I have always loved this painting-
The commentary on this is usually something like “doomed, hopeless man faces death.” That’s not what I see. This guy is in a world of shit. His boat is dismasted, he is in stormy waters surrounded by sharks. The typical schmuck would be wetting his pants here. But this man to me seems to exude some kind of stoicism. I have trouble saying I see it in his face as it is small and the detail is not fine, maybe it’s a tribute to Homer’s skill as an artist that he achieves this effect without fine detail. Homer came from the stoic sea-faring culture of New England and I believe this is what he is trying to communicate.
The situation is bad. This man, however, is a mariner. It’s what he does. The environment is harsh and unforgiving but it is where he lives and works. He may survive, he may not. He will calmly use his skills to deal with the situation as long as he can. He is not “fighting”, he is not “struggling”, he is just dealing with it. He accepts the circumstances calmly and does not cry out against fate.
I met an old guy from the Caribbean once and he was talking about how when he was young a few of his friends went out fishing and never came back. They were in small wooden boats, and this was before radios were available, or for that matter affordable.
There are different ways to face the vicissitudes of life. Far from being mindless brutes or superstitious fools, the ancient pagan cultures had a fairly refined way of looking at things. I’m familiar with the Greek and Norse legends and literature; while physically and culturally far apart they had much the same essence of outlook.
These people believed there were supernatural beings, who might sometimes be for you and sometimes against you, but on the whole didn’t really care much about humans. The destiny of any individual human was decided by fate, unknowable forces over which he had no control. The gods had some control of this, and their favor might be hoped for, but there was no guarantee. The only thing the individual could do was face his fate with courage, honor, and dignity and if he succeeded to be remembered for showing these qualities.
The basic source of all these things is self-control, which was a very important thing in the ancient world. The Iliad is- as it says in the beginning- the story of the wrath of Achilles, all the terrible things that happened because of his rash decision made in anger at the beginning of the story. It’s easy to see how these virtues apply to the warrior class, but these general ideas were adapted by the Stoic philosophers so they could be applied by anyone.
For a lot of the bad things in life, this is helpful. You can say to yourself, “I have control over myself. I’m in a bad situation but I will be strong, persevere, and not give up, whatever happens.” Unless you have a very soft life you have to have at least some inner strength or you’ll collapse easily under life’s many stresses. People who deal with adversity calmly are admired by everyone.
But what if you don’t have any strength left? What do you do then? Christianity tells us there is a loving God who will help us, maybe not until after we have died, but eventually, and we need to have faith and trust in this god.
The pagan, stoic, heroic version will take you a long way- it’s what’s alluded to in the quote from “Full Metal Jacket”. But when you reach your breaking point, what then? The Christian version provides comfort and hope, but how long can we wait for God to help us?
I think we go through life with a store of psychological resources- hope, happiness, confidence, etc.- that are increased or decreased by our circumstances. If we start life well and have good fortune we won’t suffer much, but if we start life badly and have bad fortune we will struggle and no philosophy or religion is going to help very much.