Joan Breton Connolly will have encountered the idea that this classical frieze, which defined the traditions from which the roots of Western democracy emerge, is the depiction of the sacrifice of King Erectheus' daughter. In this myth, which provides a linkage between the religious and secular aspects of ancient Greek society, an Oracle predicts that Athens can only win its upcoming war with Eleusis if one of the King's daughters is sacrificed.
The idea binds two essential principles together: an individual must make any and all sacrifices in order to help the society they live in, up to and including death; and this sacrifice is a sacred act.
The Greeks wove this into the most intimate fabric of their understanding of life, society, culture, individuality, and action; and we have, wittingly or unwittingly, inherited this idea, which thoroughly penetrates governments and societies throughout. This is exactly the sacrifice that young men are expected to make as soldiers; and this secular sacrifice is in its own way identical to the sacrifice called for in religious orders, where one becomes part of an army for Christ, or Mohammed, or so on.
Western society is further informed by the overwhelmingly Christian nature of its societies, traditions, and governments, which have at their heart the image of a man who sacrificed his life for all mankind. The idea of sacrifice for others is so firmly woven into Judeo-Christian culture that it is, quite frankly, impossible to understand or conceive of our culture without taking it into account.
So society is based on the idea of sacrifice; one might as well point out that one can't have societies without it. Yet we don't understand that this extends to our inner life; and while we are more than ready to understand how sacrifice works in terms of outer action (and even suffer for it) we don't necessarily understand how it works inwardly.
It's not a reflexive action. We feed ourselves tells and stories of noble outward sacrifice; but when it comes to having to sacrifice ourselves, well, that's a different deal. The first sacrifice we would have to make would be to see what we really are; and that is extremely painful, so few want to make it. It's actually much easier to make outward sacrifices—yes, up to and including the sacrifice of our life—than it is to face our own, as my friend pointed out, morally bankrupt characters.
Yet it is only by facing our own morally bankrupt character that we can begin to construct a real morality within ourselves that deals with the practical facts of life, rather than our imaginary fantasies and our emotional devotion to nonsense, whether supremely selfish or supremely unselfish, which won't actually help anyone in the end.
Gurdjieff and Swedenborg both brought us modern versions of ancient traditional practices that encourage this kind of introspection. Swedenborg brought it in the age of Enlightenment; and Gurdjieff reconfigured the question for the 20th century. Appreciation for the efforts these two men made to ask us to see ourselves as we are, in order to understand a real morality, are minimal; both figures have been sidelined, because the cultivation of an inner questioning, an inner demand, that forces us to see how difficult the choices we must make our is deeply unpopular. Again, this requires real suffering, personal suffering, and, furthermore, a personal suffering that is undertaken outside the context of the forms and functions that society imposes; that is, above all, a suffering we take responsibility for ourselves.
This is not the suffering that takes place in the machinery of elected governments, or the ritual of churches or temples.
It is not the kind of suffering that takes place when a loved one dies.
It is a new kind of suffering, a suffering in which one confronts oneself and asks oneself what is really true for oneself.
One has to make choices.
This idea of choice is essential to understanding the impulse of charity, a subject I will come to in the next essay.