An explainer about Philosophy using lessons from popular culture. In Installment 3, Hamilton lives the Authentic Life.
Legend has it that there was a professional philosopher who ran for public office. During the campaign, he was apparently asked what, according to him, was the most significant thing we should teach our children. He retorted, with no apparent humour, that we should impart the inevitability of mortality. He lost the election.
In the past year, I have been obsessed with the musical Hamilton, created by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Within the first minute, we get introduced to a running theme in a musical about political ambition and glory – death. In fact, out of the 46 songs on cast recording, 28 (about 61%) directly allude to death.
The musical is about Alexander Hamilton, a founding father of the United States. As a child growing up in the Caribbean, he witnesses his father abandoning their family and his mother dying of a prolonged illness (that he survives), leaving him in the care of a cousin, who subsequently commits suicide. Moreover, when a hurricane hits his hometown, he is a spectator to more death and destruction.
All this destruction and squandering makes him immensely aware of his own mortality, and of the fact that people can be forgotten easily.
“I imagine death so much it feels/more like a memory,” he says in the song ‘I Want’. “I never thought I’d live past twenty / Where I come from some get half as many…/ We have to make this moment last.”
As an ambitious young man, then, he wants to leave a legacy behind – to be remembered for his formidable intellect and bravery; to not perish. This is a major driving factor in his life, at least according to the musical. So much so that his wife laments, “So long as you come home at the end of the day/ That would be enough.”
We often avoid thinking about our mortality and death. Finding our way out of it has often been the central plot of many a stories and myth since ancient times (think: the story behind Holi). Some philosophers like Nietzsche were not interested in thinking about death, preferring to think about the bleakness of life instead. Of course, because death is so cold an idea, some try to deny it, avoid it, or ignore it. The belief that we are invincible, as though death is something that happens to other people, is characteristic especially of young people. They are said to lack what German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) termed authenticity — implying that you should live in a way that fulfils your potential, by owning up to all that you are. He thought that if you are self-aware and actively examine your own behaviour, you are authentic. An important part of living authentically is to look forward, and the ultimate possibility of looking forward is death. In other words, we are all going to die.
Heidegger is interested in the understanding of what being in the world means, and how we experience it. He proposes that authentic living entails choosing to confront death, implying that we recognize that we will cease to exist. He thought that living authentically meant living with the understanding that death could happen at any time, that it is not a far-off, other-concerning event. This means that our impermanence makes us define ourselves, understand our strengths and weaknesses, and basically ‘not throw away our shot.’
In this way, the hero of our musical (at this point the Treasury Secretary of the independent United States) lives an authentic life. In one of the turning points of the plot, he is trying to make a deal with Thomas Jefferson about where to locate the US capital. In this pursuit, he overworks himself to an extent that even John Adams, the then vice-president, takes the summer off, but Hamilton does not.
Before this, he has already proven himself as a remarkable lawyer and a rising public figure. He has also contributed fifty-one essays out of the total eighty-five (then published anonymously), along with James Madison and John Jay, defending the constitution of the United States to the public. The Federalist Papers is now one of the most important collection of essays in American political philosophy. He is, then, writing like he is ‘running out of time’– another example of him pushing himself in order to make a mark. This is particularly poignant in light of the death of his close friend (and according to many historic accounts, his lover) John Laurens. In the musical, when he learns of his death, he goes uncharacteristically quiet, and responds with “I have so much work to do.”
Eventually, he (forgive my crossing over fandoms) greets death like an old friend — what with his mother, his son, Laurens, and Washington all ‘on the other side.’ In the legendary duel between his ‘first friend’ and eventual slayer Aaron Burr, he raises his pistol to the sky, but gets mortally shot. He sings, “I’m running, and my time’s up,” in his final soliloquy, implying that he did not ‘miss’ the shot, as much as he ‘threw’ it away.
Of course, in his legacy too, he ‘lived’ authentically, thanks to his wife who “established the first private orphanage in New York City,” in her orphan husband’s memory. But then again, perhaps it was his preoccupation with his own mortality that led to him never even getting to run for president, and thereby losing, just like the professional philosopher in our fable.