Why Do We Root for the Good Guys?

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


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


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


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


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


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

Peace is a lie. There is only Passion.

Through Passion I gain Strength.

Through Strength I gain Power.

Through Power I gain Victory.

Through Victory my chains are Broken.

The Force shall free me.

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

There is no emotion, there is peace.

There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.

There is no passion, there is serenity.

There is no chaos, there is harmony.

There is no death, there is the Force.

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


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


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


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

Unknown.jpegBorn in 1646, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz was a German polymath. He studied many subjects and wrote many essays on them, including philosophy, mathematics, science, logic, theology, and language. A contemporary of Isaac Newton, he and the natural philosopher feuded over who invented calculus. While Leibniz published his first, it was Newton who invented it first, although today, the former’s is used more. Leibniz combined philosophy with science in order to arrive at a systematic philosophy that, by today’s standards, is very modern. Some of his findings in the 17th century anticipated many of the findings of modern physics. In this post, which serves as a more concise counterpart to my other, more in-depth essay on Leibniz, I will summarize Leibniz’s main ideas regarding logic, metaphysics, and theology.


There are two types of truths according to Leibniz: truths of reason, and truths of fact. Truths of reason cannot be proven false, for they are necessary. It is impossible for a truth of reason to be any way other than it is. For example, 2+2 always equals 4. It is a necessary truth because it cannot be false. Leibniz uses the law of noncontradiction to justify these kinds of truths. It states that the opposite of such a claim is a self-contradiction. Saying that a circle has edges involves a self-contradiction because, by Unknown.pngdefinition, a circle cannot have edges—it is impossible! Accordingly, “No circles have edges,” is a truth of reason, as to say otherwise would be wrong. Truths of fact, contrariwise, are contingent, meaning they can be either true or false. Whereas truths of reason are given and innate, truths of fact are gained through experience. A claim such as “Pumpkins are orange,” is a truth of fact because it is contingent; it does not necessarily have to be orange, but can be yellow or orange, among other colors. In the case that you do find an orange pumpkin, the claim is correct. As such, the pumpkin has the possibility of being either of the aforementioned colors. For these kinds of truths, Leibniz uses the principle of sufficient reason, whereby he states that everything exists for a reason.


This world, Leibniz contends, is one of many possible worlds. When multiple truths of fact are compatible and can exist with each other, then they are called compossibilities. Having two feet is compossible with having two legs, but having two feet with one foot is not compossible, for one negates the other: only can be true. The sum total of compossibilities constitutes a possible world.


The universe is composed not of atoms, but monads, says Leibniz. Because atoms are physical, it means they can be divided in half, from there halved again, etc. If we keep on going, dividing atoms, we find that they are always made of something simpler. Leibniz claims instead that the building blocks of reality are immaterial consciousnesses. They occupy no space and are simple, which is to say that they are not made of parts. These monads are all distinct from each other and cannot interact with each other. When Leibniz says monads are immaterial, he suggests they are pure energy because they motion is intrinsic to them. Monads are substances in that they can have properties, but bear none themselves. A car can have the property of being red or blue, but it remains a car all the same.


In English, the subject is the doer and the predicate is what the doer does. Leibniz argues that all predicates are contained in their subjects due to a pre-established harmony. Unknown.jpegSaying “Socrates was born in 469 BC,” one makes the claim that the predicate “was born in 469 BC” is exclusive to the subject, “Socrates,” alone. Being born in 469 BC is unique to this particular Socrates and is what makes him Socrates. Similarly, “Socrates died in 399 BC” is contained in “Socrates” because it is a part of him. When one studies Socrates, one learns that he died in 399 BC, and he could not have died at any other time because that is the way it happened. Remember that monads cannot interact, so when Leibniz speaks of a pre-established harmony, he means that every monad is determined before it is created. Before Socrates was created, it was pre-established that he would die in 399 BC, and it happened in harmony with the other Athenians at the court who sentenced him to death. Socrates was sentenced and the Athenians sentenced Socrates even before they were created! Because none can actually interact with the other, they do not affect each other directly, but unfold at the same time.


Monads reflect the universe within themselves. Each has a unique perspective on the universe, just as how people have different perspectives. However, each perspective is necessary for creating a single, unified picture of reality. By piecing together every microcosm, Leibniz says, we can see the macrocosm.


Monads can perceive other monads unfolding according to the pre-established harmony, use appetition to change through perceptions, and engage in apperception to gain self-consciousness, although this is reserved for humans. Some monads are clearer in their perceptions than others. Bare monads are confused and are inanimate, like rocks; integral monads have the power of memory, and are made of many monads topped off with a soul, including humans, which are called “corporeal substances”; and essential monads, such as God, are truths of reason and have the most clarity.


Space and time are relative. Space is existent only when bodies are present, and time is measured based on the sequence of monads as they harmonize. In order to measure time, for example, you have to measure it relative to something; one cannot objectively measure time by itself.


we_live_in_a_happy_world___by_omg_raichu-d31l9re.pngGod, being all-good and all-powerful, has the ability to create any world He chooses. An ideal world has the minimum causes and maximum effects. Accordingly, because He is a perfect, necessary being, He must have chosen the “Best of all possible worlds”; choosing otherwise would not bear as many compossibilities. How is evil explained? The world is not perfect, and evil is the absence of good. But God has sufficient reason: Everything exists for a reason, but humans have a hard time understanding these reasons and so are convinced of evil, when in reality, this is a great world in Leibniz’s eyes.


A very simple visual showing the Leibniz’s main ideas and some of their connections:
Screen Shot 2017-11-02 at 2.48.57 PM.png

Who was Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz?

Unknown.jpegIn the tradition of Modern philosophy, the rationalist movement was spearheaded by Descartes and then Spinoza, both of whom devised profound and logical systems built solely on reason. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, another of the great rationalists, a polymath by nature, a scientist and physicist, mathematician, logician, theologist, diplomat, linguist, geologist, politician, and, among other things, philosopher, lived in the mid 17th century and was a contemporary of the natural philosopher Isaac Newton, with whom he would feud on several key points. Besides being a brilliant philosopher, he was an amazing and talented mathematician and scientist who developed his own method of calculus, leading to one of the greatest scientific controversies in history. While Newton thought of and expounded his calculus first, for which he deserves the most credit, Leibniz published his own independent calculus several years before Newton. Unfortunately, Newton was much more revered and had a higher reputation, so Leibniz was soon forgotten and faded into history, neither his physics nor his philosophy being put in the spotlight, such that his predecessors’ names are remembered more than his. But perhaps Leibniz is most known for being the victim of Voltaire’s lampoon: He is represented as Dr. Pangloss, the unconditional optimist who claims it is the “Best of all possible worlds,” in Voltaire’s novel Candide. The following essay shall provide a succinct and, hopefully, simple and comprehensible summary of and look at Leibniz’s philosophy.


Bertrand Russell, in The History of Western Philosophy, remarked that Leibniz was one of the only philosophers to construct his whole system—even his metaphysics—using the foundations of a logic; it is thus that I shall begin. Leibniz begins by dividing all truths into two types: Those of reasoning, and those of those of fact. A truth of reason is necessary, which is to say that it has to be the way it is, that it cannot be otherwise. He uses the law of noncontradiction in order to justify them. It states that the opposite of a truth of reason results in a self-contradiction. For example, to say that 2+2=5 is a contradiction because is it not true, but rather is contradictory, for it goes against the Unknown.pngtruth, namely that 2+2=4. As such, 2+2=4 is a truth of reason: To say its opposite is a self-contradiction. Truths of reason are impossible to refute. They are incontrovertible. Later, the German philosopher Kant, having read Leibniz, would borrow this idea and call it an analytic a priori judgement. Basically, a truth of reason is true by definition, it is given, it is innate. In this manner, Leibniz stands in contrast to Locke, who claimed innate knowledge is impossible; Leibniz, then, is an innatist, in that he believes that certain truths, truths of reason, are already in our minds. Truths of fact, on the other hand, are contingent. This means they can either be true or false; it is not necessary for them to be one way over another. Whereas truths of reasons when refuted become self-contradictions and are therefore impossible to confute, the opposite of a truth of fact is possible, for truths of facts are, in essence, possibilities. An example would be saying that an apple is red. Saying an apple is not red does not result in a contradiction because it does not necessarily have to be red, but can be green as well. Being red is a possibility, but it is a possibility that an apple may be green, too. Leibniz justifies truths of fact with the principle of sufficient reason, which states that everything exists for a reason. There is a reason why one particular apple is red, another green, and this is God’s doing, according Unknown-1.jpegto Leibniz. He states that while everything has a reason, we humans are incapable of conceiving the final cause for all things—only God can. Another support for the principle of sufficient reason is the argument for metaphysical perfection, whereby Leibniz argues that existence is better than non-existence. It is better for more things to exist than for fewer things to exist. Hence, Leibniz calls upon us to always appeal to logic and reason in order to find the reason for everything. A question may come to mind right now: If God creates everything with a sufficient reason, including contingent, or possible, truths, does that imply that contingent truths are actually necessary? If there is a reason one apple is red, does that mean that that particular apple is necessarily red and cannot be green, for that possibility has not been actualized? As said earlier, God knows the sufficient reason for everything, so we do not. Just with analytic a priori judgements, Kant adapted this type of truth and turned it into synthetic a posteriori judgements, which are propositions that are gained from experience and are contingent. images.jpegSimilarly, Hume, who preceded Kant, is famous for his logical fork, which divides truths respectively into matters of fact and relations of ideas. The theme of contingency is essential to Leibniz’s philosophy. Contingent truths are everywhere, and they exist because there are sufficient reasons for them. When two or more possibilities are compatible and can co-exist without logical problems, a condition is met called compossibility, which translates to “possible with.” Problems arise when one possibility is not compatible with another. An illustration: It is a fact that humans have two eyes, but this is one of an infinity of possibilities, another being that humans have one eye, like a cyclops. It is impossible for both possibilities to co-exist: We cannot have two eyes and only one eye at the same time. If you were to look around, you would see that we have two eyes, not one. Accordingly, when one possibility is actualized, it negates the other possibility. Contrast this to a truth of reason. One cannot say “All triangles have four sides,” as this is a contradiction; it is simply impossible. Leibniz proposes that a world such as ours is the sum total of all its compossibilities. In our world, humans have two eyes, two ears, and a nose. However, Leibniz says that there are infinite possible multiverses. It is important to note that they are possible Unknown-2.jpegmultiverses, not plain multiverses, because the existence of our world negates the existence of the other universes. In another contingent universe, humans have an eye, an ear, and two noses, but because this world exists and not that one, it does not exist in actuality. One may ask the age-old question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” to which Leibniz would reply: The principle of sufficient reason. God created the world based on metaphysical perfection and the identity of indiscernibles. The identity of indiscernibles says that if A and B are completely identical and share every property, then they are indistinguishable and consequently the same thing. One can substitute A for B and B for A. Using this principle, Leibniz reasons that, in creating our world, God would be foolish in choosing here vs. there or now vs. then, insofar as they are all identical before the existence of the world. For this reason, everything is unique, and no two things are the same.


All is monads. So says Leibniz. A monad, from the Latin monas or mon, meaning “one,” is an independent, individual, and self-contained entity. The monad is defined as its own entity to the extent that it is completely separate from all other monads and contains within it its own individuality, by which it distinguishes itself from the others, as in the identity of indiscernibles. Leibniz claims monads are “windowless.” Unlike biological Unknown.jpegcells, which have a permeable membrane allowing for resources to come in and out, monads are enclosed and shut off from everything else, allowing nothing to either come in or out or affect them. Thus, when Leibniz speaks of monads as being self-contained, he means they cannot be affected from the outside, but contain inside themselves their own causality. Another thing about monads is that they are not like your average atoms, inasmuch as they are simple, indivisible “points” of consciousness. A “point” in geometry lacks any and all dimensions yet constitutes a location in space, and this is what an atom does. This proposition is countered by Leibniz, who says atoms are not the fundamental constituents of reality. Arguing against the Cartesian concept of matter, which states that matter is “extended,” which is to say that it has physical shape and size, that it is located in space, Leibniz says that anything that is extended is divisible. Like in Zeno’s paradoxes, take a line and divide it in half, then divide that half by half, and then that half, and so on: The line, which is extended, can always be broken down—it can be made simpler. Leibniz claims that atoms are the same way. Atoms are not simple, but complex. Because material atoms can be infinitely divided, Leibniz suggests that the building blocks of reality are immaterial. Such a building block would be simple because it has no parts; in fact, it is the part from which complexities, or aggregates—a grouping of simple parts into a more complex one—are made. In another argument against atomism, Leibniz tackles the physics laid down by Descartes and Newton. If an atom is a lifeless extension, then it requires an outside body or force to move it; but, Leibniz points out, mere extension offers no resistance, and so cannot be moved by outside force alone. Monads, then, are energy. Inherent in monads are inertia and force. Leibniz posits a vis Unknown-2.jpegviva, or living force, an entelechy, or internal drive, that is inherent to monads, a force which has a tendency to motion. This mirrors the concept of conatus, which is like the starting succession of motion; conatus is that initial force in the instant that makes a body move. Calculations by Leibniz showed that a certain amount of energy remains constant in a collision, a calculation he formulated into mv^2 (mass x velocity^2). Singlehandedly, Leibniz invented a formula for kinetic energy, a type of energy many knew existed, but for which there existed no mathematical proof. Leibniz states that kinetic energy, not momentum as Newton said, is the real cause of motion. And because kinetic motion is energy in action and requires potential energy first in order to be active, it must mean Unknown.jpegactivity is intrinsic to monads. Amazingly, Leibniz was the precursor to modern physics. He almost anticipated Einstein’s famous E=mc^2, and he was off on kinetic energy by ½ (the real formula is ½mv^2)! Leibniz, nearly 300 years before Einstein, was nearly able to prove through reasoning that matter is actually energy. Monads are substances. Substances, as opposed to matter, are simple. Substance is like a noun: It is a concept and a proper thing that can be described. Descriptors, adjectives, are called “accidents,” because qualities are contingent, whereas substance is necessary; contingent properties are applied to the substance, but they do not change the substance’s form, for they are additions and merely add to it. Leibniz proceeds to construct his philosophy with the aid of grammar. As in English, a subject is an actor, and a predicate is an action done thereby. He defines substance, then, as “unextended subjects… individuated by predicates”; i.e., immaterial forms are made distinct by their actions, or what is said (predicated) of them.[1] Here, Leibniz puts forth his famous idea of the “pre-established harmony.” Simply put, it is known that monads cannot interact with each other, so they are set in harmony before creation by God. In short, all predicates are contained in their subjects. This somewhat echoes predestination because it says that everything—past, present, and future—is hardwired into each monad so that they act not on each other, Unknown-1.jpegbut with each other, such that “the state of the whole universe could be read off from any one Monad.”[2] God creates monads as though they are clocks, each of which is designed to strike the same hour at the same time without cooperation between them. Because God designed them, He is the clock of which they are copies, so they mirror Him. Man is limited in his reason, so he cannot grasp this harmony in its entirety. When the monads are created, they are created with internal, self-regulatory laws that tell them what to do and when, like a clock mechanism. These monads are therefore spontaneous: They change on their own because they contain within themselves their future. Take the statement, “Leibniz was born in 1646.” Leibniz is a monad, a substance, and subsequently a subject, a self-contained entity, and the predicate “was born in 1646” is contained in the subject, Leibniz, whereby I mean that part of what makes Leibniz Leibniz is the fact that he was born in 1646, and not in 1647, for example. Yet another characteristic of monads is that they are microcosms—miniature universes that mimic the cosmos inside themselves. Each monad reflects the universe from its unique perspective. This concept is hard to grasp, but think of a room with furniture in it. A painting on the wall will have a wide view of the room, and the carpet will see everything above it; yet the fan mounted on the ceiling has a bird’s eye view, but it cannot see from the perspective of either the painting or the carpet. Thus, each monad is essential to the universe, and their perspectives are unique. But what do monads actually do? Monads are capable of three things: perception, appetition, and apperception. Perception is active and non-reflexive, or outward. It is the external representation of the unfolding of other monads. A dog perceives a squirrel running up a tree, but this perception is just a phenomena; the dog is witnessing the squirrel enacting one of its predicates, namely running up a tree; it is unfolding. Appetition is the ability to progress from one perception to the next. Apperception is reflexive and passive—it is self-consciousness, and it is reserved for man alone. Humans are examples of monads, albeit in different forms. A human is a “corporeal substance,” which is made up of a dominant monad (the soul) and an aggregate (multiple monads).[3] Regarding the mind-body problem, Leibniz rejects Cartesian dualism and the resulting interactionism and Malebranche’s occasionalism. I images.jpegthink it interesting that Newton likened God to a clockmaker who, every now and then, had to rewind the cosmic clock on the account that if he were to make the universe fully automatic, it would render him impotent; yet Leibniz claims the contrary for the exact opposite reason. Leibniz considered it silly to think that God had to continually rewind His own mechanism, which turned God into a functionary whose job was lowly, whereas He could exhibit His power by creating a self-regulatory universe. Leibniz’s solution to the mind-body problem is parallelism: The body and the mind, separate monads, work at the same time without causally interacting because of the pre-established harmony. Now, as monads are unique, it would be strange to assert that rocks are of the same order as humans, and humans God. To account for this, Leibniz creates a hierarchy of monads, the criterion of ranking being clarity of perception. There are aggregate, integral, and essential monads, which each correspond, respectively, to bare, animal, and rational/spiritual monads. Bare aggregates are composites, meaning they are composed of many monads. They are inanimate and unconscious, often with blurry or confused perceptions. An example would be a rock. Animal integral monads are, as the name says, animals that are made of an aggregate and a soul, endowed with the power of memory. Humans are integral but rational monads, which means they, like animals, are made of two parts: an aggregate, and, unlike animals, a spirit, not a soul.[4] Man is also dispensed with consciousness. What distinguishes man from animals most saliently, however, is his Unknown-2.jpegknowledge of truths of reason. Because he is self-conscious, because he has the ability to introspect, and because a priori knowledge is innate to him, man can grasp necessary truths. Lastly are essential monads, which are equivalent to truths of reason. A triangle, or God, is an essential monad because it is simple and cannot be refuted. The last thing Leibniz has to say about metaphysics is his thought regarding space and time. Newton believed space and time were absolutes. Space is an entity that extends everywhere, and time is another entity in which events happen. Leibniz disagrees, stating that space and time are relative. Recall the identity of indiscernibles. If space and time are absolutes, then no instance of either can be differentiated from the next, meaning that they are only a single point, and not independent dimensions. Space is defined as the coexistence of bodies, time the succession of monads’ eternal unfolding. As a result, space is only space when it is used in reference to two or more bodies. Time, in a like manner, cannot be objectively measured, but must be made in reference to something. Spacetime, it can be implied, is relative, in that it depends on what you are measuring; in this manner, Leibniz can be seen as predicting the modern theory of relativity, too.  


A theologian, Leibniz argued for the existence of God in two main ways: That of the Ontological Argument, and that of the pre-established harmony. Borrowed from Saint Anselm, the Ontological Argument runs as so: If a perfect being is imagined, it is predicated of it that is must have all perfect qualities, one of which is existence; but this would contradict a perfect being in imagination, so it stands that this perfect being must exist in order to be such a perfect being, and this perfect being is God; therefore, God exists. The argument of pre-established harmony is similar to the Teleological Argument in that it argues that there is a clearly observable harmony in nature, and this perfect harmony must have been orchestrated by some perfect being who oversaw it—God. His most famous work, the Theodicy, seeks to explicate the Problem of Evil, which asks how a benevolent, omnipotent God could allow evil. Assuming God is benevolent and omnipotent, Leibniz writes, He must have chosen, out of all the possible worlds, the best one, this one. The best world is the one with the least causes and most effects; in a word, Unknown.jpegan optimal world. For this reason, he proclaims we live in the “Best of all possible worlds.” He reminds us that happiness is not the only measure of good, and evil is the absence of good, a remark made earlier by Augustine. This world, he admits, is not perfect. But it does not need to be. Rather, because God Himself is perfect, it would be impossible for Him to create a perfect world in His image, so evidently, this world cannot be as perfect as He, but must be at least a little bit flawed, so as to distinguish it from Himself. Again, according to the principle of sufficient reason, everything happens and exists for a reason. Humans—imperfect, rational beings—cannot comprehend every reason God decrees, so even if we experience evil and cannot justify it reasonably, then it stands that it happened for a reason, albeit one of which we are ignorant; but, coming from God, it must be so. As God is the highest, clearest monad, all monads mirror Him imperfectly. Leibniz assures us that God did not create this world out of logical or metaphysical necessity, but out of ethical necessity. God created, in the words of Leibniz, “a moral world within the natural world.”[5] Ruth L. Saw wrote bluntly, “Leibniz cannot be described as a man of great moral insight.”[6] I would agree with generalization, only to the extent that he did not produce any substantial works on Unknown-1.jpegethics. Leibniz equated knowledge with power. Happiness is correlative to clarity, so clearer monads will be happier because they are closer to perceiving God. Using this reasoning, Leibniz is able to take a jab at the ignorant, who are not actually bliss, but are rather in a stupor. Those with more understanding can follow and adhere to necessary truths, which, Leibniz says, are obligations of the moral man. Charity, in this manner, is an obligation, a necessary action. Utilitarianism was antedated by Leibniz, who devised a calculus similar to Bentham’s whose purpose it was to determine the benefits of more “perfect” (well-off) beings.[7] A problem arises which has not yet been addressed and which remains an elephant in the room: The problem of free will. The pre-established harmony certainly seems to leave no room for free will, prompting the question, In a determined world, is freedom possible? Leibniz answers yes. He argues clarifies that some predicates are contingent, leaving room for free will. For example, taking “Napoleon became emperor 1804,” it may seem that it was necessary for Napoleon to become emperor in that year, seeing as it happened that way, not otherwise; however, while the subject Napoleon contains the predicate “became emperor in 1804,” thus defining Napoleon, it is possible that God may have made him emperor a year earlier, meaning the predicate is contingent, a compossibility. But while God leaves room for free will, do we have self-determination? Are we able to actually cause things through our own causal power? Technically, yes, says Leibniz, controversially. It all depends on how what exactly self-determination entails. “The free man is one who knows why he does what he does.”[8] Our actions, mind you, are internally determined by our predicates, which are already Unknown.jpegcontained within ourselves. In this sense, we have no free will. But, if we can understand our motives, if we can understand the pre-established harmony, we can realize our thoughts and total possibilities. Because we unfold according to a pre-drawn map, if we are able to find this map, study it, then predict it, we are, in a sense, in control of our actions. We know what we will do—we are just destined to do it.


One of the lesser-appreciated and lesser-studied philosophers, Gottfried Leibniz remains an insightful and prescient Rationalist, a truly modern philosopher whose genius was far ahead of his times, and whose cleverness was realized too late. A physicist just as much as a philosopher, he remains an important figure in the history of science. In his life, he designed several inventions that were revolutionary, although none of them worked. Leibniz has gone down in history as one of the first rationalist advocates for optimism, yet despite his Panglossian philosophy, he ironically did not find much success in life. Conclusively, Leibniz is one of the great systematizers of philosophy and one of the most intelligent men in history.


A very simple visual showing some of Leibniz’s main ideas and their connections:

Screen Shot 2017-11-02 at 2.48.57 PM.png


[1] Ferm, A History of Philosophical Systems, p. 248
[2] O’Connor, A Critical History of Western Philosophy, p. 224
[3] Leibniz never really answers how immaterial points can constitute a physical body.
[4] According to Leibniz, a spirit is higher than a soul
[5] Leibniz, Monadology, §86
[6] O’Connor, op. cit., p. 234
[7] By “perfect” beings, he refers to wealthy, fortunate people. His determinism precludes simpler people, making him, arguably, an elitist.
[8] Stumpf, Socrates to Sartre, p. 250

 

For further reading: 
The Columbia History of Western Philosophy by Richard R. Popkin (1999)
A Critical History of Western Philosophy by D.J. O’Connor (1964)
The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell (1972)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 4 by Paul Edwards (1967)
A History of Philosophical Systems by Vergilius Ferm (1950)
Socrates to Sartre by Samuel Enoch Stumpf (1982)
History of Philosophy by Julián Marías (1967)
The Philosophers by Ted Honderich (2001)

Nothing, Nihilism, and Meaning [2 of 2]

 

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 


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

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

Nothing by Janne Teller (2010)

 

Nothing, Nihilism, and Meaning [1 of 2]

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 


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

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

Nothing by Janne Teller (2010)

 

Schopenhauer and the Goldfinch [2 of 2]

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


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

If you can stop, why wouldn’t you?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 


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

 

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

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013)

Schopenhauer and The Goldfinch [1 of 2]

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

 

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

 

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 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 are 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, though, 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).

Renaissance

Petrarchan: Pertaining to Petrarch

Erasmian: Pertaining to Desiderius Erasmus
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Machiavellian: Pertaining to Niccolò Machiavelli

Early Modern

Baconian: Pertaining to Francis Bacon
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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
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Lockean: Pertaining to John Locke

Humean: Pertaining to David Hume

Enlightenment

Voltairean: Pertaining to Voltaire
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Rousseauian: Pertaining to Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Kantian: Pertaining to Immanuel Kant

Post-Kantian

Fichtean: Pertaining to Johann Gottlieb Fichte

Hegelian: Pertaining to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Marxist: Pertaining to Karl Marx

Kierkegaardian: Pertaining to Søren Kierkegaard
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Schopenhauerian: Pertaining to Arthur Schopenhauer

Emersonian: Pertaining to Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thoreauvian: Pertaining to Henry David Thoreau

Nietzschean: Pertaining to Friedrich Nietzsche