Answering Silenus: Comprehending the Meaning of Existence through the Quandary of the Unborn
Ashleen Bagnulo, Ph.D.
The Wisdom of Silenus
As a graduate student, I received direction I will never forget: “To confront your questions, you’ll have to confront the wisdom of Silenus in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy”. My beloved professor’s words went directly to my heart because before I ever read a word of Nietzsche, I had unwittingly tried to muster up an answer to Silenus’s wisdom:
I grew up in a region of the country that was both openly religious, where people used religious language to discuss morality and policy; and was also confronted with the problems that convulse the nation: racism, immigration, rural and white-working-class poverty, and methamphetamine and prescription-drug addiction. In contrast to the stark poverty, there also were enclaves of considerable wealth, property, and comfort.
In my youth, I first became aware of the differences between my comfortable life, filled with material stability and consistent family relationships, and the stories of abuse and neglect that others suffered. I began to lose my faith in God. I could not understand why so much of seemed randomly distributed. Why had I been given so much while other people around me had been victims of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at the hands of those who were supposed to love them? Some people were born with so much need that it seemed they never had the opportunity to have the building blocks of virtue, the chance to learn from someone else what it meant to be good?
I also experienced personal and familial heartache – illness, loss, trauma, and pain. Not only did I begin to wonder about God, I began to wonder why it was better for any of us to have ever been born at all. For many people, life is a struggle and a constant experience of contingency and deprivation.
Even if you’re wealthy, no one can escape suffering, for example, Augustine writes even friendship, one of the most beautiful things in life, is marked by loss – “yet the more friends we have, and the more widely they are scattered, the more numerous are our fears that some portion of the vast masses of the disasters of life may light upon them…. For if their life has solaced us with the charms of friendship, can it be that their death should affect us with no sadness?....Hence arises that grief which affects the tender heart like a wound or a bruise, and which is healed by the application of kindly consolation[i]”.
Though the gift of faith returned to me with age, I gradually began to understand that the blessing to exist did not come from me. I told myself existence was good because God had made me. As I read and studied, I further understood that existence was good because God is the fullness of being. Aristotle talked of the “regime to be prayed for[ii]”, the fortune that could enter into limited political and ethical circumstances and lead to an element of flourishing in scarcity I learned about “vicious culture” and the potential for the erasure of the secondary precepts of the natural law from the hearts of man[iii]. From contemporary thinkers like Robert P. George, J. Budziszewski, and Alasdair MacIntyre, I learned that the Christian intellectual tradition possessed some of the most fertile ground for engaging with modernity’s deepest practical and theoretical questions. From my upbringing I saw that the love and blessings you give to others are the only things you can control.Aquinas
My professor in graduate school had read my heart – even with time and education and religious practice, I still could not understand why it was better for me to have come to be. I struggled with the issue of why someone would commit suicide, a deliberate renunciation of the gift of life, an acting out of the longing not to be anymore.
Answering Silenus through the Gift of Radical Natality
Something amazing allowed me to answer the wisdom of Silenus and to explain why it is better to have been created than to have never been born – the miracle of new life.
The process began with the birth of my daughter, as I experienced a new kind of joy and awe in her beauty and love; yet joy still could not bring me the peace of knowing why it was better to exist in a world of suffering, because without a radical valuing of life, I was like those whose “joy may be compared to glass in its fragile splendor, of which one is horribly afraid lest it should suddenly be broken in pieces[iv]”. I worried for her and her happiness in this world even though I believed in the next world, and I held her close to me in fear that something might happen to her; I stayed awake at night worrying about failing her.
To understand the gift of life most fully, I had to know how to experience life with total loss. This occurred when I miscarried a child in 2017, early enough in the pregnancy that I could not know the child’s gender, and could not even confidently imagine who they had been. This is an experience so common to humans that for many it is unremarkable. But for some time, I had waited to conceive again and had dreamed of giving my daughter a sibling to love and play with; I had eagerly hoped that our family would grow and I would see my husband smiling and holding a newborn of ours again. But this child was not meant to be born, and all the love and dreams connected with the child never entered the world as anything other than potential.
Childbirth as a source of moral and political renewal, a concept that has been notably treated by Socrates (Theaetetus 148 E 3-151C6), Saint Paul (Romans 8:22) and Arendt, is powerful and instructive. Arendt writes, That there be a beginning, man was created before whom there was nobody” said Augustine in his political philosophy. This beginning is not the same as the beginning of the world; it is not the beginning of something but of somebody, who is a beginner himself”[v]” But my child never had a beginning in the world outside of my womb. As far as I knew, they never experienced the beautiful things in life, like human love and created beauty, and wonder and knowledge – things that before had been the only parts of life that helped me to keep going. My unborn child’s experience of life had simply been conception, growth, and quick death in a dark space. I could not imagine a better example of Silenus’s claim that we are made only to suffer and die.
For the first time in my I could not imagine a better response to Silenus. The loss of my unborn child, who never had a chance at life in the world, taught me that even just being created is an experience so filled with meaning and import that it alone justifies existence. My child came into being, but left before they were known by anyone but God. Yet, I would never wish for anything other than the creation of their soul as something so meaningful and beautiful that the world is better for the addition of this one soul to human community, in heaven and on earth. And I realized through loss that the same can be said for any soul that has come into being whether they saw the light of day or never left the womb; whether they lived with certainty, health and power, love or loss, or loneliness and suffering. life
Maker of every soul and everybody. It is by participation in Him that all are happy who are happy in truth and not in emptiness. Neither heaven nor earth, neither angel nor man, not even the inward parts of the smallest and most inconsiderable animal, nor the feather of a bird, nor a tiny flower of a plant nor the leaf on the tree, has God left unprovided with a harmony and, as it I found particular consolation in Augustine’s words about God as the origin of anything with being, and the provider of creation’s happiness: “The supreme and true God, then… is the one almighty God, the Creator andwere, a peace among its parts.[vi]”
that I might live eternally and in this sense wholly. But what about now, when everything is prone to decay? In what way can I say that life matters now – is it only These words both comforted and challenged me. If creation is so deeply rooted and sustained by God’s goodness, the suffering we have is the deprivation of good that comes from our temporal nature. I knew from faithin its potential?
When does life matter?
I am not alone in wondering about the conditions under which life matters, or if it matters and has at all. We live in a social and political culture that wonders the same thing – the West. If we can view modernity’s herald, Machiavelli and his culmination; Nietzsche, as men who attempted to liberate us from the obligations of good and evil, we can see our life after them as an attempt to find a home in a world in which it is hard to find intelligible meaning. Bereft of natural human impulses to make meaning that have.” We are [viii]” - to dedicate oneself to one’s community or to the transcendent, European philosopher Pierre Manent observes. “With these two most fundamental movements of the soul repressed or frustrated, the soul no longer recognizes itself[vii] motivated earlier ages, “modernity rests on the repression…of the two most human affectsaimless, and wonder about meaningful purpose.meaning
Unable to recognize ourselves as a culture, we cannot understand our purpose and our dignity. We begin to value life conditionally, because life is so hard, that its gratuitous value is not obvious. The vulnerable among us are given less protection because the conditions under which they live do not seem meaningful to us. They are viewed as little, weak, and ineffective. On the other hand, when we value what is beautiful, wealthy and powerful, attributes we admire because they stave off the contingency and suffering of our common existence. Understanding scarcity without understanding dignity leads to a culture of death. We cannot understand what justice requires without starting from the premise that each individual life is a gift and should be valued.
The problem of not understanding life’s value is not a liberal or conservative problem – the spiritual, moral, and material deprivation, and suffering that characterizes human life characterizes our entire experience. The conditions which we think life matters on the left and the right are problematic.
I am hoping to suggest something more foundational. As long as we are unable to answer the question of why we matter, we will give insufficient and intentionally or unintentionally evil answers about who matters. What we need is an experience of renewal; perhaps one that embraces the loss and uncertainty that characterize life on earth. Even authentic human virtues alone are not enough to save us from earthly suffering, because as Augustine tells us “true virtues tell no such lies, but they profess that by the hope of the future world this life, which is miserably involved in the many and great evils of this world, is happy as it is also safe.[ix]” What we need is something that moves us beyond only trying to build up security or certainty in the face of change and flux – what we need is hope that begins in the appreciation of human dignity in and of itself, as gratuitously valuable. From this position, we can summon our political arts and apply prudence to untangle difficult questions in a world of limitation and loss. Augustine reminds us that “if any man uses this life with a reference to that other which he ardently loves and confidently hopes for, he may well be called even now blessed, though not in reality so much as in hope[x].” Before we move on to the complexities of judgments that are required in political life, perhaps by accepting the radical value of life in the midst of human suffering we will limit the horizon of what we hope politics can accomplish, and simultaneously, see value in fostering what is vulnerable, small, and fragile in distinction to what seems powerful, worthwhile, and strong. By beginning from a renewed understanding and appreciation of what is, it is my hope that our culture can reorient itself to begin from premises that are sounder and less fear-filled – secure in the meaning and beauty of human life even in the midst of suffering. Though Silenus is correct to suggest that we are 'Suffering creatures, born for a day”, we are not merely children of “accident”; we are instruments through which the fullness of being chooses to reveal itself.
[i] St. Augustine City of God Book 19.5
[ii] Aristotle Politics Book 7-8
[iii] Aquinas Summa Theologiae I-II, Question 94 Article 6
[iv] Augustine City of God 4.3
[v] Hannah Arendt The Human Condition, 177-178
[vi] Augustine City of God 5.11
[vii] Pierre Manent, Metamorphoses of the City, 217
[viii] Pierre Manent, Metamorphoses of the City, 217
[ix] City of God, Book 19.5
[x] City of God Book 19.20
Suffering creature, born for a day, child of accident and toil, why are you forcing me to say what is the most unpleasant thing for you to hear? The very best thing for you is totally unreachable: not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing.