How to be Epic? “What should I do?” Most philosophical texts on duty begin by citing Kant’s question. Is it a duty to quote Kant when philosophizing about duty? In a certain academic discourse, yes. For duty is first and foremost a matter of “discourse” in the sense of community of practice and belonging. If you are part of a group of bodybuilders, your duty is to go to the gym several times a week. It’s a question of identity and collective consciousness. But does this mean that the isolated individual does not have duties towards himself?
To answer this, let’s go back to the source: etymologically, the duty is a debt, a transfer of belonging. How can I have a debt to myself? The answer is easy and is it even indebted to the literature on personal ethics, moral commitments, good resolutions, will, self-discipline, etc. But a devious mind might wonder whether the philosopher, as a good moralist, does not himself have the professional duty, the obligation to advise autonomy, to speak of duty towards oneself in the sense of respect for one’s commitments and one’s “highest values”. A thinker is not expected to sing the lack of responsibility, fun, suicide, inconsistency. Duty is associated with a form of predictability, trust. It is expected that the bus driver will drive his bus by respecting stops and schedules rather than suddenly dropping everyone in a ravine or taking them on an improvised trip. Duty is the courage to do what is not necessarily creative: to repeat, preserve, conserve.
That’s why in a time like ours, where creativity seems to be a categorical imperative, many are confused. They initiate risks that they do not push to the end, for want of control. Our era is full of flabby souls, beings who sketch adventurous actions out of a duty of originality but who do not lead them to completion by cowardice, conformism or prudence — they are rarely punished in our coolera, if by the gloom of their existence or the anger of the lured. But let us now consider a more taboo idea than the duty towards oneself.
Imagine a tyrant or emperor who considers that everyone owes her something. All would have the duty to dedicate their work to her and a part of their life, their time, or their body. Such a situation moves away duty from the lyric field (I owe myself) and puts it back into the political field (you must, we have the duty). If this tyrant is a State, then an entire nation is bound to serve the order. These are the two dead-ends of our modernity: the individual most often fails to be a being of pure duty to himself, that is of pure integrity, because lyricism, theI, is a position that cannot erase the desire for enjoyment; on the other hand, the citizen fails to be a perfect subject of the State because voluntary servitude is not totally possible for a conscious subject (but it is possible for an unconscious subject, and that is why Big Data and Google are coming to use us right now, because we are not well aware of our electronic servitude). How can one escape dialectically, or rathercrealectically, from the duality between the lyricism of duty and the sacrifice of collectivism? By a virtue that our modernism has forgotten or relegated to fiction: the epic sense.
Being epic is a co-creative middle ground between the lyricism of the ego-trip and the servitude of bad esprit de corps. It is a co-creative esprit de corps that blends community and personal heroism. The Greeks placed in the epicthe highest degree of humanity, as if the epic group were a super-individual composed of individuals who themselves do not yield to their fate. It is perhaps our highest duty: the duty of a destiny.
And there is no lonely destiny. Even a Van Gogh is the collective product of many human efforts and desires, a network of admirations: his brother, collectors, art critics, paint manufacturers, and so on. The folly of a Van Gogh is to believe he is alone in the world. The madness of a Caligula is to refuse that one is always alone in the face of one’s destiny. Between the two, there is for example the group Nicolas Bourbaki, who managed to unify and revolutionize the mathematics of the twentieth century because its members abdicated their ego under the same pseudonym and worked together, without failing, towards the same cognitive conquest. It was a group where everyone had a strong voice to be heard in the process of steering an ideal towards a common vision.
Visionaries have a duty to see and a desire to grow. Duty and desire then merge into the same integrity that meets history. Have the chance to be at the right time in the right place, of course, but also be ready to act — that is, to die — when you have to.