Meditations on Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

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):

  1. We are social creatures, “made for one another.”
  2. We should remember that all of those in our communities are under the same sorts of inner compulsions as we are.
  3. We should be pleased when those around us do good, but we should understand that when they do wrong it is out of ignorance.
  4. We should remember that we ourselves often do wrong.
  5. 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.
  6. We should remember that we are all finite and will die.
  7. We should remember that it is our own opinions about others that cause us distress, and we are in control of our opinions.
  8. We should consider how much distress is caused by being “angry and vexed.”
  9. We should recognize that a benevolent disposition is powerful and can bring inner peace.
  10. 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.

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Cynics

Cynicism, like nihilism, has a bad name in the poplar mind. It is generally thought that cynics are negative, distrustful, and see only the worst in others. They have nothing positive to say or to contribute, but are full of complaints and criticisms. They assume everyone is motivated by foul intentions, and consequently believe no one can be relied on.

This contemporary deployment of the term “cynic,” however, deviates from its original use in the ancient world. In ancient times, Cynicism was the name of a philosophical movement that, contrary to popular opinion today, did indeed possess positive ideals and that provided not only a diagnosis of, but a solution to, the despairing unhappiness of the times. Ancient Cynics were more than just unhelpful social critics; they were optimistic philosophers who wanted to demonstrate that human contentment is achievable through a life of natural simplicity. William Desmond’s book Cynics offers a clear, systematic overview of this movement in ancient philosophy, while also describing its lasting impact on contemporary thought.

Desmond’s main thesis is that while Cynicism in the ancient world certainly was a diverse phenomenon with much variation, there was nonetheless a stable, core set of beliefs uniting the various individual Cynics. Figures like Antisthenes, Diogenes and Crates were more than just nonconformists. They were proponents of a consistent, cohesive philosophy. The core beliefs of this philosophy are that the renunciation of custom is liberating (Chapter 2), that one should live life according to nature (Chapter 3), that the self is a stable substance, independent of society (Chapter 4), and that the best form of social organization maximizes the freedom of the individual (Chapter 5).

The English word “cynic” comes from the Greek word kyōn, which means “dog” (p. 3). The ancient Cynics advocated a simple life that was based on fulfilling natural desires while resisting what they regarded as unnatural, decadent desires. Like dogs, Cynics went around naked or wearing very little. They owned hardly anything, wandering from place to place, scavenging food and shelter. They urinated, defecated and masturbated publicly. They rejected marriage, politics, and work. This dog-like existence was intended as an antidote to the perverting influence of civilization, which encourages people to hide behind a veil of artificiality.

The Cynics claimed that human unhappiness is the result of the repression of natural needs coupled with the cultivation of unnecessary desires that cannot be satiated. Civilization encourages us to disguise and stifle our natural functions while also encouraging us to seek money, prestige, power, and so forth. But in pursuing these sort of things, humans find themselves on a hamster wheel of unquenchable craving that only leads to anxiety and unhappiness. Better to live like a dog, then, in the moment, absent conventional aspirations. If we live simply and according to nature, we can be satisfied and content with what the world gives us. In this way, Desmond writes, the Cynics preached a positive message: “Far from being pessimistic or nihilistic, ancient Cynics were astonishingly optimistic regarding human nature. For them, ultimately, human beings are good: very good” (p. 3). This confidence in human nature – coupled with their rejection of artificiality – comprises the center of the Cynic philosophy.

Desmond suggests that in the ancient world, we can detect four stages in the evolution of Cynicism. First, there is the “pre-Cynic Greek period,” which includes what he classifies as “proto-Cynics” such as Socrates. While a philosopher like Socrates is rarely regarded as a true Cynic, his influence on later Cynics was powerful. Not only was he the teacher of Antisthenes (who is sometimes credited as being the founder of Cynicism), but his simple lifestyle and anti-establishment battles against the Athenian mainstream can be regarded as expressing what would become some of the main concerns of the later, classical Cynics (pp. 13 – 16).

The second stage in the evolution of ancient Cynicism consists of the “classical period” of thinkers, the most famous of which is Diogenes of Sinope; a man that Plato described as “Socrates gone mad.” Diogenes is said to have been exiled from his home state, ending up in Athens where he lived in a pithos; a large barrel or tub normally used to store wine or olive oil (p. 21). Though he reportedly wrote dialogues, letters and tragedies, all of them are lost, and so the only knowledge that we now have about Diogenes “the dog” comes from the accounts of others like Diogenes Laertius, a Roman author. The stories are legendary. Diogenes was purported to have been banished from Sinope for “defacing the coinage”; a phrase which took on great significance for later Cynics who regarded it as a “command to decommission the ‘coinage’ of social custom” (p. 20). Diogenes threw away his own drinking cup when he saw a slave boy sipping water with his hands, illustrating that even a cup is an unnecessary extravagance in a world where nature has provided us with hands, which themselves can be cupped. When he was confronted by outraged Athenians for masturbating in public, Diogenes scoffed at their prudery, lamenting “If only…one could relieve a hungry belly also just by rubbing it” (p. 89). He walked through the Athenian marketplace with a lantern in broad daylight “looking for an honest man” (p. 21), insinuating that honesty was invisible in highly civilized Athens. Differing accounts claim that he died by holding his breath, or from eating raw octopus, or from being bitten by a dog (p. 23). Upon his passing, he did not want to be buried, but to have his body left in the open to be consumed by animals.

Despite his unconventional life, Diogenes was reportedly admired by Alexander the Great, the leader of the Macedonian Empire. Upon arriving in Athens, Alexander found Diogenes asleep in his barrel. He prodded the Cynic, telling Diogenes that he was willing to grant him any wish he desired. Diogenes’ response was for Alexander to “stand out of my sun” (p. 21), suggesting that the only thing a king could do for him was to make way for what the world already provided naturally.

After Diogenes and the “classical period” of Cynicism, the third period of evolution occured with the literary influence of Cynic philosophy on Hellenistic thinkers – in particular the Stoics – and then continued into the Roman Empire, the fourth period of evolution.

The final chapter of Desmond’s book examines the legacy of Cynic thought, highlighting some of the philosophers, writers and religious figures who have been influenced by Cynicism. I was especially interested to see the ways in which Desmond characterizes one of my own favorite thinkers, Friedrich Nietzsche, as a sort of neo-Cynic. Like Diogenes, who coined the term “cosmopolitan” or “citizen of the world,” Nietzsche spent the majority of his adulthood homeless, wandering Europe and declaring himself to be a “good European” rather than a citizen of Germany. He railed against the constraining forces of polite society, exhorting people to harness their natural “will to power” in service of an earthly sort of contentment in the here-and-now. His philosophy extolls the virtues of individualism, naturalism, and self-sufficiency; very much like the ancient Cynics. It’s no wonder (as Desmond notes on page 231) that Nietzsche, in The Wanderer and His Shadow (§ 18) writes:

The modern Diogenes. – Before one seeks a human being, one must have found the lantern. Will it have to be the lantern of the cynic?

More startling to some readers might be Desmond’s speculation that Jesus may, perhaps, have been a Cynic. Desmond reports that some of the major Cynic philosophers of Jesus’s time – Menippus, Meleager and Oenomaus – lived in Gadara, a city near Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps Jesus became familiar with their ideas and integrated them into his own teachings. His praise of poverty, his rejection of convention, his mixing with lowly people and his courage in speaking out against those in power all offer tempting suggestions that there was something “cynical” about Jesus. Indeed, Desmond writes that some scholars have gone so far as to conclude that we find “Cynicism in the heart of the Christian Gospels themselves” (p. 211).

I really enjoyed Desmond’s book. While I have long been a fan of Diogenes, I was not acquainted with all of the details in the development of Cynicism as a philosophy. Instead, most of the other, shorter accounts of the Cynics that I have read characterize them as proponents of something more like a lifestyle or an attitude rather than of a coherent system of thought. Desmond’s account of this movement convincingly puts the Cynics into a larger perspective, demonstrating the underlying method to their madness as well as the long-lasting influence that the “classical” Cynics have had on philosophy up to present times. Desmond has inspired me to explore the Cynics further, and perhaps even to integrate more of their cheekiness into my own life.

The Politics of Cultural Despair

Fritz Stern’s The Politics of Cultural Despair is a study that attempts to understand Nazism as a product of Germany’s unique cultural and intellectual atmosphere in the decades before the rise of Hitler. It was originally written as a doctoral dissertation (later to be published as a book in 1961), and focuses on three key intellectual figures who influenced the development of Germanic ideology: Julius Langbehn, Paul de Lagarde, and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck. These three figures were social critics, diagnosing the decline of culture and presenting themselves as prophets of a new German spiritual rebirth.   In the Introduction, Stern describes his book as “a study in the pathology of cultural criticism” (p. 1), suggesting that these prophets of doom were simultaneously symptoms of their times as well as dangerous, pathological causes of Germany’s ill-fated drift toward Nazism.

Stern’s book is an engrossing analysis of the lives and works of a group of rather obscure thinkers whose ideas, in less odious form, also appear in the writings of other more well respected German authors; writers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Oswald Spengler. But whereas Nietzsche saw the advent of cultural nihilism as something that each individual human being must live through and learn from, and whereas Spengler foresaw the decline of Western culture as an irreversible inevitability, Lagarde, Langbehn and Moeller sought to offer a means of collective rescue; a strategy by which they could recover the spiritual heritage of their nation and thus reinvigorate German mass culture. In this way, they were, despite their shared prophesies of doom, optimists about the possibility of cultural renewal.

Stern uses the phrase “conservative revolution” to characterize the utopian strategies of these three figures. On the face of it, this might sound oxymoronic. After all, a conservative seeks, by definition, to “conserve” rather than to “revolt” against the status-quo. But in the case of Lagarde, Langbehn and Moeller, their conservatism had nothing to do with defending the existing state of affairs, but with the defense of an idealized past, an “ancient tradition” (p. 1) before the dawn of modernity. In this ancient past, the German people were united by a religious bond of blood under a strong national leader. It was a time before the emergence of liberalism, capitalism, parliamentary democracy and the death of God. It was, however, a time that never really existed at all. These “conservative revolutionaries” were antiquarians, and their goal was to reestablish an imaginary past as a concrete reality in the present.

For Paul de Lagarde, this was to be accomplished with the founding of a new Germanic religion. This new faith was to be based on an interpretation of Christianity stripped of its supposed false dogmas while reasserting its true, original inspiration. Lagarde attacked and criticized the Jewish, Greek and Roman influences on Christianity, advocating the “liberation” of the Gospels from this background, which he claimed glorified Jesus’ death rather than his life. Instead, the true, original spirit of Jesus needed to be resuscitated. According to Lagarde, Jesus was primarily a rebel against the traditions and doctrines of Judaism, not the messiah foretold in the Old Testament or the supernatural “son of God” described by Paul. In line with this, a new Christianity should be focused on this world, becoming fused with the concrete characteristics and needs of the German people, thus creating a faith that would give meaning and purpose to the German state. It would “become the spiritual basis for a new state, for a new hierarchical community that would accept the teleological belief that God had placed men at different stations in life for different purposes” (p. 80).

For Julius Langbehn, the solution to Germany’s spiritual crisis was to be found not in religion (although at the end of his life he did convert to Catholicism), but in art. In his most well known and influential book, Rembrandt as Educator, he offers Rembrandt as “the personification of a cultural ideal” (p. 154) that could rescue Germany from its cultural decline. In the figure of this artist, Langbehn found the antithesis of the modern German. According to him, Rembrandt embodied all of the qualities needed in order for Germany to heal its wounds and rediscover its spiritual strength: sensitivity to the mysteries of Being, an awareness of the contradictions inherent in human life, fierce individualism, spontaneity, willfulness, and Volksthümlichkeit, the characteristic of “belonging to, expressing, yet transcending his people and its traditions” (p. 158). His overall solution to Germany’s cultural crisis was to rebel against the Modern drift toward reason and to return to a primal, tribal form of community using the artist as a spiritual guide.

Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, like Langbehn, was an esthete who also looked to the artist as his hero. According to Moeller, Germany’s crisis was due to a forgetfulness of its primal spirit, and he believed this condition could be corrected by the propagation of a new breed of great, artistic men who would lead the nation toward a utopian future. As an admirer of Dostoyevski, he hoped to revivify the German spirit in the same way that he thought the Russian author had revivified his own country’s spirit. The rescue of Germany required the recognition that the Germans were in their essence, like the Russians, a “young” people, opposed to the “old” people of Britain and the US, and thus that the future belonged to them. Fate, therefore, dictated that Germany must expand its territory and accomplish the “domination of Europe” (p 253). In 1922, he published his most well known book, The Third Reich, which marked “the culmination of Moeller’s thought” as well as “the culmination of the Germanic ideology” (p. 311). In this book, he pronounced the need for a revolution that turned against the previous generation’s embrace of liberalism and modernity. German unity was to be reestablished in a nationalist form of socialism that would eliminate class struggle and reintegrate the workers with the goals of the nation as a whole in an organic, corporatist, hierarchical society.

Though not themselves Nazis, the dark sentiments and the proposed solutions advocated by these three authors were later integrated into the National Socialist platform. Their ideas proved popular because, like many Germans, they felt alienated from the world they inhabited, seeing it as a place where the old values and ways of life were withering away, producing an atmosphere of nihilism, anxiety, and increasing secularism. Populations caught in the grips of these kinds of feelings are prone to looking for saviors who promise a rescue; someone who understands the mood of alienation and who points the way back home. Stern observes that Lagarde, Langbehn and Moeller were all “simultaneously proud and resentful of their alienation” (p. 327). On the one hand they proudly trumpeted their own uniqueness as “outsiders,” while on the other they aspired to transform the sick, decaying society around them into a place where they would no longer be outsiders. In so doing, they successfully channeled the mindset of a significant portion of the pre-World War II German population.  Yet the utopia imagined by these “prophets” never did, and never really could, exist. Writing in 1961, Stern points out that these men comprise a “cultural type” that has made an “appearance in all Western countries” (p. 328). In fact, they never go away because the problems they see in the world never go away. Reading about them now, from the perspective of a citizen of the United States during the 21st Century, it is clear their type still exists here, in our own land, and that they are still, tediously, proposing the sorts of “solutions” that they always have.

I think the most fundamental problem with this type of intellectual (both then and now) rests not in their pessimism or their prophesies of doom, but rather in their optimistic and arrogant conviction that they know best how to fix the world once and for all. Doom, of a sort, is inevitable (as Spengler suggests) precisely because the world changes. The old ways of life are under constant attack from the new, and for those who feel as if their own values have been pushed aside and undermined by newly emerging cultural forces, it can feel as if everything is coming to an end. And in a way, it is. Nothing stays the same, we can’t stop the forward motion of time, and we all are going to die. These are painful facts that are difficult to come to terms with, and I sympathize with those who are troubled by them.

But I don’t sympathize with arrogance. Socrates taught us that the highest wisdom consists in knowing that you don’t know everything, and this is a lesson that “conservative revolutionaries” (and utopians of all types, both on the right and the left) either never learned or have forgotten. In their conceit, this type never seems satisfied with just expressing their fear, sadness and mournfulness for a lost past. Instead, they optimistically try to put their ideas into action, making “the leap from cultural criticism to politics” (p. 327). In this, they hope to change the world for the better, but ironically, again and again, they seem to end up making the world worse than it was before.

I once told my wife that the shoddiest kinds of politicians are also artists. Artists are used to molding various raw materials, according to their own will, into a unique vision of aesthetic perfection. When this mentality is translated into political action, it easily becomes oppressive, totalitarian and unhinged from reality. Contrary to Langbehn and Moeller, I think artists are very poor models for political leaders.

Business people are probably even worse.

 

The Affirmation of Life

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!

 

Cinematic Nihilism Presentation at College of Marin

On October 26th I delivered a presentation on my new book, Cinematic Nihilism, at the College of Marin. This video of the presentation is about 56 minutes long and includes a group discussion at the end. Thanks to David Patterson, who both organized and filmed the event, as well as to everyone who attended!

Porno

I have gained a great deal of mischievous glee from telling people that lately I have spent a lot of time reading Porno. Responses to my confession have ranged from amused laugher to uncomfortable embarrassment. Upon telling this to my sister-in-law, she awkwardly wondered if I meant that I had been studying scholarly commentary on pornography. “No,” I answered. “I’ve just been looking at page after page of Porno.”

Everyone seems relieved when I go on to explain that Porno is the title of Irvine Welsh’s nearly 500 page sequel to his book Trainspotting. This, apparently, makes things more respectable, though if they were familiar with the book’s content, they might still be prone to blush. Porno is filled with explicit scenes of drug use, violence and descriptions of just about every kind of sex act that you could imagine. If books required ratings, it would earn an NC-17.

Porno is the source material for the recently released movie T2: Trainspotting, although the actual similarities between book and film are very slim. Both pick up the story of Renton, Sick-Boy, Spud and Begbie after the events of Trainspotting, but whereas the film rejoins the characters about 20 years later, the book takes place about 10 years after Renton has ripped off his buddies. The film highlights Renton, the most likable of the characters, while the book focuses more attention on Sick-Boy, perhaps the least likeable of the crew, who now prefers to be called by his given name, Simon. And while in the book the plot is driven by Simon’s plan to make and market a porno movie, in the film it is his plan to open a brothel that is central. Overall, the film and book are more different than they are similar, with the film, I think, being the superior piece of work.

The main failing of Welsh’s novel lies in how scattered and disjointed its episodes are. It is not that the book is uninteresting or boring, but rather that there are too many threads that never get tied together or fully resolved. While in the film all of the various stories have a purpose and place in the overall plot, in the book many of these same story lines are initiated, but then go nowhere, getting dropped as if they were unimportant. And this is disappointing; particularly in the case of Spud, whose failed effort to write and publish a history of Leith is transformed in the film into a really fascinating subplot that reveals important aspects of Spud’s personality, Begbie’s personality, and even, perhaps, the personality of Irvine Welsh himself. In the film, Spud’s writing project is not a history of Leith at all, but appears to be the beginning of what will eventually become the book Trainspotting. In this it is suggested that it is Spud (and not Renton) who is Welsh’s real alter ego. In Porno, nothing comes of Spud’s writing, and this intriguing subplot just fizzles, as does the subplot having to do with Renton’s troubled relationship with his Dutch girlfriend, Begbie’s inner struggles with his masculinity, and Dianne’s struggle to complete her dissertation. The film does a better job of tying up the various story threads by eliminating the superfluous ones and more deeply developing and tying together the really interesting ones.

I do love the fact that Porno begins with a quote from Nietzsche: “Without cruelty there is no festival…” This gives us an initial philosophical articulation of Welsh’s literary strategy, which is to explore and celebrate his characters by following them through the gutter, taking cruel joy in describing their participation in acts of debased sex, substance abuse and senseless violence. It is all of these things that I want in a novel about my favorite Scottish hooligans. But now that they are in their 30’s, there is a danger that they might start to grow out of their old ways. Awareness of growing old is one of the major themes in Porno, but we soon find that despite the characters’ recognition that they are no longer kids, their general patterns of behavior have not really changed. Sick Boy is still a schemer, a drug addict and an exploiter of women. The only difference is that now he fancies himself an artist, who uses his charms to make “erotic” adult entertainment. Begbie, who has just been released from prison for manslaughter, is still a thug who thinks himself superior to heroin junkies, even though his addiction to violence is perhaps even more destructive than his friends’ substance abuse. Spud now has a son, but he still cannot break his drug habit, even though it is ruining everything. All of these characters have, in a sense, started to experience the challenges of adulthood (career, prison, fatherhood), but they seem not to have learned anything, and so they endlessly repeat their past mistakes in ways that are at once revolting and hilarious. And this is precisely why I feel personally drawn to their stories. I take perverse pleasure in laughing at them, while also sympathizing with their struggles and rooting for them to overcome their defects, even though I know that they won’t.

Renton is the most sympathetic of the group, and in both the book and the film he seems to be the only one who has matured to any degree at all. He has moved away from the UK, starting a career overseas, kicking heroin, embarking on a program of physical exercise and developing a concern for his health. It soon becomes clear, however, that even in his case, he can’t resist the temptation of being drawn back into the seedy world that he fled from. He once again becomes entangled in the schemes of Sick Boy, he can’t turn his back on the self-destructive Spud, and ultimately he can’t resist the urge once again to scam his pals out of money. All the while, he anxiously tries to avoid running into Begbie, who wants to murder him.

It is the absurdity of it all that is both so funny and disturbing. I, for one, sympathize with many of the anti-establishment sentiments of the central protagonists, and in reading Welsh’s book, I find a bit of myself reflected in the histrionics, the dramas, as well as in the proclamations and smug decrees made by the book’s characters. At the same time that I see hypocrisy in each of them, I’m reminded of the same hypocrisy in myself as well. For instance, Sick-Boy’s closing monologue, as he sits next to Begbie’s hospital bed, sent a shiver of self-recognition through me:

I believe in the class war. I believe in the battle of the sexes. I believe in my tribe. I believe in the righteous, intelligent clued-up section of the working classes against the brain-dead moronic masses as well as the mediocre, soulless bourgeoisie. I believe in punk rock. In Northern Soul. In acid house. In mod. In rock n roll. I also believe in pre-commercial righteous, rap and hip hop. That’s been my manifesto. (p. 483)

In reading this I tremble in self-serious accord; and then I am reminded that not only are the characters laughable, but so am I.

There are some of us who criticize the pointlessness of capitalism and of consumer culture while still participating in patterns of behavior that reinforce empty and meaningless excess, indulgence and consumption. “Cigarettes, alcohol, heroin, cocaine, speed, poverty and media mind-fucking: capitalism’s weapons of destruction are more subtle and effective than Nazism’s and he’s powerless against them,” (p. 384) Renton says of Spud at one point. But he is really talking about himself and all of the rest of us who express antiestablishment sentiments while still participating in ways of life that are no less absurd than anyone else’s.

People are trapped, as Renton says, “consuming shite that does them no good at all, often just because they can.” (p. 408) The “shite” he is referring to could be drugs, porn, consumer products, poetry, literature, violence, movies, fame, power, a career, or a family. The absurd tragedy of it all is that even though nothing is all that important, you have to do something to fill up the time that you are alive. Heroin or fine wine? Porn or fine art? Punk rock or symphony orchestras? Anarchy or totalitarianism? Communism or Capitalism? The freedom to choose is endless.

Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin? (Trainspotting, 1996)

The Eternal Return

The Nihilist’s Notebook is a collection of essays, stories and comics that I published in 1996. It is currently out of print, and so I have been asked if I would scan and post it online. I am going to try and do so in the near future, but in the meantime here is a comic to whet your appetites: