Conscience in To Kill a Mockingbird

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

“‘Atticus, you must be wrong….'”

“‘How’s that?'”

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

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


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

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The Wisdom of Gœthe: The Sorrows of Young Werther

Living in the Present

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


Mind vs. Heart [1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Purposelessness

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

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


Youth

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

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


Ineffability

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

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

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

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


Historiography

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


Moods [2]

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

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

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

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

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

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


Being in Love

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

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

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


Happiness

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


Want for Attention

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


Individualism

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

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

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

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


Journal-writing

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


Understanding

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


Comparing Ourselves to Others

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

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


Imagination

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


Human, All Too Human

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


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


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

 

Nothing, Nihilism, and Meaning [2 of 2]

 

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 


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

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

Nothing by Janne Teller (2010)

 

Nothing, Nihilism, and Meaning [1 of 2]

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 


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

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

Nothing by Janne Teller (2010)

 

Schopenhauer and the Goldfinch [2 of 2]

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


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

If you can stop, why wouldn’t you?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 


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

 

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

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013)

Schopenhauer and The Goldfinch [1 of 2]

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

 

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

 

Jack and His Discontents (2 of 2)

We now move onto the late stages of Jack’s neuroticism. Jack, as we have learned, has been repressing his primitive instincts, meaning he has kept them out of the conscious, leaving the ideational presentations stuck in the unconscious, forgotten, neglected, left to multiply like fungus. As Freud said, the longer we keep our instincts repressed, the more time they have to regroup, come together, and create more resistance in our minds, creating tension, Guilt_Finger.gifresulting in the censuring of the ego by the superego, ultimately creating a sense of guilt, the result of a fight or flight response. Freud spoke of an economy in the mind, a national reserve of sorts; when this reserve is depleted, the defense mechanisms of our mind break down. Repression requires energy, and the longer an idea is repressed, the more energy is consumed. By killing the pig, Jack has given his aggression a catalyst, so the impulses grow stronger, eating more energy, his repression slowly breaking down, his aggression shining through the cracks in little bits. We see that, after killing the pig, Jack becomes increasingly aggressive. Slowly but surely, the walls of his mind are crumbling down, and his aggression is able to come through. Ralph lectures Jack for not looking after the fire. Jack notices that he is in hostile territory, and his super-ego begins to hammer on his ego. The guilt that arises thereafter cannot be tolerated by Jack, who is guilty of not completing his duties, who, feeling threatened, turns the anger onto Piggy, presently punching him and knocking him down (Golding 66). Here, there is a struggle between the id, which wants to take out its aggression, and the superego, which instills a sense of guilt in Jack. The result is displacement: unable to cope with the greed of the id and the morality of the superego, the ego decides to appease them both by taking out his feelings on something weak, vulnerable, and defenseless—Piggy. In so doing, Jack has temporarily satisfied his id. Like a hungry child, the id, once fed, will return to normal, until it begins to grow hungry once more. What has just occurred has been Jack acting out. Roger and Jack are both sadists. Golding describes a scene in which Roger throws rocks at the Littlun Henry:

Here, invisible yet strong, was the taboo of old life. Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law. Roger’s arm was conditioned by a civilization that knew nothing of him and was in ruins (57).

Roger and Jack have both been raised in a society that values temperance, control, and politeness. They were scolded by their parents not to hurt their siblings; taught in school not to do mean things to other students; warned by the police not to break the law; conditioned by society to be behaved, to be like everyone else, to resist all urges. Think, then, what this has done to their inner aggression, to have been repressed to such an extent! But here, on the island, things are different; no longer is there a higher authority Unknown.jpegto keep the boys in check. Roger, free to do as he pleases, unable to be punished, can be aggressive and not get in trouble. However, it is strange that he refuses to hit Henry directly, throwing instead into a small circle instead. Law and morality still remain with him. Despite his freedom, the idea of restraint has been ingrained into his mind. That there is no evil in him is false; his throwing rocks at Henry is proof of the opposite—Roger’s dark side is stronger than his good, for all this time it has been growing uncontrollably powerful. All it took to release it was the absence of punishment, be it from an external force, like a parent, or an internal force, namely the superego. Without the restraints of civilization, Roger, like Jack, regresses to his primal self, his aggressive, savage self. Fromm wrote,

[I]f the situation changes, repressed desires become conscious and are acted out…. Another case in point is the change that occurs in the character when the total social situation changes. The sadistic character who may have posed as a meek or even friendly individual may become a fiend in a terroristic society…. Another may suppress sadistic behavior in all visible actions, while showing it in a subtle expression of the face or in seemingly harmless and marginal remarks.[1]

Put another way, Fromm is saying that the sadist will feign a pleasant character in a certain environment, say a school, but will reveal himself in a different context, such as an island. This echoes Freud who also noted that society forces us to create reaction-formations. Because we cannot satisfy our aggressive tendencies, we must be exceedingly gentle. Fromm also notes that the sadist, even in a safe environment, will not completely hide his nature, as there will be minor signs, like expressions in the face, of which he spoke.


Unknown.pngFollowing this event, the next major stage in Jack’s neuroticism happens shortly before he kills the pig. Jack is by the riverside, collecting clay, then smearing it on his face, covering it up. He looks at himself at the river and is satisfied. “[T]he mask was a thing on its own, behind which Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness,” writes Golding (59). Hereafter, Jack relinquishes all remnants of his past life, devoured by his aggression, which takes control for the rest of the story. A small detail, the mask allows for disinhibition, allowing Jack to take on a whole new persona. This mask hides who Jack was, endows him with new strength, and lets him get away with anything. It is no longer Jack who is acting but the mask. If Jack kills Ralph, it is not Jack who does it, but the mask. One can think of the story of Gyges’ Ring as told in the Republic, in which a shepherd finds a ring that can make him invisible. Granted this awesome power, Gyges abuses it, making himself invisible and killing the king and marrying his wife. Anonymity Unknown-1.jpegbestows upon its subject great powers, including immorality. The mask on Jack’s face lets him be sadistic, for he can no longer be ashamed. A sense of invincibility is coupled with invisibility, seeing as Jack, hiding himself behind the mask, feels untouchable, as though he can do whatever he wants, since it is not he who is doing it. No more responsibilities are expected of Jack hence. When Jack steals fire from Ralph, the two come face-to-face. Committing an unforgivable act, Jack, normally, would not be able to look the other boy in the face, an overwhelming feeling of guilt preventing him; but with his mask, Jack can easily steal from Ralph without thinking twice. Ralph, Piggy, and Samneric try to go after Jack and his hunters at the end, except that “[t]hey understood only too well the liberation into savagery that the concealing paint brought” (Golding 170). Golding adds further that, “Freed by the paint,… they were more comfortable than he [Ralph] was” (173). Anyone who puts on the mask of paint is relieved of all expectancies, of all moral obligations, of all sensibleness. Freud observed that the barbarian was happier than the civilized man, inasmuch as the former could satisfy his impulses, whereas the latter could not; similarly, the hunters are more comfortable than Ralph because they can do what he cannot: gratify their aggression.


Thanatos, the major force through which Jack now operates, is committed to but one task: self-destruction, the return to the womb, to nothingness. Jack is never seen backing away from a daunting task, always one for a challenge, even if it may end up killing him. Eager to kill, Jack volunteers to go on pig hunts constantly, going as far as to hunt the dreaded beast that threatens their existence. Upon climbing the mountain, Ralph considers going back, but Jack calls him a coward, insisting that they go up. Ralph calls their mission a foolish one, and Jack agrees, continuing up the mountain, determined to kill the beast. If this is so, if Jack wants to destroy himself, why is it, then, that he kills the pig earlier in the book? Freud would answer, “It really seems as though it is necessary for us to destroy some other thing or person in order not to destroy ourselves.”[2] The real goal of Thanatos is destruction of the self, but Jack obviously does not want to die, consciously that is, so he must satisfy his death-instinct some other way, viz., killing something else. Simple trade-off: kill something else to avoid not killing myself. Like Prometheus, Jack tries to defy his god (his superego, rather) by stealing fire from their sacred home. It is a forbidden task, one that will surely result in suffering. Only, unlike Prometheus, Jack gets away with it, despite almost being compromised, successfully. This small act of defiance further tips the scale of his death-instinct.

Another trait of the sadist is that he is stimulated only be the helpless, never by those who are strong…. For the sadistic character there is only one admirable quality, and that is power. He admires,… those who have power, and he despises and wants to control those who are powerless and cannot fight back.[3]

Jack emulates Fromm’s description of the sadistic character when he orders his hunters to take the innocent Wilfred into custody to be tortured for no reason. Ralph asks Samneric why Jack ordered Wilfred to be tortured, but the twins have no answer. It seems Jack did so purely for pleasure, for fun, to fulfill his aggressive death-instinct. There is no rational reason for what he did, obviously, except for the fact that it was in his own self-interest, and that he was able to exert control over a powerless being. The relationship between Ralph and Jack is odd, the latter’s respect for the former strained by his desire to remove him from power. In some ways this is true, for Jack does not truly want to kill Ralph, as he harbors a sort of respect for him, for his demotic popularity. What Jack really wants to do is have all the power for himself. Just a few hours before Jack captured and had Wilfred beat, Roger horrendously killed Piggy, to which Jack reacted apathetically, coldly, disturbingly, responding by threatening Ralph that the same could happen to him. If Jack wanted Ralph dead, he could have done it long ago, and easily—but he did not.


1024px-VingtAnnees_258-980x682.jpg“Few people ever have the chance to attain so much power that they can seduce themselves into the delusion that it might be absolute,”[4] commented Erich Fromm. Fortunately, this is true; unfortunately, it is still possible. Completely neurotic now, Jack has become like Mr. Kurtz, gaunt and savage, his loyal hunters willing to do anything for him, as he sits in his throne as though he were an idol, or a god. Power has indeed gotten to him now, to the point that he is worshiped, thought invincible, the true leader of the boys on the island.

In many cases the sadism is camouflaged in kindness and what looks like benevolence toward certain people in certain circumstances. But it would be erroneous to think that the kindness is simply intended to deceive, or even that it is only a gesture, not based on any genuine feeling. To understand this phenomenon better, it is necessary to consider that most sane people wish to preserve a self-image that makes them out to be human in at least some respects. [5] 

Jack may not be totally sane, but he does seek to maintain his human appearance. When he is not off hunting pigs, stealing fire, or torturing kids, Jack is seen giving plentiful rations to his and his enemies’ people, not as an illusion, not to bait them, but to appear in some way humane, to be what remains of his character. In fact, Jack invites Ralph and his friends to join his tribe rather pleasantly, offering them food and protection, all in a friendly tone, no force necessary. It is only later, when he has been confronted, that he forces Samneric to join the tribe by means of  force. While this may be the last of his humanity, it does not change the fact that he is still savage. Having regressed completely to the beginning, Jack is now like his hunting ancestors, hosting ritualistic dances centered on sacrifices, complete with disturbing chants and entrancing rhythms. Jack has become so ill, so neurotic, so sadistic, that he has nearly fallen out of touch with reality, becoming more of a black hole than a human, sucking up all good, drawing in all light, all that is good. Even pure-hearted Ralph and Piggy succumb to his darkness, joining one of the rituals, eventually killing their friend Simon in cold blood. Conclusively, Jack has become a deranged, sadistic neurotic.


In conclusion, to use the wise words of Piggy, “[P]eople [are] never quite what you thought they were” (Golding 49).

 

Glossary:
(Retrieved from Stephen Glazier’s Word Menu)


Acting out- Unconscious expression of previously repressed feelings through specific behavior
Aggression- Hostile, destructive behavior towards others
Death-instinct/Thanatos- Destructive, aggressive compulsion to achieve nonexistence
Defense mechanism- Any of various mental processes, including… displacement,… projection,… reaction-formation, regression, repression,…, used by the ego for protection against instinctual demands and to reduce anxiety
Disinhibition- Removal of inhibition (process of stopping an impulse)
Ego-
 Reality-oriented, structured component of personality that enables individual to function autonomously in the world
Ego-ideal/Superego- Aspect of personality involving conscience, guilt, imposition of moral standards, and introjected authoritative and ethical images
Guilt- Recurrent feeling of self-reproach or self-blame for something wrong, often something beyond one’s control
Id- 
Unconscious, unsocialized component of personality, containing unexpressed desires and motivations and driven by pleasure principle
Neuroticism- Emotional disorder involving basic repression of primary instinctual urge and reliance on defense mechanisms that results in symptoms or personality disturbance
Reaction-formation- Defense mechanism involving denial of unacceptable unconscious urges by behavior contrary to one’s own feelings
Regression- Defense mechanism involving return to behavior expressive of earlier developmental stage, usu. due to trauma, fixation, anxiety, or frustration
Repression- Defense mechanism in which threatening or unacceptable ideas or urges are forgotten
Sadism- Condition in which pleasure, esp. sexual, is derived from inflicting pain on others

 


[1] Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, pp. 107-8
[2] Qtd. in Fromm, id., p. 492
[3] Id., p. 325
[4] Id., p. 323
[5] 329-30

 

For further reading: 
A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud (1975)
The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness
 by Erich Fromm (1992)

Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud (1929)
Instincts and Their Vicissitudes 
by Sigmund Freud (1915)
The Ego and the Id 
by Sigmund Freud (1923)
Lord of the Flies
 by William Golding (2011)
Repression
 by Sigmund Freud (1915)

Jack and His Discontents (1 of 2)

So far I have examined Lord of the Flies under the microscopic lenses of Plato, Hobbes, and Nietzsche. One form of literary theory, which is a favorite among many, which has been used on many pieces of writing, and which I will be using in this blog, is that of psychoanalysis, a branch of psychology developed by Sigmund Freud. A simple search containing both Lord of the Flies and psychoanalysis will easily generate several results, all of which are exactly the same, all of which are shallow in their depth, each of them focusing on the tripartite theory of the id, ego, and superego. What I seek to do in this blog, therefore, to distinguish my analysis from the others out there, is perform a case study on Lord of the Flies, a case study focused on one character in particular, a character central to the story, a character whose inner struggle is perfect for psychoanalyzing: Jack Merridew. By the end of this blog, I hope to prove that Jack suffers from neurotic sadism. A glossary can be found at the end to clarify any psychoanalytical terminology that I will be using.

images.jpegPsychoanalysis is the study of the unconscious and how it affects the conscious mind, initially conceived by Freud under the impression that all mental illnesses were caused by sexual tensions derived from a young age. This first stage of his thought, in which sexual energy, or libido, after being kept out of the conscious, caused mental illness, was later replaced by a later, finalized stage, characterized by a complete break away from the libidinal theory, where Freud turning instead to the life and death-instincts, the latter earning heavy criticism from his followers. These two instincts are the main forces behind human behavior, and each has a different motivation, the life-instinct, called Eros, seeking self-preservation and reproduction, and the death-instinct, usually referred to as Thanatos, seeking self-destruction, sometimes “[expressing] itself as an instinct of destruction directed against the external world and other living organisms.”[1] Freud thus created a dualism of impulses in man, a Manichaean tension caused by an internal war of life against death, of creation against destruction. Freud wrote that

Civilization has been built up, under the pressure of the struggle of existence, by sacrifices in gratification of the primitive impulses, and that to a great extent for ever being re-created, as each individual, successively joining the community, repents the sacrifice of his instinctive pleasures for the common good.[2]

According to Freud, the only reason society exists is because individuals give up their individual instincts. If each individual were to indulge their death-instinct, the very instinct of aggression, the very instinct present in everyone, then there would be constant warfare, reckless murder, and rife torture; but, by renouncing and rejecting our impulses, by stifling them, by keeping them out of our conscious, we are able to coexist, to live peacefully and without fear of our aggressive tendencies kicking in and dominating us. There will be no more destruction, either of ourselves or of others. Freud said that civilization represses its desires, by which he means that we force these unacceptable ideas and fantasies out of our minds and into the unconscious, where they are left to fester, unable to torment the conscious mind.

[T]he more a man checks his aggressive tendencies towards others the more tyrannical, that is aggressive, he becomes in his ego-ideal…. [T]he more a man controls his aggressiveness, the more intense become the aggressive tendencies of his ego-ideal against his ego.[3]

Unknown.jpegHere Freud is saying that, over time, the repressing of our instincts will only make the tension worse, as the longer they stay in the unconscious, the more persistent they become. The ego-ideal, synonymous with our conscience, will become stressed as a result, censuring us with a harsher tone, criticizing our lack of control, nagging on us, the voice of authority becoming stronger. As this happens, our reasoning diminishes, and we lose control of our conscious, letting us slowly but surely let our instincts out. However, civilization has not reached this point wholly, the reason being that we have redirected our instincts; Freud says that civilization thrives on sublimation, for it is the only productive way of combatting our desires. Because we all have within us aggression, a seething beast waiting to be released, we usually end up creating reaction-formations to fight back. Instead of letting all of our aggression out, we pretend as though we are happy and grateful, despite the terrifying reality happening below the surface. Little do we know that this pressure, this aggression, is bubbling in our depths.


Jack Merridew is an adolescent boy who was raised in England. In the beginning of the book, we immediately recognize him as a natural leader, a boy whose inherent nature is that of commanding, of gaining respect, of having his voice heard, of getting things done. For the most part, having grown up an English boy, under a Catholic household, as the head of his choir, he has good and proper morals. Jack’s whole life seems to be headed in a good direction, as he has excellent training in being a leader and in displaying Catholic morals. And like everyone else in society, he has been taught to sublimate his instincts, to hide them, to turn them into something productive. In a choir, Jack is able to reach deep into himself and take his inner aggression—with which he has not yet come to terms—and turn it into art, using his voice to express himself creatively, thereby redirecting his impulses into something acceptable. Further, as a devout Catholic, Jack has been Unknown-2.jpegdisciplined to act faithfully and morally. Indulging in his dark instincts would not be very Catholic of him, so he has been taught to repress his desires and act out of kindness and compassion; as we know, though, this is the opposite of what he truly is inside: proof of reaction-formation. When Simon talks to the Lord of the Flies, the pig takes on the guise of a schoolteacher who says, “This has gone on far enough. My poor, misguided child, do you think you know better than I do?” (Golding 141). Golding himself was influenced to write the book after he taught at a young boys’ Catholic school, so it is no surprise that he should put a reference here. One can easily imagine The Lord of the Flies like a concerned, patronizing schoolteacher shaking his head disapprovingly, mocking Simon, for he knows that there is a darkness in all the boys, yet Simon has not yet embraced it. Jack has already given up his Catholic values and given into his darkness, to the disappointment of the imaginary schoolteacher. The death-instinct still lurks unconsciously in Jack, however, and strongly, throughout the first half of the novel. When Jack tries to kill the first pig, he hesitates to drive the knife into the pig (Golding 25-6). There is a voice in Jack telling him that it is immoral, that the blood will be overwhelming, and that ultimately, it will haunt him forever. Later, when the boys create a fire, Jack and Ralph both hesitate to light the fire, because the warnings of their parents still echo in their heads: Do not play with fire! Despite being boys held back by the words of adults, there is still aggression inside of them, waiting to be acted upon.


The next stage of Jack’s neuroticism occurs with the whole pig incident, at which we just glanced. This stage is, perhaps, the most formidable, as it is the first sign we see of Jack’s aggressiveness being released. I like to think of Jack in this stage as regressing, not in the traditional sense, but in an evolutionary sense, insofar as he is almost reverting back to his ancestral roots in the hunter-gathering civilizations. There is a scene when Jack goes hunting, in which we see him get down on all fours, as though stalking; in which we see him sniffing the ground, going so far as to sniff droppings; in which he traverses the jungle, spear in hand, ready to slaughter the pig without mercy (Golding 43-4). Eric Fromm captures this mentality in the following quote:

He [the hunter] returns to his natural state, becomes one with the animal, and is freed from the burden of the existential split: to be part of nature and transcend it by virtue of his consciousness. In stalking the animal, he and the animal become equals, even though man shows his superiority by the use of his weapons.[4]

Jack is seen reverting to his natural state of being, as a predator, as a hunter, getting down on all fours, so as to become one with nature, with the animal, so he can kill it, get food, and feed himself. There is a return, then, to the primitive instincts. Freud declared that “it is easy,… for a barbarian to be healthy; for the civilized man the task is a hard one.”[5] The barbarian, or in this case the hunter, is able to freely act on his aggression, for in doing so he gets to kill and ends up with food and is therefore happy; modern man, contrarily, must keep his aggression in check, must restrain himself from hurting, and hence he is tormented. Jack, channeling his inner hunter, is able to engage his aggression naturally, for it is natural, allowing him to kill without fear of reproach. As a hunter, killing is not for pleasure; killing is now about survival. The question arises: Why the pig? We see that Jack becomes utterly obsessed with the pig, fixated even. Psychoanalytically, he does have a fixation. Thanatos, because it is pure energy, is expressed in a directed charge, similar to an electric current. Now that Jack can channel his death-instinct, he cathects it to the pig—that is, he directs his energy to an object: the pig. Consequently, Jack develops an object-cathexis, his instincts now fixated on the pig, the vulnerable animal now his prey. Evident of this fixation is the fact that Jack claims that he will kill the pig “Next time—!” Unknown-1.jpeg(Golding 26), not once, but thrice (Golding 28, 46). On three separate occasions Jack seems to take offense whenever someone asks him about the pig. It is safe to say that this is a sort of inferiority complex in Jack, a sort of rejection, of himself. When he tried to kill the pig, he hesitated, and now he feels rejected, as though everyone thinks him weak as a result. Jack develops the strange idea that he is being judged, that he is an incompetent hunter, since he is unable to complete such a simple task, causing frustration. This pressure creates a stronger cathexis in Jack’s mind, for his failure to kill the pig makes him want to kill it even more, as he feels doing so will prove himself as both worthy and competent. At this point, Jack is concerned with meat and meat alone, not rescue, not building huts, but getting meat. Food was of paramount importance in the hunter-gathering society, especially meat, for it was more difficult to acquire than berries or nuts. It is logical, then, that Jack should become so obsessed with this task. During the time that Jack is fixated on the pig, there still remains resistance in him, resistance to the idea of killing—indeed, a man’s first kill haunts him forever, so it is a frightening ordeal for Jack. Talking to Ralph, Jack tries “to convey the compulsion to track down and kill that was swallowing him up” (Golding 46). Reflecting on his two failed missions to hunt the pig, Jack is in disbelief, repeating dreadfully, “I thought I might kill” (Ibid.). In Jack’s voice, one can imagine a sense of surrealism, considering Jack nearly killed for the first time. After killing the pig, Jack describes the experience as follows:

His mind was crowded with memories; memories of the knowledge that had come to them when they closed in on the struggling pig, knowledge that they had outwitted a living thing, imposed their will upon it, taken away its life like a long satisfying drink. (Golding 65)

Notwithstanding his initial fear of killing, Jack is bestowed with great ecstasy. This disturbing imagery, that of killing being similar to “a long satisfying drink,” is not one of kindness and compassion, but sadism, pure and simple. In addition to these early signs of sadism latent in Jack, there also arises evidence of paranoia, suggestive further of neuroticism. “‘If you’re hunting sometimes you catch yourself feeling as if…. [y]ou’re not hunting, but—being hunted, as if something’s behind you all the time in the jungle,” confides Jack in Ralph (Golding 48). This comment reveals another insight into Jack, psychoanalytically, in that it reflects his projecting of his aggression. Because he has not come to terms with the aggression that lingers inside him, because he feels threatened by this new-found aggression, Jack feels it necessary to project his aggression onto the world instead of taking responsibility for it himself because it makes him feel safe, because it takes away the responsibility of having to deal with it.

 

Glossary:
(Retrieved from Stephen Glazier’s Word Menu)


Aggression- Hostile, destructive behavior towards others
Death-instinct/Thanatos- 
Destructive, aggressive compulsion to achieve nonexistence
Cathexis-
Concentration or buildup of mental energy and emotional significance in connection with an idea, activity, or object
Ego-
Reality-oriented, structured component of personality that enables individual to function autonomously in the world
Ego-ideal- Aspect of personality involving conscience, guilt, imposition of moral standards, and introjected authoritative and ethical images
Fixation- Extreme attachment to object or ideas associated with earlier stage of psychic development; halting of stage of personality development
Frustration- Disturbed state occurring when individual cannot attain goal or relieve tension
Neuroticism- Emotional disorder involving basic repression of primary instinctual urge and reliance on defense mechanisms that results in symptoms or personality disturbance
Object- “[T]hat in or through which it [an instinct] can achieve its aim (Freud, Instincts and their Vicissitudes, p. 414b)
Obsession Persistent, pervasive, disturbing fixation on an emotion, idea, object, or person
Paranoia- Persistent delusions of persecution or suspicion of others
Projection- Defense mechanism involving attribution of one’s own unacceptable or unwanted qualities and motives to others
Reaction-formation- Defense mechanism involving denial of unacceptable unconscious urges by behavior contrary to one’s own feelings
Regression- Defense mechanism involving return to behavior expressive of earlier developmental stage, usu. due to trauma, fixation, anxiety, or frustration
Repression- Defense mechanism in which threatening or unacceptable ideas or urges are forgotten
Sadism- Condition in which pleasure, esp. sexual, is derived from inflicting pain on others
Sublimation- Defense mechanism involving substitution of socialized behavior for unacceptable acting out of primary urge

 


[1] Freud, The Ego and the Id, p. 709b*
[2] Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, p. 27
[3] Freud, The Ego and the Id, p. 715a-b
[4] Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, p. 156
[5] Qtd. in Seldes, The Great Thoughts, p. 149

 

For further reading: 
A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud (1975)
The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness
by Erich Fromm (1992)

Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud (1929)
Instincts and Their Vicissitudes 
by Sigmund Freud (1915)
The Ego and the Id 
by Sigmund Freud (1923)
Lord of the Flies
by William Golding (2011)
Repression
by Sigmund Freud (1915)

*All notes are references to Great Books of the Western World Vol. 54 by Mortimer J. Adler (1990)

 

Power and Lord of the Flies (2 of 2)

Previously we looked at the role of democracy in Lord of the Flies and how it never works in actuality. Minorities, beasties, tyrants, rules, and assemblies do not work, as there are too many moving parts, and there is no way to rule rationally while also staying authoritative. Just as government will inevitably crumble, so the human spirit does too, with its dark forces, which Golding emphasizes in the novel. This blog will discuss the philosophy of Hobbes, specifically how humans interact and govern themselves, and the philosophy of Nietzsche, specifically the will that drives all living organisms.

Hobbes’ classic work The Leviathan details within man a great malady, a natural tendency toward savagery, amorality, and anarchy. While goodness can exist in the form of virtue, there can never be peace, happiness, or safety, but eternal warfare, misery, and insecurity, resulting in a state of incommensurable upheaval and complete destruction of other lives. Battle_of_Waterloo_1815.PNGHobbes writes that “during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man.”[1] This is the time Hobbes calls man’s state of nature; basically, man in his most primitive form, without conventions, without moral standards, without government, is wholly aggressive and cannot coexist with his others because “[i]n such condition there is no… society; and… [there is] continual fear and danger of violent death.”[2] What he means by society is civilization of any form, meaning a community, a group of people with a common goal, a common set of beliefs, rules, laws, a common identity—man can not have any of that. Fear of death is what motivates man. Man himself works in two ways: instinct and reason, the former egoistic and self-preservatory in nature, the latter logical and political. It is in the state of nature that man seeks what will make him live longest, be it land or resources, but when he is interrupted by someone with a similar goal, he will do whatever is necessary to protect himself, to claim what ought to be his. Ralph, reflecting on his time on the island, observing for the first time the conditions in which he and the boys lived, such as their disheveled hair and lack of hygiene and clothing, “discovered with a fall of the heart that these were the conditions he took as normal now and that he did not mind” (Golding 106). Living in England his whole life, Ralph was used to proper wear, delicious food, and impeccable bodies. Normally, when one is in sordid conditions, as on the island, characterized by slovenly neglect of oneself, one is repulsed. How are such conditions suitable for living, one would ask in this very scenario. However, according to Hobbes, these conditions are not repulsive at all; rather, they are natural, how things usually are. Ralph is in touch with the state of nature, the natural state of uncleanliness and absolute amorality. The time on the island has brought back the sense of constant dread, reminiscent of pre-civilization, when death was the only concern of man. Hobbes also attributed to man the right of nature, which he describes as “the liberty each man hath to use his own power as he will himself for the preservation of his own life.”[3] The right of nature is what Hobbes uses to justify the lawlessness of man. It should be said that the state of nature, in addition to not having society, knows no good or bad; thus there is no morality, no right and wrong, no unfairness. Everything is and everything goes. Simplified, the right of nature states that man can use whatever means he must in order to do that which will keep him alive. If Ralph stakes claim to a piece of land and Jack steps foot on it, Ralph has the right of nature to kill Jack if it means protecting himself from a potential danger. The laws of nature, as opposed to the right of nature, are inherent laws that every man knows that govern their actions. The fifth law, for instance, declares “[t]hat every man ought to endeavor peace, as far as he has hope of attaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war.”[4] Therefore, all men should try to establish peace, in avoidance of death of course. But should the acquirement of peace be hindered, it lies Hobbes-Leviathan.jpgwithin man’s duty to use, among other things, war to obtain peace and keep it. The question arises, then, of how modern societies come to exist. Monarchy was the answer, thought Hobbes. All people have to give up their individual pursuits and surrender it to a single, governing entity by signing a covenant, thereby investing their faith in a Leviathan, symbolic of the mass power of the people in one person. This one person, the monarch, in return for obeisance, keeps order. Unlike the democracy of the boys in Lord of the Flies, which had neither punishments nor strict rules, the monarch requires absolute respect and obedience. Misdemeanor results in death. Connecting Hobbes to Lord of the Flies, we find a justification for the boys’ actions, especially Jack and his cohort. When Ralph falls to his knees, “[weeping] for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart,” he is not mistaken, and Hobbes would agree (Golding 200). Man will naturally degenerate into savagery—murderous, immoral savagery. Jack comes most clearly in touch with his primal instincts, descending into the state of nature, killing, stealing, and exploiting, all for his own self-preservation.


Nietzsche, toward the end of his life, began conceiving a basic impulse that drove all things living, from amoeba to humans: the Will to Power. “All events that result from intention are reducible to the intention to increase power,”[5] he claimed. The idea of the Unknown-1.jpegWill as driving force was primarily derived from Schopenhauer’s writings, but Nietzsche took it further, using it to account for all motives, and not just in humans. To Nietzsche, power is not just the exertion of dominance over another but also mastery of self, perfection of virtue, and the pursuit of excellence. Taken to extremes, though, this Will to Power can come to domineering others, so as to gain more power. One of the Littluns in Lord of the Flies, Henry, starts playing with some crabs early in the novel. Golding writes on page 56 that Henry “became absorbed beyond mere happiness as he felt himself exercising control over living things. He talked to them, urging them, ordering them.” Here we see that Henry, despite being about six years old, already feels the overwhelming Will within him, that pleasure derived from having control over something and subjecting it to his Will, from giving orders and commanding, from making living things go against their own motives, hence placing them under Henry’s control. There is a feeling of mastery, both of oneself and of something else, empowering Henry, his lust for power increasing. The Will to Power is present in plants, trees, and humans alike, each of them quenching their Will to Power in their own ways. Because life cannot be controlled, the idea of power over something else becomes appealing. There is, therefore, a sense of control that is temporarily granted to the individual. Pleasure, Nietzsche says, is the fulfillment of the Will, while pain is the feeling one gets when faced with an obstacle. Pain is necessary, he says, because without pain, without obstacles, there is nothing to overcome, nothing to subject to one’s Will, nothing to make oneself stronger. Later in Lord of the Flies, the twins are captured, and “the painted group felt the otherness of Samneric, felt the power in their own hands” (Golding 177). Loyal to Jack, loyal to their Will to Power, the savages’ Will is awoken, the pure joy of subjugating an enemy flowing through them. The fact that Samneric are considered enemies makes the process even more enjoyable, for the “otherness” creates a more distinct sense of domination, since they are of a different kind. Being able to control something else and make it a part of something it is not gives off a sensation of control. The savages, therefore, are imposing themselves on the other organisms, converting them, making them one of the savages, endowing the tribe with pleasure. Their Will’s have been satiated.

To refrain from mutual injury, mutual violence, mutual exploitation, to equate one’s own will with that of another:… [is] the denial of life…. Life is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of the strange and weaker, suppression, severity, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and,… exploitation…. Life is will to power.[6]

This audacious claim from Nietzsche identifies life itself with the Will to Power. He paints a grim portrait of reality, full of misery, injustice, and unfairness. The difference between the weak who reject the Will to Power and the strong who commit themselves to it lies in the latter’s sublimation of ressentiment. All people experience a sort of inferiority complex, always finding themselves weaker than one person, dumber than other, inspiring within them strong, undeniable feelings of aggression, jealousy, and hatred. Unknown-2.jpegThose who choose to repress these feelings are weak and slavish; those who choose to act upon these feelings and sublimate them, turning them into power, are strong and resemblant of the master. Jack is an excellent representation of this: “Power lay in the brown swell of his forearms: authority sat on his shoulder and chattered in his ear like an ape” (Golding 56). Sitting atop a throne, his followers at his feet, Jack has put himself above the others, literally, subjecting them to his will. The slave-master morality put forth by Nietzsche is clear here, with Jack representing the master who acts on the Will to Power, while Ralph and Piggy represent the slaves who refuse to give into his savagery, who refuse to lower themselves to such impropriety. In the end, though, it is the master who prevails. Nietzsche would praise Jack for satisfying his Will to Power, yet would censure Ralph for not. Savagery devours the boys until they are rescued. Had the ship not arrived, Ralph would surely have been killed, and the savages would be triumphant—such would be a happy ending for Nietzsche.

 


[1] Hobbes, The Leviathan, p. 85b*
[2] Id., p. 85c
[3] Id., p. 86c
[4] 86d
[5] Nietzsche, The Will to Power, DCLXIII
[6] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, CCLIX

*Page references are derived from Adler, Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 21 

 

For further reading: The Philosophers: Introducing Great Thinkers by Ted Honderick (2001)
A History of Philosophy Vol. 7 by Frederick Copleston (1994)
Beyond Good and Evil 
by Friedrich Nietzsche (1990)
The Will to Power 
by Friedrich Nietzsche (1968)
Lord of the Flies 
by William Golding (2011)
The Leviathan 
by Thomas Hobbes (1990)

Democracy and Lord of the Flies (1 of 2)

Unknown.jpegRich in metaphors, thrills, and controversies, William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies remains a well-read book, and its enthusiasts are met with equal passion from opposing critics who denounce it for its disturbing themes, among other things. The common theme every reader picks up on—man’s natural savagery and inherent darkness—permeates the book; anyone who recalls Lord of the Flies will inevitably think of savagery, and vice versa, for the two are inseparable, synonymous even. How a group of young English boys ends up on an island, descending into deranged rituals and questionable behavior, has piqued readers for years. In this post I will be looking at the philosophy of the book. No one can write about Lord of the Flies and philosophy without mentioning Hobbes, as his ethical and political theories are perfectly pertinent; but in this series of posts I will also be discussing Plato and the failure of democracy, Hobbes of course, and Nietzsche and his Will to Power.

Right away Golding makes his view of government clear, contrasting the two classic types of ruling: democracy and tyranny. While Golding himself idealized democracy, thinking it the best form of government, I have interpreted it conversely, using the book to explain, alongside Plato, why democracy—direct democracy, that is—never works. Direct democracy is unlike representative democracy in that the people themselves vote for their leader, not for representatives who then vote for the leader; nowhere in direct democracy is there a middleman, just the masses and he who is elected. The first thing the boys do in the book is hold an informal election (perhaps Golding suggesting that democracy is the most natural government), with no ballot, no parties, clean, efficient. We learn, though, that Ralph, who is elected chief, was selected not for his merit nor his character, but for his position, namely as the holder of the conch, a shell that is granted the power of calling impromptu assemblies. Obviously this is not a meritocracy, based on skill, nor is it an aristocracy, based on those with the best character, but a plain democracy—therein we find the first danger, which is the fact that elections done entirely by the people are international_day_of_democracy.jpgunreliable. What if Jack had the conch, or Simon? Certainly they would be chief. In fact, anyone, including the Littluns, if they had the conch, could have been the chief. From that point on there is an evident power struggle between Ralph and the antagonist Jack, who is conceived as a natural leader, who is displeased with the whole concept of voting, questioning the legitimacy of it: “‘Who are you, anyway? Sitting there telling people what to do. You can’t hunt, you can’t sing—… Why should choosing make any difference? Just giving orders that don’t make sense—’” (Golding  86). Jack has a point here, for Ralph, despite being one of the most sensible characters, is not the brightest, admitting himself that he is not as smart as Piggy, whom he judges a better, more rational leader than he (Golding 73). Because Ralph cannot manage the crowd by himself, he relies on the conch to get his point across and get the others’ attention. But since he has invested all of his power and the entire foundation of order in the shell, it becomes an easy target. Get rid of the shell, get rid of Ralph. Simple as that. Jack starts to undermine the conch’s authority, repeatedly declaring it useless on certain parts of the island and completely dismissing it altogether: “‘We don’t need the conch anymore. We know who ought to say things’” (Golding 97). As the assemblies go on, Ralph notices the vanity of the democratic process: the constant shouting out, the neglect of taking turns, and the incessant tomfoolery that Piggy calls “‘[J]us’ talk without deciding’” (Golding 168) that punctuates the meetings.

We need an assembly. Not for fun. Not for laughing and falling off the log… not for these things. But to put things straight…. We have lots of assemblies. Everybody enjoys speaking and being together. We decide things. But they never get done (Golding 74).

Despite the many assemblies the boys have, despite all the viable plans they make, the boys get absolutely nothing done. The Littluns play around, too weak to do anything, and the Bigguns are lazy and will do no work. There is no productivity, no follow-up, no progress. When Ralph says they must all build huts so they can be warm, comfortable, and safe, nobody helps him, except Samneric and Simon. And the hunters, whom he put in charge of the signal fire, the fire that could potentially get them off the island, neglect their job, instead leaving their post to track and hunt a pig. Democracy thus may be an ideal, but it is neither an achievable nor a workable one that can be made a reality. Soon after, talk of a beast circulates, and the entire assembly descends into chaos:

In a moment the platform was full of arguing, gesticulating shadows. To Ralph, seated, this seemed the breaking up of sanity. Fear, beasts, no general agreement that the fire was all-important: and when one tried to get the thing straight the argument sheered off, bringing up fresh, unpleasant matter (Golding 83-4).

The Littluns are fearful and vulnerable, the active majority; Jack is manipulative, exploiting the minorities; and Ralph, trying desperately to keep order, cannot appease both parties at the same time without angering either. One can almost think of a congressional or bureaucratic meeting where there is nothing but bickering, insanity, and utter unproductivity; Ralph even thinks it the “breaking up of sanity” because it gets so intense, like a black hole of irrationality that sucks up all things sensible, leaving behind madness and torpor. Plato wrote close to home:

When a democracy… has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom,… they [the people] chafe impatiently at the least touch of authority and at length, as you know, they cease to care even for the laws, written or unwritten; they will have no one over them.[1]

Once the notion of freedom and control is taken up by democracy, it empowers the people almost intoxicatingly. Plato writes of the inebriation of freedom, the desire for absolute liberty to do whatsoever one desires without fear of punishment, of reprimand, of punity. In Lord of the Flies, too, the boys are overcome with overwhelming freedom, and they realize this, take advantage of it, and use it to wreck havoc on the island. Sure the boys “‘have ‘Hands up’ like at school’” (Golding 28), allowing for one person to speak at a time, but there is no punishment, nothing to discourage them from not speaking in turn, nothing to instil fear in them. There is no way to keep the boys in check, therefore, without having strict rules, lest the boys get out of control, as they naturally do. Even the simple rules are not followed. Jack says in the beginning, “‘We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages’” (Golding 38). However, he later goes back on this, abolishing the rules later on. Another danger Plato wrote of was the degeneration from democracy to tyranny, of which he says:

[H]aving a mob entirely at his disposal, he [the tyrant] is not restrained from shedding the blood of kinsmen; by favorite method of false accusation he brings them into court and murders them, making the life of man to disappear, and with unholy tongue and lips tasting the blood of his fellow citizens.[2]

Jack fortunately does not go so far as to invite Ralph to his court and then proceed to slaughter him, although he does come close. Several times. During one of the assemblies Jack seizes his opportunity, taking advantage of his time with the conch to turn the rest of images.jpegthe boys against Ralph, putting words into his mouth, making false accusations, and calling him a coward, even attempting to depose him in hopes of getting elected himself (Golding 122-4). His coup does not succeed, so he runs off, having been publicly humiliated, only for some of the boys to later leave Ralph and join Jack, leading to a polarization between the two groups, creating a dangerous “us vs. them” complex, with Jack’s tribe carrying out secret operations to sabotage, raid, and ambush Ralph and his people. Finally, Plato, in Machiavellian fashion, writes, “[T]he tyrant, if he means to rule, must get rid of [his enemies]…. Therefore he must look about him and see who is valiant, who is high-minded, who is wise.”[3] In other words, if a tyrant wants to gain power and keep his power, he must get rid of all opposition, especially those who are brave, have morals, and are wise, for they are most capable of dispelling him. We saw already that Jack sought to remove Ralph from the chieftain, but he also takes out his wrath upon Piggy, the smartest on the island. Piggy is knowledgeable, he knows science, he knows what he is doing. The others do not. Hence having a critical thinker on the island poses a threat to Jack, so he must eliminate Piggy. When Piggy asks for extras during dinner (he is a little on the heavy side), Jack sees this as vulnerability and “had meant to leave him in doubt, as an assertion of power; but Piggy by advertising his omission made more cruelty necessary” (Golding 69). Jack constantly derides Piggy, calls him “Fatty,” knocks him down, and steals his glasses, all in an effort to bring him down, to keep his power as long as possible, to remove all threats to his throne. Jack will stop at nothing to bring down the democracy for which Ralph fought so hard in an attempt to usher in a new rule… sorta like Trump.

 


[1] Plato, The Republic, VIII, 562a-563d
[2] Id., 565a
[3] Id., 567d

 

For further reading: The Republic by Plato (1990)
Lord of the Flies by William Golding (2011)