There is only one infinite game: Life

There is only one infinite game: Life September 2, 2011

As you know, I have been wrestling with the concept of death as an act of creation, specifically how to make of my own death an act of creation.  A few days ago, I found a book I have had for years which had fallen down between stacks of papers, Finite and Infinite Games, by James P. Carse.

Finite and Infinite Games

It’s a short little book with an interesting idea.  Carse opens the book with this statement:

There are at least two kinds of games.  One could be called finite, the other infinite.  A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

With this premise, Carse explores life, society, politics, and religion.

Finite games, Carse says, have a definite beginning and ending.  They are played with the goal of winning, thus ending the game.  In fact, the rules of a finite game exist to ensure that the game is finite.  Infinite games, on the other hand, do not have a knowable beginning or ending.  They are played with the goal of continuing play and a purpose of bringing more players into the game.  An infinite game continues play for sake of the play.  If the game is at risk of ending, then the rules must be changed to allow continued play.

Carse gives the example of language.  The rules of an infinite game are like the grammar of a living language, while the rules of a finite game are like the rules of a debate.  In the case of language, we observe the rules of grammar in order to continue the conversation; we observe the rules of a debate in order to end the conversation.  Says Carse: “Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.”

He goes on to explain that finite players strive to eliminate surprise.  The master finite player foresees all the possible moves, like a master chess player.  But the infinite player plays with the hope of being surprised; it is the reason for playing.  Indeed, for the infinite player, “if surprise is no longer possible, all play ceases.”

Carse ends the book with these words:

There is but one infinite game.

And we are to understand that the only infinite game is life itself.

Now let’s turn to the question of death and the finite and infinite game:

The rule making capacity of infinite players is challenged by the impingement of powerful boundaries against their play — such as physical exhaustion, or the loss of material resources, or the hostility of nonplayers, or death.  The task is to design rules that will allow the player to continue the game by taking these limits into play — even when death is one of the limits.  It is in this sense that the game is infinite.

So that is the challenge: how do we play with the boundary that is death so that play may continue after death.  (Carse denies the immortality of the individual soul.)  He then goes on to discuss how players of finite games may achieve a form of immorality through gaining titles which are won by playing finite games.  So how does the infinite player approach death?

Infinite players die.  Since the boundaries of death are always part of the play, the infinite player does not die at the
end of play, but in the course of play.

The death of an infinite player is dramatic.  It does not mean that the game comes to an end with death; on the contrary, infinite players offer their death as a way of continuing the play.  For that reason they do not play for their own life; they live for their own play.  But since that play is always with others, it is evident that infinite players both live and die for the continuing life of others.

Death is a defeat in infinite play.  It is inflicted when one’s boundaries give way and one falls to an opponent.  The finite player dies under the terminal move of another.

Although infinite players chose mortality, they may not know when death comes, but we can always say of them “they die at the right time.” (Nietzsche)

The finite play for life is serious; the infinite play of life is joyous.  Infinite play resounds throughout with a kind of laughter.

One of the keys to infinite play is seeing life as indeed infinite, as something bigger than the length of one’s own individual life.

This reminds me of the distinction drawn by Karl Kerenyi in his book Dionysos: Archetypal Image of the Indestructible Life (funny, I was just writing about Dionysos) between the two Greek words for “life”: zoe and bios; and elaborated upon by Jules Cashford and Anne Baring in The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image (1993):

“This essential distinction between the whole and the part was later formulated in the Greek language by the two different Greek words for life, zoe and bios, as the embodiment of two dimensions co-existing in life. Zoe is eternal and infinite life; bios is finite and individual life. Zoe is infinite ‘being’; bios is the living and dying manifestation of the eternal world in time.”

For Cashford and Baring, Zoe is personified by the Great Mother Goddess, and bios by her son-lover or her daughter:

“The Goddess may be understood as the eternal cycle of the whole: the unity of life and death as a single process. The young goddess or god is her mortal form in time, which, as manifested life […] is subject to a cyclical process of birth, flowering, decay, death and rebirth.”

Another key to understanding Carse’s concept of infinite, I think, lies in the phrase, “Infinite players chose mortality.”  What does this mean?  Obviously, it does not mean that they choose when they die, although they may in some cases.  I think it means they chose to live their life as an end in itself, not as a means to some end, like immortality.

Carses’ quotation of Nietzsche is the clue to unlocking the meaning of “choosing mortality”.  The quote comes from Thus Spake Zarathustra:

Die at the right time: so teacheth Zarathustra.

Every one regardeth dying as a great matter: but as yet death is not a festival. Not yet have people learned to inaugurate the finest festivals.
The consummating death I show unto you, which becometh a stimulus and promise to the living.
His death, dieth the consummating one triumphantly, surrounded by hoping and promising ones.
Thus should one learn to die; and there should be no festival at which such a dying one doth not consecrate the oaths of the living!

My death, praise I unto you, the voluntary death, which cometh unto me because I want it.
And when shall I want it?–He that hath a goal and an heir, wanteth death at the right time for the goal and the heir.
And out of reverence for the goal and the heir, he will hang up no more withered wreaths in the sanctuary of life.

I hear only slow death preached, and patience with all that is “earthly.”
Ah! ye preach patience with what is earthly? This earthly is it that hath too much patience with you, ye blasphemers!

That your dying may not be a reproach to man and the earth, my friends: that do I solicit from the honey of your soul.
In your dying shall your spirit and your virtue still shine like an evening after-glow around the earth: otherwise your dying hath been unsatisfactory.
Thus will I die myself, that ye friends may love the earth more for my sake; and earth will I again become, to have rest in her that bore me.

I cannot imagine more beautiful words for my epitaph than those last words: “Thus will I die myself, that ye friends may love the earth more for my sake; and earth will I again become, to have rest in her that bore me.”  The “consummating death” is what I seek.  “I love those who do not first seek a reason beyond the stars for going down and being sacrifices, but sacrifice themselves to the earth …”, says Zarathustra in Nietzsche’s prologue.  To learn to die.  How?  By learning to live!  By choosing mortality, as Carse says.  And thereby  making of my death a “stimulus and promise to the living”, that my friends and family may love life more for my having lived.  Is this not creation from destruction?  What could be a more “pagan” ethic?

The question, O me! so sad, recurring —

What good amid these, O me, O life?


That you are here—that life exists, and identity;

That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.

— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

It is no coincidence that a major theme of Thus Spake Zarathustra is the concept of the “eternal recurrence”, which for Nietzsche is the ultimate affirmation of life:

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not to merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary—but to love it.”

(Ecce Homo).

This is not merely a change in attitude.  It is the project of a lifetime.

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