It looks like people are already getting all worked up over nothing!
It was a library of death. Corridors leading nowhere were lined with thousands of urns containing human cremains, stacked side-by-side like books on a shelf. Some of the urns were accompanied by portraits: pictures of couples when they were young paired with pictures of the same couples when they had reached old age. In one of the spaces there was a small statue of a boat piloted by the grim reaper. In another there was a Father’s Day tribute to someone’s long dead dad, expressing how much he was missed.
And then, juxtaposed with all this gloomy seriousness, there were musicians. They were tucked into various nooks and corners within this labyrinth, playing up-beat folk music, experimental electronic music, singing choral pieces. There was a theremin. There were horns and drums. As we rounded each corner, aimlessly wandering and browsing, we would stumble upon yet another performer, surrounded by onlookers, crowded so thick that it was often difficult to even see who was making the music.
This was the Garden of Memory, a yearly event held at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, CA in celebration of the Summer Solstice. The Chapel of the Chimes was founded in 1909, and still serves as a crematorium and as a columbarium; a place where the ashes of the dead are housed and memorialized. The idea to use this as a setting for an avant garde musical event was hatched in 1995 by a writer for the East Bay Express newspaper, and now thousands of people flock here to wander the hallways, socialize and listen to strange music each summer.
My wife and I attended this event for the first time this year at the suggestion of a friend. When it was first described it to us, I was a bit dumbfounded. What a strange idea for a concert! I couldn’t image that this would be the sort of thing that would attract many people, given the macabre setting. I supposed that, since most people like to avoid thinking too much about death and mortality, this would be the sort of thing that maybe a handful of folks would find freakishly appealing. But in fact, on this particular day it seems that the living outnumbered the dead at the Chapel of the Chimes.
As might be expected, alternative and hipster types were present in large numbers. There was a legion of Dr. Marten boots, lots of unnaturally colored hair, tattoos and piercings. There were big bushy beards on many of the young men, and dreadlocks on many of the young women. But there were also lots of children, senior citizens and just plain normal looking middle-aged folks. It was a far more culturally diverse crowd than I would have expected to find at an experimental music concert held in a crematorium!
As the three of us wandered about the event for two and a half hours, I began to realize that the music all around was acting like a buffer keeping the omnipresent reminders of death comfortably at bay. We would watch some musicians and then peruse some of the urns. Our conversations would turn to the topic of our own deaths, and then we would be distracted by the sounds of a flurry of horns. Wandering down a corridor lined with memorial plaques, we would meditate on human finitude, and then emerge into a crowd of people, appreciatively taking in the sounds of an amplified guitar. This quick and continuing fluctuation between images of death and life ultimately left me with a feeling of calm. Looking around me – at my wife, my friend, the thousands of strangers among whom we were engulfed – I had a sense of how all of us, packed into this building devoted to death, shared the same condition. We all will eventually die, and this might be a something like a preview of what it looks like in the afterlife.
I came across Bryan Magee’s book, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, in a particularly touching way. The librarian at my school, John, was friends with a philosopher from Seattle who had died suddenly. Lacking any close family, it was left to John to take care of his friend’s meagre estate, which consisted of few things other than a small library of books. John called to tell me that his friend would have wanted these books passed along to people who would appreciate them, and so I ended up with this volume on Schopenhauer, as well as another one dealing with the philosophy of humor. Though I never knew the original owner, I still feel a real sense of privilege to have this artifact handed down to me. It makes me feel connected, by philosophical interest, to a person I never met. Philosophy has that power.
The book itself is a thorough and very sympathetic account of Arthur Schopenhauer’s life, his philosophy and his intellectual effect on others. It consists of two main sections: the first is a comprehensive account of Schopenhauer’s philosophical system, while the second consists of a series of appendices detailing Schopenhauer’s influence on such figures as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Mann and many more.
Schopenhauer is a thinker who I was never introduced to by my teachers while studying philosophy. I first learned of his ideas on my own through reading Nietzsche (another thinker avoided by most of my teachers), who accepted the Schopenhauerian worldview while rejecting his “pessimism.” I put pessimism in scare quotes, because Magee makes the point early on in his book that there really is nothing inherently pessimistic in Schopenhauer’s philosophy as such:
“Non-pessimism is equally compatible with his philosophy. The traditional identification of him in terms of his pessimism is largely irrelevant to a serious consideration of him as a philosopher: I am tempted to say that this is a view of his writings which leaves his philosophy out.” (p. 13)
Magee’s point is that the “pessimism” of Schopenhauer is a psychological aspect of the man, not of his philosophical system. Indeed, his philosophy itself shares many things in common with religious systems like Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which offer paths toward the successful reconciliation of human-being with ultimate reality; hardly a pessimistic message. So although Schopenhauer himself uses vocabulary that suggests a rather dark and despairing orientation toward the wold, one could accept all that Schopenhauer describes while still remain cheery and optimistic – or just “agnostic” – in one’s attitude. In fact, as noted above, that is precisely what Nietzsche did.
Personally, while I understand that many people are resistant to pessimism, and that many regard it as a term of criticism when leveled against philosophical belief systems, I am not one of them. Pessimism is actually preferable in my mind to the sort of blind and vapid optimism that many people seem to accept as an unquestioned “good,” and which is generally encouraged and considered the sign of a healthy mind. To me, pessimism can very often be realistic and more sensitive to the world’s actual suffering than shallow optimism. In fact, I prefer sensitive and caring pessimists to insensitive and uncaring optimists who think that just by putting on a happy face, everything will be alright! So while I appreciate Magee’s point about Schopenhauer’s own pessimistic personality, I also think it unnecessary to defend his philosophy against it.
It is refreshing to read a book by someone who enthusiastically embraces the philosophy that he is writing about, and Magee is certainly an author who deals with the content of Schopenhauer’s ideas in a wonderfully personal, passionate, detailed and, at many points, surprising way. Beginning with Schopenhauer’s early work, as contained in On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, and devoting most space to an analysis of The World as Will and Representation, Magee goes on to place Schopenhauer within a philosophical tradition of modern, western philosophers working through the implications of Kantian philosophy. The thinkers in this tradition, he emphasizes, exist in the shadow of Descartes, who Schopenhauer thought was an important philosopher for three reasons: 1) He rejected external authority as validation for his arguments; 2) He established that “objective” reality is far less certain than “subjective” experience; 3) He formulated the central issue of modern philosophy in asking “What can I know? And how can I know what I know?” (p. 57) Schopenhauer’s own engagement with these issues led him on a path culminating in the construction of a grand, transcendental idealist system that, while resembling religious doctrines from the east, was developed (Magee argues) independent of those doctrines. The fact that his philosophy shares such a close affinity with ideas from Hinduism and Buddhism, while being developed from a western perspective, suggests, perhaps, that there is something transcultural about the truths articulated by Schopenhauer.
The transcendental idealist position holds that our understanding of reality is constituted by the mental imposition of a priori conceptual categories upon the data of perception. This is in contrast to the empiricist claim that our understanding of reality is built directly from perceptions, and that the way the world appears to us is (in some way, shape, or form) indicative of the way the world really is objectively. Transcendental idealists, however, dispute that the “objective” world could possibly be anything like our perceptions. Since the categories of our minds actively mold, shape, organize, and indeed distort, perceptual data into a subjective world of lived experience, our subjective world is of necessity different from the world as it is in-itself independent of our experience. This is the fundamental distinction that Kant insisted upon – and that Schopenhauer applauded – between the noumenal and the phenomenal realms. Our experienced, phenomenal reality is a product of the mind’s interpretive powers, and since we cannot step outside of our own minds, we cannot step out of the phenomenal world. And since we cannot step outside of our phenomenal world, there is no possible way for us to know anything about the “objective,” noumenal world that exists independently of us. According to the transcendental idealist, trying to know what objective reality is like independent of our mental interpretations would be like trying to know what the world really looks like independent of our eyes.
One of the key issues that Magee devotes a great deal of attention to in his book is the charge, promoted by empirical philosophers, that transcendental idealism culminates in solipsism; the view that the world is simply the product of the mind. In solipsism, the objective world evaporates altogether, leaving us with nothing more than mind dependent appearances. As Magee tells us, “I have often heard professional philosophers in Britain, including gifted ones, assert that according to transcendental idealism ‘everything exists in the mind, or in minds’ or ‘existence is mental.’ This is a radical error.” (p. 73) The reason why this is an erroneous view is very simple. Both Kant and Schopenhauer clearly recognize the need for some sort of independently existing, objective realm in order to provoke the mind to engage in the process of conceptual interpretation. Knowledge requires both subject and object. Thus, neither of these thinkers deny the existence of an extra-mental world; only that we can ever know that world independent of our thinking about it. Transcendental idealists don’t claim that the objective world does not exist. They only deny that we have direct access to it, or that our subjective understanding of objective reality bears any resemblance to the world of uninterpreted reality. Like the Hindus, they claim that there is a perpetual “veil” of illusion hiding the true nature of the universe from us.
Kant referred to the objective world that exists independent of human thought as the Ding-an-Sich (Thing-in-itself). Schopenhauer’s own system puts “the will” in its place; a development that Magee claims is an improvement, drawing out certain implications of Kantian philosophy that Kant himself did not fully realize. According to Schopenhauer, the objective, noumenal world cannot be, as Kant claimed, a thing at all. Rather, it must be an unbroken unity possessing no parts or boundaries whatsoever. Since the existence of things comes about only by way of the mind’s imposition of time and space upon the the raw data of perception, “things” only exist in the phenomenal, time and space bound world of human interpretation. Independent of that world, the very idea of a “thing” ceases to make sense, and if this is the case, then noumenal reality must be a realm in which there are no distinctions, no boundaries, no divisions. It must be unbroken and singular. According to Schopenhauer, the will is the substance that best embodies these characteristics.
When we aim our attention outwards, using the physical senses, we encounter the will through three filters of interpretation: 1) Time 2) Space and 3) Causality. The phenomenal world that is built out of sensory data is a world of things, located in time and space, interacting with one another according to the laws of cause and effect. However, when we turn our attention inward, toward consciousness itself, we bypass two of these mind-dependent filters, encountering reality more directly, through the single filter of inner time consciousness. It is in this manner, by reflecting on the interior movement and force of thought itself, that we come as close as possible to a direct encounter with the noumenal realm. And it is there that we discover the will, pulsing with primal ferocity.
Magee tells us that Schopenhauer knows he has not deductively “proved” the equation of the will and noumenal reality. That sort of demonstration is, in principle, impossible when discussing matters relating to the objective world as it exists independent of the human understanding. However, Schopenhauer thinks he has offered good reasons for accepting his doctrine, and that by directing readers inward, he has, in a sense, taken us by the hand to show how we may make the same sort of discovery that he himself has made: turn inward and you yourself will confront the will, a vital force of energy, which constitutes the underlying and unitary foundation of all existence. “The whole universe is the objectification of this force.” (p. 139)
Although Schopenhauer is clear that it is not an anthropomorphic entity, Magee suggests that his choice of this term “will” to designate noumenal reality has led precisely to this sort of misunderstanding:
“He has given it the name ‘will’ for no other reason than that the nearest we as experiencing subjects can come to a direct apprehension of it is through manisfestation of primal energy that each one of us experiences in inner sense as the ordinary drive of life, the ongoing thrust, however weak, of being alive…” (p. 142)
Nonetheless, confusion has occurred, and Magee tells us that occult readings of Schopenhauer abound in which the will is construed as some sort of spiritual world consciousness rather than as the aimless force of energy that Schopenhauer intended. This force manifests in its most complicated form as human consciousness, but it is human consciousness that is the product of will, not the other way around. Gravity, minerals, plants and animals are also products of the primal will, and so it is a mistake to think of will as equivalent to our own human experience of it. In human consciousness, the will gains its most complicated – and thus its most tortured – objectification. But, Schopenhauer insists, such consciousness is continuous with the rest of nature, and not qualitatively different from other non-consicous manifestations. The will, as it exists independent of human consciousness, is timeless and spaceless. It does not think or feel or care. It simply pulses and moves, endlessly objectifying itself in all of the manifestations that comprise the natural world. There is nothing supernatural or spiritual about it at all. The world as will has no ultimate meaning or purpose. It is simply a blind force of energetic striving.
“Bleak, bleak, bleak!” some say, and Schopenhauer does not disagree. He writes:
“life is deeply steeped in suffering, and cannot escape from it; our entrance to it takes place amid tears, at bottom its course is always tragic, and its end more so.” (p. 220)
Magee, as mentioned above, thinks it a mistake to equate Schopenhauer’s philosophy with pessimism. However, the philosopher himself did draw this very implication. Human life, being one of many manifestations of a blind, senseless will, is spent perpetuating itself for no other reason than that it must express itself, the way that electricity must conduct down a wire. This is the will to life, and Schopenhauer sees in this drive the root of our suffering. We take up projects, anxiously pursuing them until we fall into boredom upon their completion, at which time we anxiously take up other projects. The will to life, then, consists of a never ending vacillation between anxiety and boredom. The only types of consolation that are available to us, according to Schopenhauer, are aesthetic experiences in which we lose ourselves for a finite period of time by being absorbed into the rhythms of music or getting lost in the scenery of a painting. Sex also offers escape. But all of these distractions are only temporary. Songs come to an end; we must eventually turn away from paintings; sexual acts can’t go on forever.
You might think suicide would be an option, but surprisingly Schopenhauer councils against it, seeing suicide as “a form of aggression and quite specifically an assertion of self-will.” (p 222) In suicide there is no escape from suffering, but the aggravation of it, as the suicide must anxiously will him or herself to commit the act in the first place. And once dead, the will that was manifest in the body is reunited with the primal, universal will once more to become objectified to suffer yet again.
The only real escape comes through turning against the will to life through aseticism. In this, a person ceases to desire altogether, and like in Buddhism and Hinduism, becomes reconciled with the impermanent nature of the universe. But this cannot be accomplished through willing it to be. The will to life must evaporate through an understanding of the ultimate nothingness of our world. When we come to realize that no-thing is ultimately real or important, then the chains that bind us are slackened and we find ourselves melting away into the buzzing backdrop that is the universe, feeling no separation, no distinction between ourselves and all the other manifestations that arise out of the noumena. We realize that everything is, at its foundation, one. Once this is understood, then there is no need for further painful striving.
Is this pessimism? If it is, it seems to me no more or less pessimistic than Buddhism or Hinduism, systems which, apparently, many people find comforting and consoling. So maybe pessimism, despite the complaints of Magee, is not such a terrible thing.
I enjoyed reading The Philosophy of Schopenhauer a great deal. Magee’s treatment of this man’s philosophy is careful, sympathetic and very thorough. But beyond this, I found it extremely edifying to read a book concerned with themes of universal unity while actually experiencing a sense of connectedness with three philosophers – Schopenhauer, Magee, and the original owner of this book – who I have never met.
In philosophy, we all share something in common.
Friedrich Nietzsche delineates three stages of sacrificial behavior. The first stage consists of the sacrifice of particular human beings to a god. The second stage involves the sacrifice of one’s own instincts to a god, and the third stage culminates in the sacrifice of God himself. This last stage describes the death of God and signals the “final cruelty” of our present times. Our age is the age of nihilism, the point in history during which humans “sacrifice God for the nothing,” fulfilling a kind of nihilistic sacrifice.
In this paper I examine three different cinematic depictions of sacrifice, two of which clearly illustrate Nietzsche’s first two stages and the last of which suggests the possibility of the third, nihilistic stage. The films I have selected all share a common thread insofar as they all take place in Scotland. The first two films, The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973) and Breaking the Waves (Lars Von Trier, 1996), take place in rural, northern Scotland, capitalizing on what scholars have called the myths of Tartantry and the Kailyard in order to depict sacrifice as something disengaged from the modern world. The third film, NEDs (Peter Mullan, 2010), takes place in modern Glasgow and draws on a myth that scholars call Clydesideism. This myth highlights the postindustrial, gritty, urban face of Scotland. In NEDs, the sacrifice made by the main character is of a sort thinkable only in modern times and in an urban setting, and it comes very close to what may be a kind of nihilistic sacrifice.
While in Scotland I delivered my presentation, “Scotland as a Site of Sacrifice” twice: once to the faculty of film studies at the downtown campus of Glasgow University and then to the department of interdisciplinary studies at the Dumfries campus. The experience was very positive, and it was a wonderful chance to meet a number of scholars whose works have contributed to my understanding of Scotland and its depiction in film; scholars such as David Martin-Jones, Ian Goode, David Archibald, Karen Lury, Benjamin Franks and Stuart Hanscombe.
Glasgow University was founded in 1451, making it the fourth oldest university in the English speaking world. The main campus is awe-inspiring. There is a tall, gothic spire visible from the distance, and the main building around which the rest of the school is centered looks like a castle. I delivered my paper in Gilmorehill Hall. From the outside it, like the main building, looks like a structure from the ancient past. Once you step inside, however, the place is completely modern, with a state-of-the-art movie theater, glass enclosed offices, and classrooms outfitted with full technology.
The Dumfries campus is unusual in that its grounds are shared with the University of West Scotland, Dumfries and Galloway College and the Open University. The whole campus is referred to as “The Chrichton,” which caused me some confusion when I was trying to find it. The idea behind this arrangement was to bring higher education to a region that previously had no established universities or colleges. Although Dumfries is only about two hours south of Glasgow, the town is small and most of the surrounding areas are rural, consisting of farmland, sheep pastures and ruins. This entire southern area of Scotland is referred to as the Dumfries/Galloway region.
The Chrichton, like the main campus of University of Glasgow, is home to some amazing buildings. The most impressive is a gothic church called the Chrichton Memorial Church, which was completed in 1897. It stands in the middle of the campus, commanding your attention as you approach. This is the sort of structure that I always imagined as the anchor point of an old and respected educational institution; and it is a far cry from what I’ve become used to on the west coast of the US where most things are temporary and impermanent. There is something comforting about a campus where you know that the buildings have been around for a long time and that they won’t disappear tomorrow. It makes me think, in contrast, of my own school, the College of Marin, which is currently undergoing a radical transformation with most of the old edifices being torn down and shiny, new, modern ones being put up.
I delivered my presentation first at the downtown campus and then drove south to Dumfries the following week. This gave me the opportunity for a road trip during which I stopped along the way to explore some of the locations where the classic 1973 British film The Wicker Man had been filmed. My presentation deals with this movie extensively, and so this was a terrific chance to do some on-the-ground research that would enrich my understanding of how the actual geography of Scotland is related to its cinematic representation.
Renting a car, I followed the A77 down the west coast, and as I ventured further and further into this area, I developed an increasing sense of an ancient past that has not yet been overwritten by modern influences. I could imagine that the people populating many of these small towns and rural villages live lives in many ways similar in daily rhythm to their forefathers: fishing, ranching, herding sheep, going to church. As always, the driech, grey and drizzly weather contributed a dreary backdrop to the scenery, helping me to feel like there was something mysterious and a bit sad about the landscape.
My first stop was Culzean Castle, which served as the exterior for Lord Summerisle’s residence in The Wicker Man. The castle itself was closed when I arrived, but the grounds were open, so I wandered around taking in the spectacular ocean vistas and surveying the castle and its gardens. As I walked up to the structure, I immediately remembered the scene from The Wicker Man when Sgt. Howie meets Lord Summerisle at his home. The approach to the castle is exactly reproduced in the film, and being there gave me a weird feeling like fantasy was blending into reality. It was beautiful, majestic and a bit spooky all at once.
I had booked a room in the coastal town of Portpatrick, so this was my stop-off point at the end of the first day. A storm was kicking up by the time I arrived, and the shoreline was a maelstrom of waves crashing against black rocks while rain poured down from the sky. The middle of winter is not the tourist season here, and yet I found myself feeling supremely happy that I was able to see this place under these conditions. As I stood by the shoreline, I was mesmerized by the chaos of the ocean and invigorated by the wind and pelting rain. A Scottish flag, planted in a hill of rocks by the harbor, flapped and snapped in the squall. There was no doubt about the fact that I was in Scotland, the severe, cold wilderness to the north of England.
The next morning I hit the road, this time traveling east on the A75. I dropped south onto 747 so that I could visit St. Ninian’s Cave and Burrow Head, both of which served as locations for the filming of The Wicker Man. The route southwards is very narrow and a bit treacherous. I think I probably pissed off many of the locals with how slow I was driving, but the last thing I wanted to do was to end up careening off of the side of the road and into a ditch, so I continued on at a snail’s pace to Whithorn, where I saw a sign directing me to my next stop.
The finale of The Wicker Man occurs when the character Sgt. Howie is lured to a rocky beach where he finds the young girl he has been searching for throughout the film. She is standing in the mouth of a cave, which in reality is St. Ninian’s Cave. The location is reached by way of a mile-long walk down a pathway that starts in a cow pasture, goes through a forested area, past a sign warning of dangerous bulls and ends up on the beach. When I arrived at the trailhead, the rain was coming down and I had to trudge through the mud in order to reach my destination. At first I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place as there are no signs directing you to the cave once you hit the shoreline. I looked about and finally found it. In reality it is less like a true cave and more like an indented opening in the rock cliff next to the water.
It was an unexpectedly moving experience coming to this place. St. Ninian is credited with being the first person to bring Christianity to Scotland sometime around 400 AD. The cave is supposed to have been where he prayed on a regular basis and now, in addition to being a film location, it serves as a point of pilgrimage for the faithful. All around the entrance lie religious mementos: crosses, rocks inscribed with prayers, memorials for dead loved ones, and flowers. This is obviously a meaningful place for many folks, connecting them with a man from hundreds of years ago who devoted his life to his religious mission. It makes sense that this was chosen by the makers of The Wicker Man as a spot in which to depict a confrontation between paganism and Christianity, as both world views really did encounter one another here.
Continuing south, my next stop before heading for Dumfries was Burrow Head. Burrow Head is now a caravan park, perched right next to the water, and it is where the final burning of the wicker man took place. I immediately recognized the location when I arrived. A grass lined path leads down a small hill to a clearing, encircled by jagged rocks and crashing ocean waves. In the film, this is where the villagers stand as they watch the burning of their sacrifice on the hill above. Apparently there were three wicker men built for the movie, only one which was ignited. The remains on the shore are those of an unburned wicker man. Although the only things left are two wooden posts embedded in concrete, I still felt a surge of excitement as I reflected on the fact that this was where Christopher Lee argued about the nature of sacrifice with Edward Woodward before committing him to flames in the movie. Here was a not so ancient artifact, marking the landscape discreetly, but nonetheless acting as a significant reminder to visitors of how human beings feel compelled to alter their environment as they make things and engage in existential projects. I must confess that these two posts, despite their plain and simple appearance, were no less remarkable to me than Culzean Castle or St. Ninian’s Cave.
My own Wicker Man pilgrimage was completed by passing through Creetown and Castle Douglas, two more places that served as sites for the making of the movie, before heading off for two nights in Dumfries. After my presentation, I departed northwards, and back toward the west coast for a two night stay on the Isle of Arran. The trip requires a ferry ride, and though Arran is not a complete backwater, there is a feeling of relative isolation that comes from being on an island that is sparsely populated and separated from the mainland.
Arran is not a big island. It only takes a few hours to drive its circumference, and over the course of that drive most of what you see are sheep, ocean views, and collections of buildings too small to be called villages. I stopped along the east coast in order to take a hike across a sheep pasture to visit an ancient set of artifacts, dating to some 2000 years BC, which stretch out along a protected pathway in the middle of a flat moor. Along the path are a number of “cairns,” or burial sites where ancient tribe leaders have been layed to rest. Each cairn is marked by a ring of stones surrounding a mound of earth. As you continue along, there appear monoliths jutting up into the air in the near distance. These structures become more and more prominent as you advance, looming against the landscape like giant rock blades embedded in the earth. They are ancient pillars, placed in this location for reasons that no one is sure of, but which may have to do with the marking of tribal boundaries or with some sort of religious/cerimonial purpose. As with St. Ninian’s Cave and the wicker man legs at Burrow Head, there was something moving and sublime about these stones. They protrude into the air, standing about 15 ft tall, defying gravity as they jut upwards. Their stark, silent simplicity is dramatic and striking against the otherwise flat landscape. Here is a place where thousands of years ago people lived their lives, pursuing routines that modern humans can’t even understand. I felt a chill looking at this place, knowing that in the distant past there were human beings who methodically placed these monoliths here for some deliberate reason that is now lost. Today they still stand, for no utilitarian purpose other than for people like myself to gaze awestruck and to wonder why they are there.
This week-long adventure to the south of Scotland helped me to understand a number of things. Seeing these locations, walking around them, being in the spots where some of the key scenes from The Wicker Man were staged revealed how the actual geography of Scotland has contributed to the making of this modern cinematic masterpiece. My additional trip to Arran further helped to reinforce the sense of Scotland’s silent, mysterious and yet unmistakable prehistory. The legacy of human culture and religious practices here is ancient, going back to a time even before Christianity made its way to Britain. This landscape and the monuments that adorn it are reminders of the ongoing projects pursued by both prehistoric and contemporary humans.
In World War Z , an otherwise uninteresting and emotionally flat film, the most powerful and disturbing images are those that depict masses of zombies coming together as one enormous mass. Throughout the movie, these creatures rush forward like flooding water or armies of ants. They pile up on top of one another, obliterating all individuality and creating the appearance of undulating mounds. They flow in torrents, like lava, knocking over those obstacles that stand in their way. While normally I find computer animation much too artificial and clean to be truly horrifying, in this film the only feelings of horror that I experienced were precisely the result of these effects. What CGI has made possible in World War Z is the depiction of the human body as raw material on a massive scale.
There is a sense in which all horror might be thought of as derivative of this idea. In horror, there is usually a visceral component that engages with human embodiment and with our fears of death, dismemberment and the loss of bodily integrity. Juneko Robinson, in her paper Immanent Attack: An Existential Take on The Invasion of the Body Snatchers Films, makes this argument, claiming that the horror in the Body Snatcher films is connected to “motifs of engulfment and forced transformation.” (p. 25) Images of human bodies mutating, losing form and melding with other bodies produce in us feelings of horror precisely because they challenge our sense of individual uniqueness and dignity. Such imagery reminds us of our brute, physical, bodily nature, which is governed not by intellect and free will, but by the natural forces of cause and effect. It is horrific to think of ourselves as “things” that can be torn asunder and utilized for purposes that have nothing at all to do with our own personal desires.
The masses of dead bodies discovered by the allied forces in Nazi death camps are the closest real-life equivalents to the masses of zombies depicted in World War Z. The two main differences of course are that: 1) the bodies in the death camps were real; and 2) the bodies in the death camps did not move and attack others. In a horror movie, part of what makes the imagery entertaining is the assurance that what is being depicted is a fantasy. So while looking at photos of death camps is simply depressing and repulsive, looking at images of zombies is somehow enjoyable. While such images are frightening, disgusting and awful, they are also spellbinding. They absorb our attention while also provoking a visceral feeling of horror. Robinson offers a possible explanation for this strange ambivalence toward such depictions when she notes that while engulfment and transformation are frightening, they are also associated with feelings of awe and transcendence. The same awe-inspiring sense of being overwhelmed is described by Immanuel Kant in his book The Critique of Judgment as the experience of the “sublime.” When encountered in this manner, loss of individual identity has a positive cast to it, being associated with wholeness, connection and unity. In the encounter with the sublime, we move beyond the confines of our separate and finite experience of reality, moving instead in the direction of the infinite. This is the path toward God, Being and Totality.
So it seems thaty while depictions of the human body as raw material are horrifying, they may also potentially provoke other sorts of feelings. Such depictions can provoke sexual arousal (as in porn films), curiosity (as in documentary and instructional films), awe (as in religious depictions), and even humor. Commonly, more than one of these reactions is provoked at a time. So, for instance, in World War Z, there is a sense of horror mixed with sublime awe concerning the flowing tide of thousands of zombie bodies. On a smaller scale, in a film like The Human Centipede, horror is mixed with curiosity about the medical possibilities of surgically joining three bodies, mouth to anus. (The film was advertised as “100% medically accurate.”) Horror and humor co-mingle and become confused in Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, a film in which body parts pile up to such ridiculous extremes that all sense of individual identity gets forgotten. Then there is the unsettling mix of sex, horror, humor, and history in a film like Caligula where human bodies are sexually used, abused and dismembered in all sorts of inventive and creative ways. In Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, one human body is subjected to more than two hours of torture for both horrifying and religious effect. In all of these films, the dramatic results are achieved – at least in large part – by means of the human body being treated as a “thing,” an object that can be manipulated, stimulated, torn asunder or sewn together like any other objectively present “thing” in the world. In this, the potentiality of the human body as raw material for any sort project, good or bad, is revealed.
In his writings, Friedrich Nietzsche consistently criticizes Buddhism, condemning it as a “nihilistic” belief system, and yet he also refers to himself as the “Buddha of Europe.” On certain points, the thoughts of Nietzsche come very close to articulating some of the same insights voiced by Siddhartha Gautama thousands of years earlier; particularly on topics such as the impermanence of the world and the rejection of substance ontology. On other points, such as his advocacy of self-assertion and the will-to-life, Nietzsche defines himself in direct opposition to The Buddha. So, what is the connection between Nietzsche and Buddhism? This complicated and sometimes confusing relationship is explored in close and subtle detail by Antoine Panaïoti in his new book Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy.
Panaïoti’s book is a version of his doctoral dissertation, written while he was a student at Cambridge University, but this should not scare potential readers off since there is nothing overly technical or difficult about the text. It is clearly written, well researched and easy to read. An interest in the subject matter is all that is necessary before diving into and enjoying this study.
Panaïoti’s initiating insight is that the fundamental connection between Nietzschean philosophy and Buddhism stems from their shared concern with the problem of nihilism. While the concept of “nihilism” is itself a complicated and difficult topic, Panaïoti summarizes the problem as one in which the world of becoming is viewed as both “unreal” and “not good.” (p. 21) In the thinking of the nihilist, the impermanent and changing world of flux that is apparent to our senses is neither real nor good precisely because it is not stable and permanent. A stable and permanent realm would be the only one that measures up to the nihilist’s standards for a “real” world; a world which Nietzsche and Panaïoti refer to as the wahre Welt (German for “true world”). Since such a “true world” apparently does not exist, the nihilist responds either by condemning all of reality as “not good” or by positing the existence of an unapparent world that is unseen and hidden, but valuable because it is eternal and unchanging.
This latter maneuver is an act of ressentiment against reality. While it is an attempt to move beyond nihilism, from the perspective of those like Nietzsche and Siddhartha who claim that the world really is characterized by impermanence, it is also an illusion (or as Panaïoti claims a delusion) that distracts us from the actual nature of reality. By looking for the “truth” in some hidden, illusory realm, humans delude themselves and ultimately waste their lives hunting after phantasms and “spooks” (a term that Max Stirner playfully utilizes in his classic work The Ego and Its Own) rather than learning to embrace the world for what it is: a process of never-ending flux and change.
The problem that concerns both Nietzsche and Buddhists, then, is the problem of how to overcome aversion to an impermanent world in which nothing – including the “self” – remains stable. How is it that one can move beyond the crisis of nihilism, avoid ressentiment and salvage a sense of value and worth while still affirming a world that is neither constant nor lasting? Panaïoti argues that this is where the connection between Nietzscheanism and Buddhism lies, and it is in their responses to this question where we find points both of overlap and of divergence. Ultimately, however, the author argues that Nietzscheanism is more like Buddhism than Nietzsche himself recognized. Both systems turn out to be paths toward a sort of “great health” that will dismantle the delusions of ressentiment, allowing us actively to affirm and embrace an impermanent world. They are both philosophies that strive to confront and solve the problem of nihilism not by denying reality, but by recognizing it for what it truly is.
When the supernatural realm of the gods (or God) is rejected as a delusion, then it is only in the non-supernatural world that we can seek justifications for life. For this reason Panaïoti argues that in both Buddhism and in Nietzsche’s philosophy an appeal is made to the this-worldly standard of “health” as the most appropriate goal of aspiration. When God has died, one must look for more natural criteria against which to make valuations if one is to continue to embrace life rather than retreating from it, and in both Buddhism and Nietzscheanism this is precisely what is done. While superficially it may appear that there is a conflict between Nietzsche’s admonition to make the world’s suffering “greater than ever” and the Buddha’s admonition to eliminate the world’s suffering altogether, Panaïoti argues that at a deeper level both individuals are actually concerned with a similar project: the project of making people so strong and healthy that they no longer perceive the obstacles, challenges and consequent sufferings that occur during the course of living life as objectionable.
This is the meaning of the Nietzschean aphorism, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” (Twilight of the Idols: 8) From the perspective of healthy strength, the struggles of life are embraced as a necessary part of self discovery and adventure. It is only from the perspective of unhealthy weakness that people recoil from life’s challenges and surprises, according to Nietzsche. What an unhealthy person experiences as vile torment, a healthy person experiences as affirmative and invigorating. This, according to Panaïoti, is a message that is also taught in Buddhism, where healthy compassion is encouraged as a means toward enlightenment. The term “compassion” literally means “to suffer with,” and thus this central Buddhist virtue requires an engagement with the suffering of others, not in order to condemn reality, but in order to learn how to embrace and affirm it. Ultimately, in the state of nirvana, the Buddhist finally attains a “great health” that experiences joy through compassion. Joy and suffering become one, just as Nietzsche also taught, when we are able to understand suffering as an opportunity for spiritual growth rather than as some sort of supernatural punishment. So it is that both The Buddha and Nietzsche offer a similar solution to the problem of nihilism. In a world of impermanence, where nothing lasts and everyone grows old, gets sick and dies, we need not recoil or retreat from life. If we learn to value the virtue of spiritual health in the way that others have chosen to value God or heavenly salvation, we might be able to embrace the challenges and obstacles of this world as opportunities that spur us on to become more vital, potent and robust.
In the conclusion of his book, Panaïoti proposes “a new response to the challenge of nihilism” modeled on the insights of both Buddhism and Nietzsche, which he calls “great health perfectionism.” (pp. 212 – 229) Great health perfectionism is a form of idealism that asserts “a distinctive ‘healthy type'” (p 218) as the goal of aspiration. This ideal healthy type is not conceptualized as a positive “Good,” however, but rather as involving the “recovery from illness.” (219) As such, it is a kind of negative ideal that tells us what to avoid so that we can move toward becoming more and more healthy. I detect an echo of Epicurus here, who held that pleasure is not a positive quality in human life, but something that is approximated by the progressive elimination of pain. This would dovetail quite well with the Buddhist directive to withdraw from the suffering and pain of the world, but Panaïoti insists that if we pair these insights with Nietzsche’s philosophy, great health perfectionism will emphasize the creative and active aspects of striving toward, rather than withdrawing from, the perfection of health. It will, thus, express an active rather than a reactive ideal. In great health perfectionism, we are encouraged to constantly strive toward health by constantly moving away from sickness. Since the targets by which we gain our bearings are moving ones, the author seems to be suggesting that his philosophy will help us come to terms with the reality of impermanence while avoiding the despair of meaninglessness.
While I love the bulk of Panaïoti’s book and admire his scholarship, I have two related criticisms that are focused on his concluding ideas. First of all, his “new response to the challenge of nihilism” sounds to me very much like ancient Stoicism, and thus I think it is not really a “new” response at all. Second, in appealing to the ideal of “great health,” it seems to me that Panaïoti is not so much offering a “response” to nihilism so much as he is articulating a perspective that demonstrates his own further entanglement in the dynamics of nihilism; a situation, which as I will explain below, I do not really object to since I see nihilism less as a problem to be solved and more as an underlying condition of human existence.
First let me address the point that the author’s suggestions are not really “new” but actually a reiteration of ancient Stoic ideas. As Panaïoti describes it, great health perfectionism directs us to embrace the world and all of its challenges as a necessary backdrop to life’s unfolding drama. Furthermore, great health perfectionism encourages us to engage the world ironically, like actors on a stage. As I act in the world, I should retain an ironic awareness that I am simply playing my role in life and that, for this reason, it is not really “me” that is doing the acting at all. Additionally, great health perfectionism is for everyone; slaves as well as masters. Thus is avoids the elitism of Nietzsche’s philosophy and embraces the call to compassion of Buddhist philosophy. But what Panaïoti describes here are just the suggestions of the ancient Stoics, and the reason why I suspect he has arrived back at this position is directly attributable to his Buddhist reading of Nietzsche. Nietzsche himself was an admirer of the Stoics, but he interpreted Stoic ideas (and the doctrine of amor fati in particular) as manifestations of the master mentality. What Panaïoti has done, by way of Buddhist interpretation, is to strip Nietzsche’s account of its elitism and once again make Stoic doctrines applicable to all people. In Panaïoti’s reading, amor fati is not exclusively for masters, but a doctrine for slaves as well. Consequently, he arrives at an egalitarian philosophy that closely resembles the original form of ancient Stoicism. What is new appears old again!
Whether it is actually “new” or not, in regard to its content Panaïoti asserts that the only really pressing objection to great health perfectionism is what he calls the “saintliness objection.” (p. 229) This is the objection that his proposed ideal is so ambitious that it is impossible to reach. He responds to this “pressing” objection by stating that such an unreachable ideal provides a goal for human striving, and thus it is not so bad that it is unreachable, since it provides a path for continued and ongoing human aspiration. This is the focus of my second criticism. If aspiration toward the impossible is not such a bad thing, then what is the problem with nihilism in the first place? Recall that the “crisis of nihilism” erupts when the apparent world is rejected in favor of an unapparent world. When we strive after abstractions at the cost of this world, we denigrate and belittle this world in favor of an illusion, or as Panaïoti calls it, a “delusion.” This is the root of ressentiment, and it is precisely this sort of delusion that great health perfectionism is intended to combat.
But any form of “perfectionism” is subject to the charge of ressentiment insofar as it posits the goal of a perfect ideal as worthy of aspiration rather than simply counseling us to affirm the concrete, non-ideal world that we live in. If the conundrum of nihilism is initiated when an abstract, non-apparent reality is elevated and affirmed as more real or valuable than our actual, concrete, apparent reality, then I fail to see how encouraging us to pursue the superlative goal of “great health” helps to alleviate ressentiment or the problem of nihilism at all. It seems only to reinscribe the challenge within another set of values. As De Beauvoir puts it in her book The Ethics of Ambiguity, the nihilist is essentially a frustrated idealist precisely because the nihilist has come to the realization that abstract perfection of any kind is an impossible goal. The only way to eradicate nihilism, then, is to dissolve any notion of the “ideal” and to live only according to the “real.” In order to overcome nihilism, we have to kill Plato.
I don’t want to kill Plato. I’ve come to embrace nihilism, and so I personally do not see it as something that necessarily needs to be “overcome” or as a problem that needs to be solved at all. As I argue in Laughing at Nothing, there is not necessarily anything undesirable or destructive about nihilism. Nihilism is a situation in which one constantly strives toward unreachable goals, and though this striving may be at times unpleasant, if we cultivate the ability to appreciate the incongruous and absurd struggles of life, we can extract some form of amused pleasure out of the process while participating in a kind of progress that is eternal and ongoing, but which does not ever reach a final termination point. Panaïoti’s “great health perfectionism” has just this sort of structure to it, and so while I have no objection to the form of the idea, it seems neither new to me nor does it seem to really solve any problems. Rather, it is just one more illustration of how entrenched nihilism is in the very structure of human life.
My friends and I affectionately refer to the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer as “The Schope.” His pessimism and his troubled life, coupled with his profound reflections on the nature of human suffering, make him, on the one hand, among the most dark and depressing of all philosophers. Yet he also has a side that is light-hearted, humorous and unexpectedly positive. Add to all of this his clear writing and playfulness and you will start to understand why so many people have such affection for The Schope.
A few years ago, I greatly enjoyed reading the monumental The World as Will and Representation, and it has been a pleasure for me recently to once again encounter some of Schopenhauer’s shorter writings at the prompting of one of my current students. As part of an independent study, this student and I have been studying a collection titled Essays and Aphorisms, which contains essays taken from a longer work titled Parerga and Paralipomena. The Shope is, once again, having an effect on me.
Carl Jung once claimed that he had never encountered a patient over the age of 40 whose neuroses were not attributable to the fear of death. I’m currently 47, and that might explain why I’m so neurotic, but I don’t really think this is the entire explanation. Death anxiety has been something that seems to have haunted me ever since I was a teenager. When I was 13 years old, I recall lying in bed and realizing that my pet rat, Wilfy, was going to die. This led me to think about the fact that my parents, likewise, would one day die, which finally led me to the realization that I too would one day die. As I lay there, alone and in the dark, eyes open to the night staring at the nothingness around me, the cruel logic of life and death played itself out in my mind. All creatures, both human and non-human, are thrown into the world, born to suffer and then pass away. Nothing is permanent as the world cycles on and on and on. What seems so important to us right now will soon pass into nothingness, ultimately to be forgotten. Everything that exists is just a “blip” on the screen of Being. The aloneness that I felt at that moment is a feeling that has never left me, and it may be one of the reasons that I resonate so much with the insights of Shopenhauer.
Schopenhauer struggled with these same thoughts. He writes, in The World as Will and Representation, that among all of the creatures in existence, humans suffer the most. This is so because we are psychologically complicated, processing our awareness of the world through a manifold of mental lenses that break reality up according to the principles of space, time and causality. In so doing, we experience the world as a flowing process that starts with our birth and that inevitably tumbles toward our extinction. This is a phenomenon that Martin Heidegger would later call “being-toward-death”; the awareness at every moment of our lives that we are destined to die. It colors all of our experiences and lends a tragic backdrop to everything that we do. But whereas Heidegger counsels us to grab hold of our lives, recognize our being-toward-death and use it as a reminder of who we are and how little time we have to accomplish our existential goals, Schopenhauer instead suggests that we should turn against the “will-to-live” and resign ourselves to the infinite by giving up on the pursuit of goals altogether. We should cease to assert out individual wills and instead allow ourselves to identify with the grand rhythms of the universe as a whole. In so doing, peace and serenity might be achieved in the manner of Stoic/Hindu/Buddhist resignation.
While Schopenhauer’s advice to give up on the will-to-live may seem bleak and passively nihilistic, it can also be oddly comforting. In his essay titled “On the Indestructibility of Our Essential Being by Death,” he details how it is that in the very act of resigning one’s self to the meaningless and absurd nature of the phenomenal world’s impermanence, we may potentially discover a deeper well of inner stability that is eternal and unchanging:
The more you become conscious of the frailty, vanity and dream-like quality of all things, the more clearly will you also become conscious of the eternity of your own inner being; because it is only in contrast to this that the aforesaid quality of things becomes evident, just as you percieve the speed at which a ship is going only when looking at the motionless shore, not when looking at the ship itself. (section 5)
Schopenhauer’s point is that we become aware of the impermanent nature of the empirical, outer world only by way of contrast with our own stable, inner conscious perspective. If that perspective were always changing as well, then there would be no way to gauge – and no reason to mourn – the changes taking place around us. Our very ability to think in terms of the passage of time, then, reveals something stable within us that is unchanging. According to Schopenhauer (and to Stoics and Hindus) this unchanging reality within us is in fact the primal force of the universe itself. Schopenhauer calls this force “Will.” Everything that exists, including human beings, is a manifestation of the universal Will.
Fear of death, Schopenhauer tells us, evaporates when we understand that we ourselves are this Will. Hindus use the analogy of an ocean to make a similar point. If the universe is the ocean as a whole, then we can be thought of as the waves on the surface of the ocean. We might feel as if we are separate and unique, but in fact we owe our existence to a common underlying source. Just as a wave arises from and then disappears back into the ocean, so too do we arise from and then disappear back into Being itself. From our individual human perspectives – through which the world unfolds according to the principles of time, space and causality – we can’t understand the unchanging nature of the primal Will. From the perspective of eternity, however, there are no individuals. There is only the Will in its various modes and manifestations. When this is grasped, Schopenhauer tells us, death is revealed as an illusion. Beyond the veil of phenomenal appearances, nothing really dies. Being itself is indestructible, and if we can identify with Being rather than with our empirical selves, then we can finally grasp that our essential being, which is simply the universe itself, is indestructible and eternal:
One can thus regard every human being from two opposed viewpoints. From the one he is the fleeting individual, burdened with error and sorrow and with a beginning and an end in time; from the other he is the indestructible primal being which is objectified in everything that exists. (section 7)
I like the way that Schopenhauer ends this essay. He transitions into a dialogue format, anticipating the objections that some people might have to his proposed “solution” to the fear of death. The character of Thrasymachus appears, objecting that absorption into the universal and eternal Will is no consolation for the loss of his own individual identity upon death. “I want to exist!” he exclaims.
I have to admit that I agree with Thrasymachus. I want to be me, not the universe. My fear of death originates with my fear of personal extinction. I can’t pretend to take a perspective apart from my own individual and finite being. I can’t stand above and beyond my own consciousness in order to identify with infinity. I identify with with me, not with the universe; at least as long as I am here. Maybe things will change once I die, but that hasn’t happened yet.
Good try, Schope, but I’m not yet convinced.
Buddhism is a belief system that stands somewhere between a religion and a philosophy. Like all religions, it asks followers to have faith in a program that promises to alleviate human suffering once and for all. Like a philosophy, however, it encourages people to use logic and reason in order to sort through and understand the realities of human existence. Buddhism rejects the notion that there is any form of supernatural help to be had in the struggle toward perfection, insisting that it is only through personal effort that one can achieve enlightenment. “Be lamps unto yourselves,” Siddhartha is reported to have told his closest attendant, Ananda, as he neared death. “Do not look for refuge in anyone but yourselves.”
I find the individualism and the non-supernatural character of classical Buddhism very attractive, and after reading Karen Armstrong’s biography of the Buddha, I am even more intrigued by the system of Buddhism and the man who created it. It is, incidentally, important to emphasize that Siddhartha Gautama was a man, and not a god. In becoming a buddha, Siddhartha did nothing more than “wake up” to the reality of the world. He relinquished his desires and found peace amidst the impermanence of all things. He ended his craving for the world to be anything other than what it really is. This is all that Buddhist enlightenment consists of. In fact, according to Siddhartha, anyone is capable of becoming a buddha and of achieving nirvana, which is why writing a biography about Siddhartha is so appropriate. He was a man who struggled with problems like anyone else, making mistakes, learning lessons and changing directions throughout his life. He started by following in the footsteps of others, and later came to break away from all authority, ultimately establishing his own path toward reconciliation with the infinite.
Armstrong’s biography highlights, more than most other texts I’ve read, the mistakes and u-turns in the life of Siddhartha, from his abandonment of asceticism to his initial refusal to admit women into his order. Armstrong does a wonderful job of showing that Siddhartha was not a divinely inspired figure who claimed to channel the unquestionable and final wisdom of the gods, but a real flesh and blood man who, though he sometimes stumbled, remained magnificent due to his willingness to admit mistakes, readjust his views, struggle with difficult ideas and to keep preaching the Truth as he saw it. In this regard, Siddhartha resembles someone like Socrates more than he does Jesus. He was not a god/man, but a human being through and through.
There are ideas and speculations in Armstrong’s book I have never encountered before, and that imbue the Buddha’s life and message with an increased level of complication. One of these claims is that the Buddha offered a different set of teachings to those who were ready to fully commit to enlightenment than he did to those who were not. Armstrong writes that the Buddha encouraged the less committed to follow the basic rules of morality simply because it would make their lives easier and happier in the here and now. This is a quite pragmatic attitude toward morality that does not seem entirely consistent with other Buddhist doctrines, such as the second step in the Eightfold Path, which emphasizes the necessity of “right intentions,” or the Buddha’s assertion, in the Digha Nikaya that “there is no teaching for one type of person and another for other types.”
Another alarming speculation that Armstrong raises is that the Buddha’s death might not have been the result of accidental food poisoning, as the Pali texts report, but that it may have been a deliberate act of murder. She cites a scholar who points to the fact that upon sitting down to his last meal, Siddhartha did not allow any of his friends to eat from the same bowl out of which he served himself, and afterwards that he had the leftover food buried. This might be an indication that Siddhartha knew that his food had been tampered with and that he was trying to protect those who were with him. If this truly is the case, then it would be one more way that Siddhartha resembles Socrates, who willingly drank hemlock while his friends looked on.
For those who approach Buddhism from a religious orientation, Armstrong’s book might be unsettling. The overall picture she paints is of a man who was fallible, at times mistaken, and often depressed and isolated. Such characteristics might not be the sort that inspire faith and unshakable confidence in followers. For those of us who approach Buddhism from a philosophical perspective, however, these same characteristics inspire empathy and reinforce the feeling that the Buddha was a real, flesh and blood human being who suffered in many of the same ways that the rest of us still suffer. If this is so, then his thoughts on how to confront the pain of impermanence can stand alongside those of other great philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Heidegger.
When I was in high school, as I struggled with recurrent bouts of adolescent despair, I went through a period during which I tried desperately to believe in God, thinking that if I could just cement such a conviction in my mind I would feel safe, secure and certain that life was worthwhile and meaningful. I remember kneeling by my bed, clasping my hands in front of my face and trying with all of my inner will to convince myself that there was a loving Creator above who was listening to my prayers. Although I wished so much for this to be true, I always ended up feeling quite foolish as I kneeled there, staring at the wall and muttering into the dark. It seemed that no matter how much I desired to believe in God, I just could not do it. The idea that there was a caring, supernatural consciousness floating somewhere beyond time and space struck me as more than just implausible; it seemed downright childish. God was like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, honest politicians or good government. A person would have to be immature or delusional to think that such things really existed.
This attitude of mine extended to all religions, both eastern and western. If anything, the eastern religions struck me as even more bizarre than the Judaism and Christianity with which I was most familiar. When I was growing up, we had neighbors whose house was decorated with Hindu and Buddhist statues and tapestries. I recall being puzzled, and a bit troubled, by the fact that the designs of some of these decorations included swastikas. “Why is there a swastika on your wall?” I asked our neighbor. “That’s the Buddha’s footprint,” was the reply. That seemed vaguely scary and just plain weird to me as a teenager.
I developed into a devout atheist as time went on, and defined myself as an opponent of religious superstition. Of course, I never bothered to read the actual texts that served as the basis for these religions. Why should I read them? I knew, a priori, that they must be devoid of any worth or insight. They obviously must be filled with fairy tales and nonsense. They were, I assumed, a waste of time.
It wasn’t until I was well into my adulthood and teaching philosophy full-time that I was forced to reexamine my prejudice against religion. I was working toward tenure at a school on the East Coast when I was assigned to teach a class in world religions. Upon receiving the news of my assignment, I immediately felt anxious. After all, I was an atheist who had never had much of an interest in pursuing serious study into this topic. In fact, I had self-consciously avoided the topic for a good portion of my life. Nonetheless, I dove into my preparations, remembering that when I was an undergraduate, I had indeed taken a course in which we read the classic book by Huston Smith, The World’s Religions. Because it was somewhere to start, I decided to revisit Smith’s book and use it as the central reading for my upcoming class.
Smith’s book had a profound effect on me once I reread it; not because it convinced me of the truth of any particular religious tradition, but because of how convincingly it argues for the legitimacy of a single impulse behind all religious faiths. I know that Smith has been criticized for making the diverse variety of world religious traditions seem too similar to one another, however it was precisely this perspective that excited me about the book. Smith likens the various religions of the world to differing paths up a mountain. Even though the sights seen and details encountered on these routes may be unique, they all lead toward the same summit: the Holy. Ultimately then, the differences between religions amount to differences in language, culture, ritual and tradition. Behind and beneath all of that is a deeper, broader and more fundamental similarity: the aspiration toward Holiness.
This idea really resonated with me, and in a strange way made me realize how close the religious impulse is to my own form of nihilism. Nihilism, as I define it in my book Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism, is a sort of frustrated idealism. It is a philosophy based on the following claims: 1. Humans are separated from the ideals of their highest aspiration, like Truth, Beauty, Justice, Goodness, etc. 2. This is a situation that is other than it ought to be. 3. There is nothing we can do to end this separation. It is the first two claims of nihilism that seem to overlap with religious belief, while the third claim is what sets nihilists and religious people at odds against one another. Nihilists, like the religiously faithful, aspire toward the superlative; toward perfection. Also like nihilists, religious people claim that there is a gap between the aspirant and the object of adoration, whether it be God, Brahman, Nirvana, etc. The nihilist and the religiously faithful part ways, however, at that point when the faithful claim to have a means to mend the separation between worshiper and the worshiped. In fact, it has become increasingly apparent to me, now that I have actually taken the time to read about and study various forms of religion in greater depth, that the core of all religious traditions probably lies in the advocacy of some sort of mechanism or practice that is claimed to be useful for bridging the gap between worshipers and the Holy. As Smith argues in his book, the details may differ, but the goal is the same.
This fundamental difference allows me now to understand what I both admire and disagree with in the various religions of the world. While I admire the aspiration toward something greater and more wonderful than our present here and now reality, I disagree that there is an end to this aspiration so long as we are alive. Life is struggle, striving and suffering, and there is no rescue from this for us nihilists; but this is not really all that awful since it is through struggling, striving and suffering that things get done and the world moves on.
I now don’t begrudge religious people their faith. On the contrary, I envy it. I wish I was able to believe in the actual existence of something beyond the natural world of flux and change. There is still that part of me that remains intact from high school that would love to believe in God, or perhaps Brahman or Nirvana.
But still, I just can’t do it, for whatever reason.