Gilgamesh’s Despair & Today’s Deceptions

The Epic of Gilgamesh, written as early as 3,000 BC, was lost for millennia only to be rediscovered in 1853 near the modern day city of Mosul, Iraq. Perhaps the most intriguing part of this ancient Sumerian tale – the oldest known piece of literature in the world – is its account of a great flood which in several respects mirrors that of Noah and his ark found in Genesis. But this work of unrivaled antiquity also captivates the modern reader with its treatment of that age-old question: is there life after death?     

Gilgamesh, who some scholars claim to be an actual historical figure, sets out on a quest for the answer: “if only I could find the one man who the gods made immortal, I would ask him how to overcome death.” He was moved to do so because his beloved friend Enkidu, with whom he bonded through shared adventures, “has turned into clay. And won’t I too lie down in the dirt like him, and never rise again?”

His was a stormy, unsettled heart; the inescapable prospect of death – the ultimate source of most all our fears – fed his anxiety. His own mother, in fact, pleaded with the sun god: “you have granted my son beauty and strength and courage – why have you burdened him with a restless heart?” One would have little trouble imagining St. Monica, who prayed for years for the conversion of her gifted son St. Augustine, uttering something similar; it was he who eventually concluded: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”  

But for all Gilgamesh’s searching, the story ultimately pronounces a verdict that does not cheer. Death is final: “The life that you are seeking you will never find. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping.”

Though rank commercialism may encroach upon the modern observance of Christmas, we thankfully do not have to contend with what troubled Gilgamesh, nor wrestle with the terrible question: what if that magnificent event, the Incarnation, had never happened?

        Gilgamesh: failed seeker of eternal life 

We do, however, have to reckon with why Jesus came: “For this I was born and for this I came into the world: to testify to the truth.” It is not trivial, then, that the Epic of Gilgamesh makes the perceptive claim that “all men are deceivers.” Though this almost off-hand assertion is not absolutely central to the overall narrative, the reader nonetheless recognizes in it a penetrating truism.

Who can enumerate the ways in which we deceive our own selves, much less seek to wrest some miserable advantage away from another? Do we not deceive ourselves by imagining that the individualistic pursuit of unlimited “freedom,” radically separated from the virtues, really is freedom, or that it will bring us happiness?  Isn’t the lie that some other human life is disposable in the pursuit of one end or another today’s rule of thumb?

C.S. Lewis felt that “some hazy adumbrations of a doctrine of the Fall can be found in Paganism;” the recognition in Gilgamesh of our inclination to deceit in some sense anticipates that concept with unintended foresight. Pride is the primordial sin; deceit the device that hastens the fall. Our Redeemer is the Truth, so it stands to reason that we who are in need of redemption are also in need of constant conversion to the Truth. 

For all our modern advances, blessings and opportunities, deception allures as much as ever – maybe more so today in the sense that we moderns have turned our backs on the classical understanding that value-laden convictions can be deemed both objective and rational. The relativism that corrodes our culture from within deceives with innocuously packaged yet paradoxically inflexible appeals to “tolerance.” It depends by definition on the denial of objective truth – on deliberately conflating that which is good with that which is evil. St. John plainly tells us, though, that we deceive ourselves if we claim that we have no sin in us – a claim which is none other than the cornerstone upon which the edifice of relativism is constructed.                

The discipline of Catholic moral theology has not been immune to this type of deception either. In a recent address to the Curia, Benedict XVI pointedly attributed a share of the culpability for the recent abuse scandal to clerical accommodation of the ideological drift away from objective truth – to the idea that anything (including what many instinctively grasp to be repellent) can be justified under some circumstances. It is paramount, Benedict insists, to strenuously oppose the idea of morality as merely a “calculus of consequences,” since that idea is tantamount to the elimination of morality altogether. Our welfare depends on recognizing the ways in which we are prone to deceit, which is why Benedict, motivated by “concern for mankind”, called for an invigorated implementation of the teachings of the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth). 

We enjoy a perspective the ancients did not since, as John Paul II stressed, “Jesus Christ is the center of history, the hope of humanity and the joy of every heart.” Mary at once perceived that with the Incarnation everything had changed; from this day forward, she declared in the Magnificat, “all generations we call me blessed”. Still, recognizing and responding to truth is not always easy. But we can be immensely consoled, unlike Gilgamesh, by knowing that with the Truth comes life eternal.

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.