Story by Cadmus
Illustrated by Maryna Lutsyk
Philosophy of antiquity.
“Can Achilles beat a tortoise in a race?” asked Zeno.
“Of course, he can!” replied the Greeks.
Everyone in ancient Greece knew Achilles was the fastest hero around, and no way was a tortoise a match for him in a footrace. What the Greeks did not know was Brad Pitt would play Achilles in the movie Troy (2004). Even so, I’d wager ten bucks in a sprint, Brad Pitt would also win the race against a tortoise. Easy money, as they say.
It wouldn’t be a good idea, however, to wager ten bucks, or ten drachmas in this case, against Zeno. Because the chances of winning against him are null, be it for me, or the Greeks. Consider what Zeno proposed: The tortoise has crawled a certain distance, let’s say fifty meters. By the time Achilles reaches those fifty meters, the tortoise will have crawled some other distance. And while our hero traverses this other distance, our tortoise will have gone even further, even if the distance is microscopic. Given that we can keep dividing the distance into an infinitesimal number of segments, consequently, Achilles will never catch up to the tortoise. Under these conditions, not even Brad Pitt could catch up, despite having all the special effects in Hollywood at his disposal.
In another “Zeno challenge,” the philosopher took aim at archery. He insisted an arrow shot from a bow is not actually in motion. If you divide time into segments, then the arrow occupies a specific segment of space at every specific moment; thus, it is not moving. It even seems to make sense, until the moment when someone shoots an arrow at your head. Motion miraculously appears when the results can be felt in the real world.
The dialogues between Zeno and the Greeks are an example of “aporia,” a fancy Greek word whose literal meaning is “impassable.” The philosopher used his skills to conclude motion is just an illusion – it’s not real. And he was able to do this brilliantly. The aporia about Achilles and the tortoise was only resolved in the 19th century through the discovery of a mathematical solution. These kinds of philosophical paradoxes are easy to formulate, or so it seems; but, at the same time, they are very difficult to untangle.
Many philosophers from antiquity, like Zeno, were really annoying guys. They would latch onto something you said or your life experience and proceed to draw absurd conclusions about your words or experiences. There was nothing you could do except admit you were wrong. But it didn’t end there: next, they would prove, by admitting you were wrong, you made another mistake. Simply put, there was nothing pleasant about those philosophers.
But Zeno did leave us with an invaluable insight: he revealed an important persuasive tool to cause someone to feel a sense of uncertainty. On the one hand, you have a person’s life experience, while on the other hand, there are arguments denying said experience. “Why do I need to know this?” you may ask. The answer: in order to move in the opposite direction – toward certainty. In other words, from untruth to truth.
The Greeks of antiquity saw the world in binary opposites, e.g.: black and white, light and dark, good and evil. Another pair of these simultaneously related and opposite conceptual duos are cosmos (order/certainty) and chaos (disorder/uncertainty). The contrast in the Greeks’ worldview was even reflected in their pottery. They decorated their ceramics with black dye so it was predominantly two-toned in the “masculine” sense of colors: red and black (terracotta red to be precise).
However, don’t think the Greeks identified only two types of people: either good or bad. Their world was about achieving balance between two opposites. Disturbing the balance was considered to be negative. The extremes gave rise to one another. So, from the eternal chaos, what was called “cosmos” was born into the world.
Coming back to Zeno, he purposefully sought to disbalance the system in order to move from the false to that which is true. In other words, balance can only be maintained if it is in a state of constant flux. Ironically, the pesky Greek philosopher, even with his outstanding cognitive abilities, did not understand the power of the instrument he had discovered or, perhaps, simply revealed. This instrument is called uncertainty. It affects your life in very real ways, and it’s vitally important for you to be aware of who is in control of the uncertainty in your life.
The principle of aporia can be understood as the spread of uncertainty. It is widely used in rhetoric and argumentation. Instead of focusing on proving the merits of your idea or position in a debate, you sow doubt about your opponent’s claim they are right. Hollywood has done a great job of illustrating the principle, particularly through the character of Batman’s antagonist, the Joker. His mightiest weapon, one that allows him to control the chaos in Gotham City, is the ability to make everyone feel uncertain. The Joker even succeeded in provoking a certain amount of uncertainty in Batman himself by making the caped crusader question whether or not he was doing the right thing!
Ask the Pope…
There’s one area of human activity fully controlled by the instrument of uncertainty – religion. On the one hand, it is all very simple: death is the fundamental human uncertainty. Nobody truly knows what comes after. In contrast to Brad Pitt and the tortoise, we cannot rely on our own experience. So far, nobody has returned from the afterlife, even if some claim to have done so. The examples of clinical death can be put aside as they are few and far between compared to the total number of deaths in human history. Thus, this greatest of uncertainties gives rise to the mightiest fear in our lives: the fear of death.
In its conception, religion was created for the purpose of lessening uncertainty. Its primary mission is to say: “Hey, everything is okay, there’s nothing to worry about. Chaos does not come after death, cosmos does! God (or the gods) predetermined everything for you. If you live your life in such-and-such a manner, then the next life will be so-and-so. If you helped the poor, loved your wife and children, and did an honest life’s work, then here you go: welcome to paradise in a beautiful garden. But if you stole, killed, or listened to Russian rap on your portable speakers in public, then you shall boil inside a cauldron over a low flame together with others like you, for eternity.”
The uncertainty of death paved the way to attaining certainty in life. Everything moved from chaos to cosmos. I think we can all agree, anything preventing people from killing one another can’t be all bad.
And that may have been the end of it, if not for the fact that through its institutionalization, people took control over religion into their own hands. Essentially, a group of people secured and maintained a monopoly on uncertainty. And not just any uncertainty, but the biggest one of all: the afterlife.
The Christian Church has been the most effective in exploiting uncertainty. From a small sect in Palestine, Christianity expanded to become a world religion. Pagan beliefs in the Roman Empire did not provide people with much hope for an afterlife. Your life beyond the grave was not determined by how you lived before you were buried. You may, of course, ask: “What about Sisyphus, who had to roll the boulder up the hill? He wasn’t doing it for fun. It was his punishment.” True, but his sin was trying to cheat death. In other words, he sinned before the gods. In the myths we know about Hades, people were damned for their transgressions against the gods, not their fellow humans. In ancient belief systems, one’s relationship with the deities was more important than one’s relationship with other people. You stealing your neighbor’s goat was of little concern to Zeus. It’s another matter if you failed to bring a sacrifice when you slaughtered it. At this point, you start running into problems.
Ancient pagan belief systems supported an appreciation of life right here and now, not sometime later, in some other place. That is why the Greeks and Romans celebrated life through athletic events, spectacles, banquets, luxurious lifestyles, etc. Until the Christians came along. They tried to show the here-and-now lifestyle did not provide any certainty for life in the future, after death. Initially, neither the general public nor those in power accepted the idea. Some emperors even persecuted Christians to the extent of having them slaughtered by wild animals in the Coliseum, as Roman mobs cheered in delight.
Eventually, Christianity won out. The turning point was the Edict of Milan, enacted in 313 by Roman Emperor Constantine, who converted to Christianity on his deathbed. The promise of eternal life turns out to be more attractive, if only for the simple reason your time on earth is a lot shorter than eternity. And the Church used this promise to secure its monopoly on everyone’s future. It created cosmos out of chaos, essentially introducing certainty to how people should live their lives. For millennia, the Church became the wealthiest and most influential institution on the planet, so much so, today, even the atheist way of life is largely defined by religion.
The popes of Rome proved to be the most skilled in the uncertainty trade. They understood a monopoly in your possession is in itself a blessing, in both the literal and figurative sense. So, they began exercising their exclusive powers over literally all areas of human activity, the most important of which is probably time management. The Church controlled the calendar. Humanity continues to operate according to the Christian convention of counting the years, which are divided into two general eras: before the birth of Christ (BC) and after (AD). Even such renowned revolutionary radicals as the communists were unable to change the calendar. Instead, they just renamed it. In Ukraine, we are still out of step with best global practices and continue using the abbreviations “do n. e.” and “n.e.” (“do nashoyi ery” [before our era] and “nashoyi ery” [our era]), though it remains unclear exactly when the communists decided Jesus was one of them. The calendar we use today is called “Gregorian” in honor of Pope Gregory ХІІІ.
But the calendar was not an isolated incident. The Catholic Church’s monopoly was all-encompassing: every birth required a baptism, marriage – a wedding, death – a funeral; work for six days, go to church on the seventh. This structurization of life actually hampered Europe’s economic growth significantly for many years. During the Middle Ages, the Church frowned upon certain commercial operations, such as the provision of credit, because the creditor can go to Sunday Mass and earn money at the same time. In other words, money can even be made during the time that’s supposed to be devoted to God. And the Church did not shy away from collecting its own desyatyna (tithe) across the centuries. Today, the bragging rights for being able to make money off of everyone belong only to technological corporations such as Google or Facebook. Ironically, the Church spent centuries collecting personal data, and not just the information contained in parish records, but gleaned from inside the confessionals as well.
The Church also had a monopoly on knowledge. All books were stored and transcribed in monasteries. For centuries, intellectual activity was based on Holy Scripture, which provided the foundation for science and philosophy. The Bible was the axiomatic source of all knowledge. As progressive a force as book printing later became, the first books to come out from under the presses were the Bible and a variety of other religious literature, like Fedorovych’s Apostol. European literary languages were established, to a large degree, because the Bible was translated from Latin into local tongues, which is what happened, for example, with the German language after Martin Luther translated the Old and New Testaments in the first half of the 16th century.
The Roman Church did a good job of maintaining the existing social balance. The Church did not deny the existence of secular hierarchies, nor call for their reform. The people considered to be “important” enjoyed special treatment at church. It could be something minor, like a designated spot closer to the altar during mass. But everyone’s equal in the eyes of God: farmer, artisan, lord, or even the king, all had to receive the same set of sacraments from the Church. The important thing was everyone had to deal with the Roman Church. Once it secured a monopoly on uncertainty, Christianity was able to rearrange the agenda of life in its own way.
Unchecked power, however, is like a Lviv torte – it’s hard to say “no” to another piece. Hence, the situation attained a level of absurdity when the Roman Curia began simply selling indulgences. “You stole something from, or hurt thy neighbor? No problem. Took a romp in the hay? That’s okay, too. In fact, if you’re planning to break any one of the commandments, there’s no problem at all: just pay some money and paradise will still be yours in the afterlife. Don’t worry if you sin a hundred more times, because the Pope will have a chat with God and sort it all out on your behalf.” This was where the Church went too far, crossing a line it shouldn’t have. These indulgences split the Protestants from the Catholics. And still, despite all the crises they encountered, world religions continue to exist today.
Until human experience is enriched by someone actually returning from the other side and telling us what it’s like, the uncertainty about life after death will exist. And religions will continue to exist. They will hold on to the opportunity of defining the landscape of certainty, as they have for thousands of years, and continue dictating how people should go on living their lives.
Ask a soldier…
Yet there is still a time when uncertainty is not an instrument in somebody’s hands. It’s called war. The way modern warfare is waged makes it a lottery for those fighting. Naturally, the properly-trained and well-experienced soldier has a greater chance of survival, but even super-trained professionals die. One way or another, everyone who is going off to fight a war is sitting down to a game of kosti (literally ‘bones,’ a game using dice) against death, where the supposedly lucky seven is also the number most commonly rolled: one and six, two and five, three and four. Seven has the greatest mathematical chance of occurring, but there’s little benefit to having this knowledge when your life is at stake. Simply put: uncertainty during war is an essential component of war, its raison d’être.
In contrast to religion, uncertainty during wartime is not controlled by specific individuals. You can, of course, say I am wrong: “What now? War is not another abstraction having nothing to do with real life!” Yes, wars are started by people, typically by politicians, and they are ended by people, typically by generals. Then the politicians come in again, sign something, and life goes on. Although, truth be told, life never does stop… But in the course of war, everyone’s uncertainty becomes their very own. It’s very individual and controlled by nothing more than the lucky stars or random luck.
Politicians and generals are playing their game of kosti on a grander scale, where the uncertainty is somewhat different: will thousands, or even millions, be allowed to live? Can entire nation states be wiped from the face of the earth? The principle is very well illustrated in the Hollywood film The Imitation Game (2014). The film is based on actual events. A brilliant mathematician, Alan Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, breaks Germany’s “Enigma” code machine. Now his entire team knows when the German submarines will launch their next attack. When one of them tries to warn the naval convoy about the impending attack, Alan smashes the telephone. They had to sacrifice hundreds of lives, otherwise the Germans would have quickly figured out their codes had been broken and would have modified them accordingly. On the one hand, the team of mathematicians was able to penetrate through the shadow of uncertainty and learn about the German plans, sufficient to save hundreds of lives. On the other hand, in order to save the lives of millions, they had to resort to uncertainty.
The uncertainty created by war defines reality for everyone touched by it. Here, on the edge of the abyss, people are ready to act; ready to perform deeds they’d never dare in civilian life. Another important element forged by war is a more acute sense of justice: if one has nothing to lose, one need not surrender dignity. Office plankton enjoy the luxury of playing the “Yes, Boss” games. At the front, the closer you are to the line of engagement, the less authority matters. You can tell a general to “fuck off” if the situation demands it. You’ll certainly pay, but that will come later, when you’re back at your military base or deployment site. Command HQ will send someone to investigate, and they’ll find the pipe leading out of the stove in your army tent is crooked, off by a full degree from the “standard” angle specified in official documentation.
War, as a peculiar and unique form of human interaction, shows a person craves certainty. Everything you do is directed towards ending uncertainty. You don’t stand a chance in an open field when you’re under fire, so you dig a trench. Once you’ve got your trench, you need to cover it and build a bunker. Only after the bunker is built can you set off to eliminate the russkies, before they’re too drunk and before they start shooting at you. And you need to plant some onions, too, of course. All of your activity is directed exclusively towards the creation of certainty, making your own small cosmos, at least in the scope of your personal role in Ukraine’s defense.
War engenders a new reality for each of its participants, and the proximity of death fills life with existential sense. Even simple things seem to mean more than they did in civilian life. Nothing tastes better than green borsch made with the nettle you picked from the bush growing in the spot where you set your trip wires.
The balance between “uncertain” and “certain” creates a specific reality for soldiers, making it difficult later to adapt to civilian life. Many ex-soldiers return to military service after demobilization or when their contracts end, even though they planned on leaving the army and were constantly cursing the military system (and for good reason!).
Coming home means living in a new uncertainty. Where does one find a job, which friends do I meet, how should I act around family members who seem like strangers and who I no longer feel close to? Compared to the problems faced at the front, such questions, at first glance, can appear to be exceedingly trite and insignificant, unworthy of your efforts. Imagine you’re outside, painting a fence, and decide the paint you’re using is really drab, and, frankly, what you’re doing really doesn’t make any sense. Now imagine you are attaching tracks to a tank. Everyone’s screwing something in, swearing, banging metal. It also makes little sense, but you’re doing it for your country. And the green borsch made from the sorrel leaves you picked from the garden in your backyard at home tastes completely different.
“Why are you doing this, my friend?” is a question army veterans are asked when they reenlist for military service, “You cursed the army from start to finish!” They reply they’re missing a sense of purpose. They don’t understand things in civilian life. Where should I go? What can I do? Uncertainty is hidden in the details. It seems like it’s nowhere, but it really is everywhere, causing disorientation. A person who overcame fear and looked death straight in the eyes suddenly loses their bearings in civilian life. They’re like a ship sailing through winds blowing from all directions at once, and they don’t know which direction is the right way to go. Everything in civilian life seems to be somehow less significant, dull, bereft of purpose. The grass seems greener on the front lines, where even doing nothing seems to be full of life and meaning.
Not everyone reenlists, of course. Some find they can no longer stand the stupidity of army life, while others have simply grown weary or aren’t as healthy as they once were. But they all share a sense of nostalgia. Some may sneak journeys down memory lane behind their wives’ backs, glancing through photos from their army days, while others may don their camo jacket and army boots to go fishing. They all occasionally dream about going on vacation back to their unit, for a good month or two. With no specific goal in mind, just to catch some Zen and give their minds a break. They all want to go back. Whoever says otherwise is lying!
Ask the Tsar…
So, how important is uncertainty to our existence? Uncertainty is the primary chaos of life which gives rise to our cosmos, saturates it and determines its contents. After considering the arguments put forward, it’s unlikely anyone would want to cede this powerful instrument into unknown hands. Unless you want to willingly let yourself be led around on a leash.
Here let’s “channel” a Kyiv taxi driver and offer a sweeping generalization about politics. The question about who is controlling your life is a good one, but doesn’t it make more sense to ask who is in control of your uncertainty?
It is unlikely the response will be one Ukrainians will like, because – it is Russia. The Kremlin, possibly by accident, but deliberately, has taken the path of Zeno. Russia’s information policies are quite systemic and operate on all available levels, and their primary purpose is to sow doubt. The main instrument here, naturally, is the war, whose momentum Russia purposefully dampened for the last eight years. Before February 24, 2022, we did not know for sure if tomorrow might bring more Russian soldiers, missile strikes, etc.
The chaos of uncertainty created the chimera of “naming,” when some of the nation’s sons were spending their nth night under relentless artillery fire in the trenches, while others were battling it out in Facebook comments, debating whether or not war will come. Someone pointed out the war has been ongoing for some time. Somebody else started a discussion on whether the “small” war will become “large,” and so on. The soldiers, meanwhile, were waking up closer to lunchtime, after a night of constant pounding by artillery. Preparing their coffee with condensed milk, they couldn’t wrap their minds around what these “gentlemen” were discussing on social networks. Since there was nothing else they could do, they started to dig. Because digging is the basic activity necessary for making the universe a better place. Just a few months have passed since the start of the full-scale war, and we have already forgotten how life was before.
The russkies themselves, according to the doctrine developed by the chief of their general staff Gerasimov, specify the ratio of military to non-military components to be 1:4. The information and political components are far more important in war. Hence, our conflict with the russkies is best described by the term “war in the grey zone.” It was their goal all along, when nobody could figure out what they were doing. A pretty smart strategy on their part, because their economy is incapable of sustaining prolonged military operations.
Russia is a colossus standing on feet of clay. Any prolonged and high-intensity military operations will likely lead to an economic crisis within the country. And nobody really knows for sure if it would lead to the national republics leaving the federation. Because, on the one hand, Russia appears to be a multiethnic state, where all of the different peoples have magically mingled to form a single pan-Russian nation. On the other hand, the same thing could have been said about the Soviet Union. But the war in Afghanistan provoked a serious crisis within the USSR which significantly sped up the decentralizing processes already under way. And at the time, the USSR did not yet include the Chechen Republic, which really lives according to its own rules, recognizing only Moscow’s position of political supremacy.
One of the important parts of the “small” war was defining the parties to the conflict. The term “Russian-Ukrainian war” was never used, neither here in Ukraine, nor anywhere else in the world. This was an intentional Kremlin policy. But how much of it was a conscious decision on our part?
The russkies’ motives are comprehendible: they had to convince the world the conflict was a random event. Why should the world help Ukraine in its civil war? Why should Ukrainians die for some random reason? “You are not defending yourselves against Russia, you’re fighting with separatists.” And the war isn’t ending, not because Ukrainians are incapable of winning, but because someone’s making a profit. “Wouldn’t you agree someone’s making money off the war? So, isn’t the war convenient for them? If you agree, then why are you asking us Russians about it? Go ask those who find the war convenient.”
“Separatists” is another term in use since the war broke out in 2014. The term has become so common, Ukrainian soldiers will even refer to their adversaries as “separy,” regardless of the passport in their coat pockets. Sometimes, on both sides, russkies are called “separy.” The word’s original meaning has become so watered down, in almost every unit you will find a soldier bearing the nickname “Separ.” The soldier just happens to come from the Donbas. And where did it all start? With “Yes, the russkies are in charge, but the locals make up the rank and file. The locals joined the fight? That means they must be separatists. So, what’s the problem? Let’s call them all ‘separatists.’”
Later, during some high-level international meeting, somebody would say: “Hey Russians! Get out of Ukraine!” And the Russians would respond: “Us? Why us? Look, even the Ukrainians call them ‘separy’! What does it have to do with us? They say there are some Ukrainians for whom the war is convenient.” And while this battle of arguments went on, we continued living in the existing reality. And although our reality is far from being the embodiment of all the Kremlin’s wishes, it is still being dictated by those residing in the Kremlin’s towers.
Since we did not define “separ” to mean “collaborator,” in the classic sense of the word, over the course of eight years of war, explaining to a foreigner uninterested in politics who was fighting whom in our own Donbas was extraordinarily difficult. Now that was truly a challenge! Thus, for most people in the world, February 24, 2022, became the first day of the russkie invasion of Ukraine. For eight years prior, uncertainty allowed Moscow to exert pressure on us politically, trying to force us to recognize its proxy forces as autonomous parties to the conflict, providing the Kremlin with the opportunity to extinguish the negative political and moral consequences of its aggressive actions.
Putin has realized he is adept at sowing uncertainty, so he made it one of his primary political instruments. Perhaps that explains why he enjoys such a great relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church. He’s good buddies with its patriarch. While the former sows uncertainty about the future here on earth, the latter sows doubt about your future in heaven. From this vantage point, the granting of the Tomos to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (recognizing the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s independence from the one in Russia) was genuinely good news, as strange as it may sound in the modern world. The only thing better for Ukrainians would have been the merging of all Ukrainian Churches into а “yedyna pomisna” – a single, or united and “local,” i.e., national – Church. The duet performed by the lovely couple, Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kiril, has always been toxic for Ukrainians.
There’s no point in making Putin out to be an infernal evil. But he must be dealt with in the same way that type of evil is dealt with. He understands perfectly, an independent Ukraine is a source of uncertainty for russkies, because a democratic and successful state next door is going to make people start asking questions. They will finally see life is indeed possible without the gebnya (KGB agents), without a thoroughly kleptocratic regime, with no falsifications during elections, and without a tsar. It won’t be the type of chaos Putin sows around the world. It will be chaos directed against him. It will result in people taking action and, hopefully, creating a completely new reality for themselves. Uncertainty is only an instrument. It does not belong to Zeno of Elea nor to Zeno of Moscovia. It can also be used against them.
Ukrainians are not very good at fighting wars in grey zones. Although Vladimir Putin is no Zeno, our Achilles hasn’t been able to catch up to the Russian tortoise for the last eight years. But this time the tsar miscalculated. By throwing all its battlegroups at us on February 24, 2022, the Kremlin, on the one hand, massively inflated our uncertainty. Everyone remembers the chaos of the first day. But, on the other hand, the nation, forced to the brink of its very survival, understood what needed to be done. No, it won’t be easy defeating the entire Russian armada. Victory will require the exertion of enormous, sometimes even superhuman, efforts. But Ukrainians, as it turns out, are up to the task.
Today, the world looks on in wonder as the light of a new star emerges from the darkness of the wild steppes on the edge of Europe. For centuries, that darkness had brought only chaos. But now, the bright light of a new star has started to shine through. Its radiance holds the promise of a Ukrainian cosmos replacing the Russian one, and Achilles will finally overtake that damned tortoise.
Other stories written by Cadmus
Other stories illustrated by Maryna Lutsyk