The word agon (ἀγών) in Greek means “gathering, assembly, coming together.” The question of “coming together for what purpose?” is not inherent–it could be for cooperating on new laws, as indicated by its variation agora, combating each other in war, as in the Iliad, or in guest-host hospitality as in the Odyssey. But there seems to be a default in coming together for mutually beneficial ends; we need to add a prefix in order to get “antagonist,” and a suffix to get “agony.” There is also a connection to the athletic games that the Greeks loved so much, an agon as “struggle.”
What I will propose is a continuum of agon, based on the “Love to Strife” spectrum of Empedocles, from full cooperation and egolessness to bitter rancor and the desire for revenge. It should be no secret which I think is best, and by articulating it, I hope perhaps to make it easier for people to move in the direction of the Good.
Let’s look at the extremes, or at least insofar as I am able to see them, not having experienced either completely. We’ll start with the strife end.
In this state, the ego–“the sphincter on the soul”–is obviously dominant. Ironically, the things and events of the world are taken most seriously, and the “Strifer,” let’s call him, is pulled back and forth by these events and how he/she feels about them. If things are going his/her way then all is well; of course this is not the case most of the time and so there is usually great conflict. This state requires the presence of at least one “out group,” usually more, who are keeping the Strifer from happiness, from having things go his way. The exemplar of this state is The Iliad, “the poem of Force,” as Simone Weil¹ has called it, where humans are turned into things, and things are turned into corpses. We could also call it the “Iron Age.” Its characteristics are falsehood, egocentrism, conflict, desire to win (and for others to lose), tribalism, the short term, anger, and limitation.
At the other end we have the Lovers, where the ego is absent and individuals (including one’s own self) are seen as incarnations of the Divine. The Lover sees past the surface of people and events, and keeps them in the perspective of timelessness: people are suffering bits of the One and events–“good” or “bad”–are there to remind us of who we truly are. Its text is The Odyssey, which follows the nostos, or journey home, of a fragmented soul from the conflict of the Trojan War back to his reintegration with his “Fatherland.” It is the journey as I have quoted Douglas Frame elsewhere, “from darkness and death back to light and life.” Its characteristics are Truth, egolessness, cooperation, universality, eternity and bliss.
There are of course an infinite number of stages between these two, and most of us seem to occupy the big central hump of the bell-shaped curve. Even those who think of themselves as liberal and accepting could be hard-pressed to maintain a loving attitude when faced with an unexpected political defeat, say. And that is the purpose of such events–to shake us out of our complacency and realize that we are not the center of events, that perhaps the world really is a play after all. As Alkinous says to Odysseus in Song viii, “The gods arranged all this, and they wove the fate of doom for mortals, so that future generations might have something to sing about.”
What we normally think of as a blissful state can easily be derailed. The challenge is to see it as a gift. Emerson says, “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” (Circles)