Pascal and Nachiketa Walk into Siduri’s Tavern

Introduction

The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem from ancient Mesopotamia, is likely the first recorded story we have, and it contains a beautiful philosophical argument from Siduri, a wise “alewife,” in her tavern. Siduri argues that Gilgamesh should stop seeking immortality and instead learn to appreciate the simple joys of a mortal life. This lesson looks at this broad question of what one ought to desire most in life.

Text and Courses

Primary Texts:

  • Epic of Gilgamesh (Excerpt, specifically Siduri’s argument, quoted below – see Part I of https://www.cs.utexas.edu/~vl/notes/gilgamesh.html)
  • Katha Upanishad (Excerpt, specifically the discussion between Death and Nachiketa)
  • Discussion of Pascal’s Wager (Instructor’s choice, I think that the short discussion in Meister’s “Introducing Philosophy of Religion” (p. 158-160) works well

Secondary Texts for Instructor

  • Chapter 1 “Upanishads” from Joel Kupperman’s Classic Asian Philosophy could be useful for background information for teaching the Katha Upanishad

Suggested Courses:

  • Introduction to Philosophy, Introduction to Ethics, Ethics, Meaning of Life, Death, Immortality, Philosophy of Religion

Overview

The lesson begins by discussing Pascal’s Wager. The main purpose of using Pascal’s Wager as a framing device is to prime students into approaching the lesson in terms of personal risk and uncertainty: though some students might strongly believe or have faith in an afterlife, none of them know (in the philosophical sense of the term) whether they will have an afterlife or not, and so they must personally decide what to do with their lives. This should help the lesson be more personally meaningful for the students.

At this point, it is useful to ask (or put on board / PPT) the following questions: Should you try to become immortal to avoid death? Should you try to become immortal to achieve eternal happiness? Should you try to become immortal to achieve knowledge of your true self? Or should you not try to become immortal at all, but instead learn to love and appreciate a mortal life?

Then, the lesson turns to a discussion in the Katha Upanishad between Nachiketa and Yama, the god of Death. Nachiketa is not tempted by material happiness, which he believes is fleeting. Yama teaches Nachiketa that only by becoming fully immersed in true knowledge of the self and soul and universe (i.e., that Atman is Brahman, that the soul is the universe entire) could one escape the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. It can be useful for students to point out that this dialogue follows a fairly common pattern in the Upanishads, one in which the teacher begins by giving false, imperfect, or incomplete lessons, and the student must work through them to get the truth.

Then, turn to the Epic of Gilgamesh. It might be useful to provide some background to the story: particularly that Gilgamesh was originally quite horrible until he became friends with Enkidu. Enkidu was killed (as punishment from the gods because of Gilgamesh’s actions) and Gilgamesh, confronted for the first time with the reality of his own impending death, undertakes a quest to seek immortality. Along the way, he meets Siduri at her tavern, and asks for her help. She argues powerfully:

Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to?
You will never find the life for which you are looking.
When the gods created man
they allotted to him death,
but life they retained in their own keeping.

As for you, Gilgamesh,
fill your belly with good things;
day and night, night and day, dance and be merry,
feast and rejoice.

Let your clothes be fresh,
bathe yourself in water,
cherish the little child that holds your hand,
and make your wife happy in your embrace;
for this too is the lot of man.

This nicely sets up a discussion about “carpe diem” and life. Additional options here (if there is time or for an advanced class) is to also discuss Robert Herrick’s poem “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” (“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”) or especially excerpts from the first 9 books of Ecclesiastes, which, like Siduri, espouses a skeptical opinion of the possibility of achieving immortality. If you do this, it might be worth heavily emphasizing just how at odds the arguments there are, at least on the surface, with what we tend to think of as Judaic / Christian orthodoxy (and in particular the apparently skeptical attitude towards acquiring knowledge / wisdom and thus immortality).

Discussion Questions

  • Should we seek an afterlife if we don’t know for sure how to get it?

  • If we believe in an afterlife, why should we care about anything in this life? If there is one particular path towards the afterlife, why should we care about anything else?

Activities

You could begin the class by asking students to come up with a list of “simple joys” that they judge to increase happiness in a life or in their own lives.

Authorship

Seth Robertson (University of Oklahoma)
sethrobertson@ou.edu