Existence is overrated. Here’s why.

Just like that famous (joyfully apocryphal) Chinese curse, today we live in interesting times. Online anonymity is has given us something else to be anxious about and while this is a topic worthy of debate, the topic of ancient anonymity is something even the ancients weren’t too worried about.

In fact, ancient scholars would regularly attribute their works to more famous scholars than themselves. The practice was known as Pseudepigrapha and no it didn’t happen to try and muscle in on the numbers of book sales. Mostly because they never got paid for books. In fact, it was more a homage or even a method of categorization than anything else.

If an ancient scholar wrote in the same style or about the same things as, say, Aristotle then they might ‘sign’ their work under his name. Later scholars would study the text carefully and realise this was the case and attribute it to Pseudo-Aristotle. They were careful not to dismiss it as a scam because it contained information far more valuable than the name of its author.

This is a common occurrence in ancient texts, actually. For instance, there is barely any evidence that Socrates and Lieh Tzu existed but their contributions to humanity mean that, whether their mothers called them called Socrates or Sylvester, the qualities they embody on a mythical level matter most.

Socratic wisdom, even if it was invented by Plato, does not depend on Socrates having an ugly face, bare feet or a nagging wife. He could have had a ten inch codpiece and a cousin in Egypt for all it matters. What matters is the wisdom connected with his name.


What’s In A Name?

Everything and nothing. Most of the time, if you look up the actual meaning of a name (whether it’s Jesus or Balshoi) the name is actually more of a descriptor than anything.

Names are more versatile and adaptable than you might think. Just take Saint Peter, who was The Original Rock, and Ghandi, whose first name famously wasn’t Mohatma. These titles are what we, as a community, gave to these people because of the functions they play as icons in society.

The same goes for Santa Claus. His name is probably the evolution of people saying “Saint Nicholas” quickly and often enough that their lazy lips gobbled up the syllables, sending him from SaintNiklas to Sant-naclos to Santa Clause.

On my native island, we don’t even bother much with the sainty side of him, settling instead on Father Christmas. We would have to try bloody hard to think up a less inventive name but even if his full name was Father Brian Christ’s Massive Fir Cone III, what he stood for would always be more important.


Christmas Is Just A Consumerist’s Wet Dream

You’re right. That famous red suit was invented by coca-cola and advertisers shamelessly use Christmassy animations to manipulate our love-giving cerebral lobes into buying things we don’t need.

But ultimately, all historical figures are figments of historians’ imaginations. Alright, not entirely but partly, sure. We know things like Genghis Khan was a murderous maniac and Hypatia was a mathematical genius and Winston Churchill smoked a cigar.

But did you know that Churchill also loved modern art? Or that Hypatia had a pet tortoise named turtle? Or that Ghengis Khan loved nothing more than a good fart joke? No? Who said they didn’t?* You don’t know and neither do I.

And would it matter if they did? Would the Battle of Britain be less heroic, or Hypatia’s murder be less tragic? Of course not, because they’ve been transformed into myths that serve the modern mind.

And Christmas is a time for embodying myths, not for doing studies in reindeer aeronautical aerodynamics.


Statues and Myths

I’m a historian by training and constructing historical realities excites me more than fantastic footballers footballing their footballs to in Friday night frenzies. However, any historian worth their salt acknowledges that we can only ever construct a hazy “reality”, fogged up by lack of evidence and our own inescapable cultural biases.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we give up trying altogether. That would be boring and, as you might have guessed, I’m not equipped to change my hobby to following football. What I am suggesting is that we begin to embrace the haziness of any historical reality, particularly when it serves us better at constructing modern-day ethics.

Last year there were timely rebellions against statues of people society no longer believes are worthy of their pedestals. This is a subject I would love to explore in more depth later. For now, I’ll limit myself to saying that this review of social heroes is a common pattern in history and it is always fascinating.

The reason for this is that our cultural heroes don’t represent historical reality as much as they represent a singling-out of characteristics we, as a community, find inspiring.

I mentioned Winston Churchill above and he is the perfect example of this thinking. He was undoubtedly racist, a fanatical imperialist and a terrible role model for a healthy lifestyle. And he was known as such even in his lifetime by the very people who erected statues of him. So why did they erect the statues?

For the same reason Batman took the blame for Harvey Dent’s (aka Two Face) crimes in The Dark Knight: to elevate personal admirable qualities above the name itself. As Batman put it:

“Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough, sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.”

In the case of Churchill, the statues represent bravery in the face of a formidable foe. A quality far greater than the man could ever be. 

We, as a community, will constantly revise the characters we promote to embody our favourite qualities and sometimes they will fall out of favour. Luckily, humans show themselves capable of characteristics greater than themselves all the time, so we shouldn’t ever be short of figures to make statues of.

Furthermore, figures whose existence is impossible to confirm or deny provide us with rich pickings in this area.


What They Embody Is What Matters

We’ve been over the fact that Santa Claus, just like the Winter Solstice (link), has been hijacked by corporations but that doesn’t mean we should tear him off the pedestals of our minds. Santa Claus’ existence is a dream, a compilation of factual crumbs that make a delicious fiction worth swallowing whole.

His fiction offers us a foundation for moral emulation more solid than any “real” human could ever could. Chuchill’s racism, Ghengis Khan’s bloodthirstiness and Hypatia’s love of marmite (link to Rick rolling style gotcha vid) are crumbling bricks that distort the shape of any house we try to build on them.

So, believe in Santa Claus even if he does get the credit for that toy that decimated your bank account. Because that’s the point of myths. To imitate not a reality but an ideal. And Christmas is a time for ideals.

The ideals of generosity, of the joyous luxury of getting chubby with friends, of telling stories with happy endings in the harsh face of winter, and of manufacturing a modicum of magic in the cynical face of vapid consumerism.

It doesn’t matter that Santa-Saint-Nick never existed as we know him because he doesn’t live in the annals (grow up, there’s a double ‘n’) of history, he lives in the mercurial waters of cultural consciousness and that’s why we can honour, change and embody him as we see fit.

Which is pretty bloody useful.

Merry Christmas!


*One of these is not like the others, see here.


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