Schopenhauer and The Goldfinch [1 of 2]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


Who Was Giordano Bruno?

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

Is Man a Machine?

Of all living organisms in the world, arguably the most complex, enigmatic, and independent, and as a result, interesting—is man. From its physiology to its psychology, the human is one of the most studied yet most misunderstood organism, the most intriguing living thing of which we know. Generally understood to have free will, we can will our own actions, and we are self-conscious, unlike other animals, and we can question ourselves. And as genius inventors, we have even created artificial intelligence, robots, machines, non-living things capable of logical reasoning. It is quite easy, though, to distinguish animals and machines from humans—or is it? During the 17th- and 18th-centuries, it was not uncommon to think of man as a functional, conscious machine, a mere sum of parts.

Unknown.jpegThe first philosopher to elaborate on the idea of organisms as machines was French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), who was famous for stating his immortal, “I think, therefore I am.” When it came to living things, Descartes practiced biological reductionism, which meant that he viewed living things not in terms of wholes, but as a sums of parts. To illustrate this, think of a computer: As a whole, it is a computer, but we can break it down to its core components, like its keyboard, trackpad, screen, and we can go further, reducing it to smaller parts, like the microprocessor. Similarly, Descartes took man and reduced him to smaller parts. After all, the human body is really just a system of interchangeable parts. We are humans as a whole, but we made up of numerous body parts, each of which could theoretically be replaced. If we can build a machine with replaceable parts, thought Descartes, what was to distinguish us humans, then, from machines? Another aspect of machines is the fact that they are passive, which is to say that they do not act but react. It is safe to say, for the sake of this argument, that machines have no free will; they cannot act voluntarily. Descartes saw us the same way, reminding us that man is subject to physical laws, over which we have no control, such as gravity and temperature. We may be able to adapt to them, but they cannot be avoided altogether. As such, Descartes concluded that humans were passive and reactive. There was a fundamental difference between humans and animals, whom Descartes designated pejoratively as “brutes,” he conceded. (Apparently, comparing man to a machine was not as degrading, and for that matter dehumanizing, as comparing him to a lowly animal.) Descartes attributed to all living things a will, a drive from which all actions are derived, from which instincts arise. Within all animals, Unknown-1.jpegthere is some kind of “animal spirit” coursing through their blood in their veins. We say that our thoughts cause our actions; in the same manner, Descartes asserted that these “animal spirits” were the source of action. For this reason, his idea of “will” is different from ours in that it does not cause directly. Accordingly, animals function entirely by involuntary actions, by fulfilling their survival instincts; no room is there in the animal for voluntary contemplation, as its only actions are those which are carried out for the sake of its survival, which themselves are unconscious. Here Descartes provides the distinction between brute and man: the Soul. Being the dualist that he was, Descartes marked a fine line between the physical and mental, body and mind. Man had a soul, unlike animals. The soul was a vital, animating force that made man conscious. The link between mind and body lay in the pineal gland, said Descartes. Endowed with a soul, man was able to take control voluntarily over his animal spirits, thereby allowing him to have free will.

A contemporary of Descartes, the next mechanistic thinker was Englishman Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). The political philosopher who authored The Leviathan was influenced by Newtonian physics, and this interest in the natural sciences would play a major rule in his view of human nature. Hobbes was a physicalist, meaning he thought only physical bodies exist, and that reality consisted solely thereof. There was no room for God, nor for some kind of “soul,” as Descartes posited—no form of vitalism. Everything, Hobbes confidently said, could be explained by motion, which he defined as Unknown-2.jpeg“a continual relinquishing of one place and acquiring of another.”[1] Armed with Newtonian mechanics, a physicalist view of reality, and a naturalistic metaphysics based on motion, Hobbes was determined to prove that human nature could be reduced to pure physical motion, and nothing else. The basic drive of organisms was movement, and of that, there were two types: vital and voluntary. Vital movement was unconscious and consisted of necessary living functions—one can see the parallel to Descartes’ animal spirits. Humans need to eat and drink, so they choose vital movement, resulting in the act of eating or drinking, respectively; and remember that the acts of eating and drinking are physical, enacted in terms of motion, namely the picking up of said nourishment and the actual process of ingesting it. Along with vital movement, there is voluntary movement, which is conscious and willed. Voluntary movement is unnecessary to the extent that it is not required for survival. Watching television or playing sports is voluntary because we choose to do it and do not need to do it. This, however, left a large problem for Hobbes, the same one that plagued Descartes, and even neurologists today: Unknown.pngHow do we account for mental thoughts physically? Hobbes explained thought in terms of motion. When we eat, it is because our voluntary movement tells us to, and our voluntary movement tells us to, because we think it, so thought causes movement, which in turn causes whatever process we thought of. Hobbes was an empiricist, fittingly, when it came to explaining thought processes. He proposed that thoughts are derived from experience. All thoughts are of phenomena we have experienced, so our thoughts are based on perception. The process of thinking is merely a process of internalizing; we experience an outside phenomena, creating a mental image, which itself is not mental, but physical, manifest in motion. All perceptions Hobbes called “phantasms.” Phantasms can be either objects perceived or qualities of an object that are perceived; either way, Unknown-3.jpegboth are involved. For example, a green ball, while one perception, consists visually of two phantasms: the ball, the object, and the greenness, the quality of the ball. But if thought is perceptual, it meant Hobbes had to come up with an answer to the fact that we can conjure up thoughts out of thin air. To this Hobbes replied that humans have an ability he called “imagination.” Imagination was the “decay” of perception—in other words, a memory. We are able to think of previous perceptions because we can recall them. Keep in mind, again, that all these processes are to be thought of in terms of physical motion. Memory is chronological, but its chain of events can be interrupted, Hobbes suggested, thus accounting for inaccurate memories. However, it seems Hobbes did not account for synthetic a priori truths. In this way, Hobbes managed to reduce man, a complex organism, to a mere object of physical laws, nowise more animate than a robot. He, like Descartes, said man was different from animals because he possessed the ability to create “signs” and “names” symbolic of objects. We call a door a “door” and assign it that value; animals cannot do that. He also grants us two types of knowledge that we can use to our advantage: factual and consequential. The former is the ability to recall facts, and the latter to create causal connections between A and B. Further, Hobbes says man can use logic, which he defined as the ability to add or subtract abstractions. The idea of Man can be added with another abstract concept (Hobbes said “Man” was abstract), like Love, or subtracted from another, like Nature.

Unknown-4.jpegFinally, the last and most infamous of the mechanists was the French thinker Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751). Having studied physiology under the famed physician Herman Boerhaave, La Mettrie would later serve as the physician to Frederick the Great, but between then, his background in medicine would pave the way for his controversial philosophy. La Mettrie was practically a villain in 18th-century France, called everything from an atheist to a determinist to a hedonist to a materialist, the last of which was commonplace and not derogatory. His books were burned publicly and outlawed by the government after they were read, and he was exiled on several occasions. His philosophy was a combination of naturalism, biology, and Cartesian mechanism and resulted in a mechanistic view of man. In his 1745 work Histoire Naturelle de l’Âme, Natural History of the Soul, he dismissed any idea of a soul, rejecting any form of vitalism, stating that there was no animating element in living things. He completely rejected Cartesian dualism, demanding that there was only matter and bodies. His next work was his magnum opus Unknown.jpegand served as a major tour de force. L’Homme Machine (1748), translated as “Man a Machine,” was La Mettrie’s masterpiece, and in it he wrote that there was no free will. Our actions, as we discussed with Hobbes, are considered to be the result of our thoughts. La Mettrie argued that even our thoughts are not technically our own, seeing as our thoughts are determined first by the condition of our body or health. We are not able to do things we would normally be able to do when we are healthy when we are sick, and vice versa. Depending on the state of our health, we are disposed to certain things, and the state of our health, as we know, is seldom within our control, but left, rather, to other determinants. La Mettrie was also an opponent of Leibniz, who wrote about monads, self-contained entities. In response, he wrote, “They [non-materialists] have spiritualized matter rather than materializing the soul. How can we define a being whose nature is utterly unknown to us?”[2] Thinkers like Leibniz he criticized for advocating a form of vitalism by positing a force of some kind. Likewise, Descartes would have been targeted by this comment and blamed for “spiritualizing matter” because he talked of his animal man_science.jpgspirits—a foolish mistake to La Mettrie. Instead, he, Descartes, should have explained these animal spirits physically, as Hobbes did. La Mettrie then wrote Les Animaux plus que Machines (Animals More Than Machines) wherein he created his own way of bypassing vitalism while at the same time advancing a type sentience in animals, humans included. He said that animals were not alive, so to speak, which is to say that they did not possess some kind of living spirit, but they had the ability to feel. La Mettrie in the same book described his own theory of evolution that saw each evolution increase in its desires. Plants had very little needs but were simple organism, and they evolved into animals, which had more needs, and they evolved into humans, who have many needs, whereof many are unnecessary. La Mettrie then wrote that thoughts are physical and cause emotions and bodily sensations within the body, a view similar to Hobbes’. His ethical works consist of Discours sur le Bonheur (1748), Discourse on Happiness, and L’Art de Jouir (1751), The Art of Enjoyment. The first work depicted virtue as a dual development of amour de soi, a love for oneself, and happiness. This is unlike other philosophers, who inverted the equation, equating happiness with virtue, not the other way around. He also wrote that laws were a social necessity. His later work, as can be surmised by the title, was more sensual and detailed a hedonistic ethical theory. La Mettrie identified pleasure as either debauchery (débauche) or enjoyment (volupté). Debauchery, as La Mettrie saw it, was better than enjoyment, for it did no harm, whereas enjoyment does. For this reason, La Mettrie is sometimes said to be a Utilitarian, as he preferred the former to the latter, non-harm to harm.  

Looking back at the history of ideas, we cannot help but think some foolish, others wise beyond their years. Nowadays, were someone to ask if we were machines, we would think them crazy: How could we, such complex, thoughtful beings, possibly be mindless A.I.? It is unfair, thought, to judge an idea 400 years old, considering we have made considerable advances, both in biology and neurology, that have disproved this notion. This is not to dismiss the idea completely, however, as it is an interesting topic worthy of discussion even today—food for thought, if you will. In fact, how do we know we aren’t machines ourselves, built by some other complex race of intelligent beings? Who knows.


[1] Stumpf, Socrates to Sartre, p. 220
[2] Arp, 1001 Ideas that Changed the Way We Think, p. 405


For further reading: 
The Blackwell Companion to the Enlightenment by John. W. Yolton (1992)
1001 Ideas that Changed the Way We Think by Robert Arp (2013)
A History of Modern Philosophy Vol. 1 by Harald Høffding (1955)
A Critical History of Western Philosophy by D.J. O’Connor (1964)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 4 by Paul Edwards (1967)
The Story of Civilization Vol. 9 by Will Durant (1965)
Socrates to Sartre by Enoch Samuel Stumpf (1982)

Philosophers’ Eponyms: Early and Late Modern

An eponymous adjective is a type of adjective that refers to and is named after a specific person and can be used to denote their work. When describing a philosophical system, when categorizing a type of metaphysics or ethics, one might say, “That is Platonic,” meaning it resembles Plato’s philosophy. While some are better known, such as Socratic or Buddhist, others are more obscure, so here is a list—somewhat chronological—of philosophers’ eponyms! (Of course, seeing as there are hundreds of philosophers, some will not be mentioned).


Petrarchan: Pertaining to Petrarch

Erasmian: Pertaining to Desiderius Erasmus

Machiavellian: Pertaining to Niccolò Machiavelli

Early Modern

Baconian: Pertaining to Francis Bacon

Cartesian: Pertaining to René Descartes

Hobbesian: Pertaining to Thomas Hobbes

Leibnizian: Pertaining to Gottfried Leibniz

Spinozan: Pertaining to Baruch Spinoza

Pascalian: Pertaining to Blaise Pascal

Lockean: Pertaining to John Locke

Humean: Pertaining to David Hume


Voltairean: Pertaining to Voltaire

Rousseauian: Pertaining to Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Kantian: Pertaining to Immanuel Kant


Fichtean: Pertaining to Johann Gottlieb Fichte

Hegelian: Pertaining to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Marxist: Pertaining to Karl Marx

Kierkegaardian: Pertaining to Søren Kierkegaard

Schopenhauerian: Pertaining to Arthur Schopenhauer

Emersonian: Pertaining to Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thoreauvian: Pertaining to Henry David Thoreau

Nietzschean: Pertaining to Friedrich Nietzsche



Philosophers’ Eponyms: Greco-Roman

An eponymous adjective is a type of adjective that refers to and is named after a specific person and can be used to denote their work. When describing a philosophical system, when categorizing a type of metaphysics or ethics, one might say, “That is Platonic,” meaning it resembles Plato’s philosophy. While some are better known, such as Socratic or Buddhist, others are more obscure, so here is a list—somewhat chronological—of philosophers’ eponyms! (Of course, seeing as there are hundreds of philosophers, some will not be mentioned).


Xenophanic: Pertaining to Xenophanes of Colon

Pythagorean: Pertaining to Pythagoras of Samos

Buddhist: Pertaining to The Buddha

Heraclitean: Pertaining to Heraclitus

Confucian: Pertaining to Confucius

Parmenidean: Pertaining to Parmenides

Empedoclean: Pertaining to Empedocles of Acragas

Democritean: Pertaining to Democritus of Abdera

Prodicean: Pertaining to Prodicus

Protagorean: Pertaining to Protagoras


Socratic: Pertaining to Socrates

Platonic: Pertaining to Plato

Aristotelian: Pertaining to Aristotle


Stoic: Pertaining to Stoics

Epicurean: Pertaining to Epicurus

Cynic: Pertaining to Cynics

Pyrrhonian: Pertaining to Pyrrho

Plotinian: Pertaining to Plotinus


Ciceronian: Pertaining to Cicero

Senecan: Pertaining to Seneca the Younger

Lucretian: Pertaining to Lucretius

Plutarchian: Pertaining to Plutarch

Augustinian: Pertaining to St. Augustine


What Was Orphism?

Unknown.jpegBack in Ancient Greece, religion was a critical part of daily life. In addition to their rich, extensive mythology, the Greeks could be initiated into mysteries, secretive and occult groups, almost like secret societies, such as the infamous Eleusinian Mysteries. The groups all coexisted, and they all had unique rituals, and some taught different stories about the creation of the world. The idea of reincarnation, thought outlandish by some, is actually a commonly accepted belief practiced worldwide, and one particular creed in Greece, called Orphism, played a monumental role in Greek culture, not to mention philosophy, its teachings adopted by Pythagoras and even as far as Plato. Little can be said about the creation of the group, no less about the founder; further, the literature that is attributed to the society is scant, and authors have yet to be identified.

According to Orphic cosmological tradition, the universe was conceived of in a cosmic egg. In other words, the cosmos was initially an embryo, self-contained, which at a certain point hatched, the upper half of the egg forming the Heavens, the lower, Earth. There was chaos at first. Then, the three realms—Heaven, Earth, and Sea—were bound by Æther. This substance, described as the fifth element by Aristotle, was like a belt that held the three realms together tightly, creating a compact universe. The Orphics believed in an omnipotent creator, a demiurge, whom they called Phanes, who was the embodiment of both male and female, and thus the objective progenitor of humanity. img_phanes.jpgPhanes was the mightiest of the deities, the god of all gods, until he was devoured by Zeus—a common motif in Greek mythology. It is considered by scholars that this creation story was most likely inspired by contemporary civilizations like Egypt, India, and Babylon, each of which had a creation story of the almost exact structure. Orphism was named after the mythical musician Orpheus, who, so skilled at playing the lyre he could lull rocks and Hades’ three-headed dog Cerberus, tried to retrieve his wife from the Underworld under the condition that he not look at her. He failed in the end and was killed by mænads, passionate followers of Dionysus. The actual religious foundations for the society derive from another myth: that of Dionysus. Born to Zeus and Persephone, Dionysus was dismembered and eaten by the Titans. An angered Zeus struck the Titans with his thunderbolt, disintegrating them, and reviving from their ashes a reincarnated Dionysus, along with man.


Man, born divine and depraved, half-god and half-Titan, was therefore impure. His holy blood from Dionysus’ ashes was tainted with the blood of the corrupt Titans. This mirrors the Christian doctrine of original sin in that it assigns man an innate evil that is up to him to remove, through virtuous action. For this reason, the Orphics thought the body (soma, σωμα) was a tomb (sema, σημα). The body was an impediment, something of which to be ridden, as it reminded man of his corporeality, as opposed to his spirituality, his imperfection, as opposed to his perfection. Plato attested, “I have heard a philosopher [Pythagoras] say that at this moment we are actually dead, and that the body is our tomb…”.[1] To the Orphics, the body was on the same plane of being dead; so tainted is it, that it is like a sarcophagus. Only through certain religious rituals could an individual temporarily transcend his earthly tomb and become one with his divinity. During rituals, the goers would try to enter a state of “enthusiasm,” or an intense and passionate fervor, usually achieved through music, dance, or meditation. The objective of the participant was to escape his body, to relinquish his consciousness, to relieve his sense of self, and to unite with his divine side, in an attempt to reunite with God. Thus, Orphics tried to induce ecstasy, which means etymologically “to stand outside oneself”—literally to escape oneself. In the afterlife, said the Orphics, the soul would be put through judgment, where it would be subject to rigorous testing to see whether its bodily owner was virtuous or not. Sinners would be punished accordingly. The luckier ones had to face Hades, while those who were worse off would be reincarnated until they purified their soul. On the other hand, those who properly tended to their soul were able to be reunited with the World-soul, an overarching, all-inclusive spirit that permeated the world—a pantheistic spirit—from which they came. Central to Orphic doctrine was metempsychosis, a nice way of saying reincarnation, or transmigration of the soul. This concept is similar to the Buddhist idea of Samsara, the wheel of rebirth: If, when we die, we have not balanced our Karma, we are condemned to another life, ad infinitum, until we do so.

When one brings up Orphism, the next topic that will come up, most probably, would be Pythagoreanism, the philosophical brotherhood started by Pythagoras, inventor of the Pythagorean Theorem, since he took many of their doctrines and implemented them into his teachings. Historians accredit Pythagoras with being the first to call himself a philosopher; as such, he took philosophy seriously, considering it a way of life. To him, the happy life was one of contemplation; philosophy was a theoretical life, lived in Unknown-2.jpeginquiry, in discussion, in experimentation. He is said to have “intellectualized” Orphism, applying scientific thinking and reasoning to its beliefs, making it a viable way of life, rather than a mystery. Again, we have Plato to testify: “[T]hey say that the soul of man is immortal, and at one time has an end, which is termed dying, and at another time is born again, but never destroyed. And the moral is, that man ought to live always in perfect holiness.”[2] Here, Plato describes the ethical system of Orphism, explaining the idea of purification, which is required if one wants to join the World-soul. Moreover, he sets up the idea of the immortality of the soul advocated by Pythagoras—an idea that Socrates would have taught him and that would play a crucial role in his philosophy. The soul exists eternally and can never be destroyed; if it is impure at the end of its body’s life, it is to take the body of a new person, and then another, until purification; if, however, at death, the soul is pure, it can go to the World-soul. This last sequence can be detected in Platonic thought in the Phædrus. If Pythagoras considered philosophy a way of life, if a good life was one of purity, what then did purification look like, and what good did philosophy do anyone? For Pythagoreans, a virtuous life consisted of dutiful moral responsibility and ascetic self-constraint. The body, remember, was a tomb, but the soul was holy and needed to be pure if it wanted to return to divinity; hence, the life of the Pythagorean was dedicated to caring for and tending to the soul, cautious not to commit any vices. In the afterlife, the soul was judged by its scars, which of course were not physical, but spiritual, symbolic of the vices of which the body was guilty. Based on this belief, the soul was of paramount importance and took precedence over the well-being of the body.

One of the key beliefs of the Pythagoreans, derived from Orphism, was the transmigration of the soul. In fact, there are several stories about Pythagoras and his belief therein. “Once they said that he [Pythagoras] was passing by when a puppy was being whipped, and he took pity and said: Stop, do not beat it; for it is the soul of a friend that I recognized when I heard it giving tongue,” reported Xenophanes.[3] In this story, Pythagoras remembered the voice of a friend of his and reasoned that his soul must have been reincarnated as a dog. Pythagoras was famously a vegetarian. Anyone who joined qm1428642438.jpgthe Pythagorean creed was a vegetarian, on the basis that animals could be the host of either a friend’s or an ancestor’s soul. Similarly, beans were to be refrained from, for Pythagoras said they were the seeds from which humans were birthed. To eat a bean, was to eat a fellow human. Interestingly, it is worth pointing out that, according to legend, Pythagoras died because he was chased to a bean field by an angry mob, and, not wanting to trample the beans, decided to surrender himself to the mob instead. The eating of meat or beans was called Adikia (αδικια). It was a grave vice. Plato recounts, “[M]en are said to have lived a sort of Orphic life, having the use of all lifeless things, but abstaining from all living things.”[4] Orphism was practically synonymous with vegetarianism as a result. The Pythagoreans, it can be entertained, were pantheistic, insofar as they believed all life was interconnected, like a web, which was connected to Unknown-3.jpegthe World-soul, of which all living things were a part. Another story in Pythagorean tradition tells of a man named Æthalides who was bestowed by Hermes the gift of being able to remember his past lives. Upon passing, he was reincarnated as Euphorbus, who was slain by Menelaus in the Trojan War; his soul went to Hermotimus, who went to a temple and allegedly pointed out the shield used by Menelaus, proving he was Euphorbus in his previous life; then, Hermotimus died and became Pyrrhus; and finally, the soul went on to inhabit yours truly, Pythagoras. Pythagoras urged his followers every night to go through their previous day, recalling as much detail as possible, as a way of strengthening their memory, whereby they could eventually remember as far back as their own previous lives. Herodotus also mentions a strange ritual practiced by the Pythagoreans in his Histories:

Nothing of woolen, however, is taken into their temples or buried with them, as their religion forbids it. Here their practice resembles the rites called Orphic and Bacchic, but which are in reality Egyptian and Pythagorean; for no one initiated into these mysteries can be buried in a woolen shroud, a religious reason being assigned for the observance.[5]

Another Presocratic philosopher who borrowed from Orphic thought was Empedocles, the originator of the four elements, who claimed, “For by now I have been born a boy, girl, plant, bird, and dumb seafish.”[6] It is important to note how exactly Pythagoras—and Empedocles for that matter—came into knowledge, specifically, of the Orphic teachings, and generally, his own teachings. Scholar Theodor Gomperz suggested that Unknown-4.jpegPythagoras was influenced by nearby civilizations, like Egypt, Babylon, and India; as I explained earlier, the creation stories of the Orphics, Egyptians, Babylonians, and Indians were all related. Of these traditions, Gomperz said, India was most likely the connection. After all, it is not that unreasonable, seeing as Pythagoras was a contemporary of the Buddha through the 6th- and 5th-centuries BC. More evidence is that during this time, India and Greece were united under Cyrus’ Persian Empire, meaning there were definitive interactions between the two. The similarities between Pythagoreanism and Buddhism are numerous, from the shared tradition of vegetarianism to the theory of reincarnation.

Conclusively, Orphism, while now outdated, impacted ancient civilization on a considerable scale, having been used by Pythagoras, the Buddha, Empedocles, and Plato. Categorizing Orphism is as difficult as categorizing Buddhism, as it is neither a religion nor a philosophy in its proper sense, although it does share some characteristics of the ritualistic mysteries of Ancient Greece, along with its literature. The practices of vegetarianism, pantheism, and immortality and transmigration of the soul, while seemingly foreign to the Western world—the latter two more so—have undeniably defined Western culture.


[1] Plato, Gorgias, 493a
[2] Plato, Meno, 81a
[3] Diogenes Läertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, 8.36.12-15
[4] Plato, Laws, VII, 782c
[5] Herodotus, Histories, II.81
[6] Empedocles, 117


For further reading: Philosophic Classics: Ancient Philosophy by Forrest E. Baird (2000)
A History of Ancient Western Philosophy by Joseph Owens (1959)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 6 by Paul Edwards (1967)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 7 by Paul Edwards (1967)
A History of Philosophy Vol. 1 by Frederick Copleston (1993)
The Greek Thinkers Vol. 1 by Theodor Gomperz (1964)
The Story of Civilization Vol. 2 by Will Durant (1966)
The Dream of Reason  by Anthony Gottlieb (2013)
History of Philosophy by Julian Marías (1967)
Socrates to Sartre by Enoch S. Stumpf (1982)

Existential Moods

Unknown.jpegIn our everyday lives, we tend to throw around the words “anxiety,””dread,” and “despair” interchangeably, substituting one for the other, as in the anxiety we feel before a test, or the dread of losing a competition. These words, in particular, are taken to be the same expression of uneasiness and uncomfortableness, so they find themselves being used frequently and incorrectly. However, these words are each separated by a nuance, and they find their roots, surprisingly, in Existential philosophy, deriving from such eminent thinkers as Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Heidegger, all of whom investigated the essence of man’s existence and his place in the universe. In this post, I will be exploring the philosophical significance of the following moods: angst/anxiety/dread, despair, anguish, forlornness, and nausea.

Christian Existentialist Søren Kierkegaard wrote in 1844 The Concept of Anxiety, in which he put forth his theory regarding angst, coining the new word, which he developed as a sort of philosophical anxiety. Unlike fear, dread is intransitive; it has no object. Fear is fear of something, whereas dread is of nothing, literally. It is absurd, yet gripping nonetheless, as he describes it as both appealing and discouraging, like curiosity, to the extent that it draws you in, although you do not know what it is. In this sense, it is a fear of the unknown, but the mere thought of it still piques your interest. Therefore, anxiety results from an ignorance, or naïveté, of a sort. Kierkegaard stated that anxiety is the precursor to sin. He says the first instance of anxiety can be found in Adam, who, told by God not eat from the tree, was enticed by what would happen, knowing he would have no way of knowing what would happen otherwise, if he had not. Accordingly, Kierkegaard defined the feeling as follows: “[D]read is freedom’s reality as possibility for possibility”[1] and “the alarming possibility of being able.”[2] Anxiety, then, is the realization of one’s unbridled freedom. The fact that we are able to make choices at any time, that there is a possibility for us to make possibilities, gives us the ability to do anything we desire. Adam had no knowledge of good and evil before eating the apple, so it was impossible for him to know images.jpegnot to eat from it; as such, he was faced with a choice: obey God or risk eating the apple, to see what happens. The same fascination that occurs in a child occurs in Adam, as he knows he probably should not, but when he is told No, he becomes all the more interested. Famously, Kierkegaard declared, “Thus dread is the dizziness of freedom,” by which he meant that the tremendous freedom we are awarded is often overwhelming.[3] The fact that we can do whatever, whenever, is frightening, and it produces within us a dizzying effect, for we know that whatever we do will have an irreversible effect. However, dread is not entirely negative; rather, it helps us after we experience it. When we are placed in a dilemma in which we encounter anxiety, we become aware of ourselves as actors, and we realize the importance of decision-making, so every time we make choices, we learn from them, and they, in effect, influence our future decisions—of course, Kierkegaard puts it much more eloquently:

[H]e who is educated by possibility remains with dread, does not allow himself to be deceived by its countless counterfeits, he recalls the past precisely; then at last the attacks of dread, though they are fearful, are not such that he flees from them. For him dread becomes a serviceable spirit which against its will leads whither he would go. Then when it announces itself, when it craftily insinuates that it has invented a new instrument of torture far more terrible than anything employed before, he does not recoil, still less does he attempt to hold it off with clamor and noise, but he bids it welcome, he hails it solemnly, as Socrates solemnly flourished the poisoned goblet, he shuts himself up with it, he says, as a patient says to the surgeon when a painful operation is about to begin, “Now I am ready.”[4]

For Jean-Paul Sartre, anxiety took the form of responsibility. We experience anxiety whenever we make a decision, reflecting on the possible consequences it may carry. Every action, we must remember, will have an effect, not only on ourselves, but on others and the environment. There are other people who will be affected by our decisions, and they, too, will be making decisions that will impact us. Martin Heidegger concurred with Kierkegaard regarding the nature of dread. He identified dread with no object, claiming dread was the confrontation between pure Being and negation, Nothingness. To Heidegger, dread is a matter of distinguishing the authentic from the inauthentic. In our everyday life, we are in condition Heidegger called “Verfallenheit,” or “fallenness,” which refers to the trivialization of our lives. Because we are thrown, as Heidegger liked to say, into life, we are forced to conform, since we find comfort in doing so. We lose our individuality to das Man, or the average, inauthentic personality, becoming just another, ordinary person, not unique in any way. This state of being thrown results in Verfallenheit, and we forget about who we are and why we are here, surrendering to our boring, repetitive routines, until we are authentic no more. It is only through dread, Heidegger argued, that we can become aware of ourselves as beings-in-Unknown-2.jpegthe world. Dread is like a memento mori. “But the state-of-mind which can hold open the utter and constant threat to itself arising from Dasein’s [an individual] ownmost individualized Being, is anxiety,” Heidegger said.[5] Since Heidegger said dread was confrontation with Nothingness, and since Nothingness to us means death, the absence of self, it means dread is confrontation with our own deaths. When Heidegger talked about death, he meant it in the most serious way; he showed contempt for today’s society, which makes death seem less serious than it really is—“This ordinary hackneyed Nothing, so completely taken for granted and rolling off the tongue so casually.”[6] He criticized our culture for denying the reality of death, because whenever we speak of the death, we say it will inevitably come, just not yet, not at this moment. What vexed Heidegger was the fact that death is the most certain thing in each of our lives, and it can happen at any moment, even when we do not expect it. Death, Heidegger believed, is our most personal possession, the only thing that cannot be taken from us; one can take our material positions, one can take our pride, one can even take our own life, yet even in the last case, it is we who die, so our death is reserved for us alone. Because of this unique property of ours, Heidegger called humans “Sein-und-Tode,” or “Beings-toward-death,” as we are always on our way to death. In this way, Heidegger assured us we all have a “freedom to death” (“Freiheit zum Tode”).

The second most common of these words is probably despair, usually used to signify hopelessness. Kierkegaard thought despair was instead an unacceptance of the self in his 1849 book The Sickness Unto Death. Throughout our life, we come at points in our life where do not like ourselves, either out of ignorance or rejection. In the case of the former, we usually do not find who we are until later in life; until then, we are ignorant of our true nature, and since we do not even know our own identities, we hate ourselves; unfortunately, we are stuck with ourselves, so there is no point in despairing, Kierkegaard warned. In the case of the latter, it is the opposite. Eventually, we find out Unknown-3.jpegwho we are, or we find out for what we are destined or about what we are passionate, and as a result, we do not like who we are or for what we are destined; this, too, leads to despair, as we do not want to live with ourselves. If we find that we have a personality or vocation we would rather not have, we trick ourselves into thinking it is the personality or vocation itself with which we are unsatisfied, but it is really us with whom we have a problem. We want to change ourselves and be someone else, but this, Kierkegaard said, is cowardly, and we should accept and love ourselves for who we are. Despair for Sartre is manifest in our dependence upon the world. Oftentimes we like to count on Life to play by our rules, or we expect it to do what we want it to. Life, however, does not play by our rules, nor does it work in our favor. Meaning is internalized, not externalized, Sartre asserted. Deriving meaning or morality from the world is not a reliable method, nor a dependable one; we need to derive meaning from ourselves. Imagine planning an outdoor party and accounting for the weather perfectly; the success of your party depends entirely on the weather, about which you are confident; you place your trust in the weather forecast as a result; however, when the date comes, the part is ruined because a storm comes—this is what Sartre found wrong with relying on the world to give us meaning. We cannot rely on the world. When we discover that we are alone, we despair.

Unknown-4.jpeg“[I]t is in anguish that freedom is, in its being, in question for itself,” wrote Sartre.[7] Anguish is similar to Kierkegaard’s angst in that it is the realization of one’s choices. In the above quote, Sartre explains that when we consider our freedom to make choices, we are exercising our freedom in an attempt to understand our choices. Freedom is manifest in anguish, as we become free to act of our own free will. Sartre develops anguish further as an awareness not only of choices, but of possibilities, of could-be’s. “Vertigo is anguish to the extent that I am afraid not of falling over the precipice, but of throwing myself over,” he clarified.[8] All possibilities must be considered when making a choice, because even the improbable ones can be made possible. In a rather confusing passage in Being and Nothingness, Sartre talks about possibilities. Our present state is determined by the possibilities we acknowledge, self-persevering and self-destructive, but the latter still exist as possibilities that can happen, but it is we who, acting out of self-preservation, hold out from making them actuality, and so avoid them, but it is the fact that these possibilities exist as able-to-happen that anguish occurs. Hence, anguish is the consciousness of the unpredictability of one’s future. Echoing his opinion of anxiety as well, Sartre commented, “[T]his kind of anguish,… is explained,… by a direct responsibility to the other men whom it involves.”[9]

Forlornness is not common nowadays, although it is a classic Existential mood, insofar as it is the loneliness and abandonment of man. Man is a lonely being, seeing as he is responsible for his actions and his actions alone; it is he who answers for everything he does. Everyday man has to carry this burden on his own shoulders throughout life, without help from anyone or anything. In pure Existentialism, as in Sartre and Heidegger, God does not exist, and as such, we have no outside being from which to derive our values. There is no scripture from which to read, no commandments by which we can live, nor any words of others to which we can listen, as we must pave our own paths. Meaning comes from the self. This is not like school where we can ask our peers or teachers for help. And there is certainly no reading any Self-Help books or reading famous philosophers, for wise though they may be, their words cannot be abided by, considering they do not work for everyone. According to Sartre, tradition cannot be adhered to either, because cultural norms are just the choices made by previous people, and they are not here anymore; now it is you; therefore, you must make your own norms and live by them, with no God, no aids, no guidance whatsoever. It is just you and the world.

4UYBZd1a.jpegThe feeling of nausea will be lightly be touched upon, as delineated in Sartre’s novel Nausea. A notable work of Sartre’s, Nausea tells of a man who suffers from bouts of nausea, the cause of which is the total meaninglessness of the world. To think that every day we encounter lifeless, non-conscious matter is not often considered, though when it is, it is truly nauseating. Man, a conscious being, what Sartre called the “For-itself,” constantly comes into contact with objects, non-conscious beings, what Sartre called “In-themselves.” Look around you right now and take account of every inanimate matter around you. Recognize that you are surrounded by matter—abiological, inanimate, dead, non-conscious, lifeless, inert, matter. It is when we realize the profound absurdity of life, the total and complete meaninglessness of the world around us, that we feel nauseated.

In conclusion, Existentialism is very sad—but it also provides us with a deeper view of life and the meaning of the universe, or lack thereof. Compared to their everyday usage, Existential emotions carry with them much more depth, insight, and relatability than we usually think. Occasionally, we should all reflect on Nothingness, death, despair, possibility, loneliness, and nausea so we can appreciate life more and get a deeper feel for life and perhaps be more authentic.


[1] Gardiner, Nineteenth-Century Philosophy, p. 311
[2] Ibid., p. 314
[3] Ibid., p. 315
[4] p. 320
[5] Heidegger, Being and Time, H. 266
[6] Heidegger, What is Metaphysics?, p. 301c*
[7] Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. 35
[8] Id.
[9] Bierman, Philosophy for a New Generation, 4­­th ed., p. 396
For further reading: 
Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy 3rd ed. by Simon Blackburn (2016)
Philosophy for a New Generation 4th ed. by A.K. Bierman (1981)
Introduction to Modern Existentialism by Ernst Breisach (1962)
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy 
by Ted Honderick (1995)

The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 3 by Paul Edwards (1967)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Vol. 4 by Paul Edwards (1967)
A History of Philosophy
Vol. 7 by Frederick Copleston (1994)

Philosophy: The Classics 3rd ed. by Nigel Warburton (2008)
Nineteenth-Century Philosophy by Patrick Gardiner (1969)
Dictionary of Philosophy by Thomas Mautner (2005)
Being and Nothingness
by Jean-Paul Sartre (1966)

The Philosophy Book by Will Buckingham (2011)
The Story of Philosophy by James Garvey (2012)
History of Philosophy by Julian Marías (1967)
Being and Time by Martin Heidegger (1962)

*Page in reference found in The Great Books of the Western World Vol. 55 by Mortimer J. Adler (1990)

What is Sophism?

Fifth-century Athens, known as the Golden Age of Athens, oversaw the flourishing of Classical Greek Philosophy, dominated by the teacher-student duo of Plato and Socrates, two men dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom, who searched tirelessly for objective knowledge, who wanted to uncover the truth, who planted the seeds of knowledge that would influence ages to come. It was also during this period that a new breed of seekers came, whom Plato despised, whom we today connote with negativity: the Sophist. Nowadays, to call someone a sophist, or to say an argument is sophistic, is to call them deceitful, glib, and a fraud. However, while this figure is buried in stigma by history, there lies a greater story about this controversial lover of wisdom.


Before the word “sophist” acquired its negative connotations, it originally came from the Greek word for wisdom, σοφός, and was used to designate a wise man or sage, such as Thales, who was called one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece, or even just a craftsman or artisan who was highly skilled at his trade. It was an honor, then, to be called a Sophist (σοφιστής), so teachers were quick to adopt the name, proud to bear its glory as they spread their knowledge throughout the lands. The Sophists were traveling teachers. They had no place they called home, and they went from city-state to city-state, looking for pupils, stopping at every public festival, where they could gather a crowd and amaze them with their impressive rhetoric, where they could present speeches designed to attract customers and get their name known. To Gomperz, the Sophist reminded him of a “half professor and half journalist,” for he wasted no time jumping upon new opportunities, seeking a new job, a new student in whom he could invest his knowledge.[1] The Sophist was, early in his career, regarded as a true sage, and he was bestowed great honors and respected by his peers for his vast areas of expertise. In public the Sophist spoke through epideixis (ἐπιδεικτικός), a form of oration in which the speaker is able to exhibit his skills or to praise some particular thing; and in private study the Sophist taught through dialectic (διαλεκτική), the same question-and-answer technique made famous by Socrates. Evidently, the Sophist was highly adaptable, and because he was always on the move, he was able to attract a large following and gain a reputation of the same magnitude. paulathenssmall.jpgHowever, the Sophists taught by mouth alone, not pen, and none of their writings were written, as they were made with the intent of being performed in public, in front of an audience, not in private, for the delight of a reader. The fact that none of them established a school, too, contributes to a lack of primary sources regarding the Sophists’ ideas. Further, because no schools were made, and because their students were not permanent, there exist no student records. Other philosophers, like Socrates and Epictetus, despite not writing what they taught, have extant writings, because their students, Plato and Arrian, recorded them; the Sophists, contrarily, had no students to do so. Fortunately for the Sophist, he was able to prosper in a thriving intellectual climate, as Athens was, at the time, the center of philosophical thought, and it experienced a tremendous surge in intellectual pursuits brought forth by the leadership of Pericles. Education was therefore a major focus—perfect for the Sophists.

The targeted audience of the Sophists was select: their primary customers were young, eager-to-learn Athenian men, of whom there were plenty. Central to sophistic curriculum was political virtue, or areté (αρετέ). As Jaeger put it, “[T]he aim of the educational movement… was not to educate the people, but to educate the leaders of the people.”[2] Just as we in today’s education advertise school as a way of training our future leaders, so the Sophists in Athens’ education advertised their tutoring as a way of training their Unknown-1.jpegfuture leaders. Pericles was the paragon of democratic leadership, so it was important that youths were taught to emulate how he ruled. The best way to lead well, the Sophists believed, is through rhetoric, the art of speaking well (ευ λεγειν), of persuasion, of using language to the best of its abilities. Interestingly, the word “politician,” in Ancient Greece, was used interchangeably with “rhetor;” they were perfectly synonymous. Therefore, it was important that a good leader learn rhetoric, especially when he is young. So dedicated were they to their craft that the Sophists considered their teaching a techné (τέχνη), an art. For Sophist to refer to a trained craftsmen, and to have teaching be a craft, is to confirm that education, schooling, was first given its value in Ancient Athens, and for that we owe the Sophists. We find in Athens the idea that teaching is a delicate craft which requires perfecting and which is integral to a culture’s being. In addition to rhetoric, the Sophists tried to teach both practical and theoretical things, of the former day-to-day necessities, the latter liberal arts. So wide was their knowledge that they taught everything from natural science to metaphysics, grammar to poetry. For the most part, the Sophists accepted Pre-Socratic thinking, but they rejected Eleatic thought. Thus, cosmology was a popular subject, and students were taught the essentials, from Thales to Anaxagoras. Since grammar and rhetoric were taught, it was necessary that logic, too, was taught, meaning the Sophists were the inventors of the original trivium comprising grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Their lessons, for example, featured all kinds of logical problems and rules, and Unknown-2.jpegthey also taught about different fallacies and how to avoid them in reasoning. Of theoretical knowledge there were two types the Sophists taught: factual and formal knowledge. Factual knowledge was just as it sounds, consisting of general, wide-ranging facts, encyclopedic in extent; formal knowledge was specific, and its intent was not so much on learning but training, specifically how to use knowledge to think critically and practically. According to the Sophists, who viewed teaching as a craft, virtue was teachable. Political virtue, areté, as well as virtues like temperance and courage, were able to be taught and were not acquired specially. The Appeal to Nature is commonly associated with the Sophists, the argument that whatever is natural is good, whatever is unnatural is bad. While this does not apply to every Sophist, it does capture the essence of their conflicting views regarding Nature. The disagreement was between convention (νομος) and nature herself (φύση), man-made law and natural law. Thrasymachus thought self-interest was morally right and that the stronger is better than the weaker; Callicles thought our self-conscious is what is right; and Iamblichus chose convention, stating that we ought to do whatever state laws tell us.


After the fifth-century, Sophism all but died out, but it was revived again in Rome during the Second Sophistic period, which ranges from approximately 60-230 A.D. The traveling teacher was brought back, and he became a sensation in a Roman-influenced Greece, where philosophy was going strong. However, the importance was shifted from philosophy to rhetoric, and as Will Durant writes, “It [philosophy] had been swallowed up in an ocean of rhetoric, and had ceased to think when it learned to speak.”[3] No longer was philosophy based on systematic thinking and the art of living; it had been replaced by rhetoric, and speech was valued above action, signaling the beginning of the decline of philosophy in the Western world. It was not all bad, though, and some good did come of the Second Sophistic; from it comes, like the value of education, arguably the first advocation of individualism. It was at this time that we saw men, without true homes, without anything to show for their work, traveling land to land, living off of that at which they were good, teaching whoever could pay them; we see true individualism—independent individuals making their way doing what they love, as though it were some kind of ancient American Dream. The Pre-Socratic philosophers philosophized about nature, the cosmos, and produced theories regarding that which was external to them; the Sophists, on the other hand, turned inwards, philosophizing about their fellow men. Consequently, there was a move from the theoretical to the practical, the cosmological to the humanistic, nature to man. The Sophists were “empirico-inductive” in their methods, examining what was before them and producing their theories from there, not from looking up at the stars, but at the society that surrounded them—humanity.[4]

So far, the Sophist seems a respectable figure responsible for the beginnings of higher education, humanism, and rhetoric; however, there is another side of the story, one that paints them in another, more sinister light. Probably the most distinctive thing about the Sophists was how they made money. As a pretty much homeless, traveling teacher, the Sophist had to make easy money, so he placed a fee on his lessons. While some Sophists were fair in their prices, most of them were not, pricing their lessons up to 10,000 Drachmas, equivalent to about $10,000 in today’s money. Because the prices were so high, only rich Athenians could afford lessons, a disadvantage to the poor and underprivileged. To exacerbate these conditions, Athens was the city-state with the most lawsuits, and since only rich men could get lessons in logic and rhetoric, it meant they could easily win. This is not to mention, of course, that it was considered dishonorable, ignoble, in Ancient Greece, to pay for another man’s knowledge. Many also thought professionalism boring and made fun of the Sophists for conducting their lessons accordingly, rebuking them for their private lessons taught in the privacy of one’s house. To say one’s argument is sophistic is an insult, for it means they have used cunning, deceitful, devious, and specious reasoning. This makes sense, because some Sophists could manipulate logic, easily able to win either side of an argument. Commonly, to show off, Sophists and later Skeptics would propose one side of an argument, present their case, then immediately switch to the other side and present an equally balanced argument. For this reason, the issue of lawsuits was even worse, for litigators could be taught unfair logical devices to beat their opponents.


Of the critics of the Sophists, Plato is the worst, evidenced by multiple of his dialogues, which make fun of the Sophists and poke holes in their reasoning. One thing Plato disapproved of was the fact that Sophists discounted objective knowledge, looking instead for relative knowledge, for according to the Sophists, only relative knowledge was possible. What is true for one person may not be true to another. Similarly, he scoffed at them for their phenomenalism. Plato believed in a higher realm, the world of Forms, in which all perfect entities exist, in which object knowledge resides; for the Sophists to claim that the phenomenal, or natural, world was the only existent thing, was, to Plato, distasteful and worthy of contempt. To believe that this imperfect world was the sole reality, thought Plato, is insane and an insult to objectivity. Regarding the lesson fees, Plato joked that if the fees were too low, it meant the lesson was just as worthless; and if they were too high, it meant it was outrageously expensive. One of the reasons Plato was repulsed by the Sophists was because they gave a bad name to Socrates. Socrates was considered a Sophist in its positive sense, and he used the dialectic properly in the search for truth; Unknown-7.jpegbut to compare him to the Sophists of Plato’s time was like comparing God to Satan—unthinkable, a downright insult. Plato blamed the Sophists, in part, for Socrates’ death, seeing as they gave him a bad name, tainting his reputation forever. Plato called the Sophists “anti-logical” and eristic, since they sought not actual knowledge, but argumentation. Like teacher like student, Aristotle, too, following in the footsteps of Plato, turned his pen against the Sophists. He wrote that the Sophists practiced “wisdom which exists only in semblance” and “what appears to be philosophy but is not.”[5] In his Sophistical Refutations, he adds, “[T]he sophist is one who makes money from an apparent but unreal wisdom.”[6] For a long time Aristotle waged a philosophical war against the Megarian School (also known as the Eristics), infamous for its paradoxes and logic problems, at one point calling them “sophists,” thus creating the first official usage of the word as a negative one. From that point on, even throughout Imperial times, philosophers began accusing each other of being “sophists.”

The Sophist is a polarizing figure, on one side an educational hero, on the other an anti-logical fraud. Whether he is one or the other cannot be solved by history, as there are always two sides. In the end, while we can frown upon them, laughing at their professional ways, exposing their deceiving logic, we must also be grateful for all that they have done, for making education as important as it is today in our culture, for creating the trivium to which we are dedicated in English, for living the true American Dream, and most of all, for angering Plato and Socrates.


[1] Gomperz, The Greek Thinkers, Vol. 1, p. 414
[2] Jaeger, Paideia, Vol. 1, p. 290
[3] Durant, The Story of Civilization, Vol. 3, p. 489
[4] Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1, p. 83
[5] Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1004b20-27
[6] Aristotle, Sophistical Refutations, 165a22-24


For further reading:
The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization by Simon Hornblower (1998)
A History of Ancient Western Philosophy by Joseph Owens (1959)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 7 by Paul Edwards (1967)
A History of Philosophy Vol. 1 by Frederick Copleston (1993)
A Short History of Philosophy by Robert C. Solomon (1996)
The Greek Thinkers Vol 1. by Theodor Gomperz (1964)
The Story of Civilization Vol. 2 by Will Durant (1966)
The Story of Civilization Vol. 3 by Will Durant (1972)
Paideia Vol. 1 by Werner Jaeger (1945)

Who Was Jonathan Edwards?

During the 1740’s in America, there was a massive movement that swept through New England called the “Great Awakening,” in which religious fervor reached soaring heights. As a result, the colonies became heavily influenced by Protestantism, with families going to church to hear the itinerant preachers, leading to the domination of religious feelings. However, the Great Awakening is also responsible for giving rise to one of the first and greatest philosophers in American history: Jonathan Edwards. Despite being strictly Calvinist, Edwards has gone down in philosophical history as one of the greatest minds in America as well as one of the defining figures in the tradition of idealism.

Unknown-1.jpegEdwards was born in 1703, and it was evident he was destined for great things; at the age of 13, he was admitted to Yale. The young Edwards was always curious, nearly as bright and prolific as any professional writer, for he wrote numerous essays before going to college, his interests ranging from biology to philosophy, from spiders to metaphysics. Edwards was introduced to Newton and Locke a year after coming to Yale, diving head first into the most recent groundbreaking thought, committing himself to both men’s ideas. Three years later, when he was only 17, Edwards graduated, and in 1734, he began preaching in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he stayed until 1748, when he was forced out of his position by angry churchgoers, finally becoming a missionary for the Native Americans. From sources we know that Edwards was intensely passionate about his work—so dedicated was he that on summer mornings he would wake up at four, and in winter, at four. It worked out that Edwards became head of the Congregationalist Church since his grandfather was Solomon Stoddard, the former pastor. In 1662 the Half-Way Covenant was put into effect. This rule made it so that only select people could attain church membership, and if they baptized their children, they, too, could be members of the church. Stoddard removed the covenant while pastor, but Edwards had different ideas, so he reversed his grandfather’s decision and made it stricter than the covenant, for he wesley.jpgrestricted church membership to saints and saint alone, reserving communion only for the elects. Edwards was a notorious speaker. His sermons were not traditional, insofar as he ruled through fear. H.W. Brands writes, “[H]is auditors shrieked and moaned, their horror exceeded only by the exquisiteness of their agony…. At least one listener was so moved that he decided to end his life rather than continue his torment.”[1] It is no surprise, then, why his outraged followers kicked him out of the church. And, interestingly, he was the grandfather of Aaron Burr, and the writer O. Henry was a descendant of his. 

Having read Locke at a young age, Edwards’ metaphysics were based on his education. His thought mirrors closely that of George Berkeley’s, but it is generally agreed that Edwards did not read his works but rather thought of his system on his own. Edwards concurred with Berkeley, claiming that secondary qualities—like color, texture, and smell—were conceived in the mind. He reasoned that primary qualities were really just different applications of resistance: solidity was pure resistance, figure is the termination of resistance, and motion is the communication between two resistances. This raises the question of how resistance comes to be, how resistance can exist outside the mind. According to Edwards, resistance is God’s doing, and if resistance is not resisting anything, which, he thinks, is irrational, then it is simply resistance. Therefore, if resistance is external to men’s minds, and if resistance is the work of God, then it must Unknown-2.jpegfollow that this world in which we live is God’s creation—his mental creation, that is. Like Berkeley, Edwards conceived of a unique subjective idealism, since he saw reality as the mental creation of God. A contemporary group at the time, the Cambridge Platonists, spread Platonic thought to America, where Edwards absorbed it, using it in his own philosophy. The corporeal, physical world is imperfect, flawed, illusory, a phantasmagoria, a faulty reflection of the otherwise perfect spiritual reality wherein God resides. Similar to the Allegory of the Cave, Edwards believed salvation was like getting out of the cave: man, rescued from his chains of illusion, sees the magnificence that is God. Regarding the nature of God, Edwards acknowledged the impossibility of there existing any being outside of Being, which Edwards interprets as existence in all that it encompasses. But because God is Being, He is non-solid; and he asserted alongside Parmenides that nothingness cannot exist, so God is space, God is omnipresent. Further, since God created reality, it means that nature is God manifest, and since God is beautiful, nature is beautiful. Edwards adopted Malebranche’s causal theory of Occasionalism, stating that events happen in coordination with God’s will. For example, if an object is dropped, it just happened to drop at the same time God willed it to drop. Edwards took it further and distinguished two causal necessities: natural and moral. Natural necessity is an external hindrance, one that is external, and it must happen; the latter is an internal inhibition, and while it seems out of our control, it really is not. A natural necessity would be hunger, as it is out of power and must happen, whereas a moral necessity might be gluttony, as while feeding ourselves is necessary, overindulging is not. Impulses, therefore, are common moral necessities. Edwards’ most famous sermon is Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741), in which he says that, because God created this world and us, we owe it to him to be faithful, otherwise he will destroy us all—it also created the strongest uproar:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath toward you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful and venomous serpent is in ours.

You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment;…

adam-eve5.jpgIn his essay The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended (1757), Edwards defends the idea that man is, by nature, sinful. Carrying the burden of Adam upon his back, man has fallen from grace. Originally given two motives, self-love and benevolence, man was stripped of the latter when he upset God, meaning man acts purely out of self-interest, which, although some good can come of it and is to some extent necessary, is primarily bad. His next essay, A Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue (1765), draws a connection between virtue and beauty, stating that the former is a form of the latter, particularly in the form of benevolence, which, as Edwards said, was taken away from us. But of beauty he distinguishes two types: natural and divine. Natural beauty is that which occurs in the world, and it comprises unity, harmony, and variety. This beauty is acquired through the senses. When we see, hear, smell, touch, or taste anything which has unity, harmony, or variety, we think it beautiful. Harmony, he posits, is proportional to an object’s Being. A nobler object will have more Being than an ignoble object, and thus more harmony. But Edwards does not see beauty as a property that objects have but a relationship between subject and object. An object cannot be beautiful unless it is seen as agreeable by a viewer. Divine beauty, on the other hand, is knowledge of God in nature. Benevolence, the most sought after virtue according to Edwards, is defined as the love Being, of existence, in all its entirety. Benevolence to Edwards is not how it is to us, traditionally, for Edwards sees it as Unknown-1.jpegintransitive rather than transitive; in essence, Edwards thinks of benevolence not as directed toward a person, nor even as being directed, but as openness to everything. Instead of being benevolent toward this person, or toward that tree, we must be benevolent of Being. This is troublesome, though, because Edwards says we do not have the capability of being benevolent, despite its being the highest virtue. Edwards insisted that grace is what enables us to be virtuous, and grace comes from God himself; therefore, only a few people have the fortune of being endowed with grace, and so with benevolence. A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746) deals with what Edwards calls the “religious feeling,” which he defines as the total dependence on God. (This view is astoundingly prescient of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s theory of Abhängigkeitsgefühl, or absolute dependence). Edwards rejected the compartmentalization of the mind, but he kept the idea that there were two faculties—understanding, or heart, or sensation, and inclination, or volition, or will. In addition to the five senses, Edwards explored the idea of an incredibly rare sixth sense: divination. He did say, however, that we all are given a moral conscience which allows us to share a common view of justice, similar to a collective unconscious. Just as Edwards and Schleiermacher shared views on dependence, so they had in common the idea that emotion is superior to intellect. The religious life was man’s only end, thought Edwards; as such, the religious life could not be lived through the mind but through the heart. Emotion, he claimed, is God-given, so we ought to use.

There was a distinction drawn between goodness and godliness, for Edwards thought the two obfuscated the definition of virtue. Goodness can be achieved by anyone and therefore is not true virtue. Goodness can be viewed as Aristotelian virtues, such as bravery, temperance, and prudence. Benevolence is true virtue, and it is an example of godliness, as it is synonymous with sublimity. Only saints are endowed with grace, meaning only saints can be virtuous, or benevolent. The spiritual life, in addition, is a lifelong commitment, lived until death, so it was up to the saint to take care of his “gracious sincerity.” Edwards was certain that normal people can be good and will be remorseful on Judgment Day; saints, however, can be godly and will repent on Judgment Day. This is the reason Edwards reserved church membership for saints. Saints were predestined to achieve salvation, and they had access to benevolence. Edwards then tackled the Problem Unknown-3.jpegof Free Will in his essay The Freedom of the Will (1754). The difficult thing for Edwards was reconciling Calvinist predestination and Newtonian determinism with Lockean freedom. Edwards began by defining “will” as “choice.” He subscribed to folk psychology, which states that words like will, preference, desire, and inclination all mean the same thing and refer to volition, the will to do things. Will was a passive force, influenced the active force of God. When we are faced with a decision, Edwards said we choose the greatest good, strongest urge at the time. Basically, Edwards took the side of Schopenhauer, who said, “Man can do what he will, but he cannot will what he does,” by which he means that our choices are determined, but we ourselves are free to act upon them. Freedom was synchronicity with God’s will in the eyes of Edwards. This supports his Occasionalism: if what we choose to do coincides with what God willed us to do, then we have done something morally done, but if we choose something contrary to God’s will, we have committed sin. Choices, Edwards thought, were open to praise and blame, as we have our own motives on which we act; a wicked motive, for instance, means a bad choice, so we deserve blame, and vice versa.


[1] Brands, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, p. 147


For further reading: 
The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by H.W. Brands (2000)
The Growth of the American Republic Vol. 1 by Samuel Eliot Morison (1956)
Men and Movements in American Philosophy by Joseph L. Blau (1952)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 2 by Paul Edwards (1967)
Don’t Know Much About History by Kenneth C. Davis (2003)
American Philosophy by Marcus G. Singer (1985)

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)