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  • Thinking Mortal Thoughts
  • Debra San

There is something quite odd about the ancient Greek advice to “think mortal thoughts” (or “think of mortal things”), for what human being past the flush of youth has not trembled at the thought of mortality? Consciousness of our mortal condition is considered a hall-mark of the human species, and is no doubt the reason we alone among the species on the planet entertain notions of divinity. Why then are we counseled to think about what we cannot help thinking about anyway? And what purpose does the advice serve: are those who tender it eager to promote their own fearful frame of mind? Or, on the contrary, are they urging us to be courageous in the face of death? Perhaps the advice intended is to eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Or perhaps “mortal thoughts” are suicidal thoughts, and the object is to shuffle off this mortal coil in a manner, time, and place of our own choosing.

Clearly, taken out of context, the injunction “think mortal thoughts” can mean any number of things. But in the context of ancient Greek culture, “think mortal thoughts” means roughly this:

“Since you are not one of the immortal gods, be mindful of your limits as a human being. Consciousness of the inevitability of your death should inform the way you live your life, for just as your lifespan is limited by your mortality, so too are your capacities for understanding, for action, and for achievement. This is the truth of your condition; if you don’t accept it, you’ll be frustrated at best, and at worst you’ll incur divine wrath and retribution for attempting to push past your proper human boundaries into sacred turf where you don’t belong and aren’t wanted. Don’t trespass. Don’t even think about it. Don’t assume, in a futile exercise of hubris, that you’re a special case whose transgression [End Page 16] (huperbasia) will be exempt from dire consequences. Gnothi sauton, know yourself as a mortal being, and meden agan, do nothing to excess, or you will suffer the fate of Icarus, who aimed too high and died for it, or the fate of Phaethon, who was destroyed by forces which he thought he could control.”

The advice presented here echoes throughout classical Greek drama, whose tragic protagonists are the theatrical descendants of Icarus and Phaethon. When Antigone compares herself to Niobe, the Chorus must remind her that “she was a god, born of gods, and we are only mortals born to die” (925–26). 1 In her failure to think mortal thoughts, Antigone resembles her father, whose refusal to acknowledge his limits is so profound that even after mutilating himself in horror at the discovery of his own transgressions, he must still be reminded that he is no longer “the master of all things” (1675). 2 Pentheus in the Bacchae lacks the stature of either Oedipus or Antigone, but like them he has pretensions beyond the limits befitting a mortal; he fails to exercise the “simple wisdom [that] shuns the thoughts of proud, uncommon men and all their god-encroaching dreams” (427–29). 3 In his arrogant and unrealistic attempt to pit his own puny powers against the incomparable force of the immortal Dionysus, Pentheus suffers the fate of those whose hubris overcomes the temperate virtue of sōphrosunē, “the wisdom that accepts” (390). Even the bloodthirsty, pre-Eumenides Furies of the Eumenides accept the limits which moderation entails: they understand that Zeus “appointeth the mean as the master in all things” (531). 4

One might expect that this cautionary, temperate strain in Greek thinking would appeal to Aristotle, whose doctrine of the mean in Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics might have come straight out of the Oresteia. And yet, when the caution is expressed in the maxim “think mortal thoughts,” Aristotle rejects it, claiming that human beings should try to aim their thoughts at a level so high it cannot really be reached by mortals, which is to say a level as high as that of the immortal gods, whose contemplative, intellectual activity (theōria) soars far above...

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