Character & Calling (Part 3)

My winter reading: James Hillman’s classic The Soul’s Code – In Search of Character and Calling (Random House, New York, 1996).

Daimon often comes to us as we are children with an unexplained fascination or unusual ways of play. I was taken very early with writing short storeys about my friends in my imagined exploits we would solve mysteries like Nancy Drew and her chums. Later I went on to become a lawyer in international tax com of all things. But as retirement loomed, I started writing fiction again with all the enthusiasm I once had as a child. In this, I was lucky. Others are not.

The point Hillman makes is not to squeeze this enthusiasm out of children using the excuse that they need to be socialised in order to perform from an early age as their parents and teachers would want. Just give kids enough room to experiment and grow into that oak tree that their individual acorns had laid out for their lives and not surprisingly, to accomplish this they need to put down some very strong roots in order to support future growth into their potential. 

But as Hillman points out, allowing this is difficult for us in the West, because we cling so strongly to what calls the ascensionist model – in other words – up is good and down is bad. Yet this is not the way of Damon or soul. As the Zohar, the main Kabbalist book, makes clear, zimzum, or the self-emptying aspect of the God, known as Ain Soph, traverses downwards through the darkness in a series of ten concentric circles called Sephiroth, collectively known as The Tree of Life. 

Likewise, Plato and his Myth of Er emphasizes this downward assent. Having arrived from previous lives, all the souls mill about in a mythical world awaiting their new lot, or portion of fate. For example, the soul of a mighty warrior chooses the life of a lion whilst that of a young woman runner, choose a lot of an athlete. When each of the souls have chosen their new lives according to their lots, they are assigned a daimon and without looking back, descend to earth to enact their lot. 

It should come as no surprise that in keeping with the Myth of Er, Hellenistic astrologers devised clever ways to delineate one’s lot using his or her natal chart. Some of these techniques have come down to modern astrologers, notably, the Lot of Fortune (or the Moon) and the Lot of Spirit (or the Sun). The former pertains to the natural flow of events in our lives whilst the latter describes change that occurs because of our intention. So, for example, if the Lot of Fortune describes how much money we are likely to make, the Lot of Spirit describes how we will choose our vocation and answer our calling. 

Hillman reminds us that the decent down into earth for soul is painful and costly and riches and fame never seem to really compensate. He uses Judy Garland as a case to illustrate his point. Judy was born into a showbiz family and at age 2 1/2 years of old, she had her first successful performance singing Jingle Bells. The immediate rapport she garnered from her audience cemented her calling, which she herself said “was inherited”. As Hillman also reminds us, it was the superlatives that betrayed her. According to one and all, during the height of her success, Garland was the best of everything. Even Garland herself said “I’ve done everything to excess.”

Yet as Hillman also points out, Judy Garland may have grown up but she didn’t grow down, as is required for soul. Always, she held on to America’s most treasured drug – the myth of innocence – the psychology of denial. Hillman tells us Garland’s acorn belonged “over the rainbow” and it was little wonder that her real life of drugs and chronic loneliness ended on a toilet the night of 21-22 June, the apogee of the solar year, the brightest light and the shortest night. 

Looking briefly at Garland’s natal chart, we see that her Lot of Fortune is at 21 Capricorn 15, and is thus very strong. Not only is in angular (7th house) but its ruler, Saturn, is very strong (angular, exalted, and in rulership by triplicity and term). Saturn also benefits from the rays (by sign) of three of the four benefics (Sun, Moon, and Jupiter). It is however, out of sect (Saturn is a diurnal planet and is in the nocturnal part of this chart). This suggests that in the natural flow of events, such as making money, Garland would do very, very well – which of course, she did  – but with Saturn being out of sect, this success would also be out-of-balance tending toward harmful excess, which of course was the case. Her Lot of Spirit, at 0 Capricorn is likewise strong also being ruled by Saturn. 

Perhaps it is only when we look at her daimon, which because Cancer is rising is the Moon, that we can understand fully why her life took such a tragic course. At 29 Sagittarius, Garland’s Moon (or daimon) is in an anaretic degree. Planets in the anaretic degree are known as ‘destroying’ planets, often causing difficulties, crisis, overcompensation, and poor choices. Perhaps this is an example of what Hillman has already promised to discuss, a situation where daimon is not good but instead bad?

I wonder why it happens to some and not others – definitely worth investigating further, don’t you think?

(to be continued)

Character & Calling (Part 2)

My winter reading: James Hillman’s classic The Soul’s Code – In Search of Character and Calling (Random House, New York, 1996). 

Hillman reminds us that according to Plato and his Myth of Er, the soul of each of us is allocated a daimon, or soul guide, before we are born. This this comes part and parcel with extras: our physical bodies, our parents, and the place and circumstances into which we are born. Although this was our soul’s choice, upon birth we have forgotten it. And so during our lifetimes, we are driven by daimon to reconnect with our choices and reawaken to our calling. This can come to us in any number of ways. Although it may be possible to temporarily defer our calling, or even to only partially live it out, it’s never possible to completely avoid it for if there is one of which we can be certain, daimon can never successfully be ignored.

That’s just the point.

In modern western medical circles, soul – or destiny – or daimon – is ignored.  It doesn’t fit nicely into existing personality and psychological theories. Although Hillman doesn’t say explicitly why this might be the case, he seems to suggest fear plays a large part. Is it not frightening to a civilisation such as our own, a civilisation that has lost touch with its own divinity, to suggest there is something driving us that is beyond our intellectual, physical, and/or scientific grasp? 

Hillman is quick to remind us this doesn’t mean we’ll find the fix to this conundrum by going to church. Instead, we need to go back to Aristotle, Plato, and Plotinus. Least you think that our western civilisation has grown beyond these ancient Hellenistic foundations, take a philosophy course or two and think again. For the reality as presented by these ancients is that we each are here on earth for a reason and until that reason is fulfilled, here on earth is where we will remain. Have you ever had a close call with death – maybe inattentively ready to step off the kerb and be hit by a passing taxi-cab – only to have a complete stranger pop out from nowhere and pull you back from the brink? I have and I now know why. 

This does not mean that demon is always ‘good’. As Hillman points out, there can be an ‘evil’ or less fortunate aspect to daimon. More on this later, but for the time being consider how other societies and cultures have viewed the concept of daimon –  i.e. Guardian Angel (Christian), Lady Luck or Fortuna (ancient Roman), genie or jinn (Middle Eastern), ka or ba (Egypt) and animal and totem spirits (American Indian).

But for the most part, daimon is here to look out for us, to ensure that we are OK. Imagine how much more satisfying would be our lives if we could think of ourselves as fundamentally being cared for like this rather than standing alone up against the cold, harsh world? If we were to accept this point of view, we would necessarily need to jettison one  of our of our most treasured western motifs – that of the self-made hero. What a trade-off, right? Well, according to Hillman, we can still be heroes – albeit of a different type – at least we can be if we listen to daimon. This will be a lot easier if we are both curious about ourselves in our world and unwilling to succumb to being wedged into the statistically convenient psychological slot.

One by one, Hillman debunks a variety of well-known psychological theories demonstrating how much more beneficially daimon would operate instead. He uses a variety of fascinating case studies including that of Eleanor Roosevelt. Well-worth reading but sadly, I’ve got neither time nor space to relate them all to you here and now.

 (to be continued)

Character & Calling (Part 1)

My winter reading: James Hillman’s classic The Soul’s Code – In Search of Character and Calling (Random House, New York, 1996). 

Hillman reminds us that theories don’t do our lives justice. Statistics don’t either. Each of us has a unique calling – something that calls us – a call which we will or will not take.

Do you believe in fate?

Wrong place at the wrong time or the right place at the right time kind of thing?

Is this accident, synchronicity, or something else altogether? That’s what this book is about and yet when you try to use its wisdom going forward in time, it seems to stall. So can we only use it in reverse to make sense of our lives in retrospect? I think maybe – but Hillman says not. This is because he believes our entire lives are about our character and had we not ought to be able to suss that out in advance? Not sure, are you?

Nonetheless Hillman reminds us that we are more than our memories – more than people have told us that we are (or aren’t). So how is it that we can take our own measure and profit by it? Stay tuned and maybe together, we’ll find out!

First step is to forget everything you’ve been told about psychological theories. After all they’re only made up from man-made observations rather than any kind of cosmic road map. We’re looking for a unique personal narrative here – not a standardised genre or traditional 3-Act story plot. Okay, sure – an oak tree does come from an acorn – I mean, how else could it be? But the acorn doesn’t tell how that oak will or will not actually develop or even where it takes root.

Try to think of this less prosaically – more poetically.

Because they have so little, children must rely on imagination rather than experience.   

Eleanor Roosevelt, You Learn by Living

If I hadn’t made a left hand turn – if you hadn’t made a right – if I’d waited just a moment more – if you missed the light…

Dory Previn, Children of Coincidence 

But OK, back to that acorn carrying the genetic code of that oak – in each of our individual acorns, we will find own genetic code in the form of our character which, according to the old stories, was given to us as gift from the gods at our birth.

This is good stuff, Plato, The Myth of Er – daimons and soul guides and no, Hillman wasn’t some kind of new age nutter – he was a Jungian analyst and a scholar and he taught at Yale, Syracuse University, as well as the University of Chicago and the University of Dallas.

 (to be continued)

A Study in Existentialist Philosophy (Part 12)

My summer ( morphed into winter)  reading: Willem Barrett’s 1959 classic, Irrational Man, A Study in Existential Philosophy.

In his final chapter, The Place of the Furies, Barrett suggests that before we start talking politics we ought to have first undertaken some serious philosophical contemplation about the true nature of man. 

Although Barrett was writing in the middle of the 20th century, the concerns he’s expressing are still valid today. Barrett points out that as children of the Enlightenment, we in the Western world are accustomed to looking at man ‘almost exclusively as an epistemological subject’, an ‘intellect that registers sense data, makes propositions, reasons, and seeks certainty’. 

As children of the Enlightenment, we are also more or less programmed to look to the past and the future to discern what went wrong and plot and plan how we can make it all ‘better’. With such focus, we skip over the realities of today – not the warm, fuzzy ‘today’ for which we are told we ought to express gratitude, but the cold, hard ‘today’, which we are encouraged to at best overlook or at worst fix and fast. But as the Existentialists have tried to point out, both sides of this equation are the necessary lot of the embodied man.

Naturally it does no more good to focus solely on what’s wrong than it does to focus solely on what’s right. Likewise it does little good to put in Herculean effort to fix that which can’t be fixed. But it would do us a world of good to accept that the ‘idol of progress’ (see both Marx an Nietzsche) is just that – a utopian ideal that we may worship but never achieve.

You see, reminds Barrett, the human condition is one of (1) birth, (2) life (a period punctuated by both intense joy and sorrow), and (3) death. The glue holding that all together is anxiety, guilt, and fear. But as Barrett also reminds us, we in the West have become accustomed to label realists like the Existentialists as naysayers and psychotics, for whom a daily dose of the latest happiness drug is a necessary fix. But it won’t fix anything.

That’s just the point.

The ‘whole man’ or ‘well-rounded individual’ is, according to Barrett and the Existentialists, not one who takes endless courses for self-improvement but one who comes to accept that the power of man is nothing in comparison to that of the gods. This is a lesson that both the ancient Greeks (i.e. the great Oresteia  trilogy of Aeschylus) and modern psychologists have gone to great effort to point out.

The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting room.

Carl Jung

To find the gods in psychology we ought to look first at the genres of our case-history writing. Our reflection needs to turn to psychoanalytic literature as literature. I am suggesting that literary reflection is a primary mode of grasping where one is ignorant, unconscious, blind in regard to the case because one has not differentiated the subjective factor, the gods in one’s work.

James Hillman

Take away:

We ignore the gods (an integral part of our embodied reality) at our peril and not everything can be fixed.

A Study in Existentialist Philosophy (Part 11)

My summer reading: Willem Barrett’s 1959 classic, Irrational Man, A Study in Existential Philosophy.

Describing human existence is different from describing a table. For sure, we are looking for ‘truth’ in both cases. But in philosophy, there are many different definitions of ‘truth’ and it’s important in each situation to pick the one most appropriate.

For Heidegger, when it comes to describing human existence, ‘truth’ has nothing to do with correspondence to observable facts, as it might with the table. When discovering truth about the table, we had only to look at it with new eyes and start describing what we see. By contrast, Heidegger was convinced that discovering truth about humanity requires uncovering something that is hidden from view.

Descartes

In this endeavour, Heidegger believed that modern philosophy was not helpful. With Descartes, said Heidegger, western philosophy had come off the rails. With the belief ‘I think therefore I am’, western man has become ‘locked up in his own ego’; in other words, the Cartesian man is the subject (‘I’) that manipulates objects (‘the world’) and that’s not at all how it works.

Dasein

Heidegger saw human existence as more dynamic, more inclusive than Descartes. He summed this up as Dasein – ‘being there’ – ‘being here’  or Being (in the world). With Dasein, man is too embedded in the world of subjects/objects for the ‘truth’ to be mere subject- object manipulation. For Heidegger, the world in which men are embedded has its own ‘truth’. Further, this ‘truth’ is imposed upon us from outside and not the other way around. It is this external ‘truth’ (with or without God) with which we must grapple.

Imagine the world in which we are embedded as a ‘ field’ – scene and setting – in which we must live, work, and play. Heidegger labelled the driving energy behind this living and working and playing as our ‘care and concern’. To me, this sounds similar as to how I understand the interaction of (1) dharma (our calling, vocation, or destined path in the world) with (2) karma or fate; in turn, this interaction is called soul. 

Soul

Think of that ‘field’ (scene and setting) as karma and the man living and playing and working in it as a character. If we subscribe to Descartes, this character is pretty much in charge of how all this plays out. But that is not how the ancient Greeks saw it. After digging into the entomology of the word phenomenology, Heidegger did warn that to get to the bottom of all this we would need to jettison 2500 years of Western thought and philosophy and that includes Descartes.

Conveniently, this brings us to Heraclitus who taught that a man’s character is his fate. The idea is that when man – i.e. through his character – aligns himself to soul , then his karma becomes one with his dharma, or calling/vocation. To me, dharma defined in this way seems to be similar to what Heidegger calls ‘care and concern’.

Heidegger also said phenomenology (description) is about setting aside obfuscating preconceptions and letting the ‘thing’ reveal itself to us. This is not to be accomplished, as Nietzsche might suggest, by pushing, prodding, and/or exercising ‘power over’ the ‘thing’. That is too Cartesian.

When it comes to looking at ‘care and concern’ or what I call dharma, Heidegger believed that the ‘truth’ about human existence would reveal itself not through pushing and prodding or even intellectual speculation but instead through thoughtful observation of our everyday, lives – i.e. our embedded existence.

Dharma

Dharma is the most personal way that each of us (in our guise as character)  can be in the here and now. To get in touch with dharma, we need an open line of communication with soul.

Imagine soul sleepwalking through the universe looking for ‘love’ (a complex mix of truth, beauty, good, and justice). To find ‘love’, soul must ‘yoke’ (think yoga) itself to character and work through the dharma of character.

The only way to determine how well this partnership or yoking is working, is to measure one’s emotional response or moods (Angst or anxiety) to Being (in the world). In other words, if you’re happy, all is well and if you’re not, best to understand what’s wrong and why. For Heidegger, moods are not temporary fleeting fancies but modes of Being. Remember the game plan here was to allow Being to reveal itself from its hidden depths rather than to push or prod it as would the Cartesians.

If, as Heidegger suggests, truth is Being and our moods are modes of Being, then by attending to our moods perhaps in the same way one comes to trust his or her intuition, truth is revealed. Perhaps more importantly, when we allow ourselves to be at one with this truth (rather than trying to escape it by intellectualising it away as would Cartesians), we are fully embedded in our world and this is good.

Returning to dharma and karma and soul, I suggest that for Heidegger, rather than being more useless navel gazing, attending to our moods is soul making/connection or getting back to the source and that source is truth. It only makes sense that we are better off when living our truth then when denying it. Implications of this, I suggest, is that we do ourselves no favours when feeling uncomfortable (Angst or anxiety) we race off to find some drug or other practice to ease or escape our existential pain. This line of thinking, I suspect, will be more fully developed by Sartre, who comes next. Let’s wait and see, yes?

Final Thoughts

If all this seems unbearably complex, it is. This is why Heidegger is one of the most difficult philosophers to read. Nonetheless, efforts to understand Heidegger are generously rewarded. His ideas have exerted an immeasurable influence not just on existentialist thought but on all of European philosophy.

But it doesn’t stop there. As the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy notes, the work of Martin Heidegger has influenced such widely flung disciplines such as architectural theory, literary criticism, theology, psychotherapy and cognitive science. 

A Study in Existential Philosophy (Part 10)

My summer reading: Willem Barrett’s 1959 classic, Irrational Man, A Study in Existential Philosophy.

Like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche before him, Heidegger struggled with the damage that too much navel gazing a la Plato and Descartes inflicted on men. Whilst Kierkegaard saw this as insult to his Christian faith, Nietzsche saw it as a desperate (yet doomed) attempt to fill the gap left by the ‘Death of God’, which he’d taken upon himself to so scandalously pronounce.

But Heidegger saw this navel gazing – with or without God – as an affront to the reality of man; to wit – men are, have always been, and will always be not of heaven, but of earth – the earth upon which we live and upon which we must toil for our existence. Heidegger figured that it was about time that we started ‘thinking’ rather than navel gazing and, in this regard, ‘thinking’ had nothing to do with Platonic ideas but instead everything to do with the practicalities of Being.

What exactly is Being?

To get to the bottom of this, says Heidegger, we need to jettison 2500 years of Western thought and philosophy which has focused solely on what it means ‘to be’ rather than what it means ‘to be of something’. 

Navel gazing again, you say? 

Well, not exactly, says Barrett. This distinction is more than a ‘piece of scholarly pettifoggery’. For example, saying ‘this is a table’ is an empty abstraction leaving each of us to fill in the details with our own preconception of tables. Worse, in doing so we do not even realise – much less question – what it is that we are actually doing. This, Heidegger warns, is the slippery slope to navel gazing and the only antidote is Phenomenology, a concept he borrows from his old teacher, Husserl.

Phenomenology is about setting aside obfuscating preconceptions and letting the ‘thing’ reveal itself to us. This is not to be accomplished, as Nietzsche might suggest, by pushing, prodding, and/or exercising ‘power over’ the ‘thing’. Instead, we must look at the thing with virgin eyes.

Our table might well be made of oak or pine or plywood and it may smell of resin or paint or glue. It is perhaps one metre by one metre square or even rectangular or oblong. It might be pink or blue or red or yellow, all important details to note. Assuming it is yellow, flush this out more – is it mustard yellow, canary yellow, daffodil yellow or a combination of all three? The point is that this table isn’t any old table, it is this table and that is extremely important, whatever that means.

This is all very well and good when dealing with tables, but the plot thickens when we come to describing human existence. Yet this is exactly what Heidegger says we must do and to do this, he sets out.

(to be continued)

A Study in Existential Philosophy (Part 9)

My summer reading: Willem Barrett’s 1959 classic, Irrational Man, A Study in Existential Philosophy

During the Franco-Prussian War, Nietzsche watched his old regiment ride by on their way to their likely deaths. As he told the story, it was in that instant that he realized that ‘the strongest and highest will to life does not lie in the puny struggle to exist, but in the Will to war, the Will to Power.’

Barrett suggests Nietzsche’s ideas on the subject were heavily influenced by both his life-long battle with ill-health and his fascination with classical notions of virtue (virtus), which celebrated courage and martial prowess. This is in stark contrast to the ‘modern’ understanding of virtue as relating primarily to righteousness and morality. In formulating his concept of the Will to Power, Nietzsche was harking back to ancient Rome and Greece, when the ego-fueled power to divide and conquer had been highly prized.

Despite the volumes written about Nietzsche’s Will to Power, the concept can be summed up simply as the dynamic discharge of (personal) power. This power is aimed at actively engaging to transform the world to our liking rather allowing the world to transform us by default. Barrett reminds us that such powers still remain so highly prized by Western society that they are deemed to be God-given unalienable rights such as those enshrined by America’s forefathers in the Declaration of Independence, to wit, ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’

Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s Will to Power often gets bad press. Barrett suggests this is because we tend to think of power of this sort as ‘power over’ someone; this affronts our sense of justice. Barrett also reminds us that to the extent this is the case, it is not the doing of Nietzsche, but instead of Descartes, whose ‘dualism’ created the subject/object dichotomy with which we are all too familiar – ‘I do XYZ or ABC to you.’

Equally unfortunate, the Will to Power leads directly to nihilism or the belief that life is meaningless. This is because power begets the need for more and more power and more power until – valuing nothing but power, one tips over the cliff edge into the pool of ‘nothingness’. Although many future existentialists would follow in Nietzsche’s footsteps on these points, not all did and this brings us to the next subject of my summer reading, Heidegger.

A Study in Existential Philosophy (Part 8)

My summer reading:  Willem Barrett’s 1959 classic, Irrational Man, A Study in Existential Philosophy

Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a ‘coming home’ story. It’s also largely an autobiographical story even if, as Barrett reminds us, it is not specifically identified as such.

Our hero, Zarathustra, has spent many years living as a hermit on a lofty mountain top, during which time he has learned much. Now he must bring his learning back to the masses, the ordinary folks like you and me who live in the lowlands.

Sadly, neither our hero nor his fellow men are up to the occasion; the staged media event is a complete failure.

Barrett suggests this is because we ‘moderns’ (as opposed to the ancient Greeks so beloved by Nietzsche) have become so compartmentalised (i.e. playing many disparate roles at once) as to fail to qualify as complete individuals. As the result, like the protagonist in Goethe’s Faust, both we and Zarathustra are unable to reconcile that which is good within us and that which is bad, our internalized Devil.

The reason for this, of course, is the huge gap between the conventional morality of men and their psychological reality. Whilst a superhero like Nietzsche’s Übermensch, or Superman, might have been able to bridge the gap, unfortunately we, along with Nietzsche and Zarathustra can’t.

Thus unless such an Übermensch, or Superman, should one day magically appear, we would all appear to be in permanent predicament.

‘Human, all too human!’ – cries Nietzsche through his alter ego Zarathustra in utter disgust at the failure of mankind to live up to his ideal.

Like Faust, Nietzsche, and Zarathustra, do we each internalize the guilt and self-loathing inherent when failing to live up to mankind’s (moral) ideal? If so, where does that leave us?

A Study in Existential Philosophy (Part 7)

My summer reading:  Willem Barrett’s 1959 classic, Irrational Man, A Study in Existential Philosophy

By all accounts, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was not a well man. That didn’t stop him from being the genius, which by all accounts, he was. In stripping centuries of Western culture back, like layers of old paint, to the time of ancient Greece, Nietzsche identified what ailed Western culture with more precision than centuries of other thinkers had done.

It all comes down to the foundations of Greek tragedy, the themes of which still thread through contemporary Western literature, cinema, and drama. Greek tragedy has been hugely successful. This, according to Nietzsche, is because it’s a celebration of the Dionysian urge to life, the deep dark primitive urges that men and animals alike, share. But it is more than this. Tragedy quells our anxiety regarding the inherent conflict between our Dionysian urges and the hard edges of civilization, as imposed by the Apollonian power of the State.

Like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche had developed an overarching pessimism toward life, a pessimism he was convinced had been center stage in Greek tragedy; the hero suffers and the crowd enjoys the show. Sound famiar?

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; shame Nietzsche didn’t live to see the likes of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung pick and and run with his ideas. Ideas suggesting that rather than it being the case that man’s pristine rationalism (‘I think, therefore I am.’) is running the show, it’s really those deep dark primitive forces, forces so dark and deep, they tear men apart, as they did with Nietzsche. So much for the ancient maxim ‘know thyself’, which at last, has proven itself a highly dangerous game.

Where does this leave us?

Quite possibly, I suggest, in the challenging position of having to embrace and hold our Dionysian/ Apollonian conflict (‘I am both bad and good at the same time’) in creative tension.

Yet is this not a terrifying proposition?

I suggest that it is. According to Nietzsche, God is dead and we have killed Him. The reason is that we could not bear to have anyone, including the Almighty, look at our ugly side. So much for that creative tension? Well, it doesn’t look good. Worse, with the death of God, we are bereft of our comforting beliefs of the promise of everlasting life. Yikes! Is it truly time, as Nietzsche suggested, for us to grow up and accept responsibility for ourselves?

Whether we do or don’t, after Nietzsche it would seem that we stand on the brink of Nothingness, a pessimistic theme that future Existentialists would expand and explore ad nauseam.

A Study in Existential Philosophy (Part 6)

My summer reading:  Willem Barrett’s 1959 classic, Irrational Man, A Study in Existential Philosophy.

What complaint did Kierkegaard along with Nietzsche and others, levy against the intellect? In their view, intellect gobbles you up until you’re so obsessed with your ‘naval gazing’ that, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, you’re paralyzed, unable to take action.

Luckily there are things to counterbalance this danger and for Kierkegaard this was his Christian faith. Martin Luther was right, it seems, when he said that reason was the greatest enemy of faith. At least he was right according to Kierkegaard who used what he called a ‘dialectical lyric’ to resolve his deeply personal ‘naval gazing’ regarding whether or not to continue to renew his Christian faith.

According to Barrett, the ‘dialectical lyric’ as outlined by Kierkegaard is invaluable for anyone who, when faced with difficult decisions, does not wish to end up a ‘sickly and paralyzed Hamlet’.

To understand how this works, Barrett takes us through Kierkegaard’s most challenging choice of all – to break off his engagement with Regina Olsen, the love of his life. As Barrett points out, the reason that Kierkegaard decided to break his engagement was not simply that he’d determined he was unsuited for marriage; indeed, in his writing Kierkegaard painted touching pictures of the joys that await any man, lucky enough to be sunk deep in the life of the bourgeois paterfamilias. Instead losing Regina was akin to a sacrifice – the only choice possible – if he was to completely and honestly embrace his authentic life path.

‘I cannot do otherwise’, Martin Luther is reputed to have said upon taking the action that made the Reformation a done deal. A difficult decision with severe implications and complications. Barrett suggests that in breaking off that engagement, Kierkegaard was following Luther’s lead. Life was never supposed to be easy. As the result, the difficult decisions confronting us ought never to be ignored or intellectually justified away. Likewise, we must allow neither 3rd party advice, nor theories, nor social ethics or cultural customs to drive our decisions. According to Kierkegaard, consulting your own conscience is the only way.

Authenticity, choice, and personal responsibility are all important themes in 20th and 21st century Existentialism. As all the existentialists advise, such things are never easy to face much less to act upon. But as Barrett concludes, dealing with these themes may become less painful when we choose to see them as not saying ‘no’ to something but instead, as did Kierkegaard, saying ‘yes’ to something else. This is especially true when that which you’ve chosen to say ‘yes’ to is nothing less than life itself.

The trick to this, for it seems there must always be a trick when it comes to Existentialism (else it would be too easy), is to say ‘yes’ not just intellectually, but with your whole being.😎🌞🤔😳