Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov and Nietzsche’s Übermensch

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The Übermensch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Raskolnikov

Raskolnikov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Nietzsche and Dostoevsky

Nietzsche and Dostoevsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov VS Nietzsche’s Ubermensch | Existentialism

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

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The Comedy of Existence: Superhuman Laughter – Nietzsche | Existentialism

Nietzsche states in Beyond Good and Evil:

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

(Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil p. 294)

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

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

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

Laughter of the Herd and Laughter of the Height

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 180)

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

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

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

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

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

(Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 293)

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

(Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 294)

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

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

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

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

(Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 303)

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

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

(Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 305)

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

Becoming who one is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the person who attains the height can laugh at:

“all tragedies, real or imaginary.”

(Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 305)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zarathustra

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Nietzsche, The Gay Science, §12)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, §20)

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

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

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

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

(Nietzsche, The Gay Science, §276)

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The Comedy of Existence: Superhuman Laughter – Nietzsche | Existentialism

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

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The Absurd – Camus, Kierkegaard & Dostoevsky | Existentialism

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

Albert Camus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Søren Kierkegaard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kirillov in the book cover of Demons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sisyphus by Franz von Stuck 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nietzsche and Eastern Philosophy (Hinduism)

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

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

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

Chandala caste

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

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

Louis Jacolliot — Wikipédia
Louis Jacolliot

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

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

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

Heinrich Köselitz - Alchetron, The Free Social Encyclopedia
Heinrich Köselitz

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

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

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

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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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

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

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

In one of the book’s passages he wrote:

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

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

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

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

In a letter to Paul Deussen, Nietzsche writes:

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

Paul Deussen - Wikipedia
Paul Deussen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shiva, The Creator and the Destroyer • Canarias Agusto
Shiva

In the end of Daybreak, he states:

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

Daybreak, 575

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

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

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


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

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Nietzsche and Eastern Philosophy (Buddhism)

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

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

Nietzsche, The Antichrist, 23

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

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

Arthur Schopenhauer

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

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

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

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

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

Samsara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nietzsche, The Antichrist, 20

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

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

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

In his analysis of the self, Nietzsche contended:

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

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

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

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

However, on the whole, this impression is deceptive.

Nietzsche after his mental collapse

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

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The Stoic Virtues (Art of Living): Wisdom

Wisdom or prudence can be gathered through learning, discussion and trial and error. The wise man is able to offer himself good counsel. As Seneca says:

A man with white hair and wrinkles hasn’t lived long – he has just existed long.

Your time is valuable, and it is the only thing that you cannot ever get back.  Therefore, one must develop oneself. The Stoics believed that the person who has achieved perfect consistency in the operation of his rational faculties, the “wise man,” is extremely rare, yet serves as a prescriptive ideal for all. Progress toward this noble goal is both possible and vitally urgent.

Wisdom, for Stoics, can be referred to the nature of the good (virtue) and bad (vice), things that are indifferent (which neither benefit nor harm) and knowing how to act appropriately under different circumstances.

In essence, it is to understand the most important things in life, closely related to the meaning of the word “philosophy”: the love of wisdom.

Alienation from our fate is a common theme in the Stoic literature and is often marked by frustration.  The Stoics practice amor fati, the love of fate, embracing whatever happens in one’s life.

To take ownership of our fate, we need to understand the indifferent nature of the external reality and to live in harmony with events beyond our control.

Following these four virtues: courage, justice, temperance and wisdom, we can avoid the trap of becoming inner slaves to our vices.

These are the virtues that the Stoics live by on a daily basis to improve their lives and the lives of people surrounding them, applying them on each and every situation that they find themselves in, ultimately it is a philosophy that teaches us the Art of Living.


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The Stoic Virtues (Art of Living): Temperance

Not to be confused with the temperance movement against the consumption of alcohol. To Stoics, temperance is moderation, or self-discipline. There must be a balance, to know what to choose, what to avoid, and what things to not do at all. We are to do the right number of things in the right way, avoiding excess through sheer willpower.

Temperance movement

If someone is provoking you to fall into vice, inciting violence, fear, hatred and so on, one is to respond thoughtfully and calculatedly instead of being reactionary and responding with one’s emotions.

Nassim Taleb defines Stoicism as:

“The domestication of your emotions, not the elimination of your emotions.”

A great way to practice this virtue is journaling. The Stoics were big on journaling, the Meditations wasn’t intended to be a book, it was the private thoughts of the Emperor of Rome.

Epictetus, who was a former slave says:

“Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will—then your life will flow well.”

This of course, overlaps with courage. The first thing in life for a Stoic is to separate the things which are ‘up to us’ and things that are ‘not up to us.’ In Stoicism, this is known as the Dichotomy of Control. We are simply to accept things outside our control for what they are, focusing on what we can control, and how we respond to these things.


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The Stoic Virtues (Art of Living): Justice

Different from the modern conception of justice in the legal sense, the Stoics refer it more to what would be moral in our dealings with others by treating others fairly and doing the right thing.

As Marcus Aurelius said: Do the right thing, the rest doesn’t matter.

Thus, it is a much more broader concept of social virtue, encompassing kindness, benevolence and goodwill toward others.

The theme of the Stoic hero or wise man who protects weaker members of his herd recurs throughout the surviving Stoic literature.  He will face a lion and endure pain and injury from his claws, to defend the weaker members, because their lives instinctively matter to him, as our family and kin, ultimately to love one’s brothers and sisters.

The Stoic Hierocles recommends that we imagine our relationship as consisting of a series of concentric circles. Naturally, we are at the centre, our family and friends are in the next ring, then our community, all humanity, and eventually loving the whole of Earth. We are to draw those in the outer circles closer to the centre.

Next up: Temperance


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The Stoic Virtues (Art of Living): Courage

Stoicism is a philosophy most popularly associated with Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. The Stoic school of philosophy was founded by Zeno of Citium at around 300 B.C. The supreme goal being “living in agreement with nature”, which implies both living in harmony with the universe in acceptance of its nature and laws and also living in agreement with ourselves, being consistent between our thoughts and actions. This allows us to flow through life smoothly and with inner peace, flourishing as individuals and fulfilling our own human nature, achieving eudaimonia, commonly referred to as “happiness”, although a better translation would be “fulfilment”.

One of Stoicism’s main misconceptions is that it may seem cold-hearted or unemotional. This is simply not the case. In the beginning of Marcus’ Meditations, he spends a whole chapter reminding himself of the most important things about the most important people in his life, his family and teachers.

Instead of studying philosophy in an abstract and theoretical way, Marcus shows the study of real-life examples of Stoicism being applied in daily life, as an art of living, that we can best grasp as the true meaning of the philosophy.

The modern Stoics often refer to the four cardinal virtues, recognised by Plato and Christianity, although they might date back even further than this. These virtues are courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom.

Virtue

Allegory of Fortune and Virtue Painting by Peter Paul Rubens
Virtue

Virtue comes from the Latin word Virtus, which means moral excellence. The ancient Romans used this word to refer to all of the “excellent qualities of men, including physical strength, valorous conduct, and moral rectitude.” To be virtuous is excellence at being human, giving way to happiness and harmony.

Aristotle defined virtue as a point between a deficiency and an excess of a trait, the point of the greatest virtue lies not in the exact middle, but a golden mean sometimes closer to one extreme than the other, such as confidence between self-deprecation and vanity.

What is the Golden Mean in Philosophy? | Mere Liberty

The Stoics held that virtue is the only real good and so is both necessary and sufficient for happiness.

These virtues can be understood as a way of living harmoniously with our own self, with other people and with external events in the world.

The Stoics use wisdom for living according to our true nature, justice for living harmoniously with other people as part of a community, and courage and temperance for living and embracing the fate that we are subject to, with respect to external events.

These virtues, of course, are all interrelated and overlap, one must for example have the necessary moral wisdom applied to one’s actions to act justly in relation to other people or be courageous enough to allow for self-restraint or moderation. The Stoics offered an analogy: just as someone is both a poet, an orator and a general, but is still one individual, so too the virtues are unified but apply to different spheres of action.

In this post we will be exploring the first virtue: Courage.

Courage

Lion Head Wall Mural - Animal Wall Mural | Eazywallz

Courage is the opposite of the vice of cowardice. We are to bravely stand up for what we believe, facing daily challenges and struggles with no complaints all the while being a good person.  

We are to strive for objectivity, since what causes human suffering is not the things in the world, but our beliefs about those things. We are to try to perceive the world as it is in itself, without the subjective colouring we automatically tend to ascribe to everything we experience

For the Stoics, courage also extends to the endurance of pain, discomfort and even death. One is to be unmoved by fear and willing to confront danger, pain, or intimidation.

Aulus Gellius tells the story of an unknown Stoic teacher caught in a storm at sea.

There was a terrifying storm where the boat was in danger of sinking and the crew drowning. The Stoic teacher was frightened and turned ghastly pale, but unlike the rest he wasn’t uttering any lamentations.

Thoughts for the Storm -The School of Life Articles | Formally The Book of  Life
Stoic teacher caught in a storm at sea

After a while, the sky cleared and the sea grew calm, the Stoic teacher was approached by a man of elegant apparel who said in a bantering tone, what does this mean, sir philosopher, that when we were in danger you were afraid and turned pale, while I neither feared nor changed colour? – The teacher did not respond to his question and they parted ways.

However, when they were approaching land, the teacher was approached by someone else, who asked him what the reason for his fear was, which he refused to reveal to the man who had improperly addressed him. He answered that:

Even the mind of a wise person is bound to be disturbed, and to shrink back and grow pale for a moment, not from any idea that something bad is going to happen, but because of certain swift and unconsidered movements which forestall the proper functioning of the mind and reason.

Before long, however, the wise person refuses to give his assent to these terrifying visions of the mind, but rejects them, and sees nothing in them that ought to inspire him with fear. And that is the difference, they say, between the mind of a wise person and that of a fool, that the fool thinks that the things that initially strike the mind as harsh and terrible really are such, and then, as if they are truly to be feared, goes on to approve them by his own assent, whereas one who is wise, after being briefly and superficially affected in his colour and expression, does not give his assent, but retains the consistency and firmness of the opinion that he has always had about mental visions of this kind, namely, that such things are in no way to be feared, but arouse terror only through false appearances and empty alarms. 

Next up: Justice


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Book Review: The Myth of Sisyphus – Albert Camus

One of Albert Camus’ most famous and important works is the philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus. It starts off with a powerful and thought-provoking statement:

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

Rating

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Physical suicide tends to happen without going through reflection, “one evening the person pulls the trigger or jumps.” Killing oneself is a sort of confession, that life is too much, that it is incomprehensible, or that it is not worth the trouble. Dying voluntarily implies the absence of any profound reason for living and the uselessness of suffering.

The novel presents itself through an absurdist lens. The Absurd is the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life, and the human inability to find any meaning in a purposeless, meaningless, and irrational universe, with the “unreasonable silence” of the universe in response. Trying to define this, is like water slipping through one’s fingers.

The “unreasonable” silence of the universe

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.

Another important aspect of this book is that it is atheistic in nature, he calls the Absurd, which we all live in to be “sin without God.”

For Camus, believing in some ready-made belief system (practically all of the world’s religion) is one of the most common ways of ‘philosophical suicide’. We believe in a hypothetical belief system, immediately alleviating us from these insecurities, at the cost of committing a sort of mental suicide by shutting down our mental faculties. There are also secular ways of committing this act, such as escaping into the world of entertainment.

However, in a world suddenly divested of illusions, man feels an alien. Without hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.

Moreover, our daily life is also absurd:

“Rising, tram, four hours in the office or factory, meal, tram four hours of work, meal, sleep and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the same rhythm – this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the ‘why‘ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.”

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

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

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

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

“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”

He draws from the absurd three consequences: revolt, freedom and passion. Essentially, man is his own end. And he is his only end. If he aims to be something, it is in this life:

“The flames of earth are surely worth celestial perfumes.”

So, where does the title The Myth of Sisyphus come from?

Camus associates our condemnation to the absurd to the mythological character of Sisyphus, a man condemned by the gods to a lifetime of rolling a boulder up a hill, a back-breaking and gruelling labour, only to reach the top of the hill and have the boulder inevitably roll back down to the bottom for him to start all over again, condemned to a lifetime of pain and anguish and working hard only to have his efforts be completely futile in the end.

File:Sisyphus by von Stuck.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Painting: Sisyphus – Franz von Stuck (1920)

It isn’t the repetitive and futile nature of human existence per se that makes it absurd. What really makes our human existence absurd is our consciousness of our Sisyphean condemnation when we avoid the trap of philosophical suicide.

In perhaps one of his most celebrated quotes, Camus states that:

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

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

Unlike many existentialists, Camus is an earth-loving and sensitive man who loves his native home of Algeria: its sunlight, nature and the beauty of the race. At the end of the book, he writes short essays such as the Summer in Algiers where he states:

“For if there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.”

And Return to Tipasa, where he writes:

“In the middle of winter, I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.

And finally:

There is thus a will to live without rejecting anything of life, which is the virtue I honor most in this world.”


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Greatest Philosophers In History | Albert Camus

Camus gave rise to Absurdism. He is also considered to be an Existentialist.
This video explores his main ideas: The Absurd, Revolt and Rebellion, as well as his most notable works: The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, The Rebel, The Plague, and The Fall.
He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957.

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