Nihilism in the Movies


It can be especially interesting to have truths brought to your attention that have been staring you in the face but that went unrecognized. A friend of mine did this for me some years ago, and it was the degree of nihilism to be found in many modern movies.

2Nihilism can be complete, and the characters in a movie or novel occupy a bleak world with no redeeming features. Such films and novels are a lie. Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, pointed out in Man’s Search for Meaning that even death camps, which he experienced himself, contain elements of humanity and inspiration; kindness and self-sacrifice, dignity and a lack of despair when faced with the worst. It is possible to kill and torture people, to maltreat, starve, and freeze them, but you cannot necessarily kill the thing that makes them less despicable than you; at least not in all of them. Goodness and light are not always found where it might be expected. There are kind guards and cruel fellow prisoners such as kapos (prisoner functionary) who were recruited by the guards to supervise fellow prisoners, reducing the need for non-Jewish soldiers.

Or the nihilism can involve being expected to overlook grossly immoral actions of the main characters all in the name of “fun.” The nihilism is not complete – the hero falls in love, pets a puppy, and refrains from hitting someone – but it is still so conspicuous that in real life you would never forget it or overlook it. Continue reading

Forsaking the comforts of resignation

As commonly used, the word “hope” has two components:  to desire a thing, and to believe its attainment possible.  Emphasis is usually placed on the second condition–when a man is said to have “lost hope” we assume that he has lost belief, not that he has lost desire.  Thus it is said that the opposite of hope is despair.  I believe, however, that the first component is the more crucial one.  The opposite of hope is resignation.

Continue reading

When the Living Ain’t Easy

“The people very indolent and wicked and depending mostly upon game and their herds.  All very friendly and free to give information.” 

A. W. Moore, Journal of a Tour in Texas (1846).

A. W. Moore was a Mississippi planter who made a tour of Texas in 1846, scouting land with an eye to moving west. He wrote this line just north of here, in the sand hills of Robertson County, very near to the place where Aunt Jemima would later be buried. The people he describes were poor whites of the class that folks back east called crackers or tackeys, and they here displayed their usual lack of ambition, enterprise and good order. Continue reading

Ahrimanic and Luciferic Evil

Bruce Charlton has recently written interesting things about what he calls Ahrimanic Evil.  Ahriman is the spirit of darkness in the Zoroastrian theogony, but Charlton uses the term in the specialized sense it was given by the anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner.  Like Zoroaster, Steiner saw that Ahriman hates the light, but Steiner refined this idea by identifying light with the creative evolution of the human spirit.  Steiner’s Ahrimanic Evil is therefore present in every effort to prevent creative evolution of the human spirit by keeping men and women in the dark about spirit. Continue reading

Kant the Fanatic

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the putative “Sage of Königsberg,” in a rare moment of lyricism states “Two things fill the mind with ever new and ever increasing admiration and awe, the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” Like the laws of physics governing the heavens, Kant’s “moral law” is to apply universally and without exception, and both are discovered via reason.



Kant has a “duty” theory of morality called “deontology.” His moral philosophy is explicitly antagonistic to utilitarianism and Aristotle, the other main moral theories taught in most contemporary English-speaking university departments.

With regard to Aristotle, what analytic philosophers have come to call “virtue ethics,” Kant objects that Aristotle’s traditional view of ethics as a theory about how to live a flourishing life – eudaimonia – literally having a good indwelling spirit – is incompatible with morality. Kant radically reduces the scope of “ethics,” life and how to live it, down to “morality,” the right treatment of oneself and others narrowly conceived. Continue reading

Rosalind Murray on Barbarization

Murray 02

Rosalind Murray: A Portrait

Rosalind Murray (1890 – 1967) was the daughter of the Oxford classicist Gilbert Murray, who sensing early his daughter’s talent encouraged her to write.  She published a first novel, The Leading Note, in 1910.  In 1913 Murray became the wife of Arnold Toynbee, bearing him three sons.  She divorced Toynbee in 1946, thirteen years after her conversion to Catholicism.  No one today knows Murray’s name but in her lifetime she wrote steadily, sustained an audience, and garnered the attention of literary critics.  In her later career she sidelined herself as a fiction-writer and devoted her productivity to religious non-fiction.  She produced the first fruit of this authorial metamorphosis in 1939 under the heavily laden title The Good Pagan’s Failure.  No doubt but that the coinage of “the Good Pagan” implies close personal relations, touching on both her father and her husband, but the book never mentions either.  In it, rather, the formula denotes generically the modern, upper-class humanist whose sincere good intentions center on building up a global regime of justice and equality, but who, at the same time, rejects any concept of God and assumes a stance, sometimes dissimulated, that is hostile to religion.  Such people appear as early as the Eighteenth Century.  They refer to their advent as Enlightenment, which materializes in 1793 as the iconic Guillotine.  Their heirs in later centuries have adopted, variously, such labels as Liberal, Progressive, Socialist, or Communist.  Their failure consists in the irony that acquiring total control over the institutions and using them to carry out their policies they have by no means improved the human situation.  They have largely torn down civilization and immiserated millions.  When The Good Pagan’s Failure first appeared, Murray could point to the Great War as evidence for her thesis; revising the text in the early 1960s, she could point to another global conflict, the subsequent and dire Cold War, and many signs of degeneration in Western society.

Continue reading

Is America a Vampire?

“We need immigrants to take all the different kinds of jobs that the country needs — improve our culture, our cuisine, our religion, our dialogue and certainly improve our economy.” 

Michael Bloomberg speaking at a Mexican restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona, November 26, 2019.

A vampire is a species of the unquiet dead.  Unlike a specter or wraith, the dead soul of a vampire remains an incarnate being bound to its body.  This body spends much of its time dormant in its grave, but periodically awakens and by strange powers passes through the earth to stalk the upper world.  On these nocturnal forays, a vampire is, of course, wont to suck the blood of sleeping men and women, thereby infecting them with its vampirism, but also refreshing its body with the antidote to physical decay.

“In consequence of these practices, the persons sucked became weak and emaciated; the corpse of the vampire, on the contrary, was found, even after long interment, fresh, florid, and full of blood.”*

Continue reading

A Digressive Essay on Several Subjects Connected with Greta Thunberg

Back when we were all becoming acquainted with the glowering face of Greta Thunberg, a student told me that he was planning to participate in a “walkout” to show solidarity with that petulant phony.  Since the surprise and size of a walkout are essential to its impact, this heads-up suggested a different sort of protest.  It suggested that it was a protest by apple polishers who want to get ahead. Continue reading

José Ortega y Gasset & Gabriel Marcel on Mass Man

Masses 02

Mass Man in Portrait

The Revolt of the Masses (1932) by José Ortega y Gasset (1883 – 1955) is a classic diagnosis of the modern condition whose diminished currency in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century fails to correlate with its increased relevance ninety years after its initial publication.  Revolt ought to be better known than it is.  Man against Mass Society (1951) by Gabriel Marcel (1889 – 1973) – addressing the same topics as Revolt but from a point in time twenty years later in the aftermath of the Second World War and at the onset of the Cold War – enjoys nothing like the reputation of Ortega’s masterpiece, but is equally relevant to contemporaneity and deserves, not so much to be better known, but merely to be known.  The two books complement one another.  Ortega, an adherent of the classical liberal principle, but with an aristocratic attitude, sees in democratization a decisive break with history and an inevitable dragging-down of inherited institutions to the lowest common denominator of their functionality.  Marcel, a Catholic believer allying himself with the conservative faction in politics, sees in the metastasis of bureaucracy and the triumph of the managerial attitude an inhuman faux ordre that threatens the God-endowed dignity of the person.  Both books examine the quantitative character of modernity – and the diminution of individuality in a world where millions or even billions dominate the scene.  As two trends, the number of people and the pressure of number on the unique, gain in their dynamism, a degrading sameness assimilates the super-majority to a single pattern.  For both Ortega and Marcel, the characteristics of that pattern include an overwhelming social orientation, a childish or primitive taking-for-granted of the civilized inheritance, an almost total lack of historical awareness, a concomitant presentism, and a moral vacuity that renders its thralls highly susceptible to fanaticism.

Continue reading

The Counsel of Perfection and Moral Creativity

Man is a tragic being because he belongs to two realms – the heavenly and the earthly. The difference corresponds to the Biblical injunction “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and the things that are God’s to God.”[1]

Much of the moral vision in the Gospels is a counsel of perfection and applies to the heavenly. Heavenly ethics have an aspirational and inspiring aspect and can only be followed partially and in some instances. For instance, “if someone slaps you on one cheek, don’t stop that person from slapping you on the other cheek. If someone wants to take your coat, don’t try to keep back your shirt.”[2] The impulse to slap someone back when they have slapped you is almost overwhelming. When not in the heat of the moment, it can seem like a simple thing. In reality not acting on this impulse is rare and extremely difficult. If it were not, earthly existence would be relatively paradisaical. The urge is ego driven. Recently, I had to let someone have the last word in a dispute about the merits of a particular writer who I regard as morally obnoxious. Rajani Kanth writes:

“How would world religions be different if women were their inspirations, and not men? 1Indeed, would ‘religion’, as we know it, even exist? Would a woman Buddha have forsaken family and loved ones to seek an arid, abstract ‘enlightenment’ abroad? Would a Jane Christ let herself suffer crucifixion, or might she have intelligently compromised with the ‘enemy’? Would ‘enemies’ even exist in their discourse? Would women have built the Bomb, and used it? Would they have fought two global wars, not to mention a quadrillion smaller ones? Would they have practiced genocide? In sum, could it be that a woman’s world, if she were permitted to wish it into existence, would be somewhat different than ours?” Continue reading