Despair. Let None Despair.

The following is the introduction to a paper I have been working on for some time now. It is a paper tied to a forthcoming book project. Versions of the paper have been presented and/or published at Vancouver School of Theology, Regent College (Crux), and SSCE. The present version of the paper is being presented 23 January 2019 at Harris Manchester College, Oxford.

Hercules at the crossroads, the self-sufficient and solitary individual, has, for many, come to image the modern subject and what Western society has learned to value as the ideal human being:[1] the muscular archetype of concrete, powerful, self-conscious agency. Such a heroic sovereign, with his bow and arrows, is thought to be at the helm of fate, in control over life; he is a strong man poised to wrestle against the gods and death. Put differently, the Herculean individual is seen as one imbued with the reason and will to do-against-death and to control his destiny. Perhaps this is why health is argued to be a prototypical value, for by health, biomedically understood as one’s physical, mental, and social competence, an individual is viewed by self and others as capable to guarantee her self-actualization, achieving what is essential and meaningful to her.[2]


The mechanics of modern medicine aim toward similar ends—toward such self-actualization—to the extent that reason and will could be regarded as chief values of our late modern Western society. And it is by way of health, by the administration of will and reason in our physical, mental, and social lives, that the institution of medicine, and the physicians it forms, can serve its constituents. After all, as the 1946 WHO congress gave assent, “Health is no longer an optional matter, but the golden key to the relief of human misery. We must be well.”[3] That is to say, we must exercise absolute agency in matters of life and death. The heroic archetype, who is poised to exercise agency-as-might, must also exercise justice as he sets out “in search of monsters to slay, crimes to avenge, [and] deep-seated wrongs to right.”[4] And there is few greater a wrong to right than irremediable disease and unrelenting agony.


Yet what happens when our values go unfulfilled? What happens when such aims prove aimless, and the mechanics of will and reason show their frailty and their limit? What happens when health cannot be acheived? What happens when the individual places her trust in the institution of medicine, (only) to discover that it cannot secure on her behalf either freedom or happiness against the limits of physical, mental, and social dis-ease?


What happens when Hercules is taken by “a strange disease [that he] … cannot withstand by courage, weapons, or strength?”[5]


These questions are relevant to the contemporary turn toward medical assistance in dying (MAiD). The concrete experiences of both patients at the end of life and their physicians, among others, serve as the ground from which the questions above arise—questions that require further reflection.


Drawing from French philosopher Gabriel Marcel’s methodology and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s diagnostic, the following will reflect upon the crisis of vulnerability incumbent to MAiD, specifically the vulnerability to despair that follows the failure to attain that which one values—that is, in part, self-determination and agencies of control. But the following reflection will not focus on the patient in situ solus. Her despair is obvious[6] and illumined by the panoply of evidence gathered by the literature that expresses “reasons” for petitions to procure MAiD.[7] Instead, the following will serve also as a reflection upon the contemporary institution of medicine and the professionals that it forms.


Accordingly, in the spirit of Marcel’s process of reflection, and in time returning to Ovid’s Hercules in his Metamorphoses (Book IX), we will ambulate between life and reflection. As Marcel teaches, we will work “up from life to thought and then down from thought to life again, so that [we] may try to throw more light upon life.”[8]  Our aim is to throw more light upon late modern media vitae in morte sumus,[9] allowing more light to be cast upon life, and therefore also death, as conditioned by the tautology of modern ontology and medical means, and upon the vulnerability to despair, by which one comes to hug death.

[1] See Christopher Braider, “Hercules at the Crossroads: Image and soliloquy in Annibale Carracci,” in Iconoclasm: Turning Toward Pictures, edited by Ellen Spolsky (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2004), 89-116; The essay is republished in Christopher Braider, “Hercules at the Crossroads,” in Baroque Self-Invention and Historical Truth: Hercules at the Crossroads (Abingdon and New York: Routlege, 2016), 111-143.

[2] See, Kurt Goldstein, “Health as value,” in New Knowledge in Human Values, edited by Abraham Maslow (New York: Harper, 1959), 178-188; See also, John Bruhn and George Henderson, Values in Health Care: Choices and Conflict, Springfield: Charles C. Thomas, 1991).

[3] Daniel Callahan, “The WHO definition of health,” The Hastings Center Studies, vol. 1, no. 3, The concept of health (1973): 82-83.

[4] Braider, “Hercules at the Crossroads,” 89.

[5] Ovid, Metamorphoses, translated by Anthony S Kline, Bk IX (159-210), Retrived from

[6] The manifest despair will be explained below as a comportment of [failed] will, which, as Robyn Masasco has introduced, “invites a range of emotions and is not necessarily tied to any particular private or public feeling” (Robyn Masasco, The Highway of Despair, New Directions in Critical Theory, ed. Amy Allen (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 2.

[7] Research by Linda Ganzini, Marianna Dees, Maggie Hendry, Timothy Quill, and their respective colleagues will be introduced below.

[8] Marcel, The Mystery of Being, vol. 1, Reflection and Mystery, trans. G. S. Fraser (London: Harvill, 1950), 41. To do this work, Marcel argues that one must first map out human life as it is lived in a concrete sense (secondary reflection), rather than outlining its shape in abstraction, “in the high void of ‘pure thought’” (Reflection and Mystery, 41).

[9] [Translated] “Life in the midst of death”, from a Twelfth Century Latin Antiphon.