Teaching as Anarchy

This is a portion of a self-evaluation I was required to write for work. In it I justify my own anarchistic perspective on teaching philosophy while using the expected language of equity. Since I still have a job, I guess my supervisors didn’t find anything too objectionable in it.

To me, good teaching involves providing members of a diverse student body with the opportunities and resources they need in order to get what they want out of their education. In an essay titled “The False Principle of Our Education,” the philosopher Max Stirner criticized the western educational system for trying to impose, from the top down, a fixed-idea of education, not recognizing that students have a wide and unique variety of reasons for enrolling in classes. In my 18 years of teaching at the College of Marin, I have found that some students want a degree, some want to transfer, some are seeking self-enrichment, some are in search of a field that interests them, some are trying to work out personal issues and problems, and some are just curious. I try my best to make room for all of these kinds of students.

As an equity minded instructor, I strive to ensure that all those who feel the desire to express themselves are given the opportunity to do so in their own unique ways, using their own unique voices. Whether it is orally or in writing, I try to provide students with a variety of assignments that encourage them honestly and openly to express their thoughts and ideas, even when the ideas and opinions expressed are controversial or unpopular. With writing assignments, this means offering students a choice between essays that are objective and impersonal or essays that are highly personal and sometimes very emotional. With in-class conversation I encourage those who hold unpopular and unconventional opinions to articulate their views, defending them if they end up being attacked by other students, and encouraging reasoned argument between those who disagree with one another. For those who do not want to speak, I respect their desire to remain silent. (I was that kind of student, and I really enjoyed just listening to others as they debated controversial philosophical topics. I’m still more of a listener than a talker now when I interact with my work colleagues.)

I also do my best to remain responsive and open to criticism from students. I try to create an atmosphere in which students feel comfortable and safe approaching me with their complaints and concerns about the material we study and about the dynamics of the class. Such criticisms have often led me to alter my approach to certain topics, change my use of certain words, and to incorporate trigger warnings about potentially upsetting topics into my lectures. Balancing the need to challenge students with the need to create a comfortable place for the exchange of ideas is difficult, and sometimes things swing to one extreme or another. A diverse class that includes students with diverse and conflicting worldviews is bound sometimes to boil over, and I’ve often found myself right in the middle of many emotional and spirited class exchanges. But my experience has shown that students can usually come to respect those they disagree with when they see that their teacher respects all viewpoints and leaves himself open to critique and argument. After all, that is what philosophy is all about: arguing, disagreeing, and debating the most important and fundamental issues that concern humankind.

It is very difficult to balance all of the needs of all students in a philosophy class. Because philosophy involves the willingness to question assumptions, to push boundaries, and to argue, there are times when friction and even outright hostility erupts in the classroom; especially given that students seek different and conflicting things from their educational experiences. Insofar as equity has to do with recognizing the disparate needs of students and with questioning the authority of a system shot through with inequality an injustice, I would say that there is no other discipline that promotes equity more vigorously than philosophy itself.

I don’t adhere to the “full glass” theory of education in which success is defined by how many facts a student can memorize and recite. Consistent with my generally anarchistic philosophy of education, I define success in the classroom by how well students get what they want and need out of a class. As mentioned above, students differ radically in their reasons for enrolling in college. Socrates claimed that he was not a teacher but a midwife: someone who helps others give birth to their own ideas. Likewise, I view my role in the classroom as more of a facilitator than a teacher: one who, through cooperative conversation and philosophical discussion, helps students discover what is important to them.

Discovering what one believes to be important and communicating that discovery requires the ability to think clearly and logically, to exercise the virtue of honesty, and to be brave enough to admit when one does not know something and when one is wrong. In being-with students in the classroom, I try to model all of these traits. I avoid preaching and I avoid telling students what they should or should not believe. What I am concerned with is not the content of their thinking but the form of their thinking: whether their reasoning processes are logically valid. Success in the classroom is achieved when students can express their thoughts clearly and systematically, whatever those thoughts may be. I tell students every semester that I do not need to agree with them on anything. But I do need to understand why they think the things that they do.

What this looks like in the classroom is a good form of anarchy. Students grow more and more comfortable disagreeing with me and my views — and with the views of their fellow students — while also learning to articulate and justify their own ideas in a rational, dispassionate manner. Both orally and in writing, philosophy requires the ability to argue, debate, and disagree while demonstrating a charitable understanding of, and respect for, the arguments and ideas of those we disagree with; even (and maybe especially) if we find those arguments distasteful. Achieving the ability to rationally differ with others, and not to hate or dislike them because of that disagreement, is what success in the philosophy classroom looks like. None of us knows the Truth because none of us are gods. When I see a student evolve from arrogance to modesty, from perpetual anger to tranquil composure, from being a know-it-all to being a know-nothing, that’s when I see success.


Artworks Downtown

On April 28th my Aesthetics class from the College of Marin took a fieldtrip to Artworks Downtown, a non-profit arts facility on 4th Street in San Rafael that provides studio and low-cost living space to local artists. Stan Gibbs, the Program Manager, gave a presentation on the history and the mission of the facility before taking us on a tour and introducing us to some of the artists-in-residence. The experience was a great opportunity for philosophy students to reflect on the relationship between the abstract philosophical theories of art studied in class and the concrete practice of art in the studio.

On June 28th, I will be conducting an online workshop on aesthetics for members of Artworks Downtown. Information about both our class visit and the upcoming workshop can be found on in the Artworks Downtown newsletter and on their webiste.

On Equity

At the College of Marin, equity has become one of the institution’s governing virtues. It is included – along with diversity, success, and belonging – in the College’s latest Mission Statement. On faculty evaluations, it appears as among the most important standards for teaching success. In program review, classes are measured according to equitable outcomes. On campus, the word “equity” is on everyone’s lips. At meetings, the word is repeated like a mantra. Supervisors tell us that we need to strive toward a more equitable approach to education. My coworkers echo the sentiment, wondering how equitable their colleagues really are, and speculating about how they can improve their own equitable approaches to teaching. Students have, of course, picked up on this, absorbing the word into their vocabularies, using it to evaluate teachers and the coursework that they assign. If you are nothing else, at the College of Marin you must be equitable.

College of Marin offers the following definitions of “equity” and “equity-minded”:

Equity: Recognizing the historical and systemic disparities in opportunity and outcomes and providing the resources necessary to address those disparities.

Equity-minded: The perspective or mode of thinking exhibited by practitioners who call attention to patterns of inequity in student outcomes. These practitioners are willing to take personal and institutional responsibility for the success of their students, and critically reassess their own practices. It also requires that practitioners are race-conscious and aware of the social and historical context of exclusionary practices in American education.

The concern with equity is not unique to the College of Marin but part of a larger trend in American education. While every person’s understanding of this value is unique, after many campus discussions, polls, and meetings, members of the college community came to general agreement that something called “equity” is important. Committees were formed to sift through the varying and particular perceptions of this concept, writing up the results and giving our own understanding of equity a definition. Once this definition was formulated, the purified concept became enshrined as a standard to be imposed top-down thereafter on employees.

The process by which College of Marin’s definition of equity was formulated and then established as a governing virtue is not new, but was famously described in 1873 by Friedrich Nietzsche in his fragmentary work, “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense.” Nietzsche tells us that from unequal concepts, language functions to distill objectively consistent definitions. Starting with a diverse array of thoughts, ideas, conflicting views, and opinions, the process of linguistic definition concludes by suppressing the original diversity of thought into reified terminology that is then utilized as a means by which power is exercised over others.

Nietzsche writes:

“Every concept originates through our equating what is unequal. No leaf ever wholly equals another, and the concept ‘leaf’ is formed through an arbitrary abstraction from these individual differences, through forgetting the distinctions; and now it gives rise to the idea that in nature there might be something besides the leaves which would be ‘leaf’ – some kind of original form after which all leaves have been woven, marked, copied, colored, curled, and painted, but by unskilled hands, so that no copy turned out to be a correct, reliable, and faithful image of the original form.”[1]

In the world of concrete experience, there are many leaves, but in the abstract world of linguistic definition, there is only one real “leaf.” From the perspective of the definition, if there were a person who recognized as a leaf that which is not included in the definition, then that person would be criticized as incorrect, ignorant, and really no-good at recognizing the Truth.

Similarly, in the concrete world of everyday teaching there are many ways of being equitable, while in the world of abstract institutional definitions, there is only one legitimate meaning of “equity.” On the College of Marin campus, the consequences of the application of this abstraction, as Nietzsche could have predicted, have been fully concrete, resulting in critical evaluations and re-training for those judged not to be living up to the standards set out in the definition of equity, while there are awards, praise, and kudos for those who do live up its standards.

In writing self-evaluations, we are told to describe the things we have always been doing, but now to use the term “equity” in order to bring ourselves into alignment with the newest standards. We’ve been told that we should celebrate all of our accomplishments and highlight them in terms of how they contribute to the goal of an “equitable” learning environment. For school administrators, articulation of what instructors do at the individual, concrete level with the highest, most general, abstract goals of the institution is overwhelmingly important. But I’ve heard the grumblings from my colleagues – and I’ve done my own fair share of grumbling – about how artificial and rigid this all feels. Awkwardly using the word “equity,” and showing how our classes contribute to the success of the institution, sometimes seems more important than diligently teaching the content of our subject matter.

For me personally, the most frustrating example of this rigid application of “equity” involves program review. Program review involves the regular assessment of the accomplishments and needs of academic departments. I’m in the Philosophy Department, which is housed within the English and Humanities Division. My department consists of one person: me. Over the past 18 years that I have been teaching at the College of Marin, I have never received feedback concerning the content of my program reviews, which is nothing special, as it has long been a campus joke that no one really reads the reports that are submitted. But this year I finally did receive feedback, which had to do solely with issues of equity, not with any of the long-term concerns that I have been reporting on for over a decade. The feedback I received stated that the enrollment and success rates of minority students were unacceptably low for the philosophy classes that I teach, and it was suggested that I engage in outreach to local high schools, to other community colleges, teach a HUM 101 course, and that I participate in training about how to be more inclusive in the classroom. When I expressed concern about the suggestions, I was told that much of this appears to be general advice, not specific to me or my department of one. I was told that the main point is to demonstrate that I am “equity-minded,” and thus in alignment with the second definition endorsed by the college, which was mentioned above.

It is interesting to observe that the college has seen fit not only to formulate a definition of equity itself, but also to establish a definition of what it means to be “equity-minded.” While the first definition of equity concerns an objective institutional value, the second – being “equity-minded” – defines a subjective mental state within each individual employee’s mind. It appears to demand that employees not only act equitably, but that we think in a very particular way that is subject to evaluation by our employer. This should be of concern to all of us that work at the college, for while it is one thing for an employer to demand that employees execute their objective duties in a manner that is measurable and assessable, it is an entirely different thing to demand that employees think in a particular way. This demand, in fact, seems to conflict with some of the other institutional values that appear in the college Mission Statement: specifically, “diversity” and “belonging.”

The value of diversity directs us to embrace and celebrate differing kinds of people, lifestyles, and points-of-view. Diversity can apply to race, sexual orientation, cultural norms, political affiliation, or any other kind of belief. To have a truly diverse campus, faculty, staff, and students need to feel as if their differences are not viewed as a threat to those in charge of evaluating them, but rather as strengths that contribute to the liveliness and cultural heath of the campus community. Diversity of thought is a virtue, not a danger, to the college. Basing evaluations on how well the content of the minds of employees align with the abstract definitions endorsed by the institution promotes totalitarianism, not diversity. To truly embrace the value of diversity it is impossible to dictate to others how they must think.

In holding employees accountable for being “equity-minded,” the college restricts freedom of thought. Additionally, it raises the issue as to how it is that one person accurately determines the content of another person’s mind. In evaluating others for their equity-mindedness, we are being directed to look past concrete outcomes and measurable accomplishments, and to conjecture about the intentions that lurk unseen behind a person’s actions. It might be argued that by looking at the patterns of a person’s actions, you can determine the contents of the mind. But then why not just stick with the observable pattern of actions? Why the concern with the unseen state of mind at all? As I’ve already observed on our campus, this preoccupation with inner mental states leads to suspicion among colleagues, who become more interested in whether their co-workers are “equity-minded” rather than just being happy that they are “equitable.” Such suspicion serves to undermine the other college virtue that I mentioned above: belonging. When suspicion takes hold on a college campus, there are people who start to feel as if they don’t belong there.

None of this is an argument against standards, definitions, or against equity itself. What I am trying to draw attention to is the fact that linguistic abstractions have concrete consequences, and one of those consequences, as Nietzsche observed over 150 years ago, is the danger of encouraging us to forget the real diversity of thought that precedes the formation of standards and definitions. Institutions whither and decay when they become overly formalized. When people are forced to fit into boxes, when abstract standards are too rigidly applied to concrete situations, and worst of all, when people are expected to think in a specific way in order to be accepted into the campus community, we are in danger of alienating and marginalizing many faculty, staff, and students whose diversity in thought and action always has contributed to the exciting vitality of this college campus.

[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense,” in The Portable Nietzsche, edited and translated by Walter Kaufman. New York: Penguin Books, 1984. p. 46


Rudin, by Ivan Turgenev

Translated by Richard Freeborn

Penguin Books, 1975.

Rudin was Ivan Turgenev’s first novel. It is a simple, straight-forward character study of Dmitry Nikolaich Rudin, a visitor to the household of Darya Mikhaylovna Lasunsky, an aristocratic widow who has opened her estate to summer guests. Rudin is a charismatic, well-spoken, and clever man who dazzles the others with his ability to argue and speak eloquently, but he finally falls into disfavor with Darya Lasunsky when her daughter, Natalya Alexeyevna Lasunsky, falls in love with him.

The character of Rudin was purportedly modeled on Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian anarchist with whom Turgenev was friendly for a period. This is what led Aileen Kelly to rely heavily on Turgenev’s novel in writing her book, Mikhail Bakunin: A Study in the Psychology and Politics of Utopianism, a psychological hit-job that dismisses Bakunin as a bum and a totalitarian. It was, in fact, a recent re-reading of Kelly’s biography that inspired me to pick up Turgenev’s novel. Although Kelly finds much ammunition in Rudin to discredit Bakunin, I found Turgenev’s depiction of the character, on the contrary, quite sympathetic and positive. Assuming that Rudin was indeed intended to be a reflection of Bakunin, if anything, the novel lent a more human dimension to my understanding of the real-life revolutionary Russian idealist. But perhaps you find just what you’re looking for when reading novels like this.

The novel begins shortly before Rudin arrives unexpectedly at Darya Lasunsky’s country estate in place of a certain Baron Mueffel. The Baron has authored an article concerning politics and the economy that he wants to share with Darya Lasunsky, but since he has suddenly been recalled to St. Petersburg, he has sent his friend Rudin in his stead. Almost immediately upon arrival, Rudin becomes engaged in argument with Afrikan Semyonych Pigasov, a man who embodies the characteristics of a cynic (in the modern sense of the word). Pigasov is introduced as a misogynist who “criticized from morn to night, sometimes very aptly, sometimes rather obtusely, but always with enjoyment” (p. 40). He occupies the role of jester in the Lasunsky household, amusing guests with his non-stop cynical commentary. But (as is probably the case with many people of his nature), Pigasov’s cleverness is superficial and borne of his own experiences with disappointment and failure. He is poor, but desires a place in high society. He has studied for his degree, but has failed his dissertation defense. His wife has left him. Now he spends his time going from household to household, amusing and annoying his hosts with his unending, bitter commentary on life and the world. His utterances sometimes provoke laughter and sometimes anger, offering a distraction for the guests who seem to have little else to do with their time.

Before the arrival of Rudin, Pigasov lets slip his view on philosophy, which foreshadows his later conflict with the title character:

“Philosophy…is the highest point of view! These high points will be the death of me. And what on earth can one see from a high point? Suppose you wanted to buy a horse, you wouldn’t start looking at it from a watch tower!” (pp. 47 – 48).

The abstractions of philosophy are anathema to Pigasov. He instead prefers to recite “facts” and to comment, in a cleverly sneering manner, about how silly people are in their beliefs and convictions about the world. To him, the philosopher is someone with his head in the clouds; someone who has not yet been crushed by the disappointments entailed by living in the “real” world.

Upon arrival, Rudin introduces himself and is asked by Pigasov if he is familiar with the topic of Baron Mueffel’s article. As soon as Rudin begins to articulate its content, Pigasov swoops, using this an excuse to begin yet another attack on anything serious and philosophical. “Herr Baron Mueffel is specifically concerned with political economy or is it simply that he devotes to this interesting science only the hours of leisure remaining from time spent in social pleasures and in the office?”, Pigasov asks, laying a trap into which Rudin steps when he responds that the Baron is a “dilettante in the matter,” but that the article nevertheless “has much that is interesting in it” (p. 54). When Pigasov attempts to dismiss the article (which he has not read) on the grounds that it deals in generalizations that are merely based in personal “convictions,” Rudin, unlike the others in the household, rises to the challenge and logically engages with the cynic. He questions him, getting Pigasov to admit that his hostility toward personal “convictions” is based in his own personal conviction against convictions! A contradiction! This grabs the attention of rest of the guests who encourage Rudin to continue his attack, which he does, ultimately embarrassing his opponent, who is driven into an uncharacteristic silence. This silence is only broken when Pigasov admits that his poor opinion of humanity is based on, “a study of my own heart in which I daily find more and more trash. I judge others by myself” (p. 60).

The contrast between Rudin and Pigasov is one between idealism and cynicism. The cynicism of Pigasov is the result of his own self-loathing projected onto the world. Superficially he appears clever and sophisticated, as his is a stance not taken in by the potential lies and deceptions of others, but Pigasov’s view is also shallow and childish insofar as it assumes everyone is just as damaged and wretched as he is. Rudin’s viewpoint, on the other hand, is one of excitement about, and earnest interest in, the world, life, and the exploration of other people’s ideas. What is so refreshing to the guests at Darya Mikhaylovna Lasunsky’s summer estate is Rudin’s energy and enthusiasm. As Mikhaylo Mikhaylych Lezhnev states toward the end of the story:

“He has enthusiasm; and that, believe me – for I speak as a phelgmatic man – is a most precious quality in our time. We have all become intolerably rational, indifferent, and effete; we have gone to sleep, we have grown cold, and we should be grateful to anyone who rouses us and warms us, if only for a moment! It’s time to wake up!” (p. 157).

Natalya Alexeyevna is the daughter of Darya Lasunsky. Natalya is a reflective young woman, suspicious of her mother and also initially of Rudin, who she thinks treats her like a child. During a walk together on the grounds of the estate, she tells Rudin that with all of his brilliance and talent he should work and “try to be useful” (p. 78) in the world. This remark strikes a chord, and Rudin launches into a self-conscious monologue about his own uncertainty concerning whether he really has any talents and if so how he might put them to use. It seems that Rudin is a man looking for a purpose, wishing he had a cause to fight for, something to which he could devote himself wholeheartedly. But instead, he wanders from place to place, borrowing money and spending his time talking, arguing, and socializing with others. He is, in the words of Richard Freeborn, the translator of this edition of the novel, a “superfluous man,” (p. 9) who has no meaningful place or purpose in society. He is “homeless” in the Heideggerian sense.

After spending months at the estate, Rudin’s charisma has its effect on Natalya, and she falls in love with him. Rudin, in his own way, also falls in love with her; but their two forms of love are incompatible. Natalya loves Rudin in a way that readies her to give up everything for him, to turn against her own mother’s wishes, to break the heart of her suitor, and to run away with Rudin. Her love is the romantic sort of love that inspires one to do irrational and impulsive things. Rudin, on the other hand, loves Natalya platonically. His love for her is the dispassionate sort of love that a philosopher has for humankind. This is the paradox of Rudin: he is full of love, energy and enthusiasm, but he has no concrete purpose or target for these feelings. He has nothing he is willing to die for, no one he is willing to sacrifice himself for, and yet he can’t be still. He needs to act, but has nothing for which to act.

Rudin and Natalya meet secretly at Avdyukhin pond, where Natalya tells Rudin that her mother knows about her love for him and that Darya Lasunsky would rather see her own daughter dead rather than end up as Rudin’s wife. When Natalya presses Rudin to tell her what he thinks they should do, he responds, “Submit to fate” (p. 127). From the lips of a romantic this might be taken to mean that they should run away together, but from the lips of Rudin it means precisely the opposite. He explains to Natalya that it would be foolish for the two of them to be married: they would end up living a life of poverty, her mother would be angry, and she would suffer the break-up of her family. To Rudin, this is all too much to face. It is just not worth the cost.

While Natalya is prepared to give up everything out of love for Rudin, Rudin cannot commit to marriage any more than he can commit himself to a political or social cause. His “enthusiasm” for life is abstract rather than concrete. He is the kind of “philosopher” criticized by Pigasov in the beginning of the story. Rudin sees things from the heights, with enthusiastic detachment. And it is just this detachment that keeps him from acting in the world and making himself “useful.”

In the end, Rudin leaves Darya Mikhaylovna Lasunsky’s estate, and two years later Pigasov sits with some of the other characters telling stories about what became of Rudin. According to his account, Rudin finally decided he must fall in love and so focused his attentions on a French girl, bringing her books as gifts and talking with her about “nature and Hegel” (p. 155). Instead of expressing romantic passion, he stroked her hair and confessed his “feeling of paternal tenderness for her” (p. 156). Pigasov, jaded old cynic that he remains, finds this all very funny and laughs cruelly, but the others jump to Rudin’s defense. Lezhnev states, “His defects are well known to me. They are all the more conspicuous because he is not a shallow person,” while Bassistov exclaims, “Rudin is a man of genius!” (p. 156). What follows is a long account by Lezhnev of Rudin’s positive qualities: he is a genius; he is enthusiastic; his words have inspired many young people who will change the world, even if Rudin himself is incapable of doing so.

And so, we are left with a tragic, yet sympathetic image of Rudin. He is a philosopher who lives in the world of ideas. He is child-like and honest, and from this flows his eloquence and enthusiasm. But his fault is that he is unable to make concrete commitments either in love or in politics. He is an idealist who is unable to act precisely because nothing exists that actually lives up to his abstract standards.

In a short conclusion, Rudin reappears as a traveler on the road to some Russian city. As it turns out, there are no horses to take him where he wants to go, and so he ends up boarding a carriage to a different city. As he heads off Rudin says, “It doesn’t matter,” while looking “forlornly submissive” (p. 163). Turgenev later added an epilogue in which, several years later, Rudin encounters Lezhnev in a hotel where they have dinner, reflect on the past, and where we learn about a series of ill-fated projects that Rudin has embarked upon in the intervening years. Rudin laments his own continued inability to commit to action, which leads him to comment on the peace promised by the approach of death. Upon hearing this, Lezhev becomes upset, assuring Rudin that he has great respect for him as a man whose nature it is to be (as Rudin calls himself) “a rolling stone,” one who puts down no roots, but is constantly in motion, moving from one place to another, from one idea to another. After the two characters part, we learn in a brief, concluding section that Dmitry Rudin ended up dying on the barricades during the French Revolution, waving a flag and a sword while shouting something that no one could make out.

Aileen Kelly’s characterization of Rudin (and thus of Bakunin) as a childish, scattered, opportunistic, and totalitarian personality seems to me to be guilty of the same sort of cynical oversimplification engaged in by Pigasov. Yes, Rudin has many flaws: he borrows money, he is more comfortable with abstractions than he is with concrete feelings, he can’t make long-term commitments. But as the other characters articulate – and as Turgenev seems to want us to understand – Rudin is a complicated man, whose personality possesses both defects and characteristics to be admired. As Freeborn stresses in the Introduction to his translation, Rudin is both comic and tragic, absurd yet heroic, all at once. He is like Socrates, the great Greek philosopher who is embraced “warts and all” by those who love him, not just for his wisdom, but also for the fact that he is an imperfect human being. His imperfections, like Rudin’s imperfections, serve to make him aggravating but also lovable. Rudin, like Socrates, is a gadfly whose nature it is to provoke thought and action in others while himself remaining uncommitted to any particular, final Truth.

The Path of Philosophy: Out of Print

I just signed an agreement terminating my contract with Cengage, the publisher of The Path of Philosophy. The book went out of print last year, and with this agreement, all rights now revert back to me. This will open up the opportunity for preparation of a revised text – including new illustrations, as well as revised and new chapters. I’m looking forward to working on this project with my wife in the coming months.

I still use The Path of Philosophy as the primary textbook in my Introduction to Philosophy classes at the College of Marin, but my plan is to approach either an academic or a popular press with the new, updated manuscript. Using the book in the classroom over the past 12 years has given me a chance to collect the feedback of students, which has helped me to think about the book’s strengths and weaknesses. I’ve been gratified by the fondness that students have expressed for The Path of Philosophy, and I’m happy that it has attracted a bit of a following.

When I first wrote the book, it was intended as a subversive attempt to introduce a nihilistic reading of the history of philosophy into the classroom. The concept of “wondrous distress” is the theme tying the book together: the idea that the essence of philosophy consists of a wondrous aspiration toward the Truth, coupled with the distressing realization that the Truth is an illusion. This idea is, in substance, what I describe as the core of nihilism in another book, Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism. 12 years ago, nihilism was a dirty word, but in the years since then, nihilism has become mainstream, more popular among students than I ever could have imagined. The time might be right for the publication of an unabashedly nihilistic history of philosophy.

Originally, I wanted to title the book Wondrous Distress, but the publisher demanded a more descriptive title. I’m considering titling the new edition Wondrous Distress: A Nihilistic History of Philosophy. Considering the current popularity of all things nihilistic, this just might just be the thing to give the book a new audience and new life.

The Visit: A True Story


Norah’s mother died in childbirth, and so, even after spending nine months in the womb, Norah never met her mother. Upon delivery, baby Norah was handed over to her father’s sister. The reason for this died along with him, but it probably had to do with the fact that she was born during a time when it was presumed only women could properly raise children.

At some point when she was older, all of this was communicated to Norah, and so, as she grew into adulthood Norah resented her father while harboring a simple, sad and lingering curiosity about what her mother looked like. Not who her mother was. Not what she believed in or what kind of person she was. Simply, what she looked like.

“There was a portrait taken of your father and mother,” Norah’s cousin, Cathy, once told her when both were still young. “Your step mother brought it to a photo studio in Glasgow and had a picture of you as a toddler inserted into it. It was quite good. It looked like your mom was actually holding you on her lap. Very realistic.”

Norah remembered this throughout her life, but had never seen the picture with her own eyes. It was only after she had turned 84 – after her husband had died from Alzheimer’s and while she was on a visit to relatives in the US – that a hopeful yearning to find this picture, and thus finally to see her own mother, with her own eyes, surfaced in her.

While in the US, Norah went to see her cousin Cathy, who had immigrated decades earlier. After a long career working in a bank, Cathy now lived in an adult care facility near San Francisco, stricken by the same disease that had taken Norah’s husband. At 94, Cathy was physically strong, but incapable of communicating coherently. When she spoke, the words came as if they had popped randomly into her skull only instantly to fall from her mouth in a stream of logic known to no one but herself. Perhaps not even that.

“Well the thingmie with I can almost of course they do this. Don’t you harbor on the tops. Oh my, wonderful.”

“Oh, Aye,” Norah replied, smiling. “Do you like it here in your home?” she asked, trying as hard as she could to forge some sort of meaningful verbal connection between the two of them.

Cathy replied: “It’s the pickle people who throng.”

“Aye,” said Norah, “Of course.”

This was Norah’s first visit to the US alone. On previous visits, she had been accompanied by her husband and kids, but now, with her husband dead and her kids grown, she travelled on her own. Being on her own was both liberating and lonesome, on the one hand allowing her the freedom to go where she desired without worry, while on the other hand generating reminders of increasing isolation. She had traveled 5,000 miles to be in a place where many of those she loved no longer existed. And while she had a desire to remember the past, her real desire was to remember it alongside others who had been there with her. But this desire was increasingly frustrated as time wore on and people continued to die.

“Do you remember Martha? My mother?” Norah asked Cathy.

“Oh yes,” Cathy replied. “It’s a fine time of stuff.”

“My mother, Cathy. I never saw what she looked like. Do you remember what she looked like?”

“Oh yes. Very well.”

“What did she look like?” Norah persisted.

“Oh, many a time. Many a time. It’s a fine time of stuff.”

Did she remember? Was there a real thought that Cathy was trying to give a voice? Or was she just making sounds in response to the sounds that Norah was making? Norah imagined that Cathy’s brain was a tissue thin web, hanging like a curtain inside her skull, swaying back and forth whenever Cathy shifted position in the wheel chair. She imagined sparks igniting along the sheer pathways running from her ear to her mouth, ignited by the friction of each bodily movement. Maybe that was all these sounds were that Cathy made. Mechanical responses to internal irritation.

Norah sighed. “I’ll be going now, Cathy. I’ll be back to see you tomorrow,” she said, leaning over to embrace her cousin, planting a kiss on her forehead.

As Norah started to pull away, Cathy held on, pulling Norah closer. Norah caught a whiff of hairspray and the odor of urine.

“Don’t let them get you too,” Cathy whispered, and then released her grip.


During her visit, Norah stayed with John, her nephew, and Juneko, John’s wife, at their house in Marin County. The place was undergoing renovation, and finishing touches had just been completed on the downstairs bedrooms the day before Norah’s arrival. For months prior, there had been no interior walls or carpeting in these two rooms due to a winter battle with leaking windows that left the entire downstairs damaged with moisture and rot. Soft, waterlogged drywall had been torn out and rugs stained brown with the damp outlines of bookcases and other furniture were removed leaving cold, uninviting slab concrete floors and the interior skeleton of the house’s support beams. The rush to put together a suitable place for Norah’s stay culminated in a week-long construction and painting binge that successfully restored order to what had become a distressing state of upheaval lasting too long. A home should be a refuge from outside threats, but this home had become a mere structure in need of repair. Now with walls in place, curtains hung and pictures on the wall, it once again kept the outside out. At least for the time being.

“Your home is ready for you!” said Juneko, opening the door to a room smelling of new paint and carpets. This was to be Norah’s space for the next few weeks.

“Up until yesterday there were no walls in here,” John added, sounding like he expected a pat on the back.

“Oh, aye. This is wonderful. I’ll no be uncomfortable here,” Norah responded.

It was then that the cat, Hypatia, appeared. Hypatia was a small adult tabby, shy around strangers but also curious about whoever was in the house. She cautiously approached Norah, looking up at her with clear, wide yellow eyes. She emitted a soft, low mewing sound.

Upon hearing the cat’s meow, Norah recoiled, her hands reaching up to her face, and she emitted her own low, trembling sound.

“Ohhhhhhh, John!” she shuddered.

“What’s wrong, Norah?” John asked.

“I don’t like cats,” she replied, her hands still covering her mouth. Norah’s shoulder pointed defensively in the direction where Hypatia had been before scurrying off in a panic.

As John and Juneko looked at Norah, not knowing what to say, Norah let out a laugh. “It’ll be awright. I’ve just had a thing about cats ever since I was a kid. In the tenement in Glasgow there was a cat that would sit on the second-floor landing and when I came home from school it would always hiss at me and its back would go up. It was just horrible! I couldn’t get past it. I would yell for my auntie Jeanie and she had to come down to chase the cat away. That was the only way I could get up the stairs and into the flat.”

“I didn’t know you were scared of cats,” John said. “What about Leslie? How do you handle visiting her? Doesn’t she have a bunch of cats?”

Leslie was Norah’s daughter who lived in Canada with her son, Grant.

“Aye, she does. That’s why I don’t visit her or Grant. I can’t face the thought of being in the same apartment as all of those cats.”

“So you don’t visit Leslie?”

“No. I’ve paid to have her and Grant come to visit me, but I just can’t face those cats. I was considering stopping to see her on this visit, but when I mentioned it to her on email, she sent me a photo of her three cats with the message ‘They’re waiting for you.’ The thought of it put me into a pure panic.”

A feeling of annoyance passed through John. Scared of a cat? Scared to the point that you won’t visit your own daughter and grandson? But then again, her own daughter apparently used this fear to terrify her into staying away. Interesting relationship.

Although the fear seemed absurd and contemptible to him, John tried to imagine what it was that Norah was feeling. What could possibly be so horrifying about a cat? The story about her childhood was a clue. The cat blocked her path home. But it was, still, just a cat. Why didn’t she just shoo it away? Why the horror? Was it the thought of the cat’s hidden claws? But she only mentioned its hissing sound and its arched back. These were the things that, by her own account, filled her with terror and disgust.

John imagined these characteristics transposed onto a snake, and to feel fear about a snake seemed more reasonable to him than fearing a cat. A snake hisses and coils its long, sinewy body in anticipation of striking an enemy. The smooth, flowing motion of its form has a threatening elegance that John himself found somewhat horrifying. The sharpness of the snake’s teeth might be like the sharpness of a cat’s teeth, and so the perceived threat might not be so unreasonable after all. A cat protecting its home might not be so far removed from the thought of a snake protecting its nest.

“Don’t worry, Norah. Hypatia won’t hurt you,” John said. “She’s just curious about you.”

“She’ll no come into my room at night, will she?”

“Well, she does have her own key,” John joked, immediately adding, “No, of course not.”


Norah’s visit was to last three weeks. Over the course of that time, John and Juneko took her to many of the places she had visited decades ago, but which had changed over the time since she had last been here with her husband. Like California, Norah had also changed. But it wasn’t the differences in herself or in the landscape that interested her. What mesmerized Norah were stable continuities; those things that remained the same. She had traveled 5000 miles not for novelty, but for familiarity.

“I don’t want to go anywhere all that special,” she said. “I’m only here to see you, so don’t go out of the way making big plans. I’m happy just to stay around the house and relax.”

Along with Linda, John’s sister, and Bill, Linda’s husband, they embarked upon a number of day trips to popular local spots over the course of Norah’s stay. She sipped wine in the Napa Valley, ate brunch next to the water in Tiburon, toured the backroads of Western Marin, and wandered among the tourist shops of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. But mostly she sat with John and Juneko, talking.

The pace of her visit was relaxed and unrushed, but an undercurrent of tension remained in Norah’s reminiscences about her husband and the blood mother she had never seen.

“I had the best husband in the world,” Norah asserted repeatedly. “You see that ring?” she asked rhetorically, pointing at her wedding band. “I’ve never taken it off since I married Eddie. He was a good man.”

“He was,” John concurred. “He was a great guy.”

“Aye,” Norah agreed. She sipped a mouthful of Bailey’s Irish Crème Whiskey, pursing her lips and smiling. “Oh that’s lovely.”

“Back when we met things were different than they are today. Now you get to try before you buy, if you know what I mean. With Eddie it was love at first sight. We met, he proposed, we got married, and we were together for the rest of our lives.”

Norah’s intimation was clear. She never been with anyone but her husband. The bond between them was a special sort that younger people now could never understand or properly appreciate. They had been devoted to one another in a way so Old-World, so of-another-time that it ran the cliché risk of sounding like something out of a fairy tale. And we all know that fairy tales aren’t real.

“Our life together was a fairy tale. A real-life fairy tale,” Norah sighed. She fell silent, looking off into space, her eyes going blank and yet seeming to focus on an image unseen to anyone but herself. Eddie’s face was in her mind, invisible to the rest of them, but as real, vivid and as concrete as a photograph to Norah. 60 years of marriage, of living with Eddie, day-by-day, loving him, arguing with him, dancing with him, watching television; all of this had coalesced into an indelible mental imprint that was incapable of erasure, conjured into conscious existence whenever she spoke about him or when she found herself in places where they had shared experiences with one another. He was gone, but not really gone.

“And to think that he almost died even before we met,” Norah mused.

“I remember him telling that story when I was kid,” John said, encouraging Norah to reiterate the details.

“Aye,” she sighed. “Hit by a bus at age 15. It sent him through a department store window in Glasgow. No safety glass then. His legs were nearly cut off and he almost bled to death right there on the street. And funnily enough, his own father was walking down that very street right after the accident. He saw Eddie being carted away to the infirmary. What are the chances of that?”

Norah took another sip of Bailey’s, again savoring the taste and once again calling it “lovely.”

“It is amazing that he survived,” said Juneko.

“Aye. They thought he would die.  One hundred and fifty stitches to reattach his legs, and years later it would still give him problems. But it didn’t stop him from serving in the war or raising his family.”

Norah fell silent for a moment, but she seemed to be turning a thought over in her head. She sipped her drink before speaking again.

“Cathy once told me that there was a portrait taken of my father and my blood mother, with me as a baby sitting in her lap. My mom actually died in childbirth, but my stepmother had my picture inserted into the photo later on. It’s the only photograph of my blood mother that there is. Funny that I can picture Eddie no problem, but I have no idea of what my own mother looks like. If I could only find that picture! You have no idea where there might be a copy, do you? Cathy must have had one.”

“When Aunt Cathy went into the home, we sorted through her belongings, but I’m sure if there were any photo albums they must have been saved. Linda would be the one who would have them. We’ll have to ask her,” John responded.

“Just once seeing what she looked like would be so lovely.”


The last night of Norah’s visit, they all went to Linda and Bill’s house for dinner. Roast ham and potatoes accompanied talk around the table, where conversation flowed from superficialities toward deeper concerns about family and the passage of time.

“It’s been so lovely being here,” Norah sighed. “There’s so many memories that I have from the last time when I came with Eddie. I just wish he could have made one more trip with me.”

“He was a great guy,” John nodded. “I wish we could have seen him one more time too.”

“But it’ll no happen. You can’t turn back the hands of the clock.” Norah’s eyes began to well with moisture, but she quickly looked down and stamped back the emotion with a mouthful of potatoes. “Lovely,” she said as she swallowed, using it as an excuse to raise her napkin to her face, dabbing at her mouth and then wiping her eyes.

Linda had left the table, but returned just as Norah was setting her napkin back in her lap. In Linda’s hands was a photo album.

“Norah,” she said, “I thought you might like to have these.” And she gingerly handed over the album as if she was offering Norah a new-born baby to cradle. Delicately, Norah accepted it, her face wearing an expression of cautious expectation. She turned her gaze from the book back toward Linda, who smiled gently, instantly conveying the significance of the gift.

Before even opening the cover, tears came to Norah’s eyes. “I’m greetin’ like a bairn,” she said as her hands shook and the album almost fell to the floor.

There, on the first page, was the old, doctored, black-and-white photo that Cathy had told her about. Norah’s mother was seated in a chair with her husband’s arm draped around her shoulders. The couple appeared in front of a blank screen; the type you find in a photographer’s studio. The occasion for the photo was not really clear. Was it the memento of a budding romance? An engagement photo? Whatever the original intent, it clearly had been manipulated. Now it was a simple collage, with a cut-out picture of a baby – perhaps a few months old – pasted into the lap of Norah’s mother. Done before computer trickery would have made the same images look seamlessly integrated, the edges around the form of the baby were clipped too precisely, while the image of the child was too bright in comparison to the lap in which it had been placed. The flaws only accentuated how deliberate this alteration had been.

“That’s my mother,” Norah sighed. And the tears came freely; not just from Norah, but from everyone.


After dinner, Norah went with John and Juneko back to their home. Once inside, Hypatia cautiously approached Norah, and Norah bent down to pet the cat.


Silence, by Shūsaku Endō. Translated by William Johnston.

New York: Picador Modern Classics. 2016.

God is silent not only toward the atheist, but also toward the faithful. What separates the faithful from the atheist is a conviction that despite this silence, God must exist, since otherwise life would be meaningless.

This is the thought that stayed with me after finishing Shūsaku Endō’s Silence, a novel telling the story of Father Sebastian Rodrigues, a 17th Century Portuguese Christian missionary who travels to Japan in order to spread the Gospel. Christianity was outlawed in the Japan of this time, and those suspected of harboring the faith were forced either to renounce it (apostatize) while trampling on the fumie – an image of Jesus or the Virgin Mary – or they were subject to torture and execution. In this novel we follow the journey of the main character as he sails to Japan where he is eventually captured by authorities and pressed into apostasy. The real journey, however, is not Rodrigues’ outer, physical voyage, but his inner, spiritual struggle. The novel is an extended and painful meditation on a religious devotion tested both by philosophical reflection and by human cruelty. This is a book that offers no clear or comforting resolution to the main character’s inner, spiritual dilemma, but it does present a harrowing account of existential suffering and struggle that would make Kierkegaard shiver.

The book begins in the form of letters from Father Rodrigues detailing his efforts, along with fellow missionary Father Garrpe, to secure passage from China to Japan in order to make contact with Japanese Christians. They do so with the help of Kichijirō, a Japanese living in Macao who is eager to help them, but who denies being a Christian and who immediately arouses Rodrigues’ suspicions. Kichijirō is weak, cowardly, and cunning, and as the story unfolds, it is he who plays the role of Judas to Father Rodrigues, eventually betraying him to the Japanese authorities, just as Judas betrayed Jesus to the Romans. But the relationship between these two characters is much more complicated than just that between betrayer and betrayed. A spiritual bond develops between them such that through their shared suffering, they mutually test their devotion to God. It is this concrete, worldly battle that makes room for a deeper spiritual drama to play out. Just as Judas was necessary to Jesus, so too is Kichijirō necessary to Father Rodrigues.

In traveling to Japan, Rodrigues anticipates his own martyrdom, but his conception of martyrdom is based on a superficial model of what really is involved in sacrificing one’s self for an ideal. He imagines, like the Japanese peasants he sees tortured and executed, that he too will be tested by a confrontation with bodily suffering and death, and that Kichijirō is simply one of the instruments enabling him to reach this spiritual climax. But this is a sign of Rodriques’ egotism and immaturity. Rodrigues’ vision of martyrdom neglects the reality that Kichijirō is himself a real, flesh-and-blood human being who also is in the midst of his own spiritual struggle. He is not simply a tool, but rather a fellow-traveler; a human being who is, in his own way, trying to understand his relationship to the creator. Rodrigues’ thought that Kichijirō is merely instrumental in his own martyrdom is indicative of Rodrigues’ vanity, which places himself at the center of things while relegating Kichijirō to the periphery of a metaphysical drama. This egotism is precisely what the Father must overcome in order truly to embody Christian love. And this is why Kichijirō keeps reappearing throughout the novel, first helping Rodrigues, then betraying him, and then asking for his forgiveness and absolution. Can Rodrigues love Kichijirō simply because he is another human being who lives and suffers and is tested by God?

Preceding Rodrigues to Japan years earlier was Father Ferreira, a respected priest who is rumored to have apostatized. Rodrigues can’t conceive how a man like Ferreira could have done this, speculating that if he did so he must have been subjected to incredible physical torture. But even then it would be unbelievable that a man of his standing and conviction would be moved to turn against God. How could such a man fail the test? It is easy to imagine that a cunning coward like Kichijirō would do so, but Ferreira? The problem with these reflections is that they are abstract and unable to come to terms with the concrete reality of the suffering actually endured by Father Ferreira or by Kichijirō. This is something that Rodrigues does not understand until he himself is betrayed by Kichijirō, captured by the Japanese authorities, and subjected to persecution. At first, he imagines that he will be tortured and killed, just like the three peasants he sees tied to crosses and left to drown in the rising tides on the seashore. He says to his interrogator, “Then you’ll kill me, I suppose.” The response he receives is unexpected:

“No, no…We won’t do that. If we did that the peasants would become even more stubborn. …Now if you really are a father at heart, you ought to feel pity for the Christians. Isn’t that so? …It is because of you that they must suffer” (pp. 90 – 91).

So it is that Father Rodriguez’s own Christian faith will be tested not by subjecting his body to physical torture, but by subjecting his soul to a kind of brutalization in which others will be made to suffer as a result of his own egotistical desire for purity and personal martyrdom. “Punish me alone,” (p. 91) he insists. But he will not be punished alone. His punishment will be connected to the physical punishment and suffering of the very people he came to Japan to help and that he claims to love.

Detained by the authorities, Rodrigues is visited by an interpreter, speaking in Portuguese, who says he himself has been baptised into the Church, but who also says that he has no wish to be a Christian. “…nothing but learning could make me great in the world,” (p. 93) the interpreter says to Rodrigues. This initiates a philosophical debate between them concerning Buddhism, Christianity, and the existence of God. The interpreter angrily tells the Father how full of contempt and disrespect previous missionaries were toward Japanese culture, forcing upon the peasants a religion that they neither wanted nor that was suited to them. He berates Rodriguez for misunderstanding Buddhism. To this, Rodriguez responds with an argument (drawn from Thomas Aquinas) to show that the Christian God must exist. The interpreter responds by citing the argument from evil to disprove the existence of the Christian God. Rodrigues in turn invokes the existence of human free will as the source of worldly evil as a rebuke to the interpreter’s argument. This philosophical back-and-forth ends abruptly when the interpreter angrily tells Rodrigues that all such argumentation is nonsense, and that if the Father doesn’t apostatize, then Christian peasants will be tortured for several days by being suspended upside down in a pit of excrement. He also informs Rodrigues that Father Ferreira, who has renounced his Christian faith, is alive and living in Nagasaki. The interpreter leaves the room, muttering the words, “A selfish rascal if ever there was one” (p. 97).

Rodriques is selfish. His conception of Christianity is anchored in sheer, principled conviction, immune to argument or reason. He does not question his beliefs, but finds strength in his obstinance. He laughs at the Buddhism of his Japanese interrogator; beliefs he doesn’t even understand. His mindset is one of pride: pride in how committed and unmovable his Christian faith is regardless of evidence, experience, or the suffering of others. But here we start to see the contradiction involved in Rodgrigues’ missionary work. He is motivated by self-centered confidence rather than by Christian love or compassion.

Transported to prison, Rodrigues is fed, treated well, and allowed to minister to other imprisoned Christians. At the prison, he is visited by Inoue, the feared governor whose interrogation is rumored to have convinced Father Ferreira to apostatize. Strangely, Inoue is neither angry nor fearsome in his approach to Rodrigues. Instead, he engages the priest in philosophical conversation about the nature of Truth, nodding in agreement with everything that Rodrigues has to say. “We will not punish the fathers without reason,” (p. 118) are Inoue’s last words before leaving. Shortly afterwards, in sight of the Father’s cell, a Christian peasant is beheaded after refusing to trample on the fumie. Later, Inoue returns to engage Rodrigues in further conversation about the inappropriateness of Christianity for Japanese culture, but the Father remains confident and unmoved.

It is not until he is brought to observe the drowning of three Christian prisoners that Father Rodrigues begins to experience a shift in his thought process. The prisoners, wrapped up in bamboo mats, their arms and legs immobilized so that they resemble “basket worms,” are tossed from a boat into the ocean. Father Garrpe, who was also captured by the authorities, drowns while trying to rescue them. As it turns out, all of the prisoners had apostatized, but because Rodrigues and Garrpe refused to do so, the prisoners were condemned to die anyway.Through all of this cruelty, God remains silent, neither intervening nor giving any sign of discontent, causing Rodrigues to fall into despair once he returns to his prison cell:

Did God really exist? If not, how ludicrous was half of his life spent traversing the limitless seas to come and plant the tiny seed in this barren island! How ludicrous the life of the one-eyed man executed while the cicadas sound in the full light of day! How ludicrous was the life of Garrpe, swimming in pursuit of the Christians in that little boat! Facing the wall, the priest laughed aloud (p. 148).

In this world of cruelty and suffering, if God does not exist, then everything is absurd and laughable. Without God, nothing makes sense, and there is no ultimate purpose. For some, the evil and suffering of life is evidence that God does not exist, but for Rodrigues, this very same evil and suffering is evidence that God must exist, as the alternative is too terrible to contemplate. Though still remaining silent, God now, according to Rodrigues, resides “near to the earth” (p. 148). God’s silence is not evidence of nihilism, but of His necessary existence.

Rodrigues, now grown “big and fat” (p. 149), is carried by attendants to meet Father Ferreira, who is clean-shaven, wears Japanese clothes and has taken the Japanese name Sawano Chuan. He bears scars from being tortured by suspension in “the pit” and is in the employ of the governor as a translator of texts. Rodrigues is shocked by the reality of Ferreira’s transformation. So it is true that he apotitized! Ferreria tells Rodrgues that Japan is a swamp; that the roots sustaining Christian faith become rotten in this place, and that even those Japanese who call themselves “Christian” really, in substance, are not true Christians. The “God” they claim to believe in really has no resemblance to the Christian God. As both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche complained about European Christians, the Japanese have taken on all of the exterior trappings of Christianity without truly embracing or understanding the real nature of the faith. “Even in the glorious missionary period you mention, the Japanese did not believe in the Christian God but in their own distortion” (p. 159). Ferreria explains:

It is like a butterfly caught in a spider’s web. At first it certainly is a butterfly, but the next day only the externals, the wings and the trunk, are those of a butterfly; it has lost its true reality and has become a skeleton. In Japan our God is just like that butterfly caught in the spider’s web: only the exterior form of God remains, but it has already become a skeleton” (p. 160).

God is dead.

Rodrigues, back in his cell, falls into deep, despairing reflection, concluding that Ferreira must be weak. After all, Rodrigues himself has watched as Japanese Christians were martyred for their beliefs. They would not have sacrificed themselves for a false faith! Paraded in front of the citizens of Nagasaki, Rodrigues is then placed in a room where he is once again asked to apostatize by the interpreter: “I don’t want to make you suffer. Please! I’m not saying anything wrong. Just say the word: ‘I apostatize” (p. 170). But Rodrigues still refuses, convinced that he will soon be tortured to death. As he sits in the dark, praying, Kichijirō’s voice comes through the door, begging for forgiveness. Rodrigues mouths the words of absolution, not sincerely but from “a sense of priestly duty” (p. 175), suggesting that the father, like the Japanese Christians described by Ferreira, is merely a shell of a Christian, carrying out the motions without truly, in his heart, exercising Christian love.

Through the darkness, as the father reflects on his situation, there comes a sound that he mistakes for the snoring of the guards. This “snoring” continues all night long. It is Ferreira who appears to tell him that the sounds he hears are not snoring guards, but the pained moans and groans of Japanese Christians being tortured by suspension in “the pit.” This is why Ferreira apostatized; not because of the physical torture that he endured, but because he could not bear the suffering of these peasants. And all through this suffering, God remained silent. “God did nothing” (p. 179). Rodrigues continues to pray, mechanically reciting words, which also do nothing to alleviate the unspeakable suffering of those being tortured.

And then Ferreira offers a suggestion: “Certainly Christ would have apostatized for them” (p. 181). Out of pure love, wouldn’t Jesus have renounced his own faith in order to save others? Isn’t this the true core of Christian belief? Isn’t stubbornly hanging on to the external appearances of Christianity, refusing to apostatize, just an empty gesture, an empty husk, like the skeleton of the butterfly in the spider’s web? The egotism that remains in Father Rodrigues is rooted in his own desire for salvation at the expense of those around him. This must be overcome if he is to embody true Christian love. The irony of the situation is that in order to truly be a Christian, Father Rodrigues must renounce Christianity.

And so he tramples the fumie placed at his feet by Father Ferreira and apostatizes. Like Ferreira before him, Rodrigues takes a Japanese name and spends the rest of his life serving the governor.

Silence is a powerful novel that grapples with painful and difficult issues that are not unique to Christians. It encourages us to reflect on the nature of our idealistic convictions and to examine the reasons why we believe and act the way that we do. The underlying message that the book conveys strikes me as fundamentally existential: when faced with the silence of the universe, the actions and beliefs that you choose must ultimately be undertaken without objective justification or certainty. It would be comforting to have an airtight philosophical argument whose conclusion compels you, or to hear the voice of God commanding you to act in a certain way. But arguments always have counterarguments and God does not speak. As Sartre points out, even if one encounters a compelling argument, or even if one claims to hear the voice of God, the individual still needs to choose to accept the argument or choose to believe that it is God that speaks. Such responsibility can never be evaded. A character like Father Rodrigues is an illustration of this existential reality. In his struggles throughout the novel, he develops an awareness that objective proof for his beliefs is non-existent. All of his attempts to argue for his religious convictions fail. He convinces no one – not even himself – through philosophical argumentation. Likewise, his desire to gain a sign from God verifying that he is on the right path is consistently frustrated. God is silent throughout the book. In the end, Rodrigues tramples on the fumie simply because he chooses to do something that will stop the suffering of those around him. This choice is his choice alone, and there is nothing other than his own will that can initiate it.

It was Kierkegaard who wrote of the spiritual transitions between the aesthetic, ethical, and religious phases of human life. In spiritual infancy we find ourselves in the aesthetic stage, preoccupied with pleasure and outward appearance. In the ethical stage we progress toward a concern for principles and universal codes of conduct. It is only in the religious stage, according to Kierkegaard, that we become spiritually mature, turning completely inward and remaining unconcerned with how we appear to the outside world, solely concerned with the call of inner conscience. This is the most difficult stage to achieve as it may require us to act in ways that those around us condemn as antisocial or even immoral. Nevertheless, it is the stage at which we are the most authentically true to ourselves and to God. Abraham achieved this state, according to Kierkegaard, as did Socrates. It is the state of being enjoyed by those who refuse the comforting illusion that any objective set of social rules or moral principles can serve as dependable guidelines for how we should act in all circumstances. We must always choose for ourselves how we act, and sometimes those choices will earn us the condemnation of others.

Father Rodrigues’ choice at the end of the novel Silence may represent something like this sort of religious choice. In apostatizing he turns against everything that he has, up until that point, lived his life for. He makes a choice to renounce his faith – at least externally – to alleviate the unbearable suffering of others. Other Christians (especially those back in Europe) will certainly condemn him as a weakling and a villian, but he seems to act according to the call of his conscience. On the other hand, if his internal motivation comes from a desire to make his life easier, to earn comfort and the regard of the authorities, then Rodrigues has certainly not acted out of spiritual maturity, but out of concern for appearances. The 9th Chapter of Silence, which details the continuing inner, mental struggle and uncertainty of the father’s ruminations while living in Japan, seem to suggest that far from finding final peace and happiness, he remains tortured by his inner struggle until the end of his life, leading me to think that, along with Abraham and Socrates, he has entered a state of being far removed from the merely aesthetic or the ethical.

In 2016, Martin Scorsese adapted Silence into a motion picture that offers a less ambiguous conclusion to the story of Father Rodrigues’ battle with his faith. Like the book, the movie is harrowing, but unlike the book it leaves the audience with a more comforting sense that Rodrigues ultimately remained steadfast in his Christianity.

As is often the case, the movie is good, but the book is better.


When my wife and I bought our first (and only) house about a decade ago, I was under the illusion that with a finite amount of money and work, it would eventually reach a state of perfection. House prices in Marin County, CA are among the highest in the nation, but being a philosophy teacher means that I do not earn anywhere near the highest salary in the nation. Consequently, the place that my wife and I purchased was the least expensive one we could find. It needed a lot of work; but it was in a good neighborhood with nice views, so we figured that over time we could spruce it up and make it into a place that would, at some point, no longer need any sprucing up. It would reach a state that would leave us desiring no further repairs, modifications, or upgrades.

After a litany of projects too tedious to list completely (new roof, drainage, concrete work, new windows, and on and on) our house is nowhere near the perfect state that I had once imagined it could possibly attain. Aggravation over the never-ending work has at times been enough to drive me to despair. I often wonder whether this “investment” is worth the lost nights of sleep, the worry, or the expense. At my most cynical, I find myself wishing I was Diogenes, living under an urn and owning nothing other than what I can carry. But at other times it does strike me that home ownership may possibly be one of the most instructive and valuable lessons in impermanence that a nihilistic philosophy professor could ever hope for.

Over the past 10 years I’ve learned that my house will never be perfect. While the ideal of perfection is useful, it is, I have come to understand, a useful illusion. This ideal provides an impossible goal for home-improvement efforts, offering a focus and a direction for aspirations which will never fully be achieved. Each repair, each improvement certainly makes this dwelling more functional and habitable; however it will never be perfectly functional or habitable. To use Kant’s example: like parallel lines that seem to converge in the distance, the ideal of a perfect house offers a direction in which to move. But with each step forward, the vanishing point recedes and it turns out that there is another project that needs to be done, and then another repair, and so on. Just as the convergence of parallel lines is an optical illusion, so is the final completion of one’s home-improvement projects. And the reason for this is that a house is physical, and thus subject to ongoing decay, damage, as well as misalignment with any conceptual ideal. Unlike an idea, a house is rooted in the material world, and so unlike an idea, it is impermanent.

The Buddha taught that the source of all human suffering is found in our resistance to impermanence. Because we desire the world to be stable, fixed, and enduring, and because the world will never actually be stable, fixed, or enduring, we find ourselves in despair, hating reality for not being something that it could never actually be. The Buddha’s advice was to give up on desire so as to bring our mental aspirations into line with the impermanent nature of the real world. Stop grasping onto that which you can never actually get a hold of and you will enter into a state of mental bliss: nirvana. In this state of mind, one is satisfied, content, and joyful, not wanting for anything and thankful for whatever the world dishes up.

I do think there is a great deal of wisdom in Buddhism. Recognizing the ephemeral, impermanent nature of existence for what it actually is and not mistaking our subjective wants and desires for features of the objective world is a step in the direction of mental and spiritual maturity. It is, I think, realistic to accept that how one wishes things to be ideally is not the way things actually are. This is a lesson that many of today’s political “leaders” would benefit from learning. In my own modest struggles with home ownership, it is a lesson that has been very helpful in pacifying and calming me at those points when my aspirations butt-up against the realities of my budget or of sheer physics. A friend of mine who has struggled with some of the same sorts of aggravations regarding home repairs summed it up very nicely. After repeated, failed attempts to isolate and fix a leak in his newly remodeled kitchen, he finally ended up telling me, “Fuck it! One day I’m going to die, someone else is going to buy this place and they’re going to rip out everything that I’ve done anyway!” Admittedly, his outburst came from a place of frustration and anger rather than serenity; but an encounter with frustrated desire can be the gateway that ultimately leads to serenity. At points in my own struggles I have recalled my friend’s outburst, repeating it like a mantra in my mind, finding a kind of liberating peace in the thought that none of this – including me – will be here forever.

The problem I have with Buddhism, however, is that in the course of teaching the very realistic distinction between the objective world and subjective desire, it insists on the complete dissolution of subjective desire. The assumption Siddhartha accepted as true is that the friction produced in us by the conflict between subjective desire and objective reality is a bad thing. This is reflected in the 4 Noble Truths: 1. Life is suffering. 2. Suffering is caused by desire. 3. In order to eliminate suffering, eliminate desire. 4. The way to eliminate desire is through the 8-fold Path. The very foundation of Buddhist philosophy, then, rests on the premise that we should eliminate our desires in order to stop suffering; and the end of suffering comes from reconciling ourselves with the impermanent, transitory, and ephemeral nature of life. But this is something with which I disagree.

Buddhist thought is utopian, which is in conflict with my own nihilism. While Buddhists have hope and faith that beyond the suffering and struggle of everyday life lies the possibility of serenity and nirvana, nihilists hold that the only world that exists is one in which suffering and struggle also exist. While Buddhists treat subjective desires as unnecessary illusions that are unreal and destructive, nihilists see subjective desires as part of the real, human world. We are beings that desire for things to be different than they actually are. This is part of what it means to be human; and there is no way to transcend the human. As a result, the honest person is one who acknowledges not only the inevitability of objective reality, but also the inevitability of the subjective suffering and struggle that goes along with being human. Nihilists are anti-utopian insofar as they reject the possibility of a final, serene state of mental quietude for humans.

Traditionally, nihilism has been associated with negativity and destruction, and there is a sense in which all religions (not just Buddhism) can be interpreted as systems engineered to overcome nihilistic negativity. But for me, nihilism is not simply negative and destructive (although it is that), but also productive and positive. It is not something that needs to be overcome. There are some things in the world that deserve to be destroyed, changed, or modified, and the nihilist, in keeping dissatisfaction alive, also keeps open the door to ongoing alteration and change of a world that is imperfect. To return to the example of home-ownership: I’ve known people who resigned themselves to the inevitable decay and deterioration of their houses, giving up on the desire for a home that is clean, dry, and aesthetically pleasing. To my way of thinking, the result of this sort of nirvana was not at all positive. On the contrary, the continuing battle against decay, deterioration, and corrosion that causes me so much ongoing stress and anxiety as I pour money, effort, and labor into my own house has resulted in a place that has incrementally become more to my liking; a place that serves as a sometimes sanctuary against the contingencies of a world that is largely out of my control.

I know my house will never be perfect. I also know that I will never be fully satisfied with the state of my house. But this is precisely what makes this house a home. It is a place that I care about, where I can create a space within which I may dwell.