Book Review: The Gay Science – Nietzsche

The Gay Science is one of Nietzsche’s most beautiful and important books. He describes it as “the most personal of all his books”. When inquired on why he chose this title to his book, he wrote in a letter:

“As for the title ‘Gay Science’, I thought only of the gaya scienza of the troubadours – hence also the little verses.”

– Nietzsche’s letter to Erwin Rohde (1882-83)

The Provençal troubadours were performers of lyric poetry specialising in the art of composing love poetry or “gai saber”. Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil:

“Love as passion – which is our European specialty – must absolutely be of noble origin; as is well known, its invention is due to the Provençal knight-poets, those magnificent and inventive human beings of ‘gai saber’ to whom Europe owes so many things and almost owes itself.”

– Beyond Good and Evil, §260

Science implies seriousness, discipline, and rigor, while Nietzsche accepts this – he proposes to go further, adding singing, dancing, and laughter.

“Where laughter and gaiety are found, thinking does not amount to anything”.

– The Gay Science, §327

Gay Science has the overtones of a light-hearted defiance of convention; it suggests Nietzsche’s “immoralism” and his “revaluation of all values”. In Nietzsche’s own words, one must strive to be an:

“Artistic Socrates”

– The Birth of Tragedy, §14

A philosopher with both an intellectual conscience and with a feeling for art. Nietzsche recommends the artistic style of life that he considers his own life to be an example of. As well as a philosopher, he counts himself among the poets and artists.

The book contains Nietzsche’s first proclamation of the death of God, as well as the eternal recurrence. It also contains some of his most sustained discussions on knowledge and truth, the intellectual conscience, and the miseries that accompany religion and morality, warning us against the “preachers of morality”.

The book is written in Nietzsche’s aphoristic style consisting of short paragraphs covering a variety of themes. This style was unparalleled in the history of philosophy. Some hypothesise that it was born out of his terrible vision and headaches, which forced him to quickly write down a few ideas at a time, or as he would put it – to philosophise with a hammer.

The book starts with Nietzsche’s preface followed by a Prelude in Rhymes. It is composed of 383 aphorisms divided into five books and ends with an appendix of songs. The book contains the largest collection of Nietzsche’s poetry that he himself ever published.

Nietzsche’s first edition ended in Book IV and was published in 1882. The last section titled “Incipit tragoedia”, consists literally of the beginning of his next book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The second edition which includes Book V was not published until 1887, after Beyond Good and Evil.

What may at first seem to be a haphazard sequence of aphorisms turns out to be a carefully crafted composition. The structure should be seen as part of a long train of thought, instead of isolated aphorisms.

In the preface, Nietzsche speaks of the gratitude of a convalescent:

“This whole book is nothing but a bit of merry-making after long privation and powerlessness, the rejoicing of strength that is returning, of a reawakened faith in a tomorrow […]”

– The Gay Science, Preface

The history of philosophy is filled with a great deal of sick thinkers, which are misled on account of their suffering. However, Nietzsche tells us that from such abysses, from such severe sickness, one returns new-born. One should not philosophise with one’s deprivations, but with one’s riches and strengths. He proclaims a return to the lifestyle of the Greeks, the Dionysian lifestyle.

The Prelude in Rhymes include pithy remarks such as:

“I do not love my neighbour near,

but wish he were high up and far.

How else could he become my star?”

– Prelude in German Rhymes, The Neighbour, §30

“He should be praised for climbing; yet

The other man comes always from a height

And lives where praise can never get –

Beyond your sight.”

– Prelude in German Rhymes, Higher Men, §60

There is a steady crescendo throughout the book. Book I is inferior to what follows; Book II gradually picks up strength; Book III is far better still. However, Book IV, titled “Sanctus Januarius” is most impressive. Nietzsche wrote to his friend Peter Gast:

“The Gay Science has come; I immediately send you the first copy […] Read, for example, the conclusions of Books II and III […] Above all: is Sanctus Januarius at all comprehensible? After everything I have experienced since I am among men, my doubt about that is tremendous!”

– Nietzsche’s Letter to Peter Gast, August 20, 1882

The title of Book IV “Sanctus Januarius” has a double meaning: it means Holy January (he published the book on January 1882), as well as the miracle of Saint Januarius, whose blood is kept in a vial in a Church and by virtue of a miracle, becomes liquid again on a certain feast day. After a period of convalescence, Nietzsche feels that his own blood has become liquid again.

“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who makes 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: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”

– The Gay Science, §276

Book V, titled “We Fearless Ones”, is late Nietzsche and belongs with the major works of his maturity. The addition of Book V makes it clear that Nietzsche did not consider this book dated by his other masterpieces. It mirrors Nietzsche’s thoughts in such a way that it is a work of art in itself.

God is Dead

God is Dead

The most well-known aphorism is the parable of the madman, where Nietzsche proclaims the death of God:

“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!” – As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another […] The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers […] Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement? What sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? […]”

– The Gay Science, §125

The death of God is one of Nietzsche’s most popular and misinterpreted statements. It is not a celebratory statement, but a tragic historical event in response to the decline of Christianity with the Enlightenment bringing about scientific rationality. It represents a crisis in the existing moral values opening the possibility for nihilism.

Nietzsche suggests that this question was not yet asked widely, but that before long the sense that whatever we do is hardly of any consequence will spread like a disease. This terrifying sense of weightlessness is nihilism.

What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism […] For some time now our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe […].”

– The Will to Power, Preface

The Eternal Recurrence

Eternal Recurrence

One of Nietzsche’s response to nihilism is his doctrine of the eternal recurrence, described under the title “The greatest weight”. Though he hints at it in The Gay Science, it gains a crucial importance in his next book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

The eternal recurrence supposes that you’d have to experience the same life, with the same events and same experiences, repeated for eternity. Nietzsche raises the hypothetical question of how you would react if a demon spelled it out to you.

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” […]

– The Gay Science, §341

Nietzsche suggests that most people would consider this a curse and that it would require the most impassioned love of life

“to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal.”

– The Gay Science, §341

The overman, introduced in Thus Spoke Zarathustra as God’s successor, is the “meaning of the earth” and is the type that would be able to gladly accept the eternal recurrence.

The Overman

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The Gay Science in 10 Minutes | Friedrich Nietzsche

The Gay Science is one of Nietzsche’s most beautiful and important books. He describes it as “the most personal of all his books”.


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Book Review: Nausea – Jean Paul Sartre

Jean Paul Sartre’s first novel, Nausea, gave a name for existential angst. He considered it as one of his best works. It is a philosophical novel with existentialist vibes, that delves into the pure absurdity of the world with Sartre’s wild imagination and explores the randomness and superfluity of the world. Everything that we take for granted and seems normal to us, is disintegrated and torn apart to make it look absolutely absurd.

1. Story

Antoine Roquentin has no need to earn a living. For the past ten years, he has devoted himself to writing a history book about Marquis de Rollebon, a French aristocrat.

Roquentin

His life revolves around writing this book, going to cafés, and spending many hours in the library. He is a solitary figure and a solipsist; he has no friends and usually eavesdrops on other people’s conversations and watches their actions.

Roquentin is a militant and a sufferer. He is at war with Bouville, literally “mud-town” (where he lives), at war with the regulars at the café, at war with the two principal characters with whom he interacts, which are in some way his doubles: Anny (his former lover) and the Autodidact (who has spent hundreds of hours reading at the library, and who thinks he can learn all there is to know by reading every book available in alphabetical order), and finally, he is at war with himself.

Roquentin is overcome by a feeling of nausea as he realises that he had been attempting to resuscitate a historical figure from the past in order to justify his own existence. He experiences an existential crisis. Roquentin decides that the past is a meaningless concept that does not exist, people use the past to take a “vacation from existence”. Thus, he loses interest in his work and decides to live in the present.

He constantly repeats “I exist” and mocks the people of his town. However, he is horrified of his existence and its meaninglessness, but he does not understand why.

“I am. I am, I exist, I think, therefore I am; I am because I think, why do I think? I don’t want to think any more, I am because I think that I don’t want to be, I think that I . . . because . . . ugh!”

He begins to write in a diary to help him explain the strange and sickening sensations that have been bothering him. He documents his every feeling and sensation about the world and people around him. He is struck by episodes that simultaneously alienate and overimmerse him from reality.

“Nothing looked real. I felt surrounded by cardboard scenery which could suddenly be removed. The world was waiting, holding its breath, making itself small – it was waiting for its attack, its Nausea”.

Cardboard scenery

Roquentin finds situations and inanimate objects imbued with meanings which bear the stamp of his existence, all that he encounters in his everyday life is permeated with nauseating sensation.

His sense of life’s pointlessness concerns his awareness that life’s occurrences are random. Life resembles a pack of cards, which he sees earlier in the novel. When we play cards, we invest each card with a useless significance; for what is more random than that fine King of Hearts, say, which we hold in our hands?

“Handsome king, come from so far away, prepared for by so many combinations, by so many vanished gestures. Now he disappears in his turn, so that other combinations may be born, other gestures, attacks, counterattacks, changes of fortune, a host of little adventures.”

King of Hearts

He thinks about killing himself, but concludes that given life’s randomness, suicide too would be random, and thus meaningless – death itself would have been superfluous.

He furiously writes down every insignificant detail. Everyday things such as a pebble, a beer glass, a tree, his own hand, oppresses him with their awful superfluity.

In a peculiar scene, Roquentin finds himself at awe looking at a train seat, he sees it as a pile of dead animals. A seat is only a seat by name, and it seems ridiculous to call them seats or anything at all, he says:

I am in the midst of Things, which cannot be given names”.

Sartre says that we structure life by absences, by nullity. We call a tree a “tree” rejecting all other possible names for it.

Train seat

2. Contingency

One of the key themes is the idea of “contingency”. There is no necessary reason for anything to exist. If evolution were to happen over again, the results would be completely different. He thinks that people attribute essences to objects to supply a reason for their existence. However, Roquentin finds only “nothingness”, an empty vacuum that paradoxically makes up existence. As he explains to the Autodidact, human beings are an accidental offspring of a meaningless reality.

Sartre uses the theme of contingency to criticise the emphasis on a rational world with human existence as its focus and purpose.

In the climax of the novel, Roquentin finds himself looking at a chestnut tree and is flabbergasted by the roots of it, he feels at one with the tree.

“A circle is not absurd, it is clearly explicable by the rotation of a segment of a straight line around one of its extremities. But a circle doesn’t exist either. That root, on the other hand, existed in so far that I could not explain it. Knotty, inert, nameless, it fascinated me, filled my eyes, repeatedly brought me back to its own existence.”

Chestnut Tree

Roquentin realizes that the root first existed and then he attributed an essence to it by describing it as “black.” He realizes that his perception of the root’s essence, in fact hides the truth of the object’s existence.

The comforting facade of tastes, colours, smells, weight, and appearance are thus the creation of the observer. Looking through the essence of objects (the physical characteristics), Roquentin is confronted with the bare existence of things, and thus the source of his Nausea.

He has an epiphany, he discovers that “existence precedes essence”, one of Sartre’s central philosophical claims. Roquentin concludes that the essence of objects are just comforting “facades” that hide the unexplainable nakedness of existence.

He confronts his existential anguish in the face of “nothingness.” Although he can’t see it, “nothingness” is a force that makes up a purposeless reality. He believes that his overwhelming presence of existence is too much for people to handle.

3. Freedom

Freedom

The concept of freedom is an essential part of the book. To understand how truly free we really are, in this case it is optimistic. However, it is also terrifying as we are immersed in an infinite sea of possibilities, in which we must choose.

Sartre said that: “Man is condemned to be free.” We are free to make our own choices but we are condemned to always bear the responsibility of the consequences of these choices.

“Standing in front of the passage Gillet, I no longer know what to do. Isn’t something waiting for me at the end of the passage? But in the place Ducoton, at the end of the rue Tournebride, there is also a certain thing which needs me in order to come to life. I am full of anguish: the slightest gesture engages me. I can’t imagine what is required of me. Yet I must choose: I sacrifice the passage Gillet, I shall never know what it held for me.”

4. Bad Faith

Bad faith

The people whom he watches going about their everyday business, are still veiled in ignorance of their arbitrariness. They are as unfree as Roquentin, yet they hide the terrible imprisonment of their existences by getting up and going to work and so on. They are examples of what Sartre calls bad faith, a way of denying the fundamental nature of our freedom and responsibility, it is a way of making excuses for ourselves to avoid the anguish of absolute freedom.

However, Roquentin defiantly asserts his own existence, claiming that everyone else he sees is afraid to acknowledge that they exist.

5. Conclusion

Conclusion of the novel

Only at the end of the novel does a chink of hope glance on this hero, when he listens to his favourite song on the record player. First, he scoffs at the idea that music “consoles”. But then he begins to think about the melody existing beyond the record player.

“It is beyond, it does not exist, since it has nothing superfluous: it is all the rest which is superfluous in relation to it. It is.”

For the first time in years, Roquentin is moved by the idea of a human being. This reliance on artistic creation to understand oneself becomes the ultimate cure to his Nausea. Rather than give into despair, he thinks about doing something similar to this, not in the realm of music, but in the realm of art. Not a history book, because that is about what has existed. But perhaps an invented story, about something that has never existed:

“It would have to be beautiful and hard as steel and make people ashamed of their existence… A book. A novel.


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Nausea in 10 Minutes | Jean Paul Sartre

Jean Paul Sartre’s first novel, Nausea, gave a name for existential angst. He considered it as one of his best works. It is a philosophical novel with existentialist vibes, that delves into the pure absurdity of the world with Sartre’s wild imagination and explores the randomness and superfluity of the world.


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Book Review: The Antichrist – Nietzsche

The Antichrist was written in 1888 one year before Nietzsche’s descent into madness and immediately after his Twilight of the Idols. Both books should be read under the aspect of the last words of his final original book, his autobiography Ecce Homo:

“Dionysus against the Crucified.”

The German title can be translated as either “The Anti-Christ” or “The Anti-Christian”. It was likely meant to mean both. Dionysus has two opponents, one worthy of him, the other unworthy.

The name Nietzsche gives to his worthy opponent is Christ – hence Dionysus is the Anti-Christ. The unworthy opponent is the Christian, who is undeservedly dignified by being treated to such elaborate condemnation.

Birth of Dionysus - Greek Mythological God of Wine
Dionysus. Ancient Greek God of wine, fertility, ecstasy, festivity.

In the foreword he writes:

“This book belongs to the very few. Perhaps none of them is even living yet. Possibly they are the readers who understand my Zarathustra […] One must be honest in intellectual matters to the point of harshness to so much as endure my seriousness, my passion. One must be accustomed to living on mountains – to seeing the wretched ephemeral chatter of politics and national egoism beneath one. […] Strength which prefers questions for which no one today is sufficiently daring; courage for the forbidden […]Very well! These alone are my readers, my rightful readers, my predestined readers: what do the rest matter? – The rest are merely mankind. – One must be superior to mankind in force, in loftiness of soul – in contempt …”

The book is directed to a minority and is relatively short composed of 62 sections, mainly devoted to attacking Christianity in its institutional form.

Nietzsche is against Christianity’s morality of compassion. He praises:

“virtue free of moralic acid”

– The Antichrist, §2

That is, breaking free of oppressive moral influences that guided the masses, giving way to individual freedom.

Christianity wants everyone to be equal and has waged war against the higher man. However, equality would eliminate all the noble values, and everybody would become mediocre, it is opposed to the ubermensch. There must be a “pathos of distance” a chasm separating the ordinary from the extraordinary.

Nietzsche criticises the decadent values of Christianity, which spring out of illness, weakness and resentment and ultimately opposes our natural instincts. This saps the life of the human being and creates a sick and weak type of human, who is created ill but commanded to be well.

“Created ill but commanded to be well.”

As Christianity is against the instincts, power, and growth; it is against life itself. Under the holiest names lie the values of decline, and nihilism.

It is diametrically opposed to Nietzsche’s Will to Power, in which the instincts are the fundamental component of human identity, the main drive force in humans.

Christianity is a religion of pity. For a noble morality, pity is a weakness, but for Christianity, it is a virtue.

Nietzsche claims that the Christian religion and its morality are based on imaginary fictions:

“this entire fictional world has its roots in hatred of the natural (- actuality! -).”

– The Antichrist, §15

He opposes the Christian concept of God because:

“God degenerated to the contradiction of life, instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yes! In God a declaration of hostility towards life, nature, the will to life! God the formula for every calumny of ‘this world’, for every lie about ‘the next world’! In God nothingness deified, the will to nothingness sanctified.”

– The Antichrist, §18

Nietzsche compares Buddhism with Christianity, and although he considered both to be nihilistic and decadent religions, he states:

“The critic of Christianity is profoundly grateful to Indian scholars that one is now able to compare these two religions. – Buddhism is a hundred times more realistic than Christianity.”

– The Antichrist, §20

Nietzsche considers Buddhism to be more realistic as it does not use the concept of God and the struggle against sin, but rather the struggle against suffering. Buddhism objectively claims, “I suffer,” while Christianity interprets suffering in relation to sin. He claims that Buddhism is “beyond good and evil” because it has developed past the self-deception that lies in moral concepts.

Buddha. “I suffer”

Nietzsche touches on the problem of the origin of Christianity, which grew out of the Jewish instinct. They turned against the natural world with their instincts of resentment against the higher men.

The Jewish priests made use of the decadent population but were not decadents themselves. Nietzsche praises them as they created a Revaluation of all Values, however, it was directed towards decadent values, instead of noble values.

Nietzsche relates the five stages of denaturalising values:

In the first stage, the Jews considered Yahweh to be the God of Justice, it was an expression of its consciousness of power. They affirmed themselves and realised their own power.

Yahweh. The God of Justice

In the second stage the concept of God is falsified and Yahweh became a demanding god. Next, the concept of morality is falsified and is no longer an expression of life and growth.

In the fourth stage the history of Israel is falsified, the great epoch becomes an epoch of decay, a moral world order is established which assigns value to actions that obey the will of God. Punishment and reward are assigned according to the degree of obedience.

In the fifth stage, God’s will is revealed in holy scripture. The sacred book formulates the will of God to the priest, disobedience to God or the priest is henceforth “sin”. Priests use “sin” to gain and hold power and from then on, all things of life are so ordered that the priest is everywhere indispensable: birth, marriage, death and so on, thus the priest becomes part of the holy people.

In this already falsified soil, arose Christianity who revolted against Jewish priesthood:

“The case is of the first rank: the little rebellious movement which is baptised with the name of Jesus of Nazareth is the Jewish instinct once more, in other words the priestly instinct which can no long endure the priest as a reality, the invention of an even more abstract form of existence…”

– The Antichrist, §27

Jesus was brought to the Cross and died for his guilt, however often it is made, that he died for the guilt of others.

Nietzsche touches:

“for the first time … on the problem of the psychology of the redeemer.” – The Antichrist,  §28

The point of his doing is to contrast Christ with the priestly type, who figures in this book as the arch-villain though not the arch-opponent. As Nietzsche discusses Christ, the tone becomes ever warmer and even ecstatic. It becomes one of the most moving and powerful parts of the book:

“He knows that it is through the practice of one’s life that one feels ‘divine’, ‘blessed’, ‘evangelic’, at all times a ‘child of God’. It is not ‘penance’, not ‘prayer for forgiveness’ which leads to God: evangelic practice alone leads to God, it is God! […] The profound instinct for how one would have to live in order to feel oneself ‘in Heaven’ […] this alone is the psychological reality of ‘redemption’. – A new way of living, not a new belief.”

– The Antichrist, §33

From time to time in this piece of exalted prose Nietzsche refers to Jesus as an idiot, though one is compelled to conclude that the frequent employment of the word “Idiot”, derives from his discovery of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

He goes on to write:

“If I understand anything of this great symbolist it is that the took for realities, for “truths”, only inner realities.”

– The Antichrist, §34

The idea of cultivating pure inwardness, freed from any external demands, including that of the primacy of the body, is clearly one that Nietzsche found very attractive. To cultivate inwardness and nothing more, is something no one but Christ managed to do.

Christ. Cultivation of pure inwardness

He was bound to be comprehensively misunderstood, and the history of Christianity is a history of misunderstanding:

“This ‘bringer of glad tidings’ died as he lived, as he taught – not to ‘redeem mankind’ but to demonstrate how one ought to live. What he bequeathed to mankind is his practice.”

–  The Antichrist, §35

However, Christ’s disciples didn’t see things that way. They turned action into doctrine, mistook symbols for facts, and produced a set of decadent and resentful teachings.

“In reality there has been only one Christian, and he died on the Cross.” – The Antichrist §39

Nietzsche criticises Paul the Apostle, who claimed that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice of an innocent man for the sins of the guilty.

“Jesus had done away with the concept ‘guilt’ itself – he had denied any chasm between God and man, he lived this unity of God and man as his ‘glad tidings’”

– The Antichrist §41

Nietzsche states that Christianity has robbed us of the harvest of the Renaissance, which he states as:

“The revaluation of Christian values, the attempt, undertaken with every expedient, with every instinct, with genius of every kind, to bring about the victory of the opposing values, the nobles values.”

– The Antichrist, §61

He praises Cesare Borgia, whom he had a genuine admiration for and considered him as the embodiment of the Renaissance:

“Cesare Borgia as Pope … Am I understood? … Very well, that would have been a victory of the sort I desire today: Christianity would thereby have been abolished!”

– The Antichrist, §61

Cesare Borgia. The embodiment of the Renaissance

He ends stating:

“And one calculates time from the unlucky day on which this fatality arose – from the first day of Christianity! – Why not rather from its last? – From today? – Revaluation of all values!”

– The Antichrist §62



The Antichrist in 10 Minutes | Friedrich Nietzsche

The Antichrist was written in 1888 one year before Friedrich Nietzsche’s descent into madness and immediately after his Twilight of the Idols. Both books should be read under the aspect of the last words of his final original book, his autobiography Ecce Homo: “Dionysus against the Crucified.”


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Book Review: Fear and Trembling – Kierkegaard

Fear and Trembling is a book by Søren Kierkegaard written under the pseudonym Johannes de silentio. Kierkegaard is famous for having multiple pseudonyms. The purpose of this is not to confuse the reader, but rather to make him come up with his own conclusions.

The subtitle of the book is Dialectical Lyric. That is to say, the first part of the book takes a lyrical form, while the second and much more extensive part takes a dialectical one, where there is a back and forth discussion of ideas, in which a thesis and an opposing antithesis resolve themselves into a synthesis.

Through the biblical story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, Kierkegaard, as a great explorer of human psychology, looks into the anxiety that must have been present in Abraham when God commanded him to offer his son as a human sacrifice. However, the book is not primarily concerned with this story; it uses the story to draw the reader’s attention to certain very fundamental questions.

Part I. Fear And Trembling – Preface

In the preface, Johannes suggests how incomprehensible Abraham’s faith is. Abraham didn’t question God, didn’t complain or weep, he simply obeyed God’s orders.

Part I. Fear And Trembling – Attunement

We are presented with four different scenarios of the Abraham and Isaac story. All of them in which just as Abraham is about to sacrifice his son, God stops Abraham and points him to a ram that he is to sacrifice in Isaac’s place.

This takes up the lyrical effort at conveying to us what Abraham actually went through.

In the first version, Abraham tells Isaac that it is not God that commanded to sacrifice him,  but that he is doing it himself. He says that it is better that Isaac believe him to be a monster than that he loses faith in God. In the second version Abraham follows God’s command, but because he cannot understand God’s wish in ethical terms, he saw joy no more. In the third, Abraham understands God’s command as a test of his ethical view and begs to God for having been willing to sacrifice his son, and in the fourth Abraham follows God’s command, but he is filled with anxiety and is visibly trembling, this makes Abraham lose faith, as well as Isaac.

Abraham sacrificing Isaac

Part I. Fear And Trembling – Speech in Praise of Abraham

In the Speech in Praise of Abraham, Johannes establishes Abraham’s greatness on three counts: in respect of what he loved (God), of what he confidently expected (the impossible) and of what he strove with (not with the world or himself, but again God). He is considered as the father of faith.

Although the author can admire Abraham lyrically, there is still the question of whether he can understand him.

Part II. Problemata – Preamble from the Heart

The second part of Fear and Trembling is given over to the problemata, which are prefaced by a “Preamble from the Heart”, taking up the dialectical form.

Kierkegaard coined the term angst to refer to the dizzying awareness of one’s freedom of choice. It is the anxiety of freedom when considering infinite possibilities and the immense responsibility of being able to choose. This proved to be very influential in Existentialism.

Abraham feels anxiety as the result of the ethical obligation he had to his son. The ethical expression of his behaviour is that he tried to murder Isaac, while the religious expression is that he tried to sacrifice Isaac believing that God will give him back.

Abraham has faith “by virtue of the absurd”: there is no room for human calculation in Abraham’s faith or in God’s behaviour.

Kierkegaard believes that there are three stages on life’s way: the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious.

The aesthetic stage or the personal self is the lowest of the three and is primarily concerned with individual sensory experience, this is easily attainable and requires no sacrifice.

The ethical stage or the civic self is the expression of the universal. The individual resigns his actions for the well-being of society as a whole. This is represented by Hegel, who considered the ethical life as the highest manifestation of what he called Absolute Mind, the embodiment of the universal truth.

For Kierkegaard, however, the religious is the highest of all stages. One must go further than the ethical and make a leap of faith.

The religious stage finds the single individual in an absolute relation to the absolute. One exists in a private relationship with God, above the ethical represented by the universal.

Kierkegaard believes that “faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off”.

The general message of the book is that the notion of faith is so far cheapened that what is talked about is not properly called faith at all. Kierkegaard himself savagely criticised Christendom, represented by the Danish Established Church.

Johannes tells us that he himself is not a man of faith, and that though he can speak about Abraham, he could not emulate him. We assume that having faith is easy compared to doing philosophy, but Johannes remarks that he can understand Hegel, a notoriously difficult thinker, but not Abraham.

We are introduced to two important concepts: the knight of infinite resignation and the knight of faith.

The knight of infinite resignation allows himself to resign from the nature of the world.  There is no faith without prior resignation, other than a cheap version of it. Resignation is renouncing one’s most cherished beliefs, reconciling oneself with this loss.

He gives the example of a young man falling in love with a princess. He knows they can never be together, and the idea of being together is absurd. This expresses itself into eternal love,  which would assume a religious character, an eternal form that no one can take away from him, allowing the pain caused by his unsatisfied desire to reconcile him spiritually.

Knight of infinite resignation – Eternal love

The knight of faith does exactly the same as the other knight did, but he takes it one step further, he places complete faith in himself and in God, and since with God all things are possible, even if it is humanly impossible to be together, he still believes that in this world, they will be together, through divine possibility.

By virtue of the absurd, the knight of faith regains everything he gave up in the movement of infinite resignation. These two movements combined make up the double movement of faith.

Abraham makes the movement of infinite resignation when he gives up Isaac and the movement of faith when he regains him once again, he comes back to his original position and therefore received Isaac more joyfully than the first time. Thus, Abraham becomes a knight of faith. By renouncing everything, he receives everything.

Knight of faith

Johannes remarks that he has never seen a knight of faith in his life, but that one would detect nothing of the superiority of him, while he makes the movement of infinity at every step, one could simply not distinguish him from any ordinary person.

He compares the knight of infinite resignation to a ballet dancer, while he leaps beautifully, he lands awkwardly. Only the knight of faith can make a leap and land on the ground perfectly, this is represented in his every step. He delights in everything, he is over and beyond human powers, he is a marvel.

Part II. Problemata

The first of the problemata asks the question, “Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical?

Abraham is prepared to kill his own son even though in doing so he does nothing for the universal and is treated as murder by the ethical. However, since Isaac is ultimately saved – there must be some higher court of appeal than that of the ethical life. This is the “teleological suspension of the ethical”, the ethical becomes secondary as a whole to some other end or telos, the religious stage.

Fear and Trembling, in a nutshell, argues that the religious is higher than the ethical. However, this conclusion is up to the reader.

The second problema asks, “Is there an absolute duty to God? Johannes again defines the ethical as universal, which he in turn associates with the duty to God. Every duty is a duty to God insofar as God is the universal. However, there is no direct relation to God.

Kant and Hegel argue that there is no absolute duty to God. We cannot justify our actions by saying “God told me to”. All moral laws should be universal: for instance, it is never right to lie, regardless of the circumstances. In other words, the ethical is the universal, hence the outer realm is higher than the inner realm.

Johannes challenges this suggesting that there is an absolute duty to God, as in the case of Abraham. Faith is that paradox that the inner is higher than the outer.

There are three figures: the tragic hero, the aesthetic hero, and the knight of faith.

The tragic hero is open to everything as he surrenders to the universal, the aesthetic hero has the possibility of taking on the burden of secrecy, violating the demands of the ethical, and the knight of faith cannot speak because he cannot be understood, as he is isolated from the universal, he is in constant temptation and being put to test, hence “fear and trembling”. However, he is the only one to have intimate relation to God addressing him as “thou” instead of “He”.

The third problema asks if it was ethically defensible that Abraham did not disclose his undertaking to anyone. Disclosure is associated with the universal and hiddenness with the single individual. Abraham acted as a single individual, isolated from the universal, and as such his actions could not be explained or disclosed.

Epilogue

In the epilogue, Johannes suggests that life’s tasks are not to be solved by acquiring new forms of consciousness in which tasks virtually disappear, so that succeeding generations inherit the solutions without having to face any problems.

Faith requires passion, and passion is not something we can learn. We have to experience it ourselves. The highest passion of all is faith, and with regard to faith we all begin at the same place, and no one can go further than faith.

“He who loved himself became great in himself, and he who loved others became great through his devotion, but he who loved God became greater than all.”



Fear and Trembling in 10 Minutes | Kierkegaard

Fear and Trembling is a book by Søren Kierkegaard written under the pseudonym Johannes de silentio. Through the biblical story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, Kierkegaard, as a great explorer of human psychology, looks into the anxiety that must have been present in Abraham when God commanded him to offer his son as a human sacrifice.


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Book Review: Meditations – Marcus Aurelius

The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius written around 2000 years ago, remains one of the great works of spiritual and ethical reflection. It is perhaps the only document of its kind ever made, the private thoughts of the world’s most powerful man. With a profound understanding of human behaviour, Marcus provides insights, wisdom, and practical guidance on everything from living in the world to coping with adversity to interacting with others.

If we seek Plato’s philosopher-king in the flesh, we cannot help but think of Marcus Aurelius, the ruler of the Roman Empire for almost two decades. Yet the title is one that Marcus himself would surely have rejected.

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius

The Meditations can be best seen as “spiritual exercises” written as reflections against the stress and confusion of everyday life, a sort of self-help book. Marcus used philosophy as a soothing ointment.

He had clearly no expectation that anyone but himself would ever read his Meditations. It seems unlikely that he gave the work a title at all. He wrote the Meditations from 170 to 180 A.D, before his death at the age of 58. It had been a particularly dark and stressful period for him. His last years were spent in “warfare and a journey far from home” – Meditations 2.17

After his death, he was succeeded by his son Commodus. Sadly, he turned out to be a dissolute tyrant whose defects were only emphasised by the contrast with his father.

During this era, philosophy was not just a subject to write and argue about, but one that was expected to provide a “design for living” – a set of rules to live one’s life by.

One of the philosophies that particularly inspired Marcus was Stoicism, which is the main source of the key terms and concepts that appear in the Meditations.

Today Marcus Aurelius is considered as the quintessential Stoic. However, if one would’ve asked Marcus what he studied, his answer would have not been “Stoicism” but simply “philosophy”. While the Meditations is built on a Stoic foundation, it also refers to a wide range of figures, such as Socrates, Heraclitus and even the rival school of Epicureanism. Truth was valued over who said what.

Stoicism

Marcus Aurelius: The Quintessential Stoic

One of the central doctrines of the Stoic worldview is that the world is organised in a rational and coherent way. It is controlled by an all-pervading force that the Stoics called “logos” – which is a force similar to the Tao for the Taoists.

Logos designates rational and connected thought. It exists in individuals as the faculty of reason and on the cosmos as the rational principle that governs the organisation of the universe. Thus, rationality and clear-mindedness allow one to live in harmony with the logos.

All events are determined by the logos and follow in an unbreakable chain of cause and effect, which makes it a deterministic system that leaves little room for free will. Although the Stoics believed free will to be a voluntary accommodation to what is in any case inevitable.

Of the major philosophical schools, it was Stoicism that had the greatest appeal. It had always approved of participation in public life, and this stand struck a chord with the Roman aristocracy. Early Stoicism was a holistic system, aiming to embrace all knowledge. Roman Stoicism, by contrast, was a practical discipline – an attitude to life.

In the Meditations, Marcus tries to answer questions such as: How should we live our lives? How can we ensure that we do what is right? And how should we deal with pain and misfortune?

To answer these questions, one must turn to the doctrine of the three “disciplines” of Stoicism which are very present in the Meditations.

The first one is the discipline of perception. It requires that we maintain absolute objectivity of thought. It is not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problem. Our duty is to exercise control over the faculty of perception, with the aim of protecting our mind from error.

The second one is the discipline of action. It relates to our relationship with other human beings. Marcus frequently repeats that we were made not for ourselves but for others, our nature is fundamentally unselfish. However, our duty to act justly does not mean that we must treat others as our equals; it means that we must treat them as they deserve.

And the third one is the discipline of will. While the discipline of action governs our approach to the things in our control, those that we do; the discipline of will governs our attitude to things that are not within our control, those that we have done to us (by others or by nature).

If we act wrongly, we have done serious harm to ourselves (not to others or to the logos). Therefore, we must see things for what they are, this applies to all obstacles and apparent misfortunes, and in particular death.

The Meditations

The Meditations 1811 version

The Meditations is divided into 12 short books written over Marcus’s last decade. In Book 1, Marcus plays tribute to his older relatives, to his teachers, to his adopted father, and ultimately to the gods. The rest of the books are not organised in a chronological manner and go over the same ideas. Scores of entries begin with to “remember” or “keep in mind”.

There is a note of melancholy that runs throughout the work that’s very moving. As the most powerful man, he might also have felt like the loneliest man in the world, it seemed that he had nobody to talk to but himself.

In a number of entries we find a kind of internal debate in which the questions or objections of an imaginary interlocutor are answers by a second, calmer voice, which corrects or rebukes its errors. The first voice seems to represent Marcus’s weaker, human side; the second is the voice of philosophy.

Themes

There are various central themes that recur throughout the book.

1. Perceptions of Good and Bad
Good and Bad

“You take things you don’t control and define them as “good” or “bad”. And so of course when “bad” things happen, or the “good” ones don’t, you blame the gods and feel hatred for the people responsible.” – Meditations 6.41

“Death and life, success and failure, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, all these happen to good and bad alike, and they are neither noble nor shameful – and hence neither good nor bad.” – Meditations 2.11

2. Constant change
Change

It is from Heraclitus that Marcus derives one of his most memorable motifs, that of the unstable flux of time and matter in which we move:

“Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed once and already carried past us, and another follows and is gone.” – Meditations 4.43

“Everything’s destiny is to change, to be transformed, to perish. So that new things can be born.” – Meditations 12.21

3. Mortality
Death

Death is not to be feared as it is a natural process. The Stoics practiced memento mori, meditating on your mortality.

“Suppose that a god announced that you were going to die tomorrow “or the day after.” Unless you were a complete coward you wouldn’t kick up a fuss about which day it was – what difference could it make? Now recognise that the difference between years from now and tomorrow is just as small.” – Meditations 4.47

“Constantly run down the list of those who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever. And ask: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend… or not even a legend […] And how trivial the things we want so passionately are.” – Meditations 12.27

4. Living according to Nature
Nature

Marcus insists that we always follow Nature, as it is good and rational – driven by logos. Since we are all interconnected, man is good by nature and nothing natural is evil.

“What injures the hive injures the bee.” – Meditations 6.54

When a man does wrong to another man, they are hurting themselves.

Our duty is to make people realise where they went wrong, without losing our temper, and not seeking credit in return.

“What defines a human being – is to work with others.” – Meditations 8.12

5. Stoicism and Epicureanism
Marcus Aurelius and Epicurus

Marcus compares the dichotomy of Stoicism and Epicureanism stating: “Providence or atoms” – Meditations 4.3

Atoms refer to the Epicurean universe founded on “mixture, interaction, dispersal”, while Providence refers to the Stoic system of “unity, order, design”.Meditations 6.10

6. Rationality
Reason

Marcus believed (like all Stoics) that our reason could be used to understand the universal reason present in nature (logos). He suggests avoiding random and disconnected actions.

“You need to avoid certain things in your train of thought: everything random, everything irrelevant […] so that if someone says, “What are you thinking about?” you can respond at once (and truthfully) that you are thinking this or that.” – Meditations 3.4

7. The Power of our Mind
Mind

We can choose how we perceive events and we can always choose to be virtuous. If we practice, we can erase any bad impressions from our mind, as we are completely in control of our thoughts and actions.

“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the colour of your thoughts” – Meditations 5.16

“The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” – Meditations 5.20

“To live a good life: We have the potential for it. If we can learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference. – Meditations 11.16

“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.” – Meditations 12.4

8. Pain and Weakness
Melancholy

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work – as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for – for the things I was brought in this world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?” – But it’s nicer here… So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them?” – Meditations 5.1

 “Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.” – Meditations 7.56



Meditations in 10 Minutes | Marcus Aurelius

The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius remains one of the great works of spiritual and ethical reflection, as well as one of the key works of Stoicism.


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Book Review: Twilight of the Idols – Nietzsche

In 1888, the last sane year of Nietzsche’s life, he produced two brief but devastating books: Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ.

Originally titled The Idle Hours of a Psychologist, it was renamed Twilight of the Idols or, How to Philosophise with a Hammer by recommendation of Peter Gast, who urged him to find something more “splendid”. It offers a lightning tour of his whole philosophy, preparing the way for The Anti-Christ, a final assault on institutional Christianity.

Heinrich Köselitz or Peter Gast is known for his longtime relationship with Friedrich Nietzsche

As Nietzsche was starting to become recognised, he felt that he needed a short text that would serve as an introduction to his thought. In a letter, he wrote:

“This style is my philosophy in a nutshell – radically up to criminal…”

Nietzsche’s Letter To Georg Brandes, Turin, 20 October 1888.

Georg Brandes - Wikipedia, entziklopedia askea.
Danish philosopher Georg Brandes called Nietzsche’s philosophy “aristocratic radicalism”. Nietzsche replied: ” The expression ‘aristocratic radicalism’, which you employ, is very good. It is, permit me to say, the cleverest thing that I have yet read about myself.”

The book is divided into twelve sections.

1. Foreword

In the Foreword, Nietzsche speaks of a “grand declaration of war” on all the prevalent ideas of his time.

He uses the word “idols” in the title of his book to refer to the worship of false ideas of god. He seeks to philosophise with a hammer and gently tap or “sound out” these idols. In order to receive that hollow sound which speaks of false and empty ideas of gods that we idolise.

2. Maxims and Arrows

The book starts off with his Maxims and Arrows, which includes some of his most celebrated quotes:

Which is it? Is man only God’s mistake or God only man’s mistake?

  • Maxims and Arrows, 7.

What does not kill me makes me stronger.

  • Maxims and Arrows, 8.

If we possess our why of life we can put up with almost any how.

  • Maxims and Arrows, 12.

Without music life would be a mistake.

  • Maxims and Arrows, 33

3. The Problem of Socrates

In The Problem of Socrates, Nietzsche asserts that ancient philosophers had shared a common belief that life is worthless. He criticised that the consensus of the wise is proof of truth. He holds Socrates in special contempt. The dialectic or Socratic method is an expression of revolt, born out of the resentment of the rabble.

He challenges the Socratic equation reason = virtue = happiness. Nietzsche values instinct over reason, since “happiness and instinct are one”.

He uses the word French word décadence or “decadence” various times throughout the book, describing systems of thought that spring from illness and weakness, such as the formula of rationality at any cost, in opposition to instincts.

4. “Reason” in Philosophy

In the next essay titled “Reason” in Philosophy, Nietzsche calls “Reason” as the cause of our falsification of the evidence of the senses, philosophers escaped from the senses which they believed deceived us from the “real world”.

Nietzsche says that:

“The ‘apparent’ world is the only one: the ‘real’ world has only been lyingly added…”

If one is to accept a non-sensory, unchanging world as superior and our sensory world as inferior, one is adopting a hatred of nature and thus a hatred of the sensory world – the world of the living.

Nietzsche goes on to attack Christianity and the concept of Heaven, a similar concept to Plato’s idea of the world of forms (a changeless, eternal world). The tendency to divide the world into “real” (heaven) and the apparent (living) world, makes people despise this life. Therefore, it is a suggestion of decadence, of declining life.

He praises the Pre-Socratic Heraclitus and his idea of becoming, an ever-present change or flux, which had a major impact on his philosophy.

5. How the “Real World” at last Became a Myth

The next section, “How the “Real World” at last Became a Myth” is a fascinating one.

Nietzsche demonstrates the process by which myth and storytelling are of greater influence than the direct experience of reality. The idea suggests that we may doubt our senses when it conflicts with fiction. It contains six stages outlining the “History of an Error.”

The first four are a de-valuation of an Ideal. In Platonism, the “real world” is attainable through wisdom, in Christianity it is attainable at death, in Kant, it is beyond human knowledge and in Positivism, knowledge of this world suffices.

The last two stages are Nietzsche’s revaluation of an Ideal. He describes the “real world” as a useless idea and calls for a Revaluation of All Values, embodied in the image of Zarathustra, the zenith of mankind, the ultimate Yes-sayer.

6. Morality as Anti-Nature

In Morality as Anti-Nature, Nietzsche reiterates the importance of a healthy morality dominated by an instinct of life. Anti-natural morality, however, is what had always been taught, turning against the instincts of life, becoming enemies of life.

Nietzsche is not a hedonist; he argues that any passions in excess can “drag their victim down with the weight of their folly”. However, he maintains that it is possible for the passions to become “spiritualised”.

Christianity, on the other hand, emphasises its discipline on extirpation, its “cure” is castration. In other words, it attempts to remove the passion completely. It is too weak-willed to impose moderation upon itself, it is hostile to life.

He also calls Schopenhauer’s morality, the “denial of the Will-to-Live”, as the instinct of decadence itself.

Nietzsche champions the spiritualisation of love and enmity Valuing one’s enemies or opponents helps us to define and strengthen our own positions. These are great triumphs over Christianity.

Nietzsche makes it clear that he does not want to eliminate the Christian Church. He recognises that his own philosophy would not be as necessary without it. However, the real “blasphemy” is the Christian “rebellion against life”, which is what Nietzsche attacks.

He concludes that it is “immoralists” such as himself, who must seek their honour in affirming, without valuing one person’s approach over the others.

7. The Four Great Errors

In the chapter, The Four Great Errors, Nietzsche lays out four mistakes of human reason regarding causal relationships that are the basis of all religion and morality. These errors are key for his Revaluation of All Values: the error of confusing cause and consequence, the error of a false causality, the error of imaginary causes, and the error of free will.

Nietzsche denies the concept of “human accountability”, which, he argues, was an invention of religious figures to hold power over mankind.

“Do this and this, refrain from this and this – and you will be happy! Otherwise…”

Free will, Nietzsche thinks, has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is of finding guilty. Thus, he rejects free will as a psychological error.

“Men were thought of as ‘free’ so that they could become guilty; consequently, every action had to be thought of as willed, the origin of every action as lying in the consciousness…”

The internal psychological states that we cannot consciously control such as “happiness” are the true causes of virtuous behaviour, not the human will.

8. The “Improvers” of Mankind

In the next passage, The ‘Improvers’ of Mankind, he proclaims that “there are no moral facts”.

In all ages one has wanted to improve men, this above all is what morality has meant. He calls these people “improvers”. The first example is that of religion, which corrupted the human being, weakened him – but claimed to have “improved him”.

The second example is that of the caste system in India, attempting to moralise man by dehumanising the chandala or so-called “untouchables” who were at the very bottom of society.

9. What The Germans Lack

In “What The Germans Lack”, Nietzsche attributes the decline he sees in the sophistication in German thought to prioritising politics over the intellect. Culture and the state are antagonists and all great cultural epochs are epochs of political decline.

Nietzsche also attributes this decline to the problem of higher education in his day. He argues that educators must teach three vital skills: seeing (“the ability to think before acting on impulse”), thinking (“learned in the way dancing has to be learned”) and speaking and writing (“one has to be able to dance with the pen”).

“All higher education belongs to the exceptions alone: one must be privileged to have a right to so high a privilege. Great and fine things can never be common property.”

10. Expeditions of an Untimely Man

In the longest chapter of the book “Expeditions of an Untimely Man”, Nietzsche examines a variety of cultural figures of his day. He states that most have “the vulgar ambition to possess generous feelings.”

Some notable passages mention the Apollonian and Dionysian ways of life, conceived as forms of intoxication.

He also praises Dostoevsky as “the only psychologist from whom I had anything to learn…”, as well as placing Napoleon and Goethe as ideal figures for the ubermensch.

At the end, he writes:

¨My ambition is to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book – what everyone else does not say in a book…”

11. What I owe to the Ancients

In What I owe to the Ancients, Nietzsche criticises Plato and goes further to claim that “Christianity is Platonism for the people” in its harmful morality. At the end, he turns to the Dionysian lifestyle, to the “eternal joy of becoming”:

“I, the last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus – I, the teacher of the eternal recurrence.”

12. The Hammer Speaks

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog – Caspar D. Friedrich

The last part of the book “The Hammer Speaks” is taken from Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

And if your hardness will not flash and cut and cut to pieces: how can you one day – create with me? […] For all creators are hard […] harder than metal, nobler than metal. Only the noblest is perfectly hard. This new law-table do I put over you, O my brothers: Become hard!

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part III, “Of Old and New Law-Tables”



Twilight of the Idols in 10 Minutes | Nietzsche

Twilight of the Idols or How to Philosophise with a Hammer is one of Nietzsche’s last books, written in 1888. As Nietzsche was starting to become recognised, he felt that he needed a short text that would serve as an introduction to his thought.


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Book Review: The Stranger – Albert Camus

L’Étranger, The Stranger or The Outsider, is a 1942 novel by French author Albert Camus. Though it is a work of fiction, it is often cited as an example of Camus’ philosophy of Absurdism.

The Stranger has had a profound impact on millions of readers. Through the story of an ordinary man unwittingly drawn into a senseless murder on an Algerian beach, Camus explored what he termed “the nakedness of man faced with the absurd.”

Meursault, an indifferent French Algerian, is the protagonist of The Stranger, to whom the novel’s title refers.

The novel begins:

“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.”

Right from the start, we can see Meursault’s emotional indifference and detached personality. An aspect that is often lost in translation is that he uses the child’s word “Maman”, literally “Mommy”, instead of the more adult “Mother”. Camus wrote in his notebooks that:

“The curious feeling the son has for his mother constitutes all his sensibility.”

Meursault is asked if he wants to see his mother who is sealed in the coffin. He declines the offer. During the vigil, he drinks coffee and smokes cigarettes next to the coffin, showing his indifference to his mother’s death.

That night, he happily arrives back in Algiers. The next day he goes to the beach for a swim. There he runs into Marie, his former co-worker, they go watch a comedy at the movie theatre that evening and spend the night together.

Throughout the novel, Marie asks him if he loves her, and he simply replies that: “it didn’t mean anything”, but probably not. She also asks him if he wants to marry her, he replies indifferently but says that they can get married if she wants to, so they become engaged.

Meursault has an encounter with one of his neighbours who curses and beats his mangy dog. One day, he laments that his dog has run away and can be heard weeping in the night longing for its return. This strong grief over someone losing his dog contrasts with Meursault’s indifference at losing his mother.

The climax of the novel takes part on a Sunday trip to a beach house.

“The sun was starting to burn my cheeks, and I could feel drops of sweat gathering in my eyebrows. The sun was the same as it had been the day I’d buried Maman, and like then, my forehead especially was hurting me, all the veins in it throbbing under the skin. It was this burning which I couldn’t stand anymore, that made me move forward. I knew that it was stupid, that I couldn’t get the sun off me by stepping forward. But I took a step, one step, forward. And this time, without getting up, the Arab drew his knife and held it up to me in the sun. The light shot off the steel and it was like a long flashing blade cutting at my forehead […] My whole being tensed and I squeezed my hand around the revolver. The trigger gave […] I knew I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I’d been happy. Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times at the door of unhappiness.”

This is after he had shot the arab man for stabbing his friend with a  knife. | Strange, Arab men, Zelda characters
Meursault shooting the Arab

Meursault kills a man whom he did not know, an involuntary and absurd act. The sun merely struck his knife, sweat was running in his eyes. From this moment he enters the world of judgment. And the world of judgment is the discovery of man.

Meursault is arrested and thrown into jail. His lack of remorse over his crime, and, in particular, his lack of grief at his mother’s funeral makes people think of him as a complete stranger.

In prison, he is tormented by the isolation from nature, women, and cigarettes.

“When I was first imprisoned, the hardest thing was that my thoughts were still those of a free man. For example, I would suddenly have the urge to be on a beach and to walk down to the water.”

He eventually adapts, sharing his mother’s attitude that “after a while, you could get used to anything”.

In the courtroom Meursault is seen as a monster and people believe that the emptiness of his heart threatens to swallow up society. His lack of belief in God, gives him the nickname “Monsieur Antichrist”.

Meursault is afflicted by the madness of sincerity, distinguished by his never wanting to say more than he feels. When asked if he grieved at his mother’s burial, he neither admits nor denies having grieved. It is this tenacious refusal, this fascination with the authenticity of what one is and what one feels that gives meaning to the entire novel.

When asked why he had killed the Arab, he says that it was because of the sun. People laugh at him. Eventually, he is found guilty and is sentenced to death by guillotine. This shows one of the forms of the Absurd, a young man who wants to live but is condemned to die.

While waiting for his execution, he struggles to come to terms with his situation, and he has trouble accepting the certainty and inevitability of his fate. He is visited by the Chaplain who tries to make him renounce his atheism and turn to God, but he refuses. Instead, he declares that he is correct in believing in a meaningless, purely physical world.

The major themes of the book include: the importance of the physical world, the irrationality of the universe and the meaninglessness of human life.

1. The Importance of the Physical World

Meursault is far more interested in the physical aspects of the world than its social or emotional aspects.

For instance, the heat during the funeral procession causes him far more pain than the thought of burying his mother. The sun on the beach torments Meursault, and during his trial he even identifies his suffering under the sun as the reason he killed the Arab.

2. Irrationality of the universe

The second theme is the irrationality of the universe. Although the notion of the absurd is not mentioned in the novel, it is implicit in it.

Which is best described 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, 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. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. It is all that links them together. Thus, the universe and the human mind do not each separately cause the Absurd, but rather, the Absurd arises by the contradictory nature of the two existing simultaneously.

Camus describes it as the conflict between seeking meaning and the inability to find any in an indifferent universe.

Acrylic Speed Painting | Galaxy IV - YouTube
Indifferent universe

The difficulty in accepting this notion drives people to constantly attempt to create a rational structure and meaning in their lives.

Society attempts to impose rational explanations for Meursault’s irrational actions, as the idea that things happen for no reason or that events have no meaning is disruptive and threatening to society.

The courtroom represents society’s attempt to manufacture rational order, trying to offer explanations based on reason for Meursault’s unreasonable acts. The entire trial is therefore an example of absurdity – an instance of humankind’s futile attempt to impose rationality on an irrational universe.

Camus wrote in 1955:

I summarised The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: “In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.” I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.”

3. The Meaninglessness of Human Life

In Absurdism, the only certain thing in life is the inevitability of death, and, because all humans will eventually meet death, all lives are equally meaningless.

Meursault realises this towards the end of the novel. Just as he is indifferent to much of the universe, so is the universe indifferent to him. We are born into a world that was there before and will remain there after we are gone.

However, in this seemingly dismal realisation, he is able to attain happiness. When he fully comes to terms with the inevitability of death, he understands that it does not matter whether he dies by execution or lives to die a natural death at an old age.

“Since we are all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter.”

Meursault starts to truly embrace the idea that human existence holds no greater meaning. He abandons all hope for the future and accepts the “gentle indifference of the world.” This acceptance makes him feel happy.

“For the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself – so like a brother, really – I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again.”


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The Stranger in 10 Minutes | Camus

The Stranger or The Outsider is a 1942 novel by French author Albert Camus. Though it is a work of fiction, it is often cited as an example of Camus’ philosophy of Absurdism.


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Book Review: Modern Man in Search of a Soul – Carl Jung

Modern Man in Search of a Soul is a book published in 1933 and is a comprehensive introduction to the thought of Carl Jung. While some reject religion altogether and look to science for a new age of reason, others look in hope towards a spiritual rebirth.

The book is composed of 11 essays. The first part of the book deals with dream analysis in its practical application, the problems and aims of modern psychotherapy, and also Jung’s theory of psychological types. The middle part addresses his beliefs about the stages of life and Archaic man. He also looks at the differences between his theories and those of Sigmund Freud.

In the last essays, Jung discusses psychology and literature, the basic postulates of analytical psychology as well as the spiritual problem of modern man, comparing psychotherapists and clergymen.

1. Dream Analysis in Its Practical Application

Starting with the first essay, Jung talks about dreams as facts for diagnosis. Almost half of our lives is passed in the nocturnal realm of the psyche and dreams give us invaluable insights about our inner life and hidden personality. As long as they remain undiscovered, they disturb our waking life.

There must be a conscious assimilation of unconscious contents, putting an end to the dissociation of the personality and to the anxiety that inspires the separation of the two realms of the psyche (consciousness and the unconscious), leading one step closer to individuation or self-realisation.

For this, one is to have a careful record of one’s dreams as well as one’s interpretations of them, focusing on the dream-images and patterns while renouncing all preconceived opinions.

2. Problems of Modern Psychotherapy

Jung calls his approach “analytical psychology”, inspired both by Freud (the founder of psychoanalysis) – who emphasises the pleasure principle, and Adler’s individual psychology, who emphasises a will to power arising from a sense of inferiority.

Jung’s analytical psychology is based on four stages: confession, explanation, education, and transformation.

The idea of sin made way for repressions to arise, for this reason – one has to go through a catharsis or cleansing. The stage of explanation restores unconscious contents to consciousness, while the stage of education is social adaptation. The last stage, that of transformation, depends on two types of people: those who are unsuccessful and strive to be “normal” and those who are “normal” and strive to lead an “abnormal” life.

“What sets one free is for another a prison.”

3. The Aims of Psychotherapy

Jung was interested in primitive psychology, mythology, archaeology, and comparative religion – giving rise to his idea of archetypes, which belong to what he called the collective unconscious.

These primordial images have been ingrained in man from time immemorial and make up the groundwork of the human psyche. Wisdom is a rediscovery of these archetypes.

“Man believes that he creates ideas, but in reality, they create him.”

4. A Psychological Theory of Types

In his psychological theory of types, Jung mentions two of his most famous terms: extraversion and introversion – closely related to the ideas of thinking, feeling, sensation and intuition.

He also talks about his idea of complexes. These have a certain amount of autonomy in our psyche and influence our conscious intentions, though they arise from conflicts – they allow us to open new possibilities of achievement.

The very first complex one has is the parental complex (or what Freud calls the Oedipus complex) because the parents are the first reality with which the child comes into conflict.

5. The Stages of Life

Jung emphasises three major stages of life: puberty, youth, and middle life.

He does not speak of childhood as it is governed by impulse and one essentially lives in the unconscious, few or no problems are met with as one relies on his parents. He also leaves apart extreme old age, for we become again something of a problem for others.

It is only when the child grows and recognises that he has an ego, that he can start having doubts about himself.  The stage of puberty puts an end to the dream of childhood. However, if we remain fixated in a stage of instant gratification, we may develop a neurosis.

In the last stage, when we are around 35 years of age, a significant change in the human psyche is in preparation, here is where people may experience a midlife crisis.

Thus, to transform a human being into a new – a future – man, one must allow the old forms of life to die away.

6. Freud and Jung – Contrasts

There are various contrasts between Freud and Jung. Jung believes in the importance of religious and spiritual ideas, the collective unconscious, dreams as reflecting many different aspects of human life as well not having a one-sided notion of the pleasure principle.

Jung is often accused of mysticism. However, this is unjustifiable, as the human psyche has been developing through spiritual and religious ideas since time immemorial.

7. Archaic Man

Jung dedicates an essay on the Archaic Man, which refers to primitive mentality. However, every civilised human being is still an archaic man at the deeper levels of his psyche, as it is part of the collective unconscious.

Modern man is surrounded by a world that is obedient to rational laws. We resent the idea of invisible and arbitrary forces, for it is not so long ago that we made our escape from that frightening world of dreams, superstitions, and chance occurrences.

Primitive man, however, assumes that everything is brought about by invisible forces, which belong to their world of experience.

“Magic is the science of the jungle”.

When modern man who celebrates Easter is asked about the meaning of these idols and eggs, he does not know. He is just like primitive man.

“Archaic man does what he does – and only civilised man knows what he does.”

8. Psychology and Literature

In his essay on Psychology and Literature, Jung states that every creative person is both a human being with a personal life and an impersonal creative process. The art itself is a genuine primordial experience, a true symbolic expression that exists in its own right but is imperfectly known, through the artist.

“It is not Goethe who creates Faust, but Faust which creates Goethe”

9. The Basic Postulates of Analytical Psychology

Jung was the first person to depart from “psychology without the psyche” and create a “psychology with the psyche”, which is the basic postulate of analytical psychology. It is, however, not a modern psychology, but rather one who turns back to the teachings of our forefathers, to the spirit as a life-force.

We only believe that we are masters in our own house to flatter ourselves. The unconscious is always there beforehand as a potential system of psychic functioning handed down by generations of man. Consciousness is a late-born descendant of the unconscious psyche.

The idea of psychic reality is the most important achievement of modern psychology, but scarcely recognised as such.

10. The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man

The spiritual problem of modern man is perhaps more relevant now than ever. The modern man is one who has outgrown the stages of consciousness belonging to the past, achieving a full consciousness of the present. The conscious, modern man, acknowledges the might of psychic forces.

“It is true that modern man is a culmination, but tomorrow he will be surpassed.”

Jung saw unfold the two World Wars, showing us how thin the walls are which separate a well-ordered world from chaos.

Much of the evil of the world is because man is hopelessly unconscious, with increasing insight we can combat this evil at its source in ourselves. Until then, we are essentially at war with ourselves, and the greatest danger is man’s psyche.

A fundamental law of life – enantiodromia – the reversal into the opposite, is what allows the reunion of the halves of one’s personality and bring the eternal war to an end. However, the acceptance of the shadow-side of human nature is a constant, and lifelong process.

The East is at the bottom of the spiritual change we are passing through today and it is from the depths of our own psychic life that new spiritual forms will arise. While we are overpowering the Orient from the outside, it is overpowering us from within.

We must reconcile ourselves with the mysterious truth that the spirit is the living body seen from within and the body the outer manifestation of the living spirit – the two really being one.

11. Psychotherapists or the Clergy

Many people suffer from meaninglessness as they remain in a spiritual stagnation. The future task of psychology, Jung states, is the investigation of the patient’s spiritual determinants.

Jung suggests that the clergyman which represents the medicine-man is the saviour of the body as well as the soul, and religions are systems of healing for psychic illness, they should join forces with the psychotherapist to meet this great spiritual task. Man can only be helped from his suffering by revelations of a wisdom greater than his own. It is this which lifts him out of his distress.

“Faith, hope, love, and insight are the highest achievements of human effort, and they are found given by experience.”


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Modern Man in Search of a Soul in 10 Minutes | Jung

Modern Man in Search of a Soul was published in 1933 and is a comprehensive introduction to the thought of Carl Jung. The writing covers a broad array of subjects such as gnosticism, theosophy, Eastern philosophy and spirituality in general.


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Existentialism Explained

What is the meaning of life? It is likely that you have asked yourself this question before, this is known as an existential crisis. A state in which you re-examine your life in the context of death and are impacted by the contemplation of the meaning, purpose, or value of life.

Existentialism is a philosophy that explores this problem of human existence, with an emphasis on the individual who starts in an apparently meaningless world, and who seeks to create meaning in a world without inherent meaning.

Existentialism is most commonly associated with several 19th and 20th century philosophers: Søren  Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Martin Heidegger, Jean Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus.

However, many of these thinkers never used the term “existentialist” to describe themselves, some of them even rejected the label, while others accepted it. What they did share is a common template. Many of them regarded traditional systematic or academic philosophies too abstract and remote from concrete human experience and focused on the authenticity of the individual.

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is regarded as the father of existentialism, who along with Nietzsche, provided the basic foundations of 19th century Existentialism.

Nietzsche and Kierkegaard

Dostoevsky is a key figure as well, although he was a novelist more than a philosopher, he was one of the first to properly define key existentialist ideas. Walter Kaufmann declares: “it is as if Kierkegaard had stepped right out of Dostoevsky’s pen”.

Thus, Existentialism is not just about philosophy, but also combines together into novels, literature, and poetry. Notes from the Underground is one of the most important works of existentialist literature, where Dostoevsky attempts to justify the existence of individual freedom as a necessary part of humankind. He argues that the abstraction of ideologies has no basis in what one actually is and that makes a person live an inauthentic life.

One of Dostoevsky’s existential messages is that the purpose of life is to act properly by being authentic to yourself.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Kierkegaard’s work focused on the individual as well, highlighting the importance of subjectivity, personal choice, and commitment. Although he was a Christian, he was very critical of Christendom, which was represented by the Danish Established Church, who made people live falsely religious lives.

People became so absorbed in the crowd that they became mere numbers of a herd. When religion is integrated into society, the social scene becomes the religious scene, and for that reason, religion had died.

Kierkegaard suggests that the only way out of existential angst is to take a leap of faith towards Christianity, emphasising a personal relationship with God, the subjective truth of the individual. It is the ultimate irrational experience, which is the most rational thing to do.

Nietzsche, on the other hand, was completely disillusioned with religion, announcing that God is Dead. He calls Christianity a slave morality, which resents the virtues of the powerful and promotes turning the other cheek. He wanted to create life affirming individuals, calling for a master morality, which does not intend to oppress others, but rather create new values and ways of life, through a Revaluation of All Values, giving way to the figure of the ubermensch, thus man becomes God.

Friedrich Nietzsche

It is interesting to see the profound doctrinal differences between the thinkers, even while sharing a common template. Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard were theistic thinkers, while Nietzsche was atheistic.

The term existentialism was actually coined in the mid-1940s by Christian Existentialist Gabriel Marcel, who focused on the modern individual’s struggle in a technologically dehumanising society.

Gabriel Marcel, coined Existentialism

Marcel later came to reject the label he himself had coined, to dissociate himself from figures such as fellow French Existentialist Jean Paul Sartre, preferring the term Christian Socratic in honour of Kierkegaard’s work with Socratic irony.

Sartre adopted the existentialist label and greatly helped popularise existentialist thought. He proposes the famous maxim: “existence precedes essence”.

Jean Paul Sartre

Ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle believed that essence precedes existence. Every human being is born with an essence, that is what gives us the properties of being a human being. This is known as Essentialism.

Sartre flips this around and tells us that we are a blank canvas, that we create and make ourselves through what we do, and thus existence precedes essence. In this way, our life is a work of art. However, this freedom also becomes a slightly horrifying realisation:

“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

Martin Heidegger is another important existentialist who talks about the idea of “thrownness”, that we are all thrown into the world, arbitrarily born into a given family, within a given culture and at a given moment in human history, these “givens” are facticities.

The task we decide to be constantly engaged in and care about have very little to do with us, they are sort of decided for us by the particular facticity that we were born into. We are thrown with neither prior knowledge nor individual opinion into a world that was there before and will remain there after we are gone.

Sartre would tell us that “freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” He was very influenced by Heidegger’s masterpiece Being and Time, publishing his own book titled Being and Nothingness. However, Heidegger distances himself from Sartre’s existentialism due to major differences in their ideas.

Martin Heidegger

Once you realise that you are completely free, the responsibility that follows and the infinite possibilities that are open to you, creates a sort of dread.

It leads many people to adopt what Sartre calls Bad Faith, a way of denying the fundamental nature of our freedom and responsibility and accepting something as true, that might not be convincing, but that is convenient and easy for us to believe in.

He gives the example of a waiter who does not enjoy his job but goes to work every day and assumes the roles of a waiter, without feeling fulfilled. And when he thinks of applying to a different job, and all the difficult questions that would come along with that sort of life choice, he convinces himself that it’d be better to just remain a waiter.

This is similar to Kierkegaard’s idea that “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”.

One may possess the ability to freely act, but if one never uses it and thinks about an endless sea of possibilities, one is effectively not capable of freely acting. One gets lost in the “infinite”, as Kierkegaard puts it, and lives a totally unimaginative everyday life.

Infinite sea of possibilities

The other part is getting lost in the “finite”. That is, not considering enough possibilities and just mindlessly going around the demands of culture and social expectations. People live a complete lie; they live because of what everyone tells them that’s what one does. This can be a scary realisation as most people are not aware of this, they see everything they do as their own choice.

Similarly, Heidegger tells us that inauthenticity occurs when we embody only our facticity (the reality we have been thrown into) and our fallenness (falling into tasks that other people tell us to do). One becomes Das Man “The-they”, surrendering one’s existence to a formless entity, instead of choosing to do something that we want, we do it because “that is what they do”.

Das Man “the-they”

Albert Camus was an acquaintance of Sartre. However, the disagreements between them emerged quickly and they eventually split. Camus is considered to be an existentialist, even though he firmly rejected the term throughout his life. He contributed to the rise of the philosophy known as Absurdism.

Camus describes 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 or chaotic and irrational universe”.

Man seeks for meaning, only to receive the “unreasonable silence” of the universe in response.

Camus states: “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.

Albert Camus

The Myth of Sisyphus is a fierce expression of the Absurd. Sisyphus is the absurd hero condemned to a lifetime of rolling a large boulder up a hill, only to reach the top and have the boulder roll back down to the bottom for him to start all over again, for eternity.

The Myth of Sisyphus

This incredibly vivid imagery is an allegory of the human condition, of our futile search for meaning in an indifferent and meaningless universe, while working on the same mundane tasks, we all have to push our own boulders, only to watch it roll back down.

Although all this only scratches the surface of existentialism, it can serve as a guide to explore its diverse thinkers, with core ideas such as authenticity, individuality, subjectivity, freedom and responsibility, in order to understand and pursue the meaning of your life.


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Existentialism in 10 Minutes

Existentialism is a philosophy that explores the problem of human existence, with an emphasis on the individual who starts in an apparently meaningless world, and who seeks to create meaning in a world without inherent meaning.


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Introduction to Jacques Lacan

Jacques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist sometimes referred to as “the French Freud” and is regarded as an important figure in the history of psychoanalysis. The Imaginary, the Symbolic, the Real and the Mirror Stage are some of Lacan’s most notable ideas.

His teachings explore the significance of Freud’s discovery of the unconscious, proposing a “return to Freud”.

Lacan exerted his influence primarily through his yearly seminars in Paris, with a total of 27 seminars completed during his lifetime.

Lacan founded his own analytic organisation after being rejected by the conventional institutions. His magnum opus is the nine-hundred-page tome Écrits or “writings”, which gather many of Lacan’s most important ideas as well as condensed versions of the annual seminars. The book elevated Lacan into his fame as the French Freud.

However, the best way to start with Lacan is through his seminars. His vision recovers in Freud the intimate relationship between the unconscious and the ego. For Lacan, the ego is an object rather than a subject.

The portrait of the ego-as-object is at the heart of Lacan’s lifelong critical polemics against Anglo-American ego psychology. For Lacan, their error is that they pretend to explain human behaviour through the desire and rationality of an autonomous ego. However, the ego is nothing more than an epiphenomenon (a secondary effect), that far from managing desire, is a mere product of it.

We desire things to become a more fulfilled self, however, we can never truly be ourselves, as our desire is never quenched.

Lacan & Language

Language

One of Lacan’s most famous statements is: “the unconscious is structured like a language”. Lacan’s notion of language is influenced by Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistic structuralism.

In semiotics (the study of signs), a sign has two aspects: signifier and signified. These two are completely psychological and do not represent material concepts.

The signifier is the symbol, sound, or image that represents an underlying concept or meaning. For example, an apple. The signified is the concept of the thing, in this case – a specific fruit.

Aspects of a Sign

It is possible to have words that have no signified (like a specific fruit) or to have concepts that have no signifiers (like the word apple).

Lacan famously said that: “the signifier represents a subject for another signifier”.

The unconscious is structured like “language” in the sense of the different relation of signifiers to each other. The distinction that Saussure made between language and speech reflects for Lacan the distinction between the unconscious and the ego.

Lacan tells us that the psyche is composed of three stages, or what he calls “registers”: the imaginary, the symbolic and the Real.

Borromean Knot of the Three Registers

These three form the skeletal framework for most of Lacan’s intellectual life. The registers do not have a linear stage of development, but rather a mutual dependence on one another.

Before starting with the imaginary stage, the very first significant stage in human development is the “mirror stage”.

The Mirror Stage

Baby seeing his mirror self

As infants, we dependent on our parents for protection and food. Our inability to physically do the necessary bodily needs to satisfy our necessities produces frustration and anxiety.

The feeling of impotence, especially between 6 and 18 months of life, makes the child experience their body as fragmented.

During this time, infants have their first experience of seeing their own reflection in a mirror, Lacan calls this the “specular image” from which the ego-as-object emerges. The child is fascinated by this “other self” because he sees there his body as integrated and projects a unified ego as something distinct from what he is. He sees in it the possibility of overcoming his fragmented condition to become a whole self.

Through the identification with an idealised image, the infant enters a lifelong quest to achieve this Ideal-I, however, this quest can never be fulfilled, as we can never be ourselves. This split is the root cause that gives way to alienation, anxiety, and neurosis.

The role of the “other” (the image in the mirror) undermines the idea of an autonomous self that develops and relates to others.

The loss of autonomy upon becoming aware that one is a visible object is linked to the “Gaze”, which is the anxious state of mind that comes with the self-awareness that one can be seen and looked at.

Other people can also be said to “mirror” back to one an “image” of oneself, a sense of how one “appears” from other perspectives.

The parent’s encouragements to the child to recognise himself in the mirror gives way to what Lacan calls méconnaissance or “misrecognition”. Which continues throughout life for all experiences of “recognising” oneself as being a particular kind of I.

The ego becomes a repository for the projected desires and fantasies of larger “others”; the child’s image being overflowed by signifiers flowing from other speaking beings.

Recognising the ego as embodying and representing an authentic and unique selfhood that is most genuinely one’s self, is tantamount to misrecognising that, at root, the ego isultimately made of alienating unconsciously adopted ideas or attitudes of others, through which one is seduced and subjected to.

Lacan calls the ego “the desire of the Other” (qua others’ conscious and unconscious wants and machinations). Thus, Lacan declares that “the self is the other”, that is, the self is what it is because of your relationship with the other.

1. The Imaginary

Imaginary as in image-based

The mirror stage is tied with the Imaginary order, which is the first encounter of the self with the world where due to the lack of language and signifiers, the infantile cognition is based on the visual field, it is image based.

In broader terms, it is concerned with who and what one “imagines” other people to be, what one “imagines” when communicating with others, and what one “imagines” oneself to be, including from the imagined perspectives of others.

The Imaginary is central to Lacan’s conception of ego-formation, as experienced in the mirror stage. It is an intrinsic, unavoidable dimension of one’s existence, and it is neither possible nor desirable to eliminate the illusions of the Imaginary.

In other words, it is a host of intra-subject and intersubjective relationships which are imagined and internalised.

The fictional abstractions of the Imaginary, far from being merely “unreal” as ineffective, inconsequential epiphenomena, are integral to and have very concrete effects upon actual, factual human realities.

2. The Symbolic

The Symbolic

Lacan emphasises the dependence of the Imaginary on the Symbolic. This dependency means that we are shaped and determined by socio-linguistic structures and dynamics.

The Symbolic is theorised on the basis of resources provided by structuralism, particularly Saussure. It refers to the laws, customs, norms, institutions, rituals, and traditions that structure the socio-cultural environment that one inhabits. Lacan calls this the “symbolic order” or “the big Other”, all of these things being entwined as networks of interlinked signifiers that depicts the analytic unconscious (qua “structured like a language”).

An individual human being is thrown at birth (along the lines of Heideggerian Thrownness), to this non-natural universe, a pre-existing order preparing places for us in advance.

We essentially are who we are, because of the socio-cultural and linguistic environment, represented by the Symbolic.

To interpret the desire of the unconscious, one must refer to a world beyond the imaginary, where nature reigns, to the symbolic world of culture with all its norms and institutions.

3. The Real

The Real

Lacan conceives of the Real as bound up with both of the other two registers. It is the core of the triad. The Imaginary and the Symbolic when taken together as mutually integrated, constitute the field of “reality”, itself contrasted with the persistence of the Real, which is radically un-representable and beyond existence.

The Real is intrinsically elusive, resisting by nature capture in the comprehensibly meaningful formulations. It is, as Lacan stresses, an “impossibility” vis-à-vis reality.

It is what we spend the whole of our lives unaware of and at the same time, is what enables us to function properly. It is also the reason that much that we do cannot be explained. In other words, it is something that we can never know that has an effect on what we do, especially our anxieties and neuroses.

The Real can be experienced when our reality is ruptured, where everything that we find meaningful in life is torn apart, and we gaze at the terrifying void of existence, as experienced in traumatic events.

Towards the end of his life, Lacan adds a fourth register – the sinthome or symptom, which is what binds everything together.

While the Real cannot be cured, the main purpose of Lacanian psychoanalysis is to dismantle the specular image, which begins in the mirror stage, loosening its narcissistic fixation on itself, to recognise our fundamental relationship with the other, which is ultimately, what we really are.


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Jacques Lacan in 10 Minutes

Jacques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist sometimes referred to as “the French Freud” and is regarded as an important figure in the history of psychoanalysis. The Imaginary, the Symbolic, the Real and the Mirror Stage are some of Lacan’s most notable ideas.


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“A room without books is like a body without a soul.” — Cicero

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