Conscience in To Kill a Mockingbird

“‘This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience—Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.'”

“‘Atticus, you must be wrong….'”

“‘How’s that?'”

“‘Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong….'”

“‘They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions,’ said Atticus, ‘but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience'” (Lee 139-40).


Unknown.jpegIn this passage from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Atticus Finch, my favorite fictional character, expresses his views on conscience to his daughter Scout. A lawyer, Atticus has taken on the case of Tom Robinson, a black man, who has been accused of rape. The novel takes place in the 1930’s when racism was still prevalent, and the Jim Crow laws were put place, which prohibited colored people from many things, limiting their freedom; sympathizing with them resulted in ostracism, as it was against the norm to do so. As such, the South in the ’30’s, where it is set, had prejudice everywhere. One of the results of this discrimination was the fact that trials were not fair: The juries were all-white and were hence biased against black people, who were punished severely, often despite their innocence, even when years later, exculpatory evidence appeared and proved them not guilty. Nonetheless, Atticus takes the case, declaring it to be the defining moment of his career. The problem is: Atticus could have easily taken up Mr. Ewell, the accuser, a white man, as his client and easily won; in doing so, he would make a ton of money, would be a respected lawyer, and would be a hero in the eyes both of the people of Maycomb and his children—yet he does not; he defends Robinson, and he acknowledges he has already lost, but that does not stop him; for he does what his conscience tells him to do, what his inner moral code—his moral compass—says. Yes, he could have taken up the winning side easily, but deep down, Atticus knows it is not right that Robinson is being unfairly judged, that he is not given a fair chance, nor that he should not at least try. While the odds are against him, he fights for what he believes is right. And as a true lawyer, a defender of universal Law, Atticus knows that he is bound to the natural rights of man, namely that they deserve a fair and speedy trial. True, he is an underdog, he has a disadvantage, the numbers are against him; but the majority rule is an external interference, and his conscience is an internal one, one with which he must live and act by. To disobey his conscience would images.jpegmean not to be able to “worship God” anymore seeing as he has fought his own will and considering he has not the wisdom to know what is right nor the strength to do what is right. To act contrary to the voice inside, to violate the sanctity of human life, is to abolish one’s connection with a higher power or a moral one, so his taking the case is his way of saying to God that, yes, he is doing the right thing in His name because it is the right thing to do, even if others think contrariwise—really, they themselves are not worthy of worship, because they do not think for themselves, they only think as a majority, not listening to their consciences. Atticus knows many disagree with him, but even if he won the case on the wrong side, he would have to live with the decision, regretting it every day, knowing he did another man wrong. He would have to live with himself, not others, and so it is in his best interest to do as his conscience says, no matter how deviant it is.

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The Wisdom of Gœthe: The Sorrows of Young Werther

Living in the Present

“I will no longer ruminate, as I always used to do, on the petty troubles which Fate puts in my way. I will enjoy the present and let bygones be bygones…. [T]here would be far less suffering in the world if human beings—God knows why they are made like that—did not use their imaginations so busily in recalling the memories of past fortunes, instead of trying to bear an indifferent present.” (pp. 3-4)


Mind vs. Heart [1]

“No longer do I wish to be guided, excited, stimulated; my own heart storms enough in itself…. How often do I lull my rebellious blood to rest, for you cannot imagine anything so erratic, so restless as my heart…. I treat my poor heart, moreover, as though it were a sick child, and satisfy all its desires.” (pp. 7-8)

“‘It is quite a different matter,’ Albert replied, ‘when a man is carried away by his passions and loses all power of reflection; he can then be considered a drunkard or a madman.’

‘O you rational people… Passion! Drunkenness! Madness! You stand there so complacently, without any real sympathy, you moralists, condemning the drunkard, detesting the madman, passing by like the Levite and thanking God that you are not made as one of these…. [M]y passions have never been very far removed from madness, and yet I do not feel any remorse. For I have learned in my own way that all unusual people who have accomplished something great or seemingly impossible have always been proclaimed to be drunk or mad.’

‘But even in everyday life it is unbearable to hear people say of almost anyone who acts in a rather free, noble or unexpected way: ‘That man is drunk, or he is crazy!’ Shame on you sober ones! Shame on you sages!’” (p. 58

“‘Let us watch man in his limited sphere [reason] and see how impressions affect him, how he is obsessed by ideas, until finally a growing passion robs him of any possible calmness of mind and becomes his ruin.”

“A composed, sensible person who has a clear view of the condition of the unfortunate man tries in vain to give advice; just as the healthy man, standing at the bedside of the sick, is unable to transfer to the latter the smallest fraction of his strength.’” (p. 60)

“‘[M]an is human, and the small amount of intelligence one may possess counts little or nothing against the rage of passion and the limits of human nature pressing upon him.’” (p. 62)


Purposelessness

“There is a certain monotony about mankind. Most people toil during the greater part of their lives in order to live, and the slender span of free time that remains worries them so much that they try by every means to get rid of it.” (p. 9)

“‘For it is certainly easier to die than bravely to bear a life of misery.’” (p. 59)


Youth

“That children do not know the reason of their desires, all the learned teachers and instructors agree. But that grownups too stumble like children on this earth, not knowing whence they come or whither they go, acting as little according to true purposes, being ruled like them by cakes and birch rods, no one likes to believe; yet to me it seems quite obvious.”

“… I willingly admit that those are the happiest people who, like children, live for the day only, drag around their dolls, putting their clothes on or off, tiptoe around the cupboards where Mummy keep the sweets locked up, and, after having finally snatched the desired bit, stand with full cheeks and shout: ‘More!’ —These are indeed happy creatures.” (p. 12)


Ineffability

“I should have to repeat every word of his story in order to give you a true picture of the pure affection, love, and devotion of this man. Yes, I should have to possess the gift of the greatest of the poets in order to depict to you convincingly the expressiveness of his gestures, the harmony of his voice, the hidden fire of his eyes. No, words fail to convey the tenderness of his whole being; everything I could attempt to say about this would only be clumsy.” (p. 19)

“An angel! —Nonsense! Everyone calls their loved one thus, does he not? And yet I cannot describe to you how perfect she is, or why she is so perfect; enough to say that has captured me completely. (p. 20)

“… But all this foolish talk—pure abstract words which fail to describe one single feature of her real person.” (Ibid.)

“These were her words! O Wilhelm, who can repeat what she said? How can dead cold written words convey the heavenly flower of her soul?” (p. 73)


Historiography

“I am contented and happy, and therefore not a good historian.” (p. 20)


Moods [2]

“‘We human beings often complain… that there are so few good days and so many bad ones; but I think we are generally wrong. If our hearts were always open to enjoy the good, which God gives us every day, then we should also have enough strength to bear evil, whenever it comes.’ —’But we cannot command our dispositions,’ said the pastor’s wife. ‘How much depends on the body! If one does not feel well, everything seems wrong.’ —I admitted that. ‘Then,’ I said, ‘we’ll look at moodiness as a disease and see if there is a remedy for it.’”

“‘If something irritates me and is about to make me depressed, I jump up and sing a few dance tunes up and down the garden, and immediately the mood is gone.’”

‘“Bad humor is exactly like laziness, because it is a kind of laziness. Our nature has a strong inclination toward both, and yet, if we are strong enough to pull ourselves together, our work is quickly and easily done, and we find real pleasure in activity.’ [Frederike’s mate] made the objection that man is not his own master, least of all master of his emotions.”

“Then the young man began to speak once more: ‘You call bad humor a vice; I think that an exaggeration.’ —’Not at all,’ I retorted, ‘if that which harms oneself as well as one’s neighbor deserves the name. Is it not enough that we cannot make each other happy; should we in addition deprive each other of that pleasure which every heart may grant itself? And give me the name of the man who is in a bad mood and yet gallant enough to hide it, to bear it alone without blighting other people’s happiness!’”

‘“Woe to them,’ I said, ‘who abuse their power over the hearts of others and deprive them of any simple joy which there has its source. All the gifts, all the favors in the world cannot for a moment replace the inner happiness which the envious moodiness of our tyrant has spoiled.’”

‘“If people would only warn themselves daily… that one cannot do anything for one’s friends but leave them their pleasure and add to their happiness by sharing it with them.’” (pp. 38-40)


Being in Love

“Then I left her, after asking the favor of seeing her again that same day. She granted my request and I want. Since then, sun, moon, and stars may continue on their course; for me there is neither day nor night, and the entire universe about me has ceased to exist.” (p. 32)

“Wilhelm, what would the world mean to our hearts without love!” (p. 47)

“Oh, how true it is that our heart alone creates its own happiness!” (p. 55)


Happiness

“How happy am I that my heart is open to the simple, innocent delight of the man who brings a head of cabbage to his table which he himself has grown, enjoying not only the cabbage but all the fine days, the lovely mornings when he planted it, the pleasant evenings when he watered it, so that, after having experienced pleasure in its growth he may, at the end, again enjoy in one single moment all that has gone before.” (p. 34)


Want for Attention

“What children we are! How we crave for a noticing glance!… I tried to catch Lotte’s glance. Alas, it wandered from one young man to the other, but it did not fall on me! Me! Me! Who stood there absorbed in her alone! My heart bade her a thousand farewells, and she did not notice me!… My only consolation is: She may have turned to look back at me!” (pp. 43-4)


Individualism

“As everything in the world amounts to nothing to speak of, a person who dredges for the sake of others, for money or honors or what not, without following his own ambition, his own need, is always a fool.” (p. 49)

“If we fail ourselves, everything fails us.” (p. 67)

“And, my dear fellow, isn’t my longing for change in my situation an innate, uneasy impatience that will pursue me wherever I go?” (p. 68)

“And as I am so preoccupied with myself, and since this heart of mine is so stormy, oh, how gladly would I let others go their way if they would only let me go mine!” (p. 81)


Journal-writing

“My diary, which I have neglected for some time, fell into my hands today, and I am amazed how I ran into this situation with full awareness, step by step. How clearly I have seen my condition, yet how childishly I have acted. How clearly I still see it, yet show no sign of improvement.” (p. 54)


Understanding

“—And we parted without having understood each other. How difficult it is to understand one another in this world.” (p. 63)


Comparing Ourselves to Others

“It is true that we are so made that we compare everything with ourselves and ourselves with everything. Therefore, our fortune or misfortune depends on the objects and persons to which we compare ourselves; and for that reason nothing is more dangerous than solitude.” (pp. 77-8)

“In fact, I realize each day more clearly, dear friend, how foolish it is to judge others by oneself.” (p. 81)


Imagination

“I suffer terribly because I have lost what was once the delight of my life—the holy, animating power that helped me to create worlds around me—it has gone!” (p. 114)


Human, All Too Human

“What is man, that celebrated demigod! Does he not lack power just where he needs them most? And when he soars with joy, or sinks into suffering, is he not in both cases held back and restored to dull, cold consciousness at the very moment when he longs to lose himself in the fullness of the Infinite?” (pp. 124-5)


[1] The passage has been split up into several quotes in order to aid the reader
[2] Cf. [1]


For further reading: 
The Sorrows of Young Werther and Novella 
by Johann Wolfgang von Gœthe (1995)

 

Nothing, Nihilism, and Meaning [2 of 2]

 

Click here to read part 1 if you have not already. 


That disappointed us a lot. In fact, it disappointed us so much that we almost lost heart, because it rendered everything… completely meaningless. And it didn’t help in the slightest that more and more people were beginning to think that the heap was indeed meaningful….[1]

This quote finely illustrates the non-objectivity of morality about which Teller warns. Newspapers, presses, and television producers came from across the globe to come see what the children had done, and they all came to agree that, indeed, their pile of objects was meaningful. All it takes, however, is one gainsayer, one naysayer, one dissenting shutterstock_360673847.jpgvoice, to dissolve this momentous achievement. Even if 99% of the world agreed the pile was meaningful, Pierre Anthon, that 1%, was all it took to abolish this claim, to ruin the dreams of everyone, to send everyone into a glum dejectedness. If everyone agrees, the pile is meaningful; if everyone disagrees, the pile is not valuable; and if even just one person disagrees, it pulls the rug from under everyone, it completely attenuates the foundation upon which all meaning is built. Agnes points out, though, “Either the heap was the meaning or else it was not. And since everyone had agreed that it was, it couldn’t just stop not being it again.”[2] In logic, there is a simple principle: A=A, but A≠non-A. Something cannot be something and not-something at the same. The press says the heap is meaningful, yet Pierre Anthon says it is not, so who is correct? There is a major conflict, as the majority says one thing, but the minority says another, and if there is no overlap, then it is not absolute, it is not objective. Since the two cannot agree, it cannot be that it is meaningful, for there is always lingering doubt. Pierre Anthon has yet another argument up his sleeve to respond to this very dispute:

‘Meaning is meaning. So if you really had found the meaning, you’d still have it. And the world’s press would still be here trying to figure out what it was you’d found. But they’re not, so whatever it is you found, it wasn’t the meaning, because the meaning doesn’t exist!’[3]

Unknown.jpegWith these volatile words Pierre Anthon challenges the absoluteness of morality by questioning everyone’s attitude toward it. Were the pile absolute, were it really the essence of meaningfulness, not only would it remain meaningful and in the attention of the press, but it would be—and I find this idea very original and fascinating—inscrutable; that is, if the intrinsic nature of meaning were manifest in the pile, if the pile was the physical form of all meaning, it would be impossible to understand. Here, Pierre Anthon makes an intriguing argument. Had meaning been present in the pile, the press would still be “trying to figure out what it was” they had found; however, I think it would extend beyond the press and to experts, such as academics, because if it, the pile, were truly meaningful, it would require an investigation of a greater magnitude. Accordingly, because the press left, the pile was not as universally meaningful as the kids theretofore thought. Like Pierre Anthon said, if it were meaningful, it would be truly revolutionary, and the attention on it would increase a hundredfold. To find the meaning of life is life-changing! Thus, the pile is not meaningful, and meaning has yet to be found, and, in these circumstances, meaning does not exist.


Central to the book is its discussion of what exactly the nature of “meaning” is. The children refuse to believe that nothing matters, because, “We were meant to amount to something.”[4] To them, it is unthinkable to live in a meaningless world, so they devise a plan to gather everything that is meaningful to them and assemble it into a giant heap for easy viewing. Throughout the book, the characters refer unendingly to “the heap of meaning,” almost exhaustingly, as though it is some kind of idol they worship. Indeed, rz43z.jpgevery time I saw the word “meaning” or “heap of meaning,” I subconsciously capitalized it, like it was some kind of metaphysical entity, The Meaning, a transcendent, noumenal Platonic Form, unfathomable through reason alone, an a priori truth of a type. There are times, though, when it is important to distinguish “meaning” from “the Meaning,” as the latter is the apotheosized form, into which the former slowly degenerates, and it becomes the sole end for which the kids search. Slowly, as the novel progresses, comparable to Lord of the Flies, the elusive Meaning becomes more and more obscured, with the kids lowering themselves deeper into the abyss, as the Meaning corrupts their minds, turning into blind devotion, at which point everything is deferred to it. Everything the kids do is justified since they are doing it for the Meaning. It matters not if a finger is lost or a pet dies—it is all done for the Meaning. Nothing is more important than the Meaning. Anything that is not the Meaning is subordinated thereto, turning into an end-justifies-the-mean kind of situation. Agnes says, “We had found the meaning and thereby the meaning of everything.”[5] In this quote, the first usage of “the meaning” should be capitalized, for it represents the Ideal which underpins reality and all value, while the second should remain uncapitalized, referring only to significance. It is evident at this point in the book that the kids have become utterly obsessed with the idea of Meaning, so much so that they feel they have discovered the meaning of life through their pile. In order to decide what goes into the heap of meaning, the kids take turns dictating what the next person is to put it, the criteria being that it has to be the thing which they value most. The first person who goes gives up their most meaningful possession, then they decide what the next person gives up, and then they make the next person give something up, etc. As this goes on, the possessions grow more and more personal and more and more demented and disturbing. One of the girls, Ursula-Marie, is forced to cut her hair that she values dearly and put it on the pile, whereupon Agnes comments,

Cutting off Ursula-Marie’s hair was worse than cutting of Samson’s. Without her hair, Ursula-Marie would no longer be Ursula-Marie with her six blue braids, which meant that she no longer would be Ursula-Marie at all. I wondered whether that was the reason the six blue braids were part of the meaning, but I didn’t care to say it out loud. Or leave it unspoken.[6]

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 3.37.02 PM.pngAgnes states that Ursula-Marie’s hair was what made her Ursula-Marie, that, without it, she was not herself anymore. It is like she lost something, something that was a part of her. However, it is silly to think that a person is defined by their hair, much less their identity. Obviously Ursula-Marie is still Ursula-Marie, yet at the same time, there is something missing, like the hair added something, not extrinsically, but intrinsically. The question becomes: Is it the possession itself or the owner which grants meaning? Had those blue braids belonged on someone else’s head, they would not be as important, but they were Ursula-Marie’s, and she dyed them blue, meaning if she had dyed them any other color, such as red, they would be just as meaningful, inasmuch as it was her personal doing, something self-determined, something Ursula-Marie in nature, an action distinct to her, that no one else can have—it is unique to her and her alone. This being the case, meaning is an intrinsic thing. Meaning must have some other qualification, besides being intrinsic. Jon-Johan is the last person to give up something meaningful. Being the last, he got no exceptions: He had to give up his index finger. Tears in eyes, panicked, unable to deal with this reality, he protests fervently, but to no avail. One of the middle schoolers, Anna-Li, indifferently replies, “‘[I]f it didn’t hurt… there wouldn’t be any meaning in it.’”[7] In addition to being a part of someone, meaning must also involve either hurt or loss; if you lost this particular thing, it would be like losing a part of yourself. As Thoreau once said, “The cost of anything is the amount of life you pay for it.” Thus, while we may have material possessions, which are otherwise useless, and for which we pay little in terms of life, there also things that are meaningful, that have value, the kinds of possessions in which the kids are interested, for which we pay a great sum of life. For instance, Jon-Johan dedicated his life to playing the guitar, aspiring to be as good as The Beatles, and his finger, unlike his guitar, had more meaning, as it was a part of him, and, should he lose it, it would pain him deeply, for it would cost some of his life—literally. Although nothing is too extreme if it is done for the Meaning, right? “There was definitely something that mattered in spite of everything, even if that something was something you had to lose,” reassures Agnes.[8] Behind all the nihilism, beneath the deepest of curtains, there is some vestige of meaning in life. The greatest realization is that this lonely presence exists to be lost. After all our hard work, after toiling relentlessly and passionately for some kind of hint as to the meaning of life, we must realize that it is only there so long as we lose it, for if it is permanent, it is not meaningful. Sometimes, our fruitless questing after meaning is the very thing which obstructs it from being found. Because meaning is intrinsic, not outside images.jpegof us, it remains to be found within. Yet another trait of meaning is that it cannot be evaluated with money. As the age-old goes, Money cannot buy you happiness. Meaning cannot be valued with money, but with life, as Thoreau said. “Meaning is not something you can sell. Either it’s there or it isn’t. Our having sold the heap of meaning had deprived it of its meaning,” Agnes confides after selling the heap of meaning to a museum.[9] Hesitantly, she adds, “If there had been any.”[10] Once something is sold, so too is its value. An antique from a relative will have value to a specific person, but once it is sold, it no longer holds a story; it becomes just an object whose value is dictated by money alone, not by personal significance. In fact, I would argue that giving something a price devalues it. Pierre Anthon refuses to see the heap of meaning on the grounds that it is not meaningful; but were it actually meaningful, “‘Then there’d be nothing I’d rather do.’”[11] As an afterthought, he slyly scorns, “‘But it doesn’t [mean anything], or else you wouldn’t have sold it, wouldn’t you?’”[12] Could this mean that there might possibly be meaning? Pierre Anthon hints that the heap would have been meaningful, had it not been sold. Is he teaching them a lesson? Is he imparting wisdom secretly? This idea is cemented further when he lectures his friends, who have broken out into a fight over the meaning, about the meaningless of life and the futility of searching for meaning: “‘Oh so that’s [pointing to the heap] the meaning!… The meaning, ha! If that pile of garbage ever meant anything at all, it stopped the day you sold it for money.’”[13] Alas! the pile did have meaning! That is, until they sold it, until they put a price on it. Pierre Anthon then goes around the room, pointing out his friends’ hypocrisy and naïveté, asking them mockingly about their possessions and whether they were worth being sold. To Frederick, who gave up the Danish National Flag, the Dannebrog; Hussain, a devout Muslim; Jon-Johan, whose finger was cut off; and Sofie, who gave up her virginity, Pierre Anthon gives the following tirade:

‘I’m glad I’m not going to war with you [Frederick] as my general!… And the prayer mat, Hussain? Don’t you believe in Allah anymore?… What price was your faith?… And Jon-Johan, why not let your whole hand go, if you’re willing to sell your finger to the highest bidder? And you, Sofie, what have you got left, now you’ve sold yourself?’[14]

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 3.39.18 PM.pngGerda even added her hamster Oscarlittle, whom she loved dearly to the heap, upon which he presently died. Pierre Anthon makes an incredibly profound point here, a point we often do not stop to consider: At how much would you value that which is dearest to you? If you had to give up a pet, a child, a husband or wife, your parents, or some other meaningful possession, for how much would you be willing to sell it? Are things like pets, national flags, faith, limbs, or innocence tradable? Everything has value so long as we do not put a price on it.


“Pierre Anthon had won.”[15] At the end of the book, Pierre Anthon gives his lecture then leaves, having taught his friends a valuable lesson. In a moment ripped straight out of Golding, his friends, bewildered, confused, tired, distraught, vitiated, hurt, and frustrated, lunge at him, tackle him to the ground to take out all their pain on him, punching and kicking. His neck is broken, his eyes black and blue, blood all over, one eye Unknown-3.jpegbulging, a leg twisted, and an elbow broken. “It was his fault, all of it…. It was his fault that we had lost our zest for life and the future and were now at our wit’s end about everything.”[16] Blamed for causing his friends to become nihilistic, to lose their faith in the world, the friends use him as a scapegoat for all their abhorrent actions, forgetting that they were responsible for their own actions (there are better defense mechanism for nihilism than killing!) as payback for all the pain he has caused them, leaving his contorted, inert body to burn in a fire, which then swallows up the fateful barn in which they began their heap of meaning. Quite a twist ending, yes? In the end, though, I think we must all give Pierre Anthon some justice, despite his nihilistic, hateful, and impractical way of thinking and living. Deep down, despite his professed nihilism, Pierre Anthon harbored a secret wisdom. Ought we renounce life and seek meaning thoughtfully? It is only too late in life that some people will adopt nihilism, for it is only then, at the close of life, that they find they can surrender themselves to nothing. Yet Pierre Anthon realizes this wisdom early on, and he actually does something about it—he is very much wise beyond his years. I have held out on providing and citing counterarguments to nihilism only because 1) I did not want to attempt to answer the meaning of life and 2) I wanted to tell the message of the book as it is, not refute it. Hence, a quote which provides some solace against the gaping threat of nihilism:

Often the underlying thought seems to be that real values can only exist if they are permanent. But why should something in itself valueless acquire value by being permanent, or belonging to a set of things which is permanent? The value of my having just passed my exam and the disvalue of having painfully stubbed my toe are surely not affected if the sun will explode in eight billion years and I myself face annihilation somewhat sooner? [17]

 


[1] Teller, Nothing, p. 170
[2] Id., p. 189
[3] pp. 190-1
[4] p. 5
[5] p. 187
[6] p. 98
[7] p. 148
[8] p. 110
[9] p. 204
[10] Ibid.
[11] p. 200
[12] p. 201
[13] p. 213
[14] pp. 213-4
[15] p. 215
[16] p. 217
[17] Honderich, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, “The Meaning of Life,” p. 488

For further reading:
The Columbia History of Western Philosophy by Richard R. Popkin (1999)
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy by Ted Honderich (1995)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy 
Vol. 3 by Paul Edwards (1967)
Morals and Values
by Marcus G. Singer (1977)

Nothing by Janne Teller (2010)

 

Nothing, Nihilism, and Meaning [1 of 2]

Unknown-2.jpegJanne Teller’s novel Nothing tells the story of some middle schoolers who try to find meaning in life when one of them sets off an existential crisis in the fictional town of Tæring (Danish for “corrosion”), and it has been compared to Lord of the Flies for its dark message and portrayal of human nature, especially in children. Not your average Young Adult book, Nothing is profound and disturbing at the same time, so readers must be wary; they must be prepared to embark on an unsettling quest, the end goal of which is to find some hint of meaning in life—if there is any. The book is a combination of fiction and philosophy, and it manages to weaves a brilliant narrative which unfolds uncannily, yet it is able to carry across its theme effectively, gripping the audience every step of the way, regardless of how twisted it becomes. Behind the book is the threatening specter of nihilism. I will not be offering any extravagant claims as to the answer to the meaning of life, nor anything near to that; rather, I will merely be explicating the philosophical suppositions which underlie—or rather, overlie—the book, namely its nihilism.


Nihilism comes from the Latin word nihil, which means nothing, and it is the belief that there are no objective values and subsequently that there is no meaning in life. Unknown-2.jpegThe first usage of Nihilism can be dated to the 19th-century, when it was used by Jacobi to describe the void in morality science and the Enlightenment had created, although it is commonly used to refer to a movement in Russia several decades thereafter, where the idea of anarchism and the dissolution of government was popular. If there are no values in life—that is to say, there is nothing for which it is worth doing anything—then there is no meaning in life, meaning life has no purpose, nor that there are any absolute values like “good” or “bad,” values which are thus labeled constructs or societal conventions. According to another school of thought, moral skepticism, of which there are two types, internal and external, the idea of morality itself is questioned. Internal moral skepticism states that morality ultimately has no basis. There are no values upon which to act; everyone is free to do whatever, seeing as there are no distinctions, no boundaries, no limits to action. External moral skepticism posits that the concept of morality exists—just it is not objective, per se. Beginning in the 20th-century, the Emotive movement became vogue, a philosophy that is arguably a derivative of moral skepticism, considering it classified any ethical propositions (x is a good thing to do) as mere expressions of subjective emotions. As one relativist, Edward Westermarck, remarked, “[A]ll moral concepts, are ultimately based on emotions, and… no objectivity can come from emotion.”[1] This theory holds that morality is subjective. What is good depends on the person you ask.


The opening sentences of Nothing go as follows: “Nothing matters. I have known that for a long time. So nothing is worth doing. I just realized that.”[2] I think we can all agree with a little guilt that, at one point or another, we have all realized or acknowledge that life is meaningless. However, if we all went around believing this, well, we would most certainly not still be here. The fact of the matter is, even though we may glancingly lose help from time to time, we do not in the end assert that there is no meaning, for we go on living our lives; it is as though we are—to borrow Freudian terminology—repressing our nihilism, desperately trying to cover up the ugly thing that, once looked at, disgusts us, as it a sick thing in itself, to believe that there is no meaning. Who would possibly want to live such a life? Yet whenever life takes a turn for the worst, there it comes again, that sinking, consuming nihilism, Unknown-3.jpegthat destroyer of meaning, as we succumb to it, like a dark, bottomless abyss. Therefore, while we all acknowledge that nihilism is indeed a real thing, we seldom act upon it. It is almost always dismissed because it is simply impractical, among other things. To accept nihilism and act on it, though, takes a lot of courage, because it means abandoning everything, retreating into idleness, and rejecting all values—it is being condemned to freedom. After uttering the opening sentences, the “antagonist” of Nothing, Pierre Anthon, rises out of his seat during class, calmly picks up his backpack, and leaves the classroom without a word. My English teacher one time said to my class something along the lines of, You all have enormous freedom. Right now, you could get up and leave the classroom, if you wanted. But you all stay here because you are afraid of the consequences it might bring. Stop and think of the implications nihilism has: If nothing matters, if there are no morals, then you can literally do anything, anytime, and to anyone, without fear of repercussion. Gyges does not need a magic ring to carry out his crimes, he just needs to be a nihilist. Pierre Anthon like the rest of us has known “nothing matters” for “a long time,” but it is only recently that he learned “nothing is worth doing.” School does not matter, so why should he remain against his will in class all day? So what if the principal is Unknown-4.jpegfurious, if he gets expelled? If Pierre Anthon is correct, nothing matters. Next, Pierre Anthon climbs up into a plum tree, on which he spends pretty much the rest of the book, either throwing plumbs or contemplating nothingness. This in itself is incredibly impactful, for Pierre Anthon is now shirking all responsibilities by retreating into his own world, where he is untouchable, where he is free to do nothing. We often romanticize about transcending the world, perched on a cloud, free from the burdens and responsibilities of everyday life, with relaxation as the norm, not work, and being able to watch everyone else carry on below us, while we are carefree, high in the sky, not a worry in our minds. For Pierre Anthon, this dream is a reality, as he has awoken to the truth that nothing matters, meaning he can get away with anything, whereas his friends, who still cling to meaning, scurry around mindlessly in the thickets of banal life. He says to his friends, “‘I’m sitting here in nothing. And better to be sitting in nothing than in something that isn’t anything!’”[3] Another form of nihilism is normative ethical relativism, whose motto can be summarized as “to each his own.” Normative ethical relativism holds that morality is prescribed subjectively; in other words, everyone is entitled to do whatever they feel is right, and nobody can impose what they feel is right on the next person. This brings up a major problem:

It is just as impossible to force the nihilist by argument to abandon his position as it is logically to refute a man who denies the existence of the sun in the heavens. But this is does not mean that nihilism is a valid theory.[4]

Should nothing matter, it would be impossible to prove otherwise. No matter what argument one made, one could never disabuse a nihilist. In the book, Pierre Anthon’s friends become determined to prove him wrong, because there has to be meaning, right? “Is it possible to refute nihilism; can we prove to any one who reasons thus that he is in the wrong? I do not believe it. We can tell and show him that others feel differently, but he will answer: What do I care?”[5] The middle schoolers attempt time after time to show that there is meaning, that there is something worth living for, but each time they say, “x matters” or “y matters,” Pierre Anthon just says, “No it doesn’t.” It is extremely easy to reject anything as a nihilist—so much so that it is highly illogical. Nihilism, then, like solipsism, is irrefutable. Nihilism is impossible to disprove.


It would appear nihilism is comparable to a Freudian taboo, a frowned upon ideal that resides in our psyche, only to resurface every now and then, upon having been repressed for much of our meaningful lives. Nihilism is a threat to ourselves, to others, and to society as a whole. When the kids hold a meeting to decide how best to handle the Pierre Anthon situation, one of them suggests they tell the teacher or the principal, to which they quickly protest,

‘And then we’ll have to tell them [the adults] what Pierre Anthon’s saying. Which we can’t, because the grown-ups won’t want to hear that nothing matters and that everybody is just making like it does.’ Jon-Johan threw up his arms, and we imagined all the experts, the educators and psychologists who would come and observe us and talk to us and reason with us until eventually we would give in and again start pretending that things really matter.[6]

Notice in the above passage that Jon-Johan says that the adults will not “want to hear that nothing matters.” At the surface it seems normal, but the fact that he neglects to say “we think that nothing matters” shows that, to an extent, he and the kids already know nothing matters. Had he said the revised form, he would be saying that the kids mistakenly thought nothing matters, but the way he said it supposes the facticity (state of being a fact) of nihilism. I discussed how it is not acceptable—impolite, one might even say—to be nihilistic, how, if one expresses some nihilistic belief, one is thought mistaken, maybe even “ill.” Surely, if a child told their parent void2.jpgone day, “Nothing matters,” the parent would look shocked, worried, and would assure their child that that is not the case, albeit unconfidently. Adults do not want their children to think life has no meaning, especially at so young an age, because they know deep down that, if it is true, the truth can be too hard to handle, and also because once a kid thinks thus, it undermines them as a parent, and it will tell the child that there are no values, a thought which cannot be entertained even for a second. As soon a child reveals their moral skepticism, the psychologist is called, whose job it is to “correct” the child’s way of thinking, as it is “incorrect’ and “mistaken.” Such thoughts are neither healthy nor practical and should consequently be remedied and removed from the child’s thoughts. In other words, the nihilism should be repressed. This whole existential crisis prompts the kids to set on a mission to prove that life does in fact have meaning. Pierre Anthon says, “‘A bad smell is as good as a good smell!… So it makes no difference whether something smells good or bad, it’s all a part of life’s eternal round dance.’”[7] Once more there is a subtle yet important use of semantics here that reveals a greater message. It would have been one thing to say, “A bad smell is no different than a good smell,” but Teller compares the bad to good on the basis of good itself. How is it possible for a bad smell to be just “as good as a good smell”? That is like saying that dead matter is just as alive as living matter! On the contrary, I would argue that Teller uses this wording intentionally as a way to emphasize the utter and complete absence of objectivity Unknown-5.jpegand absoluteness when it comes to values—to emphasize nihilism. In my blog on The Goldfinch, I talked about morality in terms of absolute value; so too here does it apply. To compare bad to good in terms of goodness, is really like saying that the two are part of the same spectrum. Imagine an infinite number line, the integers thereon representing values, but with no endpoints: this represents the fluidity of values, or rather, the lack of fixture regarding things like good and bad. To compare one to the other in regard to the other is to say they are on the same plane, or the same themselves, no difference between the two, insofar as they are not absolutes. Saying that good can become bad and bad good is saying that one can effortlessly become the other, which is saying that what are usually said to be polar opposites of one another are really the same thing; good is bad and bad is good; therefore, values have no values. The narrator of the story, Agnes, finds herself ensnared in Pierre Anthon’s nihilistic philosophy, realizing,

We were going around like we didn’t exist. Each day was like the next. And even though we looked forward all week to the weekend, the weekend was always still a disappointment, and then it was Monday again and everything started over, and that was how life was, and there was nothing else. We began to understand what Pierre Anthon meant. And we began to understand why the grown-ups looked the way they did.[8]

Unknown-6.jpegIn a moment of reflection, Agnes discovers her and her friends’ inauthentic way of living. Even though they profess to find meaning in their lives, by the end of the week, they find it is not how they pictured it, and they find themselves disappointed, unable to pinpoint where the meaning has gone. Just as values are really the same thing, so life is a tedious repetition, an interminable, monotonous circle, which, as soon as it comes to a close, begins again, ad nauseam. Agnes recounts all the woes of everyday life, the constant and unoriginal impediments she encounters each day. Strangely, while adults, too, claim there is meaning in life, they go around with smiles, whereas their eyes say another thing, for they try to hide beneath their exterior their unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life, and they cover up their tired and jaded weltschmerz, their weariness, as they continue on their day as if it is no big deal, looking ahead to some distant goal that is really unachievable; that, once it is achieved, will leave them wanting something beyond what they previously wanted, their desires never quenched. Pierre Anthon denounces life as just a big masquerade, in which everyone parades around happily behind masks, pretending everything is fine; but his friends find this idea unthinkable and protest. He fires back,

‘Then how come everyone’s making like everything that isn’t important is very important, all the while they’re so busy pretending what’s really important isn’t important at all?… How come it’s so important we learn to say please and thank you and the same to you and how do you do when soon none of us will be doing anything anymore, and everybody knows that instead they could be sitting here eating plums, watching the world go by and getting used to being a part of nothing?’[9]

Pierre Anthon makes the point that we dedicate much of our lives to learning insignificant things, things like manners and customs, things that do not really matter in the long run but which are mere courtesies, courtesies that are nothing more than trivial ways of interacting with one another, so as to respectfully acknowledge their being, even if it is ingenuine. He asks us why it is so vital that we ask how one’s day is going, when it is neither pertinent to ourselves nor pertinent in the long run. The norm of minding our P’s and Q’s has been ingrained into our way of life, to the point that we say them instinctively, at which point it loses all genuineness and concern, so it devolves into a kind of empty gesture that is more emptiness-1.jpgnegative than it is positive. But because nothing matters, says Pierre Anthon, because we will spend a large fraction of our life playing a pretend role, it is better to start renouncing early. If we are going to die eventually, we might as well get started as early as we can, acquainting ourselves with the nothingness that shall presently pervade our being. Philosophy, it is commonly said, is a way of training for death; Pierre Anthon takes this to the extreme, using it to actually prepare himself for death. Instead of living artificially, we should surrender ourselves to the nothing, as though we are a log in roaring rapids—we must allow ourselves to be swept away by the stream into the greater course of life: nothingness.


Toward the end of the book, the kids are offered a chance to travel to the U.S. for an interview, but the opportunity never comes around, and Pierre Anthon mocks them for their high hopes, telling them they had not found any meaning as a result: “[I]t planted inside me an unpleasant, nagging suspicion that Pierre Anthon maybe had ahold of something: that the meaning was relative and therefore without meaning.”[10] Perhaps one of the most important lines in the book, the expressed herein is meta-ethical relativism. Meta-ethical refers to the concept of ethics from an Unknown-1.jpegobjective standpoint, and relativism refers to the relative, or subjective, nature of ethics; therefore, meta-ethical moral relativism (what a mouthful!) says, similarly to internal moral skepticism, that ethical values are not objective and that there are no universal criteria by which to judge a statement. There is no reference point which holds all the answers: morality cannot be judged in reference to goodness, as goodness is not itself an objective criterion. Instead of comparing actions based on goodness or badness, the actions are judged in reference to themselves. In addition to the other theories of relativism heretofore outlined, there is also the more widely known cultural relativism, according to which morals differ from culture to culture, yet there is no universal morality; different customs and traditions are distinct to each culture, and no one culture can images-1.jpegbe said to be any more “correct” than the next, seeing as they are all equal. For example, cannibalism is strictly prohibited in the U.S., while for the Aghori it is a ritual. Which culture is right? Neither. Both cultures are entitled to their respective moralities and cannot infringe upon another, of whom they disapprove. Hence, cultural relativism can be thought to be a larger-scale version of normative ethical relativism. As a result, there is an inevitable incommensurability when it comes to morality, i.e., all moral systems are non-overlapping, must remain separate, and cannot exist alongside one another. The U.S. and the Aghori are incommensurable because their moralities are not compatible with one another. Upon amassing a pile of meaningful objects, the kids, confident they have proved Pierre Anthon wrong, come to his tree and politely ask him to see their pile. He says no.

 


[1] Westermarck, Ethical Relativity, p. 60
[2] Teller, Nothing, p. 1
[3] Id., p. 23
[4] Singer, Morals and Values, p. 200
[5] Id., p. 199
[6] Teller, op. cit., p. 19
[7] Id., pp. 139-40
[8] pp. 196-7
[9] p. 26
[10] p. 181

For further reading: 
The Columbia History of Western Philosophy by Richard R. Popkin (1999)
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy by Ted Honderich (1995)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy 
Vol. 3 by Paul Edwards (1967)
Morals and Values
by Marcus G. Singer (1977)

Nothing by Janne Teller (2010)

 

Schopenhauer and the Goldfinch [2 of 2]

Click here to read part 1 if you have not already.


As Theo comes to realize the godforsaken state of existence in which he finds himself living, he learns, too, “We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”[1] Heraclitus once said, “Character is destiny”—and Schopenhauer was in approval. To Schopenhauer, operare sequitur esse: To act follows being. Put another way, who we are determines how we act. Unknown-4.jpegContrary to Sartre’s dictum that “Existence precedes essence,” our essence precedes our existence. We are not tabula rasa, as Locke said, rather we have a nature at birth, a nature that will affect us till the grave, that will influence every action thereto. In line with his causality, Schopenhauer demonstrated our actions in terms of a motive and a subsequent action. A motive is independent of us, indifferent, whereas an action is dependent on us, subjective, relative to each of our unique dispositions. To illustrate this, put in the same circumstance, many people will act differently, precisely because their characters are different. Our character is unchanging and rigid, not like personality, which we say changes as we grow older. Character is more like a transcendental self, insofar as Schopenhauer said that, while the body dies, character does not; character, then, is like the soul, but not the same thing. Rather, character is independent of us. Theo recalls a discussion he had with Boris, an alcoholic, in which he asks why he does not quit, despite being readily able to quit.

If you can stop, why wouldn’t you?

Live by the sword, die by the sword, said Boris briskly….

And as terrible as this is, I get it. We can’t choose what we want and don’t want and that’s the hard lonely truth. Sometimes we want what we want even if we know it’s going to kill us. We can’t escape who we are.[2]

“We can’t escape who we are” because character is destiny. Boris admits he can quit whenever he wants, but because he committed to it in principle, it is better, in his eyes, to stick to it till the end, than to renounce it.


Amidst the pessimism and determinism which permeate the book is an interesting discussion of morality and ethics and how best to live one’s life, especially one which is characterized by an insatiable Will-to-live. In particular, I was captivated by an impassioned rant given by Boris, who was talking about Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot:

‘Very dark message to this book [The Idiot], ‘Why be good….’ What if maybe opposite is true as well? Because, if bad can sometimes come from good actions—? where does it ever say, anywhere, that only bad can come from bad actions? Maybe sometimes—the wrong way is the right way? You can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be? Or, spin it another way, sometimes you can do everything wrong and it still turns out to be right?’

… ‘Well—I have to say I personally have never drawn such a sharp line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as you. For me: that line is often false. The two are never disconnected. One can’t exist without the other.’[3]

Here, Boris turns morality on its head, championing the bad over the good, suggesting that maybe it is good to be bad, and that from bad comes good. One may be tempted to impute to Boris some kind of Machiavellianism, a justification for the-end-justifies-the-mean. This is perhaps true, but it also states that rules are created so they may be broken. He has an interesting notion that “you can do everything wrong and it still turns Unknown.pngout to be right,” which seems to reflect some veracity. Of course, this distinction arises solely because there is a line, a thick one, drawn between the two polar opposites of morality, a line Boris says is really obfuscated and not as thick as imagined. Perhaps one is not to the other as life is to death; Boris maintains that the two must exist with each other, for each other. One can think of a number line, with zero at the middle, good going to the right like positive numbers, bad to the left like negative numbers. Boris sees it not in terms of the integers’ values but their absolute value, their distance from zero, for they remain the same! There is no difference between good and bad, then, in reality. Either way, any action, good or bad, has the same absolute value, uncolored by any contrary appraisals. In deciding how best to live, Theo contrasts two models of living:

Is Kitsey right? If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? … Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm,… all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or—like Boris—is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?

It’s not about outward appearances but inward significance. A grandeur in the world, but not of the world, a grandeur that the world doesn’t understand. That first glimpse of pure otherness, in whose presence you bloom out and out and out.

A self one does not want. A heart one cannot help.[4]

Unknown.jpegIn addition to Schopenhauer, we can introduce Nietzsche to help us out here. Kitsey, to whom Theo is engaged, pursues an ethical life, one lived in accordance with a higher good in mind, virtuous, controlled, just. She goes through life resisting her desires, retaining her dignity, and acting dutifully. Kitsey, it would seem, is the paragon of a good person: She avoids giving into her impulses, follows the norm, and works to perfect herself; she is a functioning human. On the other hand, Boris is reckless, spontaneous, and irrational, jumping headfirst into whatever lies below, giving into his instincts. Who is the right model? After whose lead should we follow? If we turn to Nietzsche, it is Boris, to Schopenhauer, Kitsey. In terms of Nietzschean morality, Kitsey represents the slave and Boris the master in the master-slave paradigm, respectively. Nietzsche criticized religion for enforcing this moral schema, namely that the weak are better than the strong. Borrowing from Schopenhauer, Nietzsche said we all have an inherent Will-to-Power that is constantly repressed by norms and religion. The slaves, acknowledging their weakness in comparison to the masters, over whom they had no control, but vice versa, conspired with each other to create an ethic that said asceticism and virtue made a person “good” or bad.” In this sense, the masters, who exerted force and power, were “bad,” or Unknown-1.jpegimmoral, and the slaves, who silently suffered, were “good” and moral. Nietzsche said this system is backward, complaining that we were stifling our Will-to-Power, insisting that we engage our aggressive tendencies and give into our instincts. A slave will subscribe to an ethical system, but a master will make his own system, will carve his own path. Therefore, Kitsey, who follows the norms and represses her Will, is a slave, and Boris, who aggressively faces obstacles, is a master. On the other hand, Schopenhauer said that because the Will-to-live causes suffering, and suffering ought to be avoided, we must renounce our desires completely—we must renounce our Will-to-live entirely. Only when we desire no longer can we attain tranquility and peace of mind. Howbeit, it would be incorrect to say that Schopenhauer would praise Kitsey, so far as she is still active, meaning Will is still manifest in her. Instead, said Schopenhauer, we must completely renounce our Will-to-live; we must be completely ascetic. Again, this is turning out to be highly depressing, so we shall turn to some happier ethics.

To contemplate the face-clawing worry the dope had saved me… flooded me with Vedic serenity. Worry! What a waste of time. All the holy books were right. Clearly worry was the mark of a primitive and spiritually unevolved person…. All things fall and are built again…. This was wisdom. People had been raging and weeping and destroying things for centuries and wailing about their puny individual lives, when—what was the point? All this useless sorrow? Consider the lilies of the field. Why did anyone ever worry about anything? Weren’t we, as sentient beings, put upon earth to be happy, in the brief time allotted to us? [5]

Unknown-3.jpegTheo references “Vedic serenity,” as depicted in the Hindu spiritual text the Vedas, from which Schopenhauer drew inspiration, incidentally, too. He speaks of “[a]ll the holy books,” which can be interpreted not just as the spiritual masterpieces, Eastern and Western, but also philosophy. See, in Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Stoicism, Skepticism, Epicureanism, and many more ancient traditions, anxiety and worry were said to result from a restless mind that thought and worried about the future, causing dis-ease. Those who worried chronically were, as Theo put it, “primitive and spiritually unevolved.” Indeed, when it came down to things, in the big picture of life and history, our conflicts should not matter much. If we focused more on being tranquil and content, we would not have big-scale wars. We must be in the present and stop to smell the roses. “Consider the lilies of the field,” focus on the small things in life. The pessimists and absurdists may flaunt their indifference and contempt. If we are here for a short amount of time, why not at least make it enjoyable?


Unknown.jpegConsidering the name The Goldfinch is based on a painting, one would suspect there to be in the book some theory of aesthetics, if not a few words on art—and there are. Hobie, who becomes Theo’s legal guardian, says, “And isn’t it the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty?”[6] The painting “The Goldfinch” by Carel Fabritius plays a considerable role in the book, following Theo around, being traded from one place to another, avoiding and finally being returned to the authorities. Theo and the painting have an almost magical connection, and it is made apparent in their interactions, with Theo constantly worrying about its safety, checking to make sure it is okay, sneaking a peek at it and its rich simplicity. The simplicity of the painting is commented on throughout the book, painting it (pun intended) to be some kind of mundane, ordinary piece of art; yet it is the exact opposite, harboring an almost magnetic effect to any and all onlookers, attracting them with its beauty. Hobie continues,

‘—if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you…. [A] really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles, in ways that are unique and very particular. Yours, yours. I was painted for you.’[7]

Schopenhauer, incidentally, believed the opposite, claiming an artwork’s worth could be found in its universality and expression of mankind. Minor dispute aside, Schopenhauer, too, spoke of the remedial effects of art, praising it and its uses. Works are a reflection of their makers, but those with whom it creates an unbreaking bond find within it an expression of themselves. Paintings are not to be judged objectively, for the whole of us, Unknown-1.jpegbut subjectively, for each person, because art is personalized; it has an effect on people, and Hobie in this quote comments on how art “chooses” people. A good painting, he says, is not just appealing, but is transformative. What interested Schopenhauer in art is its ability to suppress the Will; art, therefore, had healing capabilities and provided an escape. The purpose of art is to distract the admirer, to direct their focus off of their desires and onto the art. Schopenhauer described the viewing of art as disinterested, distanced, in that it is non-judgmental, but wholly perceptive and open. When we are absorbed in a painting, we forget about our desires temporarily—as long as we are engrossed in it—and live in the present. There forms a relationship between viewer and object, dissolving everything else, until it is just the perceiver and the perceived, timeless, eternal. Staring at the painting, we think not, “I need this or that”—we do not think at all; we look; we feel. The Will is suppressed for a while, and during that time, we are content. Theodor presents a kind of theory of aesthetics next:

Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.

And—I would argue as well—all love…. And just as music is the space between notes, just as the stars are beautiful because of the space between them, just as the sun strikes raindrops at a certain angle and throws a prism of colors across the sky—so the space where I exist, and want to keep existing, and to be quite frank I hope I die in, is exactly this middle distance: where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime.[8]

Just as glasses use lenses in order to direct the passage of light onto the pupil, so perception of reality passes through some sort of lens before being interpreted in the Unknown-3.jpegmind. Kant, who credited us with reason and intuition, posited a third faculty of the mind: Imagination. This view was expanded upon by Coleridge, who claimed imagination was a fantastical faculty that humans possessed which allows us to create art and have a sense of beauty. Imagination is neither rational nor irrational but nonrational, meaning it does not use reason, but is transcendent, even beyond the realm of feeling. It is this intermediate zone of which Theo speaks, this “rainbow edge where beauty comes into being.” This imaginative zone is where aesthetics and beauty reside, where we get our sense of proportion, balance, and grace. Whereas reality is too ugly to be beautiful, according to Theo’s perspective, this aesthetic zone “mingle[s] and blur[s] to provide what life does not.” The categories of the mind, we can suppose, extend into the Unknown-2.jpegimagination, where “all art exists, and all magic.” It is this unconscious realm of interpretation that gives color its colorfulness, beauty its beautifulness, and the sublime its sublimity. Because the zone is empty, it is also everything, it contains everything, and so love is possible, for it is also fantastical and aesthetic, a beauty of the highest order. Theo, when he dies, wants to die in this aesthetic zone, and who wouldn’t, frankly? I think we all want to, whether we admit it or not. Without magic, love, and art, what is there? This zone is necessary for being human. Despair, once it passes through this zone, interacts with “pure otherness and create[s] something sublime.”  For, in the words of Theo, “only through stepping into the middle zone, the polychrome edge between truth and untruth, is it tolerable to be here and writing this at all.”[9] Aesthetics is necessary for a good life.


Finally, to end this post, I want to give perhaps the most optimistic and uplifting quote from the whole book—an epiphany few of us have discovered, yet a truth we all ought to discover, a truth to live by. “I had the epiphany that laughter was light, and light was laughter, and that this was the secret of the universe.”[10]

 


[1] Tartt, The Goldfinch, p. 761
[2] Id., p. 770
[3] p. 745
[4] p. 761
[5] pp. 692-3
[6] p. 757
[7] p. 758
[8] pp. 770-1
[9] p. 771
[10] p. 334

 

for further reading:
The World as Will and Representation Vol. 1 by Arthur Schopenhauer (1995)
Schopenhauer
: A Very Short Introduction by Christopher Janaway (2002)

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013)

Schopenhauer and The Goldfinch [1 of 2]

Unknown.jpegA masterful, nearly 800-page novel, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch follows the disenchanted and equally pessimistic Theodore Decker, who has lived through the deaths of many of his loved ones as he descends into darkness. The book is incredibly detailed and thought-provoking, and the depicted struggles of Theo are described in enough despair as to inspire the same despondency in the reader, leaving them dejected after reading, calling for serious reflection of oneself and one’s life. As I read the book, I struggled to find a coherent philosopher/philosophy with which to compare the message of it, but as I kept looking over the connections, it clicked: Theo Decker resembles most—in my opinion—the pessimist thinker Arthur Schopenhauer, author of The World as Will and Representation. In this post, I will be exploring the topics of causality, pessimism and some derivatives thereof, character, morality, and aesthetics, which can be found in both writings.


Anyone who reads The Goldfinch will notice the importance of causation that runs through the book, namely the supremacy of either fate or chance, determinism or indeterminism. Even in the first major event of the book, we see through both the dialogue and Theo himself that, throughout history, there is no denying the uncanny resemblances which occur, from the explosion of Delft to the explosion at the museum. Theo recounts that he often thought about

the element of chance: random disasters, mine and his [Carel Fabritius], converging on the same unseen point…. You could study the connections for years and never work it out—it was all about things coming together, things falling apart, time warp…. The stray chance that might, or might not, change everything.[1]

Theo compares to the destructive explosion that destroyed Fabritius’ works and the museum in which Theo found himself, noting how mysteriously similar they were, as though there were some kind of link, some kind of bridge that brought the two together. But randomness has no cause, no reason, yet there seems to be a parallel. When it comes to probability, especially in major events, there is no way to calculate the odds to 100%; there is no direct correlation between an event and its cause, much less a single one, and Unknown-1.jpegthus, while Theo can try to examine the relation between the two events, he will ultimately find none, for even the smallest change can alter the entire course. It is “[t]he stray chance,” the minor divergence, so improbably small, that determines whether someone lives or dies. Nonetheless, “the explosion in Delft was part of a complex of events that ricocheted into the present. The multiple outcomes could make you dizzy.”[2] Schopenhauer believed in determinism. He said everything is caused by a prior action. What the cause of this determinism is—be it Will, to which we will return presently, or some natural order—he explains not. Consequently, in light of Theo’s ruminations, it would mean that there is a necessity at work; the events leading from the explosion in Delft to the museum were determined as soon as they happened; therefore, it was inevitable, a decree of fate, that the two events would match up. However, where does chance fit into this? Perhaps, in reconciling the two views, we can surmise that determinism is indeterminate, by which I mean that the necessary connection of two events happens by chance. Albeit seemingly paradoxical, this explanation says that, while the two explosions are part of a grand scheme, ordained to happen, the fact of their necessity is based on probability. It is the “stray chance” in events that caused the one explosion, leading to the other one. This two-way view of causality is expressed in The Goldfinch by Boris:

‘What if all your actions and choices, good or bad, made no difference to God? What if the pattern is pre-set?… Understand, by saying ‘God,’ I am merely using ‘God’ as reference to a long-term pattern we can’t decipher…. But—maybe not so random and impersonal as all that, if you get me.’[3]

Theo replies, “‘I think this goes more to the idea of ‘relentless irony’ than ‘divine providence,’’’ to which Boris says, “‘Yes—but why give it a name? Can’t they both be the same thing?’”[4] This dialogue introduces predestination, a view that holds that all our lives are already written beginning to end and are unchangeable, which Theo compares to irony, stating that this pattern is more arbitrary than Boris thinks it. Whereas Boris sees an orderly pattern, Theo sees nonrational chaos and anarchy. Boris then presents the idea that the two need not be contradictory, but rather that the two are identical, two sides to the same face. Fate and chance are intertwined, causing events necessarily based on probability, which is more or less indeterminate. Schopenhauer’s Will is said to be “blind” in that it is neither good nor bad, but indifferent. As such, it is possible that we could entertain the ideas that the Will could be responsible for causality that is neither determinate nor indeterminate.[5] Earlier in the book, Theo relates the two in another way.

An act of God: that was what the insurance companies called it, catastrophe so random or arcane that there was otherwise not taking the measure of it. Probability was one thing, but some events fell so far outside the actuarial tables that even insurance underwriters were compelled to haul in the supernatural in order to explain them—rotten luck, as my father had said mournfully… a sincere bowing of the head to Fortune, the greatest god he knew.[6]

Determinism is easy to explain, through necessity, just as randomness is, through probability. According to Theo, there are events so utterly and unbelievably out of this world, so unintelligibly arational and comprehensible to neither man nor machine, that they are unpredictable to the extent that they are divine. The only possible explanation for this deviation is “[a]n act of God.” These events are so outside of human understanding that they are fictional in a sense, deferred to a power stronger than imaginable.


The deeper one goes into the novel, the deeper one finds oneself in an abyss, a totally black void, “an emptiness so dark that it destroyed, categorically, anything you’d ever looked at or thought of as light,”[7] reflected by the meaninglessness of life in the eyes of Theo. Part of what makes the book depressing is the fact that the book itself, its message, Unknown-2.jpegis depressing: That life is worthless. Theo sums up his belief with brevity: “It was better never to have been born—never to have wanted anything, never to have hoped for anything.”[8] This view is called antinatalism (anti-, against, -nasci-, to be born) and says that so much suffering comes from human existence that it is better never to have born, as in doing so, one does not have to confront life or its lack of value. Before that, Theo remarks, “For humans—trapped in biology—there was no mercy: we lived a while, we fussed around for a bit and died, we rotted in the ground like garbage. Time destroyed us all soon enough.”[9] In comes Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer’s main idea is the Will, a pantheistic energy, or entity, that pervades the world, and most importantly—most tragically, rather—us humans.[10] The Will is the thing-in-itself, meaning it is imperceptible to us but manifests itself in the world and is the essence thereof. As Schopenhauer put it,

It [the Will] is the innermost essence, the kernel, of every particular thing and also of the whole. It appears in every blindly acting force of nature, and also in the deliberate conduct of man, and the great difference between the two concerns only the degree of the manifestation, not the inner nature of what is manifested.[11]

What is the nature of this Will? The Will is described as “blind,” as we discussed, so we know it is impartial to man and nature alike. Schopenhauer characterized the Will as manifest in man as what he calls the Will-to-Live, which is described as endless striving after life. Indifferent, insatiable, and nonrational, the Will is an unconscious drive that seeks and desires incessantly. Life, Schopenhauer pointed out, consists entirely of desires, such as comfort, hunger, thirst, warmth, etc. His pessimism lies in the fact that humans cannot avoid suffering, that suffering is both inevitable and interminable, in the truest sense. When we desire, we are in a state of suffering, for we want things; we are medium_suffering-dtmsdfrl.jpgnot satisfied until we get them. However, even when we do satisfy our desires, what then? After eating and therefore subduing our hunger, we are left bored, feeling empty and unstimulated. Schopenhauer reminds us that at all times we are constantly pulled in different directions by our varying desires, which pull us this way and that, never static, always demanding more and more, like a restless baby who will not stop crying. In the success of satisfying our hunger, in contemplating the subsequent emptiness therefrom, we become aware of the nagging desire to drink, to sleep, to have sex, to readjust our sitting position to make us more comfortable, to have companionship. Our predicament has no remedy! From this, Theo concludes that life must obviously not be worth living, seeing as there can come no true contentment in life, just indomitable desires. Further, we have no choice, as the Will-to-live is inherent; it is our nature. Although the Will can only be perceived by humans through categories, thereby making it phenomenal, we humans have the most direct yet involuntary contact with the Will—the body. Through bodily actions, ranging from simple to complex, from raising a hand to running, we come in contact with the Will as pure action and movement. Our movement is synchronous with the Will, and the two are one. Reflecting on a lifeless painting, a mere phenomenon, Theo realizes,

I was different, but it wasn’t. And as the light flickered over it in bands, I had the queasy sense of my own life, in comparison, as a patternless and transient burst of energy, a fizz of biological static just as the street lamps flashing past.[12]

The painting is phenomenal, belonging to the corporeal world, a lifeless, reactive object. Contrast this to Theo, in whom the Will manifests itself, full of life, active, whose actions are in and of the Will. Unlike the painting, however, Theo, Will-manifest, is “patternless,” a “transient burst of energy”—Theo is dynamic energy, always changing, and has the Will-to-live, as opposed to the painting, which is composed of an orderly array of atoms, absent from it “a fizz of biological static.” Late in the book, Theo, in yet another pessimistic outburst, has this to say:

And I’m hoping there’s some larger truth about suffering here, or at my understanding of it—…. The loneliness that separates every living creature from every other living creature. Sorrow inseparable from joy.

… I don’t care what anyone says or how often or winningly they say it: no one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is catastrophe. The basic fact of existence… is catastrophe…. For me—and I’ll keep repeating it doggedly till I die, till I fall over on my ungrateful nihilistic face and am too weak to say it: better never born, than born into this cesspool…. No release, no appeal, no “do-overs” to employ a favored phrase Xandra’s, no way forward but age and loss, and no way out but death.[13]

Unknown-3.jpegSchopenhauer famously compared human beings to porcupines: Man seeks companionship, yet every time he tries to get close, he is pricked, so he must distance himself. What are the needles? Suffering. Unfortunately for Theo, there is little truth about suffering, except that it intrinsic to life. Accordingly, there will never be a bridge between two people, for the chasm of suffering’s breadth is unsurpassable. Theo should have said, “The basic fact of existence is suffering,” considering that is one of the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, who inspired Schopenhauer, as well as the fact that the only way to enjoy life is to remove suffering entirely. The only viable solution, thus, seems to be death, as either way, it will come to us all.

[B]ut does it make any sense at all to know that it ends badly for all of us, even the happiest of us, and that we lose everything that matters in the end—and yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it’s possible to play it with a kind of joy? [14]

Contrary to the hitherto pessimistic outlook shown by Theo, he shows here a bit of Absurdism. Despite the meaninglessness of the life, despite the fact that we are all destined to die, forgotten, alone, we can, like Sisyphus, take joy in the absurdity, laughing in the face of life. At one point, toward the end of the book, Theo tries to commit suicide, but that in itself would be an act of suffering, because Schopenhauer explained that killing oneself in an attempt to escape the Will-to-live is itself an act of Will, thereby defeating the whole purpose. Hence, we are trapped in a world of suffering, the option of killing ourselves not even available to us. Truly, this is an abysmal existence. Indeed, our lives are ruled by “[f]orces unknown, unchosen, unwilled.”[15]

 


[1] Tartt, The Goldfinch, p. 305
[2] Ibid.
[3] Id., p. 746
[4] Ibid.
[5] Schopenhauer, in his texts, never makes this claim, rather it is my interpretation
[6] Tartt, op. cit., pp. 701-2
[7] Id., p. 695
[8] p. 477
[9] p. 695
[10] Schopenhauer did not think of the Will as a force 
[11] Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 1, p. 110
[12] Tartt, op. cit., p. 672
[13] Id., p. 767
[14] p. 768
[15] p. 770

 

For further reading: 
The World as Will and Representation Vol. 1 by Arthur Schopenhauer (1995)
Schopenhauer: A Very Short Introduction by Christopher Janaway (2002)
The Goldfinch
by Donna Tartt (2013)

 

Who Was Giordano Bruno?

The Renaissance was one of the most groundbreaking periods in history, as it saw the revival of classical thinking, yet it also paved the way for future ideas. The time was ripe with ideas; philosophers, artists, and scientists began to break away from religion and propose new ideas, which were scientific in nature, and did not rely on the Church’s dogma. Unfortunately, countless intellectuals from the period were persecuted by the Church, which denounced them as heretics, burning their books, trying as hard as possible to stunt the growth of scientific thought. Among these thinkers was the legendary Giordano Bruno: philosopher, cosmologist, and occult mage.


unknown-6Born in 1548 to a poor family in Nola, Italy, Bruno at a young age joined the Dominican Order, which was the common thing to do in his time. Eager to learn, Bruno saw the Order as a great means through which to get an education, seeing as he could not afford a formal one. It did not take long for a young Bruno to take a disliking to Catholicism, for early on he stripped his cell of everything but the cross. Later on, he was accused of heresy, and in 1576, he was exiled from the Order, destined to a life of itinerancy, wandering from one place to another for refuge from an institution which, at the time, seemed to be everywhere, inescapable. During his time at the Order, Bruno studied the great thinkers that had come before him: Lull, Plotinus, Aquinas, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Cusa, and Copernicus, the latter of whom would imprint himself on Bruno’s thought most saliently. Bruno’s exile took him all across Europe, from Switzerland to France to England and thence to Germany. To afford his non-stop traveling, Bruno worked as both a public lecturer and private tutor. Geneva, he found, provided no safety for him, so upon receiving a letter from Henry III, King of France, who insisted he come, Bruno absquatulated to France, where he was welcomed to the court. There he taught the King and enjoyed tranquility for some time. He also lectured at a number of eminent colleges, such as the University of Paris, Oxford,[1] and Wittenberg. Bruno came into contact with many Protestants who were also hiding from the Church, although he came to dislike them, for they were, according to him, narrow-minded; likewise, the Protestants did not consider themselves sympathetic to philosophers like Bruno. Throughout his wandering, Bruno never really enjoyed any belonging, nor any peace. Unwanted, homeless, an outcast, Bruno had no place to call home—which is why he was delighted to get a letter from Giovanni Mocenigo on May 23, 1592, who was from his native Italy, whereupon Bruno quickly went to Venice, which was still heavily Catholic. Bruno was aware of the apparent danger posed by his returning to Italy, but he took Mocenigo’s amiable invitation as a sign that he was in good terms, that it was safe to come back. Mocenigo was fascinated by Bruno’s work in mnemonics. Bruno took this opportunity to also get a position at the University of Padua, at which he lectured for his stay. Unbeknownst to the philosopher, Mocenigo was convinced Bruno was actually an Occult mage trained in black magic. When he was unsatisfied with his learning, upset that Bruno was apparently holding out on teaching 310px-Galileo_before_the_Holy_Office.jpghim the dark arts, feeling betrayed, Mocenigo secretly alerted the Venice Inquisition. Locked in Mocenigo’s basement, Bruno was then taken to the Inquisition. He was tortured and forced to recant all his heretic beliefs. Bruno was pardoned, but soon the court at Rome requested his hearing. For eight years Bruno sat rotting in the prisons of Rome. The Inquisition at Rome was not as lenient as the Venetian, and much more austere. Whereas the latter let him off the hook and took pity on him, the former would listen to nothing he said. On February 17, 1600, at the Campo de’ Fiori, Giordano Bruno, after spending his whole life in exile, after spending eight years in prison, was burned alive.


Bruno had an unorthodox education, having read, in addition to the classic philosophers, Egyptian mystical works and Hermetic writings. He read the Hermetic Corpus, a mystical work written by a supposed Hermes Trismegistus, a prophet of Egyptian religion. From Unknown-1.jpeghis readings in Hermeticism he derived the ideas of metempsychosis (from Orphism), or transmigration of the soul, and pantheism, from which he came to the conclusion, “God in all things.”[2] Another important belief he got was that movement was equivalent to energy. Where there was energy, there was movement, and vice versa. Before the 19th-century, scholars and historians, based on superficial reading, considered Bruno to be a deist and magician; both conceptions have still carried on today and hang over his name, but have mostly been rejected through serious reading. He read Aristotle, whom he thought pedantic and dry; Copernicus, whose cosmological theory impacted Bruno; Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, from which he borrowed the doctrine of infinite world; and Nicholas of Cusa, who provided for Bruno theological inspiration.


Unknown-2.jpegThe Art of Memory and On the Shadows of Ideas were published in 1582. These two works were written by Bruno on mnemonics and were considered to be alchemical and occult in nature. With seemingly divine inspiration, Bruno devised secret techniques to memorize things, allowing him, it is said, to visualize and draw out a mental map of the entire cosmos in his head. The art of memory, as he put it, was reserved for mystics and was conceived of as obscure, a practice only for those trained in it, people like Paracelsus. This is the main reason many compared him to a mage-like figure, as the art of mnemonics was comparable to magic. Bruno ascribed to the cosmos a system of relativism, asserting that there was no “center of the Universe.” Despite increasing infinitely, the Universe had no center; center, for Bruno, was relative to where a spectator was standing. At any point in the Universe a person could say he is at the center. Just as there is no fixed center, there is no absolute motion or time. Motion, it is important to remember, requires a reference point. An object is in motion insofar as it is moving in relation to an object, meaning that motion is relative. Similarly, time is not some absolute unit of measurement, but is rather used to measure something in reference to something else, usually motion. Epicurus, interestingly, offered a similar view: “As for unbounded space, we should not predicate ‘above’ or ‘below’ of any parts of it in the sense of a highest or lowest point. We can refer to what is over our heads relative to where we stand.”[3] Further, Aristotle was wrong about absolute weight, Bruno said. There is no intrinsic heaviness or lightness of a Heliocentric.jpgplanet, as Aristotle said; rather, every planet’s weight was to be determined respective to itself. Bruno was a champion of Heliocentrism, the belief that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and not the other way around. This theory was first propounded by Aristarchus of Samos, but was taken up most memorably by Copernicus, who revolutionized it. The Roman astronomer Ptolemy wrote that the Earth was the body around which the Sun revolved, and it stuck, ultimately being taken up by the Church, which it held to be factual. Thus, Bruno made himself a target to the Church, but he would be proven right centuries later. He claimed, albeit incorrectly, that all planetary bodies had a  circular course. Aristotle posed the question of a Prime Mover, taken by some to be an argument for God, to account for the motion of the Celestial bodies: If causation is based on some prior cause, what was the first cause that started it all? According to Aristotle, some kind of Supreme being must have caused the first thing in the Universe, giving way to the rest of the Universe. Bruno, however, disagreed with this notion, relying instead on his Hermeticism and Hylozoism—the belief that matter is alive, which he borrowed from Aristotle, incidentally—to explain that the planets had their own intrinsic movement. Bruno thought energy and movement were related, so he stated that the planets moved by themselves, as though they had their own impetus. There is no need for a Prime Mover in Bruno’s world because the planets move themselves. Most famously, Bruno supported the idea that there is a plurality of worlds out there in space. His magnum 3-plurality-of-worlds-leonhard-euler-science-source.jpgopuses On the Infinite Universe and Worlds (1591) and On the Immeasurable and Countless Worlds outline his theory in detail. In them Bruno argues that if the Universe is infinite and always growing, there must be infinite planets and habitable Earths like ours. He also said that Copernicus could only make out eight planets in the solar system; but if the senses are limited in their capacities, Bruno argued, that would mean they could not grasp the possibly unlimited planets beyond us. Some mistakenly attribute to Bruno the creation of this theory; however, Epicurus again sets the precedent: “And the number of worlds is infinite, some worlds being similar to this one, while other worlds are very different.”[4] Medieval scholars believed the Heavenly bodies were composed of the fifth element, Æther, which they borrowed from Aristotle. Bruno thought otherwise: He maintained they there composed of the four classical elements; there was no need for the unbounded Æther. This placed him at odds, once more, with the Church, considering this conception completely opposed Genesis. The central idea in Bruno’s philosophy is God. Combining Neoplatonism with Egyptian mysticism, Bruno’s pantheism declared God to be causa immanens, or immanent cause; in other words, God is self-caused, independent of any external causation. God exists in essence of himself. As though anticipating Leibniz, Bruno produced a theory of monadology, basically saying that reality is composed of infinite, self-contained entities called monads. God was, of course, the monas monadum—the highest monad. From this vision of God, Bruno deduced that all substance—that is to say, matter—is One, i.e., all matter is derived from the being of God; matter and God are one and the same. Particulars (circonstanzie) are explained as being specific manifestations of substance. To use an example to clarify: A chair is made of substance, substance being permeated by God, and chairs may come in many shapes and sizes, many particulars, in other words, of the one substance that is chair. Another statement Bruno makes is that God is the Universe, and the Universe God. The Universe has always existed and shall always continue to exist. There was no creation of the Universe; it did not just go poof! and appear, as it did in the Big Bang. Here, one can see the blatant influence of Parmenides. God is eternal, having no beginning, nor end; He simply has been and will be.


giordano_bruno.jpgMoments before his auto-da-fé, Bruno was offered the cross, to which he replied, “Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.”[5] These fearless words uttered from a man who was about to die carry immense heroism. Here, a man who stood up against the Church, his fate in their hands, as he says these words. What he meant by saying this was that he, Bruno, was dying for a greater cause. He devoted his life to and died in the name of Truth, knowing that while he was but a mortal man, transient in nature, Truth was undying and eternal, an ideal he fought for till the end. The Church, on the other hand, was stubborn and eschewed Truth. They say you can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea—Bruno’s judges knew this. By killing Bruno in an attempt to cover up the Truth, they were not making things better, but rather released something greater and beyond their control. While he is not remembered today despite his ingenious thought regarding the cosmos, Bruno remains a martyr for science, belonging up there with Galileo. In the words of John Addington Symonds, “Bruno was a hero in the battle for freedom of the conscience, for the right of man to think and speak in liberty.”[6]

 


[1] He despised Oxford and its professors, describing them as pedantic; he got into a quarrel over an accusation of plagiarism.
[2] EdwardsThe Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 1, p. 406
[3] Epicurus, Letters and Sayings of Epicurus, “Letter to Herodotus,” p. 13
[4] Id., p. 6
[5] Hecht, Doubt: A History, p. 295
[6] Symonds, Renaissance in Italy, Vol. 2, p. 799

 

For further reading: An Intellectual and Cultural History of the Western World Vol. 2 by Harry Elmer Barnes (1965)
Renaissance in Italy Vol. 2 by John Addington Symonds (1935)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Vol. 1 by Paul Edwards (1967)

Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht (2003)
The Idea of Nature by R.G. Collingwood (1960)
History of Philosophy by Julian Marías (1967)

Neologism: Ad Tædium

Slouched in your chair, head resting between your arms, thoughts in another place, you have been listening to your professor lecturing ad tædium, to the point that you have to evade the dryness through your imaginative daydreaming, so that now you are not even processing a word he says.

The phrase ad tædium is Latin for “toward or until boredom,” and is derived from the prefix -ad (as in ad hominemad infinitum), meaning to or toward, and the root word tædium, from which we get tedious and tedium, ultimately meaning weary or bored. The adverb functions as a way of describing some act or process which goes on until you find yourself completely uninterested.

Other adverbs of a similar nature, viz., ad nauseam and ad infinitum, can work; however, they have their own connotations. Ad nauseam, for example, is an act carried out until you find yourself “nauseated,” so to speak, i.e., annoyed. And ad infinitum merely goes on forever, without end, an interminable process. Accordingly, ad tædium is a good phrase on its own, for it keeps the negative connotation of ad nauseam and the monotonous nature of ad infinitum.

You might wonder as to why I chose tædium, with the typographic ligature, instead of the English tedium, which would have been easier and more understandable. I chose the former, simply, because I wished to retain the Latin feel of it.