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).


(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)
 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
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)
 by Sigmund Freud (1915)

Jack and His Discontents (1 of 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


(Retrieved from Stephen Glazier’s Word Menu)

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


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


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

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

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


Power and Lord of the Flies (2 of 2)

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Democracy and Lord of the Flies (1 of 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

The Outermost House

unknown-5Henry Beston (1888-1968) lived on the beach of Cape Cod for a year, documenting his observations, his thoughts, and his personal stories in The Outermost House, following the example of Walden by Thoreau, a fellow nature enthusiast. In the book, Beston writes poetically of the nature around him, nature made enchanting, nature that enamors the reader, instilling feelings of nostalgia and tranquility, a devoted appreciation for the world so often taken for granted. Most of the book comprises greatly detailed vignettes of the beach, the behavior of the birds, the sailing of the ships, and the noting of the flora and fauna, but occasionally one can find great quotes, quotes worthy of serious reflection.

On Studying Animals

“Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ours. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animals shall not be measured by man” (Beston 25).

“In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth” (Ibidem).

On Isolation

“Should anyone ask how I endured this isolation in so wild a place and in the depths of winter, I can only answer that I enjoyed every moment to the full. To be able to see and study undisturbed the processes of nature–I like better the old Biblical phrase ‘mighty works’ –is an opportunity for which any man might well feel reverent gratitude, and here at last, in this silence and isolation of winter, a whole region was mine whose innermost natural life might shape itself to its ancient courses without the hindrance and interferences of man” (Beston 91).

“It is not good to be too much alone, even as it is inwise to be always with and in a crowd, but, solitary as I was, I had few opportunities for moods or to ‘lose and neglect the creeping hours of time.’ From the moment that I rose in the morning and threw open my door looking toward the sea to the moment when the spurt of a match sounded in the evening quiet of my solitary house, there was always something to do, something to observe, something to record, something to study, something to put aside in a corner of the mind” (Ibidem).

On Life

“I lived in the midst of an abundance of natural life which manifested itself every hour of the day, and from being thus surrounded, thus enclosed within a great whirl of what one may call the life force, I felt that I drew a secret and sustaining energy … A sceptic may smile and ask me to come to his laboratory and demonstrate …  but I think that those who have lived in nature, and tried to open their doors rather than close them on her energies, will understand what I mean. Life is as much a force in the universe as electricity or gravitational pull, and the presence of life sustains life. Individuals may destroy individuals, but the life force may mingle with the individual life as a billow of fire may mingle for a moment with a candle flame” (Beston 95).

On Night

“Learn to reverence night and put away the vulgar fear of it, for, with the banishment of night from the experience of man, there vanishes as well a religious emotion, a poetic mood, which gives depth to the adventure of humanity … When the great earth, abandoning the day, rolls up the deeps of the heavens and the universe, a new door opens for the human spirit, and there are few so clownish that some of the mystery of being does not touch them as they gaze. For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves and of our world islanded in its stream of stars–pilgrims of immortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time. Fugitive though the instant be, the spirit of man is, during it, ennobled by a genuine moment of emotional dignity, and poetry makes its own both the human spirit and experience” (Beston 173).


For further reading: The Outermost House by Henry Beston (1988)

The Philosophy of Fahrenheit 451


images.pngWhile Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 may seem like outdated science-fiction, the novel is still relevant today. The novel focuses on the dangers of a society of extreme censorship, technological advancements, and empty social interactions. The problems evident in the novel are also the problems of today. As in the world depicted by Bradbury, a society characterized and defined by book-burning is one that frightens audiences today, for the fear of losing our history, our curiosity, and  our humanity is surreal, but it is also becoming more likely. So, Fahrenheit 451 is a parable for the degradation of society’s morality, individuals’ curiosity, and civilization’s productivity.

If the world were to be ridden of books, Bradbury predicted a loss of morals would negatively affect our lives. Guy Montag, a fireman, makes this remark when asked the use of books: “They [books] just might stop us from making the same damn insane mistakes!” (Bradbury 70). Upon the bombing of the city, Granger, leader of the reclusive Book People, likens society to a phoenix (Bradbury 156), but unlike the phoenix, we learn from our mistakes, viz., George Santayana’s quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Similarly, Granger says of society, “‘[B]ut we’ve got one damn thing the phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did’” (Bradbury 156). Bradbury believes that when disaster strikes, humans are able to endure, but only with the knowledge of the past. Without history, without books really, a civilization cannot make progress. In fact, Nihilist Friedrich Nietzsche examined the idea of the Übermensch (Superman), an individual that rises above the herd and creates new morals. Living in an environment that condemns free speech, reinforces conformity, and discourages intellectualism, Montag is the ideal Superman, the dissenter who, freed from the conventions of his peers, realizes the corruption of morals and thenceforth seeks to reform them. Where Nietzsche identified Christianity as a slave-morality, Montag identifies society with it, seeing as the technological society, dependent upon machines and automated devices, provides its people with everything they need, offering an easy way out of life. As the Superman, Montag needed to remove the contemporary values, and he planned on doing so by framing his fellow firemen and undermining the influence of the government (Bradbury 82-83, 123), which would prompt society to start over and start thinking; by doing so, Montag would create new morals, encouraging society to read again. Others, though, may argue on the contrary, stating that books are not the only source of learning, as experience is more valuable. Beatty also argues that “‘our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred’” (Bradbury 56). Through his quote, Beatty is positing that books cause conflicts and divide people. In defense of books, however, Harold Bloom agrees with the Book People that “memory (memorization!) is the key” (Bloom 235). Bloom, like other intellectuals of his day, believed that reading and memorizing books were the future of society. Authors like Shakespeare (ibid.), who wrote unforgettably about the truths of life, were worthy of memorization, because knowing their works–knowing how to use them properly–keeps us humble and reminds us of our place in the world. Books can cause conflict; however, it is constructive conflict that makes people think and talk. Books are not just good for communicating ideas; they teach us how to live. Authors like Plato, Marcus Aurelius, and Homer tell us about life, for just as Faber said, “‘[B]ooks show the pores in the face of life’” (Bradbury 79). Without books we would have no idea how one should think like Plato (Bradbury 144), how one should respond to life’s toils like Marcus Aurelius (Ibid.), or how one should cope with life like Schopenhauer (Bradbury 145). Writers put out information that causes both external and internal conflict, instigating fierce discussion, rousing cause for self-improvement. Not only do we reflect on big events like history or politics, but we turn inward and reflect on ourselves, learning from books on how we should live. The book people have built their own little society that thrives on books alone, which is clear evidence that a society can be built upon the morals of books. In order to navigate the twists and turns of life, books provide knowledge of history so that we may be guided (or not) by the paths of others.

Some of humanity’s greatest attributes are his abilities to ask questions, to seek knowledge, and to acquire learning. Yet if our greatest invention, the book, were removed, our treasure chests of curiosity would be plundered. Clarisse McClellan is a 17-year-old girl who loves asking questions, so much so that her psychiatrist, “‘wants to know why I go out and hike around the forest and watch the birds and collect butterflies’” (Bradbury 20). She explains: “‘I tell them that sometimes I just sit and think.’” It is from these quotes that we see how thinking and thinkers are viewed. Like today, there is growing cynicism concerning intellectuals and, like Clarisse, thinkers are being judged as eccentric and are hence discouraged from independent thinking. Further, Professor Faber distinguishes leisure from contemplation, sloth from productivity (Bradbury 80). According to these characters, time to reflect on one’s self is important and should be valued above all other activities, for it is fulfilling and intellectually stimulating. Cynics like Beatty may protest, saying, “‘You ask Why to a lot of things and you wind up very unhappy indeed, if you keep at it,’” and, “‘any man who tries to slide rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely’” (Bradbury 58). To people like him, “‘[T]he word intellectual … [is] the swear word it deserved to be” (Bradbury 55). Contrariwise, Beatty talks about the failings of school, remarking that the schools “‘cram them [students] full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information’” (Bradbury 58). A comment on today’s education, Beatty’s quote captures the loss of faith in learning, and in an Orwellian or totalitarian state of affairs, children are being taught to think uniformly at a young age, shaping them according to the state, removing all free will, all wonder. We must question what we are learning and why we are doing what we are doing. A woman did, after all, kill herself in the name of books (Bradbury 33), which prompts Montag to question what his life is about, causing him to enter his existential crisis. Montag is living, as Jean-Paul Sartre would say, in bad faith, signifying that Montag is not living true to himself, since he is stifling his own potential, placing his own boundaries that prevent his curiosity from growing. All of the adults of Fahrenheit 451 are still dependent kids in a sense, minus the inquisitive nature, inasmuch as they have no ideas of their own, their only ideas being those that have been hardwired into their brains by school. Symbolically, Montag represents the enlightened prisoner of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” insofar as, having grown up accustomed to the illusions of his government (the shadows), having been freed from the expectations of conformity (the shackles), having been exposed to the frightening reality of his day (the sun), and having returned to warn his fellow civilians (the herd), Montag is shunned and frowned upon, even threatened with arrest. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates, who, like the woman who burned herself, was condemned to death because he wanted to ask questions. Without our natural proclivity to inquire into the nature of things, much of life would remain unknown.

The world depicted in Fahrenheit 451, is closer than it appears. It is so close, in fact, that it may already be a reality right now in the 21st century.  It is becoming more and more customary that conversations are becoming less and less productive insofar as it is considered antisocial when we wish to ask one another questions. Perhaps our idea of “social” has changed, as suggested by Clarisse on page 27: “‘It all depends on what you mean by social, doesn’t it? Social means talking to you about things like this … But I don’t think it’s social to get a bunch of people together and then not let them talk, do you?’” Whether we are sitting in school, watching sports from home, or having lunch with friends, empty talk seems to be everywhere, a pervasive phenomenon. Over the weekend I had lunch with some friends, and all they talked about were trivial matters and things and people they found annoying. Similarly, Montag’s wife Mildred, along with her friends, engage in dull, superficial talk, paralleled to our own conversations. For example, they talk about how “‘children are ruinous’” (Bradbury 92) and speak stereotypically and unknowingly about presidential candidates (Bradbury 93). We are, as Aristotle famously observed, ζωον πολιτικον, social animals, beings that desire connection; the Greeks referred to the non-Greek speakers as βαρβαρος, barbarians, because they were unintelligible. Nowadays, it feels as though our society has devolved back into this barbaric, unintelligible talk. It can be argued that our advancements in technology — not so much in books — have connected us, considering we can now contact old friends and relatives across the globe. In Bradbury’s society we can talk with one another via sea shells, we can watch interactive television, and we can marry whomever we please. Howbeit, just as we are growing our range to connect socially, we are simultaneously shrinking our genuine, face-to-face interactions, evidenced by the complete destruction of the ideal family. After constantly lionizing her parlor family, a digital drama, Mildred is snapped into reality when Montag questions, “‘Millie? Does the White Clown love you?’” and “‘does your ‘family’ love you, love you so very much, love you with all their heart and soul, Millie?’” (Bradbury 73). Montag gets no answer from a silent Mildred, who does not know what love really is. And concerning marriage, the profound joining of two lovers, Mildred seems not to care, shrugging it off as though it were nothing: she, in response to Montag’s lamentation, says, “‘It [marriage] doesn’t matter’” (Bradbury 40). This society, which we are in now, has eschewed the concept of love, the most vital concept in our lives. With all the recent innovations of our century, Bradbury cautions us not to get carried away, not to lose our connectedness, not to forget our humanity.

Ray Bradbury’s classic science-fiction book is not merely for entertainment; rather it is, like Neil Gaiman said, a “warning,” (xi), a cautionary tale, a wake-up call for society. The novel elicits shock not from the fiction within the story but the fact that it foreshadows some of the dangers of modern, technological society. Bradbury knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote of the impending stifling of morals, cessation of inquiry, and mechanization of humanity.

The man who tastes eagerly every kind of learning, who sets himself readily to his lessons and can never have enough, him we shall justly call a lover of wisdom and a philosopher

Screen Shot 2016-10-05 at 4.15.16 PM.pngThe first person you think of when you are asked of a philosopher is and will most likely be Plato (428-347 BCE, born Aristocles), the classic Greek and the classic thinker. So revered is he that Alfred North Whitehead declared all philosophy beyond Plato to be merely a set of footnotes. With all of this attention and respect, it is only customary that we should name Plato as the paragon of all philosophers, as the philosopher to whom we should all aspire to emulate; however, if we were to ask Plato himself what the perfect philosopher is, he would say it is

“the man who tastes eagerly every kind of learning, who sets himself readily to his lessons and can never have enough, him we shall justly call a lover of wisdom and a philosopher.”

This definition, taken from chapter five of the Republic, depicts the philosopher as a lover of wisdom in its purest form. No longer must we see the philosopher as a scholarly figure, a figure shrouded in mystery, a mystery that shall never be solved; no, the philosopher is one who strives to learn as much as one possibly can, one who realizes that true knowledge is unobtainable yet seeks still to uncover the mysteries of life. As my dad put it one time, all you need to be a philosopher in its truest sense is curiosity and passion. The curious individual will take pleasure in seeking knowledge, in learning, not for an end, but rather wisdom for wisdom’s sake, sapientia gratia sapientiam. The philosopher is the individual who loves what they do and whose thirst for truth will never be quenched, for the philosopher’s pursuit of wisdom is a pursuit with no clear end.

Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Animal Farm

UnknownGeorge Orwell’s famous allegory Animal Farm tells the tale of a group of farmland animals that, upon overthrowing their human rulers, establish their own government. A classic story about the inevitable corruption of power in politics, Orwell’s story clearly did its research on political philosophy. While Napoleon the pig’s rise to power and ultimate corruption may seem like a generic and immoral procedure, it is, in fact, a more accurate syncretism of the political philosophies laid down by Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes. As we watch Napoleon plunge deeper into the abusage of absolute power, we may heed the famous and often criticized political theorists’ cynical remarks about the claim to and maintenance of power.

Napoleon is a tyrant, to say the least. The most powerful of the animals in terms of leadership over individuals and their economic production, Napoleon, his successful claim to the throne, and his subsequent reign is tainted by a lack of mercy and the usage of agitprop against his enemies. We see this stereotypical dictator constantly throughout history, and one particular philosopher went into great depth to analyze this type of ruler: Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527). By comparing the ruthless despotism of Napoleon with the ruthless theories of Machiavelli, I am sure we can arrive at the conclusion that Napoleon is indeed a Machiavellian ruler. Niccolo was a politician who had a prolonged dedication to politics. After serving the Medici’s and eventually being tortured, Machiavelli became cynical. In his famous book The Prince, Machiavelli lays out the foundations for the ideal prince. For Machiavelli, a successful ruler must be feared by his people—but not despised—and do what is best for his state, regardless of moral boundaries. Although he is incorrectly credited with the maxim “the ends justify the means,” it would be false to say he did not agree with it. The state was of the utmost importance and should be the first concern of the ruler, according to Machiavelli. The ruler, Machiavelli defended, should be ready to do anything if it meant saving the state. This meant that even the most immoral acts, if they were for the best, were acceptable. We see this clearly in Animal Farm when Napoleon and Snowball, the former’s co-consul, strictly prohibit every animal that is not a pig from receiving an education or even mere apples and milk. In the words of Squealer the spokespig, “You do not imagine, I hope, that we pigs are doing this in a spirit of selfishness and privilege?”,”The whole management and organization of this farm relies on us [the pigs]”,”It is for your sake that we drink that milk and eat those apples.”[1] Ah, so the pigs are doing it for the rest of the animal’s sakes, so it is to the best of their interests! One of Machiavelli’s most shocking quotes is as follows: “Men are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowards, covetous and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely.”[2] It is known that the biggest influence on The Prince was Cesare Borgia, a licentious and merciless prince who happened to be acquainted with Niccolo; Machiavelli admired Cesare. In one known instance, the Duke publicly executed several of his enemies. Niccolo lauded Cesare for this act, adding onto his philosophy that a ruler should elicit fear and respect from his people. Fear, Machiavelli said, was more reliable than love, for it conditioned the people and threatened them with punishment; however, he also argued that the ruler should be admired to a certain point, not despised, as this made him unpopular. Napoleon does exactly this when he crushes a rebellion and then kills several traitors whom supposedly colluded with the now-banished Snowball in front of the other animals. Orwell even notes the ambivalence of the animals just as the people experienced with Cesare, describing a great love for Napoleon contrasted with an immense uneasiness with him. Machiavelli also detailed economic advice for the ruler. Again, the ruler must do whatever it takes to advance the state. Economic relations should be established and cultivated between principalities. The leader of Animal Farm, Napoleon, and the leader of Pinchfield, Mr. Frederick, demonstrate this when they trade. It has been clearly stated that Animal Farm should have no contact with Pinchfield farm, but Napoleon trades with him anyway, as he requires machinery for the farm’s windmill. While this may invite public uproar, he is, like a good ruler, doing it for the state.

After overthrowing Mr. Jones, owner of Manor Farm, the animals set up their own government, placing the pigs at its head. This can be interpreted as an oligarchy, perhaps even an aristocracy (the pigs claim they are the smartest). Another view, however, sees this government as a commonwealth, a “Leviathan.” Englishman Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was another political philosopher best known for his work The Leviathan. In this work, Hobbes, like Machiavelli, writes of the perfect governing body. As the title suggests, the Leviathan is a powerful being that advocates the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Hobbes took a cynical approach similar to that of his Italian predecessor. When writing about humankind, he develops the idea of a “state of nature.” This is the pre-government period when Man fights amongst himself in a bellum omnium contra omnes. He borrows directly from Machiavelli when he says humans are selfish and vicious. To sum up this state, Hobbes notoriously wrote, “[And] The life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,”[3] the last three words being the most referenced. I am not sure if Orwell purposely parodied this quote or if he wrote it unknowingly in the following statement said by Old Major: “Our lives are miserable, laborious, and short”[4] (As you can see, the pattern is the same and the last word is ‘short’). In the world of the animals, it is dog-eat-dog, though not literally. The animals are reduced to hard and tiring work, and come their obsolescence, it is goodbye world for them. Man is in complete disarray, fighting for his own safety out of fear, states Hobbes. Likewise, the animals have no real higher power besides Mr. Jones; they too live out of fear. There is a solution to this, though. A certain first “natural law” commands Man’s psyche: the pursuit of peace. To do this, another natural law, the renunciation of one’s freedom to a higher law, must be carried out. This second law is a social contract, one that links all of the individuals’ wills in an absolute governing body. Hobbes called this aggregate the “Leviathan,” a sovereign that rules according to the general consensus. Using the example of peace as an example, let us say that each and every animal of the farm wants peace. In exchange for this peace, the animals will give up their freedom to the Leviathan. So what is this Leviathan for the animals then? The pigs. The pigs, specifically Napoleon and Snowball, are the ones that take the animals’ best interests at heart. After all, without the two Mr. Jones would come back, and we do not want that. There is thus a transition from the state of nature characterized by Mr. Jones to a state of civility characterized by Napoleon and Snowball. At this point, Hobbes introduces a third law, which states that individuals should stay true to their agreements, referred to as covenants by Hobbes. This is where morality and law come into play. To quote Hobbes, “But what is good law? By good law, I mean not a just law: for no law can be unjust.”[5] Samuel Enoch Stumpf clarifies this broad claim explaining that one, law precedes justice, and two, it is the will of the people. To expound further, we first begin by instating laws. We then construct our sense of justice according to these laws. As Sartre said, “Existence precedes essence”; hence, we cannot judge a law as unjust, for the value of justice is based on the law, otherwise it would create a circular argument. And two, since we created the law, it would be hypocritical to go against it, as it is our doing. When the seven commandments of Animalism are indited on the barn’s wall we see this in action. None of the seven laws can be considered unjust. It is unjust, however, when Squealer—because of Napoleon’s hypocrisy and abuse of power—revises the laws to fit the sovereign’s immoral actions. Here we see the contract between the people and the state being violated. The contract was signed on the conditions that the monarchy (or any other form of government for that matter) should rule in the people’s will. Napoleon creating his own laws is a direct breach and easily qualifies him as—even in Hobbes’ standards—a tyrant. The monarch and the prince should do what is best for the state, but creating laws without the consent of the people makes way for corruption. Lord Acton warned in his celebrated quote, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” While Hobbes may have supported absolutism in a monarchy, it should be noted that there is such thing as too much power.

Written during World War II, George Orwell’s Animal Farm provides brilliant insights into the Renaissance and British world of political philosophy. The prominent theme of tyranny, which has been covered by thinkers such as Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, is manifested in the form of an allegory told from a group of animals. Truly a western classic, Animal Farm entertains and educates. And as George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Do not be a tyrant.


[1] Orwell, Animal Farm, pg. 23
[2] Machiavelli, The Prince, pg. 76
[3] Stumpf, Socrates to Sartre, pg. 225
[4] Orwell, Animal Farm, pg. 3
[5] Stumpf, Socrates to Sartre, pg. 226

For further reading: 
Socrates to Sartre: A History of Philosophy by Samuel Enoch Stumpf (1982)
The Story of Philosophy by James Garvey and Jeremy Stangroom (2012)
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy edited by Ted Honderich (1995)
1001 Ideas That Changed the Way We Think by Robert Arp (2013)
The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell (1972)
The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli (1992)
Animal Farm by George Orwell (1993)

5 Principles for Happiness

Unknown.jpegIt seems we are always on an unsatisfactory quest to find happiness. For all the control we have over our lives, it is disconcerting how difficult it is to find happiness. Richard Carlson’s You Can Be Happy No Matter What tells us we have been looking in the wrong place. According to Carlson, a psychotherapist, the reason why it appears this state of contentment and equanimity is so hard to find is because happiness cannot be found. Instead, he proposes happiness is always in us. To find and cultivate it, we must keep in mind five simple principles: Thinking, moods, feelings, separate realities, and being in the present.

It is incredible just how powerful thinking is. In fact, it is a little too incredible. Richard Carlson describes how we must think in order to achieve happiness. He describes the importance of reminding ourselves that we are the thinkers. How we think is merely our perception of the world. What we choose to think, be it positive or negative thoughts, is up to us. After all, we are the ones producing these thoughts. Because we are in control, we can stop thinking these thoughts with the same effort of creating them. Dwelling on these thoughts always leads to unhappiness–not what we are aiming for. Richard uses an analogy to represent this: Our thinking is gasoline, and our thoughts are mini fires. The more we think about something that causes distress, the more it grows out of our control.

Not only can our thoughts be either negative or positive, but they can also be warped depending on our moods. Low moods drastically affect our decision-making, so Carlson offers us the solution of waiting for these low moods to subside. When we are in a low mood, our judgement is unstable and unreliable. We tend to generate more serious and malicious thoughts in this mood, so it is best to keep our thoughts to ourselves. Carlson also warns us not to try and solve problems in a low mood; we will find more clarity in high moods. Conversely, when we are in our high moods, we are more amiable and sensible. It is in this mood that Richard urges us to solve our problems.

However, it can sometimes be difficult to tell when we are in a bad mood or when we are taking a turn the worst. Our feelings tell us when we do this. It is human nature to get caught up in the moment, which leads to overreaction and obstinance. It is important to listen to ourselves and be able to understand when we are upset or troubled. Feelings like envy, anger, and impatience are signs that you are in a bad mood and should try to keep things to yourself. Again, our feelings cloud us with questionable judgement. In times like these, it is best to stay quiet and wait for our moods to rise. Good feelings, on the other hand, are a sign you are doing the right thing. Keep doing whatever it is you are doing, for it is clearly working. Richard Carlson likes to think of feelings like alarms that tell us what is happening. Whenever there is a core meltdown, know that you should be skeptical of your thoughts, for they are caused by bad feelings.

The fourth principle, separate realities, explains how we should interact with others. I mentioned in the thinking principle that how we think is merely our perception of the world, so our thoughts should be treated thusly. Everything we see and how we react to our thoughts is filtered by our perceptions, and it applies to everyone else, too. How I feel about one thing can be interpreted another way by you. Consequently, we must be open-minded and willing to adapt to other’s thought systems. Thought systems are an important concept in psychology. Carlson expounds thought systems as a collection of an individual’s habitual or set thoughts, beliefs, and perspectives. Taking this into account, we often find ourselves combatting with another’s conflicting thought system. Since we do not share every belief, Richard recommends we build our tolerance to others’ thought systems. We may never adopt another’s thought system, so our only option is to understand it. Instead of criticizing someone else’s thought system, try to understand it and appreciate it. Whether it be your friend, spouse, or affiliate, understanding separate realities will come in handy.

Lastly, we can all find time for being in the present. For readers who have read my post on mindfulness, this should be familiar. Unfortunately for most of us, a majority of our time is squandered thinking about things we cannot change. Most of our thinking is torn betwixt the past and the future, two tense (pun intended) and ever-changing events that are not worth our time. We should instead be in the moment, which can be experienced, unlike the others. Once again we see the power of thinking. Focusing our energy on things we know are out of our reach is futile. Furthermore, Richard comments on the impracticality of therapy, AA, and dieting programs (not to denounce them, of course). Therapists will tell their patients to examine their pasts, AA members are told to always be thinking of not drinking, and participants of diets are told to constantly be thinking about healthy food. Richard points out how these curative organizations are reinforcing negative thoughts. Remember the gasoline/fire analogy? By thinking about a negative past to understand how you are today, or always reminding yourself not to drink, or selecting foods that will fit into your diet, you are only making the problem worse. Habits form when we think too much about something. We must let go. We must stop thinking about the source of the problem!

In conclusion, I would like to restate the final sentence of You Can Be Happy No Matter What because I felt it was not only true, but it was powerful: You can be happy right here, right now, if you choose to do so.


For further reading: You Can Be Happy No Matter What by Richard Carlson (1997)