The Problem with Memetic Literacy

Unknown.jpegImmediately after they wake up, a large percentage of people check their phones to see the latest notifications from their social media or to respond to the influx of emails they have received. Similarly, a large percentage of people stay up late doing the same thing, checking their feeds, scrolling, nothing in particular on their minds, nothing to look out for—just scrolling, as if something will magically appear. Everyday, millions of pairs of eyes flicker over their bright screens, either on Instagram, Snapchat, or iFunny looking at hundreds of memes, short, humorous images or clips shared from person to person, starting with just one viewer, then spreading exponentially, until, like the game of telephone, it evolves with every share, becoming something new, something different, yet derivative, building off of the original, but with a new touch of interpretation by whoever appropriates it. It can be said that memes are one the greatest things of 21st-century technology since they are able to be universally understood, shared, and laughed at. Language barriers are no Unknown.pngmore, so someone in the U.S. can share a meme with someone in China, and they will both get it. How cool is that—to be able to communicate cross-culturally and get a laugh out of it? Memes allow for a shared knowledge and entertainment for people of all ages and backgrounds, connecting them through a single medium. While I myself like a good meme, just as anyone else does, and while they can be hilarious, I think the popularity of memes today, despite its benefits, also brings with it deficits, problems that need, and should, be addressed. The spread of a “memetic literacy,” as I like to call it, has supplanted a much more fundamental, more necessary cultural literacy, and so will, I believe, impoverish both today’s and tomorrow’s youths.

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 11.33.01 PM.pngWhen we think of literacy, we think of reading and writing. To be literate is to be able to read and write; to be illiterate, to be able to neither read nor write. Defined this way, our generation has the highest literacy ever, according to the graph to the left. Over time, as education has become open to more people, as education has been improved, literacy has gone up, and will continue to. We are living in an Enlightened age, the most Enlightened age, with information stored in computers and more brains than there have ever been. However, there is a difference between being able to read and write and being able to read and write well. E. D. Hirsch defines literacy as “the ability to communicate effectively with strangers.”[1] What this means is that literacy is a common, shared knowledge. If I am literate, then I should be able to engage anyone on the street and be able to have an understanding conversation with them, one in which I am able to understand them, and them me. Despite our backgrounds, we are both able to know what we are each talking about; I and they are comprehended. During the 19th century when the world was industrializing, education was universalized. Schools were implemented worldwide to teach a shared culture. National languages were codified, instead of regional dialects so that people could understand one another, and thus, as in Unknown-1.jpegthe Renaissance, reading was made available for everyone, not just the learned elite, who were usually religious members. Because language was made singular, common, the koine, the vulgar tongue, the common folk could on a mass level learn to read and write in school. Some argue that is a language and a culture that create a nation, for what is spoken and what is spoken about constitute a common people. There is a sort of egalitarian principle behind this, a principle of making everyone equal, of giving everyone, no matter their makeup, no matter their abilities, no matter their social position, the right to an education, the right to be a part of a culture. There are no distinctions between the advantaged and the disadvantaged, the educated and the uneducated.

Unknown-2.jpegHirsch relates how the literate usually like to keep the illiterate illiterate by not telling them how to be literate, withholding the specific requirements for becoming so. It is subtle: There is no single, agreed-upon list of things to know in order to be literate, for the selection is just so vast. The Western Canon, for example, is but a sampling of the world’s greatest literature. So while some may call you literate for having read the whole Canon, some may not consider that criteria enough. As such, to be truly literate, to be well read, is to be a part of the elite, as opposed to the merely literate, comprised of those who are educated enough to read and write. I like to think that I am pretty literate in memes, but this was disabused when I was hanging out with a friend one time, and every phrase I heard out of his mouth I could not relate to. I thought I had a pretty solid grasp of memes, yet here was my friend, who was clearly more literate in memes, referencing different jokes whereof I knew not. It was like he was having an inside joke with himself that I could not understand; I lacked the shared background knowledge as he, and he assumed I had it, when I did not. On YouTube, there are famous playlists 300-videos long, lasting for several hours, full of Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 11.11.59 AM.pngmemes. If one can sit through all of them, then one, I guess, can be called “literate” in memes. However, he will still be lacking in other memes, meaning it is hard to specify what memes one should know if one is to be literate in them. In my case, how am I to know which memes are in vogue? Moving past this, the better one can read, the better one does in other subjects. From experience, I can attest to the fact that reading a variety of texts leads to a bigger vocabulary, and thence to a larger storage of knowledge and comprehension, resulting, ultimately, in easier learning through association. Such is the outline of literacy by Hirsch. Someone who is well-rounded in their reading, who reads not just fiction but non-fiction, who looks up words they do not know so they can improve, who not only specializes but generalizes their knowledge, who associates what they do not know with what they do know—they are literate, and they are successful in reading and writing.

E. D. Hirsch writes of a study he once conducted in Richmond, Virginia at a community college. There, he interviewed students and asked them to write responses to his prompts. Eventually, he asked them to write an essay in which they compare Civil War generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, the latter of whom was himself a Virginian. Although they were in the capital of Virginia, what was once the capital of the South, the students were not able to write a response because they did not know who either of the two men was. Hirsch was flabbergasted, to say the least. The point he was trying to prove was this: Cultural literacy is integral to society. A universal background is always Unknown-1.pngpresupposed. We require tacit knowledge to understand things that are implicit, both in a text and in the world around. The culture is greater than the sum of its parts. Culture must be understood generally, in relation to all its parts, kind of like a Hermeneutic Circle, where the whole and its parts must be continually interpreted in light of each other. In this sense, cultural literacy comprises political, historical, social, literary, and scientific literacy, all in one, according to Hirsch. In other words, cultural literacy is the totality of all its subjects. One must be well-rounded and not too-specialized to be culturally literate, lest one neglect a subject over another. For instance, a writer writing a non-fiction book assumes his audience knows what he knows, or at least has some kind of background information coming into it; he least expects them to be coming in blindsided, without any preconceptions or context whatsoever. There should be an interplay between specialization and generalization, because, on the one hand, a reader should have a grasp of the subject overall, but also the details within it. Things that are assumed are connotations, norms, standards, and values, among other things—in short, shared knowledge. To have this shared knowledge, this basic understanding of one’s culture, such that one is able to engage with it, “to communicate effectively with strangers,” is to be culturally literate.

Durkheim spoke of a “collective consciousness,” a totality of implicit, pre-existent notions that exist within a society. Everyone in the given culture is under this collective consciousness, is part of it. It is collective because it is common to everyone; Unknown-4.jpegconsciousness because everyone knows it, even without acknowledging it. Being an American, I have the idea of freedom as a part of my collective consciousness, just as over 300 million other people do. Were I to stop a stranger and ask them about freedom, I am sure they would have the same background knowledge as I, such as the 4th of July, which signifies independence for the U.S. This example illustrates an interaction in cultural literacy. Things are a part of our collective consciousnesses only because they are meaningful and valuable; if they are not, then they do not deserve to be presupposed by all. If it did not mean something, why should it survive in all of us? Hirsch writes, “[T]he lifespan of many things in our collective memory is very short. What seems monumental today often becomes trivial tomorrow.”[2] It is hard to become a part of the collective memory. What makes good literature good is its longevity. Homer has long been considered one of the greatest ancient writers because he has remained read for millennia. Compare this to pop singers today, whose meteoric rises soon meet an impasse, only to decline, impermanent, impertinent. With memes, the same can be said. They all explode in popularity, only to reach their apex before either fading into obscurity or being replaced by another. A meme can be overhyped. It loses its importance, and although it seems “funny” or “important” one day, it may not the next. Memes are volatile things. On a whim, they come and go. Even though some have a longer life than others, they all eventually go. The classic Vine “9+10=21” was once extremely popular, and was quoted daily in school; now, it hardly exists in our collective F759C5A8B71089736889893797888_175ced7823d.3.2.mp4.jpgmemory; it is a ghost, a fragment from oblivion. Hirsch comments that about 80% of what is taught in the collective memory has already been taught for at least 100 years. The Western Canon, again, is a good example: Its core works have been fixed since antiquity, and as civilization progressed, more works were added to it to keep up, all the way to the 20th century. In 100 years, it is incredibly unlikely—albeit still possible—that we will remember, or at most care about, people chucking things while yelling, “YEET!” Memes, while communicating entertainment, do not express values. Therefore, the Western Canon as such is as it is because it has been formative in our world; they have been studied so long and by so many people, that it has left an indelible influence, an influence that persists today.

Given all this, I can now address the main problem of this essay, namely the conflict between cultural literacy and “memetic literacy.” I have not spoken a lot about memes yet save in small bits, but I shall discuss them presently. For now, I wish to direct your attention to the issue at hand: The decline of cultural literacy. A teacher created a quiz full of famous, influential persons and gave it to his class to gauge their familiarity with historical, artistic, literary, and philosophical literacy. He was disappointed when one of his students compared the test to a game of Trivial Pursuit, because it prompted the question, What counts as important or trivial today? This is a vital question that everyone needs to ask themselves. Are famous leaders like Napoleon now trivial today, compared to the importance of Viners and YouTubers like Logan Paul? If both names were to be put on a test, would students cry, “Why do we have to know this Napoleon Unknown-5.jpegguy? Logan Paul obviously has a bigger influence today”? Is knowing who Napoleon is just trivia? Furthermore, the teacher found that his students had no knowledge of current events, specifically of their own country and its involvement in foreign affairs. Jaime M. O’Neill, the teacher, states, “Communication depends, to an extent, upon the ability to make (and catch) allusions, to share a common understanding and a common heritage.”[3] Allusions are thought by many to be pretentious. Those who make allusions are called name-droppers, and are disparaged. Many and I would argue on the contrary, saying that it connects to Hirsch’s idea of cultural literacy. Allusions are an example of shared knowledge. To be well-read, and therefore to know of many ideas and people, is to be involved in your culture. If I were to call something Kafkaesque, then I would be engaging with my culture, as I am expressing a background in literature, whereof the situation calls. Conclusively, we are losing the ability to make references to the collective consciousness, the ability to commune with strangers on the same basis. There is a paucity of literacy in literature and history. All teenagers know these days is what they need to know. No one goes out of their way to study history or literature; they are content and complacent with what they know. O’Neill records, plaintively, that some of his students thought Pablo Picasso was a 12th-century painter, and William Faulkner was an English scientist during the Scientific Revolution.

Throughout my day, I hear my friends and classmates complaining about impractical, specialized knowledge on their tests, knowledge they have to memorize. Although I can sympathize with them, and although I agree often that these tests are absurd, I also think they are in the wrong to say these things. Jeff Jacoby, a journalist for the Boston Globe, has written about the same subject. He talks about how it is actually easier to memorize what is on standardized tests than it is our peers’ standards. Put another way, we memorize so much useless information and trivia on a daily basis about sports, music, 91uBT9850xL._SL1200_.jpgand TV in order to keep up with our peers, that it is easier to memorize facts that are on a test. Unlike peer culture, whose facts are prone to change and in constant flux, tests’ facts are fixed and unchanging. Whereas 1789 is always the date of the start of the French Revolution, knowing Steph Curry is the point guard for the Golden State Warriors is bound to change in years to come. Memorizing the Pythagorean Theorem is applicable, as opposed to memorizing all the names of the band members of One Direction, which is impressive, but not applicable. The biggest complaints I hear, and which Jacoby also cites, are “I could spend my time more meaningfully” and “Why should we have to memorize facts?” Both points have merit, I concede, especially the latter. Please do not interpret me as supporting the school and not the students; I have many a problem with education today, of which one is standardized testing, because the memorization of lifeless facts is indeed a problem. My point is: We youths memorize countless dumb, trivial facts about pop culture and regurgitate them just as much as we do scientific facts, like mitochondria being the powerhouse of the cell. I am forced to ask, If you claim you could be spending your time better, what, then, would that look like? Simply put, teenagers, myself included, are false and hypocritical; and while I am not saying we should not complain at all, I think we should complain less, unless we truly have grounds for doing so.

Kids set truly high performance learning standards for each other…. If students don’t know the details of the latest clothing fashions or the hot computer games or the to-die-for movie stars, they’re liable to be mocked, shunned, and generally ‘flunked’ by others their age. That’s why so many spend hours each day absorbing the facts and names of popular culture.[4]

This is a particularly interesting insight. Writing for the Concord Review, Will Fitzhugh observes that teens memorize popular culture information to fit in with their peers, to pass their “informal tests” that they create for each other, to be cool. Just as school is standardized, so peer performance has standards, which, if not met, result in getting “flunked.” Students complain about testing in schools when life is a big test itself! One must struggle to stay afloat in the advancing rapids of entertainment that speed by. One must be “cool,” lest they be ostracized for not being a part of the peer culture. One should be studying hard for a test they have later that week, yet there they are, up late at night, stressing over whether they are literate enough in pop culture, cramming in short seven-second videos to fit in, obsessive, anxious. Memetic literacy is slowly overtaking cultural literacy. Jacoby concludes, “The question on the table is whether the subjects to be memorized will include English, math, science, and history—or whether the only mandatory subjects will be music, television, movies, and fashion.”[5]

So what actually is a meme? The following excerpt comes from the originator of the term, the scientist Richard Dawkins:

We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation…. [M]emes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.[6]

Unknown-6.jpegA meme is a certain kind of gene, a strand of code that is inherited. But unlike biological genes, memes are what Dawkins calls “cultural genes” in that they do not pass from person to person, but culture to culture. It is a gene on a mass level. Think viral. A “viral video” is so called because, like a virus, it spreads exponentially in its hosts, not just through the air, but digitally. The video goes “viral” as it is passed from person to person, computer to computer. He says a meme is a form of “imitation,” by which he means that the meme is copied and then replicated. It has copies made of it, either new ones or mutations. They are reproducible and copyable—in fact, there is a meta-meme, a meme about a meme, about stealing memes: Creators will take an already existing meme and put their own twist on it, then put their name on it to claim it, ad infinitum. A meme is a favorable way of cultural transmission, as Dawkins puts it, because they are easily reproducible. The basic meme consists of a picture background with an above and below text that makes some kind of predictable joke along a patterned outline. The picture stays the same, but the text can be changed to allow for different jokes among people. They are simple and easy to understand. Punchlines are short and witty, and they are so widely recognized, anyone, regardless of ethnicity or language, will be able to get a laugh at its comedy. Unlike cultural literacy, which differs transculturally, memes are universal. Any high schooler, I can guarantee, will know a meme from across the world if presented one. Memes have become the source of new allusions. This means, after all, that memes are a part of the collective consciousness briefly. Seen by millions daily, memes are a images.jpegworldwide shared knowledge. But of course, memes, for how good they are, come with problems, too. What is most important in the definition of a meme, I feel, is the word “idea.” Idea can be many things—a song, a joke, a theory, an emotion, a fashion, a show, a video, and a dozen others. This said, memes have great potential because they are good for spreading ideas that matter. The problem is: Memes spread ideas that do not matter. Viral videos are for entertainment, and nothing else. One laughs at a sneezing panda for enjoyment, not education, nor enlightenment. Memes are usually. trivial, frivolous, meaningless, and humorous. Not all are, but most are. Despite their potential, memes are actually vapid and disruptive. I get a good laugh out of memes, and sometimes they can even be intellectual in their content, like historical memes. But for the majority of them, they are useless, fatuous entertainment. We need, in this age of ours, to find a balance between being literate in memes, and being literate in our world.

Unknown-8.jpegTo summarize, the problem at hand is that we are seeing a decline in cultural literacy, the ability to communicate with strangers with a shared, underlying knowledge, and a rise in memetic literacy, the ability to make allusions to videos, celebrities, sports, fashion, and other popular culture. This is not to say that memes should not be used at all, no; after all, Nietzsche said, “Without music life would be a mistake.”[7] A musician like Michael Jackson, being a part of popular culture, ought to be discussed just as much as Louis XVI because he is a part of our collective memory. Popular culture is, of course, a subdivision of cultural literacy, because without it, we would have little shared Unknown-7.jpegknowledge! I fear the day we no longer know of classical literacy, when we can quote Lil Pump’s “Esketit” but not Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be.” We should be able to discuss music and fashion and sports, but it should not be the priority; they are entertainment. Memes do a lot of good, but they can also do a lot of harm. They spread universal joy. They can get an idea to be seen by millions. What we need to do is ask ourselves questions. We need to consider what is trivial and important today. We need to decide what is worth studying, what ideas are worth spreading. Entertainment is essential, but spreading ideas, good ideas, is more important. We are undergoing a fundamental change in our world, and we need to be present to address it. This is a proposal to look inward instead of outward, to examine our values, to find out what we care about.


[1] Hirsch, The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, p. xv
[2] Id., p. x
[3]  O’Neill, “No Allusions in the Classroom” (1985), in Writing Arguments by John D. Ramage, pp. 400-1
[4] Will Fitzhugh, qtd. in Jacoby, “The MCAs Teens Give Each Other” (2000), in Elements of Argument by Annette T. Rottenberg, p. 99
[5] Id., p. 100
[6] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, p. 192
[7] Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idols, §33, p. 5


For further reading: 
Elements of Argument: A Text and Reader 7th ed. by Annette T. Rottenberg (2003)
Writing Arguments: A Rhetoric with Readings
by John D. Ramage (1989)
The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy
by E. D. Hirsch (1988)
Challenges to the Humanities
by Chester E. Finn (1985)

An Incomplete Education by Judy Jones (2006)


Kafka’s “The Trial” in a Poem

uddenly one morning, Joseph K is arrested at his home
Apartment to apartment, from lawyer to lawyer, whither he roams,
He discovers everything is beneath the Court’s unassailable dome.

The trial wraps itself around K’s neck like a noose;
It looms overhead, ambiguous, following like a cloud,
So that K, argumentative, confident, innocent, cannot hang loose.

On consulting the painter, K decides to drop his domineering lawyer,
With whom he’s dissatisfied, despite the daunting danger,
And of all the women he’s been with, he harangues her (Leni).

Reposed and ready for his final trial, K’s once more ripped from his room;
And dragged through the streets, as if “guilty” of a crime, he finds he can’t fight time,
For “the Law” has spoken, has driven into his heart a knife—yes, the clouds still loom.

Ycleped by a priest, a “door-keeper” of the Court, K is told a story:
A man is kept from the Law by a door-keeper, who closes it off for him.
K cries, “The door-keeper’s deceptions do himself no harm but do infinite harm to the man” (242)

Dickens and Dasein: A Heideggerian Analysis of “A Christmas Carol”

Tis the season to be jolly! At last, we come to the end of 2017 in order to celebrate the holidays with our families, home from school and work, carefree, warm, and surrounded by those we love. And what a great time it is, might I add, to wrap oneself in a cozy blanket and sit in front of the fireplace with a nice, good-ole book with which to christmas-4.jpgkeep company and entertain oneself; for nothing is better than snuggling up with a traditional story for the whole family. A classic in Victorian literature in 19th century London, Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol (1843) depicts Christmas through the eyes of the infamous miser Ebenezer Scrooge, who despises the tradition and wants nothing to do with it. It is a loved and cherished story of celebrating and embracing the Christmas spirit as well as personal transformation. A classic in continental philosophy in the 20th century, Martin Heidegger’s magnum opus Being and Time (1927) is considered one of the greatest works of his time, and it analyzes the fundamental structure of human existence through the eyes of Dasein, which serves as the only being which can inquire into existence itself. It is a complex and formidable study of what it means as human beings to be. Together, Charles Dickens, a Victorian novelist, and Martin Heidegger, an existential phenomenologist—an unlikely pair—define the human condition and how we can best live our lives by being true to and understanding ourselves and others. Enjoy your Christmas and have a great New Year! 

111159a.jpgThe first thing I would like to point out is the use of symbolism Dickens employs in A Christmas Carol and how it relates to Being and Time. Known for his brilliant characterizations and descriptions of people and things, Dickens emphasizes “light” through the novella, especially in the Ghost of Christmas Past and Present, the first of which has a fiery head that can be extinguished, the latter of which spreads it as he goes forth. For Heidegger, light also plays an important role, not symbolically, but existentially. He says Dasein (human beings) “is itself the clearing [Lichtung]…. Dasein is its disclosedness.”[1] The German word lichtung translates roughly to “clearing,” as in a “clearing in the woods.” In saying that humans are the clearing, he means that, in existing, we shed light on things, and they are revealed to us from obscurity. Symbolically, light represents wisdom, divine and cosmic purity, and 4775070_f7dc2c5e.jpgrevelation, the latter of which is most important here. Heidegger conceives truth to be essentially revelatory: Truth reveals that which has hitherto been concealed. He bases this on the Greek word for truth, aletheia (αλήθεια), which translates to un-coveredness. That which is made known is truth. As such, Heidegger goes on to say that human beings are their “disclosedness” [Erschlossenheit]. Human beings illuminate their world; they make sense of it; they uncover and thus disclose the world to themselves. Therefore, when Dickens paints the Ghosts as full of light and uses it elsewhere, it is because they bring to Scrooge truth. By leading him through time, they reveal to him truths he needs to come to terms with; his life is disclosed, and he uncovers things of which he was unaware, things which were once hidden to him.

We begin in the present, with Scrooge working in his office, cranky-as-ever. Some gentlemen come inside to ask for a donation to a local charity, which Scrooge rudely turns down, saying the poor people should either go to work or prison or die, so as to “decrease the surplus population.” He refuses to get involved in other people’s businesses, declaring “‘Mine occupies me constantly’” (22). The fundamental essence of christmas-carol-a-1.jpgman, Heidegger writes, is Care [Sorge]. What he means is that we are always involved, engaged, and concerned about things. We can care about things, and we can feel concern for others. We have a certain engagement with everything in our world. If I say, “I do not care about vegetables,” I care about vegetables in a certain sense, in that I have a feeling towards them, albeit a bad one. Scrooge may be called uncaring, but in truth he cares very much—just not in the right way. He is so absorbed in his work, so involved with his entire being, that he has no concern for others, but only himself and his business. A workaholic, he cares too much about his business and not enough about other things, such that his life is centered around his work and nothing else. In our everyday language, we say we get “involved in others’ businesses,” by which we mean that we take an interest to them, or we have concern for their affairs, in which sense we care about them. Thus, when Scrooge says his business always makes him busy, he is really saying by “business” two things: First, it is more important in the sense of money-making; and second, it is more important in the sense of not getting involved with others. Scrooge is what Heidegger calls inauthentic [Uneigentlichkeit] because he lives solely in the present. While this may seem like a good thing—especially with mindfulness being all the craze nowadays—it is not, because by situating himself in the present, using it as a time of activity, he is neglecting the past and especially his future. Normally, in subjective time, we see the present moment as a time of action; it is in the present that we act and make decisions; therefore, we are busiest in the present. Scrooge exists only in the present and is absorbed therein by his work, meaning he can get nothing else done. He is trapped by his work.

Heidegger likens birth to being “thrown” [Geworfen] into the world, insofar as we are, without warning or consent, violently catapulted into life, much like a strong pitch. It is disorientating, unexpected, and outside of our control. Once we are in the world, we find ourselves disposed to a certain mood, or state-of-mind [Befindlichkeit], at every instant. A sad mood makes life appear sad, a happy mood happy. When Scrooge’s nephew Fred visits Scrooge and asks him to celebrate Christmas with his friends, Scrooge replies, scrooge-and-fred-1971.jpg“‘What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough,’” to which Fred counters, ‘“What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough’” (16). Here one sees the effect of moods. Regardless of circumstances, our attitudes are influenced by moods. In this particular scene, one man is rich, the other poor, yet because of their dispositions, they regard the same situation—Christmas—differently. Jovial, amiable, and affable, Fred likes the season despite his lack of wealth. Stingy, biting, and mean, Scrooge despises the season despite his abundance of wealth. Further in the book, Scrooge sees Fred discussing Scrooge’s mode of being-in-the-world (existing). Fred laments that Scrooge is corrupted by his moods, that his unhappiness will be his ruin. His greed, he says, makes him lonely. But, were he to be happy, Fred suggests, he could love and be able to be with others. Later, The Ghost of Christmas Past pays Scrooge a visit and whisks him away to the town where he grew up, which Scrooge remembers happily. Everyone has facticity. Facticity is one’s past, the collection of “facts” one has about oneself. Our past is made up of things that cannot be changed, but which are permanent and given. Part of our facticity is the fact that we exist—we acknowledge it, but we cannot change it. Our past is our facticity because we are, as Heidegger says, already-in-the-world. We cannot come into existence now or in five minutes, because we already find ourselves existing. So, the two then fast forward to a moment in which Scrooge’s marriage is called images.jpegoff by his fiancée Belle. Upset that she has been replaced by his love of money, she cries, “‘May you be happy with the life you have chosen!’” (69). Scrooge is shaped by his facticity, namely his decision to forever dispel happiness and instead pursue wealth. As soon as Belle left him, as soon as he committed himself to this course, he could not change it. Because of this moment in the past, his later life is predetermined and foreshadowed by loneliness. This one choice made in past, a fact of his existence, affects his whole life. Scrooge is distressed by this scene and demands to go home, but The Ghost of Christmas Past tells him that it is not its fault that the past is the way it is, and that Scrooge should not blame it. The Ghost implies that no one is responsible for how Scrooge’s life turned out except himself. Considering facts are given and cannot be changed, Scrooge decides to resign himself to his past, submitting to it, letting it determine him. The loss of his soon-to-be wife and the neglect of his father are facts of Scrooge’s life that he lets determine him. Scrooge’s past is inauthentic.

Cratchitfamilyindex.jpgThe Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to Bob Cratchit’s home so he can see how his clerk lives. Scrooge feels bad for his disabled son Tiny Tim, into whose fate he inquires. If Scrooge continues on in his ways, the Ghost responds, then Tiny Tim will not make it to another Christmas. A disheartened Scrooge is mocked by the Ghost, who uses Scrooge’s own words against him. This moment reveals Scrooge in another mode of existence: falling [Verfallenheit]. In a state of fallenness, Scrooge is lost in the world and experiences forfeiture. Being “lost,” Scrooge loses himself in the present, in everydayness [Alltäglichkeit], so he forfeits himself, so to speak. In everyday life, we go about our business, do our job, eat, sleep, and repeat. There is nothing special, it is just average. In this way, we are “lost” in the world, and we lose sight of our real selves. We end up reverting to chatter, or idle talk [Gerede], to pass the time. We reuse phrases we hear from others and repeat them in trivial, frivolous, and uneventful conversations that distract us from reality. The Ghost of Christmas Present, however, points out that Scrooge has never experienced “the surplus” himself, has never walked among them in person, yet he remarks about them constantly, saying they should die. Hence, Scrooge has fallen to the “they” [Das Man]. The “they” is a vague entity, a collective, at once everyone yet at once no one, the indiscriminate individual, the voice of society. When asked why we do things, we answer, “Because they do it.” Accordingly, Scrooge’s chatter, his repeating what he hears from others, that the population should get rid of unnecessary people, comes from the “they.” He has become lost in them. He has lost himself in them. He is one of them. Fallen, forfeited, determined by social conventions, Scrooge’s present is inauthentic. By partaking in chatter, communicating through assertions, he reveals himself as fallen. Next, he is taken to Fred’s house, where he plays games with the guests, although invisible to them. One can interpret this metaphorically, as though he is both literally and figuratively invisible. He watches as they play the game “Yes or No,” a trivial game. Entertainment. Gossip. For once, Scrooge sees the “they” from the third-person, witnessing their chatter, of which he is the victim, something about which to be talked, a subject of ridicule. This objective exposure makes Scrooge aware of how dispersed the “they” is, how they pervade every part of life. He hears chatter about himself, listening to how he is portrayed himself as inauthentic by others. Finally, the Ghost of Christmas fbe887d568dcb70790119d0b88734ffc.jpgPresent gives his ultimate warning, revealing two depraved children beneath his robe: “‘This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware… most of all… this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!’” (115). After, he requotes Scrooge’s chatter, condemning his fallenness into the “they.” The purpose of this is to show how Scrooge has fallen victim to the vices of Want and Ignorance. He cares for the wrong things, yet cares nonetheless. The former vice is his greed, the latter his lostness in the “they,” of which he is mostly unconscious, being-amidst-others and the world. In the present, humans are essentially fallen, by which they enter forfeiture, becoming inauthentic, losing themselves, ignorance the inevitable Doom which follows. The Ghost advises Scrooge to pull himself away from the “they” and back to himself.

Existentiality is the third mode of being. It is based on projection. Humans are able to plan ahead, to understand things. We think in terms of possibilities. When the Ghost of Marley comes to Scrooge on Christmas Eve, Scrooge is in disbelief. “Though he looked the phantom through and through, and saw it standing before him; though he felt the chilling influence of its death-cold eyes,… he was still incredulous, and fought against his sense” (31). Here, Marley’s phantom is a metaphor in itself—the arrival of Death. Scrooge, despite death being in front of him, flees from it, denies it. The possibility of death is passionately rejected by Scrooge, who is undeniably frightened, fearful of his life, unwilling to acknowledge its presence. Heidegger thinks death is underrated. He examines the human attitude toward death and concludes that, in everyday life, we see the possibility of death as a “not-yet,” something which will come but has not yet come, something in the distant future, something far away from us, something eventual, improbable, and incapable of touching us; in other words, we are, to use Ernest Becker’s phrase, in denial of death. Yes we will die, just not today. Or tomorrow. Or in the next year. But, eventually, we will! We push back death, unwilling to face it, giving it a deadline, as if it were on our terms, which it is not. Scrooge is not ready to die, so he does not believe in Marley, but says his senses are deluding him. Death itself is a delusion, he tells himself. During the fourth stave, Scrooge sees a dead body and gets to hear people talking about whoever it was who dead. As the reader, I do not think it is hard to predict d71f2d3b87522d55e23bdfee2335a072.jpgwho it is, personally, but Scrooge completely ignores the possibility of his death, ruling it out immediately, thinking he must still be alive—he has to be alive! In spite of all the evidence, from the business partners to the stolen furniture to the family in debt, he fails to deduce that it is he who is dead. The Ghost of Christmas Present, when at the Cratchit house, cautions Scrooge, “‘If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die’” (98). What has this to do with existentiality? Scrooge, like all of us, thinks in terms of possibilities, in the process reducing Tiny Tim to a presence-at-hand; simply put, by thinking about Tiny Tim’s future, he sees him as a thing subject to time, as something that has possibilities, much as a pencil has the possibility of writing. Tiny Tim is considered to be something present, something that is “there.” Scrooge, for this reason, does not think of the future or project possibilities properly. Scrooge’s future is inauthentic. At the graveyard, Scrooge pleads with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come,

‘Are these the shadows of things that Will be, or are they the shadows of things that May be only?… Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if preserved in, they must lead…. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!’ (141)

Thinking of the future, Scrooge is determining whether it is contingent or necessary: Is his death necessary or unnecessary, a possibility or a certainty, a preordained event or an avoidable one? Has he free will? Is his future determined by his past completely, such that he signed his death warrant as soon as he chose his selfish, greedy path? If he is given a second chance, if he returns to his life, will the foreseen things happen, or can he change himself? Scrooge finally wants to become authentic [Eigentlichkeit].

Each of the Ghosts of Christmas represents something in the novella: Past, present, and future. However, up until now, I have not talked a whole lot about the Ghost of Marley. If he is a Ghost, and he visited Scrooge, of what is he, the first of all Ghosts, representative? What role does he play, for both Dickens and Heidegger? Jacob Marley, the dead co-owner of “Scrooge and Marley” and friend of Scrooge, is Scrooge’s call of conscience. In his famous monologue, Marley declares,

‘I wear the chain I forged in life… I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?…. Or would you know… the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself?’ (34-5)

mp_main_wide_christmascarol2008_452.jpgThe chains are a famous metaphor for the decisions Marley made throughout his life. Every single link, he says, is a choice he has made by himself, for himself. He repeats the phrase “free will,” which is important, because it means he alone made the choices; no one forced him to do them; he made his own life. Then, he asks Scrooge if the pattern is familiar. Like Scrooge, Marley stinted, grudged, and cared only about himself, leading to his lifestyle, which he regrets, a fate he abhors yet bears because he has to. Marley expresses remorse that he never went outside the building to see the people during Christmas time, but stayed locked up in his little cubicle working. This is what Heidegger calls guilt [Schuld]. Guilt is both a debt and a responsibility. Scrooge experiences guilt as a debt, because he has to pay off what he has done. His past actions, mind you, are part of his facticity, so he owes with his existence. Similarly, this debt is manifest in a responsibility for one’s actions. To be guilty is to look back at one’s past, to acknowledge that, while the past defines who we are, it does not define who we will be. Scrooge is determined by his past insofar as he has trouble forming intimate connections with others and he loves money, but this does not mean he has to be this way forever. He is indebted to his past, and must as a result carry this responsibility. Heidegger explains that when one is guilty, one is “full of not’s”—that is, we see what we are in contrast to what we are not. Since we are constantly making choices, we are simultaneously negating possibilities. By writing this essay, I am negating the possibility of having never written it, which would make me a different person, a person to whom I would be indebted, and for whom I would hold responsibility; conclusively, looking back, I would be guilty. Marley continues, complaining how sad it is “‘not to know that any Christian spirit… will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness! Now to know that no space of regrets can make amends for one’s 1.jpglife opportunities misused!’” (38). We only have one shot at life; in a word, YOLO. The point of Marley’s jeremiad is to remind Scrooge of his mortality, which has hitherto been neglected. In the present, Scrooge lives too absorbedly in the present, disregarding the future, paying no thought to it, as he is wrapped up in his business. How much change, how much good Scrooge could do, implores Marley, if he only realized his “vast means of usefulness”! Marley fears that if Scrooge sticks to his hermit-like existence, then it will be too late, and he will never get a chance to redo his life, as he did. Notably, he says, “‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business…. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’” (38). Business has two meanings, of which work, the second, is subsumed under the first—the service of humanity. The business of Marley is the sum of his involvement, his care, in the world. Getting money is but a small portion of his engagement with the world; the other half was neglected, namely people. Similarly, Scrooge fails to conduct business with his fellow man. Only through the future can the past be changed. Scrooge, too narrow in his approach, cared too much and was Unknown.jpegconcerned too little, inspiring regret. After lamenting that he did not help the poor on Christmas Eve in life, Marley reveals he has come to warn Scrooge of how to avoid his very fate. First, Scrooge must realize that his facticity is inauthentic; to fix it, he must avoid the determinism of the past. Second, he must take up his duty toward man. In this way, the Ghost of Marley is the call of conscience, as Heidegger saw it. Conscience is itself a calling, a voiceless voice, which calls humans back to themselves. It is the call of the self back to come back to the self, away from the “they,” from inauthenticity, from fallenness, from forfeiture. It retrieves us from our absorption in the everyday. Through the call of conscience, we are made aware of our situation: We are alone, and wholly responsible for our choices. Marley beseeches Scrooge to personalize his past; he must make the past his before the past makes him its. Rather than fall victim to the past and let it define him, he must understand his past and how it shapes him. While he later denied it in an essay further in his career, Heidegger is here supporting Sartre’s “existence precedes essence.”

We are always in a mood. There is a peculiar mood, however, which leads to authenticity by making us confront our mortality: Anxiety/dread [Angst]. Unlike other moods, anxiety discloses our finitude to us. This necessary though unsettling state-of-mind allows us to Unknown.jpegrealize our essential mode of being: Being-towards-death [Sein-zum-Tode]. This is a scary idea, but Heidegger insists that it is at our core. Essentially, we are always moving towards death slowly. Time passes as it inches closer, year by year, moment by moment. Death is defined as “the possibility which is one’s ownmost, which is non-relational, and which is not be outstripped.”[2] Put simply, death is the only certainty in life. Everyone has to face death. No one is exempt from dying. It is insightful for Heidegger to propose that death is one’s “ownmost,” through which he communicates that death is my ownno one can die my death for me, I must die it myself. He notes that I can die for others in the sense of a sacrifice, but I am eventually going to die myself, independent of anyone else. We must all die on our own, for death is essentially private, unique to everyone. Death, then, is both unique and unavoidable, a necessity. Heidegger is quick to critique our views of death: According to him, the “they” in everyday life dismisses death, objectifying it as an observable event that will happen. Think about it: When we talk about death, we say it “will happen, just not right now.” The “they” postpones death and convinces us that we are immune to it. Truthfully, death comes to us all, and it is the ending of life: There are no more possibilities after death, for it is “not to be outstripped.” Scrooge, when he sees his 1984-xmas-future.jpggrave with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, is filled with anxiety; he is immediately made aware of his mortality and the shortness of life on Earth; all at once, his Being is filled with intense emotions. Scrooge achieves resoluteness [Entschlossenheit]. To be resolute is to realize that one’s possibilities are one’s own. Resoluteness, in everyday language, means autonomy. A resolute Scrooge takes responsibility for each of his actions, considering they are his, and no one else’s. His life is his, so he must evaluate his possibilities for the future by himself, in the face of death. Together, being-towards-death and resoluteness become “anticipatory resoluteness,” which is just a fancy way of saying that one anticipates, or awaits, their death (hence anticipatory), thereby becoming resolute. An illustration: Scrooge sees his tombstone, realizing his mortality (anticipation), and decides thenceforth to become a new person (resoluteness). Achieving anticipatory resoluteness leads to a “moment of vision” [Augenblick], in which one reinterprets the past in relation to the future in the Present. The word “moment” is misleading, as it really refers to the fact that it happens in the Present (with a capital ‘P’), which is distinguished from the present, or the “now.” In the present, one is active: One acts in the present. In the Present, one is passive: Things happen to us in the Present. While you are contemplating your New Year’s resolutions, keep death in mind. Being resolute is like making a resolution—just make sure to anticipate death while you are at it! Heidegger describes authenticity in the following passage:

[A]nticipation reveals to Dasein its lostness in the they-self, and brings it face to face with the possibility of being itself, primarily unsupported by concernful solicitude, but of being itself, rather, in an impassioned freedom towards deatha freedom which has been released from the Illusions of the “they”, and which is factical, certain of itself, and anxious.[3]

To conclude, we get out of inauthenticity by confronting our own deaths, our ultimate possibility. We disclose ourselves through anxiety as beings-toward-death, a death which is certain, unique, and total.

Scrooge swears to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come he will change his ways, promising,

‘I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all year. I will live in the Past, Present, and Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!’ (142)

When I first read this quote, I almost jumped out of my blanket in joy; for while it is the climax of the story, the point where Scrooge truly resolves to turn his life around, it also could not line up more perfectly with Heidegger’s philosophy! Heideggerian temporality [Zeitlichkeit] is extraordinary: On the one hand, it is extra-ordinary in that it goes beyond and even shatters our everyday conception of time; and it is extraordinary inasmuch as it is a creative, insightful, and existential way of thinking about time. “Reaching out to the future, it [time] turns back to assimilate the past which has made the present.”[4] bigstock_Past_Present_Future_Time_Co_4799792.jpgWhat does this mean? Authentic temporality is subjective and finite: It is something experienced by us, and it has a beginning and an end. But unlike our view of time, which divides temporality into three separate dimensions—past, present, and future—Heidegger says time is a unity. Time is not broken up into infinite “nows” in the present, arising from the past and becoming the future. Inauthentic temporality is past, present, and future; authentic temporality is past-present-future, all in one. How can one be in the past, the present, and the future simultaneously, all at once? How is this possible, if even it is? According to Heidegger, when one exists authentically in time, one looks ahead to the future, to what they could be, at death, then reinterprets the past in light of this and becomes aware of how the past has shaped them, notices that what they are is influenced by what they were, and acts in accordance with this in the present—all in an instant. The future is predominant, though, since with it one anticipates death. Now, compare the following passage, from Heidegger, to the one quoted above, from Dickens:

In every ecstasis, temporality temporalizes itself as a whole; and this means that in the ecstatic unity with which temporality has fully temporalized itself currently, is grounded the totality of the structural whole of existence, facticity, and falling—that is, the unity of the care structure.[5]

The above passage basically restates what Scrooge promises to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come: Truly, Scrooge “will live in the Past, Present, and Future”! It is worth considering that Dickens took to capitalizing each of the “ecstasies” of time purposefully because he wanted to emphasize the importance of each structure of time. Conveniently—perfectly, I might chance to say—it fits with Heidegger, forming a union. And also, pay attention to the last part of Heidegger’s passage. He refers to the “care structure,” which is united by—look at that!—the three modes of existence: facticity, falling, and existentiality, each of which lines up with the three modes of time: past, present, and future. The care structure ties in with what was talked about earlier—our involvement in the world. As such, being is essentially linked with time, hence the title of Heidegger’s book, Being and Time [Sein und Zeit]. (Is your mind blown yet?). Another notion is then introduced by Heidegger: Fate [Schicksal]. But did not we discuss that existence precedes images-1.jpegessence earlier, that there is free will, not determinism? Fate is different for Heidegger than it is for us, unsurprisingly. One’s fate is existing in the authentic present. In a process he calls “historizing” [geschehen], we “stretch” ourselves along time. That is, we stretch ourselves between the past and the future, the beginning and end, birth and death. As with anything stretched between two ends, there is a middle ground. In this case, the Present. Our fate is to live authentically in the Present for ourselves, resolutely. It is during this time that we engage in the moment of vision, which, as we said, is not sustained for just a “moment,” but indefinitely, as long as one is authentic.

While planning this, I ran into a perplexing problem with terrible implications: If Christmas is a tradition everyone follows, an event “they” do, and if Scrooge celebrates it, then does that make Christmas inauthentic, something in the realm of the “they”? If this is so, then did Scrooge come all this way and listen to the Ghosts in order to authenticate himself to—what, to become inauthentic again? Does this unravel the entire plot instantly? Lo! luckily, Heidegger has a solution:

Repeating is handing down explicitly—that is to say, going back into the possibilities of the Dasein that has-been-there. The authentic repetition of a possibility of existence that has been… is grounded existentially in anticipatory resoluteness; for it is in resoluteness that one first chooses the choice which makes one free for the struggle of loyally following in the footsteps of that which can be repeated.[6]

The phenomenon known as repetition [Wiederholung] is reaching back into the past and “inheriting” something for oneself. He calls it “handing down.” Much as siblings give each other hand-me-downs or families hand down heirlooms, so we can interact with the past in a special way. Repetition does not necessarily have to happen out of conformity. Unknown.jpegLike Heidegger writes, it can be authentic when acted on through anticipatory resoluteness. If we consciously make the choice to celebrate an age-old tradition which others celebrate, too, then we are authentic. However, those who celebrate Christmas just because their families and friends do, without knowing why they celebrate, what the importance of it is—they are celebrating Christmas inauthentically. They are not giving it the respect it deserves. To celebrate Christmas, to partake in the Christmas spirit, requires that one truly choose it, and this is precisely what Scrooge does. Heidegger adds that authentic repetition “deprives ‘today’ of its character as present, and weans one from the conventions of the ‘they.’”[7] Not only is an appropriated past event not past at all, but it is completely free from the besmirchment of the “they.” Chosen authentically and intentionally in the face of death, projected in the long run, following a tradition makes it neither past nor present, but Present, because it is something which happens, that is not caused, and is not done to progress anything.

3067ba0d24d42f07115774045d4393a8.jpgCare as solicitude, or protection and concern, is thus enacted by an authentic Scrooge, who, embodying the Christmas spirit, united temporally, having encountered death, in a bliss mood, gives a young boy passing by money to buy a big turkey, which he delivers to the financially struggling Bob Cratchit; donates a large sum of money to charity, recanting his mistaken chatter; and befriends the Cratchits, joining the family, becoming a father figure for Tiny Tim, whose life he saves by saving his own. On his way out of the house, Scrooge stops to look at his door knocker, which once resembled Jacob Marley’s Unknown.jpegface, and exclaims, “‘I shall it as long as I live! … I scarcely ever looked at it before. What an honest expression it has in its face! It’s a wonderful knocker!’” (149). This seemingly unimportant moment is probably glanced over by readers, but it holds significance. We encounter things and objects in the world as either present-at-hand [Vorhandenheit] or ready-to-hand [Zuhandenheit]. The former are things that that just are; they are factical and given, and their presence indicates their name. The latter are things that can be used—equipment, if you will. As can probably be gained from this, you can conclude that objects are looked down upon as merely things, objects of use. Living things are more important than lifeless objects lying around. This is why this moment is worthy of our c2127e94e31cfe9a2181bb55974fd9dd.jpgattention. Heidegger explains, “The moment of vision permits us to encounter for the first time what can be ‘in a time’ as ready-to-hand or present-at-hand.”[8] Taken for granted, seen daily but not considered in itself, used mindlessly through subconscious habit, Scrooge’s door knocker only gains value when he sees Marley’s face in it. Now, as a being-towards-death, Scrooge sees the door knocker in a new light (symbolism!), disclosing it, revealing what was once hidden to him, finding pleasure in the simple things. One thinks of the common adage, “Live each day as though it were your last.” The night before was almost his very last, so he cherishes being alive, even being happy towards objects. The moment of vision discloses the world and objects, uncovering them as they are; and it is not just for a single instant, but for a lifetime. Scrooge is authentic Dasein.

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more…. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old City knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough in the good old world…. His own heart laughed, and that was quite enough for him (155).

And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

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*I want to dedicate this blog to my dad, who has himself encountered death in his time; who has, I want to think, remained authentic as a father for as long as I can remember; whose avid and ardent affection, appraisal, and adoration for Charles Dickens inspired me to write this post; and without whose support I would not be writing. May we have many more Christmases together!


[1] Heidegger, Being and Time, H. 133
[2] Id., H. 250-1
[3]  H. 266
[4] Edwards, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 3, p. 461
[5] Heidegger, op. cit., H. 350
[6] Id., H. 385
[7] H. 391
[8] H. 338

For further reading: 
Masterpieces of World Philosophy in Summary Form by Frank N. Magill (1961)
The Columbia History of Western Philosophy by Richard H. Popkin (1999)
Existentialist Philosophy: An Introduction by L. Nathan Oaklander (1992)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Vol. 3 by Paul Edwards (1967)

Time, Narrative, and History by David Carr (1991)
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1994)
Being and Time by Martin Heidegger (1962) 


Why Do We Root for the Good Guys?

Warning: Lord of the Flies and Game of Thrones (Season 6) Spoilers! 

I grew up watching movies. My favorites were action movies, where the good guy shot up his enemies and performed exciting stunts in flaming buildings in order to stop some evil-doer from doing something terrible. Of course, there were also the classics that I adored, such as Star Wars, a classic good vs. evil story. Back then, I liked to think myself quite the devil’s advocate, hopping to the other side, wondering what would happen if the bad guy won this time, then cheering for them. It made me wonder as a young child: Why do the good guys always win? There are always two sides to the story, so why Unknown.jpegweren’t the villains’ sides considered? No matter whom I rooted for, good or bad, it was always the good who vanquished the bad, who stood victorious in the name of peace and order. This eternal struggle between good and evil, this Manichæan theme, this dualistic battle—it is not just present in cinema, but permeates all of Western culture, from its videogames to its literature to its mythologies to its historiography. This narrative is woven into our daily life. As such, how earth-shattering it is to read Nietzsche: “No one has… expressed the slightest doubt or hesitation in judging the ‘good man’ to be of a higher value than the ‘evil man….’ But! What if we suppose the reverse were true? What then?”—indeed, what then? [1]

Everyone has a Will-to-Power, believed Nietzsche. Deep down, hidden in the unconscious, there is an unkown, life-preserving, exploitative, driving urge that  permeates every living thing. When people act out of this unconscious Will, they are not to be blamed, for this Will is natural. To Nietzsche, it seemed absurd to say that anyone who acted on this Will to Power was blameworthy because, in essence, it is the Will that is intrinsic to them. “A measure of force,” he said, “is just such a measure of impetus, will, Unknown-1.jpegaction.”[2] Therefore, throughout nature, embedded in all our willed, voluntary actions is the Will to Power. The Will to Power is inherent to all animals, which are always seeking not the most happiness, but the most power, and are always avoiding that which prevents power. By power, Nietzsche meant the ability to triumph, to master one’s surroundings and prevail, to exploit to the best of one’s abilities, such that it lives longer, by whatever means necessary. Hence, “[A]n injurious, oppressive, exploitative or destructive action cannot be intrinsically wrong, inasmuch as life is essentially something which functions by injuring, oppressing, exploiting, and destroying, and it is absolutely inconceivable without such a characteristic.”[3] Basically, all actions we judge today as wrong are, to Nietzsche, natural expressions of the Will to Power. In fact, we should not judge them at all, because, as illustrated in the quote above, Nietzsche saw life rather pessimistically, describing life as a dog-eat-dog, every-man-for-himself competition, where only the strongest survive. One gets the idea from Nietzsche, then, that one can only make it through life if they embrace these qualities, these violent, aggressive, harmful qualities. A philologist and historian, Nietzsche concluded from his studies that ancient man was naturally sadistic: He enjoyed participating in violence and loved inflicting cruelty, deriving a savage pleasure from it. Punishment was an important part of daily life back then, so, Nietzsche proposed, those who were quick to inflict suffering were seen as good, while those who were hesitant, who were slow to deliver punishment for a forgotten debt, were seen as incompetent. This cruelty, correctly, was said by Nietzsche to be the direct product of the Will to Power. He went so far as to say that cruelty is “something to which the heart says a hearty yes.”[4] This sounds frightening. Do we really delight in cruelty, even in today’s modern, civilized world, so distant from our barbaric past? While we may be in denial or firm disagreement, thinking such a sentiment disgusting or repugnant, we must concede that we do take pleasure in cruelty, even if it is minimal. After all, we all know that wonderful German word schadenfreude—the joy we get from watching others’ misfortune. Nietzsche remarked that today, although we do not go around gaily slaughtering each other as our ancestors did, we still enjoy cruelty in other, less explicit Fighting-630x420ways, such as video games and movies and events that have fighting, like wrestling or MMA. In this way, we have not completely gotten rid of cruelty, but have rather channeled it through vicarious means, not directly inflicting it, but still experiencing it. But how many of us would willingly admit that we enjoy watching—or even inflicting—pain? Nietzsche foresaw this, even saw it in his own time: We are more likely to believe in fate or chance or free will than in the Will to Power, the idea of which repulses us and could not possibly be in our psyches. Our unwillingness to accept this exploitative Will, reasoned Nietzsche, leads to what he called “misarchism,” or hatred of rulers and ruling. By this he meant that we hated the idea of power and all its associations. To say that history’s great men were shaped by this Will to Power rather than their cultures or destinies, seems to us impossible to accept. Think of all the brutal, bloodthirsty dictators and authoritarians throughout history! We fear power, to the point of detesting it, and we are worried about its applications everywhere. Nietzsche passionately rejected Darwin’s theory of natural selection, explaining that organisms sought not survival, but flourishing. All organisms are not content with simply surviving. The lion did not survive natural selection only to settle down, feeling himself lucky to have lived out his competitors; he survived to gain more power, to be dominant, and therefore to dominate his environment and prey. Adaptation is more about being proactive than reactive. Adaptation is achieved through internalizing conflicts. Progress is a necessary sacrifice of the weak to the powerful, in Nietzsche’s eyes. He thought that strong could live by themselves. They were autonomous. In following their own morality, they could live on their own terms, unbeholden. The weak hold us back, he wrote. This gives us a picture of Unknown-2Nietzsche’s ideal man. An ideal man affirms, not denies, his Will to Power. Just as the best government has the least laws, so the best man has the least moral values save his own. He follows his own morality, not society’s. He stands out from the herd. He seeks power, not pleasure; those who seek pleasure avoid pain, but pain is inevitable, leading to “pessimism of sensibility,” or conscience. In what Mencken calls “ideal anarchy,” every man does what pleases him, and him alone. The ideal man concerns himself with himself, and no one else. Spontaneous, instinctive, and unconscious, he acts on his Will, embracing what Nietzsche calls his instinct for freedom. Unlike the weak, who experience responsibility for their actions, the strong feel no guilt or responsibility, but act in the moment, unafraid of the consequences, but wholly accepting them.

There are two kinds of people in this world: Masters and slaves. According to Nietzsche, all moralities can be divided under these two classes. In tracing the history of the concepts of Good and Evil, Nietzsche found in early societies a primitive form of this duality, finding it to be between not Good and Evil, but instead Good and Bad. He discovered these two words are linked etymologically to the aristocracy, in which the aristocrats, the rich and powerful, call themselves “Good” and everyone who is not an aristocrat, the poor and powerless, “Bad.” In other words, the idea of Goodness developed from the nobility, from the upper class, which often consisted of the dominant few who had most of the land and owned slaves. They thought themselves the best, superior to everyone else, as they had control over resources, among them, people.[5] Seeing as they were educated and could do whatever they pleased with their property, it was only fitting, Nietzsche thought, that they should differentiate themselves from the masses, whom they considered lowly and base. The nobility possessed what Nietzsche calls the pathos of distance—that feeling of separation Unknown-3between oneself and others, especially of higher from lower, owner from owned. This worldview said that whatever was not aristocratic was bad, so all slaves were bad, in that they lacked everything the nobility had. What distinguishes the master from the slave is power. Thus, anything that goes against power is slavish and therefore bad, meaning the virtues we so often praise, such as temperance and compassion, are bad qualities, to the extent that they are anti-power. A change took place in these societies when religions like Judaism and Christianity began amassing followers, pandering to the masses, particularly the slaves. Suddenly, the consensus was, “The wretched are alone the good; the poor, the weak, the lowly are alone the good… but you, on the other hand,… you men of power, you are for all eternity the evil, the horrible, the covetous, the insatiate, the godless.”[6] Religion created an inversion of the noble morality, turning Good and Bad into Good vs. Evil. There was, accordingly, a twofold inversion: The Bad became the Evil, and it was no longer a coexistence but a competition of values, and there could only be one victor. Through this inversion, the weak made themselves “stronger” than their oppressors. By painting their enemies as Evil, the manifestation of all things contemptible, the slaves managed to get the upper hand, convincing themselves that they were happier than their masters. They aggrandized suffering, rather than dominating. Nietzsche named this approach the ascetic ideal, which he defined as “an attempt to seem ‘too good’ for this world, a sort of holy debauchery.”[7] He says “too good for this world” as a way of satirizing this otherworldly approach, which emphasizes the pure and the heavenly, calling for the renunciation of the appetite, a call to a virtuous life, one that will be rewarded in the second life. These ascetics parade their “holy debauchery,” whereby they take pride in their virtuous, saintly life; in their denial of this world; and in their holier-than-thou comportment. Foreshadowing Freud, Nietzsche theorized that the Unknown-4repression of the Will to Power that took place in asceticism led to “bad conscience,” a concept similar to guilt. Simply, Judeo-Christian morality taught that it was wrong to act on the Will to Power, so its followers repressed, or kept in check, their instincts; guilt arises, then, when one’s instincts turn upon oneself. These built-up instincts, having no output, are accordingly relieved by self-inflicted suffering. This “internalization of man,” Nietzsche diagnosed, is what made the weak appear strong yet remain weak; for the Will cannot be fully renounced after all, but finds its way out in the cleverest of ways. He noted how they paradoxically “use[d] power to dam the sources of power…. [A] baleful eye is cast at physiological well-being, especially against the expression of such well-being,… while a sense of joy is experienced and sought in… wilful privation, in self-denial and flagellation.”[8] It is through the Will that the weak try in futility to deny it. They cast away their inner nature, condemning those who are complicit, who partake in it. A minority, they convince themselves they are right, and the others are wrong, as though they are doing the right thing and are guided aright, while the others are misguided, and they take pride in their apparent pureness, seeking meekly for absolution, as if it is the proper pursuit, a struggle that will, in the end, be rewarded justly in the next life, where those who were tempted suffer eternally in damnation. Psychologically, this results in ressentiment, a feeling of deep-seated animosity or hatred of the oppressed directed toward the oppressor, over whom they have no control. Again, prefiguring Freudian theory, Nietzsche develops an early form of displacement; i.e., redirecting one’s feelings onto an object or person. In this case, the oppressed, who in reality can do nothing against their powerful rulers, fabricate their own mythology, in which the oppressors are punished in the name of the weak. Therefore, ressentiment is a form of catharsis, a release, if you will, of anger, which is relieved through imagined retribution. The slaves, who are by nature weak, bearing their suffering thereby, impute this suffering to the strong, whom they blame for their condition. Pleasing oneself, or indulging the Will, 250px-Temptation_of_Saint_Anthony_by_Bosch.jpegconsequently, is seen as bad. All acts exhibited as Will become frowned-upon, made into crimes: Those who want something and take it for themselves—a quality admired by the noble—are called covetous, and those who please themselves tirelessly, always taking more—self-preservational, and thus symbolic of a master—are called insatiate. Evidently, noble virtues become slavish vices, and noble vices become slavish virtues. The Will presents itself as weakness, which is interpreted by the slaves as strength, so they convince themselves that they chose it, that it is, as Nietzsche called it, an “achievement.” They are excited to have “tamed” the Will! To summarize, “The strong man’s objective is to take as much as he can from his victim; the weak man’s is to save as much as he can from his conqueror.”[9] Without hesitation, without thought, the strong man takes what he wants; the slave denies their Will and represses it.

All this sounds quite abstract and foreign, admittedly, as if it is out of place, which it might seem to most of us at first. However, I shall proceed to highlight some relevant, modern day examples that I hope shall illustrate that what Nietzsche is describing is entirely applicable and can easily be found in Western culture, and not some idle speculation about a different time period, when things were much different. A while ago, I did a blog on Lord of the Flies, wherein I discussed the Will to Power. Based on this discussion, I would ask, Who really won in Lord of the Flies? The answer, undoubtedly, is Jack. Although Ralph may have been saved by civilization, the damage was done, and in an alternate ending, he would have ended up dying at the hands of Jack and his merciless tribe. All throughout the novel, we readers are quietly cheering for Ralph and Piggy, the untainted, the pure, the civilized, to survive and triumph over the brutal images.jpegsavages into which the other boys had devolved. How terrible it would be if those brutes, those aggressive, violent, primitive hunters had the island to themselves! What chaos would ensue! Yet, in the end, Ralph and Piggy, the protagonists, were slaves to society’s morality; they unthinkingly followed the herd instinct. They did not question the morality imposed on them by society, which taught them to behave and to control their impulses, to stifle their Will. On the other hand, Jack and his tribe fully embraced their Will to Power. Channelling the primordial hunter within them, they expressed their instincts through aggression, such as when Jack hunts the pig or when Robert terrorizes the smaller boys—in either case, the boys were accompanied not just by a great pleasure, but a feeling of power, of power over something, exploitation. Whereas Piggy and Ralph were like small gazelles trying to survive, Jack was like a lion trying to predominate. It was the strongest who won.

A classic example of the battle between Good and Evil is the (currently) heptalogy Star Wars. Based on Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Star Wars follows the age-old theme of Light and Dark and the cosmic duel between opposing forces. Interwoven into its narrative is the want for the good guys—the Jedi, in this case—to beat the bad guys—the Sith—so that intergalactic peace can be maintained. So why exactly are the Jedi and Sith at odds? Why are they enemies of each other even though they both harness the same energy—the Force? The Sith, who practice what is called the “Dark side of the Force,” are called Evil by the Jedi because it is known to be tempting and thence corrupting. The learned masters warn their padawan not get drawn to the Dark side, lest they gratify their instincts, no matter how natural or easy they are to gratify. In essence, the Jedi are saying to choose virtue over vice. Sound familiar? The Jedi are the slaves, the Sith the masters. If we further examine the two orders, we shall find even better evidence. Both orders adhere to their respective codes, which outline their core beliefs. Here is the Sith Code:

Peace is a lie. There is only Passion.

Through Passion I gain Strength.

Through Strength I gain Power.

Through Power I gain Victory.

Through Victory my chains are Broken.

The Force shall free me.

Canon_Sith_symbol.pngIt can be gathered from this that central to the Sith philosophy is the idea of a blind, erratic chaos which governs all. There is no order in the galaxy, only disorder. The key to the Sith is aggression, which comes from the Will, and is pure, focused anger. It is through the instincts that power is both achieved and channeled, from which comes victory, after which follows freedom. Accordingly, it is the directing of the Will that sets them free; they engage their instinct for freedom, which the slaves deny. Another part of their code “encouraged the strong to destroy the weak, and insisted on the importance of struggling and surviving”; and the master and his student always sized each other up, for “a weak master deserved to be overthrown by their pupil, just as a weak pupil deserved to be replaced by a worthier, more powerful recruit.”[10] Words like “worthier,””powerful,” and “weak” all can be connected to the master-slave morality, having originated from the aristocracy. From this perspective, the Sith favor the strong, thinking themselves superior to the Jedi, whom they consider, conversely, the slaves. Nietzsche emphasized overcoming one’s struggles through exploitation, sort of like an extreme survival of the fittest, to use Spencer’s term. Therefore, the students of Sith masters, if they were deemed too weak, were replaced to make room for better, stronger, more Willful students. Darth Vader said, “Anger and pain are natural and part of growth…. They make you strong.” Both emotions named stem from the unconscious, the self-preservational, and both are biologically necessary, according to Nietzsche. Today’s Western civilization devalues anger, calling it an ugly, unproductive emotion, and discourages it. To the Sith and Nietzsche, however, anger is a necessary emotion through which the individual overcomes himself and becomes something, someone, better. Now let’s examine the Jedi:

There is no emotion, there is peace.

There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.

There is no passion, there is serenity.

There is no chaos, there is harmony.

There is no death, there is the Force.

Unknown.pngLooking at the parallel structures of the two codes, you will notice the Jedi Code is an exact inversion of the Sith Code! Compare this to what Nietzsche claims occurred millennia ago, when the Judeo-Christian slaves pulled a complete reversal on their masters, thus establishing the slave morality, which was the opposite of the noble values. The Jedi deny any chaos, instead affirming harmony; the Jedi deny the passions, instead affirming asceticism, or a turn away from them. To say someone is emotional is usually not a compliment, as it usually means they are over-dramatic, easily upset, or moody; so when the Jedi say there are no emotions, they are basically denying the Will to Power, eschewing it totally from their worldview, because according to them, emotions lead to chaos, whereas no passions leads to peace. The wisest of the Jedi, Master Yoda—everyone’s favorite backwards-speaking native of Dagobah—has a wealth of quotable adages, among them many attacks on the Sith, one of which goes, “Powerful you have become, the dark side I sense in you.” Automatically, he associates “power” with the dark side, for it denotes exploitation, injury, and all the other volitions Nietzsche stated. He also says, “[I]f you choose the quick and easy path… you will become an agent of evil.” Yoda uses the phrase “agent of evil” deliberately here: Make no mistake, he thought his wording through very thoroughly, such that his choice of words is intentional. Recall that through ressentiment, the slaves change Bad to Evil so that it looks like they are being oppressed; similarly, Yoda calls the Sith Evil, whereas the Sith would most likely call Yoda Bad, in accordance with the aristocratic morality. And when calls the dark side the “quick and easy path,” he calls it such because it is easier, he knows, to gratify one’s instincts than to repress them, as he does.

Finally, I shall examine the very popular HBO show Game of Thrones, in which I found much food for thought. As with every narrative, we always cheer for the good side and boo for the bad side. While watching, I asked myself, Why do we like the Unknown-1.jpegStarks and hate the Lannisters? What is it about the two houses that makes one favorable to the other? How is it that our values affect our associating with the characters?  Eddard “Ed” Stark is the first major character with whom the audience starts to feel an affinity. He is the archetypal “good guy” because he is pure, ascetic, and he denied his Will. Compassionate, considerate, fatherly, and humble, Ed is loved by all because he is so virtuous and caring—we would never expect him to burn down a village of innocents, for example: It is not his character to do so. His resistance to his Will made him weak and oppressed, though. Why would we be cheering for an oppressed character? It is precisely because of his weakness that we like him: We feel pity for him, and we want him to prevail at the hands of evil, we want him to succeed, we want him to stand up against the oppressors, we want retribution, we want a David and Goliath story. The weak, we have learned, always blame their oppressors, so we naturally blame the Lannisters and acquit the Starks, who have suffered at the hands of the former. Unfortunately, it is Ed’s purity and refraining from the rampant corruption, dishonesty, and moral bankruptcy around him and his loyalty to a moral code that lead to his downfall. Each time the Starks lose and the Lannisters gain, every step backwards and forwards they take, respectively, the more we love and pity the Starks and hate and abhor the Lannisters, who seem to take everything they want, rapacious, immoral, and exploitative. We viewers suffer from the pessimism of sensibility: There is so much suffering in the show—too much—that we become disillusioned, making us feel like life is unfair, like there is no equality, and so we become disheartened every time the Starks suffer a loss; we suffer with them. We want justice for the cruel acts the Lannisters commit against the defenseless. The Lannisters do anything that will get them ahead, even if it means blurring the lines of what is considered moral, using whatever is in their advantage, cheating when they can. Hence, Unknown-2.jpegJaime and Cersei, heads of House Lannister, are masters. Jaime Lannister has a simple, anthropocentric worldview: He and Cersei are the only two people who are important in the world, and nothing else matters. In other words, Jaime cares only about himself and Cersei, and he is willing to do whatever he needs to so he can protect her. Instead of compiling a list of ethics, Jaime has a simple goal, with no guidelines. Anything goes. He can do whatever he pleases, as long as it is for his and Cersei’s sake. Even when Jaime is the prisoner of Brienne, supposedly making Brienne the master and Jaime the slave, Jaime remains the master after all. Pretty much every action movie I have seen has a scene where the good guy has a captured enemy who taunts them, encouraging them to strike them, to lose their temper and ignite their fury, but the good guy refuses, calms himself, collects his nerves, remembers his values, and does not give into the volatile words. As when in Star Wars Emperor Sidious tells Luke to act on his anger but Luke refuses to surrender to the dark side, so Jaime tries to enrage Brienne, clearly unnerving her, then telling her to release her anger on him, because he knows she wants to; as the fire lights in her eyes and she raises her sword, she then drops it, remembering her promise, and she chooses the “noble path,” the ascetic path. She wants to hurt him, deep down. She wants to be cruel. Unknown-3.jpegBut she resists her Will on account of a “higher order.” Jaime, then, has the real advantage over Brienne. While she may be the one with the sword, and while he may be the one tied up, it is he who holds dominance, who is most powerful. Another encounter, this time with Edmure Tully, takes place in a tent; this time, the positions have changed, Edmure being the prisoner, Jaime being the keeper. Edmure tells Jaime, “You understand you’re an evil man.” After a discussion that leads to the subject of Catelyn Stark, Edmure’s sister and Jaime’s former captor, Jaime states, “Catelyn Stark hated me like you hate me, but I didn’t hate her. I admired her, far more than I did her husband or her son” (S6:E08). Like Yoda, Edmure Tully calls Jaime “Evil” to demonstrate that he is his opposite. While Edmure is Good, a saint, Jaime is Evil, a sinner. One of the characteristics of the noble master, Nietzsche claimed, is that they have a “love of their enemy”; meanwhile, the slaves despise those they call Evil. The strong respect their enemies because they define themselves in relation to them. Without the Bad, there can be no Good. Nobles, therefore, respect those lower than them, because they have power over them. Jaime’s sister, Cersei, also has a straightforward moral code: Unknown.jpeg“I do things because they feel good” (S6:E10). In that episode, Cersei turns the tables against her zealot-captor Septa Unella. She says Unella made her suffer not out of compassion or a desire to see her purify herself, but out of her inner, biological craving for cruelty that comes from the Will. She made her miserable because she loved to inflict pain, which, Cersei confides, she, too, experiences. Cersei does not follow a pre-established morality; rather, she makes her own, doing whatsoever she pleases, whensoever she pleases, if it benefits her, even if it means killing thousands—even if, among those thousands, there are innocents. That is, she does not think before acting, but forms her morality from that. Nietzsche explained that pleasure is not what is good for oneself or what makes one feel pleasant. Pleasure is just a byproduct which accompanies an increase in power. Consequently, whenever Cersei does something because it pleases her, it really means she does it because she gains power, and her Will to Power is fulfilled. When she makes a decision, Cersei does not consider what effect it may have on others, especially the slaves; she only does what will further her cause. Another character who values power is Ellaria Sand, widow of Oberyn Martell, who, after killing Doran Martell, proclaims, “Weak men will never rule Dorne again” (S6:E01). Because Doran did nothing, Ellaria decided to take power into her own hands, stabbing him in order to gain control, such that she could rule Dorne, this time with purpose and conviction. Doran did not do anything. He preferred peace and was thus inactive. And weak. He did not take initiative, did not affirm his Will, and so let his country suffer. Instead of a slave, Dorne needed a master to rule. Two other characters—Dænerys and Grey Worm—ought to be evaluated as well. Danny, the so-called liberator of men, is not herself liberated, but enslaved, not in the Unknown-1.jpegsense of being indebted to another, but insofar as she is dependent on a higher morality, one that demands quiescence of the Will, and which seeks to eliminate the Will in others, the masters of Slaver’s Bay. She is pitiful and merciful, yet at the same time she possesses a certain brutality. As it is, Danny cannot be strictly classified as a master or slave insomuch that she simultaneously hinders her Will and incites it. Her loyal soldier, Grey Worm, has a talk with Tyrion. Tyrion asks, “Why don’t either of you ever drink?” to which Grey Worm replies, “Unsullied never drink.” Unconvinced, Tyrion queries, “Why not?” Grey Worm says, “Rules,” answered by Tyrion, “And who made these rules, your former masters?” (S6:E08). Here, Tyrion remarks that Grey Worm, despite being a freed man, still lives by his old master’s rules, thereby enslaving him. Morality, to Nietzsche, is a herd instinct; put another way, morality is something to which the weak flock, as though they are herd animals, and into which they invest blind trust, accepting it without questioning it, living by its rules without ever stopping to ask why they live by those rules, slaves to tradition, shackled to its ascetic ethics. Grey Worm does not live by his own, self-invented rules; he does not affirm himself; he denies his power and surrenders it to another.

What Nietzsche painted is a bleak, unaffectionate, uninviting, savage picture, in which the strong dominate the weak, and inequality reigns supreme alongside chaos and anarchy. Do I personally agree with what he said? I agree that our Western values have been and are influenced by and even derived from the Judeo-Christian traditions, which valued asceticism and renunciation of the passions, in favor of a virtuous, happy, and content life lived with value. It is not hard to see that this morality is ingrained in our Unknown-2.jpegculture, even in the 21st-century. I agree that we are approaching a time of nihilism, when our traditions are collapsing around us, and we are slowly losing these long-cherished values. I disagree with Nietzsche, however, that it is the strong and powerful who must triumph, that the slave morality is subversive and self-defeating. It is true that Nietzsche never explicitly expressed contempt for the slave morality; he just disapproved of it. Notwithstanding, today’s values have undergone changes within the last two millennia, and they will inevitably continue to change with the ages. The next time you are watching a movie or TV show, the next time you find yourself cheering for the good guy, remember that there are two sides to every story. Our protagonists all have motivations, but so do our villains. As you find yourself lounging on the couch, whether in bed or in Yin-Yang-Black-Gold-Dark-Temple-Small-308x300.jpgthe theater, watching the cosmic eternal dance of Good and Evil, consider what you value and why you value what you value. Was the point of this essay to convince you to start backing up the bad guys? Not at all. It is to get you thinking. It is to get you to consider things from a different perspective—something we all ought to do every now and then. “You are aware of my demand upon philosophers,” said Nietzsche—”that they should take up a stand Beyond Good and Evil.”[11]

[1] Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, p. 9, Preface, §6
[2] Id., p. 32, Essay 1, §13
[3] p. 62, Essay 2, §11
[4] p. 52, Essay 2, §6
[5] Aristocrat derives from the Greek aristos, meaning “best”
[6] Nietzche, op. cit., p. 22, Essay 1, §7
[7] p. 81, Essay 3, §1
[8] p. 104, Essay 3, §11
[9] Mencken, The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, p. 61
[11] Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, p. 33
For further reading: On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche (2013)
The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche by H.L. Mencken (2006)
Twilight of the Idols
by Friedrich Nietzsche (2008)

Harper Lee’s Guide to Empathy

Unknown.pngIn the 21st Century, surrounded by technologies that distance us, by worldviews that divide us, and by identities that define us, we do not see a lot of empathy among people. While we see friends and family every day, we never really see them, nor do we acknowledge that they, too, are real people, people who have opinions like us, feelings like us, and perspectives like us. Harper Lee is the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel that itself has many perspectives, many of which are in conflict with each other. Set in the 1930’s South, the book takes place during the Great Depression, when many lost their jobs, and a time of racism, when laws were passed that prohibited the rights of black people. The protagonist is a girl named Scout who lives in the fictional town of Maycomb with her brother Jem and father Atticus, who is an empathetic lawyer. Through interactions with her peers, Scout learns to take others’ perspectives and walk in their shoes. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee teaches that, in order to take another’s perspective and practice empathy, it is required that one understand someone else’s thoughts or background, try to relate to them, then become aware of how the consequences of one’s actions affects them.

Before one can truly take another’s perspective, Lee argues, one must first seek to understand how someone thinks and where they come from. After hearing about Mr. Cunningham’s legal entailment, Scout asks if he will ever pay Atticus back. He replies that they will, just not in money. She asks, “‘Why does he pay you like that [with food]?’ ‘Because that’s the only way he can pay me. He has no money… The Cunninghams are country folk, farmers, and the crash hit them the hardest…’ As the Cunninghams had no money to pay a lawyer, they simply paid us with what they had’” (Lee 27-8).  Scout is confused why the Cunninghams pay “like that” because it is not the conventional way of paying debts. Money is always used in business transactions, yet Atticus allows them to pay through other means. Atticus acknowledges that the Cunninghams are having economic problems. He empathizes with him by drawing on his background knowledge, namely that, because he is a farmer who gets his money from agriculture, he does not Unknown.jpeghave the means to pay. The Great Depression left many poor and without jobs, so Atticus is easier on Mr. Cunningham; he knows it would be unfair to make him pay when he hardly has any money. Accordingly, Atticus accepts that the Cunninghams are trying their best, and he compromises with them. He willingly accepts anything Mr. Cunningham will give him, since he knows it will come from the heart. For this reason, Atticus can empathize by thinking outside normal conventions to accommodate Mr. Cunningham’s situation. Just as Atticus understands the Cunninghams, so Calpurnia empathizes with them when she lectures Scout not to judge them. Jem invites Walter Cunningham from school over to have dinner with him and Scout. Reluctantly, Walter agrees, but once he starts eating, Scout takes issue with his habits; so Calpurnia scolds her. Calpurnia yells, “‘There’s some folks who don’t eat like us… but you ain’t called on to contradict ‘em at the table when they don’t… [A]nd don’t you let me catch you remarkin’ on their ways like you was so high and mighty!’” (Lee 32-3). Because Scout is not used to the way Walter eats, she immediately judges his way as different from her own, thereby patronizing him. Hence, she is not empathizing because she is not considering his point of view, but is only evaluating her own. Calpurnia states that not everyone eats like Scout does, showing that she, unlike Scout, does not form generalizations; rather, she rationalizes, recognizing that he comes from a different home, a different home with different manners. Since she empathizes with Walter in this way, Calpurnia tells Scout not to “contradict” him, meaning it is rude and unsympathetic not to consider Walter and his background. Furthermore, she warns Scout not to act as though she is “so high and mighty,” especially around others who are less fortunate and who differ from her, such as Walter. By criticizing Walter’s eating and thence abashing him, Scout is being sanctimonious, declaring that her way is the better than anyone else’s. Calpurnia gets mad at Scout for this, as it is egocentric; i.e., she is concerned with herself and cannot consider others’ perspectives. Consequently, Calpurnia shows empathy by understanding that people have different perspectives, while Scout does not. Both Atticus and Calpurnia are empathetic because, as shown, they actively try to understand other people and selflessly consider their perspectives.

Unknown-1.jpegOnce a person’s way of thinking and past is understood, one is able to see oneself in that other and make connections with them. One night, Scout, Jem, and Dill sneak off to the Radley house and are scared away, Jem losing his pants in the process. Jem decides to retrieve his pants, regardless of the danger involved therewith. The next morning, he is moody and quiet, and Scout does not know why. Upon some reflection, she says, “As Atticus had once advised me to do, I tried to climb into Jem’s skin and walk around in it: if I had gone alone to the Radley Place at two in the morning, my funeral would have been held the next afternoon. So I left Jem alone and tried not to bother him” (Lee 77). Scout follows her father’s advice and “climb[s] into Jem’s skin,” symbolizing that she has taken his perspective and seen life therethrough. She asks herself the vital question of what it would be like to be Jem; in doing this, she has visualized herself as Jem, has visualized herself doing what he did, thereby understanding him. The first step in empathizing—understanding—allows her to relate to Jem and put herself in his position: She imagines what it would have been like to risk her own life, how she would have felt doing so. As a result, she examines her emotional reaction and projects it onto Jem, relating to him, feeling as he would feel. Had she not tried to understand Jem’s position, had she not related to him emotionally, she would have never known why Jem was being moody. Jem’s “funeral would have been held the next afternoon,” says Scout, realizing why Jem is upset. If she felt that way herself, then she would not want anyone bothering her, either, seeing as it is a traumatic event. Scout connects to Jem on an emotional level, empathizing with him. Another instance in which Scout shows empathy by relating is when she connects with Mr. Cunningham. Jem and Scout sneak out at night to find Atticus, who is at the county jail keeping watch over his client, Tom Robinson. While they near to him, a mob closes in on Atticus and threatens to kill Robinson, so Scout tries to find a way of civilizing them and 120130184141-mockingbird-6-super-169.jpgtalks to Walter’s father. Thinking of conversation, she considers, “Atticus had said it was the polite thing to talk to people about what they are interested in, not what you were interested in. Mr. Cunningham displayed no interest in his son, so I tackled his entailment once more in a last-ditch effort to make him feel at home” (Lee 205). In this moment, Scout recalls that it is polite to relate to others and consider their views rather than her own. She hereby distances herself from her egocentrism, instead concerning herself with what someone other than herself wants. Empathizing requires that one cross the gorge of disparity, and Scout bridges this gap between self and other to find that she has things in common with Mr. Cunningham, common things of which she would never have thought prior. Before this connection could occur, Scout had to know his background, of which she learned when talking to Atticus; additionally, she had his Unknown-1.pngson over and learned about him then, giving her something in common with him with which to talk. Since Scout knows Walter, she thinks him a topic to which the two can both relate, seeing as Walter is close to his father, creating a strong connection. However, she notes that he “displayed no interest in his son”; thus, she thinks back further, remembers another thing they have in common, then relates to it in an attempt to “make him feel at home.” The phrase “feel at home” denotes acceptance, belonging, and coziness—being warm and welcome—so Scout, in coming up with certain topics that will be of interest to Mr. Cunningham, seeks to make him feel like he is a welcome person, to put herself in his shoes and consider what he would like to talk about, what would make him feel accepted as it would her. Through these moments in the text, Lee shows that empathy is relating to and identifying with another by removing one’s own position and taking theirs.

Empathy is accomplished when one takes another’s perspective in order to know their actions will affect them and consider how they would make them feel. Jem and Scout find out Atticus has been insulted and threatened by Bob Ewell in chapter 23. They are confused as to why their dad did nothing to retaliate, why he just took it. He tells Jem, Unknown.jpeg“[S]ee if you can stand in Bob Ewell’s shoes a minute. I destroyed his last shred of credibility at the trial, if he had any to begin with… [I]f spitting in my face and threatening me saved Mayella Ewell one extra beating, that’s something I’ll gladly take. He had to take it out on somebody and I’d rather it be me than that houseful of children out there’” (Lee 292-3). Atticus directs Jem to “stand in Bob Ewell’s shoes” so that he can understand his perspective, and therefore how Atticus’ actions could have affected him. Knowing Mr. Ewell has many children, finding a common link therein, Atticus can relate to him, imagining how horrible it would be if his children were beaten. Bob Ewell, upset over the trial, wants to take out his anger, so he displaces it onto Atticus, which Atticus says is better than his displacing it on his children. Taking the pacifist route, Atticus avoids exacerbating the situation, aware that fighting back would cause things to worsen, and he steps outside himself to become aware of how his actions will not just have direct effects, but indirect effects as well: Angering Bob Ewell would make him want to physically harm Atticus, but would further encourage him to be more hostile to his children in addition. As such, Atticus takes into account the long-term consequences and empathizes because he is aware of how his actions could possibly obviate a disaster. He thinks ahead—to Bob Ewell’s children, to his own children, concluding, “‘I’d rather it be me than that houseful of children.’” A second example of considering the consequences of one’s actions on another takes place when Scout, a couple years later, reflects on how she treated Arthur “Boo” Radley. At the beginning of chapter 26, Scout is thinking about her life and passes the Radley house, of which she and Jem were always scared, and about which they had always heard rumors. She remembers all the times in the past she and her brother and their friend played outside, acting out what happened at the house. Pensively, she Unknown-1.jpegponders, “I sometimes felt a twinge of remorse when passing by the old place [Radley house], at ever having taken part in what must have been sheer torment to Arthur Radley—what reasonable recluse wants children peeping through his shutters, delivering greetings on the end of a fishing-pole, wandering in his collards at night?” (Lee 324). Lee uses the word “remorse” here to conjure up feelings of guilt, regret, and shame, all associated with the way Scout feels about her actions. To say she feels a “twinge of remorse” is to say she feels compunction; that is, morally, she feels she has wronged the Radleys, and, looking back, that what she did was wrong. She is contrite because she can stand back and objectively evaluate her deeds, deeds she deems unempathetic, considering they were inconsiderate of Arthur. Having become aware of the weight of her choices, Scout experiences regret, an important emotional reaction because it signifies empathy, insofar as it is representative of her taking into account how she affected another person; and, in this case, how it negatively impacted Arthur, which itself requires understanding and relation to him. This regret, this guilt, is caused by the realization that her actions in the past were mean and thus incite moral guilt. Again, Scout puts herself in Arthur’s shoes, imagining what it would reasonably be like to be a “recluse”: Certainly, she affirms, she does not want “children peeping,… delivering greetings,… [or] wandering in [her] collards.” The thought process is supposed to relate to Arthur’s, so Scout is actively relating to and understanding him, ultimately to realize how her conduct impacts him. Her scruples finally notify her that, from the perspective of the solitary Arthur, her behavior had a negative effect. Scout’s awareness of the consequences of her actions makes her empathetic, for she has introjected Arthur’s perspective. In conclusion, Atticus and Scout exhibit empathy because they both consider how their comportment has an effect on others.

Unknown.pngAccording to Lee, empathy is put into practice when one takes time to learn about another person, makes a personal connection with them, and considers how their actions will affect them. We are social animals by nature, which means we desire close relationships; unfortunately, most of us seldom recognize the importance of understanding those with whom we have a relationship, leading to inconsiderateness, ignorance, and stereotypes. For such intimate animals, we all too often neglect the feelings and thoughts of others, even though they are of no less priority than ours. Therefore, empathy is a vital, indispensable tool in social interaction that helps us connect with others. As communication is being revolutionized, worldviews shaken, and identities changed, it is integral that we learn to better understand others and never forget to empathize, lest we lose our humanity.


To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1982)


Courage in To Kill a Mockingbird

[Adapted from an in-class assessment].

imagesIn chapter 11 of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee explains through Atticus that real, moral courage is being self-reliant and defending one’s own views, regardless of what others think. Throughout the chapter, Mrs. Dubose harasses Scout and Jem, the latter of whom, enraged, trashes her garden later on. Atticus makes Jem redress his mistake by reading to her for two hours for a month. It is revealed that the reading was a distraction for her withdrawals. When Atticus calls Mrs. Dubose a lady, Jem is offended, to which Atticus replies that “courage is [not] a man with a gun in his hand.” Typically, courage is equated with bravery, to the point that they are considered interchangeable, but Atticus wants to disabuse this idea: Courage is not a matter of macho, gun-slinging manliness, unlike what most people think, as in the classic Western cowboy, who rides through the town dueling bandits. Courage is not about aggressiveness, but conquering fear, albeit of a different kind—not physical, but moral. Real courage, says Atticus, is “when you know you’re licked before you win but you begin anyway.” As licked means beaten, courage is knowing you are at a disadvantage, yet through self-determination, you “begin anyway” because it is a noble, conscionable cause. Atticus himself is a model of courage insofar as he has taken up the Robinson case, which, he admits, he had already lost; but still he tries, faithful and steadfast, despite the odds. He then says, “She [Mrs. Dubose] was the bravest person I ever knew,” and for several reasons. He explains, “According to her views,” which were “a lot different from mine… she died beholden to nothing and nobody.” By saying she had her own deviant views, Atticus shows that courage is about being a free-thinker, an independent thinker who thinks for themselves and fights for those views. Likewise, Atticus is criticized for defending a black man; his views are opposed and differ from everyone else’s, yet he still upholds his values. Mrs. Dubose’s personal philosophy was one of self-reliance—even if it meant death. When Atticus says “she [did not] die beholden,” he notes that beholden means dependent upon and indebted to, and therefore reliant. Mrs. Dubose was determined to break her morphine addiction before she died, and even if it made her suffer, she would not be dependent on the medicine or images-1.jpegthe doctors, but only herself and her will, with which she fought strongly. Thus, she fought her own internal battle and remained self-reliant until the end. Compare this to Atticus’ definition of real courage: Unreal courage is the man with the gun who fights external conflicts, but real courage is the old lady who, on her deathbed, fights an addiction and wins, who fights internal conflicts, who fulfills her own views, no matter how different they are. In conclusion, through Atticus, Harper Lee demonstrates that real courage is more akin to integrity than bravery, so far as it is about sticking to one’s views, fighting one’s own battles, and staying true to oneself in the face of defeat.


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.


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)


“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)


“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)


“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)


“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)


“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)


“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)


“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)


“—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)


“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)