Cogito

The Real Spartacus: or What is Philosophy as a Way of Life?

Andy Whitfield as Spartacus.

Legend tells that when the Romans defeated the slave revolt led by the gladiator Spartacus in 71 BCE, they searched in vain for the real Spartacus. Every captive proclaimed “I am Spartacus”, in a sublime gesture of solidarity.

Whatever the truth of the story, you are unlikely to learn much about it by watching the 2010-2013 Starz series Spartacus which dramatizes the Thracian slave-come-gladiator’s epic story.

“Dramatizes” is not quite the word for this bazaar of Blood and Sand in which almost everyone parades around in next to nothing and blood spurts fantastically out of punctured bodies in every episode.

The Romans in Spartacus are all craven figures: manipulative and power-crazed or decadently debauched. The ethic of the gladiators is a kind of grim Stoicism, as this ancient philosophy is usually understood: one of joylessly facing down adversity, buoyed only by the hopeless hope of “glory in the arena”.

In many ways, however, the real story of the series Spartacus unfolded off-screen. It surrounds the real man cast to play the hero. This story is told in the extraordinary documentary: “Be Here Now: the Andy Whitfield Story”.

In 2010, Whitfield was a young man with everything to look forward to. Happily married, a father of two beautiful children, his casting as Spartacus had propelled him to fame and fortune.

In March 2010, however, after the first season of the hit series, Whitfield was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Initial treatment indicated remission. A September 2010 medical check-up indicated that the disease had returned, now in different places.

Twelve months later, Whitfield would be dead.

“Be Here Now”

Be Here Now” documents Whitfield’s battle with the disease between March 2010 and September 2011. Drawn from interviews with Andy and his wife Vashti, viewers are invited by the film into their home and their struggle to come to terms with the havoc the actor’s cancer was dealing to Andy’s body and to his life.

Andy travels to India to a retreat; spends time with his father. He undertakes, in total, some eleven rounds of chemotherapy, and one bout of radiography: exhausting every possible therapeutic avenue. As each round of treatment raises hopes of remission, and each round of news disappoints those hopes, we watch Andy and Vashti responding, and finally conceding to the inevitable.

The title of “Be Here Now” comes from a reminder Whitfield sported on his arm, reflecting what we might call his personal philosophy. This philosophy, never explicitly discussed, was evidently very deeply influenced by Buddhism—as well as by the profound strength and support of the love of his life.

At one point, explaining why he is not raging at his fate, Whitfield explains simply that there are two ways he could respond. One was through hatred and anger: the bread and butter of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. The other was through compassion and acceptance.

What makes “Be Here Now” such a powerful watch is the almost supererogatory courage, equanimity and grace Whitfield displayed in the final months of his too-brief life. Even after all medical options had been exhausted and his death became imminent, Andy’s actions bespeak very clearly which choice he had made.

They also advertise for all who see the film the merits of its informing philosophy.

To philosophise, to learn how to die?

The classical philosopher Plato claimed in his Phaedo that to philosophise is to learn how to die. “Be Here Now” is as good an example of what this philosophical paradox might mean as we can offer to our students.

Fragments of Plato’s Phaedo.

Reflecting Plato’s paradox, considerable interest was taken in the ancient “doxographic literature” in the deaths and last words of ancient philosophers. These final deeds and words were felt to display the real measure of their philosophies as shaping what Socrates called “examined lives”.

It was for instance in very large measure for the serenity that they displayed in their last hours that the Roman Senator-turned-rebel Cato, and before him Socrates, were eulogised by subsequent writers as sages, truly wise or enlightened men:

The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways—I to die, and you to live. Which is better only God knows.

Andy Whitfield knew for at least three months that, at age 39, he was going very soon to pass away. In one scene, recorded soon after the final medical news is delivered to him and Vashti, Andy tells us that he has been learning to sit with this awareness, and come to a peace with it.

He even reports feeling selfish to the extent that he has achieved this peace, knowing that his children will miss their father, and his wife her best friend and husband.

Asked by his distraught children on his deathbed what was happening, Whitfield responded with a sage-like magnanimity little beneath that of a Socrates:

I am going to go to sleep now as my body won’t work any more. I am like a butterfly with broken wings. I will always be with you and will always be watching over you. I love you.

Be Here Now

“All of this is admirable,” some readers will say. “But none of it is philosophical.” In one sense of the word, of course, this objection is true. For the idea of philosophy at stake in a documentary like “Be Here Now” will not write you papers, in the best journals, win promotions or accolades or references or citations or Professorial chairs.

Yet we can still say in modern English that Whitfield, truly, responded “philosophically” to what his fate delivered him. And this usage reflects one, much older sense of the Greek word philosophia than that or those confusedly used today.

“Philosophy is no trick to catch the public,” the Roman Stoic Seneca (first century CE) thus wrote a pupil:

it is not devised for show. It is a matter, not of words, but of facts. It is not pursued in order that the day may yield some amusement before it is spent, or that our leisure may be relieved of a tedium that irks us. It moulds and constructs the soul; it orders our life, guides our conduct, shows us what we should do and what we should leave undone … Without it, no one can live fearlessly or in peace of mind.

Human beings are creatures who form beliefs about our lives and the world in which we live and die. Everyone above a certain age in this broad sense has a “philosophy of life”, which in turn shapes what they feel and do.

Even emotions like fear, anxiety or anger are shaped by these beliefs: “he has wronged me, so I am right to seek revenge”; “I am going to die, and this is bad, so I am right to feel fear”, etc.

But if we are thus what we believe, in no small measure, Stoicism and Epicureanism and the other ancient schools reasoned that philosophy can be a “guide for life.” For even in its institutional forms, philosophy is all about assessing people’s beliefs, with a view to potentially rectifying them in the light of reasoned reflection.

We can readily imagine the kinds of beliefs a person in Andy Whitfield’s situation could have formed, absent philosophical direction:

What have I done to deserve this? Why did this happen to me, and not to others? And how much I am losing … how many years rightfully mine? … truly, this world is … little better than an arena in which gladiators kill and die for the others’ sport … etc.

Yet Whitfield’s own response was different. The maxim “Be Here Now” reflects a philosophical attitude to existence close to the heart of Buddhism, in the East, and to Stoicism in particular, in the West. This attitude asks us, on the basis of confronting philosophical reasoning, to put aside such all-too-human comparisons of what is, with what might be or could have been. For they are fatal to the ability to live completely whatever our particular fate happens to be:

You will hear many men saying: “After my fiftieth year I shall retire into leisure, my sixtieth year shall release me from public duties.” And what guarantee, pray, have you that your life will last longer? Who will suffer your course to be just as you plan it?

Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher-emperor of the late second century CE indeed penned a series of meditations in which he enjoins himself to, exactly, be here now:

Do not disturb yourself by thinking of the whole of your life. Let not your thoughts at once embrace all the various troubles which you may expect to befall you: but on every occasion ask yourself: what is there in this which is intolerable and past bearing? …

If you should live three thousand years…, yet remember this, that no man loses any other life than that he now lives; and that he now lives no other life than what he is parting with, every instant …

If you separate from yourself the future and the past, and apply yourself exclusively to living the life that you are living—that is to say, the present—you can live all the time that remains to you until your death, in calm, benevolence, and serenity.

Stories like Whitfield’s, and Marcus’ very repetitions of such key Stoic meditations reflect that—however critics of this conception of philosophy paint it, superciliously, as facile—to attain such philosophical serenity is anything but easy. It may be amongst the more difficult things you can achieve:

But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”

The real Spartacus

There are real intellectual risks that attend East-West comparisons in philosophy, as in other disciplines. Yet even Pierre Hadot, the philologist-turned-philosopher famous for re-emphasing the often-forgotten existential dimension of classical philosophy, at the end of his life begrudgingly admitted the extraordinary parallels between the kind of Buddhism which assisted Andy Whitfield in his final years, and ancient Stoic, sceptical and Epicurean ideas.

There seem to be a small number of “fundamental attitudes of reason” available to people from all cultures, Hadot came to suppose. Different peoples and generations discover and rediscover these across time, faced with the same difficulties that attend finite human lives, independently of culture and “discourse”.

In one of the more powerful moments in “Be Here Now”, Vashti reminds her husband of how, before each scene in the Spartacus series, Andy would steel or rev himself up for the combat. He should now do the same thing, faced with even this news about his illness.

“Your job”, she tells him, is not—impossibly— to control what he cannot. It is to bear up well to whatever befalls him.

Andy Whitfield with children, 2011.

The Roman Stoic Epictetus could not have said it better. Socrates, on trial for his life, protested that all his philosophising had aimed at doing was turning the Athenians’ attention away from the pursuits of money, power and fame towards taking care, first of all, of their inner lives.

It is the same, blindingly simple yet deeply philosophical idea that explains why the ancient literature on the virtues of philosophical sages abounds in paradoxes:

the sage is the only truly rich man; all of the sage’s actions are successful, even those that fail; virtue is the only good; everyone else except sages are slaves (if not gladiators) …

In his poem explaining the Epicurean worldview, On the Nature of Things, the Roman philosopher-poet Lucretius begins each of the books with hymns to his teacher which condense this fundamental idea of “philosophy as a way of life”.

People worship the gods Ceres and Bacchus for the external bounties of grain and wine. Yet greater admiration is surely owed to any philosophy which ministers “tender consolations … which assuage the minds of men.”

Most people worship heroes like Hercules, or the Spartacus depicted for adolescents in series like Spartacus: Blood and Sand, for their great bodily strength and feats:

However, unless our hearts are purified, what battles and dangers must then insinuate themselves in us, against our will! What bitter cares then tear men disturbed by passion! What other fears do just the same!

“Be Here Now”, in this ancient light, gives a very different kind of answer to the Romans’ question: who is the real Spartacus?, or where you might find him.