Why Do We Root for the Good Guys?

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


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


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


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


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


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

Peace is a lie. There is only Passion.

Through Passion I gain Strength.

Through Strength I gain Power.

Through Power I gain Victory.

Through Victory my chains are Broken.

The Force shall free me.

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

There is no emotion, there is peace.

There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.

There is no passion, there is serenity.

There is no chaos, there is harmony.

There is no death, there is the Force.

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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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

 


To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1982)

Courage in To Kill a Mockingbird

[Adapted from an in-class assessment].

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

Conscience in To Kill a Mockingbird

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

“‘Atticus, you must be wrong….'”

“‘How’s that?'”

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

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


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

The Wisdom of Gœthe: The Sorrows of Young Werther

Living in the Present

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


Mind vs. Heart [1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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)