I think the key event for philosophical discussion in this episode is (probably obviously) Pat’s injury and removal from the game. Suddenly, the name “Survivor” wasn’t a gimmick. Pat wasn’t just at risk of dying metaphorically by being voted off the island – he was literally at risk of dying. (Supposedly he’s doing all right now. I’d like the show to bring him back for a second chance in a future season.) This might cause the other competitors to reconsider why they put themselves in this artificial environment of fake friends and backstabbing. The triumph of blindsiding a player at tribal council can seem silly in comparison to the nothingness of death.
However, Pat isn’t really the only player facing death. When the journalist Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with cancer and people asked how he was doing, he would reply: “Well, I’m dying. But then again, so are you.” Every player in Survivor is going to die. I don’t mean that in the banal way that it’s often said, as merely an excuse for not being careful. (“So what if I have to work tomorrow? I’ll have another drink. We’re all going to die anyway.”) Death is possibly the most difficult event of our lives, but we can’t prepare our way out of it. After a certain amount of preparation (whether spiritual, financial, familial, etc.), we’re still left with an enormous amount of life to fill with activity. So what are we going to fill it with? That’s not denial. Unless we commit suicide, we have to fill that time. I don’t see anything necessarily wrong with filling it with a challenging game like Survivor. And challenging ourselves in an artificial environment is often preferable to doing it in real life, where the stakes are much higher.
One of the many (many) ways to think about philosophical works is that some are instruction manuals and others are survival manuals. For example, Immanuel Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason tends to be an instruction manual, trying to explain how the universe works. Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus tends to be a survival manual, trying to give people reasons to not blow their brains out. That’s not a value judgement (they’re both tremendous books that had strong impacts on me), but I think the survival manuals cut closer to the bone. Camus writes that our lives are meaningless in the face of death’s annihilation. However, our knowledge of that meaninglessness is what makes us human and where we must anchor our lives. We do not find strength from fooling ourselves about death, but by fighting against it in spite of its inevitability. If death leaves us without meaning, we must rebel by finding meaning in the humanity of the meaninglessness, like Sisyphus from Greek mythology, condemned to eternally pushing a rock up a hill in Hades.
When Pat didn’t want to leave the game after getting hurt so badly that he might have been paralyzed, was he acting in this extremely human way? (He kept groaning through the pain: “It can’t end like this. I can’t go home.”) Or was he just in denial, fooling himself that death wasn’t a real possibility? If I’m being honest, I think he was going with the latter explanation, not the philosophical one.
Just as a side note before signing off, I was interested in how Nick commented that naming an alliance was crucial to its success. This was an intelligent observation. Giving a name to a group gives it a gravitas beyond the mere collection of its members. This idea actually connects to the previous discussion about Pat and death, because I think the naming of organizations has something to do with wanting to be part of something larger than ourselves, which ultimately is connected to wanting to survive our deaths.