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 up 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.😎🌞🤔😳

A Study in Existential Philosophy (Part 5)

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

Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has;

Martin Luther

As 150 years of literature and poetry make clear, Luther was not the only one worried about the dangers of Reason, the pride of the Enlightenment, with its promise of an endless linear transition from darkness to light.

Swift

In Gulliver’s Travels (1762), the protagonist visits Laputa, an island floating mid air. The inhabitants of this island are strange. But perhaps the strangest is that they are ‘pure Platonists’, drifting off into airy, intellectual speculation and forgetting all else.

Odd enough, but even more odd is that shortly before Gulliver’s arrival, the wife of the prime minster took up with a drunken, abusive old footman on the mainland below. The take away seems to be that women, creatures of nature, prefer passion to reason, even when it comes at significant personal cost.

This theme is later addressed by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy in which he explores the inherent tension between two opposing primal forces: (1) the Apollonian (rational) and (2) the Dionysian (irrational). Like a jug holds water, the Apollonian gives form to the Dionysian urge to life. If mankind is to transcend the meaningless of his existence, according to Nietzsche, he must find a way to embrace both as it would see, did Lilliputian women.

Wordsworth

In Resolution and Independence (1807), the speaker, roaming the moors, comes upon an old man gathering leeches at a pond. Moved by the old man’s words, the speaker muses about the necessity of facing life with courage, remarkably, a solid Existentialist theme.

Yet as Barrett points out, perhaps the most remarkable thing about this poem is how the leech gatherer is situated in nature, along with the stone and the tree and the moor. This, Barrett reminds us, is not so much about a courageous man in nature but instead of a courageous man embodied in nature.

Is this forerunner for Heidegger’s ideas of being-in-the-world?

Quite possibly, says Barrett, even if such concept may have been furthest from Wordsworth’s thoughts.

Barrett reminds us that according to Heidegger, for man to come to grips with himself, he must first come to grips that he is-in; his being can only be a being-in within the limited confines of the physical environment (stones, trees, moors) in which he lives and the tangible objects (leeches and long grey staffs of shaven wood) with which he interacts.

Coleridge

In Dejection: An Ode (1802), Coleridge explores a very modern mood, feeling cut-off from all that which had once brought him joy and the resulting angst and anxiety.

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,

A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,

Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,

In word, or sign, or tear…

Coleridge

Barrett suggests this is a precursor to the angst and anxiety (‘sickness unto death’) arising in Kierkegaard’s self-reflections. Although Coleridge seemingly reached no conclusion as to how to mend his angst and anxiety, Kierkegaard did. Kierkegaard concluded that to bridge the gaping hole between (1) nothingness/death and the (2) promise of eternal everlasting life, one must ‘take a leap of faith’ and consciously embrace the challenges of life. Good Existentialism stuff!

Goethe

In Faust (1808), the protagonist is in a melancholy slump. As he’s about to commit suicide, he hears a hymn celebrating the resurrection of Christ. He then takes a walk instead of his own life and upon returning home, he finds a stray dog has followed him. When the dog transforms into Mephistopheles, or the Devil, Faust is offered a deal that he figures he can’t refuse. After contracting to sell his soul to the devil, Faust is transformed from a withered old man into a handsome youth and after a series of adventures, through a contractual loophole known as the Grace of God, gets to heaven instead of hell.

He who strives on and lives to strive/ Can earn redemption still.

Goethe

The take-away here is that he who tries hard enough in life, can be saved. This, Barrett reminds us, is the same theme with which Nietzsche’s Übermensch, or superman, struggles. It’s through accepting the simple fact that which was evil becomes good and which was good becomes evil, that Übermensch rises like a phoenix, reborn, from the ashes worldly morals.

NOTE: although the protagonist in Faust is redeemed by God’s mercy, Nietzsche’s Übermensch earns his freedom by transcending God.

Dostoevski and Tolstoy

In Notes from the Underground (1864), Dostoevkski’s protagonist, a petty clerk in the Russian bureaucracy, voices indignation at being miserably trapped in a rational utopia, a parody on The Crystal Palace, a celebration of the wonders of the Enlightenment in 19th century England.

In the 20th century, Sartre, Beauvoir and other Parisian Existentialists would echo that same frustration with bourgeois hypocrisy even whilst at the same time belonging to, and benefiting from, it.


In Crime and Punishment (1866), Dostoevski explores the will to power, another Nietzschean theme, even before Nietzsche had considered it.

Dostoevski’s protagonist, an ex-law student living in abject poverty, concludes he has the daring and strength to rise above the moral codes that constrain ordinary men. Putting his ideas to the test, he commits a senseless murder. Overcome by unanticipated guilt, the portagonist progressively deteriorates until at last, in Siberia serving a prison sentence, he realises that happiness cannot be achieved by reasoned plans but instead must be earned by suffering.

Although Nietzsche’s concept of will to power is complex and dense, in essence it runs along the same lines as the ex-law student’s dilemma: happiness grows as one’s personal power increases and although this may feel great, it doesn’t always lead to great results.


In Anna Karenina (1877), Tolstoy addressed an important Existentialist concern that was later taken up by Heidegger and his ideas about being-in-the-world.

Anna’s husband, Karenin, was a thoroughly rational type: dry, officious, and intellectual. But when seized by jealous thoughts about his wife, Karenin ‘felt that he was standing face to face with something illogical and irrational’ and ‘did not know what was to be done.’

This was his undoing; instead of standing face-to-face with that which was ‘illogical and irrational’, he’d been standing face-to-face with life, a reality he did not have the capacity to accept. Truth, Barrett reminds us, is not merely an intellectual exercise but instead, and embodied experience.


A Study in Existential Philosophy (Part 4)

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

As Hellenist reason takes hold of Western culture, Christianity comes on the scene, and with it, new concerns and questions.

Faith vs. Reason

In the first century, Saint Paul, the Apostle, asserted that the faith he preached was foolishness to the Greeks, who demanded ‘wisdom’ (reason). With that, he’d set up a conflict between faith and reason that would prove more thorny than he could have envisioned.

As Barrett notes, over time faith and reason would become irreconcilable polar opposites. Christian faith, Barrett writes, is not only ‘faith beyond reason, but if need be against reason’. Worse, death, the fate of the 40 million that had so discombobulated Forster, Eliot, and Woolf, would become the fulcrum of those polar opposites.

If Jesus could rise from the dead, then faith would overcome the inevitability of death, a wonderful result. But once, as a long line of Christian Existentialist thinkers like Church Father Tertullian (150-225 AD), Saint Augustine (351-430 AD), and Kierkegaard (1813-1855) had argued, people realized that rationally no one (including Jesus) could rise from the dead, then faith would be lost to reason.

The Problem of Evil

In many respects, such concerns of these early Christians remain the bedrock of Existentialism as we know it today. Indeed, it’s arguable that Saint Augustine contributed more to the Existentialist cause than anyone else throughout history. His heart-felt concerns and fears as expressed in his Confessions, brought mankind to a new rung in the philosophical ladder. As would every good Existentialist following him, Augustine was internalizing personal experience. No longer would the question be ‘What is Man’ – the concerns of Plato and Aristotle. Now the question that mattered most was ‘Who am I?”

Saint Augustine also addressed another point crucial to Existentialism – the problem of evil and the negativity it throws into our lives. Augustine dealt this negativity by subsuming it into the goodness of God. But when Nietzsche declared God was dead (and with it faith), mankind was left adrift. What happens next? Barrett suggests that depends on what, in the intervening time, has happened to reason, that polar opposite of faith.

Nietzsche suggests that with the Enlightenment, reason had morphed into science, which – stay tuned – may not turn out to be such a good thing.

Chicken and Egg

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), another early Existentialist, brought to light another key philosophical issue that has plagued Western philosophers for centuries – the relationship between essence (what the thing is) and existence (that the thing is).

In contrast to other thinkers of his time like Scotus, Aquinas concluded that existence must precede essence. As Barrett puts it: ‘Man exists and makes himself to be what he is; his individual essence or nature comes to be out of his existence’.

Given the importance of this, it’s no surprise that the debate continued rage on (behind the scenes) until taken public by the 20th century Existentialists like Heidegger, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir:

  • Beauvoir argues that what it means to be a woman is not organically or metaphysically predetermined (essentialist), but culturally determined (existentialist).
  • Heidegger examined the nature of Being through his construct, Dasein, and concluded that it is not so much existence but instead lack of existence (death) that drives us to our destinies.
  • Sartre concludes that whether or not existence precedes essence in general, it most certainly must be the case with mankind.

Science

As Nietzsche suggested, reason had indeed morphed into science but not everyone – even at the time of the Enlightenment – agreed that science would bring an endless linear transition from darkness to light.

When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of space of which I am ignorant, and which knows me not, I am frightened, and am astonished being here rather than there, why now rather than then.

Pascal / 17th century French physicist and mathematician

With Pascal, an ardent yet despairing Christian, and a clever scientist to boot, we climb yet another rung on the ladder of Existentialism, as espoused in the 20th century by the likes of Heidegger and Sartre.

But wait – the whole story had not yet unfolded; like Pascal, not everyone was infatuated with the Goddess of Reason and so what comes next? Oh no, not the poets!

(to be continued)