Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – Giants of Existentialism

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche provided the basic foundations of 19th century Existentialism. It is a philosophy that emphasises the existence of the individual as a free and responsible agent determining their own development.

We all suffer and enjoy the same condition, the human condition, and have done so since time immemorial.

Kierkegaard is commonly regarded as the Father of Existentialism. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard had very strong religious upbringings and both of them studied theology and philosophy planning to work in the Church as a minister and a pastor, respectively, but ultimately changed their minds.

Nietzsche was convinced that people created God and not the other way around. At the age of 20, he wrote to his sister Elisabeth, who was deeply religious, a letter regarding his loss of faith.

“Hence the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.”

Nietzsche, Letter to His Sister (1865)

Kierkegaard on the other hand, wanted to follow his father’s footsteps and become a pastor. However, his hatred of Christendom, which was represented by the Danish Established Church, didn’t help him with becoming one.

The meaning of Kierkegaard’s whole life hung under a decision and he now saw that choice is everything. He wrote in his journals:

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

They both ended up savagely criticising Christianity, recognising that God no longer exists in the minds of most people. God had died in the hands of men. Kierkegaard’s country and religion were morally bankrupt, the established church made individuals lazy in their religion and many of the citizens were officially “Christians” without having any idea of what it meant to be one.

In 1840, almost one hundred years before it became a historic fact, Kierkegaard had prophesised nothing less than the “total bankruptcy toward which the whole of Europe seems to be heading.”

He wrote:

“So little do people understand me that they will not even understand my complaint that they do not understand me.”

In contemporary western society people go about their daily lives disregarding an all-powerful God, yet surprisingly, they proclaim their devotion to God when questioned. 

In other words, people live falsely religious lives. He hated the crowd and the social scene. When religion is integrated into society, the social scene becomes the religious scene, and for that reason, religion had died.

All extraordinary men who had previously lived, had aimed at spreading Christianity, his task was to put a halt to a lying diffusion of Christianity. For him, Christianity which wants every man to be an individual has been transformed by human bungling into precisely the opposite.

He wrote in his journals:

“My task is so new that in the 1800 years of Christianity there is literally no one from whom I can learn how to go about it.”

Kierkegaard feared that in modern consumer society the individual was becoming absorbed into the crowd, a mere member of a herd. The spiritual life of the individual was being stifled by communal, political, and religious illusions. He writes, it is:

“too venturesome a thing to be himself, far easier and safer to be like the others, to become an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd.

The Sickness unto Death

Nietzsche also despised the herd mentality, he calls it a “slave morality”, which is at the very heart of Christianity. Thanks to the self-deception of the resentful man, weakness is turned into merit. He writes:

“I suffer: it must be somebody’s fault – so thinks every sick sheep. But his herdsman, the ascetic priest, says to him, “Quite so, my sheep, it must be the fault of someone; but thou thyself art that same one […]

Genealogy of Morals. Essay III: What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals? §15

However, despite their hatred towards Christianity – they both showed appreciation for Jesus.

Nietzsche presents a Christ whose own inner life consisted of:

“wit, the blessedness of peace, of gentleness, the inability to be an enemy.”

The Antichrist §29

And he goes on further saying that:

“The very word “Christianity” is a misunderstanding—at bottom there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.”

The Antichrist §39

Kierkegaard was a Christian, but a completely different one in his era. He wanted to become, as he put it: “a Christian in Christendom”. To live an authentically religious life while surrounded by people who are falsely religious

For Kierkegaard, the relationship with God is a personal matter, and he saw the established church as a distraction and interference from the personal relationship a true Christian must undertake.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both felt that life is irrational. They were problem thinkers who chose not to follow the systematic approach to philosophy as their predecessors did. In this regard, they stood on common ground.

Both of them decided that alternatively, they could develop the other side of themselves, in which case they should remain outsiders.

They wrote extensively but only sold a few copies of their books and were not much recognised during their short lives.

Kierkegaard, like Nietzsche, collapsed in the street and shortly died after, refusing to take the last sacraments at the hands of a “state official”; and asked only to be remembered to all the people whom he had loved but who had never been able to understand his sufferings. Nietzsche collapsed in the street after seeing a horse being flogged by its owner, throwing himself towards the animal and embracing it, although this is a famous event – there is little evidence of it ever occurring. The episode seems similar to a passage which occurs early on in Crime and Punishment, a book of one of Nietzsche’s most revered writers: Dostoevsky. All we know is that shortly after, he remained in a near catatonic state for the last 11 years of his life.

Nietzsche and Kierkegaard never met and never could have met: Nietzsche was a boy eleven years old growing up in Germany when Kierkegaard died in his native Copenhagen. By the end of Nietzsche’s life, however, Kierkegaard was becoming known in Germany. In 1888, the year before the onslaught of Nietzsche’s madness, Danish intellectual Georg Brandes called the work of Kierkegaard to Nietzsche’s attention, he wrote the following letter:

“There is a Nordic writer, whose work would interest you, if it only was translated, Søren Kierkegaard; he lived from 1813-1855 and is, in my opinion, one of the most profound psychologists there is.”

Georg Brandes, Letter to Nietzsche – January 11th  1888.

Nietzsche wrote a letter back to him, stating:

“During my next journey to Germany I plan to study the psychological problem of Kierkegaard, also to renew my acquaintance with your earlier writings. This will be, in the best sense of the word, useful to me – and will serve to “bring home” to me the severity and arrogance of my own judgments. […]”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Letter to Georg Brandes – Nice, February 19, 1888.

Unfortunately, it was too late for Nietzsche as he fell into insanity soon after.

The Roots of Divergence

In much Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are alike, in the moral decline of society and the corruption of religion, in their existential orientation and in their psychological interests, however they were absolutely opposed on what it means to live a human life to the fullest.

This is largely precipitated by Nietzsche’s complete disillusionment with religion in contrast to Kierkegaard’s continued faith in the existence of God.

For Kierkegaard, Christ is the absurd paradox, that God became man. The notion of the Godman is both beautiful and haunting in Kierkegaard. It is too absurd to be defended with rational arguments, it is a matter of a leap of faith, and this is the highest form of human life, that frees us from despair.

For Nietzsche, the death of God is a historical event in response to the decline of Christianity with the Enlightenment bringing about scientific rationality. God, who played a central role in most people’s lives, has now become one of many facets of some people’s lives.

There are still believers and churches, but god no longer defines the role of our world, it is for this reason that god is dead.

This represents a crisis in the existing moral values opening the possibility for nihilism. Nietzsche’s ubermensch or overman is meant to be the solution to nihilism, one who puts faith in himself and creates his own meaning and value. Thus, man must become God.

“Man is something to be overcome. Man is a rope tied between the animal and the Overman – a rope over an abyss. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal.”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Kierkegaard tells us that man cannot in any way become God, and a central feature of despair is the inability of a person to manufacture his own identity, something essential is missing, something that would prevent you from simply demolishing the ideal and beginning all over again with a new ideal, such a person lacks something “eternally firm”.

To become truly oneself, an individual – man must stand before God transparently and in truth, with the only self that exists being God’s infinite self, the self that overwhelms our self.

“The biggest danger, that of losing oneself, can pass off in the world as quietly as if it were nothing: every other loss, an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. is bound to be noticed.

The Sickness unto Death

Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard saw the problem of religious downfall as an opportunity for renewal in Christian beliefs, a chance to embrace Christianity’s original teachings and return to a dynamic and living faith. In his critique of modern-day religious expansion, he claimed the very dominance of Christianity over his country showed that it is not the way of the few.

As a direct consequence of this widespread moral decline, Kierkegaard stressed the subjective truth over the objective truth. Subjectivity is one of his most recurrent themes.

Truth is not just a matter of discovering objective facts. While objective facts are important, there is a second and more crucial element of truth, which involves how one relates oneself to those facts. Since how one acts is, from the ethical perspective, more important than any matter of fact, truth is to be found in subjectivity rather than objectivity.

While he did believe in the objective truth of Christian theism, he emphasised its personal power to existentially transform the individual. This became the panacea for restoring human salvation through absolute faith in conviction. Kierkegaard called for a leap of faith: to strive for the attainment of a purely Christian life. 

Reason has no place in faith, as God is beyond reason. Kierkegaard rejected both the rationalist tradition and systematic philosophies because they used abstract concepts that had nothing to do with everyday existence. Devotion to a single external principle allows one’s self-identity to remain firm and unwavering in a fluid and unstable environment. Without this external pillar of strength Kierkegaard believed man would be trapped in a state of despair, with no firm basis for the construction of self-identity.

Nietzsche

Nietzsche’s solution was an antithesis to Kierkegaard’s faith. God is a concept of our own creation, we can no longer base our moral beliefs on the idea of a divine, omnipotent being.

Christianity had at its base a slave morality which resents the virtues of the powerful and promotes turning the other cheek.

Nietzsche was appalled by this, he calls for the master morality, which does not intend to oppress others, but rather create new values and ways of life.

While both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche discouraged adherence to the dominant ethos, Nietzsche demanded a renunciation of all established values. He called for a “Revaluation of All Values”.

A new paradigm of thought with human creativity and the creation of new values and meaning. He seeks to offer an alternative in the absence of a divine order so human beings might stop turning their eyes toward a supernatural realm and begin to acknowledge and embrace the value of this world.

In order to avert the nihilism caused by the death of god, he proposes the highest life-affirming individual who loves life and embraces his fate – the ubermensch. A man whose values are independent from external values and affirms life without resentment. One who acknowledges and celebrates the Will to Power.

The Will to Power is the fundamental component of human identity and a psychological analysis of all human action.

It is a constant self-overcoming of an individual for his own sake with power and growth as the driving forces of an individual. Anything not in a state of growth reverts to a state of decay.

The ubermensch who celebrates the will to power is a self-possessed man who has no fear of other men, of himself, or of death and whose simple personality changes the lives of those who meet him and even imposes itself in their minds.

The emphasis on power and sheer force of will is a key factor in Nietzsche’s divergence from Kierkegaard’s philosophy.

Our Present Course

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog – Caspar D. Friedrich

We face a crossroads at the dawn of the 21st century. The rapid advances and widespread successes of modern science force us to examine the same questions posed by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. As the domain of science grows ever more rapidly in explaining the features and behaviours of the empirical world, there is no need for appeal to God or any other transcendental reality.

Is a return to a Christian worldview objectively possible? In the absence of a religious model to explain the universe, can those who do not possess such a faith in God construct their own moral standards, value and meaning to fill the nihilistic void? This issue is so vital, that it reaffirms the crucial importance of both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in modern-day society.


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Kierkegaard and Nietzsche | Giants of Existentialism

Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche provided the basic foundations of 19th century Existentialism. They can both be considered as the Giants of Existentialism.

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Lovecraftian Cosmicism – Existentialism, Absurdism and Nihilism

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was an American writer of weird and horror fiction, who is known for his creation of what became the Cthulhu Mythos and the creator of the literary philosophy known as Cosmicism, emphasising the cosmic horror of the unknown.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927)

H. P. Lovecraft

The main idea in Cosmicism is that there is no god in the universe and that human beings are insignificant in the vast realms of space and time. Some of Lovecraft’s greatest work portrays us human beings as ants on a vast stage. The main theme being humanity’s fear of their insignificance in the face of an incomprehensibly large universe: a fear of the cosmic void.

We are going to be exploring this peculiar philosophy and its similarities with absurdism, existentialism, and nihilism.

These three movements arose from the human experience of anguish and confusion stemming from the Absurd, ultimately diverging to different perspectives on life.

But before this, I’d like to give a brief new perspective on what could be improved from the definition of these three movements explained by Nihilist Enigma:

In this framework, Existentialism is viewed as the pursuit of meaning (most often in the context of death and or suffering).

Nihilism is recognising the reality that meaning is a phenomena of mind. That, in other words, meaning is not a thing that exists in any other context beyond minds.  

And absurdism as being defined in the adherence to existentialism, despite the reality of nihilism.

In other words, the nature of absurdism is in the stark contrast between the seeming meaninglessness of the universe, and our endeavour to forge it.

It is the pursuit of meaning, with awareness of the reality that existence precedes the creation of meaning.

If you are interested in learning more about this, check out Nihilist Enigma.

But for now, let’s move on to the current belief of absurdism, existentialism, and nihilism.

Absurdism

Sisyphus | Characteristics, Family, & Myth | Britannica
Sisyphus

Albert Camus, who gave rise to the philosophy of Absurdism, describes the Absurd in The Myth of Sisyphus as:

“the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life, and the human inability to find any in a purposeless, meaningless or chaotic and irrational universe.”

In other words, the inherent meaninglessness in the universe in which humans, nevertheless, are compelled to find or create meaning. In The Stranger, he refers to the universe as a “benign indifference”.

The solution to the absurd is embracing it as a human condition, without falling into the trap of physical suicide (which is going along with the absurd) and philosophical suicide (which is believing in a ready-made belief system).

Camus proposes us to rebel against the Absurd creating our own meaning, while simultaneously accepting it as a reality. In this way, the pursuit of inherent meaning is not possible, but the pursuit itself may be meaningful.

This is the only way our resolution to seek meaning can be found, until one is inevitably annihilated by death – rendering the activity “ultimately” meaningless.

Camus devalues or rejects free will, encouraging that the individual live authentically and defiantly in spite of the psychological tension of the Absurd.

Existentialism

Existentialism - Wikipedia
Existentialists

In Existentialism we can find two different paths: monotheistic existentialism and atheistic existentialism.

Monotheistic existentialism is most commonly associated with Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote extensively on the absurdity of the world a century before Albert Camus. He proposes that one can only find inherent meaning in the universe through a leap of faith, believing in God – instead of embracing the absurd, which he regarded as “demoniac madness” in the Sickness unto Death.

Atheistic existentialism strongly diverges from this point of view – this path is mainly attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche.

Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche provided the basic foundations of 19th century Existentialism, with Atheistic existentialism being formally recognised after the publication of Being and Nothingness by Jean Paul Sartre in the 20th century.

Without God, however, there is no inherent meaning in the universe – this became a reality, expressed in Nietzsche’s proclamation of the Death of God, with the decline of Christianity opening the possibility for the void of existence.

Nihilism

The Difference Between Nihilism, Pessimism, Cynicism, and Skepticism |  Daniel Miessler
Nihilism

Of all types of nihilism (epistemological, metaphysical, moral, and so on), we are going to focus on existential nihilism, which has received the most literary and philosophical attention. It is the belief that we are insignificant, without purpose and unlikely to change in existence’s totality.

We sometimes experience an existential crisis, a state in which we re-examine our life in the context of death and are impacted by the contemplation of the meaning, purpose, or value of life.

This opens the possibility for passivity (a sign to stop the search for meaning) or to find a meaning regardless of the meaninglessness of life. Nietzsche who was the first philosopher to seriously study and write about existential nihilism, tells us to create new values, through self-overcoming and being one’s autonomous creator – avoiding passive nihilism.

In Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the main character can be seen as achieving a superhuman status because he laughs at the comedy of existence, including his own existence, because he knows that in the background there is nothing but absurdity and emptiness.

If you are interested in learning more about this, I have made a post specifically on Nietzsche’s notion of Superhuman Laughter.

The very goal of atheistic existentialism is then precisely this meaning-making in a world without inherent meaning, through an individual’s free will.

Let’s now move to Lovecraft’s Cosmicism. Although it is a literary philosophy, it has some interesting parallels with the other three philosophies mentioned earlier.

In Cosmicism, one is not to feel terror of the absence of meaning, but rather of one’s powerlessness in the vast, indifferent universe that one is surrounded by. This is similar to Camus’ “benign indifference” of the world.

Cosmicism shares some characteristics with existential nihilism. However, an important difference is the emphasis on the insignificance of humanity and its doings, rather than rejecting the existence of a higher purpose.

Lovecraft wrote a famous statement when he submitted his first major story on this subject in The Call of Cthulhu, which encompasses the main idea of his philosophy:

“[…] all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large … To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all […]”

Lovecraft had a pretty bleak view of life therefore Cosmicism may strike one as nihilistic and extremely pessimistic, however this is not quite so. Lovecraft thought of himself as neither a pessimist nor an optimist but rather as a “cosmic” indifferentist, a theme expressed in his fiction.

Things are important to humans on the human scale, but we simply don’t matter in the cosmos.

Lovecraft created his own fictional universe with powerful extraterrestrial beings and other cosmic forces, which function as symbols for the extent to which we don’t know about the universe, emerging from the depths of space and having accidental relations with human beings, casting us aside as if we were mere ants. In other words, they are not so much malevolent as they are indifferent toward humanity.

H.P. Lovecraft Print - The Art of Matthew Childers
Lovecraft

We can have no view of the scheme of things or our place in it because there may be no such scheme. The final result of scientific inquiry could well be that the universe is a lawless chaos. This is a disturbing vision with which Lovecraft would struggle throughout his life.

Lovecraft believed myth existed in order to shield the human mind from reality, however his own mythos seems to do the opposite: the “Outside” is more frightening than the world in which human beings live.

Universe

Many philosophies and religions are focused on the human, that humanity is the aim and end of everything, Lovecraft says no – that we are mere little specks in the midst of the Cosmos, and that there is so much out there that has nothing to do with us. He was a strong and antireligious atheist, considering religion not merely false but dangerous to social and political progress.

On the other hand, although fascinated by science, he was sceptical of our ability to cope with scientific discoveries that would reduce our inflated self-importance in the universe. In the opening paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu”, he states:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

The crucial question here seems to be whether there can be in principle any fact, any phenomenon or any knowledge that would really have for humankind in general, or for that vanguard who will have to bear the brunt of “first contact” with alien spheres and the unknown, such devastating consequences as set in this quotation.

This idea has never happened in human existence, even with such harsh blows to human pride as those struck by Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, none of which caused any such reaction of cosmic despair, but rather rage. In other words, to settle the matter of science and truth into a matter of politics.

In Lovecraft’s fiction “hideous” knowledge is suppressed and locked up, but in our world, what was outrageous to one generation has been accepted almost as a banality by the next.

The human mind is not the centre of the universe. For Lovecraft, human beings are too feeble to shape a coherent view of the universe. He describes humanity as:

“miserable denizens of a wretched little flyspeck on the back door of a microscopic universe.”

This is a refreshing alternative to the anthropocentric philosophies in which so many find intellectual reassurance. It may seem an unsettling view of things; but an inhuman cosmos need not be as horrific as Lovecraft seems to have found it.

One might strike him as misanthropic, but this isn’t quite right – a true misanthrope would find the inhumanity of the universe liberating. There is no intrinsic reason why a universe in which people are marginal should be a horror-inducing place. A world vastly larger and stranger than any the human mind can contain could just as well evoke a sense of excitement or an acceptance of mystery.

Rejecting any belief in meaning beyond the human world, he also rejected the meanings human beings make for themselves. He had no interest in the lives of most people, and from his early years seems to have believed his own would count for very little. He was left without any sense of significance.

So, obeying an all-too-human impulse, he created his own realm of dark forces as a shelter from the deadly light of universal indifference, as a way of expressing this confusing and contradictory reality.

It seems that he found his way to express the paradoxical claim that the absence of meaning to be some sort of meaning.

Lovecraft’s indifference of the cosmos and the insignificance of human beings in it might be imbued with an overwhelming negative feeling. However, it might be argued that conventional religion puts mankind in a much worse position. For compared to an infinite being: omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God, man as a finite being is much more insignificant. Psychologically it is quite satisfying to give oneself up to a powerful father-figure, and a consolation to have been created in “God’s image” and therefore to partake a little of His properties.

But is it really as depressing as Lovecraft puts it? Can a world without God, where there exists only a number of other finite species in the universe, perhaps wiser and more powerful than us, but in principle of the same limited and finite nature, however strange in appearance, and therefore logically more similar to us strike as much fear as an all-powerful God?

This non-existence of absolute values in the cosmos might very well guarantee our independence and autonomy and our freedom to establish our own meaning and value, unfettered by external laws imposed on us by a god.

That is, it could be a source of extreme optimism, a feeling of freedom – to construct and to pursue our meaning, ultimately serving as a resolution to our desire to seek meaning in an apparently meaningless universe.


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Lovecraftian Cosmicism | Existentialism, Absurdism and Nihilism

This video explores the peculiar philosophy of cosmicism and its similarities with absurdism, existentialism, and nihilism, three movements that arose from the human experience of anguish and confusion stemming from the Absurd, ultimately diverging to different perspectives on life.

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Book Review: The Sickness unto Death – Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard wrote one of the most remarkable theistic existentialist works of the 19th century, The Sickness unto Death is famed for the depth and acuity of its psychological insights.

Writing under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus, Kierkegaard explores the concept of ‘despair’. Despair is a deeper expression for anxiety which is a not-wanting-to-be-oneself. It is a misrelation that arises in the self when once cannot balance the eternal (God).

Although Kierkegaard was Christian, he was a heavy critic of the Danish Established Church. He was solely focused on the individual relationship with God.

The full title of the book is The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Edification and Awakening.

One of the key things one has to get used to when reading Kierkegaard is his use of irony (his hero was Socrates). Throughout the book, Kierkegaard uses double meaning in a comedic way. The Sickness Unto Death is actually considered to be a self-help book, a genre that was unusual back in the day, as it was frowned upon by scholars.

Socrates

The book is centred in being oneself, an individual. Kierkegaard wants us to be who we are.

Introduction

Raising of Lazarus – Luca Giordano

In the introduction he explains the meaning behind “the sickness unto death”, comparing it to the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

For the natural man or the atheist, the “sickness” which he refers to as “unto death” is resistance to the belief in God. It is the inclination to accept that death is indeed the end, which can bring a sense of meaninglessness.

For the Christian, there is no sickness unto death in the atheistic sense, as he has something eternal – earthly suffering is a temporary inconvenience on the way to eternal life. However, they experience the true “sickness unto death”, which is the fear that their faith is not sufficient to bring them eternal life, giving way to despair.

The book is a psychological exposition with Christianity as its background and as intended for “edification and awakening”.

In the widest sense a sickness is a disturbance in what would otherwise be a state of general well-being. The sickness which is the topic of Kierkegaard’s work is mental, he describes it as a “sickness of the spirit”.

His notion of mental disturbance as “sickness unto death” comes from one’s personal choice, one is responsible for “catching” the illness. The sickness comes to a crisis in the form of a choice between well-being through salvation and a fully conscious rejection of Christianity.

The book presents a step-by-step progression towards this crisis from a state in which the sufferer is not even aware of this sickness. The principal focus is the raising of the level of a person’s awareness of the urgency of the choice.

Part I. The Sickness unto Death is Despair

“The human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation which relates to itself, or that in the relation which is its relating to itself. The self is not the relation but the relation’s relating to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity. In short a synthesis.  A synthesis is a relation between two terms. Looked at in this way a human being is not yet a self.”

So, if you were to read this as a sample of what to expect of the book, it is quite likely that you’d put the book back on the shelf in no time.

But don’t get too far ahead – they simply function as a table of contents for the book. His point is to prove that man really isn’t a self.

For Kierkegaard, the self is not an abstract idea, but rather best understood in the concept of relationship, specifically with man and God. It is not a relationship of the self – for that would mean us being independent from God. Man must be in a relationship with God, such that he must stand before him in truth, only then can one achieve the infinite self. This is at the heart of Kierkegaard’s thinking. The notion of God is paradoxical and too absurd to be defended with rational arguments, it is a matter of faith – and it is the highest form of human life, that frees us from despair.

The Creation of Adam – Michelangelo

It is not our goal to become aware of the self, but rather to stand before God “transparently”, as he puts it. With the only self that exists being God’s self, the self that overwhelms our self.

The closer to God one is, the more of a Self. However, you can have the conception of God and have your backed turned to God, butthe conception of God is an extraordinarily strong requirement of selfhood.

The more we try to become a self the more independent we become of God. Kierkegaard’s idea of trying to define a self is another one of his ironies, as it goes against his general thesis. It is likely intended as to produce frustration in one who believes he can figure out his self alone.

A central feature of Kierkegaard’s account of despair is the inability of a person to manufacture his own identity, something essential is missing, something that would prevent you from simply demolishing the ideal and beginning all over again with a new ideal, such a person lacks something “eternally firm”.

The message of the book of its account of despair is that we are all more or less in despair, we just don’t realise it or we deny it at our peril.

By man trying to become his own self he becomes an imitation. Even if he succeeded in becoming a new self, he’d fail to become his true self and he despairs, he’d be like a “king without a country”. And if he remains his own self, he also despairs, because he wants to become a new self and cannot.

There are three kinds of despair:

Being unconscious in despair of having a self, this is an inauthentic despair because it is born out of ignorance. One is unaware that one has a self separate from its finite reality.

Then we have two authentic kinds of despair: not wanting in despair to be oneself (a state of awareness of the self but which is only in finite or immediate terms) and wanting in despair to be oneself (a type of demonic despair, the most heightened form of it, in which one accepts the eternal but refuses to accept the self that one in reality is, the self that one is in love).

Kierkegaard’s notion of despair has two principal components.

1. First component of despair: The Polarities

The first is a set of polarities: “infinite and finite”, “freedom and necessity”, “eternal and temporal”. The book starts off by saying that the human being is a “synthesis” of these factors and must remain in balance.

The life of a person who gets lost in the infinite without a counterbalance in the finite is given over to imagination; while a person who has nothing of the infinite lives a totally unimaginative everyday life. Imagination must be applied to something specific – or everyday life must become the workplace of the imagination.

Getting lost in the infinite…

Similarly, to have a freedom (or possibility) not counterbalanced by necessity is to treat all projects as though they were accomplished at the start; while to have nothing of the possible is to see oneself bound to a chain of ongoing events that leaves no place for personal initiative. A healthy balance being one in which time and trouble are duly taken in the realisation of possibilities.

The third polarity “eternal and temporal” has to be treated apart. To become aware of one’s self is to become aware of “something eternal”. The eternal represents a goal of human endeavour, a fundamental goal to achieving selfhood.

To not be in despair is to have reconciled these factors, existing in awareness of one’s own self.

2. Second component of despair: “Self” or “Spirit”

But what is the Self? This is the second main component of despair. The idea of the “self”, not as something one becomes, but as a “relation which “relates to itself”. This self-relating synthesis is what Kierkegaard calls “spirit”.

Come Holy Spirit – Lance Brown

The eternal and the temporal allows us to see how we become progressively conscious of the imbalance of this relation, and more particularly, with the imbalance of the first two polarities.

The more aware a person is of having an “eternal” aspect, the closer the goal of “true selfhood”,  turning an imbalanced self into a balanced self.

This despair, however, is not something that should be rooted out. From the point of spiritual development, there is actually something healthy about it. Spiritual development is bound to progress through a state of sickness. The only way out of escaping despair, therefore, seems to be to go through with it.

Part II. Despair is Sin

Despair – Edvard Munch

While in the first part Kierkegaard describes despair and its factors to help the reader understand why it’s a problem, in this second part he talks about despair in religious terms: that it is sin.

His concept of sin is to be in despair before God or with the conception of God. Sin is a condition that may be overcome only by pursuing faith. He stresses that faith, not virtue, is the opposite of sin, this is crucial.

He links the concepts of sin, faith, and despair together, noting that faith is the solution to both sin and despair.

Sin can range from a general indifference to religious matters to an outright rebellion against Christianity.

Since the final paragraph provides the closest thing to an overall summary of the book, it may be helpful to think back over the book using the final paragraph as a key.

“The biggest danger, that of losing oneself, can pass off in the world as quietly as if it were nothing: every other loss, an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. is bound to be noticed.”


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The Sickness unto Death in 10 Minutes | Kierkegaard

Soren Kierkegaard wrote one of the most remarkable theistic existentialist works of the 19th century, The Sickness unto Death is famed for the depth and acuity of its psychological insights.

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(mis)Understanding Nihilism

What exactly is Nihilism? It is often associated to extreme pessimism and believed that it is an active negation of life, or thinks of it as empty of inherent meaning. In other words, that there is no such thing as “meaning” or “value”, no meaning in the universe, no meaning in the search of meaning and no desire in finding meaning.

Well, let’s just forget all that for a moment. Today we are going to look into a complete different meaning of Nihilism offered by Nihilist Engima.


As I’ve come to understand it, “Nihilism” is just the word used for the realization that the universe at large is indifferent.

That there is no meaning beyond that which we make, as the very concept of “meaning” is a phenomena of mind.

That, outside the context of minds, things such as beauty become pointless to discuss.

As does pain, joy, love, hunger, color – Any of it.

It only ever ‘matters‘ if you exist as a mind capable of saying it does;

Capable of experience,
of thought.

There are many who seem to hold the perspective that nihilism is best summed as:

“Nothing means anything” or a self contradicting “Belief in nothing”

leading them right to;

“therefore why ascribe value to subjective meaning when – in the view of a nihilist – there’s no ‘objective‘ meaning”

This line of reasoning seems to me to miss the point entirely.

Have you ever enjoyed an experience? or an interaction with a pet?

Ever appreciate a moment with someone?

Or really enjoyed a good meal or sight or sound?

Have you ever lost someone? hurt yourself? felt Real hunger? been angry, or sad, or proud, or glad, or any of it?

How about these  s y m b o l s ?

within your mind, do they form into something coherent?

something meaningful?

Are these not all, at base, forms of creation of “meaning”?

Is meaning, at base, not inherent to conscious experience?

It is only within the context of Minds that the concept of “meaning” has its foundations.

And it only ever has been.

For even these symbols – through which i send my thoughts to you – have no meaning at all, until they reach you. and it is only through you that the meaning they are meant to carry can take form.

I mean yeah, duh, the universe is, was, and will remain to be indifferent to these concepts that to us are central.

-morality, beauty, value-

But to Us,

to Minds,

They Are Central.

This is not a negative realization.

There’s this fatalistic pessimistic nihilism that’s become the standard way of thinking of the idea. Fixated on the seemingly unfortunate fact that meaning doesn’t matter to the universe – and never did – But this interpretation fails to realize minds as the only context in which the word “meaning” has ever had a definition..

To fixate and get lost in this unfortunate reality – that meaning is only of us – is to lose sight of the core of it all:

The Mind itself.

Just because the universe is indifferent, – uncaring and incapable of care – doesn’t mean we should – or even can – be.

The struggle to discover what is truly worth valuing, in the vast landscape of possible “meaning” inherent to consciousness, is a worthwhile one.

A necessary one, by virtue of existence itself.

Appreciation, respect, love, beauty, these are all ways in which meaning exist, but only within the context of minds.

Meaning arises from Being. 

Being precedes Meaning.

We – through philosophy – should seek to avoid the trap of asserting that the universe is somehow capable of care, or is keeping tabs, or in any way serves as the foundation for what are fundamentally phenomena of mind.

Talking of meaning in any other context, becomes fallacy. 

Supposed or asserted “greater meaning” – founded in something “beyond us” – is failure to realize the only and actual foundation of meaning as the mind itself.

All nihilism really is, is acknowledging the fundamental subjectivity of meaning, and, in the same breath, the indifference of the universe at large.

– Nihle


We’ve often talked about the concept of nihilism in a pessimistic way – especially in the Nietzschean sense. That the death of god creates a void without any value structure, and thus people struggle to find meaning in life and are susceptible or at risk of falling into nihilism. Nietzsche proposes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, three core teachings: the Overman, the Will to Power, and the Eternal Recurrence, which are substitutes for the disappearance of this “value structure”, and to avoid falling into the void of nihilism.

However, this view of nihilism gives an entirely new viewpoint. People who call themselves “nihilists” often consider themselves pessimistic. But that is not inherent to nihilism, the universe is indifferent and this is merely a reality. Trying to seek for a greater meaning in something superstitious or beyond us in a failure to understand the only and actual foundation of meaning as the mind itself.

Thus, Nietzsche’s teachings are not to be used to fight against nihilism, but rather to embrace it as our reality, and then to strive for self-overcoming and acceptance through the concept of the Overman, the Will to Power, and the Eternal Recurrence.

It is us, our minds, that create our meaning and value.


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Book Review: Genealogy of Morals – Nietzsche

Nietzsche wrote On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic, in response to a book by his former friend Paul Rée, on the origins of morality. This book is among Nietzsche’s most sustained and cohesive works.

Rating

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In the first essay, titled “Good and Evil”, “Good and Bad”, Nietzsche sets up a contrast between what he calls “master” morality and “slave morality” and shows how strength and actions have often been replaced by passivity and nihilism. The second essay “Guilt”, “Bad Conscience” and the Like – looks into the origins of guilt and punishment, it shows how the concept of justice was born and how internalisation of this concept led to the development of what people called “the soul”. In the third and final essay, Nietzsche dissects the meaning of the ascetic ideal.

It is not Nietzsche’s intention to reject slave and master morality, internalised values out of hand or ascetic ideals; his main concern is to show that culture and morality, rather than being eternal verities, are human made.

Preface

He begins stating that “we are unknown, we knowers”. We have taken morality for granted; without exploring their genealogy, he goes back in history and investigates under what conditions did man invent good and evil, if they have any intrinsic value and if they have advanced or hindered human wellbeing. The values of these values were being called into question for the first time.

Essay I. “Good and Evil” “Good and Bad”

The Good and Evil – William Blake

In the first essay, titled “Good and Evil” “Good and Bad”, Nietzsche argues that the concept of good did not in fact originate among those to whom goodness was shown. It was the aristocratic and the high-minded who felt that they were good, in contradistinction to the mediocre people and low-minded, who were mean. This is what he calls a pathos of distance, a chasm separating the ordinary from the noble.

Nietzsche, was considered the greatest philologist of his age, becoming a professor at 24 years old, to this day, the youngest on record.

He started to trace the etymological roots of the idea of “good”, “bad” and “evil” and found out that they all let to the evolution of the same idea: that the “good” developed from the aristocratic and noble, while the idea of “bad” was associated to the vulgar and plebeian.

He distinguishes between the priestly caste and the aristocratic people. The priests were physically weaker and that caused their hate to expand into a sinister shape. They made up in knowledge and became psychologically superior. This was represented by the Jews, a priestly nation who created a transvaluation of values, they flipped everything upside-down and suggested that the aristocratic and strong were in fact “evil”, while the poor and the weak were
“good”. Thus, the revolt of slaves began, the likes of which had never been seen, with the triumph of the morality of the herd over the aristocratic ideal.

Here is where we stumble upon a crucial idea – that the revolt of slaves in morals begins in the principle of ressentiment or resentment. The inferiority complex and jealousy gives way to revenge, ending up attacking the source of one’s frustration.

He talks about master morality and slave morality. The slave morality resents the virtues of the powerful, they turn the other cheek, and this translated to Christianity “the meek shall inherit the earth”, Nietzsche was appalled by this, he calls for the master morality, which does not intend to oppress others, but rather create new values and ways of life.

Thanks to the self-deception of the resentful man, weakness is turned into merit.

Ressentiment proved a powerful tool to overpower the aristocratic race, it is a symbol of the decline of humanity, part of a dreadful and thousand-year fight in the world:

“Rome against Judaea, Judaea against Rome.” Hitherto there has been no greater event than that fight.

Essay I: “Good and Evil” “Good and Bad” §16

The Romans were the strong and aristocratic; a nation stronger and more aristocratic had never existed in the world. The Jews, conversely, were that priestly nation of ressentiment par excellence.

And there is not a shadow of a doubt to who has proven victorious. With Jesus of Nazareth representing the quintessential Jew, Rome is undoubtedly defeated.

Essay II. “Guilt”, “Bad Conscience”, and the like

Guilt, Bad Conscience, and the like

In the second essay, Nietzsche explores the origin of punishment in a creditor/debtor relationship.

He talks about the idea of forgetfulness, an active faculty of repression that helps us to not sink into the past, To actively oppose this, we develop memory – so promises necessary for exercising control over the future can be made.

This control over the future made man calculable, it is the long history and origin of responsibility. Nietzsche calls this control over the future a “Morality of Custom”, when there was no concept of morality, individuals simply punished those who broke their promises, it was a way of expressing anger.

Instead of a compensation in money or possessions, the creditor is granted a sensation of satisfaction in being able to “vent” from the pain inflicted on one who is powerless, producing the highest degree of happiness. Cruelty was a real feast and constituted great joy in the ancient man.

As the maxim goes: “The sight of suffering does one good; the infliction of suffering does one more good.”

Here’s where we find the idea of guilt (schuld) which derives from debt (schulden).

This system of mnemonics is the oldest psychology in the world, where an idea is burned into man’s memory and remain “fixed”, finally keeping in his memory a few “I will nots”.

The criminal was above all a breaker of the word – however, as the community grows more powerful, it tends to take the offense less serious, thus the meek evil-doer is slowly and carefully shielded and protected and the penal law becomes mitigated. The most drastic measure being the foundation of law.

Nietzsche’s idea of a Will to Power is implicitly recurrent throughout the book, where a more powerful force masters a less powerful one, the whole world consists of overpowering and dominating, this is how history unfolds.

The other crucial term is what Nietzsche calls “bad conscience”, to create in the guilty the consciousness of guilt, taming him. He suggests that the ancient man was adapted to the savage life of war and adventure, and with the modernisation of society, all his instincts were “switched off” and rendered useless. Instead, he was confronted with a new unknown world – a world of thinking and calculating. Nietzsche states:

“I do not believe there was ever in the world such a feeling of misery.”

Essay II. “Guilt”, “Bad Conscience”, and the like §16

All instincts which do not find a vent, turn inwards – this he calls the growing “internalisation” of man: which man named soul.

Bad conscience also comes from the relationship of the existing generation to its ancestors. A legal obligation is recognised towards the earlier generation due to their sacrifices, and this has to be paid back to them by sacrifices, temples, and above all obedience. As the power of the tribe grows, so does the need to thank their ancestors. This fear may well be the origin of the gods.

He ends by suggesting a man of the future who will redeem us from the old ideal: the Antichrist and Antinihilist – Zarathustra the godless.

Essay III. What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals

The ascetic ideal

The last essay: What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals? is the most detailed and longest of the three.

The ascetic ideal is best summarised at the start of the essay, it is:

“… the fundamental feature of man’s will, his horror of emptiness: he needs a goal – and he will sooner will nothingness than not will at all.”

Essay III: What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals? §1

This puzzling statement will become clear at the end. Let’s first define asceticism. It is the renunciation of earthly pleasures in favour of a simple, self-denying and abstinent life. He associates the ascetic ideal to three words:

poverty, humility and chastity.”

Essay III: What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals? §8

The ascetic ideal has different meanings for different groups: artists, philosophers, priests, and even scientists. However, the greatest enemy of life is the ascetic priest who belongs to the Church, the champion of the sick herd.

“I suffer: it must be somebody’s fault – so thinks every sick sheep. But his herdsman, the ascetic priest, says to him, “Quite so, my sheep, it must be the fault of someone; but thou thyself art that same one […]

Essay III: What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals? §15

The ascetic priest does not cure physiological depression, he merely diverts it with deadening drugs and hypnotism, this alone is the real physiological cause of ressentiment.

The individual finds delight in the thriving of the community – producing emotional excess, the most efficacious anaesthetic. Thus, “Sin” is born, the greatest event in the history of the diseased soul. However, the ascetic priest prescribes a small dose of the most life-assertive impulse – the Will to Power, which is why Nietzsche also has some respect for them.

The herd’s will for cooperation necessarily brought the Will for Power. The herd organisation is a genuine advance and triumph in the fight with depression.

Nietzsche goes on to give a striking critique of modern science and its absolute fanaticism with the value of truth, claiming not to believe in metaphysics, when they in fact do. Without God, there exists a new problem: the problem of the value of truth. And with the Enlightenment:

“ […] existence has become more random, casual and superfluous in the visible order of the universe.”

Essay III: What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals? §25

Science and the ascetic ideal both rest on the same over-appreciation of truth and the impossibility of valuing and of criticising it. Thus, they are necessarily allies.

He concludes that what is needed is a critique of the value of truth in itself. Even our faith in truth needs to be justified.

He talks of a new ideal, that does not have a will for truth and which is not opposed to the ascetic ideal, but rather is the final phase of its evolution. Christianity developed a self-destructive tool which ended up destroying itself.

The ascetic ideal was simply a means for the tremendous void that encircled man, and the senselessness of suffering of man, it gave him a meaning – and any meaning is better than no meaning, thus closing the tremendous gap of nihilism. It brought, however, a new and more venomous suffering into life: under the perspective of guilt, but in spite of that, man was saved. It is a will for Nothingness, a will opposed to life, but it is and remains a will.

Man will wish Nothingness rather than not wish at all.


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Genealogy of Morals in 10 Minutes | Nietzsche

This video summarises Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals in 10 minutes. It is among Nietzsche’s most sustained and cohesive works consisting of three essays: “Good and Evil, Good and Bad”, “Guilt, Bad Conscience and the Like” and “What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?”

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Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov and Nietzsche’s Übermensch

The frequent mention of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky together is still topical for the very reason that both of them were among the acutest anatomists of our cultural, social and moral crisis, the symptoms of which were already so prominent at the turn of the nineteenth century.

It was a flourishing period for the creative powers of European humanity and at the same time the beginning of the tragic “breakdown” of history that gave birth to two world wars and unprecedented calamities, the ripples of which still linger, as shown by the uninterrupted decline of traditional culture.

This gave way to fundamental questions such as the problem of man, his essence, the meaning of his existence, and the problem of man’s relations with society and the world.

Both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche’s writing may have been conditioned also by their own bad health. Dostoevsky suffered from episodes of epilepsy, while Nietzsche had to fight a long and painful illness which ended up in progressive paralysis and a complete mental collapse during the last 11 years of his life. Yet their very ailments fostered in a way their psychological insight as well as their belief in the value of extraordinary states of mind and body.

Both had strikingly similar themes: both were haunted by central questions surrounding the human existence, especially ones concerning God. They were both keen questioners and doubters.  Both were “underworld minds” unable to come to terms either with other people or with the conditions they saw around them and both of them desperately wanted to create truth.

It is almost sure that Dostoevsky, who died in 1881, had never even heard the name of Nietzsche. Nietzsche on the other hand, not only knew some of Dostoevsky’s principal works, but actually acknowledged (in The Twilight of the Idols) that he regarded him as “the only psychologist from whom he had anything to learn” and that he “ranked amongst the most beautiful strokes of fortune in his life.” He was grateful to him in a remarkable way, however much he goes against his deepest instincts.

1. The Übermensch

In 19th century Russia nihilism became prevalent, espousing for the end of belief in religion and God. At this time Nietzsche famously wrote that God is Dead, not a celebratory but a tragic statement. However, he believed that men could do without religion and create new values, rising up to the figure of the Übermensch. Thus, man becomes God.

This is most popularly expressed in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where Zarathustra, overflowing with wisdom, descends from his mountain retreat in search of followers. “I love man” he declares to an old hermit whom he encounters in the woods. But the hermit who had gone into the forest in disillusionment because he had once loved man all-too-much, replies: “Now I love God; man I love not. Man is for me too imperfect a thing. Love of man would kill me”. And he advises Zarathustra not to bring men gifts, but rather to take part of their load.

When they old man went away, Zarathustra spoke thus to his heart: “Could it be possible! This old saint has not yet heard in his forest that God is dead!”

Zarathustra wishes to distribute the overflowing honey of his wisdom, which he gathered staying in solitude for a decade, he goes to the marketplace in town and preaches that: “man is a rope, tied between beast and overman – a rope over an abyss. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.”

A core idea of Nietzsche is that man is an overture and a going-under and that man remain faithful to earth, identifying himself as a polluted stream that must be overcome, avoiding the temptation of the banal existence of the so-called “last man.”

But the people on the square remain dumb to Zarathustra’s pleas and laugh, they are not “the ears for his words”.

Nietzsche created the concept of the Übermensch whose antithesis is the last man, a mediocre animal without dignity and comfortably surrounded by the herd, who despises everything the Übermensch has to say.

It is the pinnacle of self-overcoming, to rise above the human norm and above all difficulties, embracing whatever life throws at you.

2. Raskolnikov

Raskolnikov

Dostoevsky saw this new atheist movement as incredibly dangerous; it laid the seeds for the character of Raskolnikov, with his own superman beliefs presented in his wonderful, thrilling and enthralling book: Crime and Punishment, which remains the single most widely known Russian novel as well as one of the greatest works in world literature.

It focuses on the mental anguish and moral dilemmas of Raskolnikov, an impoverished law student in St. Petersburg unable to pay for his studies. He can be viewed as a materialistic rationalist, an oddity at that time and taken by the idea that God was dead.

Dostoevsky wanted to set up a character who had every reason to commit murder: philosophically, practically, and ethically.

It starts of early with Raskolnikov formulating a plan to kill an evil and wealthy person after eavesdropping on a conversation in which a student claimed that the world would be better off if that person were dead and the money were given to someone who needed it more.

It is a book disguised as a murder mystery that delves deeply into the psychology and the mind of what a “murder” can be. What is fascinating about Dostoevsky is his ability to make the opposite of his beliefs, the antithesis of what he believed, the strongest views possible.

The book is focused on Raskolnikov’s moral dilemma between good and evil, he distinguishes between ordinary and extraordinary people (such as Napoleon, which Nietzsche also highly admired and considered him, among others, as people to look up to, in order to get closer to the ideal man, the Übermensch).

Raskolnikov’s pride separates him from society, he sees himself as a sort of “higher man”, indeed an Übermensch, a person who is extraordinary and thus above all moral rules that govern the rest of humanity, and so he cannot relate to anyone of the ordinary people, who must live in obedience and do not have the right to overstep the law. He states:

“In general, an unusually small number of people are born with a new idea, or who are capable of even uttering something new…”

“…and great geniuses, the culmination of humanity – perhaps only as a result of the passing of many billions of people across the earth.”

Thus, he considers himself one of them, and in view of unfortunate worldly circumstances and the advancement of mankind in some way, he steps over the obstacles of murder and robbery.

However, things did not go as planned. After the carefully planned murder, he finds himself confused, paranoid and with disgust for what he has done. He enters periods of delirium in which he struggles with guilt and horror and has a series of disturbing dreams. In a way, along with the murder, he had also killed a part of himself. He could not live up to his superman beliefs. He could not endure to be extraordinary, to be something more than to merely exist among the ordinary people, as he thought.

For Dostoevsky, ultimately god is above man, and man can never be god. For “if there is no God, everything is permitted.” And to live without hope is to cease to live.

3. Nietzsche and Dostoevsky

Nietzsche and Dostoevsky

Nietzsche and Dostoevsky both recognise the terrifying and questionable character of existence. Yet, Nietzsche does not want to live with illusion, he does not want to misunderstand the terrifying character of existence. However, Dostoevsky, with the same tragic vision of life, did not want to remain with earthly truth. His time in a prison labour camp in Siberia in extremely harsh conditions, while physically sick and depressed, turned his religious faith even stronger, this made life on earth meaningful to him. He believes in the necessity of illusion, the necessity of faith in something beyond and above man, something man ceaselessly strives for and even worships but can never attain on earth. His faith was so strong, that even if truth were to be outside Christ, he’d rather remain with Christ than with truth. This remained central to Dostoevsky’s work throughout his life.

Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, then, take separate paths at the crossroads of illusion. But both understood reality in the same way; both faced reality with the courage of despair. Survival for one meant the embracing of illusion; survival for the other meant ultimately the rejection of illusion.

Nietzsche urges us to remain faithful to the earth, to let our gift-giving love and our knowledge serve the meaning of the earth. And to not fly away from earthly things into religion, for much virtue has already flown away, we are rather to lead it back to the earth, back to the body, back to life, so that it may give the earth a meaning, a human meaning.

Nietzsche and Dostoevsky were artists with a tragic view of human existence. They were despairing creators who, unable to reconcile themselves to the face of the world as they saw it, were similarly unable to renounce to their high idealism, an idealism which expressed itself, however, in radically different approaches to the place of illusion in human existence. Dostoevsky’s view of man striving toward an unattainable ideal was in the end more realistic than Nietzsche’s demands upon man and human nature. Yet there is in Nietzsche something monumental, a vigour and unexampled courage, an epic burst of energy and faith in man’s potential as a builder that we do not find Dostoevsky, and perhaps in no other modern thinker.

Nietzsche does acknowledges the necessity of illusion in the face of his own striving to provide the philosophical foundations for a life without illusions to conquer this terrifying reality and questionable character of existence, proposing Amor fati, to love one’s fate and everything that happens.

Nietzsche makes man depend upon himself alone, and in all of his contempt for the “herd”, Nietzsche has seemed to remain faithful to man as an individual, man at the centre of the universe, man as an explorer, man as the creator.

He calls upon man to make way for the Übermensch, calls upon a man-in-transition, or upon an elite core of men, to overcome themselves, to become their own reality; in the face of an indifferent universe to make of themselves and their life a living form of art.


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Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov VS Nietzsche’s Ubermensch | Existentialism

This video explores Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov presented in Crime and Punishment and Nietzsche’s concept of the Ubermensch.

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The Comedy of Existence: Superhuman Laughter – Nietzsche | Existentialism

Nietzsche states in Beyond Good and Evil:

“I would really allow myself to order the ranks of philosophers according to the rank of their laughter – right up to those who are capable of golden laughter. And assuming that the gods also practise philosophy, a fact which many conclusions have already driven me to – I don’t doubt that in the process they know how to laugh in a superhuman and new way – and at the expense of all serious things! Gods delight in making fun: even where sacred actions are concerned, it seems they cannot stop laughing.”

(Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil p. 294)

Nietzsche suffered from serious physiological disease throughout his life and was preoccupied with trying to come up with solutions to face nihilism as the terminal sickness of the West. Throughout his work, he often made mention of child-like play, dance, and laughter. And through this, he overcame his pain and disease.

According to Walter Kaufmann, “for Nietzsche laughter represents an attitude toward the world, toward life and toward oneself.”

Nietzsche frequently laughs and he especially recommends laughing at oneself. Laughing at someone or something, including oneself, is a way of expressing contempt for that thing or person. This is important for those who want to ask clear-eyed questions about the values, phenomena, institutions, and people that they cherish. Laughter makes it possible – if only briefly – to achieve some distance from things one loves, thereby enabling a less biased evaluation of their true worth. It enables one to take oneself less seriously and admit that some of one’s cherished beliefs are most likely false.

Laughter of the Herd and Laughter of the Height

As well as targeting others for laughter, Nietzsche often has laughter directed at him. Nietzsche does not speak of just any laugh, but of a laugh that comes from the depths of man. It is from that depth that one must learn to laugh the superhuman laugh. This laughter arises from the state of anguish and suffering.

Perhaps best expressed in his masterpiece Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where the prophet Zarathustra, talks about the “laughter of the herd” and the “laughter of the height”.

After ten years of solitude in the mountains, he descends back into the world of men to share his wisdom with others, and thus requires a “going under”. In the marketplace of the nearest town, he stands in front of a crowd and gives a speech on the Ubermensch which he calls the “meaning of the earth”, and the “most contemptible” Last Man, who is perfectly happy to be virtually the same as everyone else.

After Zarathustra’s speech, he is greeted with a scornful laughter, indeed a “laughter of the herd”. The crowd mockingly tell him to make them not into the Ubermensch but into the Last Man.

With this may be contrasted the “laughter of the height”. Zarathustra is confronted with a young shepherd into whose mouth a heavy black snake has entered and bitten into the shepherd’s throat. Try as he might, Zarathustra cannot tug the snake from the agonised shepherd, so he urges him to bite off its head.

“The shepherd… bit as my cry had advised him; he bit with a good bite! He spat far away the snake’s head — and sprang up. No longer a shepherd, no longer a man—a transformed being, surrounded with light, laughing! Never yet on earth had any man laughed as he laughed! O my brothers, I heard a laughter that was no human laughter — and now a thirst consumes me, a longing that is never stilled. My longing for this laughter consumes me: oh how do I endure still to live! And how could I endure to die now!”

(Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 180)

However, Zarathustra cannot endure to die now because he has not yet laughed this extraordinary superhuman laughter. The urge to do so drives him on, and eventually, his consuming thirst is quenched, the real culmination comes when Zarathustra embraces his most ‘abysmal thought’, the eternal recurrence, which might be described as the event for the sake of which the whole book exists. The best afterlife we can experience is none other than another repetition of the life we just experienced, for eternity. It is the ideal of the most high-spirited and world-affirming individual.

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

But if everything eternally recurs, this includes that which is small in man. Confronted with this thought, Zarathustra is so sickened that he is unable to get up, eat or drink for seven days. After this period and despite life’s horrors and suffering, Zarathustra stands up and gives the highest affirmation of life possible: he becomes a Yes-sayer, loving life as it is.

Later, Zarathustra comes across a number of “higher men”. While Nietzsche intends the reader to regard these higher men as superior to the “herd”, they are inferior to Zarathustra and are a long way from the figure of the Ubermensch. Each of these men are some incomplete aspect of Zarathustra’s experience. Having already experienced the joy of the height, Zarathustra is capable of being more playful than the higher men and, announcing that they need someone to make them laugh, offers to play that role himself. Rejecting the adoration poured on him by one of the higher men on behalf of his fellows, Zarathustra tells them that:

“You may all be Higher Men… but for me – you are not high and strong enough.”

(Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 293)

“What must follow are “higher, stronger, more victorious, more joyful men, such as are square-built in body and soul: laughing lions must come!”

(Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 294)

The laughing lion is a reference to one of the three metamorphoses of the human spirit, the others being the camel and the child.

The spirit of heaviness also comes in part from a tradition that has denied and excluded laughter, linking it to the ridiculous and to buffoonery. Laughter is still a matter for a few, and it has yet to regain its sacred place in the world.

Zarathustra’s praise of laughter in his speech to the higher men is ecstatic. He urges them to:

“… learn to laugh at yourselves as a man ought to laugh!”

(Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 303)

Contrasting himself with Jesus, who wishes “woe to you who laugh now”, Zarathustra has an alternative to Jesus’s crown of thorns:

“This laughter’s crown, this rose-wreath crown: I myself have set this crown on my head, I myself have canonised my laughter.”

(Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 305)

He describes himself as Zarathustra the “laughing prophet” and the speech ends on another passionate exhortation to the higher men to learn to laugh. Laughing lions, then, are what the higher men have to become in order to embrace the eternal recurrence and laugh the laughter of the height, which they eventually do.

Becoming who one is

Vincent van Gogh - Wikipedia
Vincent van Gogh Self-Portrait (1889)

Nietzsche makes the puzzling statement that one has the power to create one’s self. By this he means that we are a continual process of integrating our character traits, habits, and patterns of action with one another. However, this creation can only take place after achieving the final metamorphosis of the child, representing a “new beginning”.

This is an incredibly difficult task, and even once it is achieved, it is only the unification of one’s past with one’s present, there is still the future to consider, thus becoming who one is, cannot be some final goal that can be met with the laughter of the height.

And yet, Zarathustra becomes what he is, achieving superhuman laughter. Perhaps this is because he laughs at the comedy of existence, including his own existence, because he knows that in the background there is nothing but absurdity and emptiness.

A suggestion to this effect comes from The Gay Science, where he states:

“Perhaps even laughter still has a future….Perhaps laughter will then form an alliance with wisdom; perhaps only ‘gay science’ will remain. At present, things are still quite different; at present, the comedy of existence has not yet ‘become conscious’ of itself; at present we still live in an age of tragedy, in the age of moralities and religions.”

(Nietzsche, The Gay Science, p. 27-28).

But the person who attains the height can laugh at:

“all tragedies, real or imaginary.”

(Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 305)

From the vantage-point of the height, there is nothing that cannot be amusing, and the ultimate joke is life itself.

The person whom Zarathustra has become, the one who realises that becoming what he is involves constant self-creation, that there is in life no final goal, and yet is able to laugh at this realisation, in a superhuman manner, takes on a humorous attitude to life.

What Zarathustra has learned, the vital skill upon which his liberation and self-overcoming is dependent, is the ability to laugh at himself as a man ought to laugh. Rather than resorting to some sort of “bad faith” as existentialist Jean Paul Sartre puts it, Nietzsche laughs at the pointlessness of life.

Thus, when Zarathustra laughs the laughter of the height, the constant self-creation which he will need to continue throughout the rest of his life is, it seems at that point, not a burden. By embracing eternal recurrence, Zarathustra is bringing to life itself that spirit of childlike playfulness which is so common an element in humour.

Creating our own values to live by is essential, if we are to give any meaning to our lives. Yet there is no ultimate reason or justification for our particular set of values, other than that which we ourselves provide. As suggested, the laughter of the height results, to an important degree, from the perception of this incongruity.

There’s a lot we can learn from reading Nietzsche on laughter, regardless of the possible moral objections that may be raised against laughing “at all tragedies, real or imaginary”, Zarathustrian laughter highlights the sense of humour’s potential to make your world bigger from your childlike “new beginning” of being amenable to seeing things in a new way, or from a new perspective, and to realise that there are more ways of looking at the world than you previously acknowledged or of which you were even aware of.

The social aspects of humour and the pleasure of sharing a joke brings a feeling of togetherness. There are obvious advantages to feeling part of a group. However, being part of a group means obeying certain rules or risk being ostracised. Zarathustra laughs the laughter of the height because as the solitary individual, he is free from these constraints.

To follow Zarathustra is no easy task: it means making some hefty sacrifices. We have a fundamental desire for security: whether it be reason, science, the church, family, friends, or our own attractiveness, intelligence, or charm. These anchors provide our security, but they thwart the full development of our capacity for humour.

It is precisely these security-blankets that Zarathustra at the height challenges us to throw away.  He has, unlike the rest of us, freed himself from, and stood outside, the accepted, shared perspective of his particular clique or society. It is this which has allowed his horizons to be expanded, by reaching the height, and in the extreme freedom from constraints, the sense of humour realises its maximum potential.

Zarathustra

The suggestion in Nietzsche that the perception of the comedy of existence and Zarathustra’s laughter of the height, emphasises a vitally important point: that the tragic and the comic are not polar opposite, but inter-linked modes of experience.

Nietzsche ranks among those who “suffer from the overabundance of life” and know the intensity of the pleasure-pain of creation.

“Perhaps I know best why man is the only animal that laughs: he alone suffers so excruciatingly that he was compelled to invent laughter. The unhappiest and most melancholy animal is, as might have been expected, the most cheerful”.

(Nietzsche, The Will to Power, p. 74).

Thus, Nietzsche suggests descending into discomfort, into a deeper displeasure in order to obtain from there a more intense pleasure. He says:

“But what if pleasure and pain should be so closely connected that he who wants the greatest possible amount of the one must also have the greatest possible amount of the other,- that he who wants to experience the ‘heavenly high jubilation’ must also be ready to be ‘sorrowful’ unto death?”

(Nietzsche, The Gay Science, §12)

This quote shows the harmony between opposing forces that Nietzsche has not only discovered or perceived in a theoretical way but has known how to experience first-hand as the most intense pain and the most effusive joy, reaching a feeling of joy worthy of gods.

The strongest are those who can think of man within a significant reduction in his value without thereby seeing themselves diminished.  Nietzsche urges us to recognise the limits we are all subject to in order to return us to the humble, but noble, earthbound beings that we are.

Set amidst all the serious issues that his writings detail — the death of God, the ubermensch, the will to power, the eternal recurrence — comedy and laughter resound in his thinking of the excessiveness that often attempts to transcend our being human, all too human.

Being human is not a reason for despair, it presents to us opportunities of affirmation that allow us to say “yes” to life so that we may transfigure our state into joy.

Thus, comedy and laughter are embedded deep within Nietzsche’s thought and “where there is laughter and joviality, it is not worth thinking.”

Indeed, comedy must be included within the very art that Nietzsche proclaims is:

“the highest task and the true metaphysical activity of this life.”

(Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, §20)

The comedy and laughter in Nietzsche’s writings and thought are there as provocations to rethink our relationship to each other and the philosophical endeavours that bestow value and meaning to existence that is, at times, both tragic and absurd.

Until we come to grips with our science, moralities, and religion in terms of their reach and measure, we will remain mired in the eternal comedy of existence, and the joyful laughter of affirmation will remain a “not yet” and only a hope for the future.

The provocative laughter found in Nietzsche’s texts is the affirmation of amor fati. It is part of an authentic response of a subject in affirming being here as part of the world:

“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: someday I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”

(Nietzsche, The Gay Science, §276)

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The Comedy of Existence: Superhuman Laughter – Nietzsche | Existentialism

Nietzsche frequently laughs and he especially recommends laughing at oneself. He does not speak of just any laugh, but of a laugh that comes from the depths of man. It is from that depth that one must learn to laugh the superhuman laugh.
This laughter arises from the state of anguish and suffering. This is Nietzsche’s answer to the absurdity of life and the comedy of existence.

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The Absurd – Camus, Kierkegaard & Dostoevsky | Existentialism

Albert Camus’ views contributed to the rise of the philosophy known as Absurdism, he defines the Absurd “as the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life, and the human inability to find any meaning in a purposeless, meaningless, and irrational universe, with the ‘unreasonable silence’ of the universe in response.” However, this world in itself is not absurd, what is absurd is our relationship with the universe, which is irrational.

Albert Camus

Camus is considered to be an existentialist, even though he firmly rejected the term throughout his lifetime. He is properly categorised as an atheist existentialist. However, he would also disagree with this label. In his notebooks, he presents the following contradictory statement:

“I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist.”

This reflects the notion of the Absurd. The search of the possibility of the existence of God is humanly impossible, but this also entails that the proof that God does not exist is impossible too. He writes in The Myth of Sisyphus:

“In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.”

The Myth of Sisyphus is a fierce expression of the Absurd. It starts off with a powerful and thought-provoking statement:

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

Apart from the physical act of suicide, he talks about “philosophical suicide”, where we accept something as true that isn’t convincing but is convenient and easy for us to believe in. Such as believing in some ready-made belief system, which is practically all of the world’s religion.

This is the complete opposite of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s leap of faith. Kierkegaard described himself as a Christian, although he despised the established church, which in his view, made individuals lazy in their religion, many of the citizens were officially “Christians” without having any idea what it meant to be a Christian.

Søren Kierkegaard

The world is absurd, and we must live in it. He says: “As I grew up, I opened my eyes and saw the real world, I began to laugh and I haven’t stopped since”.

Kierkegaard states that “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”. We enjoy a freedom that is both appealing and terrifying.

In The Sickness Unto Death, he writes: “For the self is a synthesis in which the finite is the limiting factor, and the infinite the expanding factor.”

In other words, we are made of two opposites: the finite and the infinite. He considers the finite as actuality, as one’s reality, while the infinite corresponds to possibility, to be able to choose.

We lose ourselves in the infinite when considering the infinite possibilities in our life and our limited power of choice over them. We have an infinite number of possibilities and when we have to choose one, we become overwhelmed at the sheer amount of them. One may possess the ability to freely act, but if one never uses it and gets lost in the infinite, daydreaming about an endless sea of possibilities, one is effectively not capable of freely acting. In essence, we are obsessed with what we can potentially become, but in reality, never become anything.

On the other hand, we lose ourselves in the finite when we don’t consider enough possibilities and just mindlessly go around the demands of culture and social expectations, because we feel imprisoned in an inescapable environment where no alternatives exist, “one becomes an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd.”

The scary part is that most people are less aware of this, they see everything they do as their own choice. However, some people live a complete lie. They live because of what their family, friends and society tell them that’s what one does.

Kierkegaard suggests that the only way out of this is to take a leap of faith towards Christianity, the ultimate irrational experience, which is the most rational thing to do. This is the quintessential subjective experience.

Although Camus states that he cannot know that God does not exist, he is determined to believe that God cannot exist, he opposes religious faith. His work can be seen as a reply to Kierkegaard and Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the paradox whereby those two writers acknowledge the absurdity of the universe only to embrace more strongly the scandal of belief in God.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Camus was very influenced Dostoevsky. He discovered a powerful and vital source of inspiration in two novels in particular, Demons and The Brothers Karamazov.

The atheistic spirit of Ivan Karamazov proved for Camus the most attractive of all of his characters. His statement that “If God is dead, then all is permitted” resonated with him.

However, he criticises both Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky for their leap into irrational faith.  Dostoevsky ultimately turned away from the absurd by embracing Christianity, which Camus sees an invalid response to the absurd.  

In Demons, Dostoevsky explores the idea that either there is a God, a life after death and life has a meaning, or life has no meaning and everything we do is pointless, it is little more than a cruel joke.

Kirillov is a character from Demons who commits a sort of “logical suicide”. He feels that God is necessary and that he must exist. But he knows that he does not and cannot exist. He exclaims: “why do you not realise that this is sufficient reason for killing oneself?” And finally, he prepares his deed with a mixed feeling of revolt and freedom. “I shall kill myself in order to assert my insubordination, my new and dreadful liberty.” Kirillov is consequently an absurd character: he kills himself.

He kills himself to become god. His reasoning being that: if God does not exist, he becomes god, and if God does not exist, he must kill himself. He must therefore kill himself to become god. Thus, for Kirillov, as for Nietzsche: to kill God is to become god oneself.

Kirillov in the book cover of Demons

However, if God does not exist, one is free, why kill oneself and leave this world after having won freedom? Isn’t this contradictory? Kirillov is well aware of this, he kills himself out of love of humanity, he shows his brothers a difficult path on which he will be the first, it is a pedagogical suicide. Kirillov’s pistol-shot will be the signal for the last revolution. Thus, it is not despair that urges him to death but love of his neighbour for his own sake. His last words: “All is well”.

While Dostoevsky proposes suicide as the only logical response to an awareness that God does not exist, Camus proposes that the man without God must not kill himself, but realise instead that he is condemned to death, and live his life embracing the absurdity of that knowledge.

The ultimate Absurd Man for Camus is best expressed in the mythological character of Sisyphus, a man condemned by the gods to a lifetime of rolling a boulder up a hill, only to reach the top of the hill and have the boulder inevitably roll back down to the bottom for him to start all over again, condemned to a lifetime of pain and anguish and working hard only to have his efforts be completely futile in the end.

What really makes our human existence absurd is our consciousness of our Sisyphean condemnation when we avoid the trap of philosophical suicide. In perhaps one of his most celebrated quotes, Camus states that:

“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Camus later adds that there may be a moment when Sisyphus is walking back down the hill when he is briefly free, when he is “superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock”. Sisyphus then, is both a prisoner and a rebel.

Amazon.com: The Museum Outlet - Sisyphus by Franz von Stuck - Canvas Print  Online Buy (24 X 32 Inch): Posters & Prints
Sisyphus by Franz von Stuck 

Thus, we all live in an absurd freedom, and to become lucidly aware and conscious of it is to revolt, to affirm life and continue, which is the only coherent philosophical position:

“It is a constant confrontation between man and his own obscurity. It is an insistence upon an impossible transparency. It challenges the world anew every second. Just as danger provided man with the unique opportunity of seizing awareness, so metaphysical revolt extends awareness to the whole of experience.”

To revolt is to say no to one’s own absurd existence and say yes to some other more desirable existence. Thus: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”

Suicide is never an option for the Absurd Man, much like the leap of faith, it is acceptance at its extreme, it would be a way of going along with our absurd condemnation, by implicitly affirming that life is really intolerably absurd and that suicide is our only option.

The contrary of suicide is man condemned to death, in constant lucidity of his own absurd nature with the passionate flames of human revolt. This recognition gives life meaning, as we are truly free, we are to “live without appeal“ as he puts it, defining absolutes and universals subjectively, rather than objectively.

Camus writes with great delicacy. What moves us is not that Camus’ emblem of the absurd is so entirely metaphorical, but the spectacle of his belief; that he believes in it so fiercely, and so sympathetically describes his fate and revolt, that Sisyphus appears to be real to Camus, and becomes almost actual for us. This is the quality of Camus’ thought, and it is why he is such a powerful novelist: he takes religious terms, turns them into secular metaphor, and then, appears to reconvert them back into a usable reality. What he does, in fact, is act as if they were real while using them metaphorically.

Christianity extends life in an eternal heaven. Camus wants to extend life on earth. He writes that “the present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man”. This is Camus’ eternity: an endless repetition of presents.

However, is Camus’ rebellion only metaphorical? Perhaps not.

In The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi writes about his time spend in a concentration camp, where he was faced with a temptation to pray, instinct with Camus’ language of lucidity and absurdity, it is an extraordinarily “rebellious” passage of secular writing:

“I too entered the Lager as a non-believer, and as a non-believer I was liberated and have lived to this day; actually, the experience of the Lager with its frightful iniquity has confirmed me in my laity. It has prevented me, and still prevents me, from conceiving of any form of providence of transcendent justice… I must nevertheless admit that I experienced (and again only once) the temptation to yield, to seek refuge in prayer. This happened in the October of 1944, in the one moment in which I lucidly perceived the imminence of death. Naked and compressed among my naked companions with my index card in hand, I was waiting to file past the ‘commission’ that with one glance would decide whether I should immediately go into the gas chamber or was instead strong enough to go on working. For one instant I felt the need to ask for help and asylum; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed: you do not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, nor when you are losing. A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd (what rights could I claim? and from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene,   with the greatest impiety of which a non-believer is capable. I rejected the temptation: I knew that otherwise were I to survive, I would have to be ashamed of it.”

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The Absurd – Camus, Kierkegaard & Dostoevsky | Existentialism

This video explores the concept of The Absurd of Camus, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky as well as the differences between these three existentialists.

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Nietzsche and Eastern Philosophy (Hinduism)

Both Hinduism and Buddhism (see Nietzsche and Buddhism) are of interest to Nietzsche not in themselves, but as alternative positions from which to continue his attack on Christianity. He declared that “the critic of Christianity is profoundly grateful to the students of India” for making Buddhism available as a religion to compare with Christianity.

In his day, there was considerable academic and popular interest in India and the religion of the majority of its inhabitants.

In the Twilight of the Idols and the Antichrist, Nietzsche uses the term chandala, which he borrowed from the Indian caste system, where a chandala is a member of the lowest social class. He compared the caste system as an example of a “breeding morality”, as opposed to the Christian version of slave morality.

Chandala caste

To be clear, Nietzsche does not like either morality. However, he favours the chandala morality in a relative sense to the morality of Judeo-Christianity.

This interpretation relied on a translation of the Laws of Manu, an ancient Sanskrit text, which was a relatively well-known text in 19th century Europe. He read Louis Jacolliot’s French translation, who was a major populariser of Hinduism, although critics later called him an India-fanatic and that in his works romanticism often predominates over scientific truth, so that he must be considered as a very brilliant vulgariser rather than a scholar.

Louis Jacolliot — Wikipédia
Louis Jacolliot

Nietzsche refers to Jacolliot by name in one of his notebooks, and sometimes gives page numbers with the extracts that he translates into German. No other Indian text excited Nietzsche in this way. This by itself, is astonishing, but no less remarkable are his previous knowledge of Hinduism and India.

Nietzsche wrote to Heinrich Köselitz, who served as the editor of Nietzsche’s writings and with whom he had a long-time friendship, about his discovery:

“I owe to these last weeks a very important lesson: I found Manu’s book of laws in a French translation […] This absolutely Aryan work, a priestly codex of morality based on the Vedas, on the idea of caste and very ancient tradition supplements my views on religion in the most remarkable way. I confess to having the impression that everything else that we have by the way of moral lawgiving seems to me an imitation and even a caricature of it […] even Plato seems to me in all main points simply to have been well instructed by a Brahmin…”

Heinrich Köselitz - Alchetron, The Free Social Encyclopedia
Heinrich Köselitz

Schopenhauer, who quotes the Manu twice in his book The World as Will and Representation, refers to it as “the oldest of all the codes of law.” His enthusiasm was widely shared.

It may be assumed that Nietzsche felt a similar gratitude in respect of the availability of Hinduism. Although he seldom referred to it, nor did he use the word Hinduism, speaking rather of Brahmanism, the Vedanta or Indian philosophy in general. The only extensive Indian text he read was the Laws of Manu, and with much enthusiasm. It is one of the books he possessed in his extensive private library.

However, Nietzsche disliked the ancient Sanskrit play Shakuntala, a work that took educated Europe by storm, and was praised by Goethe, the most famous literary figure in Europe, and who Nietzsche himself ranked among the greatest human beings that have ever lived.

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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

In Nietzsche’s work of dramatic theory, the Birth of Tragedy, he does not even refer to this play. This might be a matter of personal taste, but also shows a mind closed to India, since it was thought to be the oldest of all dramatic forms and was quite popular in the day.

On the other hand, Nietzsche uses a Vedic hymn (the oldest Sanskrit texts and the most venerated) as a motto for his book Daybreak, the least studied of his works.

“There are many dawns which have yet to shed their light”

In one of the book’s passages he wrote:

“For those Brahmins believed, firstly that the priests were more powerful than the gods, and secondly that the power of priests resided in observances: which is why their poets never wearied of celebrating the observances (prayers, ceremonies,  sacrifices, hymns, verses) as the real givers of all good things.”

Nietzsche takes this superiority of men over gods as a goal to be imitated:

“let us first of all see to it that Europe overtakes what was done several thousands of years ago in India, among the nation of thinkers, in accordance with the commandments of reason!”

However, Nietzsche’s strongest connection with Hinduism and India comes from his friendship with Paul Deussen, the great European expert on the Vedanta, who was also a friend of Swami Vivekananda, a key figure in the introduction of Indian philosophy to the western world.

In a letter to Paul Deussen, Nietzsche writes:

“I have, as you know, a profound sympathy with everything that you have in mind to undertake. And it belongs to the most essential fostering of my freedom from my prejudice (my “trans-European eye”) that your existence and work remind me again and again of the one great parallel to our European philosophy…”

Paul Deussen - Wikipedia
Paul Deussen

He did indeed possess a “trans-European eye”, often distancing himself from his contemporary situation in order to better understand the phenomenon of European modernity. And yet there does appear in the unpublished notes from 1884 the following fascinating resolution: “I must learn to think more orientally about philosophy and knowledge. Oriental overview of Europe.”

In Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, he mentions the Upanishads or the “Eternal Order”, which are the Vedic Sanskrit texts that are still revered in Hinduism and he also refers to the translated works of his friend Paul Deussen on the Brahma Sutras, which summarises the philosophical and spiritual ideas in the Upanishads. The concepts of Brahman (ultimate reality) and Atman (soul or self) being the central ideas, the thematic focus being to “know that you are the Atman.”

An important departure from Buddhism, where there is no permanent self or soul in living beings.

The Veda states that one should liberate oneself from the illusion of individuality and recognise that one is the atman. This is saying exactly the same thing that Nietzsche wants: the man in us is something to be overcome and strive for the figure of the Ubermensch.

Schopenhauer also gives a striking anticipation of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch by postulating a man “who found satisfaction in life and took perfect delight in it; who desired, in spite of calm deliberation, that the course of his life as he had hitherto experienced it should be of endless duration or of constant recurrence […] whose courage to face life was so great that, in return for life’s pleasures, he would willingly and gladly put up with all the hardships and miseries to which it is subject.”

Nonetheless, Schopenhauer preferred the man who understood the truth of the Upanishads:

“He knows that he himself is that will of which the whole world is the objectification or copy, to which therefore life and also the present always remains certain and sure. The present is the only real form of the will. Therefore, no endless past or future in which he will not exist can frighten him, for he regards these as an empty mirage and the web of Maya.”

Schopenhauer then declares that in the Bhagavad Gita, literally “The Song of God”, that “Krishna puts his young pupil Arjuna in this position.”

Krishna Delivering Gita Sermon to Arjuna
Arjuna (left) and Krishna (right)

However, Nietzsche ignores this, he ignores the Bhagavad Gita entirely, for he makes his own way.

Schopenhauer makes an intriguing reference to Shiva in conjunction with Dionysus in the first volume of The World as Will and Representation:

“Birth and death belong equally to life […] The wisest of all mythologies, the Indian, expresses this by giving to the very god who symbolises destruction and death […] to Shiva as an attribute not only the necklace of skulls, but also the lingam, that symbol of generation which appears to be the counterpart of death. […] It was precisely the same sentiment that prompted the Greeks and Romans to adorn the costly sarcophagi, just as we still see them, with feasts, dances, marriages, hunts  […] that is with presentations of life’s most powerful urge…”

Nietzsche’s many references to dance in Thus Spoke Zarathustra have often made subsequent readers think of Dancing Shiva. There are several points of convergence between Shiva and Nietzsche/Dionysus/Zarathustra. Shiva the archetype of the Indian wandering ascetic, whose home is the Himalayas, Shiva as the yogi and the wild dancer, Shiva as a resemblance to Dionysus, and so on.

Shiva, The Creator and the Destroyer • Canarias Agusto
Shiva

In the end of Daybreak, he states:

“Will it perhaps be said of us one day that we too, steering westward, hoped to reach an India – but that it was our fate to be wrecked against infinity? Or, my brothers. Or?”

Daybreak, 575

However, it seems that the experience of Nietzsche’s India – could’ve been the other India for which he set at the end of Daybreak; an India where no one lived but Nietzsche.

Finally, I’d like to leave you with a thought-provoking statement that Nietzsche made in 1876:

“I imagine future thinkers in whom European-American indefatigability is combined with the hundredfold-inherited contemplativeness of the Asians: such a combination will bring the riddle of the world to a solution.”


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Eastern Philosophy and Nietzsche | Buddhism and Hinduism

Although Nietzsche considers Eastern philosophy as nihilistic (wrongly), he does indicate their profundity. It seems that he studied this material closely and appreciated it greatly.

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Nietzsche and Eastern Philosophy (Buddhism)

There are some good reasons to believe that Nietzsche was interested in Eastern philosophy during his lifetime. In the Antichrist he states:

“Buddhism, I repeat, is a hundred times more austere, more honest, more objective. It no longer has to justify its pains, its susceptibility to suffering, by interpreting these things in terms of sin—it simply says, as it simply thinks, ‘I suffer’”

Nietzsche, The Antichrist, 23

Buddhism, as a pessimistic and decadent religion for Nietzsche resembles Christianity but it seems that he had far more admiration for Buddhism. He inherited most of his understanding of Buddhism from Schopenhauer, who considered his own pessimistic philosophy a European relative of Buddhism.

Schopenhauer, in his research into Indian philosophy, appears to have attained the most comprehensive understanding among nineteenth century German thinkers of a system of Asian thought.

Arthur Schopenhauer

Although Nietzsche did read about Buddhism, it was usually second-hand and westernised, he was predisposed to react to Buddhism in terms of his close reading of Schopenhauer. Many Buddhists have since disputed Schopenhauer’s comprehension of their religion.

Influenced by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche criticised both Christianity and Buddhism as forms of nihilism, where the will to nonentity prevails over the will to life. However, he soon feared the rise of pessimism in Europe would culminate in the triumph of the weary and passive nihilism.

It is important to know that Nietzsche was not a nihilist as some suggest, stating that the modern man would have to create his own values through a Revaluation of All Values, leading to the Ubermensch, affirming the world and saying yes to existence, the pinnacle of self-overcoming.

The foundation of his critique of Buddhism is his characterisation of Nirvana as a nothingness and as a form of nihilism. However, this does not best describe the Buddhist path.

There are Four Noble Truths in Buddhism. The first one is the acknowledgement of duhkha or “suffering”, an inseparable characteristic in the realm of Samsara, which suggests that human beings, at the time of death, are reborn to a realm determined by their karma. It is the cycle of aimless drifting, wandering or mundane existence.

Samsara

If we stop here, we can see why Nietzsche considers it nihilistic. However, this is but one of the noble truths. The second one is the origin of this suffering which comes from craving, desire or attachment and the third one states that there is an end to suffering, by letting go of this craving. This leads to the final noble truth, which is the path that gives way to renouncement of craving and the cessation of suffering, following the Noble Eightfold Path, which liberates one from Samsara, the painful cycle of rebirth – achieving Nirvana, the cessation of all afflictions, actions, rebirths and suffering that are a consequence of afflictions and actions.

8 Rights: The Noble Eightfold Path — the Heart of the Buddha's Teaching -  Buddha Weekly: Buddhist Practices, Mindfulness, Meditation
Noble Eightfold Path

Nirvana refers to the realisation of the “non-self” and “emptiness”, marking the end of rebirth by stilling the fires that keep the process of rebirth going. This is what Nietzsche thought of as a longing for nothingness. However, it is not a longing for nothingness, it is simply the end of Samsara. Thus, different from Schopenhauer’s pessimism, Buddhism starts pessimistic but ends with the positive experience of Nirvana.

It is not an escape from the world, one begins with the suffering inherent in life, one is to overcome pleasure and pain, before beginning a mindful examination of one’s self and reality as perceived by the self. Upon this examination, one realises that there is no self, but only the combination of mental and physical states (skandhas).

How can the five skandhas in Buddhism be elucidated? - Quora
The Five Skandhas

This realisation of non-self is also misunderstood. It is not a destruction of a self, but rather a rejection of the existence of a self. Buddhists believe that the concept of “emptiness” means that all things are empty of inherent existence, there is no such thing as inherent existence, everything arises mutually. Thus, negation in the East does not have the same pessimistic connotation that it has in the West.

Perhaps the most serious misreading we find in Nietzsche’s account of Buddhism was his inability to recognise that the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness was an initiatory stage leading to a reawakening.

Throughout Nietzsche’s books and notes, he refers to different aspects of Eastern philosophy on more than four hundred occasions, and in several of these he claims to be interested in it.

Although Nietzsche considers Eastern philosophy as nihilistic, he does indicate its profundity. It seems that he studied this material closely and appreciated it greatly, this is important to note. And even if Nietzsche despised sacred texts, he upholds the beauty and grandeur of them as literary documents.

Nietzsche’s interest in studying Buddhism seems to be seeing it as a psychological symptom, as well as a historically embedded phenomena. Having chosen Buddhism to comment on might be in line with his idea of having the courage to engage with worthy adversaries. He states:

He (the Buddha) does not advocate any conflict with unbelievers; his teaching is antagonistic to nothing so much as to revenge, aversion ressentiment. And in all this he was right, for it is precisely these passions which, in view of his main purpose, are unhealthful.

Nietzsche, The Antichrist, 20

Here he agrees on the Buddha’s doctrine, which is opposed to the feelings of revenge, antipathy and ressentiment. And in Thus Spoke Zarathustra he said:

“For that man be delivered from revenge, that is for me the bridge to the highest hope, and a rainbow after long storms”

Nietzsche’s conceptions of the Eternal Recurrence and Samsara, Zarathustra and Bodhisattva (a person who is able to reach Nirvana but delays doing so through compassion for suffering beings), the Transvaluation of All Values and Nirvana, are all examples of similarities.

In his analysis of the self, Nietzsche contended:

“the subject is only a fiction: the ego of which one speaks when one censures egoism does not exist at all”. This is remarkably similar to the Buddha’s doctrine of non-existence of the self.

Nietzsche’s philosophy may have been much more similar to Buddhism than he might have realised. This should not be surprising, given Nietzsche’s respect for the Buddha and that Buddhism concerns itself with one of the basic problems with which Nietzsche was grappling: the structure and meaning of the human condition.

At the onset of his mental collapse, he even came to identify himself with Buddha:

“I have been Buddha in India, Dionysus in Greece.

However, on the whole, this impression is deceptive.

Nietzsche after his mental collapse

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Eastern Philosophy and Nietzsche | Buddhism and Hinduism

Although Nietzsche considers Eastern philosophy as nihilistic (wrongly), he does indicate their profundity. It seems that he studied this material closely and appreciated it greatly.

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