May 312011
 

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” – George Santayana

Popularly misattributed to Plato, it was Spanish-American George Santayana who first wrote that ringing phrase in his “Soliloquies in England” in 1924, just after the greatest, most horrifying war the world had ever seen. No wise and ancient philosopher tucked away among refined Ionic columns, but a man who, like many of his time, witnessed the devastating power and tragedy of violence on a scale previously unimaginable, and for the pettiest of reasons. The phrase was not so much a philosophical observation, as a mockery of those who would celebrate too soon the tenuous peace they had accomplished through violent means, who foolishly dreamed that the war was over. A phrase written by a man who would live to see another World War spring from the festering wounds of humiliated, impoverished Germany, and the stirrings of the Cold War to follow — a man who most famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Plato did have some things to say about war, as well. “When the tyrant has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader.” Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. I can’t help but think that there is some cosmic irony in the fact that it was General Douglas MacArthur, dismissed from command by Truman for insubordination and publicly promoting aggressive war tactics against the President’s orders, who first attributed Santayana’s quote to Plato in a farewell speech to the cadets at West Point on May 12, 1962, only months before the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust. In his farewell speech, MacArthur praised American soldiers as the greatest lovers of peace, while insisting that war and victory must be their sole obsession. Only the dead have seen the end of war.

I know little about death and what our ancestors, the beloved dead, would say or do if they were alive today. I find it hard to believe that Plato would be anything less than horrified by the mechanisms of global warfare and violence that we have invented in the last century; I imagine that he, like Santayana and so many other philosophers of our time, would struggle to reconcile such sweeping violence with a belief that there is reason and structure within the chaos, that he would be forced to temper his Idealism with the realities of impersonal genocide, chemical and biological weapons of mass suffering, remote-control drones and sophisticated technologies of destruction. But if he were living today, Plato would not be the Plato of history that we remember and honor, the philosopher contemplating the shadows in his cave with what we like to imagine as a kind of prescient wisdom. He would be somebody else entirely. So I can’t say what our dead might think, feel or desire.

But I do believe that the dead live on in us. Decay is only another kind of creation, and as the poet Gary Snyder writes, “The other side of the ‘sacred’ is the sight of your beloved in the underworld, dripping with maggots.” The cycles of nature make this much clear: death is not an ending, but only another turn in the spiraling trajectory of life’s will to unfold itself into the universe. The dead live on in us. Whether in the form of literal reincarnation, souls taking up the mud and blood of the world to mold new bodies in which to make their homes — or as a metaphor that speaks of life feasting on life, each atom of air, each molecule of water cycling and recycling through countless beings, connecting us all in an eternal weft of flesh woven through the strung up warp of the horizon — is a matter for theological debate. Either way, we come to face the horrifying fact that life continues.

Horrifying, because it forces us to look at the past with different eyes. It reveals that notion — that “the dead have seen the end of war” — as a last vain hope, so long as those of us still living pursue war and violence as a means to a someday future peace. If the dead live on in us, then what kind of life do we owe to our ancestors, who fought and died — as we do still today — for the hope that it would not be the dead, but the living who would benefit? Maybe they fought for noble reasons, believing they did what was right, believing that their participation in violence could some day bring about a better world. Do we prove them wrong? The breath of that officer who once shouted his commands now fills the gasping lungs of the refugee driven from her home by bombs. The blood of the soldier spilled defending his country now runs as tears down the cheeks of the children of our enemies who, too, have lost fathers and brothers to war. We are all connected. Life continues.

On Memorial Day, I find it difficult to celebrate the militarism of our culture with barbecues and fireworks. I am brought up short by the irony of history and the ambivalence of memory. I remember not only those who have died before me, but that those of us living today are the future they were dying for, and the weight of that obligation keeps me sober and sad. That we have failed our ancestors in some way by failing to live more peaceful lives… that we have failed them by perpetuating “the Old Lie, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”*… that we have failed them by continuing to put off and postpone the real and difficult work of peace for another day, another generation…. those are the thoughts that linger in my mind when so many of the people around me seem eager to forget everything but the glory and the triumph and the self-congratulations of the victorious.

But on the day after Memorial Day, I square my shoulders and get back to work. There is much to be grateful for, and many of our beloved dead who left us legacies of peace who deserve to be remembered as well. If Memorial Day is a day to grieve the deaths of those who sought, whether nobly or foolishly, to secure a better peace through acts of war, the day after Memorial Day — and every other day besides — is a day to honor their memory by living that peace they hoped for, and ensuring that our own descendants have less reason to grieve.

~

* From the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” by Wilfred Owen, British poet and WWI soldier, who voluntarily returned to the front lines in order to continue to document the horrors of war, and who died in battle exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice.

Mar 172010
 

Much of the conversation regarding health care in our country revolves around cost and what the government’s responsibility is towards the citizens in providing health care.  Sprinkled throughout are bits about greedy doctors, litigious lawyers, and rich taxpayers.  Very little is said about the role that you and I play in maintaining our health.  We are looked at as helpless consumers, too immature to do or understand simple things to keep ourselves healthy.  If we are unwilling to take even the most basic of steps to maintain our health, how we can we castigate doctors and government for not doing enough to help us?  Just as I look to Hellenismos for inspiration on how to manage my finances, I’ve also found wisdom in how to be an active partner in maintaining my health.

In Hellenismos there are several gods that attend to health and wellness because it is such a complex and interconnected issue. Apollon could bring plagues or avert them.  Young men spent hours at the gymnasia, exercising as a devotional offering to Apollon, honing the body along with the intellect.  Healer-priests and physician descendants of Asclepios, such as Hippocrates of the temple at Cos, used the arts of surgery, medicine, prayer, dreams, diet, mineral baths, and songs to heal patients.  Asclepiops’ temples were the first hospitals.  I won’t name all of Asclepios’ divine children, but Hygeia was often worshiped along side Her father.  Hygeia helped patients with prevention of sickness and the continuation of sound physical and mental health.  She encouraged good sanitation practices.

Basic sanitation, surgery, preventative care, diet, medicines, mental health, exercise, prayer and divine intercession, public health initiatives, and what we call alternative medicine are related and interconnected through Apollon’s divine family.  Government, Doctors and Healer Priests, and Citizens all had roles they were expected to play.  Back then, more of the burden was shouldered by individual citizens than by doctors or the government.  Today, almost none of the burden lays with the citizen.  Perhaps it’s time to combine the best of the old with the best of the new?

Apollonian Medicine: Immunizations and Exercise
Immunization: The government should offer free immunizations to all citizens.  Health professionals can either be employed or reimbursed by the government to administer the immunization.  Citizens have a responsibility to get the immunization.

Exercise: This, along with diet, is the number 1 area that Americans need to work on to improve their health and it’s not something that the government or doctors bear much responsibility for.  It’s all on us. Even walking for 15 minutes just 3 days a week can yield remarkable benefits and costs us nothing. How many of us do even that little bit to manage our health? How can we ask others – such as the government, fellow taxpayers, and health care professionals – to spend time, money, and skill to help us when we show almost no desire to help ourselves.   As Nick said in a comment to my previous post about health care, “healthy eating and frequent exercise cost less, and do more good, [than] heart transplants.”

Seven out of ten Americans don’t exercise regularly.  We know the benefits of regular exercise to both our physical and mental health we just don’t do it.  To name a few of those benefits:

Lack of regular exercise not only hurts our health, it hurts our pocketbooks. Physical inactivity, overweight, and obesity were associated with 23% of health plan health care charges and 27% of national health care charges.  In 2000 an estimated $117 billion in health care spending in the USA was due to inactivity and obesity.  To bring it to a personal level, the average active 75 year old female with no physical limitations spends just over $1900 per year on health care costs. The average inactive 75 year old female with no physical limitations spends just over $3,200 per year on health care costs. That’s a difference of $1300 per person per year.

I have a confession to make.  I hate to exercise.  After I got out of the military I swore that the only way I would ever run again would be if someone was chasing me with a knife.  But I do stay active.  I see it as part of my duty to myself, my family, to my community, and to the Gods to stay fit.  Most every morning, I do 12 Sun Salutations while chanting prayers to Helios.  That’s not a huge effort in time or energy, but it it does the job.  Like my coreligionists from long ago, I dedicate this exercise as a devotional offering.  Also like them, reciprocation plays a large role in how I live.  I give so that I may receive.  I receive improved mental health from some quiet, meditative time before the chaos of the day starts along with improved physical health.  I certainly receive more than I give.  But first, I have to be willing to give.  We all have to be willing to give.

Hail Apollon Akesios!

Next blog post: Asclepios Medicine – Combining Traditional and Alternative medicine with a spiritual component.