Why the Demoniac Stayed in his Comfortable Corner of Hell

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Detail from The Drunkard (1912) by Marc Chagall. Courtesy Wikipedia

John Kaag | Aeon Ideas

I am not what one might call a religious man. I went to church, and then to confirmation class, under duress. My mother, whom I secretly regarded as more powerful than God, insisted that I go. So I went. Her insistence, however, had the unintended consequence of introducing me to a pastor whom I came to despise. So I eventually quit.

There were many problems with this pastor but the one that bothered me the most was his refusal to explain a story from the New Testament that I found especially hard to believe: the story of the demoniac.

This story from Mark 5:1-20 relates how Jesus and the disciples go to the town of Gerasenes and there encounter a man who is possessed by evil spirits. This demoniac – a self-imposed outcast from society – lived at the outskirts of town and ‘night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones’. The grossest part of the story, however, isn’t the self-mutilation. It’s the demoniac’s insane refusal to accept help. When Jesus approached him, the demoniac threw himself to the ground and wailed: ‘What do you want with me? … In God’s name, don’t torture me!’ When you’re possessed by evil spirits, the worst thing in the world is to be healed. In short, the demoniac tells Jesus to bugger off, to leave him and his sharp little stones in his comfortable corner of hell.

When I first read about the demoniac, I was admittedly scared, but I eventually convinced myself that the parable was a manipulative attempt to persuade unbelievers such as me to find religion. And I wasn’t buying it. But when I entered university, went into philosophy, and began to cultivate an agnosticism that one might call atheism, I discovered that many a philosopher had been drawn to this scary story. So I took a second look.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who spent years analysing the psychological and ethical dimensions of the demoniac, tells us that being demonic is more common than we might like to admit. He points out that when Jesus heals the possessed man, the spirits are exorcised en masse, flying out together as ‘the Legion’ – a vast army of evil forces. There are more than enough little demons to go around, and this explains why they come to roust in some rather mundane places. In Kierkegaard’s words: ‘One may hear the drunkard say: “Let me be the filth that I am.”’ Or, leave me alone with my bottle and let me ruin my life, thank you very much. I heard this first from my father, and then from an increasing number of close friends, and most recently from a voice that occasionally keeps me up at night when everyone else is asleep.

Those who are the most pointedly afflicted are often precisely those who are least able to recognise their affliction, or to save themselves. And those with the resources to rescue themselves are usually already saved. As Kierkegaard suggests, the virtue of sobriety makes perfect sense to one who is already sober. Eating well is second nature to the one who is already healthy; saving money is a no-brainer for one who one is already rich; truth-telling is the good habit of one who is already honest. But for those in the grips of crisis or sin, getting out usually doesn’t make much sense.

Sharp stones can take a variety of forms.

In The Concept of Anxiety (1844), Kierkegaard tells us that the ‘essential nature of [the demoniac] is anxiety about the good’. I’ve been ‘anxious’ about many things – about exams, about spiders, about going to sleep – but Kierkegaard explains that the feeling I have about these nasty things isn’t anxiety at all. It’s fear. Anxiety, on the other hand, has no particular object. It is the sense of uneasiness that one has at the edge of a cliff, or climbing a ladder, or thinking about the prospects of a completely open future – it isn’t fear per se, but the feeling that we get when faced with possibility. It’s the unsettling feeling of freedom. Yes, freedom, that most precious of modern watchwords, is deeply unsettling.

What does this have to do with our demoniac? Everything. Kierkegaard explains that the demoniac reflects ‘an unfreedom that wants to close itself off’; when confronted with the possibility of being healed, he wants nothing to do with it. The free life that Jesus offers is, for the demoniac, pure torture. I’ve often thought that this is the fate of the characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit (1944): they are always free to leave, but leaving seems beyond impossible.

Yet Jesus manages to save the demoniac. And I wanted my pastor to tell me how. At the time, I chalked up most of the miracles from the Bible as exaggeration, or interpretation, or poetic licence. But the healing of the demoniac – unlike the bread and fish and resurrection – seemed really quite fantastic. So how did Jesus do it? I didn’t get a particularly good answer from my pastor, so I left the Church. And never came back.

Today, I still want to know.

I’m not here to explain the salvation of the demoniac. I’m here only to observe, as carefully as I can, that this demonic situation is a problem. Indeed, I suspect it is the problem for many, many readers. The demoniac reflects what theologians call the ‘religious paradox’, namely that it is impossible for fallen human beings – such craven creatures – to bootstrap themselves to heaven. Any redemptive resources at our disposal are probably exactly as botched as we are.

There are many ways to distract ourselves from this paradox – and we are very good at manufacturing them: movies and alcohol and Facebook and all the fixations and obsessions of modern life. But at the end of the day, these are pitifully little comfort.

So this year, as New Year’s Day recedes from memory and the winter darkness remains, I am making a resolution: I will try not to take all the usual escapes. Instead, I will try to simply sit with the plight of the demoniac, to ‘stew in it’ as my mother used to say, for a minute or two more. In his essay ‘Self-will’ (1919), the German author Hermann Hesse put it thus: ‘If you and you … are in pain, if you are sick in body or soul, if you are afraid and have a foreboding of danger – why not, if only to amuse yourselves … try to put the question in another way? Why not ask whether the source of your pain might not be you yourselves?’ I will not reach for my familiar demonic stones, blood-spattered yet comforting. I will ask why I need them in the first place. When I do this, and attempt to come to terms with the demoniac’s underlying suffering, I might notice that it is not unique to me.

When I do, when I let go of the things that I think are going to ease my suffering, I might have the chance to notice that I am not alone in my anxiety. And maybe this is recompense enough. Maybe this is freedom and the best that I can hope for.Aeon counter – do not remove

John Kaag

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Subjectivity as Truth

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A Selected Passage


When subjectivity, inwardness, is truth, then objectively truth is the paradox; and the fact that truth is objectively the paradox is just what proves subjectivity to be truth, since the objective situation proves repellent, and this resistance on the part of objectivity, or its expression, is the resilience of inwardness and the gauge of its strength. The paradox is the objective uncertainty that is the expression for the passion of inwardness, which is just what truth is. So much for the Socratic. Eternal, essential truth, i.e., truth that relates essentially to someone existing through essentially concerning what it is to exist (all other knowledge being from the Socratic point of view accidental, its scope and degree a matter of indifference), is the paradox. Yet the eternal, essential truth is by no means itself the paradox; it is so by relating to someone existing. Socratic ignorance is the expression of the objective uncertainty, the inwardness of the one who exists is truth. Just to anticipate here, note the following: Socratic ignorance is an analogue to the category of the absurd, except that in the repellency of the absurd there is even less objective certainty, since there is only the certainty that it is absurd. And just for that reason is the resilience of the inwardness even greater. Socratic inwardness in existing is an analogue of faith, except that the inwardness of faith, corresponding as it does to the resistance not of ignorance but of the absurd, is infinitely more profound.

Socratically, the eternal essential truth is by no means in itself paradoxical; it is so only by relating to someone existing. This is expressed in another Socratic proposition, namely, that all knowing is recollecting. That proposition foreshadows the beginning of speculative thought, which is also the reason why Socrates did not pursue it. Essentially it became Platonic. Here is where the path branches off and Socrates essentially accentuates existing, while Plato, forgetting the latter, loses himself in speculation. The infinite merit of Socrates is precisely to be an existing thinker, not a speculator who forgets what it is to exist. For Socrates, therefore, the proposition that all knowing is recollecting has, at the moment of his leave-taking and as the suspended possibility of speculating, a two-fold significance: (1) that the knower is essentially integer and that there is no other anomaly concerning knowledge confronting him than that he exists, which anomaly, however, is so essential and decisive for him that it means that existing, the inward absorption in and through existing, is truth; (2) that existence in temporality has no decisive importance, since the possibility of taking oneself back into eternity through recollection is always there, even though this possibility is constantly cancelled by the time taken in inner absorption in existing.

The unending merit of the Socratic was precisely to accentuate the fact that the knower is someone existing and that existing is what is essential. Going further through failing to understand this is but a mediocre merit. The Socratic is therefore something we must bear in mind and then see whether the formula might not be altered so as to make a real advance on the Socratic.

Subjectivity, inwardness, accordingly, is truth. Is there now a more inward expression of this? Yes, indeed; when talk of ‘subjectivity, inwardness, is truth’ begins as follows: ‘Subjectivity is untruth.’ But let us not be in a hurry. Speculation also says that subjectivity is untruth, but says this in exactly the opposite direction; namely, that objectivity is truth. Speculation defines subjectivity negatively in the direction of objectivity. This other definition, on the contrary, gets in its own way from the start, which is just what makes the inwardness so much more inward. Socratically, subjectivity is untruth if it refuses to grasp that subjectivity is truth but, for example, wants to become objective. Here, however, in setting about becoming truth by becoming subjective, subjectivity is in the difficult position of being untruth. The work thus goes backwards, that is, back into inwardness. Far from the path leading in the direction of the objective, the beginning itself lies only even deeper in subjectivity.

But the subject cannot be untruth eternally, or be presupposed eternally to have been so; he must have become that in time, or becomes that in time. The Socratic paradox lay in the eternal truth relating to someone existing. But now existence has put its mark a second time on the one who exists. A change so essential has occurred in him that now he cannot possibly take himself back into the eternal through Socratic recollection. To do that is to speculate; the Socratic is to be able to do it but to cancel the possibility by grasping the inward absorption in existence. But now the difficulty is this, that what followed Socrates as a cancelled possibility has become an impossibility. If, in relation to Socrates, speculating was already a dubious merit, now it is only confusion.

The paradox emerges when the eternal truth and existence are put together; but every time existence is marked out, the paradox becomes ever clearer. Socratically, the knower was someone who existed, but now someone who exists has been marked in such a way that existence has undertaken an essential change in him.

Being ‘interesting’ is Not an Objective Feature of the World

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Colour-composite image of the Carina Nebula. Courtesy ESO

Lorraine L Besser | Aeon Ideas

Most of us know and value pleasant experiences. We savour the taste of a freshly picked strawberry. We laugh more than an event warrants, just because laughing feels good. We might argue about the degree to which such pleasant experiences are valuable, and the extent to which they ought to shape our lives, but we can’t deny their value.

So pleasant experiences are necessarily valuable, but are there also valuable experiences that are not necessarily pleasant? It seems there are. Often, we have experiences that captivate us, that we cherish even though they are not entirely pleasant. We read a novel that leads us to feel both horror and awe. We binge-watch a TV show that explores the shocking course of moral corruption of someone who could be your neighbour, friend, even your spouse. The experience is both painful and horrifying, but we can’t turn it off.

These experiences seem intuitively valuable in the same way that pleasant experiences are intuitively valuable. But they are not valuable because they are pleasant – rather, they are valuable by virtue of being interesting.

What does it mean for an experience to be interesting? First, to say that something is interesting is to describe what the experience feels like to the person undergoing it. This is the phenomenological quality of the experience. When we study the phenomenology of something, we examine what it feels like, from the inside, to experience that thing. For instance, most of us would describe eating our favourite foods as a pleasurable experience: the food itself isn’t pleasurable, but the experience of eating it is. Similarly, when we talk about something being beautiful or awe-inspiring, we aren’t describing the thing itself, but rather our experience of it. We see the sunset and feel moved by it; the beauty is something we experience. Likewise the awe it inspires is a feature of our experiential reaction to it. The interesting is just like this. It is a feature of our experiential reaction, of our engagement.

We don’t always use the word ‘interesting’ in this way. In ordinary language, we often describe the objects of experience as interesting. We talk about interesting books, interesting people, and so on. When we say that a book is interesting, we more likely mean that the experience of reading the book is interesting. It just doesn’t make sense to describe a book to be objectively interesting, independently of people experiencing it as interesting. How could a book be interesting without being read? And if a book is objectively interesting, shouldn’t we all find it interesting? We don’t all find the same things to be interesting. It is a common experience for something to be interesting to one person, yet not another. So while we might describe objects as interesting, we should recognise that this is a loose, and shorthand, way to describe what’s really interesting – our experience of them.

Another way in which we use the word ‘interesting’ is in the context of describing what a person is interested in: John is interested in Second World War novels, for example. This usage also differs from what I’m describing as the ‘interesting’. It describes a particular fit between one’s interests and the objects of one’s experiences. But notice that fitting with your interests, and being interested in something, is actually a different experience to finding something interesting. We’ve all been interested in things that turn out to be boring, and we’ve all found experiences interesting when we had no prior interest in them. The interesting is thus not an objective feature of an object, nor an experience that necessarily aligns or follows from your interests. It is rather a feature of our experiences.

To say that something is interesting is also to describe a particular kind of synthesis that arises within the experience. Whenever we engage in an activity, we bring to that experience some combination of expectations, likes/desires, beliefs, curiosity, and so forth. This package contributes to the activity delivering a particular subjective experience. There is a synthesis, specific to the individual’s engagement, that determines what her experience feels like – its phenomenological quality. It is within this synthesis that a person finds an experience interesting, or not. There is no one synthesis that makes an experience interesting. Sometimes, a clash of expectations and reality makes something interesting, sometimes someone’s curiosity allows one to notice features that make an activity interesting, and so on. Because the interesting lies within a synthesis between the individual and an activity, one individual can find something interesting (say, reading philosophy) that another person doesn’t.

The synthesis is complex, unique to the subject and the experience – and, in the end, unspecifiable. This is why we tend to overlook the interesting as a valuable feature of our experiences. Pleasure, by contrast, is a fairly uniform feature of experience. We know exactly what others are talking about when they talk about pleasurable experiences, and can relate to that experience in a personal way – even if it is something that we have not experienced as pleasurable. Our reactions to the experiences that others find interesting are often different. John finds reading Second World War novels to be an ongoing source of interest, yet Julia can’t imagine a more boring way of spending her time, and can’t understand how anyone would find them interesting. In such scenarios, we are more likely to discredit the value of John’s experience than to try to understand and appreciate it. Because the interesting is by nature a more complicated, harder-to-reach, harder-to-describe feature than others, we rarely stop to think about just what the interesting is.

While wrapping our head around the interesting might be challenging, it is important to acknowledge the value intrinsic to interesting experiences. Recognising it as valuable validates those who choose to pursue the interesting, and also opens up a new dimension of value that can enrich our lives. Most of us know there is more to life than pleasure, yet it is all too easy to choose our experiences for the sake of pleasure. For many of us, though, interesting experiences are more rewarding than pleasurable experiences, insofar as their intrinsic value is a product of multifaceted aspects of our engagement. Interesting experiences spark the mind in a way that stimulates and lingers. They can also be easy to come by – sometimes just a sense of curiosity is needed to make an activity interesting. Look around, feel the pull, and cherish the interesting.Aeon counter – do not remove

Lorraine L Besser

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Marxism and Existentialism

And Since I am to speak of existentialism, let it be understood that I take it to be an “ideology.” It is a parasitical system living on the margin of Knowledge, which at first it opposed but into which today it seeks to be integrated. If we are to understand its present ambitions and its function we must go back to the time of Kierkegaard…

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Compared with Hegel, Kierkegaard scarcely seems to count. He is certainly not a philosopher; moreover, he himself refused this title. In fact he is a Christian who is not willing to let himself be enclosed in the system and who, against Hegel’s “intellectualism,” asserts unrelentingly the irreducibility and the specificity of what is lived. There is no doubt, as Jean Wahl has remarked, that a Hegelian would have assimilated this romantic and obstinate consciousness to the “unhappy consciousness,” a moment which had already been surpassed and known in its essential characteristics. But it is precisely this objective knowledge which Kierkegaard challenges. For him the surpassing of the unhappy consciousness remains purely verbal. The existing man cannot be assimilated by a system of ideas…

We see that Kierkegaard is inseparable from Hegel, and that this vehement negation of every system can arise only within a cultural field entirely dominated by Hegelianism. The Dane feels himself hemmed in by concepts, by History, he fights for his life; it is the reaction of Christian romanticism against the rationalist humanization of faith. It would be too easy to reject this work as simply subjectivism; what we ought rather to point out, in place it back within the framework of its period, is that Kierkegaard has as much right on his side as Hegel has on his. Hegel is right: unlike the Danish ideologist, who obstinately fixed his stand on poor, frozen paradoxes ultimately referring to an empty subjectivity, the philosopher of Jena aims through his concepts at the veritable concrete; for him, mediation is always presented as an enrichment. Kierkegaard is right: grief, need, passion, the pain of men, are brute realities which can be neither surpassed nor changed by knowledge. To be sure, Kierkegaard’s religious subjectivism can with good reason be taken as the very peak of idealism; but in relation to Hegel, he marks a progress toward realism, since he insists above all on the primacy of the specifically real over thought, that the real cannot be reduced to thought. There are today some psychologists and psychiatrists who consider certain evolutions of our inward life to be the result of a work which it performs upon itself. In this sense Kierkegaardian existence is the work of our inner life – resistances overcome and perpetually reborn, efforts perpetually renewed, despairs surmounted, provisional failures and precarious victories – and this work is directly opposed to intellectual knowing. Kierkegaard was perhaps the first to point out, against Hegel and thanks to him, the incommensurability of the real and knowledge…

Now, in the present phase of our history, productive forces have entered into conflict with relations of production. Creative work is alienated; man does not recognize himself in his own product, and his exhausting labor appears to him as a hostile force. Since alienation comes about as the result of this conflict, it is a historical reality and completely irreducible to an idea. If men are to free themselves from it, and if their work is to become the pure objectification of themselves, it is not enough that “consciousness think itself”; there must be material work and revolutionary praxis. When Marx writes: “Just as we do not judge an individual by his own idea of himself, so we cannot judge a … period of revolutionary upheaval by its own self-consciousness,” he is indicating the priority of action (work and social praxis) over knowledge as well as their heterogeneity. He too asserts that the human fact is irreducible to knowing, that it must be lived and produced; but he is not going to confuse it with the empty subjectivity of a puritanical and mystified petite bourgeoisie. He makes of it the immediate theme of the philosophical totalization, and it is the concrete man whom he puts at the center of his research, that man who is defined simultaneously by his needs, by the material conditions of his existence, and by the nature of his work – that is, by his struggle against things and against men.

Thus Marx, rather than Kierkegaard or Hegel, is right, since he asserts with Kierkegaard the specificity of human existence and, along with Hegel, takes the concrete man in his objective reality. Under these circumstances, it would seem natural if existentialism, this idealist protest against idealism, had lost all usefulness and had not survived the decline of Hegelianism…

Between the two World Wars the appearance of a German existentialism certainly corresponds – at least in the work of Jaspers – to a surreptitious wish to resuscitate the transcendent. Already – as Jean Wahl has pointed out – one could wonder if Kierkegaard did not lure his readers into the depths of subjectivity for the sole purpose of making them discover there the unhappiness of man without God. This trap would be quite in keeping with the “great solitary” who denied communication between human beings and who saw no way to influence his fellow man except by “indirect action.”

Jaspers himself put his cards on the table. He has done nothing except to comment upon his master; his originality consists especially in putting certain themes into relief and in hiding others. The transcendent, for example, appears at first to be absent from his thought, which in fact is haunted by it. We are taught to catch a presentiment of the transcendent in our failures; it is their profound meaning…

Kierkegaard was unwilling to play the role of a concept in the Hegelian system; Jaspers refuses to cooperate as an individual with the history which Marxists are making…

It is one more existentialism which has developed at the margin of Marxism and not against it. It is Marx with whom we claim kinship, and Marx of whom I wish to speak now… It was at about this time [1925] that I read Capital and German Ideology. I found everything perfectly clear, and I really understood absolutely nothing. To understand is to change, to go beyond oneself. This reading did not change me. By contrast, what did begin to change me was the reality of Marxism, the heavy presence on my horizon of the masses of workers, an enormous, somber body which lived Marxism, which practiced it, and which at a distance exercised an irresistible attraction on petit bourgeois intellectuals…

Why then has “existentialism” preserved its autonomy? Why has it not simply dissolved in Marxism?

Lukacs believed that he had answered this question in a small book called Existentialism and Marxism… Lukacs fails absolutely to account for the principal fact: we were convinced at one and the same time that historical materialism furnished the only valid interpretation of history and that existentialism remained the only concrete approach to reality. I do not pretend to deny the contradictions in this attitude. I simply assert that Lukacs does not even suspect it. Many intellectuals, many students, have lived and still live with the tension of this double demand. How does this come about? It is due to a circumstance which Lukacs knew perfectly well but which he could not at that time even mention: Marxism, after drawing us to it as the moon draws the tides, after transforming all our ideas, after liquidating the categories of our bourgeois thought, abruptly left us stranded. It did not satisfy our need to understand. In the particular situation in which we were placed, it no longer had anything new to teach us, because it had come to a stop…

Marxism stopped…

Existentialism has been able to return and to maintain itself because it reaffirmed the reality of men as Kierkegaard asserted his own reality against Hegel. However, the Dane rejected the Hegelian conception of man and of the real. Existentialism and Marxism, on the contrary, aim at the same object…

Far from being exhausted, Marxism is still very young, almost in its infancy; it has scarcely begun to develop. It remains, therefore, the philosophy of our time. We cannot go beyond it because we have not gone beyond the circumstances which engendered it…

Let us go further. We agree with Garaudy when he writes (Humanité, May 17, 1955): “Marxism forms today the system of coordinates which alone permits it to situate and to define a thought in any domain whatsoever – from political economy to physics, from history to ethics.” …

As soon as there will exist for everyone a margin of real freedom beyond the production of life, Marxism will have lived out its span; a philosophy of freedom will take its place. But we have no means, no intellectual instrument, no concrete experience which allows us to conceive of this freedom or of this philosophy…

Why, then, are we not simply Marxists? It is because we take the statements of Engels and Garaudy as guiding principles, as indications of jobs to be done, as problems – not as concrete truths.

– Jean-Paul Sartre (1960)


See Also

Existentialism is Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre (1946, PDF)

The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism by Keiji Nishitani (1990, PDF)

The Absurd

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The Nature of the Absurd

A nihilist is not one who believes in nothing, but one who does not believe in what exists.

My contention has been that death and the certain prospect of death make an absurdity out of life. But, argues Albert Camus, even if we humans were immortal, this would make life no less absurd. According to Absurdism, humans historically attempt to find meaning in their lives. Traditionally, this search results in one of two conclusions: either that life is meaningless, or life contains within it a purpose set forth by a higher power—a belief in God, or adherence to some religion or other abstract concept.

I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I cannot know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms. What I touch, what resists me — that I understand. And these two certainties — my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle — I also know that I cannot reconcile them. What other truth can I admit without lying, without bringing in a hope I lack and which means nothing within the limits of my conditions?

In philosophy, “the Absurd” refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any. In this context, absurd does not mean “logically impossible,” but rather “humanly impossible.” The universe and the human mind do not each separately cause the Absurd, but rather, the Absurd arises by the contradictory nature of the two existing simultaneously.

I said that the world is absurd, but I was too hasty. This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together. It binds them one to the other as only hatred can weld two creatures together. This is all I can discern clearly in this measureless universe where my adventure takes place.

Accordingly, Absurdism is a philosophical school of thought stating that the efforts of humanity to find inherent meaning will ultimately fail (and hence are absurd) because the sheer amount of information, as well as the vast realm of the unknown, make total certainty impossible. As a philosophy, absurdism furthermore explores the fundamental nature of the Absurd and how individuals, once becoming conscious of the Absurd, should respond to it. The absurdist philosopher Albert Camus stated that individuals should embrace the absurd condition of human existence while also defiantly continuing to explore and search for meaning.

In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.

Absurdism shares some concepts, and a common theoretical template, with existentialism and nihilism. It has its origins in the work of the 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who chose to confront the crisis that humans face with the Absurd by developing his own existentialist philosophy. Absurdism as a belief system was born of the European existentialist movement that ensued, specifically when Camus rejected certain aspects of that philosophical line of thought and published his essay The Myth of Sisyphus. The aftermath of World War II provided the social environment that stimulated absurdist views and allowed for their popular development, especially in the devastated country of France.

At this point of his effort man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. 

Camus perceives filling the void with some invented belief or meaning as a mere “act of eluding”—that is, avoiding or escaping rather than acknowledging and embracing the Absurd. To Camus, elusion is a fundamental flaw in religion, existentialism, and various other schools of thought. If the individual eludes the Absurd, then he or she can never confront it. Camus also concedes that elusion is the most common response to the absurd.

Even with a spiritual power as the answer to meaning, another question arises: What is the purpose of a belief in God? Kierkegaard believed that there is no human-comprehensible purpose of God, making faith in God absurd itself. Camus, on the other hand, states that to believe in God is to “deny one of the terms of the contradiction” between humanity and the universe (and is therefore not absurd but what he calls “philosophical suicide”). Camus (as well as Kierkegaard), though, suggests that while absurdity does not lead to belief in God, neither does it lead to the denial of God. Camus notes, “I did not say ‘excludes God’, which would still amount to asserting”.

Intelligence, too, tells me in its way that this world is absurd. Its contrary, blind reason, may well claim that all is clear; I was waiting for proof and longing for it to be right. But despite so many pretentious centuries and over the heads of so many eloquent and persuasive men, I know that is false. On this plane, at least, there is no happiness if I cannot know. That universal reason, practical or ethical, that determinism, those categories that explain everything are enough to make a decent man laugh. They have nothing to do with the mind. They negate its profound truth, which is to be enchained. In this unintelligible and limited universe, man’s fate henceforth assumes its meaning. A horde of irrationals has sprung up and surrounds him until his ultimate end. In his recovered and now studied lucidity, the feeling of the absurd becomes clear and definite.

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Creation as Rebellion

Nothing can discourage the appetite for divinity in the heart of man.

For Camus, the beauty people encounter in life makes it worth living. People may create meaning in their own lives, which may not be the objective meaning of life (if there is one), but can still provide something to strive for. However, he insisted that one must always maintain an ironic distance between this invented meaning and the knowledge of the absurd, lest the fictitious meaning take the place of the absurd.

In absurdist philosophy, the Absurd arises out of the fundamental disharmony between the individual’s search for meaning and the meaninglessness of the universe. As beings looking for meaning in a meaningless world, humans have three ways of resolving the dilemma. Kierkegaard and Camus describe the solutions in their works, The Sickness Unto Death (1849) and The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), respectively:

  • Suicide (or, “escaping existence”): a solution in which a person ends one’s own life. Both Kierkegaard and Camus dismiss the viability of this option. Camus states that it does not counter the Absurd. Rather, the act of ending one’s existence only becomes more absurd.
  • Religious, spiritual, or abstract belief in a transcendent realm, being, or idea: a solution in which one believes in the existence of a reality that is beyond the Absurd, and, as such, has meaning. Kierkegaard stated that a belief in anything beyond the Absurd requires an irrational but perhaps necessary religious acceptance in such an intangible and empirically unprovable thing (now commonly referred to as a “leap of faith“). However, Camus regarded this solution, and others, as “philosophical suicide”.
  • Acceptance of the Absurd: a solution in which one accepts the Absurd and continues to live in spite of it. Camus endorsed this solution, believing that by accepting the Absurd, one can achieve the greatest extent of their freedom, and that by recognizing no religious or other moral constraints and by revolting against the Absurd while simultaneously accepting it as unstoppable, one could possibly be content from the personal meaning constructed in the process. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, regarded this solution as “demoniac madness”: “He rages most of all at the thought that eternity might get it into its head to take his misery from him!

There exists an obvious fact that seems utterly moral: namely, that a man is always a prey to his truths. Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them. One has to pay something. A man who has become conscious of the absurd is forever bound to it. A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future. That is natural. But it is just as natural that he should strive to escape the universe of which he is the creator.

Absurdism originated from (as well as alongside) the 20th-century strains of existentialism and nihilism; it shares some prominent starting points with, though also entails conclusions that are uniquely distinct from, these other schools of thought. All three arose from the human experience of anguish and confusion stemming from the Absurd: the apparent meaninglessness in a world in which humans, nevertheless, are so compelled to find or create meaning. The three schools of thought diverge from there. Existentialists have generally advocated the individual’s construction of his or her own meaning in life as well as the free will of the individual. Nihilists, on the contrary, contend that “it is futile to seek or to affirm meaning where none can be found.” Absurdists, following Camus’s formulation, hesitantly allow the possibility for some meaning or value in life, but are neither as certain as existentialists are about the value of one’s own constructed meaning nor as nihilists are about the total inability to create meaning. Absurdists following Camus also devalue or outright reject free will, encouraging merely that the individual live defiantly and authentically in spite of the psychological tension of the Absurd.

To work and create “for nothing,” to sculpture in clay, to know one’s creation has no future, to see one’s work destroyed in a day while being aware that fundamentally this has no more importance than building for centuries — this is the difficult wisdom that absurd thought sanctions. Performing these two tasks simultaneously, negating on the one hand and magnifying on the other, is the way open to the absurd creator. He must give the void its colors.

Camus himself passionately worked to counter nihilism, as he explained in his essay “The Rebel,” while he also categorically rejected the label of “existentialist” in his essay “Enigma” and in the compilation The Lyrical and Critical Essays of Albert Camus, though he was, and still is, often broadly characterized by others as an existentialist. Both existentialism and absurdism entail consideration of the practical applications of becoming conscious of the truth of existential nihilism: i.e., how a driven seeker of meaning should act when suddenly confronted with the seeming concealment, or downright absence, of meaning in the universe. Camus’s own understanding of the world (e.g., “a benign indifference”, in The Stranger), and every vision he had for its progress, however, sets him apart from the general existentialist trend.

The absurd … is an experience to be lived through, a point of departure, the equivalent, in existence of Descartes’ methodical doubt. Absurdism, like methodical doubt, has wiped the slate clean. It leaves us in a blind alley. But, like methodical doubt, it can, by returning upon itself, open up a new field of investigation, and in the process of reasoning then pursues the same course. I proclaim that I believe in nothing and that everything is absurd, but I cannot doubt the validity of my proclamation and I must at least believe in my protest. The first and only evidence that is supplied me, within the terms of the absurdist experience, is rebellion … Rebellion is born of the spectacle of irrationality, confronted with an unjust and incomprehensible condition.

Though the notion of the ‘absurd’ pervades all Albert Camus’s writing, The Myth of Sisyphus is his chief work on the subject. In it, Camus considers absurdity as a confrontation, an opposition, a conflict or a “divorce” between two ideals. Specifically, he defines the human condition as absurd, as the confrontation between man’s desire for significance, meaning and clarity on the one hand – and the silent, cold universe on the other. He continues that there are specific human experiences evoking notions of absurdity. Such a realization or encounter with the absurd leaves the individual with a choice: suicide, a leap of faith, or recognition. He concludes that recognition is the only defensible option.

Rebellion in itself is not an element of civilization. But it is a preliminary to all civilization. Rebellion alone, in the blind alley in which we live, allows us to hope for the future of which Nietzsche dreamed: “Instead of the judge and the oppressor, the creator.” … Of all the schools of patience and lucidity, creation is the most effective. It is also the staggering evidence of man’s sole dignity: the dogged revolt against his condition, perseverance in an effort considered sterile.

Freedom cannot be achieved beyond what the absurdity of existence permits; however, the closest one can come to being absolutely free is through acceptance of the Absurd. Camus introduced the idea of “acceptance without resignation” as a way of dealing with the recognition of absurdity, asking whether or not man can “live without appeal”, while defining a “conscious revolt” against the avoidance of absurdity of the world. In a world devoid of higher meaning or judicial afterlife, the human nature becomes as close to absolutely free as is humanly possible.

I am not a philosopher, because I don’t believe in reason enough to believe in a system. What interests me is knowing how we must behave, and more precisely, how to behave when one does not believe in God or reason.

The rejection of hope, in absurdism, denotes the refusal to believe in anything more than what this absurd life provides. Hope, Camus emphasizes, however, has nothing to do with despair (meaning that the two terms are not opposites). One can still live fully while rejecting hope, and, in fact, can only do so without hope. Hope is perceived by the absurdist as another fraudulent method of evading the Absurd, and by not having hope, one is motivated to live every fleeting moment to the fullest. In the words of Nikos Kazantzakis’ epitaph: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

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Suicide

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.

For Camus, suicide is a “confession” that life is not worth living; it is a choice that implicitly declares that life is “too much.” Suicide offers the most basic “way out” of absurdity: the immediate termination of the self and its place in the universe.

The final conclusion of absurdist reasoning is, in fact, the repudiation of suicide and the acceptance of the desperate encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe. Suicide would mean the end of this encounter, and absurdist reasoning considers that it could not consent to this without negating its own premises. According to absurdist reasoning, such a solution would be the equivalent of flight or deliverance. But it is obvious that absurdism hereby admits that human life is the only necessary good since it is precisely life that makes this encounter possible and since, without life, the absurdist wager would have no basis. To say that life is absurd, the conscience must be alive.

The absurd encounter can also arouse a “leap of faith,” a term derived from one of Kierkegaard’s early pseudonyms, Johannes de Silentio (although the term was not used by Kierkegaard himself), where one believes that there is more than the rational life (aesthetic or ethical). To take a “leap of faith,” one must act with the “virtue of the absurd” (as Johannes de Silentio put it), where a suspension of the ethical may need to exist. This faith has no expectations, but is a flexible power initiated by a recognition of the absurd. (Although at some point, one recognizes or encounters the existence of the Absurd and, in response, actively ignores it.) However, Camus states that because the leap of faith escapes rationality and defers to abstraction over personal experience, the leap of faith is not absurd. Camus considers the leap of faith as “philosophical suicide,” rejecting both this and physical suicide.

You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth. Nothing is told us about Sisyphus in the underworld. Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them.

Lastly, a person can choose to embrace their own absurd condition. According to Camus, one’s freedom – and the opportunity to give life meaning – lies in the recognition of absurdity. If the absurd experience is truly the realization that the universe is fundamentally devoid of absolutes, then we as individuals are truly free. “To live without appeal,” as he puts it, is a philosophical move to define absolutes and universals subjectively, rather than objectively. The freedom of humans is thus established in a human’s natural ability and opportunity to create their own meaning and purpose; to decide (or think) for him- or herself. The individual becomes the most precious unit of existence, representing a set of unique ideals that can be characterized as an entire universe in its own right. In acknowledging the absurdity of seeking any inherent meaning, but continuing this search regardless, one can be happy, gradually developing meaning from the search alone.

To shed light upon the step taken by the mind when, starting from a philosophy of the world’s lack of meaning, it ends up by finding a meaning and depth in it.

Camus states in The Myth of Sisyphus: “Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death, and I refuse suicide.” “Revolt” here refers to the refusal of suicide and search for meaning despite the revelation of the Absurd; “Freedom” refers to the lack of imprisonment by religious devotion or others’ moral codes; “Passion” refers to the most wholehearted experiencing of life, since hope has been rejected, and so he concludes that every moment must be lived fully.

Every ideology is contrary to human psychology.

The absurdist is not guided by morality, but rather, by their own integrity. The absurdist is, in fact, amoral (though not necessarily immoral). The Absurdist’s view of morality implies an unwavering sense of definite right and wrong at all times, while integrity implies honesty with one’s self and consistency in the motivations of one’s actions and decisions.

The preceding merely defines a way of thinking. But the point is to live.

In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.

– (All quotes in this article are from Albert Camus)

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See Also

Absurdism (Wikipedia)

Albert Camus (SEP)

Absurdism (Wikiquote)

A Reconstructed Conversation with Camus (Nautilus)

Albert Camus (Wikiquote)

Herd Mentality

In his heart every man knows quite well that, being unique, he will be in the world only once and that no imaginable chance will for a second time gather together into a unity so strangely variegated an assortment as he is: he knows it but he hides it like a bad conscience—why? From fear of his neighbor, who demands conventionality and cloaks himself with it. But what is it that constrains the individual to fear his neighbor, to think and act like a member of a herd, and to have no joy in himself? Modesty, perhaps, in a few rare cases. With the great majority it is indolence, inertia. … Men are even lazier than they are timid, and fear most of all the inconveniences with which unconditional honesty and nakedness would burden them. Artists alone hate this sluggish promenading in borrowed fashions and appropriated opinions and they reveal everyone’s secret bad conscience, the law that every man is a unique miracle.

Parliamentarianism—that is, public permission to choose between five basic political opinions—flatters and wins the favor of all those who would like to seem independent and individual, as if they fought for their opinions. Ultimately, however, it is indifferent whether the herd is commanded to have one opinion or to have five. Whoever deviates from the five public opinions and stands apart will always have the whole herd against him.

No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse. The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.

There are horrible people who, instead of solving a problem, tangle it up and make it harder to solve for anyone who wants to deal with it. Whoever does not know how to hit the nail on the head should be asked not to hit it at all. The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.

If you have a virtue and she is your virtue, then you have her in common with nobody. But you want to call her by her name and pet her … and behold, now you have her in common with the people and have become one of the herd with your virtue. You would do better to say “Inexpressible and nameless is that which gives my soul agony and sweetness.”… May your virtue be too exalted for the familiarity of names, and if you must speak of her, do not be ashamed to stammer.

– Friedrich Nietzsche


Obama Accepts Nomination On Final Day Of Democratic National Convention

What is Enlightenment?

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!”–that is the motto of enlightenment.

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a proportion of men, long after nature has released them from alien guidance (natura-liter maiorennes), nonetheless gladly remain in lifelong immaturity, and why it is so easy for others to establish themselves as their guardians. It is so easy to be immature. If I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, and so on, I need not exert myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay: others will readily undertake the irksome work for me. The guardians who have so benevolently taken over the supervision of men have carefully seen to it that the far greatest part of them (including the entire fair sex) regard taking the step to maturity as very dangerous, not to mention difficult. Having first made their domestic livestock dumb, and having carefully made sure that these docile creatures will not take a single step without the go-cart to which they are harnessed, these guardians then show them the danger that threatens them, should they attempt to walk alone. Now this danger is not actually so great, for after falling a few times they would in the end certainly learn to walk; but an example of this kind makes men timid and usually frightens them out of all further attempts.

Thus, it is difficult for any individual man to work himself out of the immaturity that has all but become his nature. He has even become fond of this state and for the time being is actually incapable of using his own understanding, for no one has ever allowed him to attempt it. Rules and formulas, those mechanical aids to the rational use, or rather misuse, of his natural gifts, are the shackles of a permanent immaturity. Whoever threw them off would still make only an uncertain leap over the smallest ditch, since he is unaccustomed to this kind of free movement. Consequently, only a few have succeeded, by cultivating their own minds, in freeing themselves from immaturity and pursuing a secure course.

But that the public should enlighten itself is more likely; indeed, if it is only allowed freedom, enlightenment is almost inevitable. For even among the entrenched guardians of the great masses a few will always think for themselves, a few who, after having themselves thrown off the yoke of immaturity, will spread the spirit of a rational appreciation for both their own worth and for each person’s calling to think for himself. But it should be particularly noted that if a public that was first placed in this yoke by the guardians is suitably aroused by some of those who are altogether incapable of enlightenment, it may force the guardians themselves to remain under the yoke–so pernicious is it to instill prejudices, for they finally take revenge upon their originators, or on their descendants. Thus a public can only attain enlightenment slowly. Perhaps a revolution can overthrow autocratic despotism and profiteering or power-grabbing oppression, but it can never truly reform a manner of thinking; instead, new prejudices, just like the old ones they replace, will serve as a leash for the great unthinking mass.

Nothing is required for this enlightenment, however, except freedom; and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely, the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters. But on all sides I hear: “Do not argue!” The officer says, “Do not argue, drill!” The tax man says, “Do not argue, pay!” The pastor says, “Do not argue, believe!” (Only one ruler in the World says, “Argue as much as you want and about what you want, but obey!”) In this we have examples of pervasive restrictions on freedom. But which restriction hinders enlightenment and which does not, but instead actually advances it? I reply: The public use of one’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among mankind; the private use of reason may, however, often be very narrowly restricted, without otherwise hindering the progress of enlightenment. By the public use of one’s own reason I understand the use that anyone as a scholar makes of reason before the entire literate world. I call the private use of reason that which a person may make in a civic post or office that has been entrusted to him. Now in many affairs conducted in the interests of a community, a certain mechanism is required by means of which some of its members must conduct themselves in an entirely passive manner so that through an artificial unanimity the government may guide them toward public ends, or at least prevent them from destroying such ends. Here one certainly must not argue, instead one must obey. However, insofar as this part of the machine also regards himself as a member of the community as a whole, or even of the world community, and as a consequence addresses the public in the role of a scholar, in the proper sense of that term, he can most certainly argue, without thereby harming the affairs for which as a passive member he is partly responsible. Thus it would be disastrous if an officer on duty who was given a command by his superior were to question the appropriateness or utility of the order. He must obey.

But as a scholar he cannot be justly constrained from making comments about errors in military service, or from placing them before the public for its judgment. The citizen cannot refuse to pay the taxes imposed on him; indeed, impertinent criticism of such levies, when they should be paid by him, can be punished as a scandal (since it can lead to widespread insubordination). But the same person does not act contrary to civic duty when, as a scholar, he publicly expresses his thoughts regarding the impropriety or even injustice of such taxes. Likewise a pastor is bound to instruct his catecumens and congregation in accordance with the symbol of the church he serves, for he was appointed on that condition. But as a scholar he has complete freedom, indeed even the calling, to impart to the public all of his carefully considered and well-intentioned thoughts concerning mistaken aspects of that symbol, as well as his suggestions for the better arrangement of religious and church matters. Nothing in this can weigh on his conscience. What he teaches in consequence of his office as a servant of the church he sets out as something with regard to which he has no discretion to teach in accord with his own lights; rather, he offers it under the direction and in the name of another. He will say, “Our church teaches this or that and these are the demonstrations it uses.” He thereby extracts for his congregation all practical uses from precepts to which he would not himself subscribe with complete conviction, but whose presentation he can nonetheless undertake, since it is not entirely impossible that truth lies hidden in them, and, in any case, nothing contrary to the very nature of religion is to be found in them. If he believed he could find anything of the latter sort in them, he could not in good conscience serve in his position; he would have to resign. Thus an appointed teacher’s use of his reason for the sake of his congregation is merely private, because, however large the congregation is, this use is always only domestic; in this regard, as a priest, he is not free and cannot be such because he is acting under instructions from someone else. By contrast, the cleric–as a scholar who speaks through his writings to the public as such, i.e., the world–enjoys in this public use of reason an unrestricted freedom to use his own rational capacities and to speak his own mind. For that the (spiritual) guardians of a people should themselves be immature is an absurdity that would insure the perpetuation of absurdities.

But would a society of pastors, perhaps a church assembly or venerable presbytery (as those among the Dutch call themselves), not be justified in binding itself by oath to a certain unalterable symbol in order to secure a constant guardianship over each of its members and through them over the people, and this for all time: I say that this is wholly impossible. Such a contract, whose intention is to preclude forever all further enlightenment of the human race, is absolutely null and void, even if it should be ratified by the supreme power, by parliaments, and by the most solemn peace treaties. One age cannot bind itself, and thus conspire, to place a succeeding one in a condition whereby it would be impossible for the later age to expand its knowledge (particularly where it is so very important), to rid itself of errors,and generally to increase its enlightenment. That would be a crime against human nature, whose essential destiny lies precisely in such progress; subsequent generations are thus completely justified in dismissing such agreements as unauthorized and criminal. The criterion of everything that can be agreed upon as a law by a people lies in this question: Can a people impose such a law on itself? Now it might be possible, in anticipation of a better state of affairs, to introduce a provisional order for a specific, short time, all the while giving all citizens, especially clergy, in their role as scholars, the freedom to comment publicly, i.e., in writing, on the present institution’s shortcomings. The provisional order might last until insight into the nature of these matters had become so widespread and obvious that the combined (if not unanimous) voices of the populace could propose to the crown that it take under its protection those congregations that, in accord with their newly gained insight, had organized themselves under altered religious institutions, but without interfering with those wishing to allow matters to remain as before. However, it is absolutely forbidden that they unite into a religious organization that nobody may for the duration of a man’s lifetime publicly question, for so do-ing would deny, render fruitless, and make detrimental to succeeding generations an era in man’s progress toward improvement. A man may put off enlightenment with regard to what he ought to know, though only for a short time and for his own person; but to renounce it for himself, or, even more, for subsequent generations, is to violate and trample man’s divine rights underfoot. And what a people may not decree for itself may still less be imposed on it by a monarch, for his lawgiving authority rests on his unification of the people’s collective will in his own. If he only sees to it that all genuine or purported improvement is consonant with civil order, he can allow his subjects to do what they find necessary to their spiritual well-being, which is not his affair. However, he must prevent anyone from forcibly interfering with another’s working as best he can to determine and promote his well-being. It detracts from his own majesty when he interferes in these matters, since the writings in which his subjects attempt to clarify their insights lend value to his conception of governance. This holds whether he acts from his own highest insight–whereby he calls upon himself the reproach, “Caesar non eat supra grammaticos.”‘–as well as, indeed even more, when he despoils his highest authority by supporting the spiritual despotism of some tyrants in his state over his other subjects.

If it is now asked, “Do we presently live in an enlightened age?” the answer is, “No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment.” As matters now stand, a great deal is still lacking in order for men as a whole to be, or even to put themselves into a position to be able without external guidance to apply understanding confidently to religious issues. But we do have clear indications that the way is now being opened for men to proceed freely in this direction and that the obstacles to general enlightenment–to their release from their self-imposed immaturity–are gradually diminishing. In this regard, this age is the age of enlightenment, the century of Frederick.

A prince who does not find it beneath him to say that he takes it to be his duty to prescribe nothing, but rather to allow men complete freedom in religious matters–who thereby renounces the arrogant title of tolerance–is himself enlightened and deserves to be praised by a grateful present and by posterity as the first, at least where the government is concerned, to release the human race from immaturity and to leave everyone free to use his own reason in all matters of conscience. Under his rule, venerable pastors, in their role as scholars and without prejudice to their official duties, may freely and openly set out for the world’s scrutiny their judgments and views, even where these occasionally differ from the accepted symbol. Still greater freedom is afforded to those who are not restricted by an official post. This spirit of freedom is expanding even where it must struggle against the external obstacles of governments that misunderstand their own function. Such governments are illuminated by the example that the existence of freedom need not give cause for the least concern regarding public order and harmony in the commonwealth. If only they refrain from inventing artifices to keep themselves in it, men will gradually raise themselves from barbarism.

I have focused on religious matters in setting out my main point concerning enlightenment, i.e., man’s emergence from self-imposed immaturity, first because our rulers have no interest in assuming the role of their subjects’ guardians with respect to the arts and sciences, and secondly because that form of immaturity is both the most pernicious and disgraceful of all. But the manner of thinking of a head of state who favors religious enlightenment goes even further, for he realizes that there is no danger to his legislation in allowing his subjects to use reason publicly and to set before the world their thoughts concerning better formulations of his laws, even if this involves frank criticism of legislation currently in effect. We have before us a shining example, with respect to which no monarch surpasses the one whom we honor.

But only a ruler who is himself enlightened and has no dread of shadows, yet who likewise has a well-disciplined, numerous army to guarantee public peace, can say what no republic may dare, namely: “Argue as much as you want and about what you want, but obey!” Here as elsewhere, when things are considered in broad perspective, a strange, unexpected pattern in human affairs reveals itself, one in which almost everything is paradoxical. A greater degree of civil freedom seems advantageous to a people’s spiritual freedom; yet the former established impassable boundaries for the latter; conversely, a lesser degree of civil freedom provides enough room for all fully to expand their abilities. Thus, once nature has removed the hard shell from this kernel for which she has most fondly cared, namely, the inclination to and vocation for free thinking, the kernel gradually reacts on a people’s mentality (whereby they become increasingly able to act freely), and it finally even influences the principles of government, which finds that it can profit by treating men, who are now more than machines, in accord with their dignity.

– Immanuel Kant


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The Crowd is Untruth

There is a view of life which holds that where the crowd is, the truth is also, that it is a need in truth itself, that it must have the crowd on its side. There is another view of life; which holds that wherever the crowd is, there is untruth, so that, for a moment to carry the matter out to its farthest conclusion, even if every individual possessed the truth in private, yet if they came together into a crowd (so that “the crowd” received any decisive, voting, noisy, audible importance), untruth would at once be let in.

For “the crowd” is untruth. Eternally, godly, christianly what Paul says is valid: “only one receives the prize,” [I Cor. 9:24] not by way of comparison, for in the comparison “the others” are still present. That is to say, everyone can be that one, with God’s help – but only one receives the prize; again, that is to say, everyone should cautiously have dealings with “the others,” and essentially only talk with God and with himself – for only one receives the prize; again, that is to say, the human being is in kinship with, or to be a human is to be in kinship with the divinity. The worldly, temporal, busy, socially-friendly person says this: “How unreasonable, that only one should receive the prize, it is far more probable that several combined receive the prize; and if we become many, then it becomes more certain and also easier for each individually.” Certainly, it is far more probable; and it is also true in relation to all earthly and sensuous prizes; and it becomes the only truth, if it is allowed to rule, for this point of view abolishes both God and the eternal and “the human being’s” kinship with the divinity; it abolishes it or changes it into a fable, and sets the modern (as a matter of fact, the old heathen) in its place, so that to be a human being is like being a specimen which belongs to a race gifted with reason, so that the race, the species, is higher than the individual, or so that there are only specimens, not individuals. But the eternal, which vaults high over the temporal, quiet as the night sky, and God in heaven, who from this exalted state of bliss, without becoming the least bit dizzy, looks out over these innumerable millions and knows each single individual; he, the great examiner, he says: only one receives the prize; that is to say, everyone can receive it, and everyone ought to become this by oneself, but only one receives the prize. Where the crowd is, therefore, or where a decisive importance is attached to the fact that there is a crowd, there no one is working, living, and striving for the highest end, but only for this or that earthly end; since the eternal, the decisive, can only be worked for where there is one; and to become this by oneself, which all can do, is to will to allow God to help you – “the crowd” is untruth.

A crowd – not this or that, one now living or long dead, a crowd of the lowly or of nobles, of rich or poor, etc., but in its very concept – is untruth, since a crowd either renders the single individual wholly unrepentant and irresponsible, or weakens his responsibility by making it a fraction of his decision. Observe, there was not a single soldier who dared lay a hand on Caius Marius; this was the truth. But given three or four women with the consciousness or idea of being a crowd, with a certain hope in the possibility that no one could definitely say who it was or who started it: then they had the courage for it; what untruth! The untruth is first that it is “the crowd,” which does either what only the single individual in the crowd does, or in every case what each single individual does. For a crowd is an abstraction, which does not have hands; each single individual, on the other hand, normally has two hands, and when he, as a single individual, lays his two hands on Caius Marius, then it is the two hands of this single individual, not after all his neighbor’s, even less – the crowd’s, which has no hands. In the next place, the untruth is that the crowd had “the courage” for it, since never at any time was even the most cowardly of all single individuals so cowardly, as the crowd always is. For every single individual who escapes into the crowd, and thus flees in cowardice from being a single individual (who either had the courage to lay his hand on Caius Marius, or the courage to admit that he did not have it), contributes his share of cowardice to “the cowardice,” which is: the crowd. Take the highest, think of Christ – and the whole human race, all human beings, which were ever born and ever will be born; the situation is the single individual, as an individual, in solitary surroundings alone with him; as a single individual he walks up to him and spits on him: the human being has never been born and never will be, who would have the courage or the impudence for it; this is the truth. But since they remain in a crowd, they have the courage for it – what frightening untruth.

The crowd is untruth. There is therefore no one who has more contempt for what it is to be a human being than those who make it their profession to lead the crowd. Let someone, some individual human being, certainly, approach such a person, what does he care about him; that is much too small a thing; he proudly sends him away; there must be at least a hundred. And if there are thousands, then he bends before the crowd, he bows and scrapes; what untruth! No, when there is an individual human being, then one should express the truth by respecting what it is to be a human being; and if perhaps, as one cruelly says, it was a poor, needy human being, then especially should one invite him into the best room, and if one has several voices, he should use the kindest and friendliest; that is the truth. When on the other hand it was an assembly of thousands or more, and “the truth” became the object of balloting, then especially one should godfearingly – if one prefers not to repeat in silence the Our Father: deliver us from evil – one should godfearingly express, that a crowd, as the court of last resort, ethically and religiously, is the untruth, whereas it is eternally true, that everyone can be the one. This is the truth.

The crowd is untruth. Therefore was Christ crucified, because he, even though he addressed himself to all, would not have to do with the crowd, because he would not in any way let a crowd help him, because he in this respect absolutely pushed away, would not found a party, or allow balloting, but would be what he was, the truth, which relates itself to the single individual. And therefore everyone who in truth will serve the truth, is eo ipso in some way or other a martyr; if it were possible that a human being in his mother’s womb could make a decision to will to serve “the truth” in truth, so he also is eo ipso a martyr, however his martyrdom comes about, even while in his mother’s womb. For to win a crowd is not so great a trick; one only needs some talent, a certain dose of untruth and a little acquaintance with the human passions. But no witness for the truth – alas, and every human being, you and I, should be one – dares have dealings with a crowd. The witness for the truth – who naturally will have nothing to do with politics, and to the utmost of his ability is careful not to be confused with a politician – the godfearing work of the witness to the truth is to have dealings with all, if possible, but always individually, to talk with each privately, on the streets and lanes – to split up the crowd, or to talk to it, not to form a crowd, but so that one or another individual might go home from the assembly and become a single individual. “A crowd,” on the other hand, when it is treated as the court of last resort in relation to “the truth,” its judgment as the judgment, is detested by the witness to the truth, more than a virtuous young woman detests the dance hall. And they who address the “crowd” as the court of last resort, he considers to be instruments of untruth. For to repeat: that which in politics and similar domains has its validity, sometimes wholly, sometimes in part, becomes untruth, when it is transferred to the intellectual, spiritual, and religious domains. And at the risk of a possibly exaggerated caution, I add just this: by “truth” I always understand “eternal truth.” But politics and the like has nothing to do with “eternal truth.” A politics, which in the real sense of “eternal truth” made a serious effort to bring “eternal truth” into real life, would in the same second show itself to be in the highest degree the most “impolitic” thing imaginable.

The crowd is untruth. And I could weep, in every case I can learn to long for the eternal, whenever I think about our age’s misery, even compared with the ancient world’s greatest misery, in that the daily press and anonymity make our age even more insane with help from “the public,” which is really an abstraction, which makes a claim to be the court of last resort in relation to “the truth”; for assemblies which make this claim surely do not take place. That an anonymous person, with help from the press, day in and day out can speak however he pleases (even with respect to the intellectual, the ethical, the religious), things which he perhaps did not in the least have the courage to say personally in a particular situation; every time he opens up his gullet – one cannot call it a mouth – he can all at once address himself to thousands upon thousands; he can get ten thousand times ten thousand to repeat after him – and no one has to answer for it; in ancient times the relatively unrepentant crowd was the almighty, but now there is the absolutely unrepentant thing: No One, an anonymous person: the Author, an anonymous person: the Public, sometimes even anonymous subscribers, therefore: No One. No One! God in heaven, such states even call themselves Christian states. One cannot say that, again with the help of the press, “the truth” can overcome the lie and the error. O, you who say this, ask yourself: Do you dare to claim that human beings, in a crowd, are just as quick to reach for truth, which is not always palatable, as for untruth, which is always deliciously prepared, when in addition this must be combined with an admission that one has let oneself be deceived! Or do you dare to claim that “the truth” is just as quick to let itself be understood as is untruth, which requires no previous knowledge, no schooling, no discipline, no abstinence, no self-denial, no honest self-concern, no patient labor! No, “the truth,” which detests this untruth, the only goal of which is to desire its increase, is not so quick on its feet. Firstly, it cannot work through the fantastical, which is the untruth; its communicator is only a single individual. And its communication relates itself once again to the single individual; for in this view of life the single individual is precisely the truth. The truth can neither be communicated nor be received without being as it were before the eyes of God, nor without God’s help, nor without God being involved as the middle term, since he is the truth. It can therefore only be communicated by and received by “the single individual,” which, for that matter, every single human being who lives could be: this is the determination of the truth in contrast to the abstract, the fantastical, impersonal, “the crowd” – “the public,” which excludes God as the middle term (for the personal God cannot be the middle term in an impersonal relation), and also thereby the truth, for God is the truth and its middle term.

And to honor every individual human being, unconditionally every human being, that is the truth and fear of God and love of “the neighbor”; but ethico-religiously viewed, to recognize “the crowd” as the court of last resort in relation to “the truth,” that is to deny God and cannot possibly be to love “the neighbor.” And “the neighbor” is the absolutely true expression for human equality; if everyone in truth loved the neighbor as himself, then would perfect human equality be unconditionally attained; every one who in truth loves the neighbor, expresses unconditional human equality; every one who is really aware (even if he admits, like I, that his effort is weak and imperfect) that the task is to love the neighbor, he is also aware of what human equality is. But never have I read in the Holy Scriptures this command: You shall love the crowd; even less: You shall, ethico-religiously, recognize in the crowd the court of last resort in relation to “the truth.” It is clear that to love the neighbor is self-denial, that to love the crowd or to act as if one loved it, to make it the court of last resort for “the truth,” that is the way to truly gain power, the way to all sorts of temporal and worldly advantage – yet it is untruth; for the crowd is untruth.

But he who acknowledges this view, which is seldom presented (for it often happens, that a man believes that the crowd is in untruth, but when it, the crowd, merely accepts his opinion en masse, then everything is all right), he admits to himself that he is the weak and powerless one; how would a single individual be able to stand against the many, who have the power! And he could not then want to get the crowd on his side to carry through the view that the crowd, ethico-religiously, as the court of last resort, is untruth; that would be to mock himself. But although this view was from the first an admission of weakness and powerlessness, and since it seems therefore so uninviting, and is therefore heard so seldom: yet it has the good feature, that it is fair, that it offends no one, not a single one, that it does not distinguish between persons, not a single one. A crowd is indeed made up of single individuals; it must therefore be in everyone’s power to become what he is, a single individual; no one is prevented from being a single individual, no one, unless he prevents himself by becoming many. To become a crowd, to gather a crowd around oneself, is on the contrary to distinguish life from life; even the most well-meaning one who talks about that, can easily offend a single individual. But it is the crowd which has power, influence, reputation, and domination – this is the distinction of life from life, which tyrannically overlooks the single individual as the weak and powerless one, in a temporal-worldly way overlooks the eternal truth: the single individual.

– Søren Kierkegaard


anonymous-internet-turkey-protest

For the amoral herd that fears boredom above all else, everything becomes entertainment. Sex and sport, politics and the arts are transformed into entertainment. … Nothing is immune from the demand that boredom be relieved (but without personal involvement, for mass society is a spectator society).

– Merold Westphal

The Madman (in me)

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, “I seek God! I seek God!”

As many of those who do not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Why, did he get lost? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they yelled and laughed.

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his glances.

“Whither is God?” he cried.

“I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night and more night coming on all the while? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning?

Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God?

Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition?

Gods too decompose.

God is dead.

God remains dead.

And we have killed him.

How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves? What was holiest and most powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must not we ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever will be born after us – for the sake of this deed he will be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke and went out. “I come too early,” He said then; “my time has not come yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering – it has not yet reached the ears of man. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars – and yet they have don it themselves.”

It has been related further that on that same day the madman entered a bunch of churches and there sand his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said to have replied each time, “What are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

– Nietzsche


It is quite true what philosophy says: that life must be understood backwards. But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forwards. Which principle, the more one thinks it through, ends exactly with the thought that temporal life can never properly be understood precisely because I can at no instant find complete rest in which to adopt a position: backwards, lol.

– Kierkegaard


Is it possible that, in spite of inventions and progress, in spite of culture, religion, and wisdom, one has remained at the surface of life? Is it possible that even this surface, which would at least have been something, has been covered with an incredibly dull material till it looks like salon furniture during the summer vacation?

Is it possible that there are people who say “God” and suppose that this is something one can have in common? – Just look at two school children: one of them buys a knife, and his neighbor buys one just like it, on the very same day. And a week later they compare their two knives, and by now they are barely similar: so differently have they developed in different hands. (Sure, says the mother of one boy, if you always get everything to look used right away!)

I see: Is it possible to believe that one can have a god without using him?

– Rilke

The Crowd is Untruth

And to honour every man, absolutely every man, is the truth, and this is what it is to fear God and love one’s “neighbour.” But from an ethico-religious point of view, to recognize the “crowd” as the court of last resort is to deny God, and it cannot exactly mean to love the “neighbour.” And the “neighbour” is the absolutely true expression for human equality. In case every one were in truth to love his neighbour as himself, complete human equality would be attained. Every one who loves his neighbour in truth, expresses unconditionally human equality. Every one who, like me, admits that his effort is weak and imperfect, yet is aware that the task is to love one’s neighbour, is also aware of what human equality is. But never have I read in Holy Scripture the commandment, Thou shalt love the crowd – and still less, Thou shalt recognize, ethico-religiously, in the crowd the supreme authority in matters of “truth.” But the thing is simple enough: this thing of loving one’s neighbour is self-denial; that of loving the crowd, or of pretending to love it, of making it the authority in matters of truth, is the way to material power, the way to temporal and earthly advantages of all sorts – at the same time it is the untruth, for a crowd is the untruth.

Therefore was Christ crucified, because, although He addressed himself to all, He would have no dealings with the crowd, because He would not permit the crowd to aid him in any way, because in this regard He repelled people absolutely, would not found a party, did not permit balloting, but would be what He is, the Truth, which relates itself to the individual. – And hence every one who truly would serve the truth is eo ipso, in one way or another, a martyr.

For it is not so great a trick to win the crowd. All that is needed is some talent, a certain dose of falsehood, and a little acquaintance with human passions. But no witness for the truth (Aa! and that is what every man should be, including you and me) – no witness for the truth dare become engaged with the crowd.

~ Kierkegaard

Søren K. (March 30, 1846)

Image result for soren kierkegaard

The present age is essentially a sensible, reflecting age, devoid of passion, flaring up in superficial, short-lived enthusiasm and prudentially relaxing in indolence. In contrast to the age of revolution, which took action, the present age is an age of publicity, the age of miscellaneous announcements: nothing happens but still there is instant publicity. There is a mutual inquisitiveness; everyone is experienced in indecisiveness and evasions and waits for someone to come along who wills something – so that they may place bets on him.

Revaluation of Natural Values

Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption— that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.”

– Saint Paul, the Apostle, Father of Ancient Revaluation of Natural Values, First Letter to the Church at Corinth

“While it may be all right for the learned theologian to spend his whole life learnedly investigating the doctrine of Scripture and the Church, it would be a ludicrous contradiction if an existing person asked what Christianity is in terms of existence and then spent his whole life deliberating on that-for in that case when should he exist in it? … One is unable to find out what Christianity is without becoming a Christian oneself.”

– Kierkegaard, the Individual