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Setting a Standard

By on March 13, 2019
by Prof. Christos Yannaras

by Prof. Christos Yannaras

His name was Nikos Mouyiaris. He died on January 5 in New York, where he lived. The newspapers described him as a “businessman and philanthropist” (Kathimerini January 6, 2019). These words both seem empty. He was my friend, and I was honored by his friendship. This article is my farewell to him, which the reader will allow me to place in the public domain. I believe it to be of interest to the public as a whole.

When somebody dies, all the activities and characteristics, which – for those who are still alive, those who remain – constitute and define their “existence,” come to an end. Their mind is extinguished, their speech is lost along with the way they looked, the way they expressed themselves. Their senses disappear. Their “soul,” which, as Aristotle affirms, “is in a way all existing things” comes to an end – just as the “parts” of the soul “in some manner appear to be infinite.” The human body, which manifests the soul and makes it communicable (by smile, gesture, gait), now dead, is a useless object in a process of rapid decay – just like the carcass of a dead animal.

Rainer Maria Rilke writes: “Formerly it must have been different. At that time one knew (or perhaps one guessed it) that one had one’s death within one, as a fruit its kernel. The children had a little death within them and the grown-ups a big one. The women had it in their womb and the men in their breast…. They all have a death of their own…. And what a melancholy beauty it gave to women when they were pregnant and stood there, and in their big bodies, upon which their slender hands instinctively rested, were two fruits: a child and death. Did not the dense, almost nourishing smile on their quite vacant faces come from their sometimes thinking both were growing?”

Nikos Mouyiaris, in memoriam

Nikos Mouyiaris, in memoriam

How shall we describe the being of the human fœtus? As life or as death? As “in potentiality” (within the perspective of its development, the fœtus has the presuppositions for life and yet it is still not alive). It must be “born” in order to live. “Birth” (the abandoning of the womb by the severing of the umbilical cord which lends the fœtus a life borrowed from its mother’s body) is a traumatic experience and leaves its traces in our psychological make-up. Yet without this trial the fœtus will neither continue to exist nor will it ever be constituted as a rational subject.

By the standards (presuppositions, experiences) of conscious life, human birth is a death: what ends with birth is not a phase but a mode of existence – the fœtus ceases to exist and it ceases to do so violently: the cord is severed which lends it existence, the fœtus is wrenched away from the embrace of the existential protection given to it by the womb.

The fœtus “knows” nothing of the life beyond its death, of the mode of existence after its birth. What subsists is that by its birth it ceases to exist, and that this existential “end” is experienced by every fœtus absolutely on its own. Birth is an event of utter aloneness, an unshared experience.

No fœtus has ever “gone back” to become a fœtus again after its birth. None has ever returned to the fœtuses as an infant to “inform” them what the reality of their existence will be after their birth! A human being comes into life in total ignorance and in absolute solitude, just as he or she departs from life in total ignorance of what lies beyond and in absolute solitude.

The words “life” and “death” before any other cognate sense refer to the phenomenicity of biological existence: they distinguish animate existence from lifeless matter. They also present, however, as an experiential given, the distinction between “being” and “appearance.” Mozart is no longer alive, yet he is actively existent in his musical creation – he remains an active existent uniqueness. Whoever discerns the otherness of his music (relates to – loves – his musical expression) knows Mozart (his existence, his being) incomparably more fully and more vividly than any contemporary, any neighbour, who perhaps simply ascertained the phenomenal appearance of his physical presence every day but had no relationship with him.

Every day and every hour of his seventy-two years, Nikos Mouyiaris built up his tireless creative social presence, his enlightened patriotism, his smiling, transparent, selfless “philanthropy.”

He sets a standard for the quality of our life.

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