Core Decorum: unconquerable

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Illustration courtesy of Cecilia Lang

What does it mean to be unconquerable?

In “Paradise Lost,” Satan asks: “The unconquerable will, / and study of revenge, immortal hate, / and courage never to submit or yield — / and what is else not to be overcome?” 

Likewise, in his great poem “Invictus,” William Ernest Henley thanks “whatever gods may be / for my unconquerable soul,” and how this unconquerability is what rules his life, determining what course it shall take. 

These are two very different figures from two very different times, yet the two are united together in mutual defiance of God. Satan, of course, speaks these words after being cast from heaven into chaos, and is formulating a plan to regain power and relentlessly wage a war he is doomed to lose.

Henley, an atheist in a Christian world and diagnosed with tuberculosis, fought to take command of his own life, regardless of “how strait the gate, / how charged with punishments the scroll,” a reference of course to judgment at the gates after death. Both of these figures looked to God and did not like what they saw. 

After all, if one cannot count on God, what can one count on? 

Descartes, in his “Meditations,” conducts a thought experiment in which he assumes nothing exists and attempts to prove that the world does exist. From here comes the famous line, “Cogito Ergo Sum,” or for you non-classicists, “I think, therefore I am.”

If this is the first thing that can be known, it makes sense that we should not know or come to reject God; the first thing we would settle on as the source of our power would be ourselves. 

What separates Achilleus from other great warriors is not just his superiority on the battlefield, but that he is the only character in Greek myth (that this humble writer can think of) who has the ability to decide his own fate.

What these examples show us is that it is extremely attractive to view oneself as being entirely self-sufficient, without needing to rely on God (the Fall of Man) or anyone else (the weakness of Odysseus). However, we see in many places in literature, philosophy and other disciplines the benefit of putting reliance both on others and on God. 

Although it is no longer in the core (though it should be), “Beowulf” is a prime example of the necessity of others to accomplish our task. When the titular character battles the dragon, he finds himself unable to defeat it alone. Only when he joins forces with Wiglaf, another warrior, is he able to defeat the beast. 

In “Democracy in America, Tocqueville writes on the importance of “self-interest well understood,” when each participant in a society does their best to assist the collective, not just the individual. 

Only through complete reliance on God does Job make it through his ordeal. 

Similarly, only through trust in something greater (not the Christian God, but still) is Aeneas able to pursue his calling to lay claim to Italy and the eventual founding of Rome. 

Even in our study of the core at UD, we see this principle laid out. There are inherent community building and interpersonal experience in shared learning. We see the strength of the faith community here and know there is also a presence of God on this campus. 

It seems, luckily enough, that we have a better idea of uncoquerability than Satan after all.

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