provide a prototype of the hermit? There are two confluences: institutional and individual, that of the authorized and that of the unsanctioned, that of the community and public culture, and that of the solitary and insightful.

The earliest practitioners of what the Greeks called magic were the priestly castes of the Persian Empire. These priests were called magoi. They officiated rites at sacrifices and funerals, and other established religious ceremonies. The ancient Greeks, as enemies of the Persians, ascribed evil motives and powers to the magoi, not noticing that they themselves had similar priests performing similar functions doubtless considered evil in motive and power by the Persians.

The evolving interpretation of magic and religion is succinctly illustrated by the cultures of antiquity, especially the Hebrew/Jews. In the first stage, as a small and powerless culture surrounded by larger cultural entities and empires, the Hebrews accepted the authenticity of multiple gods and their powers. This is the earliest stage and a stage at which all the (other) cultures of antiquity remained.

In the second stage, the gods of the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Babylonians, etc., are deemed to exist and to exert their power — but the Hebrew god’s power is increasing, rivaling, and finally greater than all the rest. Thus the contest between the god of the Phoenician priests and the god of the Jews in the first book of Kings, where Elijah defeats his rivals in a contest of divine intervention to demonstrate the superiority of the Jewish god.

The third stage maintains not that other gods exist, or that one god is superior to another god, but that only one god exists and that the others are false, that they do not exist, that they have no true power. Here is the beginning of exclusivism culturally, the high point of secular power and prestige spilling into the psychology of the elite.

And the fourth stage, represented by Christianity under the later Roman Empire and beyond, asserted both that the other gods were false and that their adherents derived their power from demonic powers. Thus did all non-sanctioned religious practices, all accretions of previous (pagan) religions, now representing conquered cultures, become anathema, condemned as magic. This stage parallels the growth of political and material consolidation, not at the tribal or nationalist stage but regionally, including subordinate states and cultures.

The cultural circle of established religions came round again with the establishment of parallel priestly castes performing religious rites of sacrifice and funerals. The originally small, localized tribe of stage one comes round to universalize or project its new epoch of power.

But a different trajectory occurred in the individuals who did not represent castes or powers. These, too, were dubbed magoi but were distinct in motive and aspect. The philosopher Heraclitus, living around 500 BCE, described these magoi as night-ramblers, Bacchants (adherents of Bacchus, god of wine, libertine and debauched), Maenads (disreputable women, adherents of Bacchus), and mystics, (adherents of mystery religions versus the conventional religion of the state).

Heraclitus or whoever is represented by the fragment left us, expresses a view that confirms the dominant powers of his society, motivated by the desire for stability and order. This view would naturally disdain any challenges to the religion of Olympus — even if Heraclitus himself did not believe in the gods. “The rites accepted by people in the Mysteries are an unholy performance,” he states. And yet the Greeks, if not Heraclitus, ascribed genuine power to them.

Tiresias, who appears in plays of Sophocles as a seer and prophet, is described as a magos. Tiresias advises the powerful through insight granted by the gods, yet holds no title in an official priestly caste, and is clearly a solitary, bound to be distrusted by all. From T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland:

I, Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives …

Tiresias can walk through the sinister side untouched, and through the corridors of power without desire. But because his revelations are so damning — to Oedipus in Oedipus the King and to Creon in Antigone, he is dismissed as a magos, a peddler of ill fate, a maleficent being, but inspired by Delphic oracles nevertheless, not as a fraud because he did not sell his knowledge indifferently but with great reluctance.

Plato, in The Republic, inveighs against sorcerers and diviners, as

begging priests and soothsayers [who] go to rich men’s doors and make them believe that they by means of sacrifices and incantations have accumulated a treasure of power from the gods that expiate and cure with pleasurable festivals any misdeed of a man or his ancestors, and that if a man wishes to harm an enemy, at slight cost he will be enabled to injure just and unjust a like, since they are masters of spells and enchantments that constrain the gods to serve their end.

But none of this character can be ascribed to Tiresias. There are, then, three sets of magoi. The priestly caste is clearly one side, but the other parallels the shamans and prophets distinct from the fraudulent peddlers, thieves, and con-artists. A magos not associated with the ruling caste and its priesthood, who is independent, eccentric, an ethical teacher, itinerant, homeless, viewed by authority as a potential criminal, as a fraud intent on power, will be vilified even centuries later. Living in an environment that straddled intolerant Judaism and an indifferent Roman Empire, Jesus, for example, has been depicted by some as a magos not of the priestly caste but as a fraud. Yet to automatically describe a magos as a fraud is to automatically reproduce the point of view of the ruling priestly caste, a situation found in all cultures and applied to all magoi.

In ancient Greece, the historical figure of Diogenes the Cynic emerges as another bridge to amalgamate the characteristics of the magoi. He disclaims any prophetic or magical function, any desire or ambition, reducing all to the philosophical and the ethical — yet with an air of madness, being what Plato called “Socrates gone mad.” Diogenes is an itinerant iconoclast who disrespects authority and outrages the power caste. Some of his acts are deliberately provocative and unacceptable to society, for which he was called a dog. But he accepts nothing from anyone, claims no special skills, and defrauds no one but rather forces them to think.

Diogenes is a prototype of the hermit. Eccentric eremitism carries over into early Christian times — Simon Stylites is an equivalent. The self-regulating eremitism of the desert hermits salvaged the hermit against powerful authorities and the tendencies of authorities to institutionalize the simple, the free, the ethical, prophets of a sort, magoi in the better sense.


Faith is the expectation that something is true. Hope is the expectation that faith is plausible. Plausibility is hope in meaning, but meaning is the construct of faith without the input of hope.

Hope is more difficult to maintain than faith. Faith relies on authority, on the guarantee that power asserts in its prerogative to bring forth content. Faith is content guaranteed. Hope has no such guarantee. Hope distrusts power and authority as presumed safeguards of the content of faith, guaranteers of content. Hope turns away from guarantees based on power and returns forlornly to expectation and desire.

But hope is more intelligent than faith. Too wise to depend on plausibility based solely on power or authority, hope scrutinizes faith, its object. Hope looks closely at its visage, inspects its expression and outward appearance for signs of contrivance, abuse, for “bad” faith.

Hope doubts the vehicle of faith long before even looking at its content. How can hope rely on the weak and flawed body of human tradition, on the vain and struggling conveyance that is human memory and insistence?

Only in suffering and anguish can anything authentic emerge, hope has concluded. Only then can there be something that hope can respect, that hope can have faith in. But it is too late. The hour is late, the light is waning, and it does not matter anyway because faith cannot catch up to the intellectual and intuitive content of hope.

Hope has no time to pursue abstractions and test hypotheses offered by faith, offered on faith. Besides, what content of faith will persuade hope when the evidence of centuries lies bare before it, like an open wound, with a low and mournful voice, a collective sob, evidence that reveals so little left to salvage. Just a little, just enough, perhaps, to not deny the life of a thing, to rescue the quiet and self-abnegating whispers of those who have, in good faith, hoped.

Hope is expected to be optimistic, forward-looking, positive-minded. Such are the expectations made on hope. But such a veneer, suggesting faith’s triumph, is only a little removed from smugness, arrogance, pride. Hope is the opposite, if it is careful and true to itself. Hope is humility, self-effacing, solitary.

For hope to welcome faith is to welcome an on-going future that has not proved itself, a future that necessarily breaks with the past, gainsays experience, make of hope a deliberate deconstruction not of the structures of faith but of the accumulation of experience, intuition, remembrance, and suffering gathered over time.

To throw this out, to throw it away? To rely now on nothing of its own and all of another? That is true hope, insists faith. Forget and renounce all will to faith. Power and authority will be hope’s only hope, says faith triumphantly.

If it were so, the content of faith’s present would override the wisdom of hope’s past — for that is what the past is, after all. The accumulation of the past is suffering but also wisdom borne of suffering. Hope cannot assent to renounce imagination, intuition, wisdom. Hope cannot accept the premise of power and authority as a prerequisite to faith.

Let hope release its dependence on faith, release its subordination to content. Hope has its own content, a parallel to faith over time and space. What shall last between these two parallel threads, never touching, always distrustful of one another? Unlike faith, hope can afford to throw out its content, discard, give up, release what is no longer wise, retain what needs still more attention and absorption and immersion, and then throw it out and continue to move forward, not as a line but as a spiral, taking up what is good, taking it to the next level of ascent, only dropping below and behind it that which is a burden. Hope can release what is accumulated without laying claim to anything, unlike faith which must cling to everything or risk dissolving altogether, leaving only hope.

Hope is the beginning of the path. Faith is the marker in the crossroads. “Thus far have you come on my authority, with my power,” says faith to hope, “overshadowed and nurtured and outfitted by me, as for a journey. Now you must begin the path, from this place,” faith says. “And when you begin, don’t look back.”


How little of what we think and do is based not on reason but rather habit and received convention. We function at a profound level of intuition, applying what we know or assume in social and other dealings with the world at almost an animal level of instinct and wariness. This is why books like Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, by Gerd Gigerenzer, are useful. Gigerenzer shows how intuition functions in daily life and thought in competition with and complementary to logic and reasoning.

Gigerenzer defines gut feelings as:

  1. judgment that appears quickly in consciousness,
  2. whose underlying reasons we are not fully aware of, and
  3. is strong enough to act upon.

In this sense, intuition gallops ahead of reason in already holding the criteria necessary for both judgment and action, regardless of how capable we may be of articulating this criteria. The author’s many practical examples show further how dependent on the subjective and circumstantial the basis of reason can be. A good example (though only one of dozens in the book) is ethics or moral behavior.

Gigerenzer maintains (rightly) that we own an innate capacity for morals as much as we do for language. Like his broader definition of gut feelings, our innate capacity for moral judgment lacks self-conscious awareness — actionable but not easily verbalized. Like language, morals are intuitively based on external influences, chiefly from self, family, and community. Ethical judgments reflect emotional goals at their simplest level and all the way up to functional rules of thumb as themes for action. Our social environment is filled with contingencies and interpretable circumstances that regularly elude rationality.

Thus, the individual is concerned with the minimal ethical behaviors of harm and reciprocity. Here there is a high level of tolerance for behaviors that affect only the autonomous individual.

Those who root moral values in the family emphasize reciprocity and a primitive loyalty that evolves into a broader physical or abstract community. The family is narrowly defined, and the person limits ethics to the safeguarding of that narrow circle.

The community relates non-genetically-tied individuals into symbolical relations. The community is an institutional entity or symbol emphasizing loyalty, respect for hierarchy, the group, and authority.

This process of moral capacities can be likened to the progression of reason and logic in the chronology of a person’s life. The infant quickly evolves from no overt ethical sense to soon discover the system of rewards and punishment, thus emphasizing (unconsciously) the self. Throughout the rest of life, however, the person lives in what the author calls the conventional stage. A group, small or large, intimate or abstract, comes to dominate behavior in general and especially moral behavior.

Very few people, adds Gigerenzer, attain a post-conventional stage or status. This latter is characterized by the abstract, objective state of detachment from group, based on universal principles. Ultimately, the post-conventional leaves the social context behind, even leaves behind the self. Dare we count solitaries, mystics, and highly creative souls in this stage?

The extreme end of the spectrum shares characteristics of the extreme beginning. The author does not develop this thought but it is of compelling interest. At the beginning of infancy, no conscious ego appears to exist, where the unconscious is identifiable with the entirety of environment, which is to say, with existence. At the highest stage of the post-conventional can be seen similar psychological phenomena, except of course that the individual must address a lifetime’s worth of social experience and emotions while setting out to recover the oceanic feeling of pre- and post-birth. It is as if that was always the point, after all, the getting back to the beginning of life. Thus T.S. Eliot in Little Gidding:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

Back to Gigerenzer and a summary of the conventional stage: The individual is concerned with rights and liberties, with harm and reciprocity — and little more. Within the family of genetically-related kin, moral behavior hovers around honor and the welfare of kin, with hierarchy emerging as dominant. Under community, the person relates symbolically to an in-group, represented institutionally or regionally, commanding loyalty, respect, and a sense of purity and superiority.Gigerenzer shows how this vertical system of authority is horizontal at the individual level, and begins a vertical ascent with deeper social engagement from family to community.

For the solitary, the intersection of psychological, sociological and anthropological observations in these chapters of Gigerenzer’s book is useful for understanding how to maintain the self while correctly engaging the world. We can see that allegiance to the tight circles of social environment represented not by individuals or by nature but by human contrivances ultimately constrict intuition with “objective” ideas of reasonableness and conformity to authority — which is no more than an expectation on the part of others of sanctioned behavior and belief.

Our solitude must disengage from the social environment, or at any rate from allegiance to its representatives. Our solitude needs to bring us to natural sources of inspiration, in harmony with what is not contrived by a world dominated by power and authority. We must go where we can end as we began, a part of everything and no thing, apart from everything and nothing. Cultivating a sense of intuition that uses reason but understands its subjective origins is an important step toward cultivation of a wise self.