A great shot of John and Matt singing the song “Meaning of Life” at a recent Sacripolitical practice. Photo by Randall Lake.
That’s Not Funny: The Humor of Diogenes
College of Marin
The term “cynic,” as it is commonly used today, tends to be associated with negative evaluations. To call someone “cynical” is to suggest that a person sees the worst in others, distrusts the motivations of others, and has a generally dark and critical perspective on the world and people in it. Today, a cynic is rarely thought of as an affirmative, happy or joyful individual; and if the cynical attitude is associated at all with humor, it is with a cruel, spiteful and mean-spirited sort of humor that holds others in contempt. This obscures the historical fact that the origins of the “cynical” perspective are actually found in a philosophy having more to do with the affirmation of life than with dismissive and negative criticism of others. This philosophy began with the ancient Greek figure Diogenes of Sinope (c.412 – c.323 BC), a man who was exiled from his homeland and who spent the rest of his days in Athens, living a barrel while using humorous means to educate others concerning the nature of a good life.
Diogenes’ use of humor remains an innovation that, while frequently highlighted and noted by scholars, has rarely been explored systematically and in depth. In this paper I shall offer a methodical analysis of the role humor plays in the philosophy of Diogenes. I shall argue that the cynicism authored by Diogenes is a philosophy premised on a number of doctrines – none of which are essentially negative in character – and that among these doctrines humor holds the central place. The cynical humor of Diogenes, I shall claim, is more than just a feature of his personality or a method through which he communicates his real message. It is, in fact, the foundation of the philosophy of cynicism itself.
Seen in San Francisco is a website featuring photos taken in San Francisco. One page highlights Bound Together Bookstore; and in particular three books that everyone should read:
“A place to live, a place to own, a place to sleep, a place called home.”
–Sacripolitical, Meaning of Life1
Since its emergence during the 1970’s, punk rock has offered both a refuge and a platform of rebellion to an unusually wide and diverse group of people seeking a place to be with others while resisting the homogenizing forces of mainstream culture. More than simply a musical style, punk rock comprises a subculture with a distinctive approach to art, literature, film, fashion, and life in general. As with many subcultural movements, punk’s existence is defined by a relationship with the mainstream that is at once both hostile and dependent. Its boundaries have been shaped, and have grown, through the negation and rejection of many taken-for-granted norms and standards governing polite, mainstream life, and thus while it strains against convention, it also relies upon the existence of the mainstream to act as a springboard against which to push. In this way, punk rock is an essentially reactive movement, its vitality derived from its own combative, rebellious attitude and the volatile reactions that this attitude provokes in outsiders. To be punk – in music, art, film, fashion or literature – is to upset the applecart, defiantly to reject the expectations, traditions, standards and norms of mannerly culture in order to incite reaction among outsiders and to unveil the arbitrariness of their taken-for-granted values.
But while punk rock is in its essence reactive and rebellious, it also harbors an inner refuge of companionship and community. For those who are a part of this subculture, it is a place where they feel at home among others who share their antagonism toward superficial conventionality; and in being at home with one another, punks have cultivated an internal set of symbols, practices and forms of communication. These subcultural artifacts have evolved out of objects and customs found in mainstream culture, yet the conventional meanings and significance of these objects and customs have been sabotaged and appropriated for use as instruments of refusal. Like a shared language, these symbolic instruments serve to unite members of the punk rock subculture while also setting them apart from outsiders who fail to understand punk’s private vernacular.
In what follows, I shall explore the ways in which punk rock serves as a kind of “home” for those who feel “homeless” within conventional society. First, I shall examine the general problem of spiritual homelessness and then explore the ways that subcultures help to alleviate this sort of alienation by providing a place where members can be-with-others. I shall then scrutinize some of the subcultural artifacts within the punk rock home in order to illustrate how they operate as instruments of subversive negation against conventional culture while also promoting internal cohesion within the punk community itself.
Homelessness is bemoaned as one of the pernicious problems of our time. To be without a home is to find one’s self exposed to hazardous elements – wind, rain, snow and cold – as well as to other dangers of the street – violence, hunger, exploitation. These dangers threaten physical safety and health, and without a reliable place of refuge where they feel safe, secure and among friends, the homeless have very little chance of flourishing as happy, authentic and fulfilled human beings.
However, it is not the case that a physical home ensures happiness; nor that happiness is impossible without a physical home. The problem of homelessness is not a problem merely because there are those who lack literal shelters or roofs over their heads. The issue is more challenging than that. Shelters and roofs are themselves important because of a more general, and fundamental, human need for access to some sort of “place” where, at least temporarily, one may withdraw from the world’s dangers. Such a place need not be physical, but it does need to be reliable and dependable in its accessibility, such that when one is threatened by discomfort, this place can be counted upon to offer its sheltering protection. A physical house that is unreliable in its capacity to keep one dry and safe is no home at all. A spiritual “home,” on the other hand, offers refuge unfailingly. A true home, then, is never simply a physical arrangement of bricks, beams and planks. It also always is a place where one feels spiritually secure and sheltered. In this sense, there are many houses that are not homes, and likewise there are many people without houses who are not homeless.
When Martin Heidegger observed, “Homelessness is coming to be the destiny of the world,”2 he was not referring to the shortage of housing that afflicts a large portion of the globe. Rather, he was making an observation about the spiritual malaise troubling humankind during these (post)modern times. Homelessness is the “destiny of the world” because, perhaps more than ever, people today experience life as alienated and groundless. The world we inhabit has come, increasingly, to feel like a threat rather than a refuge. It is a place we no longer understand, and which we struggle against, fearfully. We no longer trust or have fondness for our neighbors, leaders, legal, cultural or governmental institutions. We see them as dangerous: unpredictable, unreliable, inaccessible. In our preoccupation with these external dangers we have become fixated on the looming menace posed by others “out there,” entangling us in webs of distrust and enmity. In this distrust, like an unsheltered drifter in a hostile land, we feel exposed and vulnerable; “homeless” with no place to convalesce.
This sort of distrust alienates us from others, but it also does more than that. Since openness and engagement with others are mechanisms implicated in the development of self-understanding, distrust also potentially blocks us from knowing ourselves. To truly understand yourself, you must be part of a community where you feel safe, comfortable and welcomed; where you feel at home. “…home is not only the place where one is recognized,” writes Ralph Harper, “but also the place where one recognizes others.”3 Mutual recognition and meaningful dialogue among neighbors are necessary conditions for self-reflection, as it is through the dialectical process of conversing with others that we come to negotiate, construct and understand our place in the world. Socrates may have been the first philosopher fully to articulate this point at his trial in Athens thousands of years ago. A life worth living requires self-examination, but self-examination, Socrates told the court, also requires engagement with others in honest, open dialogue and discussion. In authentic Socratic dialogue, we cooperate with one another, jointly searching for Truth, challenging and questioning each other not out of hostility or competition, but out of love and concern. Trust is a necessary component of this sort of interchange. Without it things tend to devolve into mere bickering and antagonism. This is what Socrates found in his Athenian accusers, who were more concerned with eliminating him than with discovering the Truth. It was then Socrates realized that Athens was no longer his home, and so he willingly went to his death, stating, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”4
As it was with Socrates thousands of years ago, today we too often find ourselves in hostile territory, fearful and cut off, in the presence of people who refuse to listen to one another. Lacking the opportunity for genuine, Socratic dialogue, we also lose an intimate, relationship to our own true, inner nature. Our lives become drained of meaning, and thus the foundation upon which any real home is built begins to crumble.
Self-understanding does not occur in a vacuum. It is developed, bit-by-bit, in a social context, Socratic style, through dialogue and being-with-others. In existentialist philosophy, this idea has been advocated by thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, all of whom emphasize the “thrownness” of human existence. We are, these existentialists teach us, really nothing before we are thrown into a world with others, and it is only by being-with-others that we begin to construct our selves by struggling to come to terms with the realities of our environment and the people and things that inhabit it. This struggle can, at times, be distressing, hostile and dangerous, but it is how we carve out, negotiate and build a meaningful home for ourselves.
The world we find ourselves thrown into is not an empty space, but a place in which things already exist. Some of them are inanimate: things like rocks, tables, or pieces of paper. These sorts of things present themselves to us as raw material that can be manipulated and utilized for a variety of divergent purposes. We can, for instance, use rocks to build shelters, or we can throw them at our enemies. We can juggle those same rocks, or smash them into sand, and then use the sand for drainage in a garden. Inanimate objects have no wills of their own, but are governed by objective laws of cause and effect, and thus cannot be praised or blamed for the events in which they are implicated. Inanimate things like rocks mean nothing in-themselves, but only take on meaning and purpose depending upon the uses to which humans decide to put them. Rocks are neither good nor evil, but may be used for human projects having moral significance. The same rock may be used to build shelter or to commit murder.
Humans are different. Humans, according to the existentialists, do possess free will, and so their actions are not governed by objective laws of cause and effect. While the human body is itself a physical thing – like a rock, table, or piece of paper – it is a physical thing inhabited by consciousness. The human body in-itself means nothing, but when a human mind makes the choice to use that body for some purpose, the consciousness inhabiting that body becomes responsible for the course of action that follows. Whereas the rock that kills a man by striking him in the head is not morally or legally responsible for the death, the human being who wielded the rock, commanding his or her body to hurl it, is responsible. According to existentialists, it is only human consciousness that possesses this sort of responsibility, and this is what makes our lives unique and different from the other sorts of things that exist in the world. Whereas non-conscious, inanimate objects are “beings-in-themselves,” we are “beings-for-ourselves,” conscious, responsible, and active in the pursuit of freely chosen life projects.
The way that conscious, human beings build worlds around themselves is by choosing their manner of comportment toward all of the other things – both animate and inanimate – that exist. We choose the sorts of projects that we engage in by bestowing meaning and significance on some of the objects among which we are thrown while ignoring or avoiding many of the others. While I may be aware, for instance, that there are in fact rocks perched on top of the hill across the road from me, I might not attribute any significance to this fact, and thus ignore them, since they play no role in my current project of preparing for work. These rocks mean nothing to me; unless they happen to fall on the roadway and block my commute. Then they become a relevant part of my world by impeding and thwarting my chosen goal. They enter into my world and become a significant part of it by frustrating my project.
We consistently encounter other human beings as frustrating. However, unlike rocks, which are governed by objective forces of cause and effect, human consciousness is free and unpredictable. Because of this, unlike with rocks, it is in principle impossible to predict with any certainty what humans will do. While we are sometimes grateful, or at least don’t care too much, when their actions don’t interfere with our own chosen projects, it is a different story when our goals are thwarted by other human beings. It is then that hostility results, as we feel that those opposing us could act differently if they so chose, and so (unlike with a rock) we hold them responsible for blocking our goals and desires. When inanimate objects get in our way, we don’t feel as if they are plotting against us. When humans get in our way, on the other hand, we are made aware that our own minds are not alone in the world, but exist in conflict with other consciousnesses that are in pursuit of their own personal projects and goals.
Through dialogue, I may come to understand the projects of others and to calculate and negotiate the ways that I can synchronize my own projects with those around me, either by avoiding them, fighting against them, or cooperating with them. When people are successful at harmonizing their projects with the goals of others, a community emerges within which participants feel at home. The home thus created is a lived context within which one does not feel threatened or impeded in the pursuit of one’s most important goals and desires. Occupying this sort of place brings a sense of belonging and safety. And yet, this refuge only makes sense within a greater context, and in contrast to a place outside of the refuge; a place consisting of forces hostile to the freely chosen world of harmony. In order to establish a home, there must also be a place that is not home, a place filled with those who are not neighbors or friends, but hostile forces against which we define ourselves.
Subcultures and Home
When the mainstream world at large is experienced as hostile and dangerous, humans often find safe refuge in the formation of subcultural communities. Subcultures are associations that, on the one hand, disrupt “principles of unity and cohesion,”5 while on the other hand they enhance “social affiliation.”6 Thus, subcultures promote both revolt and conformity. These two seemingly contradictory aspects are integral parts of the home-making nature of subcultures. The first aspect – that which disrupts “unity and cohesion” – does so in rebellion against outsiders, while the second aspect – that which enhances “social affiliation” – does so by embracing conformity among insiders. Having both an “inside” and an “outside,” a subculture constructs an inner realm where members feel they belong by means of sheltering them from the outside world and its threats. In this way, subcultures carve sanctuaries out of the larger social context, negotiating territories where insiders might dwell while outsiders are kept out. As with any home, a subcultural home has boundaries within which members feel safe, shielded and protected while being-with-others.
Homes require furnishings, and likewise subcultural homes are furnished with things that members treat as significant and comforting. These things, as noted by existentialist philosophers, have no objective, pre-given meaning in-themselves, but only take on importance through negotiation and dialogue between members of the community, concomitant with their ongoing friction against the mainstream world. The sorts of things that subcultural communities come to embrace as meaningful are manifold: styles of music, clothing, food choices, literary styles and so forth. But regardless of what the particular artifact is, within a subculture these sorts of things acquire significance through the collective energies of members, who come to treat them as relevant touchstones by which to gain orientation within, and thus to navigate through, the world of friends and foes. For instance, when baseball hats of certain colors are used to symbolize gang membership, reactions to these hats will differ according to one’s own subcultural affiliations, cementing the boundaries between conflicting territories. While a fellow gang member will be comforted by the appearance of a hat of a certain color, a rival gang member will be threatened. A police officer will be put on alert, while a non-gang affiliated citizen might become apprehensive. When pieces of clothing or other sorts of artifacts are treated as symbolically significant by members of a group, those artifacts become markers acting to communicate social meaning, and thus to guide people in their interactions with one another. All of our worlds are filled with these sorts of significant objects that in-themselves mean nothing, but which become significant through their relationship to various human communities.
As they grow and historically evolve, networks of artifactual meaning emerge within and around subcultures. The objects and artifacts deemed significant by subcultural communities come to fill more and more cultural space, becoming connected to one another by a variety of linkages: spatial, temporal, and ideological. Comprising the cultural bric-a-brac of the subcultural home, these artifacts can, at times, create controversy and division between occupants of the home itself, just as friction often develops between family members over how to decorate and furnish a house. This is when internal debate erupts.
Dissent and negotiation play an important role within the development of subcultural communities. Sometimes disagreement leads to members breaking ties with their old affiliations, like rebellious children who leave home and set up their own, new domiciles. At other times it can lead to internal changes, with an extensive remodeling of the subcultural infrastructure. Sometimes, there is a reestablishment of the status quo, and members are brought back in line with tradition. Within any long-lived subculture, as with any home that is lived in for an extended period of time, there are bound to be changes in the arrangement of the décor. As these changes occur, the character of the home also changes, and indeed sometimes things might become so altered that older residents feel as if they have become homeless within their own home.
But while refuge and safety are certainly among the important characteristics of a home, change and novelty are also healthy. Residents too stuck in their ways become stagnant, complacent, and lazy. This was Socrates’ complaint about his fellow Athenians, who he likened to a sluggish horse that was in need of being roused and stirred up.7 As occurred in Athens, a home that becomes too static and unchanging starts to disintegrate. The oppression of individuals through hostility to internal dialogue and dispute undermines the original purpose of seeking a home in the first place: the need to be together in a context where people are comfortable interacting with one another as friends and neighbors, open to the free and open exploration of their authentic selves. Any place that discourages neighborly questioning, dissent or disagreement is not really a home, but a cage.
In order to concretize and illustrate the dynamics of home-building, in what follows I shall scrutinize various aspects of a subculture, first emerging in the 1970’s, that has proven especially enduring in its ability to provide a place of both refuge and dissent for its members. This subculture is punk rock, a movement in music, fashion, art and culture that has morphed over the decades in order to become a site both of safety and resistance for a staggeringly broad range of participants. I shall argue that this subculture has, over time, provided a home for nonconformists of otherwise vastly divergent natures by: (1) insistently resisting mainstream conventions, and (2) encouraging dissent and debate. I shall make this argument in the course of examining the meaning and significance of various artifacts central to the punk rock subculture.
There have been countless claims made about the “real” origins of punk rock. Dick Hebdige writes that punk grew out of glam rock, and developed as a way to expose its “implicit contradictions.”8 Greil Marcus characterizes punk as a more generalized revolt against the “pop milieu.”9 Caroline Coon finds the “seeds” of punk in a reaction against disco and big music industry marketing of rock bands.10 Complicating the issue is the fact that from early on there were two distinct punk “scenes,” one emerging in the UK, around 1976, and the other centered on the nightclub CBGB’s in New York City at about the same time.11 Regardless of its specific historical origins, what is clear is that beginning in the 1970’s, something that became known as “punk” emerged as a distinctly new subculture, and it quickly spread beyond the US and the UK through music, fashion, literature and art.
This newly emerged punk subculture was characterized by a gleefully aggressive revolt against the manners, norms and values of mainstream society. In music, punk revolted against the idea that talent, training or major funding was necessary in order to play, perform or record songs. In fashion, punk revolted against the idea that clothing had to cater to conventional standards of beauty or to perpetuate traditional gender identities. In literature and art, it revolted against the idea that only the elite and the educated were legitimate creative voices. Punk consistently defined itself in terms of what it was against, utilizing symbolism, gestures and methods calculated to offend and repel defenders of traditional cultural standards while also unifying its members in a subversive web of meaning that was antithetical to polite tastes.
A dramatic example of punk’s subversive intent is found in its early appropriation of the swastika, which was worn on clothing, drawn onto or carved into skin, and displayed in artwork. Artists such as John Lydon (Johnny Rotten), Sid Viscous, Siouxsie Sioux, Captain Sensible, The Angelic Upstarts and The Ramones all, at various times, displayed the symbol; not because they were Nazis, but “because they weren’t Nazis.”12 The swastika had a transformed meaning for these punks, one serving to emphasize an aggressive disdain for, and rejection of, orthodox, middle-class values. It was an artifact that, by tapping into negative mainstream cultural associations, served as an indicator that members of the subculture were not only unconcerned with catering to conventional sensibilities, but that they were in fact hostile toward them. Greil Marcus sums up the meaning of this early use of the punk swastika in this way:
It meant…My dad’s a square, I hate him, I hate you too, I’ll smash your face in…And it meant that negation is the act that would make it self-evident to everyone that the world is not as it seems – but only when the act is so implicitly complete it leaves open the possibility that the world may be nothing, that nihilism as well as creation may occupy the suddenly cleared ground.13
Although well aware of the mainstream social meaning that it had taken on after being used by the Nazis, the wearing of the swastika by punks was not motivated by racism or the advocacy of extreme right-wing politics. It was, rather, more like a gesture of rejection – a “fuck you” that helped solidify the boundaries between the punk and non-punk worlds. It was a device to “slow down” punk’s “assimilation into the wider culture.”14 By appropriating a symbol that itself had already been appropriated by the Nazis from earlier Hindu and Buddhist cultures, punks expressed disdain for conventional, mainstream sensitivities while also highlighting the fluid nature of cultural signs. As Thomas Mensworth (Mensi), the lead singer of the Angelic Upstarts said in a 1978 interview with Sounds Magazine, “it doesn’t mean anything, we only do it to annoy people.”15 The arrangement of lines into a twisted cross is a thing-in-itself and thus meaningless until interpreted and granted symbolic power by human consciousness; by beings-for-themselves. Punks gleefully played with this insight, and by aggressively displaying such a morally suspect and emotionally evocative image, punks, on the one hand, disrupted social unity and cohesion by provoking mainstream outrage while, on the other, they also (at least initially) established and promoted social affiliation between punks who shared an understanding of the symbol’s reconfigured significance.
In the 1980’s, the display of swastikas would become controversial within the punk rock subculture itself, as many punks objected that the symbol was starting to attract real racists into the fold. This internal counter reaction reached a crescendo when, in 1981, the Dead Kennedy’s recorded the song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” whose lyrics explicitly criticize those who wear swastikas:
You still think swastikas look cool?
The real Nazis run your schools.
They’re coaches, businessmen and cops.
In the real Fourth Reich you’d be the first to go.16
Internal dispute among punks concerning the swastika continued to grow. The year following the release of Nazi Punks Fuck Off, the inaugural issue of Maximum RocknRoll appeared. It remains one of the longest continuously published punk fanzines, and a perusal of issue #1 illustrates the fact that in 1982, despite increasing criticism of those displaying swastikas from within the punk subculture, the matter was far from settled. Instead, spirited debate and dialogue continued. While the pages of MMR#1 are filled with editorials, interviews and news stories concerning complaints of racism, violence, bigotry, intolerance and drug abuse within the scene, images of swastikas also appear on at least six different pages. By contrast, anarchy symbols appear on only two pages.17 At this point in history it appears that robust, Socratic dialogue was still being nurtured within the punk community, with conflicting voices – and imagery – existing alongside one another, incongruously, like oddly matched, yet fascinating, furniture.
The anarchy symbol eventually came to displace the swastika as a less internally controversial, but still ubiquitous symbol of rejection, demonstrating that politics was never really the point. Though representing diametrically opposed philosophical ideologies in the popular mind, both the swastika and the anarchy sign nonetheless served to symbolize, for punks, an attitude of revolt against convention. It is interesting to note that in 2013 at an exhibit of punk fashion and history sponsored by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art titled “Punk: Chaos to Couture,”18 while the anarchy sign was on prominent display, swastikas were nowhere to be seen. It seems that some of the more offensive and controversial aspects of punk rock have required complete effacement in order to make the aesthetic palatable to mainstream audiences.
The punk impulse toward revolt had the effect of carving out alternative cultural territories, setting boundaries between outsiders and insiders. In addition to symbols like the swastika and the anarchy sign, other aspects of the subculture also helped to cement these boundaries. Underground clubs replaced mainstream venues as locations for the performance of music and the exhibition of plastic arts. These venues discouraged attendance by mainstream audiences as – in a time before the internet – shows were promoted mostly by word of mouth and among existent members of the subculture through the distribution of Xeroxed flyers instead of through mass advertising. Many of these performance spaces didn’t have stable physical addresses, but wandered from place to place, being set up in basements, community halls, parks and vacant lots. In this sense, punk venues embodied a kind of homelessness in their lack of a stable location or residence, and yet in creating familiar and comfortable places where members of the subculture could be with others, they also created an ephemeral punk home where, for the duration of a show, underground music or art fans could retreat from the mainstream world of mass marketed capitalist consumerism to share a world among like-minded rebels.
The renegade nature of punk performance spaces was buttressed by their existence on the boundaries of legality. The artist Mark Pauline, for instance, whose group Survival Research Labs19 put on elaborate performances in which homemade machines would dangerously do battle against one another – wielding chainsaws, shooting projectiles and spewing fire – staged many of his performances illegally in vacant lots.20 Even when these shows were sanctioned by city officials, they would still sometimes end with his arrest or citation for violations of safety guidelines (as happened when they performed at the ground breaking ceremony for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1992)21.
Punk venues throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s were notorious for being raided by the police, with shows interrupted, and venues shut down. Existing on the fringes of legality contributed to an atmosphere of siege, as if punk culture was being persecuted and its members oppressed. “They hate us, we hate them. We can’t win. No way!” These sentiments from the song “Police Story,”22 by the band Black Flag, illustrate the feeling among punks that the state and the police were out to crush them; and while there is a palpable sense of outrage in such lyrics, there is also a sense in which these feelings were effective in promoting a sense of community among punks. An “us” against “them” attitude cemented the boundaries between the world of punk rock and the world of above ground, legal culture. When gathered together at shows, punks were reminded of their shared culture, and when these shows were interrupted by the police, they were also reminded of how at odds they were with mainstream society.
Being-with-others was also facilitated by the production and distribution of fanzines among punks. While most punk clubs were very short lived and temporary, fanzines provided a way for members of the subculture to remain in contact and to communicate with one another when not in physical proximity with one another before the advent of the internet. Self produced and Xeroxed in limited numbers, fanzines were personal magazines that chronicled the expanding infrastructure of the punk rock home. It was in these pages that relevant bands were interviewed and their existence documented. It was here that significant movies, art and events were highlighted, and that particular cultural controversies were debated and discussed. Anyone could make and distribute a fanzine. All that was needed was a typewriter or paper and pen, access to a copy machine, and friends to whom copies could be given or sold. Through fanzines, punks became further attuned to the detailed “furnishings” of the subcultural home that they occupied. It was in the pages of fanzines that many debates about the swastika played out. It was in fanzines that local bands were condemned, lauded or dismissed as part of the scene. Political protests were announced, books were reviewed, and personal opinions were unashamedly proclaimed about everything having to do with anything punk. Fanzines for punks served a purpose similar to academic journals for scholars, acting as a mechanism for the formation of a subcultural community based on the exchange of ideas.
The ideas shared by punks through fanzines, music and art, however, did not remain static. They evolved over time, and schisms within the subculture continued to develop. Earlier generations of punks aged, newer generations appeared, and as is common in all cultures, friction between them erupted. Jeff Bale, in an essay introducing the reissue of 1982’s music compilation Not So Quiet on the Western Front, for instance, complains that the new generation of San Francisco Bay Area punks had, by 1999, devolved into the same sort of “moral puritanism” that earlier punks revolted against; something “wholly antithetical to the individualistic, sardonic and freedom-loving spirit of punk.”23 Bale complains that the once relatively unitary punk movement had splintered into a variety of sub-subcultures, including “straight edge, humorless feminism, Krsna consciousness, and militant veganism.”24 These divisions, Bale suggests, had effectively undermined the purpose of punk, turning it into something dogmatic, moralistic and intolerant. Perhaps the most ironic illustration of this change is the fact that the very fanzine Bale helped to start in 1982, Maximum Rocknroll, by 1999 was run by an editorial staff that objected to his re-release of Not So Quiet on the Western Front.
Punk’s evolution illustrates the ways in which this long lived subculture provides a home for its members within which they may, on the one hand, define themselves in opposition to the mainstream while, on the other, engage in internal dialogue, dissent and realignment. The internal infrastructure of cultural artifacts – like the swastika, the anarchy sign, underground clubs, and fanzines – represent furnishings within the punk rock home, which over time have been rearranged, altered and replaced as successive generations have moved in to occupy the space set up by their predecessors. As with any home, this one also serves to make its residents welcome by keeping hostile onlookers out.
And yet it appears that punk has increasingly come to influence, and to be influenced by, mainstream culture itself. As more and more above ground cultural institutions sponsor punk art exhibits, musical performances and publishing projects, and as more and more companies seek to turn a profit by selling punk t-shirts, musical albums, and films, the walls of the punk home may be in danger of becoming completely breached, and the place that once offered refuge for rebellious outsiders may become overrun by the very sort of convention and conformity that punks mutinied against beginning in the 1970’s.
- Sacripolitical (1993). “Meaning of Life,” Peace: Under Our Supervision (audio recording). <https://sacripolitical.bandcamp.com/releases.> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).
- Martin Heidegger (1993). “Letter on Humanism,” in Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, p. 243.
- Ralph Harper (1967). The Seventh Solitude: Metaphysical Homelessness in Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, p. 77.
- Plato (1997). “Apology,” in Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett, 38a.
- Dick Hebdige (1981). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Methuen, p. 18.
- Ken Gelder (2007). Subcultures: Cultural histories and social practice. London and New York: Routledge, p. 4.
- Plato, 31.
- Hebdige, p. 63.
- Greil Marcus (1989). Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 3.
- Caroline Coon (1978). 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion. New York: Hawthorn Books, p. 3.
- Stacy Thompson (2004). Punk Productions: Unfinished Business. Albany: SUNY Press, pp. 10-32.
- Quoted in Thomspson, p. 28.
- Griel Marcus, p. 118.
- Malcolm Quinn (2005). The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol. New York: Routledge, p. 11.
- Punk77. “Angelic Upstarts History Pt. 2.” <http://www.punk77.co.uk/groups/angelicupstartshistory2.htm> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).
- Dead Kennedys (1982). “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” (audio recording). Alternative Tentacles.
- Maximumrocknroll (1982). Vol. 1, No. 1. San Francisco.
- Survival Research Laboratories. <http://www.srl.org/> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).
- Industrial Culture Handbook (1983). San Francisco: Re/Search Publications, pp. 20-41.
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2013). “Punk Fashion is Focus of Costume Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” <http://www.metmuseum.org/press/exhibitions/2012/punk-chaos-to-couture> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).
- “SF Museum Groundbreaking Show Survival Research Labs” (1992). <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjwWaUs_OmM> (Last accessed July 21, 2017).
- Black Flag (1981). “Police Story,” Damaged (audio recording). SST Records.
- Jeff Bale (1999). Liner notes in Not So Quiet on the Western Front (audio recording). San Francisco: Alternative Tentacles.
Long ago, I identified a cyclical pattern in my moods. Feelings of sadness and despair, which are attached to no particular set of external facts or circumstances, regularly overtake me after periods of contentment and relative happiness. I feel fine – even optimistic – and then the darkness encroaches, occasioned by no apparent, objective changes in the environment. This is all part of an ongoing, internal dispositional rotation where light fades to dark and then dark brightens to light. And round and round it goes.
The thoughts that accompany my dark periods are always the same: Everything comes to an end; everyone I know and love will eventually die; I will eventually die; so what’s the point? When in the midst of this feeling, distraction is ineffective. The mood itself stains everything that comes to my attention. It acts like a lens that colors and taints all things. I try to watch TV, and I think how I’m wasting what little time I have. I go for a run, and I think how there will be a time when I will be too old and frail to go running. I busy myself with cleaning the house and I think about how eventually the house will decay into nothingness. Distraction doesn’t work. The cycle needs to be ridden out. Despair demands its say.
The despair has returned this winter season, but this time around I’ve found new comfort in Marcus Aurelius. With his Meditations I’ve encountered a man who articulates many of the feelings and thoughts that drift round and round in my mind during dark spells. And it is not so much his stoic suggestions for how to deal with despair that appeal to me. Rather I’m comforted by the simple fact that this Roman emperor living in the 2nd Century AD – a man so different from me in most ways – shares my feelings and is unashamed of confessing to them. Reading Meditations makes me feel like I’m in the presence of someone I understand and who, if he was around today, would understand me.
Meditations opens with a litany of those to whom Aurelius feels gratitude: everyone from his grandfather to the gods. This first chapter chronicles the qualities of character and the lessons he learned from those he has encountered in life. From his grandfather he has learned “good morals” (I:1), from Sextus “good humor” (I:9), from his father “mildness of temper” (I:16). He thanks the gods for giving him “good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends, nearly everything good” (I:17). In sum, he is grateful for the life he has been born into. He considers his world to be good overall.
Reading this list, I’m left with the impression that Aurelius is consciously and systematically going through a ritual that I also go through when I’m feeling low. Any ritual is intended to help us avoid forgetting, to help us remember that which we are in danger of overlooking. This being the case, rituals are premised on the concern that something has been neglected in life and that one needs to set aside time to recall what is really important. In the case of Marcus Aurelius, the ritual of listing all of the people to whom he owes gratitude seems to be an indication of simmering discontent. I suspect his eagerness to remember all that is good in the world is spurred by a desire to combat frustration with all of the evil that he is consciously preoccupied by.
I find myself carrying out the same exercise when I hit my dark, low points. When I worry that I’m being overly negative about life, or that I am being self-indulgent with my despairing feelings, I self consciously reflect on all of the things that I should be happy about. I have a good job that is secure and that I enjoy. I have a wife, a sister, family members and friends that I love. I have a home. I have philosophy. But all of this self-reflection is only necessary at points when the meaningfulness of these very same things has already been called into question. When there is no question of life’s worth, I simply love my wife, sister, family and friends. I live with purpose and enthusiasm, without question. It is only when doubt creeps in that I’m driven to engage in the ritual of listing all of the things for which I should be grateful. Engagement in this ritual is a sign that something is amiss and needs to be corrected.
In Chapter II of Meditations, we get our first indication of what it is that is troubling Aurelius. He is experiencing discontent with the tedious and seemingly meaningless distractions that divert him from what is really important in his life. There are those around him that are busybodies, those that are ungrateful and arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial and violent (II: 1;6). These sorts of people threaten to derail him and to entangle him in pettiness, inflaming his emotions to the point that he wastes time, energy and, indeed, his life fighting meaningless battles. “Do things external which happen to you distract you? Give yourself time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around” (II:7). Like Nietzsche, Aurelius is here warning himself to avoid the poisoning effects of psychological resentment. When we become distracted by the shortcomings of others, we ourselves run the risk of becoming bitter and angry; and when this happens everything in the world around us becomes colored by our own bitter and angry perspective. The world starts to seem awful, not good at all. In this way we distort reality and create our own hell.
But, Aurelius reminds himself, we only have one life to live. “Since it is possible that you may be quitting life this very moment, govern every act and thought accordingly” (II:11). We are finite beings who are destined to die, and we don’t know exactly when we will expire. Do you want to live your short life in hell, or do you want to experience happiness? If you desire happiness, then you need to grab hold of your situation and live as if each and every act that you perform is your last, imbuing everything you do with meaning and purpose. Don’t waste time on superficialities or on pettiness. Focus on and embrace that which you think is really important. Be unconcerned with the shortcomings of others and strive to make yourself into the image of what you truly wish to be. This requires periods of reflection, for “he who does not observe the movements of his own mind must of necessity be unhappy” (II:8), but it also requires self-discipline and resolute action in the world. A good, happy life is a socially engaged, philosophical life.
Don’t waste your life. This is something I find myself repeating like a mantra at those times when the darkness encroaches and motivation wanes. “Though you were to live three thousand years, or three million, still remember that no man loses any other life than this which he now lives” (II:14). It is a mistake to think that more life would change anything. Whether you lived 50 years or 3 million years, you would still be a finite creature who must do something – anything – while you are alive. Your finite life is what you make it, and it really is within your power to mold it according to your own ideals.
Chapter III reinforces the point that no matter how long we live, we are all destined to die and so we should make the most of the time we have. This is especially important, according to Aurelius, because it is a sad fact about humans that the older we get, the more likely it becomes that we will lose the full use of our rational, mental capacities. As we age, our minds tend to deteriorate first, before the body, and so it is uncertain that the “mind will stay strong enough to understand things, and retain the power of contemplation” (III:1). As we lose our rational capacities, we lose the power to make willful choices and so we begin to drift in the direction of dependence on others. If our bodies outlast our minds, then we become objects, buffeted about by the willful actions of those around us. We lose the ability to mold the remainder of our existence and thus we forfeit that duty to others.
This thought terrifies me. After having seen some of my own family members drift into the clutches of dementia, I know how quickly self-sufficiency can disappear. My mother needed constant care until her body gave out. My aunt still lingers in an elder care facility, unable to articulate a coherent thought or to communicate her wishes to anyone. When they possessed their full mental capacities, neither my mother nor my aunt would have chosen this sort of conclusion to their lives, but neither of them, when in control of their mental faculties, put in place mechanisms that would have avoided what eventually came to be. Now I lie awake at night worrying about what will happen to me when my own mind starts to slip away. If it turns out that I am the last in my family to survive, what will happen? I fear becoming dependent upon strangers who are rarely kind, but often cruel. Now is the time to make the rational decisions that will allow life to come to an end in a way that can be embraced rather than feared.
The remaining chapters of Meditations (IV – XII) place individual human existence into a cosmic context that Aurelius suggests should give us comfort when contemplating our ultimate fate. Starting from the premise that “nothing comes out of nothing, just as nothing returns to nonexistence” (IV:4), Aurelius reasons that there is an eternal process of transmutation governing the universe of which human beings are a part. All things that come to be must emerge from some preexistent substance, and all things that decay and decline must melt back into that same substance. This process, since it is a part of nature itself, is just and good. It is only our irrational resistance to this process that makes it appear as if evil exists in nature. If we rationally embrace and passively submit to the eternal cycles of cosmic transmutation, then we will come to understand that, first, “nothing will happen to me which is not in harmony with the nature of the universe,” and second, “it is in my power never to act contrary to my god and divinity” (V:10). When we use our rational faculties to understand nature, we then can act in accordance with nature, accepting and embracing it as divine and good.
The universe is an organism, and we are parts of that organism. Our fate is tied to the whole, and so it is our duty to abide by our nature and play our role; just as our own hearts, stomachs and livers do in our bodies. The difference between our bodies and the universe as a whole, however, is that the universe is eternal but we are not. So, while “all parts of the universe are interwoven with one another,” it is also the case that “everything material soon disappears into the sum of being; and everything is soon taken back into the universal reason; and the memory of everything is soon overwhelmed in time” (VII:10). “Soon you will have forgotten all things; and soon all things will have forgotten you” (VII:21). For Aurelius, a rational person will understand this not as an occasion for despair, but as a liberating insight. Neither our individual lives nor our deaths are meaningless. They are integral aspects of the cosmos. Our lives and our deaths have a purpose in the grand scheme of things.
While I find Aurelius’ reflections in this part of the book fascinating and absorbing, I nonetheless am also skeptical. First, while his description of the eternal cycles of the universe might be true, I’m not completely convinced that it is. Second, even if his description is correct, it does not necessarily eradicate my own fear of death, but rather threatens to heighten it. After all, while saying that we are all organs in a cosmic body certainly does suggest we have a role to play, it also suggests that our own, individual hopes, fears and aspirations are worthless (and even destructive) apart from the aggregate. We could just as well say that we are cogs in a machine, highlighting our hopeless entanglement in a mechanical universe. But this is precisely one of the thoughts that goes round and round in my head during periods of mental despair. I am nothing but a cog, an ephemeral speck in the cosmic process. Hardly a comforting thought. Additionally, Aurelius’ metaphysics seems constructed precisely to alleviate his more concrete and down-to-earth experiences with mental suffering. But this raises a question: should we accept a doctrine just because it makes us feel better? It could be that the doctrine giving you the most comfort is also false, and I personally don’t want to accept false doctrines. I need some other evidence, argument or proof besides my own feeling of contentment. After all, there are plenty of religious systems that contradict Aurelius’ metaphysics that I could also believe in that would offer comfort. The point of philosophy is not just to alleviate despair. It needs to be motivated by a desire to know the truth.
Despite my skepticism about his metaphysics, the suggestions for life that Aurelius goes on to offer in the closing chapters of his book do resonate with me and do seem sensible. His central point is that you should “never mind what others think of you, and be content to live the rest of your life as nature wills” (VIII:1). This brings us back to the issue that was of concern at the start of his Mediations. Those “busybodies,” those “ungrateful,” “arrogant,” “deceitful,” “envious,” “unsocial” and “violent” people that often distract us from what we feel is good and right are to be ignored in favor of what our inner nature tells us to think and do. “Nature brings nothing that you cannot bear” (VII:46), and so we need to listen to our own conscience when determining how to navigate the world. Aurelius reminds us (and himself) that it is only our judgements about the world that cause distress. The world is what it is. There is nothing inherently wrong with objective reality. It is only our desire for things to be different from the way that they are that causes us to feel as if the universe is evil and unjust. But our judgments are within our power to change, and so it follows that we are capable of finding contentment and happiness by changing the way we think and judge reality.
And there is ultimately nothing new under the sun, according to Aurelius. The same patterns play themselves out with differing details eternally. “Consider that the things of the present also existed in times past…all the same plays, only with different actors” (X:27). On the one hand, this is hopeful, since it opens up the chance for us actually to discover the patterns of nature and to bring our mental judgements into alignment with nature’s design. In fact, according to Aurelius, by the age of 40 we have already “seen everything” (XI:1), and so by that age one is able to formulate a basic template for happy living. On the other hand, the thought that our lives are just part of some cosmic repetition can also lead to a sense of despair. Nietzsche observed that the idea of the “eternal return of the same” is an example of nihilism, and as such it can lead us to feel as if everything is meaningless and worthless. During my own dark periods, this is precisely how I tend to feel. Life is a tedious recurrence of the same old boring patterns. If it all came to an end here, nothing would be lost. It reminds me of the Warner Brother’s cartoon in which one of the characters exclaims, “Now I’ve seen everything!” and then blows his brains out with a pistol. If there is nothing more to see or learn, what’s the point of moving on?
But I must admit that when I transpose Aurelius’ cosmic vision of eternal recurrence into a psychological framework, things become more positive for me. As mentioned earlier, I long ago identified a pattern in the ebb and flow of my moods that repeats over and over again. This eternally recurring psychological pattern does give me some comfort insofar as it helps to place my own despair into a larger context within which I can anticipate an escape from the darkness; albeit a temporary one. Since I have come to realize that despair is part of an ongoing rhythm in which my moods fluctuate from dark to light, when I am in the midst of despondency I become confident that the next cycle will bring cheerfulness. Ironically then, I am at my most optimistic when I am my most despairing, for it is then that I have something to which I look forward. When I am in my most cheerful of moods, on the other hand, I find myself slipping into the pessimistic anticipation of encroaching sadness. And round and round it goes.
Whether the patterns of recurrence are cosmic or psychological, I find the specific points of advice with which Marcus Aurelius concludes his Meditations to be wise, useful and sensible. There are ten things he suggests that we keep in mind when dealing with others and when we are striving to perfect our lives (XI:19):
- We are social creatures, “made for one another.”
- We should remember that all of those in our communities are under the same sorts of inner compulsions as we are.
- We should be pleased when those around us do good, but we should understand that when they do wrong it is out of ignorance.
- We should remember that we ourselves often do wrong.
- We should remember that sometimes we do not know whether the actions of others are right or wrong. In those cases we should suspend our moral judgments.
- We should remember that we are all finite and will die.
- We should remember that it is our own opinions about others that cause us distress, and we are in control of our opinions.
- We should consider how much distress is caused by being “angry and vexed.”
- We should recognize that a benevolent disposition is powerful and can bring inner peace.
- We should recognize that it is “madness” to expect bad men not to do evil; and that it is irrational to allow bad men to do wrong to one another while thinking that they will not do wrong to us as well.
I must admit that even in the midst of my darkest moods, this advice makes sense to me.
While I’m not prepared to convert to Stoicism after reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, I am soothed by the fact that another human being, living in another place and time, has had many of the same troubling feelings and thoughts as I have. Perhaps this is a verification of Aurelius’ point. There is nothing new under the sun. Perhaps we are all playing our parts in an eternally recurring drama in which only the actors are different. Perhaps.
Bernard Reginster’s book The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism is an ambitious and thorough work. It proposes an interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy that emphasizes its orderly and logical structure, portryaing it as a consistent and coherent system offering a solution to the problem of nihilism and a strategy for the affirmation of life. Both in its purpose and tone, Reginster’s book reminds me of other works that approach continental thinkers and themes from a self-consciously analytic perspective; books such as David E. Cooper’s Existentialism, Antoine Panaïoti’s Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy, and James Tartaglia’s Philosophy in a Meaningless Life. The Affirmation of Life sits alongside these other efforts as a well-argued attempt to bring some order to what can sometimes seem like a very disorderly and unruly topic.
Reginster points out in the introduction to The Affirmation of Life that interpreters of Nietzsche generally fall into two categories. On the one hand, there are those who approach his writings piecemeal, taking his aphoristic style as evidence that Nietzsche never meant readers to think systematically about his work, but rather to read his books as a kind of poetry that plays with recurring themes, observations and insights. Like the musings of a insightful but scattered mind, this approach treats Nietzsche’s books as compendiums of ideas and thoughts lacking system or method. Nietzsche does encourage this sort of reading at times; for instance in Twilight of the Idols writing, “I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” (I 26)
On the other hand, there are those who approach Nietzsche more “globally,” focusing on a theme or doctrine that is taken as playing a unifying role in his overarching philosophical system. In this approach, the variety of ideas appearing throughout Nietzsche’s books are taken as logically connected parts that hang together with regularity and order. In these sorts of interpretations, one particular doctrine is generally thought to be the key to unlocking the real meaning of Nietzschean philosophy; whether it be the revaluation of values, the Superman, the eternal return, or the will to power. For these kinds of interpreters, Nietzsche’s writing style and his periodic denunciations of systematic thinking are distractions from the actual, underlying structure of his thinking process, which can be reconstructed by looking at the overall trajectory of his life work. If you do this, so it is claimed, one will discover that Nietzsche was concerned with thinking through some particular sort of problem in an orderly and deliberate manner.
Reginster’s reading of Nietzsche is aligned with the latter approach. However, unlike past interpreters he tells us that it is not a particular doctrine that lies at the center of Nietzsche’s philosophy, but a “particular problem or crisis.” (p. 4) This problem is the “crisis of nihilism,” which, in its most general sense, is “the belief that existence is meaningless.” (p. 21) Nihilism is marked by the distressing loss of confidence in goals and ideals that once gave human life meaning and purpose. Nietzsche’s writings are mostly concerned with nihilism as a European crisis; a problem that emerges in modern times with the increasing erosion of Judeo-Christian beliefs. This devaluation of traditional beliefs is a problem since, as of yet, nothing has emerged to take their place, and thus meaninglessness and lack of purpose threaten to infect European culture. According to Reginster, Nietzsche’s entire philosophical project is an attempt to address this threat and to offer a replacement for these lost values.
Reginster identifies two variants of nihilism. The first variant emerges from the devaluation of goals that at one time actually did give life meaning and purpose. The second variant is rooted in the conviction that any goals that could give life meaning and purpose are in fact unrealizable. In the first instance, nihilism emerges along with the realization that the things we once valued – our highest aspirations – are now things that have lost their value for us. So, for instance, a person might at one point in time value the aspiration toward being rich, but then at some later point in life come to the realization that money-making is not really all that important, and thus that the life he or she currently lives has become meaningless. The second kind of nihilism has less to do with the content of particular goals themselves, but with their realizability or attainability. So, for instance, a person might continue to aspire toward, and value, becoming rich, but come to realize that it is, in fact, impossible to actually achieve riches. The goal is not realizable even though it continues to be desired, and so, once again, life becomes meaningless.
Reginster argues that for Nietzsche, in order for life to be meaningful, our goals must both be valuable and realizable. To avoid nihilism, then, the purposes and projects we embrace must have the possibility of actually being accomplished. Otherwise, we will either become disoriented or fall into despair. Nihilistic disorientation is connected to the conviction that the highest human values are no longer valuable, while nihilistic despair is connected to the conviction that the highest human values are unobtainable because they are not objectively real, but rather illusory projections of the human mind.
Nietzsche’s own conception of nihilism, Reginster claims, is ambiguous in the sense that his writings equivocate between addressing nihilism as disorientation and addressing nihilism as despair. The problem is that these two senses of nihilism actually seem to conflict with one another, since if one no longer values a goal, then its unattainability would not be a source of distress, and, on the other hand, if a goal can’t be realized, then by its very nature it becomes drained of value. In other words, if one is a disoriented nihilist, then there is no reason for one to also be a despairing nihilist, and vice versa. If you don’t value riches, for instance, then you won’t even care that they can’t be achieved. And, if you know that you can’t be rich, then the desirability of aspiring toward riches will vanish. Reginster argues that most interpreters underemphasize the ambiguity in Nietzsche’s understanding of nihilism, but that nonetheless it is key to understanding his strategy for affirming life and overcoming both despair and disorientation.
The crux of Nietzsche’s strategy is, first, to reveal the groundlessness of traditional values and, second, to introduce a new highest standard of attainable values based on the will to power. So, the overcoming of nihilism proceeds in stages. The first stage involves revealing that the highest values currently driving western culture to nihilistic despair – Judeo-Christian values – lack objective standing. Since they are not objectively “real,” Judeo-Christian values are illusions that are “life-negating” in the sense that they encourage us to pursue goals that are unattainable (such as everlasting life in heaven). Revealing the inherent unrealizability of the values implied by this belief system undermines their value, and so this first stage of Nietzsche’s strategy liberates us from Juedo-Christian nihilism as despair. By revealing the illusory, and thus unattainable, nature of things like God and heaven, their desirability as aspirational goals vanishes. However, the elimination of these traditional values in turn provokes nihilistic disorientation. With the death of God, a void is left in place of the highest (unattainable) values, and the entire moral order that was implied by God’s existence collapses. We are robbed of our highest (unattainable) goals and aspirations, and life becomes, once again, meaningless insofar as there is no organizing center, no ultimate guiding purpose to life. Nihilism as disorientation is thus introduced.
The second stage in Nietzsche’s strategy is to offer a revaluation, showing that “life-negating values are not the highest values.” (p. 50) He does this, according to Reginster, by proposing the will to power as a replacement for the highest “principle” or ethical “standard” (p. 148). What this accomplishes is to introduce a this-worldly, attainable standard of value, as opposed to the other-worldly, unattainable standard advocated in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The main barrier in the way of advocating this new standard, however, is “the problem of suffering” (p. 159). Influenced by his reading of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche regards this problem as the issue uniting all western (and some non-western) moral systems. Whether it is Christianity, Buddhism, Utilitarianism, or Eudaimonism, the condemnation of suffering seems universal. But if, as all of these systems claim, suffering is an evil that to some degree will always remains a part of our life in this world, then the goal of eliminating suffering is itself nihilistic, since it involves the pursuit of something that can never be actually and fully realized in the here-and-now. All of those moral systems advocating the end of suffering are, thus, life-negating insofar as they promote the nihilism of despair.
The conclusion Nietzsche thus reaches is that any non-nihilisitic value system must embrace the inevitability of suffering, and he advocates the will to power as his solution. The doctrine of the will to power holds that the highest good is power itself, and power just is the “overcoming of resistance” (p. 177). Power is only manifested (as Schopenhauer had already suggested) in the course of its practical, concrete exercise. It is not a “thing,” but rather a process or “activity” (p. 196) that occurs when two forces encounter one another and clash. There is, in this sense, no such thing as potential, unexpressed power; only power actually manifested in the course of active expression. Power becomes manifest only when there is some obstacle to be overcome. Furthermore, any obstacle we encounter must offer some degree of opposition to our efforts. But opposition to our will is also what makes for difficulty, struggle and suffering in life. With resistance, thus, there is always pain and suffering, but without it, there is no possibility for the exercise of will power and the sort of overcoming that makes us feel happy and joyful in our accomplishments. It follows, then, that if we are to value power as our highest value, then we must also value suffering.
By elevating the will to power to the highest of all values, Nietzsche accomplishes a revaluation that he believes satisfies both of the conditions for a meaningful life. First, since power just is the overcoming of obstacles, and since all humans value this sort of overcoming (regardless of the nature of the particular obstacle that they overcome), the will to power represents a goal that is intrinsically valuable. Thus it overcomes nihilism as disorientation. Second, since power is always concretely expressed in this world, it is, by its very nature, something attainable (in varying degrees) in the here-and-now. It is not an illusory, unrealizable goal. This overcomes nihilism as despair.
The last two chapters of Reginster’s book address Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence and his advocacy of Dionysian wisdom, suggesting that both are integral to the preceding interpretation. Just as the will to power offers an alternative to the belief in God, the eternal recurrence offers an alternative to the Christian ideal of eternal life in heaven. It is an attempt to conceptualize life as active, never ending becoming rather than as a static state of passive being. In this way it encourages us to embrace impermanence, which is at the very heart of the idea of will to power as a process. Finally, with the mythic figure of Dionysus, we find another alternative to Christian ideals. In Christianity, it is the beaten and battered Christ, and his condemnation of suffering, that inspires admiration, while the god Dionysus, on the other hand, represents the life-affirming celebration of destruction, suffering, and change as parts of the creative cycle of nature itself. In these ways, Reginster suggests, both Dionysus and the eternal recurrence are something like Nietzschean myths, offered as alternatives to the traditional Christian myths of God, Christ and heaven. For readers who embrace his revaluation in terms of the will to power, they represent life-affirming, non-nihilistic guidelines for how to live life in the here and now.
There is much more argumentative detail in The Affirmation of Life than I have summarized here. Reginster goes to meticulous lengths in building his own position, remaining very diligent in his reconstruction of competing interpretations of the material, and providing plausible counterarguments for why his own reading of Nietzsche is especially consistent and complete. It was a pleasure to follow along with the author’s thinking process, which exhibits an unusual amount of analytic skill and care for the material. My only criticisms of the book have to do with the lack of a concluding chapter and Reginster’s omission of any serious engagement with Heidegger’s major work on Nietzsche.
Given that the arguments in The Affirmation of Life are so intensely detailed and interlocking, it would have been nice if there was final summation of the book’s overall argumentative trajectory. As it is, the book ends rather abruptly, with a short but incomplete two page conclusion tacked on to the last chapter on Dionysian wisdom. I did a lot of underlining as I read through the book for a second time, and once I got to the end of its 268 pages, I had to go back through and reconstruct the overall argument for myself. I hope I got it all right. In any case, it would be helpful if, upon reaching the end of the work the author’s own summation was provided so that a reader like myself could be reassured that he got all of the pieces in the proper order.
The omission of Heidegger is a complaint only because it struck me, once I had finished the book, that there are aspects of his four volume work on Nietzsche that are directly relevant to Reginster’s interpretation. Heidegger, like Reginster, attempts to demonstrate that Nietzsche’s various doctrines – the will to power, the eternal recurrence, and nihilism – all play integral roles in a consistent Nietzschean philosophy. He also claims that the will to power is central to the revaluation of values and that the eternal recurrence is Nietzsche’s way of attempting to think Being as a process of becoming. One of the major – and I think very interesting – differences is Heidegger’s claim that nihilism is not something that can legitimately be “overcome,” since instead of a problem or crisis, nihilism is actually an aspect of Being itself. I am curious as to how Reginster would respond to this Heideggerian reading of Nietzsche.
In any case, I highly recommend Bernard Reginster’s The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism to those readers who have a serious interest in Nietzsche, nihilism and who appreciate detailed, scholarly and meticulous argumentation. This is not a book that can be read through quickly or superficially. It is one that requires patience, time and focused attention. It is a difficult book in these ways, but as Reginster himself suggests, difficulty goes along with the overcoming of obstacles, which in turn makes us happy in the expression of our will to power!
In case anyone is interested, Amazon is selling brand new hardcover editions of Cinematic Nihilism for $34; a huge discount off of the original publisher’s price, which is $110. This is a much better bargain than my own author discount.
Purchase is limited to one book per customer.