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Diogenes: The Myth of Sisyphus

Endless and toilsome work is often called a Sisyphean task. According to Greek mythology, particularly intelligent and inventive people who, due to their extraordinary capabilities, managed to acquire knowledge and privileges previously enjoyed only by the gods were punished by the Olympian immortals, who jealously strived to keep their secret knowledge for themselves. They had to suffer because they were rich in spirit.

According to Christian gospel, those poor in spirit are blessed. The gods were afraid that the human imagination would make people stop worshiping them as soon as those poor in spirit could somehow attain the knowledge of the gods and thus become independent of their influence. Of the exceptionally capable heroes mentioned in the ancient world, three of them — Prometheus, Tantalus, and Sisyphus — deserve special consideration. Not only did Prometheus teach the desperate and ignorant how to prepare ointments to heal wounds and how to build firm houses, but he also stole fire from the gods and gave it to his wretched fellow men. For his unique contribution to the development of human self-confidence, Prometheus was severely punished by the now-weakened gods.

That Tantalus was the son of the highest god himself did not protect him from a similar fate. Being the son of Zeus, Tantalus enjoyed the hospitality of the Olympians and was often invited to dine with them. However, he betrayed their hospitality and stole ambrosia and nectar, their divine food and beverage, which were believed to grant immortality. Tantalus offered the stolen goods to his friends merely to impress them, divulging what was exclusively reserved for the divine to mortals. Upon discovery of his treacherous deeds, Tantalus’ mighty father destroyed him, banishing him to Hades forever where he would suffer extreme hunger and thirst.

Despite their fates, both Prometheus and Tantalus brought about some fundamental changes in the development of humankind. Prometheus helped people enjoy a more comfortable life, while Tantalus ignited in them a yearning for immortality. The Promethean genius has become so deeply implanted in our human nature that we cannot imagine a life without numerous facilities that not only enable us to, but also make us, live the convenient lives we enjoy today. That same Promethean genius has granted us the knowledge that, sometime in the future, our sun — the source of life — will cease to produce enough energy and thus cause the end of all creatures that creep and fly.

This knowledge has instigated in some of humankind the feeling that it is of little sense to give birth to children, and thus ensure the continuation of life, because the end of humankind is known. Few people believe that this idea is likely the main reason why the developed world, with its advanced scientific institutions and knowledge, is dying out.

What we have received from Tantalus is the desire to live forever and, naturally, enjoy the comfort created by the Promethean genius. In that yearned-for state of eternal health and youth, no children — no new generation — would be necessary. However, for the armies of very capable people who spend their lives in laboratories all around the world trying to develop a magical supplement that can grant us eternal youth, it is traumatizing to realize that such a drug simply cannot be made. Despite their best efforts, all they manage to achieve is prolonged old age, the least desirable part of the life cycle often characterized by great physical difficulty and emotional distress.

What the two great mythological heroes endowed us with can be summarized in a few words: Prometheus has implanted into our consciousness the belief that the human genius can make us godlike, and Tantalus has sparked in us the desire to enjoy everything as the gods did. Sisyphus, who was particularly cunning, reminds us that, each time the stone rolls down, the old generation is gone. The new generation can start the futile business again.

Sisyphus was particularly cunning indeed.


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