Why Don’t Nihilists Remain Silent? For mickvet

Shakespeare’s Macbeth speaks the following lines:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

1Ironically, these lines, as despairing as they are, are also beautiful, and beauty has immense value. Shakespeare was no nihilist. His famous tragedies, Macbeth and Hamlet, reveal the futility and ugliness of revenge; not the pointlessness of all human life. Macbeth’s speech, as one of the most memorable and quotable in the play, is taken out of context by that very fact, as though it summed up the author’s worldview, which it does not. Continue reading

The Mystery of the Lone Cowboy Hero

shaneIn Habits of the Heart by Robert Bellah, et al., Bellah is mystified by the trope of the lone cowboy who comes to town, saves it from whatever is threatening it, and then rides off into the sunset. Bellah raises two questions; what is the cowboy’s motivation for saving the town? He seems to be a loner with no ties to the community, so the impetus for helping the townspeople seems lacking. And then, having saved everybody and earned their gratitude, why does he not settle down, marry the schoolteacher, and take up residence? He would likely be a popular townsman. Why does he vanish, never to be seen again?

The answer is simple. The cowboy is Dionysus, the perennial scapegoat victim, the god we kill with our long knives. His is a saving presence because the townspeople can cease warring against each other, for instance, the cattle men versus the homesteaders, and gang up on him. His lynching solves their problem short term. His coming to town is retrospectively seen as the key element in producing peace. The cowboy disappears from the scene because he is dead. He is gone, but his replacement and doppelganger, fulfilling exactly the same role, will turn up in another town, or even the same town at a later date. Thanks, Lone Ranger. You’re always there when we need you!

Nietzsche – the Diabolical Saint of Acceptance

1Friedrich Nietzsche is a strange mixture of conflicting impulses; so chronically sick that writing was a physical agony for his eyes and his stomach permanently bothered him, yet he wrote paeans to the strong and mighty. A brilliant analyst of resentment, he had every reason to feel ignored being unread during his lifetime and self-publishing books that he mostly could not sell. He admired Dostoevsky, which itself is admirable, writing in Twilight of the Idols that Dostoevsky was the only psychologist from whom he had anything to learn. Nietzsche first stumbled upon Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground in a bookstore in Nice in the winter of 1886-87 and immediately loved it, though Dostoevsky never knew of Nietzsche. Notes from Underground is psychologically and anthropologically penetrating, exploring themes of mimesis and resentment that were of immense interest to Nietzsche.

Unlike Dostoevsky, there is something perennially adolescent about Nietzsche, perhaps because young adults are often trying to decide what values they should hold, often temporarily in contradiction to their parents, as they prepare to make their way in the world on their own. Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of values” fits this model nicely. There used to be a certain kind of young man magnetically drawn to Nietzsche’s mixture of cleverness, perversity, sense that he had a secret understanding of things, and man alone and against the world demeanor, and perhaps there still is. Continue reading

John Locke – Quantifying Reality

The modern division between the words “objective,” and “subjective” can be traced back to certain thoughts of John Locke, and Galileo before him, at the start of the scientific revolution. “Objective” has become a synonym for truth and reality. Just as it sounds, being “objective” means treating things as objects and quantifying them. “Objectively true” thus means “we measured it and the measurements were correct.” “Subjective,” anything not measurable, is then regarded as not true and not real. Applying this objective/subjective distinction then means that anything debatable and not provable 1using measurement is then supposed to be a kind of nonsense. Morality, beauty, purpose, value, meaning, emotion, consciousness and mind, and all interior phenomena, not being quantifiable, would then be “subjective,” and thus regarded as not real, which is intensely nihilistic. The word “subjective” needs to be rehabilitated as having to do with treating people as subjects, rather than objects. Subjects are moral agents with interiors; with minds, thoughts, feelings, desires, ambitions, and volition. To treat someone as an object is to relegate that person to the status of a rock, an “It.” This is what all sciences do, including psychology. A person is transformed into data and facts. They are reduced to the facets of those that can be measured. To treat someone as a subject, a “Thou,” is to treat that person as having an interior life as rich, important, and meaningful, as your own, rather than a one-way “study” of that person. You engage in dialogue with them to discover their inner life; their thoughts, feelings, and desires, with moral worth; subject to subject. The “subjective” then is what is most importantly real about a person. It is what is being asked when someone queries whether you know someone. The tragedy of much of modern life consists in treating people as objects to be manipulated. To stop doing this, it is necessary to rethink the “objective” is real, the “subjective” is unreal, division. The good news is that since someone just made up this point of view a few hundred years ago, it is possible to change it. It is not an immutable feature of the human condition or human outlook. Continue reading

Oedipus Rex in René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred

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Sigmund Freud’s concept of the Oedipus complex has entered popular consciousness. It names the tendency of boys to become romantically infatuated with their mothers, and girls with their fathers, then called the Electra complex. The notion is scandalous but the phrase provides a certain scientific sounding emotional distance while also connoting messy depths of neuroticism. Incest and cannibalism are so taboo in most societies that in lists of things not to do, they are frequently omitted, so excluded from polite society, that most people forget they even exist most of the time. Classes in ethics will often mention abortion or euthanasia, but never even mention sleeping with your relatives, or eating people. That is a sign of a powerful taboo – so strong that the prohibited activity gets excluded from awareness.

A significant portion of René Girard’s book Violence and the Sacred is devoted to a critique of Freud. Continue reading

Descartes’ Discovery of the Subject

Saint Paul“Philosophy starts by doubting the reality of the perceptible world, of the world of objects and things.”[1] But this is not enough. Philosophical theory should be primarily concerned with the thinking subject, and the meaning and purpose of his existence. “Reality is originally part of the inner existence, of the inner spiritual communion and community, but it becomes degraded in the process of objectification and by having to submit to social necessities.”[2] “To exist, is for man to dwell within himself, in his own authentic world, rather than to be at the mercy of the social and biological world.”[3]

Like Plato, Descartes expresses skepticism about physical reality; in Descartes’ case, whether external reality exists at all, and whether we can have knowledge of it. He goes beyond Plato by discovering the knowing subject. Plato’s conception of noumenal reality is universalist and has nothing that is essentially personal about it. It is populated by hypostasized abstractions, the Forms, but also a living god – the Form of the Good. Descartes’ notion of the existential interior stops short at the subject as the thinking thing. Cogito ergo sum; I am thinking therefore I am. Who is this I? Descartes asks. He replies, a thing that thinks. Multiple problems are immediately evident. One is the severely restricted and inadequate spiritual vision. There is no beauty, justice, or truth, and no God. Another is the restriction of the subject to a thinking thing. Feelings and volition are as much a part of the subject as thought, but these are simply omitted. So, there is a subject, but it is truncated and misdescribed and it would take Kant to identify the existential subject with freedom and the phenomenal world with determinism, though Kant continues to associate the noumenal with the intellect alone. Continue reading

God the Father

God

Some things are simpler than we give them credit for. Contemplative prayer requires stilling the mind and being attentive because being a self-obsessed distracted chatterbox is the opposite of listening. How could such a one hear God? Or anyone for that matter? There is nothing remotely complex about this.

Bruce Charlton posits The Family as the central Christian metaphor. So what is the role of the Father and the sons/daughters in this family? Maybe that is not so complicated either. Continue reading

Plato, Nondual Consciousness, and Scientism

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Plato’s Cave helps explain the idea that the human being is a microcosm of the macrocosm; that to understand reality, we need to understand ourselves. We embody all levels of reality within us. This connection with infinite Freedom is what makes us partly divine – there is God in us, just as God has man in him. In Christianity, God becomes man. Not as an all-conquering master, but as a servant of low social position who permits himself to be crucified, taking on the full extent of the tragedy and suffering of human existence. Continue reading

Freedom, Evil, and the Existence of God

Several students, reading Ivan Karamazov’s account of the suffering of innocents, particularly little children, in the The Brothers Karamazov, take God to task for allowing 1this misery and declare his non-existence in the name of mercy and compassion. This empathy for the poor and downtrodden, the weak and the vulnerable, is perfectly Christian. Jesus befriended the anathematized, the tax collectors, who collected taxes for the Roman overlords, not for the benefit of local affairs, and the prostitutes, not the powerful and well-regarded. Jesus is God made man, taking on all the sufferings and misery of the human condition, dying crucified on the cross. A spiritual Messiah, rather than the conquering Messiah the Jews imagined who would rule the world. Continue reading

Orthodoxy and the Mob

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In Matthew 22:21, Jesus is quoted as saying “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” in response to the question as to whether Jews should pay taxes to the Romans. This points to a tragic aspect of human existence and that is the need for social organization, and social organization involves lies and coercion. Human history is an appalling resumé of scapegoating and murder. The world of Caesar is the exterior world ruled by determinism and the absence of divinity. At most, signs and symbols of divinity intrude upon us and give us respite from brutality. Sigmund Freud pointed to the ways in which social reality constrains our wishes and desires, but he could only identify motives from below, the sex drive, the death wish, etc. Thus, he was unable to comment on the ways in which our spiritual nature is frustrated by social existence. Spiritual aspiration drives us too. In a compromise with phenomenal reality, we find it necessary to punish and imprison murderers and sadists when, spiritually speaking, they have already organized their own prisons of hatred and loathing. The entirely non-spiritual desire for revenge which factors into the justice system has even caused us to imagine God the Father creating an eternal hell – the existence of which would mean the failure of God and a limit to his desire to forgive, and an end to the possibility of redemption. As Berdyaev points out, we project sociomorphic items like Judge, Punishment, Lawmaker, Ruler, onto God – importing social categories relating to the fallen world around us into ultimate spiritual matters. Continue reading