The Underground Man – Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Warning to the World  

Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote Notes from Underground in 1864 which is considered to be one of the first existentialist works, emphasising the importance of freedom, responsibility and individuality. It is an extraordinary piece of literature, social critique and satire of the Russian nihilist movement as well as a novel with deep psychological insights on the nature of man, it is no wonder that Nietzsche wrote:

“Dostoevsky, the only psychologist from whom I’ve anything to learn… he ranks amongst the most beautiful strokes of fortune in my life.”

Dostoevsky’s most sustained and spirited attack on the Russian nihilist movement is voiced by one of the darkest, least sympathetic of all his characters – the nameless narrator and protagonist known as the Underground Man, revealing the hopeless dilemmas in which he lands as a result.

Notes from Underground: Historical Context and Themes

Notes from Underground attempts to warn people of several ideas that were gaining ground in the 1860s including: moral and political nihilism, rational egoism, determinism, utilitarianism, utopianism, atheism and what would become communism.

As we’ll see, many of these themes are alluded to in the novel. But before delving into Notes from Underground, we must first observe the historical context in which it was written, in order to better understand Dostoevsky’s warning.

In 1862, Ivan Turgenev published one of the most acclaimed Russian novels of the century, Fathers and Sons, where the characters talk about a strange new philosophy called “nihilism” which became popular with the Russian youth. It had previously been synonymous with scepticism, which transformed into moral and political nihilism:

“A nihilist is a man who does not bow down before any authority, who does not take any principle on faith, whatever reverence that principle may be enshrined in.”

The nihilist characters defined themselves as those who deny everything, representing the negation of all pre-existing ideals. Rational egoism emerged as the dominant social philosophy of the Russian nihilist movement, proposing that we are only rational if we maximise our own self-interest, sharing similarities with utilitarianism, which seeks to maximise utility, such as well-being or happiness for all individuals. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, actually came up with a mathematical formula to calculate happiness called the hedonic calculus, to measure the amount of pleasure and pain any given action would result in, in order to predict human behaviour merely by rationality.

Dostoevsky saw the rise of rational egoism as a genuine danger, because by glorifying the self it could turn the minds of impressionable young people away from sound values and push them in the direction of a true, immoral, destructive egoism. The following line perfectly captures this mindset:

“I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.”

After his trip around Europe, Dostoevsky wrote that what predominates in the Western culture is a:

“principle of individuality, a principle of isolation, intense self-preservation, of personal egoism, self-definition in terms of one’s own I, in placing this I in opposition to all nature and all other people, as an autonomous, independent principle completely equal and equally valuable to everything that exists outside it.”

In contrast to this, Dostoevsky calls for a “return to the soil”, emphasising the value of family, religion, personal responsibility and brotherly love – in which each individual feels himself a part of all and is ready to sacrifice himself for the other. Dostoevsky champions this conscious self-sacrifice, which cannot spring from any calculations of self-interest.

The Underground Man is under the influence of egoistic individualism, considering himself as an “educated man, a modern intellectual” who has lost all capacity for selfless moral feeling. As he writes in the footnote appended to the title of his novel:

“Both the author of the Notes and the Notes themselves are, of course, fictious. Nevertheless, such persons as the author of such memoirs not only may, but must, exist in our society, if we take into consideration the circumstances which led to the formation of our society.”

Notes from Underground was written as a response to the spokesman of Russian radicals Nikolay Chernyshevsky, who wrote a novel entitled “What Is to Be Done?” in 1863. In the novel, he shares Rousseau’s idea that despite man’s flaws, he is innately good and amenable to reason, but is somehow corrupted by society. So that, once enlightened as to his true interests, reason and science would ultimately enable him to construct a perfect society. That is, a society created out of sheer rational calculations of self-interest would lose the very possibility of doing evil. Thus, rational egoism is the basis for the development of a Utopian society.

Their dream is to build a well-ordered society for predictably acting human beings. This utopia is symbolised by the Crystal Palace which represents the quintessential achievement of humanity, where all problems will be solved. Chernyshevsky writes that if we all followed the radical socialist way, we could turn society into a Crystal Palace. He also proposed a belief in absolute determinism (or lack of free will) which Dostoevsky brilliantly criticises with his Underground Man.

In Chernyshevsky’s novel, while talking about the greatness of rational egoism, one of the characters asks rhetorically, “Do you hear that, in your underground hole?” One year later, Dostoevsky published Notes from Underground.

Dostoevsky believed that man was innately irrational, capricious and destructive and not reason but only faith in Christ could ever succeed in helping him to master the chaos of his impulses. Atheism was on the rise and Dostoevsky saw this as disastrous for society, emphasising the necessity of belief in Christ.

After his death, what he had warned us against had become a reality, foreseeing the rise of the totalitarian state, which he also discusses in his novel Demons, an allegory of the catastrophic consequences of political and moral nihilism that were becoming prevalent in his time.

The ideology of Marx gave way to communism, implemented by Lenin and Stalin, making people believe that it was possible to create a perfect society without God, a Golden Age, where everything is provided in abundance and equally for everyone, eliminating suffering once and for all. The totalitarian states ended up justifying murder in the name of their ideology, leading to the bloodshed of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, we have not learned from our mistakes. As Hegel wrote:

“We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”

Today we are plagued with a mass mania in the West, where crimes against humanity are hidden under the often attractive cloaks of “progress”, attempting again to create a utopia.

Notes from Underground: Introduction

The Underground Man is the quintessential anti-hero, a bitter, lonely and self-hating 40 year old retired civil servant living underground. Or as in the original Russian text, in a sort of crawl space, not big enough for a human and where bugs and rodents roam. This explains why he calls himself a mouse. Here he has been staying for years listening to people through a crack under the floor, writing these notes from “underground”. However, the underground can best be seen as a metaphor representing his profound alienation from society. He lives locked away underground, and these are his confessions.

“I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man… I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased… No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand. My liver is bad, well – let it get worse!”

We are introduced to the strange behaviour and psychological distress of the Underground Man right from the start. He calls himself sick, then spiteful, then unattractive and finally says that he has a liver problem. He is constantly revising himself in order to please his imaginary audience but is unable to characterise himself properly. We can see, however, that he is not acting to promote his own best interests as dictated by rational egoism.

He writes:

“In reality I never could become spiteful. I was conscious every moment in myself of many, very many elements absolutely opposite to that… I knew that they had been swarming in me all my life and craving some outlet from me, but I would not let them… purposely would not let them come out. They tormented me till I was ashamed: they drove me to convulsions and – sickened me, at last, how they sickened me!”

The Underground Man seems to be nothing more than a chaos of conflicting emotional impulses; and his conflict may be defined as that of a search for his own character – his quest to find himself, as he does not know who he is. This plagues him, however, he knows that this is his normal condition, and that there’s no way to escape it. 

As such, he tries to detach himself from reality in the world of literature, spending most of his time reading and being utterly disappointed when facing the real world, as he says:

“I could not speak except as though I was reading from a book.”

At other times, he gives incredibly lucid insights into the human psyche:

“Every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone, but only to his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind. The more decent he is, the greater the number of such things in his mind.”

Man of Action vs Man of Acute Consciousness

Dostoevsky distinguishes between two types of men: the man of action and the man of acute consciousness. The Underground Man is extremely envious of the man of action, he who lives life without ruminating too much on his thoughts. He has a lower intellectual capacity that frees him from the questions and torments of one’s consciousness, while the Underground Man is paralysed by his thoughts.

Dostoevsky gives us an analogy with the Stone Wall, which represents scientific determinism. One has to accept these laws as the truth without questioning them. Two times two makes four and anyone who says otherwise is foolish. This represents a barrier to one’s free will.

When faced with revenge, the man of action dashes straight for his object like an infuriated bull with its horns down, for he seeks justice. But when he stumbles upon the stone wall, he is genuinely surprised and unable to speak – the wall is not an evasion, it is simply what renders his activity impossible.

The Underground Man, on the other hand, tries to come up with all sorts of tricks, and instead of admitting defeat and turning around, he smashes his head against the wall, while knowing the futility of his actions.

“Of course I cannot break through the wall by battering my head against it if I really have not the strength to knock it down, but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength. As though such a wall really were a consolation…”

Every course of action seems insufficient and so he is paralysed, or as Dostoevsky puts it, he finds himself stuck in a state of inertia, only able to think but unable to act. He suffers the greatest ailment of all, consciousness. To think too much is a disease. This best describes the Underground Man’s state of mind, he is stuck in his own reflective hyperconsciousness, thus creating a greater accumulation of spite than in the man of action. The result is that the intellectual is unable to do anything and is thus characterless. He writes:

“I did not know how to become anything; neither spiteful nor kind, neither a rascal nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect. Now, I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot become anything seriously, and it is only the fool who becomes anything.”

He is aware of his flaws, while the man of action is content in his foolishness and believes that he is great. The Underground Man finds solace as he is smarter than all of the people he meets but socially they are all well above him. His vanity convinces him of his own intellectual superiority and he despises everybody; but when he realises that he cannot rest without their recognition of his superiority, he hates others for their indifference and falls into self-loathing at his own humiliating dependence.

The Underground Man considers the man of action as the real normal man, while he sees himself as a product born out of a test tube. He calls himself a mouse, though nobody tells him he is one, it is as if he has constructed a hell out of his own internal ruminations:

“The luckless mouse succeeds in creating around it so many other nastinesses in the form of doubts, emotions, and of the contempt spat upon it by the direct men of action… Of course the only thing left for it is to dismiss all that with a wave of its paw, and, with a smile of assumed contempt in which it does not even itself believe, creep ignominiously into its mousehole. There in its nasty, stinking, underground home our insulted, crushed and ridiculed mouse promptly becomes absorbed in cold, malignant and, above all, everlasting spite. For forty years together it will remember its injury down to the smallest, most ignominious details, and every time will add, of itself, details still more ignominious,  spitefully teasing and tormenting itself with its own imagination.”

The Underground Man essentially buries himself alive with spite, but there’s a twist. He goes on to say that in that state of despair, dissatisfaction and hopelessness, is precisely where he finds his enjoyment. Although he notes that people most likely won’t understand anything of it. He thinks that man is cursed with consciousness, but at the same time it is what allows free will and individuality. With consciousness, man must suffer, but without consciousness, man will never be free, a clear critique of determinism.

“Whatever happened, happened in accordance with the normal and fundamental laws of intensified consciousness and by a sort of inertia which is a direct consequence of those laws, and… therefore you could not only not change yourself, but you simply couldn’t make any attempt to.”

Irrational Pleasure in Suffering

The Underground Man finds an irrational pleasure in suffering, even in his painful toothache – which makes him moan maliciously in order to make other people around him suffer, giving him pleasure. Not only is he a sadist, but he also confesses his masochism:

“I felt a sort of secret, abnormal, contemptible delight when, on coming home on one of the foulest nights in Petersburg, I used to realise intensely that again I had been guilty of some dastardly action that day… and inwardly, secretly, I used to go on nagging myself, worrying myself, accusing myself, till at last the bitterness I felt turned into a sort of shameful, damnable sweetness, and finally, into real positive delight! Yes, into delight! … The feeling of delight was there just because I was so intensely aware of my own degradation.”

The essence of his activity is simply the result of being plagued with boredom. And with a heightened consciousness, he cannot stop thinking.

“I invented adventures for myself and made up a life, so as at least to live in some way. How many times it has happened to me – well, for instance, to take offence simply on purpose, for nothing; and one knows oneself, of course, that one is offended at nothing; that one is putting it on, but yet one brings oneself at last to the point of being really offended.”

Critique of Rational Egoism and Utopianism

While the Underground Man is committed to the principles of rational egoism, he is simultaneously an opponent of it throughout the whole novel. His conflict arises from the clash between human nature and the laws of nature. While his reason assures him that there is nothing he can really do to change for the better, he refuses to abdicate his consciousness to determinism, he wants to preserve his individuality and go against the comfortable predictability of life.

“What is to be done with the millions of facts that bear witness that men, consciously, that is fully understanding their real interests, have left them in the background and have rushed headlong on another path, to meet peril and danger… And what if it so happens that a man’s advantage, sometimes, not only may, but even must, consist in his desiring in certain cases, what is harmful to himself and not advantageous.”

The Underground Man writes that man is by no means a rational animal, and that he will always rebel against the idea of a utopia, to act in a way that goes against his self-interest, simply to validate his existence and confirm his individuality.

Man is monstrously ungrateful. In fact, he writes that the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped. But that is not his worst defect, his worst defect is his constant deviation from moral order. One should only take a quick glance at the history of mankind to observe this. He writes:

“One may say anything about the history of the world – anything that might enter the most disordered imagination. The only thing one can’t say is that it’s rational.”

The Underground Man says that man would sacrifice all his advantages just to be independent and choose for himself, and only the devil knows what he’ll choose. Man would even desire what is injurious to him, what is stupid, very stupid – simply in order to have the right to desire for himself. This caprice of ours, may in reality, be more advantageous for us than anything else on earth. He calls it our most advantageous advantage (which does not fit in any system), and for which one even sacrifices happiness, health, prosperity and security simply in order to preserve for us what is most precious and most important, that is, our personality, our individuality. He writes:

“Apropos of nothing, in the midst of general prosperity a gentleman with an ignoble, or rather with a reactionary and ironical countenance were to arise and, putting his arms akimbo, say to us all: ‘I say, gentleman, hadn’t we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!”

The Underground Man does not criticise reason per se, but rather a completely one-sided rationalistic view of the world, which does not satisfy one’s impulses and desires, that form a realm much wider than reason and much closer to the human condition. A person always and in every way prefers to act in the way they feel like acting and not in the way that their reason and interest tell them.

“Shower upon man every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface, give him economic prosperity such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick… simply in order to prove to himself – as though that were so necessary – that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar.”

Dostoevsky attacks the idea that greater rationality leads to greater human progress and happiness. It is an attempt to see life as a mathematical formula to be followed, in order to align man with society’s best interests. Man is not a piano-key. He cannot simply discover the laws of nature so that he will have found all the answers to his problems, a world in which everything will be so clearly calculated and explained that choices would cease to exist. Life would become extraordinarily dull, and man will act against reason in order to prove his free will, so that two times two equals five. And if he does not find the means he will contrive destruction, chaos and sufferings of all sorts.

If one says that this, too, can be calculated and tabulated, so that the mere possibility of calculating it all beforehand would stop it all, and reason would reassert itself, then man would purposely go mad in order to be rid of reason and gain his point.

Dostoevsky observed this madness first-hand in his fellow prisoners when he was sent to a prison labour camp in Siberia, he describes a prisoner’s sudden violent outburst as:

“Simply the poignant hysterical craving for self-expression, the unconscious yearning for himself, the desire to assert himself, to assert his crushed person, a desire which suddenly takes possession of him and reaches the pitch of fury, of spite, of mental aberration, of fits and nervous convulsions.”

Dostoevsky, The House of the Dead

The rational egoists would have to admit that human action is radically unpredictable and that their program is doomed to failure.

“Man likes to make roads and to create, that is a fact beyond dispute. But why has he such a passionate love for destruction and chaos also? … May it not be that he loves chaos and destruction… because he is instinctively afraid of attaining his object and completing the edifice he is constructing? Who knows, perhaps he only loves that edifice from a distance, and is by no means in love with it at close quarters; perhaps he only loves building it and does not want to live in it… In fact, man is a comical creature; there seems to be a kind of jest in it all…”

This edifice refers to the Crystal Palace, to reach the literal end of history when all further striving, struggle and inner conflict will have ceased. He writes:

“I rejected the Crystal Palace myself for the sole reason that one would not be allowed to stick out one’s tongue at it.”

The Value of Suffering

Dostoevsky says that man will never renounce to suffering, destruction and chaos, and that it is also sometimes very pleasant to smash things.

“Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately in love with suffering: that is a fact.”

We want happiness but we have a special talent for making ourselves miserable. Man is like a chess player who loves the process of the game, but not the end of it. Trying to abolish suffering and replace it with everlasting happiness only sinks us deeper into it. Man needs suffering as much as he needs happiness.

“Which is better: cheap happiness or sublime suffering? Well, come on, which is better?”


The Underground Man – Dostoevsky’s Warning to The World

Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote Notes from Underground in 1864 which is considered to be one of the first existentialist works, emphasising the importance of freedom, responsibility and individuality. It is an extraordinary piece of literature, social critique and satire of the Russian nihilist movement as well as a novel with deep psychological insights on the nature of man.

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The Hero’s Journey: Experiencing Death and Rebirth

“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

Joseph Campbell was influenced by Carl Jung’s analytical psychology and his extensive work in comparative mythology and religion covers many aspects of the human experience. In his best-known work The Hero with a Thousand Faces published in 1949, Campbell describes the archetypal hero’s journey or monomyth shared by the world, the hero being one who serves and sacrifices. He writes:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

The Hero’s Journey is not just a mythological story, but is deeply embedded within the human condition. It tells the story of a person encountering a difficult life problem and their journey in resolving it through personal transformation. Sometimes the change is intentional (new relationships, marriage, a new job, etc), and the Hero is motivated to attempt and endure the process of change. Other times, the change is unintentional (trauma, injury, relationships breaking apart, etc), leaving the Hero shocked.

The hero journey provides a template for all change, intentional and unintentional. Patients who were introduced to the Hero’s Journey as a means of reconceptualising their disorder as a hero quest, rather than an external stressful task, shifted their attitude from passive to active, supporting them to become the “author of their own lives”. This has been clinically tested in a diverse range of issues, such as: anxiety, depression, trauma, addiction, PTSD and psychosis.

The role of the therapist is to guide and support personal change, acting as a mentor. It allows clients to become client-heroes, assisting them to recognise where they are in their own process of change, how to navigate their own treatment journey, and author their own change story.

In many of the hero myths, the weakness of the hero is balanced by the appearance of strong “tutelary” figures. A central hero of Greek mythology is Achilles, the greatest of all the Greek warriors. As a boy, he was guided by the wise centaur Chiron, tutor of gods and heroes, who instructed him in the arts of medicine, music, riding and hunting.

“These godlike figures are in fact symbolic representatives of the whole psyche, the larger and more comprehensive identity that supplies the strength that the personal ego lacks. Their special role suggests that the essential function of the heroic myth is the development of the individual’s ego-consciousness – his awareness of his own strengths and weaknesses – in a manner that will equip him for the arduous tasks with which life confronts him.”

Man and His Symbols. Part II: Ancient Myths and Modern Man – Joseph L. Henderson

The significant life problem is a situation where the Hero’s existing knowledge and skills are no longer efficacious. In finding a solution, the Hero is required to leave his familiar, known world, and venture into the unknown.

Significant life problems forces us to change, however, many of us are reluctant to do so as we do not want to sacrifice our comfort. Ignoring these matters forms unconscious snags which give us a state of impoverishment in our personality and inhibit the growth of the good qualities that lie dormant in our psyche, making our shadow blacker and denser. We lose control of our life and become puppets of existence. As Stoic philosopher Seneca writes:

“Fate leads the willing, and drags along the reluctant.”

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, CVII

It is as if one keeps living but is dragged by chains or swimming against the river currents. This is a characteristic attitude of the neurotic, an artificial barrier invented by oneself which causes one to suffer from internal conflict, in order to avoid facing difficult life choices.

Campbell tells us that Heroic myths provide the individual with “inspiration for aspiration”. Myths have the ability to link the everyday to the eternal, to give meaning to the mundane.

Introduction to the Phases of the Hero’s Journey

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell identified that a Hero’s Journey occurs in three sequential phases: separation, initiation, and the return. These are further divided into 17 substages. However, we will be using the more popular and modern adaption by Christopher Vogler, detailed in his work “The Writer’s Journey”, which is inspired by Campbell. He proposes a Twelve Stage Hero’s Journey.

The very first stage of the Hero’s Journey is the Ordinary World, referring to one’s familiar life: daily routine, the stresses and joys of work, family and social connections. A common characteristic is a growing awareness that something is not quite right, life is somehow lacking. For instance, an employee may be aware that the enjoyment of his work has been diminishing for some time, but the demands of their day-to-day or concerns about finding an alternative job lead them to an increasingly stressful situation and so they cling to their Ordinary World.

First Phase of the Hero’s Journey: Separation

The separation phase of the Hero’s Journey begins with the second stage, the Call to Adventure, disrupting the comfort of the Hero’s Ordinary World and presenting him with a quest that must be undertaken.

Unintentional calls may include the discovery of an infidelity, the death of a loved one, the diagnosis of an illness, etc., while intentional calls include seeking a new career, moving cities, the arrival of a first child, etc. The Call to Adventure separates the person from the aspects of their previous life and causes anxiety. Many are overwhelmed and believe that their problem is beyond their capabilities leading to the third stage, Refusal. This is a very common and important stage that communicates the risks involved in the Journey ahead.

However, remaining in the Refusal stage will lead to a deterioration in one’s life and relationships. One finds himself with little or no motivation, highlighting the ineffectiveness of one’s coping strategies. This unfamiliar situation causes stress as one is unable to deal with the life problem. At this crucial turning point, the Hero desperately needs guidance, leading to the fourth stage: Meeting the Mentor.

The Mentor is the archetypal wise old man. It is his role to assist the Hero’s progress to the realisation that personal change is a necessity for the resolution of his problem, giving him practical training, wise advice or self-confidence in order to overcome the initial fears, allowing him to move from inaction to action.

These tutelary figures do not necessarily have to be physical ones, they can also be your favourite philosopher, public figure, family member or any other person you look up to as your ideal-self.

Second Phase of the Hero’s Journey: Initiation

When the Hero is committed to change, we enter the second phase of the Hero’s Journey: Initiation, and the fifth stage: Crossing the First Threshold.

The Hero now leaves the safe haven of the “Ordinary World” and enters the “Special World”, an unfamiliar place where one confronts his “dragon”, his worst fear, event, person, situation or memory long avoided. As trials become more difficult, the Hero hones his skills and gains experience. However, as the trials increase in complexity, the demands placed on the Hero lead to higher levels of anxiety, and his first confrontation with the dragon is likely to fail. Without help, he may consider giving up.

In the sixth stage: Tests, Allies, and Enemies, the Hero explores the Special World and encounters tests and enemies. Here he must seek Allies, friendly forces who support change attempts and decrease the Hero’s isolation. A common barrier here is the fear of asking for help, for being seen as less than capable or for possibly being rejected. Ironically, vulnerability becomes a key skill in resiliency, rather than a sign of weakness. Stage seven is the Approach to the Innermost Cave, where one must make his final preparations before descending into the unknown.

When the Hero is ready, he faces the eighth stage: The Supreme Ordeal. It is the greatest challenge yet, the moment when all looks lost for the Hero, many feel like they are “back at square one”. Fortunately, Allies have witnessed this major setback and are present to assist the Hero.

Over a period of time, the repeated confrontation with the dragon leads to the growing realisation that what was once believed to be impossible is now possible. After facing the unknown and defeating the dragon, the Hero experiences a psychological death and rebirth. The death of an old aspect of one’s self and the birth of a new and more capable self. The Hero gains insights receiving this as his Reward (the ninth stage). But the journey is not over yet.

Third Phase of the Hero’s Journey: The Return

Now begins the third phase: The Return. In the tenth stage: The Road Back, The Hero must hold his reward and make his way back to the Ordinary World, but on the way he will be confronted with more enemies and dragons. However, the Hero knows that there’s no way back and is motivated to keep going.

In the eleventh stage: The Resurrection, the weary Hero must experience a second psychological death, experiencing a resurrection with the attributes of his ordinary self in addition to the new insights from the journey and characters he has met along the road of life. He moves from dependence to responsibility, from silence to finding his voice. The Hero has increased resilience and has learned how to regulate fear, sadness and other emotions that arise when taking action.

He is now purified from the land of the dead and can return home, leading to the twelfth and final stage: Return with the Elixir. The elixir is the final Reward earned on the Hero’s Journey. It is something for the Hero to share with others, or something with the power to heal: wisdom, love or simply the experience of surviving the Special World. The Hero comes back to his Ordinary World with a new self, having faced terrible dangers and possibly death, but now looks forward to the start of a new life.

This is not just a one-time linear path, but in fact a lifelong cyclical process.

“Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem, do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfilment or the fiasco.”

Joseph Campbell, Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation

This awareness to see life as a Hero’s Journey allows the chaos and challenges of life to have both some sequence and purpose. It gives us a beautiful framework for dealing with life’s problems. An unwanted event can be viewed as a Call to Adventure, difficult life events as confronting one’s dragon. When one completes these, one receives a reward, transforming into a new self, with an elixir to share the experience of one’s Special World with others.

The Hero’s Journey is:

“The quest to find the inward thing that you basically are.”

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

Follow Your Bliss

One of Campbell’s most frequently repeated phrase is to “Follow your bliss”:

“If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

To follow one’s bliss is not simply doing what one likes to do and certainly not what one is simply told. It is to search deeply within oneself and identifying that pursuit or burning need which one is truly passionate about, giving oneself absolutely to it, and the rest will follow.

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

Joseph Campbell, Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation

This feeling of rapture or bliss is associated to the Hero’s Journey that we face on a daily basis in this life, he writes:

“The experience of eternity right here and now is the function of life. Eternity isn’t some later time. Eternity isn’t even a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time. Eternity is that dimension of the here and now that all thinking in temporal terms cuts off… the experience of eternity right here and now, in all things, whether thought of as good or as evil. Heaven is not the place to have the experience; here is the place to have the experience. When you realise that eternity is right here now, that it is within your possibility to experience the eternity of your own truth and being, then you grasp the following: That which you are was never born and will never die.”

Joseph Campbell, Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation


The Hero’s Journey – Experiencing Death and Rebirth

In his best-known work The Hero with a Thousand Faces published in 1949, Joseph Campbell describes the archetypal Hero’s Journey or “monomyth” shared by the world.

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The Rise and Danger of Mental Illness in Modern Society

Modern society is characterised by many things, but perhaps most notably by the remarkable scientific and technological advancement, as well as capitalism, individualism and hedonism. We are wealthier than our ancestors, we live in more safe and comfortable environments, we have more access to food and other basics needs, why then have we seen a massive spike in mental illness?

The bulk of evidence concludes that there seems to have been a significant rise in the incidence of lunacy in the 19th century, and that this increase consisted largely of patients with the illness we now call schizophrenia.

One of the most widely ramifying features of modernity is the intense focus on the value and power of the individual self. To turn away from the search of an objective external order and to instead turn inward and become aware of our own activity. This becomes a pervasive feature of human experience and self-knowledge in the 19th century.

Western culture is dominated by individualism, subjectivism and relativism, with the rise of a new character type that dominates our age, the “psychological man” who is intent upon the conquest of his inner life.

Mental illness must also be viewed in line with the modern social structure, with bureaucratisation, technologisation, secularisation and rationalisation of the modern world on the level of individual experience. The conditions of modern life with its rational forms of social organisation are more complex, conflicting and require potentially disorienting cognitive requirements.  

While there is an emphasis on individuality, one must also simultaneously adapt to society’s evolving needs. The problem arises when these two are in contradiction, leading to a sense of inner division.

The Myth of Mental Illness

In The Myth of Mental Illness, psychiatrist Thomas Szasz criticises the psychiatric establishment who uses mental illness as a metaphor to describe an offending or disturbing pattern of behaviour, under the wide-ranging term schizophrenia, as an “illness” or “disease”.

Szasz wrote:

“If you talk to God, you are praying; if God talks to you, you have schizophrenia. If the dead talk to you, you are a spiritualist; if you talk to the dead, you are a schizophrenic.”

Thomas Szasz, The Second Sin

While many behave and think in disturbing ways, this does not mean they actually have a disease. Unlike physical illness and disease, mental illness is judged from certain psychosocial, ethical or legal norms. Transgressing these is not a consequence of illness, but of the attempt to confront and tackle the problems in living.

Szasz does not suggest that mental illnesses do not exist, rather he is claiming that many such phenomena is a consequence of the attempt to confront and to tackle the problem of how to live, and that to identify such phenomena as a disease or an illness is to hide the very real problems in living that people face.

Modern Society: Freedom and Responsibility

With increasing understanding of himself and of the world, modern man feels that he is free to direct his own life and must take responsibility for it. We are, as Jean-Paul Sartre asserted, “condemned to be free”, condemned to shoulder the burden of our freedom and responsibility without being able to seek refuge in others.

We must be responsible for ourselves for we have no other way of experiencing ourselves or the world as being in any other mode than our own existence. We cannot have our existence depend on somebody else, for that would contradict the very core of our being. We can ask for other people’s opinions, but the choice ultimately lies in us.

Many cannot stand this dizzying freedom. Kierkegaard says that one can either get lost in the infinite (a state of analysis-paralysis where one thinks of the infinite possibilities but never acts) or get lost in the finite (becoming an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd). The latter is a finitude’s despair or what we’d now call depressive psychosis. One cannot imagine any alternate ways of life and release himself from the trivial obligations that give him no value. It is as if one has literally died to life but must remain physically in this world, one “lives dyingly.”

Eventually, one faces the “why” of existence, as Albert Camus writes:

“Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or factory, meal, streetcar, 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.”

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Camus’s absurd person is one who has seen through the ridiculous repetitions of daily life, he is conscious of his Sisyphean condemnation, we all have to push our own boulders and watch it roll back down. If what we do does not satisfy our “why” of existence, we must search for other alternatives or risk falling into an existential crisis, a nauseating sensation of trying to justify one’s existence, which can lead to suicide.

Modern Society: Death of God

One of Western civilisation’s most significant events is the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, a period which undermined the values that society had hitherto relied on, namely, on the religious view. This engenders the most profound cultural, sociological and psychological repercussions, leaving many facing a crisis in discerning a meaning or purpose for their existence and struggling to tackle the problems in living that this gives rise to.

While we previously had ready answers to the problem of how life ought to be lived and what its overall meaning and purpose was (since faith in the existence of God gave us the reassurance that we are partaking in a divine project) we are now slowly experiencing the consequences of what Nietzsche proclaimed as the death of God, whose full consequences would elude many people as he made clear:

“This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men… This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars – and yet they have done it themselves.”

The Gay Science, §125

This realisation forces us to be faced with the terrifying question: “Has existence any meaning at all?” The modern age is characterised by a sense of disorientation of not knowing what to do with one’s life.

The Existential Vacuum

One notable figure who has attempted to respond to this existential crisis and the psychological manifestations of meaninglessness, is Viktor Frankl. We have been left in an existential vacuum, the meaning crisis and mass neurosis of modern times is the “unheard cry for meaning”. Frankl believes this is the cause of much of modernity’s increase in mental illness, it is the struggle to confront the existential vacuum, he writes:

“Such widespread phenomena as depression, aggression and addiction are not understandable unless we recognise the existential vacuum underlying them.”

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Frankl’s therapeutic response to those experiencing such phenomena is to reorient the person to the meaning, or the purpose of their existence. To confront the question of the meaning of their existence, to explore the question, and, ultimately, to provide a positive answer to it.

Finding meaning to one’s life is not to be understood as some idle or academic curiosity that one engages in when more fundamental needs have been met, the striving to search for and to possess a meaning or a purpose for one’s life is said to be the primary motivational force in man.

Without a meaning, all of life’s struggles, strivings and projects become, ultimately, futile. Frankl believes that this sense of futility is what characterises addiction, aggression and depression.

“There is nothing in the world… that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.”

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Frankl concludes:

“In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

The Hero Journey

Modern man is in desperate need for the hero journey. In Man and His Symbols, Jungian psychologist Joseph Henderson describes the importance of the hero myth as a universal pattern throughout the world. The hero descends into darkness to slay a dragon, rescue a damsel in distress and gather the treasure.

The early weakness of the hero is balanced by the appearance of strong guardians who enable him to perform the tasks that he cannot accomplish unaided. Their role is the development of one’s strengths and weaknesses, in a manner that will equip one for the arduous tasks which life confronts him. This can be linked to being dependent on one’s parents. It is only when one becomes independent and confronts the world by himself that the individual has passed his initial test and can enter the mature phase of life.

What Actually Takes Place Inside the Mentally Ill?

In Memories, Dreams, Reflections; Carl Jung’s research brought him to the burning question: “What actually takes place inside the mentally ill?”. He writes:

“To my mind, therapy only really begins after the investigation of that wholly personal story. It is the patient’s secret, the rock against which he is shattered. If I know his secret story, I have a key to the treatment… In most cases exploration of the conscious material is insufficient… In therapy the problem is always the whole person, never the symptom alone. We must ask questions which challenge the whole personality.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams Reflections. Chapter IV: Psychiatric Activities

Jung treated many schizophrenic patients, who were considered a lost cause. The paradox of schizophrenia is that there is both a dissolution of the self in the world, but also the dissolution of the world in the self; eternal punishment but divine omnipotence. The patient doubts that it is really him who is thinking his thoughts, “reality” might as well by a train of illusions produced in him by evil scientists. It is the most profound form of self-contradiction, to be both God and a worm.

Jung, however, found out that many people who were diagnosed with schizophrenia actually had ordinary depression as a result of traumas and difficult life experiences that had been repressed.

He tells the story of an 18 year old girl who had been abused at the age of 15. She retreated into isolation and concealed herself from people. She was taken to a mental hospital and remained in a catatonic state. Over the course of many weeks, Jung gradually persuaded her to speak. After overcoming many resistances, she told Jung that she had been living on the moon. She said that she did not like this world and that the moon was beautiful and life there was rich in meaning. He writes:

“As a result of the incest to which she had been subjected as a girl, she felt humiliated in the eyes of the world, but elevated in the realm of fantasy… The consequence was complete alienation from the world, a state of psychosis… She became “extra-mundane”, as it were, and lost contact with humanity. She plunged into cosmic distances, into outer space, where she met with the winged demon… By telling me her story she had in a sense betrayed the demon and attached herself to an earthly human being… Thereafter I regarded the sufferings of the mentally ill in a different light. For I had gained insight into the richness and importance of the inner experiences.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams Reflections. Chapter IV: Psychiatric Activities

Modern Society: Lack of a Tribe

In his book “Tribe”, Sebastian Junger argues that throughout history, humans have had a strong instinct to belong to small groups or “tribes”. These tribes gave people a purpose and understanding of life. However, this tribal connection has been obliterated in modern society.

During the wars with the Indian tribes, many European settlers were taken as prisoners and held within the tribes. After they had a chance to escape and return to their modern society, many refused to do so, they preferred the primitive society over their modern one. On the contrary, not one tribesman wanted to flee to modern society.

We have evolved genetically to live in an interdependent group in order to survive. And this creates equality as everyone plays a necessary role in the tribe. They work 12 hours a week to survive in contrast to the average 40 hours a week that many Westernised societies require. The tribes collaborate for survival, each day they go to hunt and gather and in the evening they return to share the food.

People often believe that modern life with all its efficient technology has allowed for more leisure time. However, the exact opposite is true. Modern life is characterised by a desperate cycle of work, financial obligation and more work – sacrificing personal freedom.

One might argue, however, that modernity has allowed for a sense of independence which primitive man could never have achieved, leading to a sense of freedom – but can also, lead to a feeling of alienation and depression.

We have not yet been genetically adapted to our environment, the enormous changes of agriculture and the industrial revolution have hardly begun to affect our gene pool. In other words, even though we live in more complex societies, we are still hardwired to be hunter-gatherers.

Today, we can be surrounded by a group of people and yet feel completely alone. This is not something we have experienced until quite recently. We are wired to belong to a group where we feel valued by our contributions to it – and without a group, many fall into a sense of meaninglessness.

Sociologist Émile Durkheim first noticed the positive effects of war on mental health. The suicide rate, homicide, and admission to psych wards dropped down. Likewise, in natural disasters, people overwhelmingly devote their energy to the community rather than themselves. Adversity produces pro-social behaviours in which one is likely to abandon his self-interest and sacrifice himself for others, acting as a unified society – sending people back into a more ancient way of life.

Modernity has disrupted the social bonds that has always characterised the human experience. It breeds comfort, allowing people to act selfishly. This shows an increase of mental illness in modern society’s deep lack of a sense of community which the tribe had historically provided us. We have much to learn from our ancestors in this regard.

Modern Society: Psychic Dissociation

“The world hangs on a thin thread. And that is the psyche of man… We are the great danger… How important it is to know something about it, but we know nothing about it.”

Carl Jung, BBC “Face To Face” (1959)

Jung warns us that we are pitifully unaware of our unconscious, we have become too rational and have lost contact with our primitive instincts, leading to a dissociation in the psyche of modern civilisation. He writes:

“Things whose enormity nobody could have imagined in the idyllic harmlessness of the first decade of our country have happened and have turned our world upside down. Ever since, the world has remained in a state of schizophrenia… Modern man does not understand how much his “rationalism” (which has destroyed his capacity to respond to numinous symbols and ideas) has put him at the mercy of the psychic “underworld.” He has freed himself from “superstition” (or so he believes), but in the process he has lost his spiritual values to a positively dangerous degree. His moral and spiritual tradition has disintegrated, and he is now paying the price for this break-up in worldwide disorientation and dissociation.”

Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols. Part I: Approaching The Unconscious: The Role of Symbols

The surface of our world seems to be cleansed of all superstitious and irrational elements, however a realistic picture of the human mind reveals many primitive traits which are still playing their role just as if nothing had happened during the last centuries.

Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos, because he no longer has a deep relation with nature. When a primitive society’s spiritual values are exposed to the impact of modern civilisation, its people lose the meaning of their lives, their social organisation disintegrates, and they themselves morally decay. As Ernest Becker writes:

“Anthropologists have long known that when a tribe of people lose their feeling that their way of life is worthwhile they may stop reproducing, or in large numbers simply lie down and die beside streams full of fish: food is not the primary nourishment of man.”

Ernest Becker, The Birth and Death of Meaning

Unlike primitive man, modern man has lost contact with nature and his relationship with animals and trees through mystical participation. We may have advanced in the outer world, but our inner world is still delicate and fragmentary.

A famous fictional example of the modern dissociation is Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In the story Jekyll’s split took the form of a physical change, rather than (as in reality) an inner, psychic state. Jung writes:

“We can be possessed and altered by moods, or become unreasonable and unable to recall important facts about ourselves or others… We talk about being able to “control ourselves”, but self-control is a rare and remarkable virtue… there is a world of difference between a conscious decision to split off and temporarily suppress a part of one’s psyche, and a condition in which this happens spontaneously, without one’s knowledge or consent and even against one’s intention. The former is a civilised achievement, the latter a primitive “loss of a soul”, or even a pathological cause of a neurosis.”

Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols, Part I: Approaching the Unconscious: The Importance of Dreams

In order to heal the split in the psyche, Jung tells us to explore our unconscious through self-reflection and dream journaling. We must understand that there are things within us that are beyond our control, which are autonomous personalities.

Here is where we find the vital insights for our lives, and where the primitive aspects that form part of the original mind are preserved as archetypes. Despite our differences, we all share a collective unconscious which adapts itself to the particularities of the individual’s life.

“We have been so busy with the question of what we think that we entirely forgot to ask what the unconscious psyche thinks about us.”

Man and His Symbols, Part I: Approaching the Unconscious: Healing the Split


The Rise and Dangers of Mental Illness in Modern Society

Modern society has seen a massive spike in mental illness. Why could this be? We will be exploring the characteristics of modernity and associate it with the rise of mental illness.

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Nihilism – Friedrich Nietzsche’s Warning to The World

“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, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect.”

 Nietzsche, The Will to Power, Preface, 2

Nietzsche provided the first detailed diagnosis of nihilism as a widespread phenomenon of Western culture. There are various forms of nihilism: epistemological (in which knowledge does not exist or is unattainable for man), cosmic (where the cosmos is distinctly hostile or indifferent to humanity), moral (that no morality or ethics exists whatsoever), etc.

Nietzsche was concerned primarily with existential nihilism – which encapsulates all forms of nihilism since it posits that life as a whole has no intrinsic meaning or value.

However, Nietzsche thinks that we are always in a process of valuing. It would be virtually unrecognisable as a human form of life for us to exist completely without valuing. His central concern on nihilism is what people take to be valuable. He thinks valuing something is better than not valuing anything. But it is not sufficient to escape nihilism that one values something in a committed way. It also matters what one values. Nihilism consists in an inability to find value and meaning in the higher aspects of this life and world. It empties the world and purpose of human existence. Nietzsche defines nihilism as:

“the radical repudiation of value, meaning, and desirability”

 Nietzsche, Will to Power, Book I: European Nihilism

The problem of nihilism becomes especially explicit in Nietzsche’s posthumously published work: The Will to Power, an anthology of selections from his notebooks. However, these notebooks should be considered with caution since they were not ideas that he himself published and must be viewed carefully with the work he published during his lifetime.

There are various manifestations of nihilism for Nietzsche throughout his works, which we can classify as: nihilism as despair, nihilism as disorientation and nihilism as lack of higher values.

Nihilism as Despair

Nietzsche associates nihilism as despair with Schopenhauer and Buddhism.

The Schopenhauerian nihilist maintains strong value commitments which say that suffering is extremely bad. The world contains a great predominance of suffering over pleasure, we are perpetually buffeted between the unpleasant states of pain and boredom. The little respite we receive is fleeting. Existence is bad, and it would be better for us never to have come into being.

Likewise, the Buddhist condemns existence and seeks to detach himself from it, they seek to liberate themselves from the cycle of aimless drifting in mundane existence, while Nietzsche believes that one should remain faithful to the earth.

Nihilism as Disorientation

Nihilism as disorientation is associated with Christianity. The Christian is not a despairing nihilist, for he is reassured by the possibility of a heavenly redemption. Christianity is an antidote to the despair of meaninglessness. Heaven is the most valuable place in the world, it is the salvation of man, the entry into the kingdom of God, a source of eternal bliss and peace.

The disorientation is best seen in Nietzsche’s famous parable of the madman:

“What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?… 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?”

Nietzsche, The Gay Science, §125

Nietzsche acted as the seismograph that detected the great earthquake caused by the death of God. Nietzschean scholar Walter Kaufmann writes:

“[Nietzsche] felt the agony, the suffering, and the misery of a godless world so intensely, at a time when others were yet blind to its tremendous consequence, that he was able to experience in advance, as it were, the fate of a coming generation.”

Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, Part I: “The Death of God and the Revaluation”

The melancholic proclamation of the death of God is the result of religion having been the purpose and meaning of life of humanity for millennia, but being undermined by the Age of Enlightenment brought about by scientific rationality. Science shows us that we should remain sceptical about the idea of an afterlife, it shows our smallness in the cosmos, that we are the product of evolution, of an accidental birth in the flux of becoming and perishing.

He writes:

“For why has the advent of nihilism become necessary? Because the values we have had hitherto thus draw their final consequence; because nihilism represents the ultimate logical conclusion of our great values and ideals—because we must experience nihilism before we can find out what value these “values” really had.— We require, sometime, new values.”

Nietzsche, The Will to Power, Preface, 4

When we find out that the world does not possess the objective value or meaning that we want it to have or have long since believed it to have, we find ourselves in a crisis. For the Christian, there is no God to guide us, recompense us for suffering, grant us meaning.

Christianity had thus built a self-destructive tool. It is a lower form of nihilism, but nihilism, nonetheless. The end of Christianity lies at the hands of its own morality (which cannot be replaced), in the sense of truthfulness that is nauseated by the falseness of all Christian interpretations of the world and of history. We have outgrown Christianity not because we lived too far from it, rather because we lived too close. Christianity was an interpretation that posited itself as the interpretation, Nietzsche believes that this dissolution leads beyond scepticism to a distrust of all meaning.

It is based on the error of placing the highest values as the first ones, rather than the last ones:

“The last, the thinnest, the emptiest is posited as the first, as a cause in itself, as ens realissimum [the most real being]…”

Twilight of the Idols, Chapter 4: “Reason” in Philosophy

As such, the highest values are in fact the emptiest values. Nietzsche tells us to start from the bottom, focusing our attention on this life and building up from there.

The Christian is a nihilist in disorientation because he is failing to respond favourably to the most important values associated with this life and world. His energy instead remains invested in the collapsing Christian worldview. It is a matter of not being able to find this life and world valuable. He writes:

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

Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols: Chapter 4: “Reason” in Philosophy

To escape nihilism—which seems involved both in asserting the existence of God and thus robbing this world of ultimate significance, and also in denying God and thus robbing everything of meaning and value—that is Nietzsche’s greatest and most persistent problem.

Ascetic Ideal as Nihilistic

Those who follow Schopenhauer, Buddhism and Christianity are all under the influence of the ascetic ideal, which Nietzsche describes in his Genealogy of Morals. The ascetic has historically renounced his earthly pleasures in favour of a self-denying and abstinent life, living in:

“poverty, humility and chastity.”

Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, Essay III: What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals? §8

This is a means for dealing with exhaustion and disgust with life, and gives meaning to one’s suffering, staving off nihilism.

However, Nietzsche argues that it brings a more venomous suffering into earthly existence, this world is to be transcended and is a mere bridge to another existence. In other words, Nietzsche does not devalue the ascetic ideal, for any meaning is better than no meaning. He observes, however, that it is still a form of nihilism insofar as it is a “will to nothingness”, a will opposed to life.

All of Nietzsche’s work has one important theme: life affirmation. This is his main focus. He wrote for a minority, hence the subtitle of Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “A Book for All and None.”

Nihilism as Lack of Higher Values

Finally we have nihilism as a lack of higher values, represented by the “last man”, one who is conformist, mediocre and perfectly happy to be virtually the same as everyone else, they simply do what others do. They are the mass men who seem very satisfied with their lowly comforts. Nietzsche describes him in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

“Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer give birth to a star. Alas, the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself. Behold, I show you the last man. “What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?” Thus asks the last man, and he blinks. The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small. His race is as ineradicable as the flea-beetle, the last man lives longest. “We have invented happiness”, say the last men, and they blink. They have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one needs warmth. One still loves one’s neighbour and rubs against him, for one needs warmth… One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion… Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion. “We have invented happiness”, say the last men, and they blink.”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra’s Prologue

The “last man” has adjusted his standards so far downward, that they are able to be met easily. He is under a woolly blanket, snuggled by the fireplace, drinking his instant cocoa with miniature marshmallows from his ‘Life is Good’TM mug, thinking this is as good as life can get.

The last man does focus on this life but on the lowest values, his culture is that of entertainment. Does this warm satisfaction mean that he is not nihilistic? By Nietzsche’s lights, absolutely not. Nietzsche wants us to think of such as person as the very worst form of the condition of nihilism.

Yet what is nihilistic about the “last man” is neither despair nor disorientation. It is rather, his failure to appreciate and attach himself to the most important values – he blinks in the face of the star, he finds nothing worthwhile where there is something profoundly worthwhile. He is content with the meagre “happiness” he has “invented” and he lacks worthy higher goals.

In summary, we have: nihilism as despair (Schopenhauer and Buddhism), nihilism as disorientation (Christianity) and nihilism as a lack of the higher values of life (the last man).

This account offers a historical trajectory of nihilism, and why things are getting worse in the descent toward the “last man”. Christianity valued lives in which one was devoted to more than just animal satisfaction, lives in which something that could give meaning to existence was sought. In their way, Schopenhauerianism and Buddhism played this role as well, in valuing (however perversely) a saintly form of life-negation as the highest condition of human life. These views are still nihilistic, but at least they contain acknowledgement of the need for higher values, however misguided they may be.

With the “last man” the highest values have no value at all, they make everything small and live mediocre lives, in contrast to Nietzsche’s idea of the higher man or the Übermensch, who affirms life in its entirety.

However all these nihilists have something in common. They are people who have become detached from what is most valuable. These higher values come from hard-won achievement and experiences of struggle and striving. Sometimes this causes people to want to escape human existence since it is so difficult, which can take the form of life-negation or even worse, indifference to all of the most important values, even to such things as human excellence, creativity and beauty.

According to Nietzsche, the world surrounding us matters more than any beyond, and is the locus of such higher values, yet for the most of the past two thousand years of human history, we haven’t been able to appreciate this.

In a beautiful Nietzschean turn of phrase in one of his letters, Austrian poet Rilke writes:

“Not until we can make the abyss our dwelling-place will the paradise we have sent on ahead of us turn around and will everything deeply and fervently of the here-and-now, which the Church embezzled for the Beyond, come back to us; then all the angels will decide, singing praises, in favour of the earth.”

Rilke, Letter to Ilse Jahr, 22 Feb 1923

This is the life-affirming perspective Nietzsche wants to shift us toward, or to remind us to cherish. Some will not be able to bear this, and life-negating nihilism will, ironically, be more conducive to their continued happiness and survival. But to those of us who can shift, or have shifted, this is our pagan salvation.

Active Nihilism and Passive Nihilism

Apart from the forms of nihilism discussed, Nietzsche distinguishes between two formal types of nihilism in The Will to Power:

“Nihilism. It is ambiguous: A. Nihilism as a sign of increased power of the spirit: as active nihilism. B. Nihilism as decline and recession of the power of the spirit: as passive nihilism.”

The Will To Power, Book I: European Nihilism, 22

Nietzsche associates passive nihilism with the ascetic ideal and the systems of thought that are built on it (Schopenhauerianism, Buddhism, Christianity).

Active nihilism, on the other hand, is associated to the construction of a new meaning after being faced with the destruction of all value and meaning, such as with the event of the Death of God. Nietzsche views this as a sign of strength, instead of succumbing and resigning like the passive nihilist, the active nihilist seeks to replace the old values and overcome the condition of nihilism, he is a strong individual who posits his own values as an independent creator. Nietzsche, however, did not call this person an active nihilist, Nietzsche calls this person the Übermensch, one who is not afraid to gaze into the abyss, one who after going through nihilism, overcomes it and affirms life.

Nihilism and Modern Man

We may encounter meaninglessness in our life when faced with the loss of what was most meaningful for us: this can be the death of a loved one, the loss a job, a natural disaster destroying our home, etc. The danger arises when one is so attached that one becomes passively stuck in this state of mind, the end result of which is that life is not worth living, and that it is better to end it. Nietzsche tells us that we must actively fight it and overcome it, which is by no means an easy task.

Nietzsche attacked the value problem that stares our generation in the face – the dilemma that haunts modern man and threatens our civilisation:

“The end of the moral interpretation of the world, which no longer has any sanction after it has tried to escape into some beyond, leads to nihilism. “Everything lacks meaning”… Since Copernicus man has been rolling from the centre toward “x” … What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves. The goal is lacking; the answer is lacking to our ‘Why?’”

The Will to Power, Book I: European Nihilism

Modern man finds that his values are worthless, that his ends do not give his life any purpose, and that his pleasures do not give him happiness. Nietzsche’s basic problem is whether we can find new values in this world; whether a new goal can be found that will give an aim to human life.

In the present age, nihilism has been diverted into more secular alternatives to give meaning to one’s life, such as, the participation in mass movements. People who do not know what to do with their lives can fall into passive nihilism which can lead to conformism (risking falling into the last man) or totalitarianism, a need for destruction, which was taken to the extreme in the 20th century and lead to two world wars, the consequences of which have forever scarred humanity.

Is Nietzsche a Nihilist?

Many mistake Nietzsche as a nihilist because of his destruction of the values mankind had preserved for millennia, he wanted to expose the false values through “philosophising with a hammer”, not to smash but rather gently tap the idols in order to receive that hollow sound which speaks of false and empty ideas of gods that we idolise. Nietzsche did this because he saw nihilism as an inevitability. He writes:

“what is falling, that one should also push!”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, III, 12

Since the old values are already collapsing one should help to speed up the process and replace the old values with new ones as soon as possible. He is therefore not a nihilist, he rather wants to overcome it by means of a “revaluation of all values”. This new table of values contains life-affirmation, with concepts such as the Übermensch, the Will to Power, the Eternal Recurrence.

Overcoming Nihilism

The Übermensch is meant to be the solution to nihilism, by conquering it, he is the meaning we should give to our lives. He overflows with strength and well-being. He is the meaning of the earth. Nietzsche tells us to remain faithful to earth and focus on maximising our potential in this life, to prioritise our body above everything else. Only the Übermensch can accept the eternal recurrence, the idea that we’d have to experience the same life for eternity. This is the heaviest weight that closes the gap of nihilism which only the Übermensch could accept, as he is the highest life-affirmer, who loves his fate.

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity.”

Nietzsche, Ecce Homo: On the Genealogy of Morals

And finally the will to power is to be master of oneself, which requires the greatest increase of power over oneself. It is the lifelong journey of self-realisation, of becoming who one is. Happiness is the feeling associated to overcoming resistances and suffering, which gives way to an increase of power. Thus, the will to power and the eternal recurrence carve the path for the Übermensch, who is the happiest person and the meaning and justification of existence.


Nihilism – Friedrich Nietzsche’s Warning to The World

Friedrich Nietzsche provided the first detailed diagnosis of nihilism as a widespread phenomenon of Western culture and warns the world of its consequences.

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KIERKEGAARD: The Knight of Faith

The knight of faith is one of Kierkegaard’s most important concepts, which he discusses in Fear and Trembling in the “Preamble from the Heart”, written under the pseudonym Johannes de silentio.

There are three spheres of existence in Kierkegaard’s philosophy: the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. In Fear and Trembling he analyses the contradictions between the ethical and religious spheres of existence. They are spheres of existence because they fill the entirety of your life. While they may overlap, you’ll always be in one of these spheres.

Kierkegaard considered himself religious, but Johannes admits that he lacks faith, for he cannot make the leap.

Johannes recounts the biblical story of God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The ethical expression for what Abraham plans to do is that he is willing to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he is willing to sacrifice Isaac, in this contradiction lies the very anxiety and stress that can make one sleepless.

Abraham is not to be understood as someone who could decide not to believe that God existed; his choice concerns rather what one is to hope for or expect given that God does exist, to prove his faith to God, he is after all the “father of faith”.

Abraham is entirely alone and he cannot justify his actions to anyone. He renounces that which he most loves in the world and thus becomes a knight of infinite resignation, the first step one must take to become a knight of faith.

As Abraham is about to sacrifice his son – God sends an angel which points him to a ram that he is to sacrifice in Isaac’s place, and Isaac is ultimately saved. Abraham makes the movement of faith when he regains him once again, he comes back to his original position and receives Isaac more joyfully than the first time. By renouncing everything, he receives everything. Abraham becomes the knight of faith. This is the true hero of Fear and Trembling.

The story of Abraham and Isaac not need to be taken as a literal description of what a person must be prepared to do if he is to be said to have faith. It can be read as an allegory in which Abraham’s actions symbolise some general feature of a religious consciousness.

Johannes contrasts the knight of faith with the tragic hero. He uses a story from Greek Mythology, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, daughter of King Agamemnon. The king accidently kills an animal of the Greek goddess of the hunt and she punishes him by preventing his troops from engaging in the Trojan War unless he sacrifices his daughter. He makes the sacrifice for the good of the state, fulfilling his ethical duty. The society admires his courage. However, the knight of faith cannot communicate his mission, for he is utterly alone.

Abraham is great not because of his willingness to obey God, but rather because of what he suffers in the trial. Furthermore, his suffering and greatness seem to isolate him in a very radical way from society. The book focuses on the nature of the suffering involved in the story.

Johannes uses the story of Abraham to show how monstrous a paradox faith is, a paradox capable of making a murder into a holy act well pleasing to God, a paradox which gives Isaac back to Abraham. He conveys us the hard fact that faith has no place in a system of thought, that:

“Faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off.”

Faith exiles one from the realm of human discourse. If we are to talk of faith at all it is of something we cannot explain in any language that suffices for people to describe and justify their actions and attitudes to one another.

In Kierkegaard’s time, faith was thought to be where one begins in life, not where one aims to end. That faith is the beginning and not the end conveys the general message of the book: that the notion of faith is so far cheapened that what is talked about is not properly called faith at all. Therefore, people mustn’t suppose that faith is something inferior or that it is an easy matter, when in fact it is the greatest and most difficult of all.

Since Isaac is ultimately saved, there must be some higher stage than that of the ethical one – this is the “teleological suspension of the ethical”, the ethical becomes secondary as a whole to some other end or telos, the religious stage.

“Faith is just this paradox, that the single individual as the particular is higher than the universal”

The universal is expressed by the ethical life where the individual’s actions lack a moral aspect unless they are linked to the well-being of society as a whole. If the State requires you to execute your son for whatever reason, you must do it. The religious stage is higher than the ethical because it finds the individual as the particular in an absolute relation to God, expressing individuality and inwardness, which is independent from society and which is at the core of Kierkegaard’s philosophy.

Johannes notes, however, that he has never found any knight of faith, though he would not deny on that ground that they exist. He writes:

“If I knew where such a knight of faith lived I would journey to him on foot… I would not let him slip one instant, but watch every minute how he makes the movements… As I said, I haven’t found such a one; still, I can very well imagine him… The moment I first set eyes on him I thrust him away, jump back, clasp my hands together and say half aloud: ‘Good God! Is this the person, is it really him? He looks just like a tax-collector.’ Yet it is indeed him. I come a little closer, watch the least movement in case some small, incongruous optical telegraphic message from the infinite should appear, a glance, expression, gesture, a sadness, a smile betraying the infinite by its incongruity with the finite…No! he is solid through and through. His stance? Vigorous, it belongs altogether to finitude… One detects nothing of the strangeness and superiority that mark the knight of the infinite.”

This is quite a different knight of faith as that of Abraham. He looks just like any person, he is not any religious priest, monk or ascetic, but rather participates in worldly affairs just like everyone else and yet he has made and is at every moment making the movement of infinity, which cannot be seen. He indulges in finitude which is viewed as important for the trusting character of faith in God, this is, however, not to be confused with the aesthetic way of life, since faith requires resignation.

Johannes understands how one can make the infinite movement of resignation with strength, energy and freedom of spirit – but he cannot understand the movement of faith where one receives everything back in full by virtue of the absurd, where one renounces everything and regains everything.

Johannes can only remain a knight of infinite resignation. He has great trouble hurling himself trustingly in the absurd and calls it an impossible task, a marvel which he can only be amazed by.

“Alas, this movement is one I cannot make! As soon as I want to begin it everything turns around and I flee back to the pain of resignation. I can swim in life, but for this mysterious floating I am too heavy. To exist in such a way that my opposition to existence expresses itself every instant as the most beautiful and safest harmony, that I cannot.”

He compares both knights to a ballet dancer. It is said that the dancer’s hardest task is to leap straight into a definite position without vacillating and standing there in the leap itself. 

The knight of infinite resignation is a dancer and he too has elevation. But while he makes the upward movement and lands, he wavers an instant, showing that he is nevertheless a stranger in the world, his leap of faith cannot be grounded in reality, he is lacking the movement of faith.

The knight of faith, however, can make a leap and land on the ground perfectly. And this movement is represented in his every step. He delights in everything finite even while knowing the bliss of infinity. In other words, he moves from finitude to infinity and back again to finitude. His movement of infinity is grounded in reality.

Johannes illustrates these two movements by giving the example of a young man in love with a princess. There may in fact be three movements, one which is not explicitly counted as a separate movement is the concentration of desire on a single finite object, which allows for the movement of infinite resignation.

The knight of infinite resignation has an intensification of desire in which he puts the content of his whole life in this love, and yet the relationship is one that cannot possibly be brought to fruition, be translated from ideality to reality.

While he performs the movement of infinite resignation by renouncing to their love in finitude, which causes him great pain – his love for the princess would take the expression of an eternal love, which would assume a religious character, directing his love at God.

Having acquired an eternal consciousness which no one can take away from him, he obtains peace and rest, allowing the pain caused by his unsatisfied desire to reconcile him spiritually. He no longer needs to know about the finite existence of the princess. He has grasped the deep secret that even in loving another one should be sufficient unto himself.

If one’s interests are numerous and as replaceable as the hydra’s heads, then it seems that in cutting them off one by one by separate acts of resignation, one will never reach a comprehensive or infinite resignation. If religious devotion is to define itself by resignation, the desire for the finite presents itself concentrated in one head that can be severed by a single stroke of resignation, so to speak.

The knight of faith does exactly the same as the other knight, but he makes one more movement, he says:

“I nevertheless believe that I shall get her, namely by virtue of the absurd, on the strength of the fact that for God all things are possible.”

The knight of faith redirects the love to the princess through divine possibility. As such, he is the happiest person, the heir to the finite, while the other knight is a stranger and an outsider.

All of this reflects Kierkegaard’s own personal experience. He fall deeply and passionately in love with Regine Olsen, but ended up breaking off his engagement to her, sacrificing that which he loved with his whole soul.

Kierkegaard rarely entertained the idea that his works would become “classics”. However, concerning Fear and Trembling, he wrote in his journals that he predicted that with its “frightful pathos” it would suffice “to immortalise my name as an author” and “to be translated into other languages.”

“If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?”


KIERKEGAARD: The Knight of Faith

The knight of faith is one of Kierkegaard’s most important concepts, which he discusses in Fear and Trembling under the pseudonym Johannes de silentio. He begins explaining the knight of faith through the story of Abraham and Isaac.

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The Shadow – Carl Jung’s Warning to The World

“Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it… But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected, and is liable to burst forth suddenly in a moment of unawareness. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East

Carl Jung talks about two types of shadows: the personal shadow (the unknown dark side of our personality) and the collective shadow (the unknown dark side of society).

Personal Shadow

Starting with the personal shadow, Jung calls it:

“the thing a person has no wish to be.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol 16: Practice of Psychotherapy

It represents unknown or little-known attributes and qualities of the ego. It is the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide from ourselves. The shadow contains inferiorities which everybody has but prefers not to know about, they  seem weak, socially unacceptable or even evil. The shadow is most visible when one is in the grip of anxiety or other emotions, under the influence of alcohol, etc., one may suddenly blurt out a hostile remark during a friendly conversation. When we do not want to assimilate what we despise, we project it unto others.

It is possible for one to be acquainted with one’s shadow and be partly conscious of it, that is, under ego control. Many people, however, refuse to recognise their shadow so completely that the ego is not even aware of shadow behaviour and thus has no possibility of commanding it. Under these conditions, the shadow is autonomous and may express itself in inexplicable moods, irritability and cruelty.

Throughout his writing, Jung refers to the importance of developing awareness of the shadow in psychotherapy and its projections in the individual’s life. Although the shadow is usually perceived as negative it can also be positive. In fact, exploring our shadow gives us access to many positive qualities, Jung writes that the shadow:

“displays a number of good qualities, such as normal instincts, appropriate reactions, realistic insights, creative impulses, etc.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol 9 (Part 1): Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

One of Jung’s closest collaborators, Marie-Louise von Franz writes:

“The shadow is not necessarily always an opponent. In fact, he is exactly like any human being with whom one has to get along, sometimes by giving in, sometimes by resisting, sometimes by giving love – whatever the situation requires. The shadow becomes hostile only when he is ignored or misunderstood.”

Man and His Symbols. Part III: The Process of Individuation, “The Realisation of the Shadow” – M.L. von Franz

The shadow contains all sorts of qualities, strengths and potentials, which if remain unexplored, give us a state of impoverishment in our personality, creating unconscious “snags” which inhibit the growth and embodiment of these good qualities that lie dormant in our psyche.

For instance, a person might believe that being assertive is being rude or aggressive, losing the qualities of confidence and the ability to speak up for himself in an honest and respectful way, which in turn may lead to less proactivity, make it more difficult to get a raise or job promotion, struggle with money, and so on.

So, when a person encounters an assertive person deep down he feels resentment and guilt, which makes his shadow blacker and denser. These valuable aspects ought to be assimilated into actual experience and not repressed, it is up to the ego to give up its pride.

We also encounter our shadow in our dreams, as a person of the same sex as the dreamer. It is what seems to be a “criticism” of our character from the unconscious, an inner judge of your own being that reproaches you, and the result is usually embarrassed silence.

We must identify the contents of the shadow and integrate them into our personality. This is the process of “the realisation of the shadow”, also known as shadow work.

Here begins the painfully and lengthy work of self-education, one must enter into long and difficult negotiations with the shadow, a work, we might say, that is the psychological equivalent of the labours of Hercules. Through shadow work, one can observe one’s shadow outwardly by watching one’s emotional reactions and being radically honest about one’s interactions with others, and inwardly by exploring one’s dreams.

This allows one to become enlightened and reduces the shadow’s destructive potential, not so much, as it were, by waging war against the darkness, but by bringing the darkness to the light, the light to the darkness. As Jung writes:

“There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 12 “Psychology and Alchemy”

One must not strive for perfection, but rather wholeness of personality. The lifelong process of individuation creates a balance between one’s conscious and unconscious realms, aligning the ego to the self, the totality of one’s personality.

However scary or dark it is to confront our shadow, finding truth brings relief. Discernment of the truth is the process of authenticity; a painstaking excavation into the depths of our being to explore possibilities and limitations, distortions and the buried and often forgotten parts of ourselves and abilities.

Most people, however, are too indolent to think deeply about even those moral aspects of their behaviour of which they are conscious; let alone to consider how the unconscious affects them.

Collective shadow

The shadow can also consist of factors that stem from a source outside the individual’s personal life. Here is when we stumble upon the collective shadow, the dark side or the unknown or little known aspects of a society and culture.  It consists of that which opposes our shared and collective values.

The collective shadow refers to a huge, multidimensional, often horrifying, yet elusive aspect of human life, to an immensity of harm inflicted by human beings upon each other and the natural world and to the vast aftereffects of such harm in subsequent generations.

We find the collective shadow in the projection of “darkness” and inferiority, in violence and oppression, in the invisibility of current suffering, in the denial of current responsibility.

While collective shadow material may be acted out brutally in wars, massacres and genocides, it may also hide under the often attractive cloaks of missionary activity, such as mandating the use of particular languages, an Orwellian reality that we are experiencing in the present time.

As is the nature of all shadow material, whether individual or collective, its existence and influence may be pervasive without being obvious.

The collective shadow manifests outwardly in atrocities, persecution, physical suffering, sickness, poverty, malnutrition, alcoholism, crime, the death of cultures and so on. It may also manifest more inwardly, amid the complexities of each individual psyche, as hatred toward oneself, one’s heritage, and one’s culture, depression and feelings of impotence, the desire for revenge (so that others might experience something like one’s own pain), etc.

The collective shadow is what has historically been labelled “evil”. In the Christian tradition it would be the devil, and someone who is possessed by the devil loses his human quality and acquires a demonic nature. Our primary response to evil, for Jung, must be the quest for self-knowledge, for wholeness, which presumes the assimilation of shadow material. The individual:

“must know relentlessly how much good he can do, and what crimes he is capable of”

Carl Jung “Memories, Dreams, Reflections” Chapter XII: Late Thoughts

When there is an issue known in a particular society, it can be called a shadow issue if there is evidence of denial, projection and a lack of taking individual and collective responsibility. Therefore, taking responsibility – morally, politically and spiritually – is particularly crucial. The courage with which we bear our darkness frees others from having to carry it for us.

For instance, to respond to examples of massive historical suffering: wars, genocide, holocausts, pervasive oppression, etc., the effects of which persist. As human beings we have much to learn in that regard. Denial, often connected with a wish to “get on with things” and “put the past behind us”, seems the most common approach and usually the first reaction.

There are and have been many attempts to deal with difficult, painful pasts through public apologies for supporting atrocities, repentance, reparation payments after wars, pilgrimages to places of great suffering, etc. But how do we deal with the past in such a way that the integration of the shadow occurs deeply and broadly within a population, rather than simply at a symbolic level through leaders or policies?

Remembering and speaking what often seems unspeakable is inevitably a painful process for victims and perpetrators, bystanders and witnesses. Any such process can only be regarded as successful or reasonably complete once the pain, outrage, betrayal, suffering, and all the other feelings have been voiced and heard and once responsibility has been taken. Truth-telling is both the most desirable and the most feasible way to grapple with a difficult past.

One example of a terrible mass psychosis represented by the collective shadow is Nazi Germany where people fell into the demonic nature through their personal shadow. They joined the Nazi party and did worse things than they could have ever imagined or would have done under normal social conditions. In this sense, the personal shadow is the bridge to the collective shadow.

Therefore, it is important to solve one’s inner conflicts first (one’s personal shadow), so that one does not fall into the collective shadow unconsciously. One may then later influence other people and society would be better off as a whole.

“If we practice mindfulness, we will know how to look deeply into the nature of war, and, with our insight, wake people up so that together we can avoid repeating the same horrors again and again… The war is in us, but is also in everyone… Everything is ready to explode, and we are all co-responsible.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living

Summary – Facing the Collective Shadow

To summarise, we must first acknowledge our personal shadow and enter into long and difficult negotiations with it (being honest with ourselves and our interactions with others, watching our emotional reactions and exploring our dreams), in order to not become passive victims of our shadow and of our unconscious projections, allowing us to rescue the good qualities that lie dormant within us, which improves our lives and the lives of those around us.

We can then be consciously aware of the collective shadow and not fall prey to it and take responsibility to address the denial of important issues and a lack of individual and collective initiative, the courage of bearing our darkness brings relief to others, as telling the truth is the most desirable way to deal with a difficult past, rather than dismissing the atrocities and having the shadow grow blacker until it can no grow no more, and thus history repeats itself.


Facing the Collective Shadow – Carl Jung’s Warning to the World

Carl Jung warns us against the dangers of the collective shadow (the unknown dark side of society) and urges us to develop our personal shadow (the unknown dark side of our personality) to be consciously aware of the collective shadow and not fall prey to it. We must acknowledge our personal shadow and enter into long and difficult negotiations with it through shadow work.

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What is the Meaning of Life? – Philosophy & Psychology

“Man cannot stand a meaningless life.”

Carl Jung, BBC “Face To Face” (1959)

The world is a terrifying place and suffering is inevitable. We need a meaning to survive, to live properly – and we are ready to suffer and undergo sacrifice in order to preserve this meaning.

“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Maxims and Arrows, §12.

Man who has a meaning can overcome and confront life’s troubles, man without a meaning is bound to descend into the void.  

Jung, however, believes that we must look in the darkest places, because in the darkest places you can find what shines and if something shines in the darkness, you know it’s a real light. He writes:

“Filling the conscious mind with ideal conceptions is a characteristic feature of Western theosophy, but not the confrontation with the shadow and the world of darkness. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.”

Carl Jung, Collected Works 13: Alchemical Studies

In Western theosophy (the way in which the West imitated Eastern traditions), there is too much focus on only seeing figures of light. In order to find meaning in life, Jung tells us to make our darkness conscious, that is the real work of individuation. To integrate our shadow is what gives man wholeness of personality. To achieve a profound meaning in life means that we must go through the dark places and walk to the light at the end.

”No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”

Carl Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, Chapter 5

The West and the East have different views on the meaning of life, Jung writes:

“To Western man, the meaninglessness of a merely static universe is unbearable. He must assume that it has meaning. The Oriental does not make this assumption; rather, he himself embodies it. Whereas the Occidental feels the need to complete the meaning of the world, the Oriental strives for the fulfilment of the meaning in man, stripping the world and existence from himself (Buddha). I would say that both are right. Western man seems predominantly extroverted, Eastern man predominantly introverted. The former projects the meaning and considers that it exists in objects; the latter feels the meaning in himself. But the meaning is both within and without.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Chapter XI: On Life after Death

What is the Meaning of Life?

So, what is the meaning of life? This question can be quite deceptive. We mustn’t think of it as a static relation to be realised with a simpler answer.

It is hard to think of a single proposition that can make your life meaningful in an instant. One can, however, orient oneself more meaningfully towards one’s goals. To find meaning is a dynamic process that constantly shapes yourself, immerses yourself in reality and has reality immersed in you.

Although the term “meaningful life” is commonly used, it has no clear definition. We can, however, reframe the question as: “what are the conditions under which an individual will experience his life as meaningful?”

When an individual states that he seeks meaning in his life, he is positively committed to some concept of the meaning of life. This concept of the meaning of life provides him with some framework or goal from which to view his life – and he is determined to fulfil this concept of life – this fulfilment is experienced as a feeling of integration, relatedness or significance.

A meaningful life can be defined according to a positive life regard, referring to an individual’s belief that he is fulfilling a life-framework or life-goal that provides him with a highly valued understanding of his life.

We’ll be exploring different approaches to the development of positive life regard.

Development of Positive Life Regard (Meaningful Life)

The first approach is the philosophical model, where positive life regard develops only from the commitment to and fulfilment of the intrinsic meaning of life. This meaning can be derived from God (religious models), from Being (existential models), from man (humanistic models), or from life (self-transcendent models). They all assume that there is only one true meaning of life.

However, it isn’t quite clear that this is true. There can well be several meanings of life, this is the second approach: the relativistic model, which states that commitment to any system of beliefs can serve as a life-framework for the development of positive life regard. Thus, this model shifts emphasis away from the nature of an individual’s belief system and emphasises his commitment to it.

Philosophical models propose that the content of belief is a determinant of positive life regard, while the relativistic model proposes only that the process of believing itself is a determinant of positive life regard. Although most philosophers would probably deny that there is a single meaning of life if confronted, they nevertheless approach the problem of meaning by trying to explicate some single conceptual framework from which to understand the meaning of life.

Therefore, the relativistic perspective has several advantages over the philosophical one. The wide variety of belief systems under which individuals have developed meaning in life  (Taoism, Christianity, Existentialism, etc.) do not appear reducible to one fundamental system. It promotes tolerance towards all systems of belief and is thus inclusive of all of the philosophical models, it discourages abstract philosophical discussion over which system of beliefs is “ultimately” better, and emphasises the responsibility of each individual to find his own beliefs.

The third way to develop positive life regard is through the psychological approach. Most contemporary psychological theories explain individual development as a function of the resolution of inherent needs or stages of development through the interaction of the individual with his social environment, such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – in which certain needs must be satisfied before an individual can accept “growth” needs and experience “life validation” and “peak experiences” through the development of “self-actualisation”.

Self-esteem, man’s experience of his self as valuable, is a subjective belief which is necessary for a positive life regard. It is linked to one’s self-image (the way we see ourselves physically, our social roles and personality traits) and seeing oneself progressing towards one’s ideal self. All of this makes up one’s self-concept, the knowledge of who one is.

As infants we are concerned with our self-image (which develops from the relationship with our parents), and as we grow older into adolescence we also start becoming concerned with our self-esteem. Therefore, meaning in life appears to be a later development – caricatured as the perennial concern of college students, emphasised as an important issue of mid and later life.

An individual must successfully resolve the stage concerned with self-concept by developing self-esteem before he can develop positive life regard. Self-esteem is seen as a necessary but an insufficient prerequisite of positive life regard.

Positive life regard, however, does not appear to be socially introjected, but is much more intimately involved with a person’s own idiosyncratic evaluation of his life goals.

Therefore, there is a high correlation between self-esteem and social phenomena (which includes comfort with people, finding a partner, sexual performance, etc.), while positive life regard is highly correlated with life-goal oriented phenomena (satisfaction with career choice, career performance, etc.).

The fourth way to find meaning is the transactional model which sees the individual in terms of a set of needs or goals that he attempts to fulfil through social roles (the patterns of behaviour expected of people who occupy a certain social position).

The development of positive life regard should be related to the fit between the values, goals, needs and roles of the individual and the values, goals, needs and roles of the social structure which he lives in, including subcultures or broader social movements.

The fifth and final way is the phenomenological approach. Phenomenology is the study of the nature and structure of consciousness. While the previous models elucidated the determinants of an individual’s goals and rate of progress toward his goals, the phenomenological model is viewed as a description of the structure by which this rate of progress is evaluated.

A person can compare his current goal position relative to his ultimate life goal and the degree of positive life regard will be experienced as the rate of progress that he’s making and by the comparison of his present goal position with his past goal position.

In this sense, there is no “true” or “ultimate” meaning of life. To have a positive life regard, we have seen that:

The relativistic model emphasises the search for meaning as the individual’s believing rather than the content of his beliefs and  allows us to compare several philosophical points of view instead of assuming one true meaning of life. The psychological perspective emphasises self-esteem as a necessary pre-requisite, the transactional model suggests the need for harmony between the individual and society’s values, goals, needs and roles, and the phenomenological approach allows us to describe the structure by which the rate of progress is evaluated towards a meaningful life.

To help navigate and orient yourself towards a more meaningful life, you can rate the following statements taken from the Life Regard Index: from 1 to 5 (1 being the lowest and 5 the highest):

Framework Items (Positive)

  • I have some aims and goals that would personally give me a great deal of satisfaction if I could accomplish them.
  • I have a philosophy of life that really gives my living significance.

Framework Items (Negative)

  • I just don’t know what I really want to do with my life.
  • I really don’t have much of a purpose for living, even for myself.

Fulfilment Items (Positive)

  • I feel that I am living fully.
  • I feel that I’m really going to attain what I want in life.

Fulfilment Items (Negative)

  • I spend most of my time doing things that really aren’t very important to me.
  • I don’t really value what I’m doing.

Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World

In Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World, Iddo Landau found out that many who didn’t find meaning in their lives were too perfectionist. They take only great people and great achievements as things that make life meaningful.

They look up to people they admire which helps form their ideal self, used to assist the real self in developing its potential. However, many do not believe they have an ideal self or think that they may never achieve it, so their real self turns into a despised self, and one becomes mired in his own negative emotions, one thinks of oneself as a good-for-nothing. This stagnation makes progress towards any goal become an impossible and ludicrous task.

People have too high standards. A writer may think that he is not Shakespeare and so he despairs that his life is meaningless because he cannot achieve those artistic heights. Landau emphasises non-perfectionism.

In order to have a meaningful life, he writes that:

“One must have a sufficient number of aspects of sufficient value.”

Iddo Landau, Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World

The meaning of life is mostly about value. There can, however, also be negative value – such as causing pain to others, breaking the law, being manipulative, etc. While one might find value in this, it does not, however, contribute to a meaningful life, but rather an unmeaningful life.

We can find meaning in countless ways, through seeking pleasure, relationships, work and so on. However, many times there is an incongruence between the things that we like and the things that are meaningful. We might like to party, to play, to become wealthier and so on, and achieve happiness thereby. But as one gets used to this lifestyle, one eventually tires of it and is bored by the repetition. We may like to do many things, but still end up with a feeling of emptiness in our lives.

This is because many of the things that we do and think have meaning do not actually give us value in order to grow but rather short-term ephemeral pleasure.

We see wealthy and famous people commit suicide, even though they have covered their basic needs of monetary value and having social prestige. However, they too have psychological and growth needs, such as love and self-realisation. A lack of these may cause them to feel existential despair, as they are fundamental in order to grow and progress as a human being.

In “A Confession”, Leo Tolstoy wrote about his struggle with a mid-life existential crisis. Tolstoy was one of the most acclaimed writers of his time, but he felt that this wasn’t something that gave him sufficient value, he writes:

“If God does not exist, since death is inevitable, what is the meaning of life?”

Leo Tolstoy, A Confession

To focus on the things that give us meaning and value in life usually challenges our very being, gaining profundity. But this requires sacrifice and is painful.

Nietzsche writes:

“Only great pain is the ultimate liberator of the spirit… I doubt that such pain makes us ‘better’; but I know that it makes us more profound.”

Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Preface, §3

Nietzsche argues that human greatness is what makes our life meaningful, it is more desirable than human happiness. And what makes a man great is the ability to overcome the inherent suffering we experience.

We may find profound meaning from work, creativity, accomplishment, relationships, generosity and so on. The more things we can derive meaning from, the better.

A Meaningless Life: Dangers of Nihilism

If one cannot find a meaning in life, there is a risk of falling into existential nihilism, the belief that everything we do has no value whatsoever, that we are insignificant and unlikely to change in our life, that we have no higher purpose to strive towards. Since one cannot find any meaning, one gives up and calls life meaningless.

But anyone who believes life can be meaningless also assumes the importance of value. Therefore, when people say that “life is meaningless”, they really want to refer to their miserable condition of not having a profound meaning in their lives.

A more appropriate statement would be: “I am struggling to find meaning in my life” or “what was meaningful for me is now meaningless, how can I find a new meaning in my life?”. These are real problems that people deeply struggle with. Many so-called nihilists are really in despair to find a profound meaning in their lives.

Meaninglessness also occurs when we experience an existential crisis. We start to re-examine our life in the context of our death and reflect on the meaning, purpose or value of what we have done so far in our life, and ask ourselves if there’s any point to all of it.

Some even believe that life is meaningless upon reflecting on the cosmos-at-large and seeing the insignificance of humanity and its doings. Things are important to us on the human scale, but we simply don’t matter in the cosmos.

However, expecting to be at the centre of the cosmos is exceedingly unrealistic – it is a human, all-too-human need for anthropocentrism. We can, however, have a relationship with a higher being through self-transcendence, giving us “cosmic significance”.  

Others believe that life is meaningless because we are in constant threat from random celestial events which can result in mass extinction, that the earth will eventually be engulfed by the Sun, that the current use of technology or the effects of climate change pose a big threat to our extinction, and that everything that was ever created by humanity would come to an end: history, religion, philosophy, language – it would disappear into the void, assuming that mankind hadn’t developed a multiplanetary species by that time.

While these may be facts or possibilities, if one considered all the worst case scenarios one would go mad – as they are endless. They do not contribute to our well-being either, but rather give us a gloomy view of existence.

Life-affirmation & Meaning as Embedded in Life

The Stoics would give us the following advice: stop for a moment and focus on what you can control and not on what you can’t control. If things are outside of our control, we shouldn’t beat our heads against the wall. Instead of seeking everything to happen as you wish it would, you should wish that everything happens as it actually will – then your life will flow well. This is amor fati, to love one’s fate.

Nietzsche shares the same idea:

“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

We should then not speculate of what is unforeseeable and beyond our control, but rather focus on how to make our lives as meaningful as possible.

Martin Heidegger takes a different view on the meaning of life. He tells us that beings are only intelligible as meaningful, where meaning is spawned according to our average everyday existence. We are thrown into the world at a given time period, culture, family, and we comport ourselves as being-in-the-world. We are always initially engaged with the world.

Meaning is not an add-on to existence, we are embedded in meaning, and there is no exit from having a life populated by meaningful beings. We are always pointing towards some being and  constantly engaged in doing tasks which we care about, the essence of the being of humans, or what he calls Dasein (“being-there”) is its existence. We are initially and for the most part turned into the structures of average everydayness which defines our background meaning and intelligibility.

Viktor Frankl: Will to Meaning

Viktor Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in 1946 after being released from the concentration camps in which he spent three years. The success and attention of his book symbolised the “mass neurosis of modern times”. He called it the “unheard cry for meaning”.

The prisoners who were oriented towards a meaning in life were more likely to live – they were oriented towards the future, waiting to see their families or help other prisoners live. Even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical distress, many preserved a vestige of spiritual freedom.

He writes:

“The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day, and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?”

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Frankl founded the school of logotherapy, in which a search for meaning in life is the most fundamental and basic concern for man.

An example that explains the basic tenets of logotherapy is Frankl meeting with an elderly general practitioner who was struggling to overcome severe depression after the loss of his wife. Frankl helped the elderly man to see that his purpose had been to spare his wife the pain of losing him first.

“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

To be mentally sound, man must constantly be struggling and striving for a worthwhile goal. People who have a feeling of meaninglessness exist in what he calls an “existential vacuum.”

Frankl names three experiences which often lead to an existential crisis, known as the tragic triad: guilt, suffering or death. He believes that all human beings at one point in their lives with encounter the tragic triad.

In his time, however, many thought that this was a mental disease and the doctors buried their patients’ existential despair under a heap of tranquilising drugs. Frankl emphasised, however, that a man’s concern over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress, which differs from mental illness.

A person who has a terrible and meaningless life is unlikely to improve with medication, on the other hand, a person with a seemingly good life who is miserable, might benefit from medication.

Contrary to animals, man does not just follow his instincts – he can sacrifice hunger for other purposes such as social reform. In contrast to man in former times, today he is not told by traditions and universal values what he should do. The result is that many people do not know what to do with their lives, so they fall into conformism (doing what others do) or totalitarianism (doing what others tell them to do).

Frankl gives us three ways to find meaning in life: by creating a work or doing a deed (which gives us a sense of achievement), by experiencing something (such as art, music or culture) and encountering someone (mainly through love, which not only includes sex but also experiencing someone in his very uniqueness) and by the attitude that we take toward unavoidable suffering.

Man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognise that it is he who is asked. Responsibility is the very essence of human existence:

“Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning


The Meaning of Life – Philosophy & Psychology

Man cannot stand a meaningless life. What is the meaning of life? It is hard to think of a single proposition that can make your life meaningful in an instant. One can, however, orient oneself more meaningfully towards one’s goals. To find meaning is a dynamic process that constantly shapes yourself, immerses yourself in reality and has reality immersed in you.

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What is the Meaning of Death? – Philosophy & Psychology

Death is the unequivocal and permanent end of our existence. Most people unconsciously repress the idea of their death, as it is too horrifying a notion to think about.

Some are perhaps not so horrified of the idea of death, but rather the pain associated before one’s death, or the death of loved ones. We live entirely unique lives with complete different experiences, but we all share one common fate: Death. This is what links all of us together. Death smiles at us all and all we can do is smile back.

Is Death Undesirable?

We might think that death is undesirable since it deprives us of life. If by death we mean permanent death without any form of conscious survival, this question should be of interest even to those who believe that there is an afterlife, for one’s attitude towards immortality must depend in part on one’s attitude towards death.

If death is undesirable at all, it must be because it brings to an end all the good that life contains. In this view, life is worth living despite the existence of suffering. The more one lives the better. What makes life worth living includes everything that we find desirable.

The value of life does not attach to mere organic survival: almost everyone would agree that immediate death and immediate comma followed by death without reawakening would be the same outcome. Therefore, we can say that more life is good insofar as one is conscious and one is able to have good experiences.

If we were to consider death undesirable, it is because of the loss of life, rather than the actual state of being dead or non-existent. Death is bad because of the desirability of what it removes.

But this raises the question: what if we were to live indefinitely? If we had virtually endless days ahead of us, wouldn’t that generate widespread laziness? We would have all the time in the world, there would be no urgency to achieve great goals and there would be less incentive to make every day count, and as a result, we might end up as a bunch of unhappy people.

Death might well be what makes life valuable.

Should We Fear Death?

So, should we fear death? American philosopher Thomas Nagel identifies two common mistakes on the notion of death.

The first mistake is the asymmetry between our attitudes to posthumous and prenatal nonexistence. None of us existed before we were born (or conceived), but few regard that as a misfortune. How can posthumous death be considered bad and not prenatal nonexistence?

Some may say that no one finds it disturbing to contemplate the eternity preceding his own birth, and so it must be irrational to fear death, since death is simply the mirror image of the prior abyss.

However, this does not make much sense. While it is true that both the time before a man’s birth and the time after his death are times when he does not exist, the time after his death is time of which his death deprives him. It is time in which, had he not died, then he would be alive.

On the other hand, his birth, when it occurs, does not entail the loss to him of any life. The time prior to his birth is not time in which his subsequent birth prevents him from living. Thus, one’s prenatal nonexistence cannot be attributed to one’s posthumous nonexistence.

The second mistake is about the origin of the fear of death. It is often said that those who object to death have made the mistake of trying to imagine what it is like to be dead, leading to the conviction that death is a mysterious and terrifying future state.

This is logically impossible as there is nothing to imagine when one’s mental faculties have been shut down. People who are afraid of death in this sense mistake being dead as a conscious state, for it is easy to imagine oneself, from the outside, in that condition – but one can never experience it.

There is a difficulty, in the case of death, about how the supposed misfortune is to be assigned to a subject at all. There is doubt as to who its subject is, and as to when he undergoes it.

Epicurus writes:

“Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.”

Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus

So long as a person exists, he has not yet died and once he has died, he no longer exists; so there seems to be no time when death can be ascribed to its unfortunate subject.

Therefore, the more reasonable fear people have is the pain that one experiences before one’s death. Thus one should not fear one’s death, but rather the possible ways of dying.

Ernest Becker: The Denial of Death

Ernest Becker, the author of The Denial of Death, was diagnosed with colon cancer and died two years later at the age of 49. He was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for this literary work, gaining him wider recognition.

Becker tells us that we are born in a world that is terrifying and our basic motivation is our biological need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death. He writes:

“This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression – and with all this yet to die.”

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, Chapter 5: “The Psychoanalyst Kierkegaard”

Since the terror of death is so overwhelming we conspire to keep it unconscious. The first line of defence that protects us from the painful awareness of our helplessness is “the vital lie of character”. Every child borrows power from adults and creates a personality by introjecting the qualities of the godlike being: “if I am like my all-powerful father I will not die” – the child seeks self-extension or what Becker calls “cosmic significance”.

This expresses man’s tragic destiny:

“He must desperately justify himself as an object of primary value in the universe; he must stand out, be a hero, make the biggest possible contribution to world life, show that he counts more than anything or anyone else.”

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, Chapter 1: “Introduction: Human Nature and the Heroic”

The problem of heroics is the central one of human life. It is the combination of organismic narcissism and the basic need for self-esteem that creates a creature who has to feel himself an object of primary value, as the condition of his life.

We build “character armour” which makes us feel safe and are able to pretend that the world is manageable. But the price we pay is high, life escapes us while we huddle within the defended fortress of character.

“The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free from the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, Chapter 4: “Human Character as a Vital Lie”

Society provides the second line of defence against our natural impotence by creating a hero system that allows us to believe that we transcend death by participating in something of lasting worth. We achieve ersatz immortality by sacrificing ourselves to establish a family, to accumulate fortune, to write a book and so on.

Since the main task of human life is to become heroic and transcend death, every culture must provide its members with an intricate symbolic system that is covertly religious. Our heroic projects are “my gods against your gods, my immortality project against your immortality project”.

Man’s basic narcissism is what keeps men marching into point-blank fire in wars: at heart one doesn’t feel that he will die, he only feels sorry for the man next to him.

Becker advises us to contemplate death. Cultivating awareness of our death leads to disillusionment, loss of character armour, and a conscious choice to abide in the face of terror. This is the existential hero’s way, which differs from the average person. Instead of hiding within the illusions, he sees his impotence and vulnerability. Living with the voluntary consciousness of death, the heroic individual can choose to despair or to make a leap of faith.

“Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.”

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, Chapter 9: “The Present Outcome of Psychoanalysis”

Becker indicates, however, that the truth about the need for heroism is not easy for anyone to admit, and so we disguise our struggle by piling up figures in a bank book to reflect privately our sense of heroic worth.

To become conscious of what one is doing to earn his feeling of heroism is the main self-analytic problem of life.

Stoicism: Memento Mori

The Stoics, on the other hand, do not believe in the terror of death. It is a natural process and should not be feared. They practiced memento mori (meditating on your mortality), to remember that we all have to die.

Marcus Aurelius writes:

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

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.56

Death allows one to fully live one’s life. For it is not death a man should fear but rather never beginning to live. For the Stoics, death is not anxiety-inducing or grippling, it is part of nature.

Epictetus writes:

“I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later.”

Epictetus, Discourses of Epictetus 1.1

If every second counts as dying, this allows one not to take anything for granted in this life and to fully immerse oneself, being aware that life is temporal. This also allows us to focus on the things that really matter:

“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.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 12.27

Nietzsche: The Free Death

Nietzsche also embraces and celebrates death and talks about the “free death”. He writes:

“Many die too late, and some die too early. The doctrine still sounds strange: “Die at the right time!”… To be sure, how could the person who never lives at the right time ever die at the right time? Would that he were never born! – Thus I advise the superfluous… Everyone regards dying as important; but death is not yet a festival. As of yet people have not learned how to consecrate the most beautiful festivals. I show you the consummating death that becomes a goad and a promise to the living. The consummated one dies his death, victorious, surrounded by those who hope and promise. Thus one should learn to die; and there should be no festival where such a dying person does not swear oaths to the living!”

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part I, “On Free Death”

Nietzsche establishes a view of the correct death which one chooses freely and which occurs at the right time. Death should be a consummation to life, dignified by a meaning and purpose emanating from the life that is ending.

In contrast he writes about the “preachers of death”:

“There are preachers of death, and the earth is full of those to whom one must preach renunciation of life… There are those with consumption of the soul: hardly are they born when they begin to die and too long for doctrines of weariness and renunciation. They would like to be dead, and we should welcome their wish. Let us beware of waking the dead and disturbing these living coffins! They encounter a sick or a very old person or a corpse, and right away they say: life is refuted!”

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part I, “On Preachers of Death”

Nietzsche rejects the melancholy of encountering a sick or a very old person or a corpse, as a repudiation of life. He illustrates the manner in which living men can be “effectively” dead. There are forms of death other than ceasing to be physically alive. There are the “living dead,” those who avoid the demands of existence through escape into work and through renunciation of life.

The Death of Socrates

Socrates, the founder of Western philosophy – may well be one who practised “dying at the right time”. At the age of 70, he was sentenced to death.

The Oracle of Delphi, which found the sum of human wisdom in the expression “know thyself”, had declared that there is no one wiser than Socrates. Thus he began his mission to educate people, with his famous irony: “I know that I know nothing”.

He was known as the gadfly of Athens, asking question after question in order to expose the contradictions in the thoughts and ideas of people. It was an attempt made to use critical reflection to call into question traditional beliefs and ways of thinking. This is known as the Socratic method.

As is described in Plato’s Apology, Socrates was sentenced to death by drinking hemlock for impiety against the pantheon of Athens and for corrupting the youth. In the trial, he stated his famous dictum: “The unexamined life is not worth living”.

He was given the chance to live in exile, but refused. He spent his last day in prison with his friends visiting him and offering him an opportunity to escape, which he declined.

His enigmatic final words were: “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Pay it and do not neglect it.”

Socrates is thanking the god Asclepius for healing him of the sickness of life by the cure of death.

The cock, which gives hopeful proclamation of the coming new day, symbolised rebirth and afterlife for ancient Greeks and was the offering to the healing god Asclepius. Socrates is simply offering thanks and pointing to the afterlife. He invokes the only god known to revive the dead, who Socrates suggests with his last words has already helped heal both Socrates himself and his followers from the fever of earthly life. He tells his friends to work to purify their souls, to serve others with compassion and to dedicate their lives to the community’s health.

Carl Jung: Life and Death

Carl Jung believes that one must be as ready to live as to die. He writes:

“Death is psychologically as important as birth, and like it, is an integral part of life… As a doctor, I make every effort to strengthen the belief in immortality, especially with older patients when such questions come threateningly close. For, seen in correct psychological perspective, death is not an end but a goal, and life’s inclination towards death begins as soon as the meridian is passed.”

Carl Jung, Collected Works 13: Alchemical Studies

Jung’s entire psychology is predicated on the existence of psychic oppositions in the human psyche. He stressed the need to hold the tension of opposites. Death is inevitable and to think otherwise is to live in denial and to live against one’s instincts.

Jung criticises contemporary culture in its one-sidedness about this pair of opposites, with our almost complete focus on life, and denial of death. He tells us to prepare ourselves for the second half of our life. But how should we face death when we grow older? He writes:

“Death is an important interest, especially to an aging person. A categorical question is being put to him, and he is under an obligation to answer it. To this end he ought to have a myth about death, for reason shows him nothing but the dark pit into which he is descending. Myth, however, can conjure up other images for him, helpful and enriching pictures of life in the land of the dead. If he believes in them, or greets them with some measure of credence, he is being just as right or just as wrong as someone who does not believe in them. But while the man who despairs marches toward nothingness, the one who has placed his faith in the archetype follows the tracks of life and lives right into his death. Both, to be sure, remain in uncertainty, but the one lives against his instincts, the other with them.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Chapter XI “On Life after Death”

A myth is not something that we create rationally, but rather through observing our psychic life, through active imagination, dreams, intuitions and synchronicities or meaningful coincidences. The lifelong process of individuation brings one’s unconscious contents into consciousness, shifting the focus of the ego with the self.

Jung recounts his visions that followed his near death experience. As he hung on the edge of death, he saw himself high up in space and noticed a large granite block floating in space, which had a temple. As Jung approached the steps leading into the temple, he experienced “a strange thing”:

“I consisted of my own history, and I felt with great certainty: this is what I am… This experience gave me a feeling of extreme poverty, but at the same time of great fullness. There was no longer anything I wanted or desired. I existed in an objective form; I was what I had been and lived… At first the sense of annihilation predominated, or having been stripped or pillaged; but suddenly that became of no consequence. Everything seemed to be past… There was no longer any regret that something had dropped away or been taken away. On the contrary: I had everything that I was, and that was everything… as I approached the temple I had the certainty that I was about to enter an illuminated room and would meet there all those people to whom I belong in reality. There I would at last understand… what historical nexus I or my life fitted into. I would know… why I had come into being, and where my life was flowing…”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Chapter X: Visions

Jung then saw an image of his doctor telling him that he must return to earth, and his visions ceased. Compared to the freedom he felt in his vision, living felt like a prison, back to the “box system”. By day Jung was depressed, however, by night he was swept up in ecstasy, within visions that gave him the experience of:

“the odour of sanctity… a pneuma of inexpressible sanctity in the room, whose manifestation was the mysterium coniunctionis.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Chapter X: Visions

Jung’s last major work was in fact called Mysterium Coniunctionis, completed in his 81st year, on the synthesis of the opposites in alchemy and psychology. He wrote:

“Only with Mysterium Coniunctionis was my psychology definitely situated in reality and was historically cemented as a whole. With this my task was finished, my work done and accomplished. The moment I achieved my goal, I accessed the most extreme limits of what was scientifically conceived for me, the transcendent, the essence of the archetype itself, beyond which it is no longer possible to express anything else in the scientific aspect.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Chapter VII: The Work

Years later Jung could look back on his visions and say:

“It is impossible to convey the beauty and intensity of emotion during those visions. They were the most tremendous things I have ever experienced… not a product of imagination. The visions and experiences were utterly real; there was nothing subjective about them; they all had a quality of absolute objectivity.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Chapter X: Visions


The Meaning of Death – Philosophy & Psychology

What is the meaning of Death? It is the unequivocal and permanent end of our existence. Most people unconsciously repress the idea of their death, as it is too horrifying a notion to think about.

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What is the Meaning of Self Realisation? – Philosophy & Psychology

Life is a journey of self-realisation, of understanding and discovering who we truly are, and of maximising our potential. While this might be a life long journey, one can be closer or further from one’s true self.

Søren Kierkegaard: The Self

Søren Kierkegaard was a theologian and a philosopher, considered to be the father of existentialism. He also gave us one of the most profound analyses of the human condition, anticipating some of the fundamentals of psychoanalytic theory and pushed beyond that theory to the problem of faith and so to the deepest understanding of man.

He writes the following of the self:

“The human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation which relates to itself…”

Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death

Kierkegaard believes that the self must have a relation with the eternal aspect which in turn relates to us, allowing us to achieve “true selfhood”.

Søren Kierkegaard: Despair

The cause of despair is the inability of a person to become a self, as a person lacks something “eternally firm”.

Kierkegaard’s notion of trying to define a self is one of his many ironies, likely intended to produce despair in one who believes he can figure out his self alone. He talks about two types of despair: infinitude’s despair and finitude’s despair.

The infinitude’s despair is the split of self and body, a split in which the self is unanchored, not bound enough to everyday things – the entire person is pulled off balance. Today we call this schizophrenic psychosis. However, he gives a second and more common type of despair:

“But while one sort of despair plunges wildly into the infinite and loses itself, a second sort permits itself as it were to be defrauded by “the others”. By seeing the multitude of men about it, by getting engaged in all sorts of worldly affairs, by becoming wise about how things go in this world, such a man forgets himself… does not dare to believe in himself, finds it too venturesome a thing to be himself, far easier and safer to be like the others, to become an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd.”

Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death

This is a great characterisation of the herd mentality, those who do not dare stand up for their own meaning because it is too burdensome and dangerous. Better not to be oneself, better to live tucked into others, embedded in a safe framework of social and cultural obligations and duties.

When one has too much finitude, one is built into his world too overwhelmingly. There is not enough freedom for the inner self. This he calls “finitude’s despair”, or what we would call depressive psychosis. The individual cannot imagine any alternate ways of life and cannot release himself from the trivial obligations that give him no value. By surrendering to others and holding on to the people who have enslaved him in a network of crushing obligations, he accuses himself – he chooses slavery because it is safe and meaningful, but soon too this loses meaning.

One has then literally died to life but must remain physically in this world, thus the torture of depressive psychosis: to remain steeped in one’s failure and yet to justify it, to continue to draw a sense of worthwhileness out of it.

He writes:

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

Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death

In the midst of an existential crisis, Kierkegaard wrote the following in his journals:

“What I really want is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain knowledge must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do: the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.”

Søren Kierkegaard, Papers and Journals

Søren Kierkegaard: Leap of Faith

Kierkegaard’s truth which he lived and died for was to take a leap of faith. It is not about becoming our self, but rather to stand before God transparently, whose higher self is the only one that can overwhelm our self. The self must be destroyed in order to become a self, it is a question of death and rebirth.

The individual is thus saved from this madness, by his subjective inwardness being related to God, achieving self-transcendence. However, even a religious person is not entirely free from despair, as a true believer must have his faith constantly challenged.

Sigmund Freud: Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud contributed immensely to the notion of self-understanding, he pushed psychoanalytic theory to its limits but didn’t not come out at faith, he emphasised the creatureliness as the lasting insight on human character, mainly through an emphasis on libido (the pleasure principle).

Freud founded psychoanalysis after discovering that many of his patient’s symptoms were the result of unconscious repressions that had to be made conscious in order to cure them. He focused on psychopathology and what goes wrong with people. Many of his followers developed their own ideas, notably Carl Jung’s individuation, which we’ll talk about later on.

Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow are two psychologists who focused, not on psychopathology, but rather on the growth potential of individuals, which also greatly contributed to our understanding of the self.

Carl Rogers: Self-Concept

Carl Rogers talks about the “self-concept”, which we develop from childhood and continues to form and change over time as we learn about ourselves. It is the knowledge of who one is.  A positive self-concept makes one feel good about who they are. The self-concept is divided into self-image, self-esteem and ideal self.

The self-image is the way we see ourselves physically, our social roles and our personality traits. However, the self-image doesn’t always match reality, one may have a more negative view about oneself and others. This ties in with self-esteem, the value we place upon ourselves, which depends on our comparisons to others as well as others’ responses to us. Low self-esteem occurs when we compare ourselves to others and find out that we are not nearly as successful as they are or when people respond negatively to what we do.

Then we have the ideal self, the person you strive to be, while the real self is the person you are. The ideal self is used as a model to assist the real self in developing its potential. However when there is an incongruence, we become neurotic and are unable to develop a more satisfying personality. We may believe that we do not have an ideal self and our real self turns into a despised self.

The self-concept is dependent on the social situations in which we find ourselves, so we must be aware that it might be manipulated according to the feedback we receive from the environment.

Abraham Maslow: Self-Actualisation

Abraham Maslow gave us an important framework to achieving what he calls “self-actualisation”, the realisation of one’s full potential. He writes:

“What a man can be, he must be.”

Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality

Self-actualisation is the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be, and this depends on the individual. It is the pinnacle of the hierarchy of needs, which symbolises the human potential and the need for fulfilment.

Before self-actualisation, one must first meet one’s basic needs. Maslow’s motivational theory is best represented by a pyramid, with the more basic needs at the bottom and culminating in self-actualisation.

We start from the basic physiological needs of food, water, warmth, sex and rest – to the safety needs of security, employment, resources, health and property.  These two are important to the survival of the individual, to cover one’s basic nutrition, shelter and safety.

Then we have our psychological needs: belongingness and love (which include our intimate relationship and friends) and the esteem needs (prestige, feeling of accomplishment and recognition). These four levels make up our deficiency needs.

Maslow described human needs as being relatively fluid – with many needs being present in a person simultaneously, rather than being a fixed and rigid sequence of progression. Nevertheless, human needs can only be fulfilled one level at a time.

In his later years, he explored a further dimension of growth needs, while criticising his own vision on self-actualisation. He added the cognitive level (the need for intellectual stimulation), the aesthetic level (the need for harmony, order and beauty) and on top of self-actualisation, he put self-transcendence. This is quite an interesting add-on, which goes back to Kierkegaard’s idea – the spiritual needs that transcend beyond the personal self. He writes:

“Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos”

Abraham Maslow, Farther Reaches of Human Nature

It is the idea of giving oneself to something beyond oneself, this can include mystical experiences, religious faith, altruism, and so on.

We can link the idea of transcendence with Eastern philosophy. Self-realisation has different meanings in western and eastern cultures. With a few exceptions, the West generally has a multitude of definitions of what the “self” is, whereas the predominant view in the East is that the self is an illusory fiction and does not exist in reality.

Eastern philosophy: Buddhism

Buddhism denies the existence of a self, and believes that it represents a series of transient psychological states. Therefore self-realisation is a contradiction in terms.

For Buddhists life is suffering, that is the first noble truth. But this suffering comes from craving, desire and attachment. One must let go of the craving by practising ascetism, in order to liberate oneself from samsara, the endless cycle of rebirth – where one is reborn depending on their karma – it is an aimless drifting in mundane existence.

To liberate oneself, one must engage in a lifelong practise of what is known as the Noble Eightfold path, which includes the activities that allows one to achieve nirvana, the freedom from suffering and rebirth, salvation is the realisation of the “non-self”.

Eastern philosophy: Taoism

Taoism accentuates the falsehood of language. The so-called “Tao”, the essence of life and the universe, or the Way, cannot be described by human language. According to the doctrine of Taoism: “the self is but one of the countless manifestations of the Tao. It is an extension of the cosmos.” Taoism describes the self in the following way:

“The perfect man has no self; the spiritual man has no achievement; the true sage has no name.”

Zhuangzi

The ideal of Taoism, therefore, is the achievement of a lack of self.

Eastern philosophy: Advaita Vedanta

In Advaita Vedanta, literally “non-duality”, a school of Hindu philosophy and spiritual experience, the goal is to gain self-knowledge, and in contrast to Buddhism and Taoism, seeks a complete understanding of one’s true self or  “Atman”, which transcends our physical bodies.

One can do so by understanding the ultimate reality of existence or “Brahman”, understanding that this world is temporal and is entangled in the web of “Maya”, which is the powerful force that creates the cosmic illusion that this world is real – things that appear present are a result of an illusion of appearance, this includes our ego, the hallmark of self-ignorance.

Carl Jung: The Self

Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, describes the self as the totality of one’s personality, composed of our consciousness and the unconscious. The self is superior to the ego since the latter only amounts to the conscious personality. It is important to recognise that the ego is not the centre of our personality.

Jung writes:

“I began to understand that the goal of psychic development is the self. There is no linear evolution; there is only a circumambulation of the self… This insight gave me stability, and gradually my inner peace returned. I knew that in finding the mandala as an expression of the self I had achieved what was for me the ultimate. Perhaps someone else knows more, but not I.”

Carl Jung “Memories, Dreams, Reflections”, VI. Confrontation with the Unconscious

Jung tells us that our psyche can be split into three different realms: consciousness “the field of awareness” where our ego resides, the personal unconscious “that which is unique to each individual but has been forgotten or repressed” and the collective unconscious, which is the deepest part of our unconscious – the inherited and shared psychic material across all humans, it represents universal patterns of emotional and mental behaviour or “archetypes”.

Only being aware of our conscious personality amounts to self-ignorance and illusion of the reality of the self. True self-knowledge comes upon investigating one’s inner world, the unconscious realm. And for Jung, this is the true journey of life.

Carl Jung: Individuation

His central concept of self-realisation revolves around “individuation”. While it occurs naturally as we grow older, this is a mere passive form and we are not conscious of the process.

Jung proposes becoming consciously aware of individuation, through a lifelong process in which the centre of psychological life shifts from the ego to the self, bringing one’s unconscious contents into consciousness. These unconscious contents include the symbolic manifestations of the archetypes. Thus, one gains the knowledge of the timeless patterns of human life.

Jung’s goal is not to strive for perfection, but rather achieve wholeness of personality. Man becomes whole, integrated, calm, fertile, and happy when (and only when) the process of individuation is complete, when the conscious and the unconscious have learned to live at peace and to complement one another.

The most common way to interact with the unconscious is through dreams. Using the symbolic images of dreams, Jung found that the unconscious was conveying crucial information to help the entire psyche reach a balance which the conscious attitude has repressed, in order to reach a psychic equilibrium. This is known as the compensatory role of dreams. It is on such evidence that psychologists assume the existence of an unconscious psyche.

Throughout his life, Jung interpreted around 80.000 dreams and he discovered that they follow a pattern. If one pays attention to one’s dreams over a long period of time, one will see that certain contents emerge, disappear, and then turn up again. This slow process of psychic growth is the process of individuation.

Some of the common archetypes include: the trickster, the hero, the wise old man, and the great mother – these are not only present in dreams, but are represented throughout human history and mythology.

Modern man believes that he can control himself, but self-control is a rare virtue. Jung writes:

“The one thing we refuse to admit is that we are dependent upon “powers” that are beyond our control.”

Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols, Part I “Approaching the Unconscious”

Carl Jung: Shadow & Persona

An important archetype is the shadow, which Jung calls the “unknown dark side of the personality”, it is that which contains the hidden, repressed and unfavourable aspect of one’s personality. We deny the existence of all the things we despise in ourselves, while attributing them to others.

However, it is not only our negative aspects which we repress, but also our positive aspects, such as honesty, creativity and competitiveness, which must be rescued from within our shadow.

“Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is”

Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion: West and East

Moreover, one cannot individuate as long as one is playing a role to oneself. The persona is the mask which conceals one’s true self, presenting oneself as different to who one really is. This makes it particularly difficult to interact with the unconscious. We may perhaps become likeable to others, but it is at the cost of our own mental stability.

This is all the more dangerous when one is not aware of this social mask and confuses it with one’s true self. As we please others with our false self, it leaves negative traits that contradict our real self, making us a passive victim of our shadow.

It must be us who integrates our shadow, and not the other way around. This can be done through shadow-work, the practise which includes self-awareness, watching one’s emotional reactions, being radically honest and investigating one’s dreams.

“There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection. To round itself out, life calls not for perfection but for completeness; and for this the “thorn in the flesh” is needed, the suffering of defects without which there is no progress and no ascent.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 12 “Psychology and Alchemy”


Journey to Self Realisation – Psychology & Philosophy

Life is a journey of self-realisation, of understanding and discovering who we truly are, and of maximising our potential. While this might be a life long journey, one can be closer or further from one’s true self.

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What is the Meaning of Suffering? – Philosophy & Psychology

“The fact that there was no answer to the question he screamed, “Why do I suffer?” Man, the bravest animal and most prone to suffer, does not deny suffering as such: he wills it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering. The meaninglessness of suffering, not the suffering, was the curse that lay over mankind so far.”

Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, III, §28

Nietzsche points out that the problem of suffering is its meaninglessness, rather than suffering itself.

It is hard to deny that to live is to suffer, as long as we do not mean that to live is only to suffer. For many, it is far easier to suffer than to find joy, peace, or happiness.

However, what is meant by suffering? Suffering can be psychological or physical. Under mental suffering we find depression, anxiety, fear, loneliness, grief, stress, boredom, failure, existential malaise and more. While these admit to degrees, one could argue that any degree of any of them constitutes suffering.

Pain is the paradigm of physical suffering – one can be stabbed or have a small cut, be hungry which can range from mild discomfort to actual pain, be too hot or too cold, and so on. One becomes acquainted with more kinds of suffering the longer one lives.

Dostoevsky observes the value of suffering in a society that is desperately trying to abolish it and replace it with everlasting happiness – only to sink further into pain and suffering. Suffering is part of the human condition, and we would be much happier accepting it as it is.

He warns us against those who want to eliminate suffering:

“Shower upon man every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface, give him economic prosperity such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick.”

Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground

Everything that Dostoevsky had warned against had become a reality in Russia, the utopia of communism and the increasingly nihilistic and godless society ended up causing millions upon millions of deaths.

For Carl Jung, the communist world has one big myth. It expresses the archetypal dream of a Golden Age (or Paradise), where everything is provided in abundance for everyone. Every society has its idea of the archetypal paradise or golden age that, it is believed, once existed, and will exist again. He writes:

“Unconsciously then, we too believe in the welfare state, in universal peace, in the equality of man, in his eternal human rights, in justice, truth, and in the Kingdom of God on Earth. The sad truth is that man’s real life consists of a complex of inexorable opposites – day and night, birth and death, happiness and misery, good and evil. We are not even sure that one will prevail against the other, that good will overcome evil, or joy defeat pain. Life is a battle ground. It always has been, and always will be; and if it were not so, existence would come to an end.”

Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols, Part I “Approaching the Unconscious”, The Soul of Man

As Jung points out, one cannot have happiness without misery. Nietzsche goes even further:

“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

Suffering and joy are inseparable and to enjoy great joy requires submitting oneself to the possibility of great suffering. Nietzsche disparages the preference for comfortableness over pain: those who “worship” comfort know little of happiness, since happiness and unhappiness are twins, they either grow up together, or remain small together.

However, this does not mean that happiness is a justification for our suffering. Nietzsche writes:

“The more volcanic the earth, the greater the happiness will be – but it would be ludicrous to say that this happiness justified suffering per se.”

Human, All Too Human, §591

For Nietzsche, human greatness is a goal, but human happiness is not. It is suffering, not happiness, that makes great. Since happiness is not to be desired over suffering to begin with, any happiness that results from “volcanic earth” is not going to justify our suffering. But the life-enhancing aspects of suffering do give suffering meaning because human greatness is more desirable than human happiness.

He writes:

“You want, if possible—and there is no more insane “if possible”—to abolish suffering; and we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever! Well-being as you understand it—that is no goal, that seems to us an end! A state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible—that makes his destruction desirable. The discipline of suffering, of great suffering—do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far?”

Beyond Good and Evil, §225

For Nietzsche, one has to embrace suffering instead of trying to avoid it, as it is the cause of human greatness. There will always be rocks in the road ahead of us, they can be stumbling blocks or stepping stones. Suffering pervades life, however, not all of our day-to-day suffering brings in the question of meaning. One may be extremely hungry before dinner, but such “suffering” does not cry out for meaning. It is the more profound suffering – the loss of a parent, existential malaise, depression, etc. – that makes us ask, “Why do I suffer like this? What is this for?”

The goal is to find a meaning to suffering. Viktor Frankl writes:

“In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice… That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning.”

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Frankl founded the school of logotherapy, after being released from the concentration camps in Germany. He believes that the primary motivational force in man is the “will to meaning”. He saw the success of his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”  as a symptom of the “mass neurosis of modern times” since the title promised to deal with the question of life’s meaningfulness.

For Frankl, one of three ways to find meaning in life is by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering, the other two are: by working or doing a deed and by love.

One who cannot bear suffering and tries to avoid the unavoidable is bound to end up in existential despair and nihilism, death is just as welcome as there’s no purpose for living.

As Dostoevsky points out: “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.”

We also find meaning through achievement or accomplishment in our work, and finally by loving another human being, the only way to grasp the innermost core of another person’s personality.

Nietzsche states:

“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

Twilight of the Idols, Maxims and Arrows, §12.

This lack of a “why to live for” can lead to suicide. Camus writes:

“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.”

Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Camus believes that one answer to the absurdity of life is suicide. Killing oneself is a confession that life is too much, that it is incomprehensible, or that it is not worth the trouble. The act of suicide is linked to the idea that life is not worth living since it is meaningless, this implies the absence of any profound reason for living and the uselessness of suffering.

However, our natural reaction is to shy away from discomfort and pain. So, should we seek to abolish suffering as far as we can by removing its cause, or should we attempt to change our attitude toward suffering such that it is no longer seen as (always) undesirable?

The answers to these questions need not be mutually exclusive: it is quite possible that we might seek to avoid suffering as much as possible, but given that we will inevitably still suffer, we will not necessarily see that suffering as entirely undesirable.

However, for Nietzsche – this is not really an option. One can view suffering as undesirable which (as we’ll see) ultimately uses harmful means to provide meaning for human suffering, or one can affirm all aspects of life as a sheer act of will and give meaning to suffering through acknowledging its necessary role in human growth, flourishing and greatness.

Thus, it is our attitude toward suffering that needs to be modified. We should modify it so that we no longer see suffering as something to be avoided.

Nietzsche believes that humanity’s first attempt at solving the meaninglessness of suffering was through the ascetic ideal, the renunciation of earthly pleasures in favour of a simple, self-denying and abstinent life. It was a means for the void that encircled man, the meaninglessness of suffering, it gave him a meaning – and any meaning is better than no meaning.

For Nietzsche, it brought a more venomous suffering into life, as it is a will opposed to life. A central characteristic of the ascetic ideal is its negative valuation of life: this life and this world are to be transcended—used merely as a “bridge” to another existence.

The ascetic ideal succeeded because it had been the only ideal so far, because it had no rival. However, humans are creatures of desire whose instincts go against the ascetic ideal. Seeing this, the ascetic priest states that suffering is punishment for going against the ascetic ideal, you’re full of sin according to the Christian; you’re full of ignorance and craving according to the Buddhist. Man is made to feel guilty, man as sinner deserves to suffer. With this, not only does suffering acquire meaning, one actually welcomes more suffering. Through the sorcery of the ascetic priest:

“one no longer protested against pain, one thirsted for pain; ‘more pain! more pain!’ the desire of his disciples and initiates has cried for centuries.”

Genealogy of Morals, III, §20

The ascetic ideal is a means for dealing with exhaustion and disgust with life. It brings about a kind of hypnotisation, something similar to the hibernation of animals. One removes oneself as far possible from the traffic of life with all of its inevitable painful accidents, by trying to enter into this kind of “deep sleep” and achieve freedom from suffering, but at the cost of effectively removing oneself from this world.

Nietzsche argues that the ascetic does not cure his meaninglessness, he merely diverts it with deadening drugs and hypnotism, causing ressentiment, the inferiority complex which gives way to revenge, and which is found in all those who are unhappy and sick, where it is directed against the happy and healthy. It is an imaginary revenge.

The ascetic priest sees ressentiment as dangerous if left to accumulate, as the sufferer naturally seeks a guilty party to blame for their suffering. To avoid this, the ascetic priest redirects ressentiment by means of a lie, instead of saying that the healthy are the cause of their suffering, they inform the wretched, the sick that they themselves are the cause of their suffering:

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

Genealogy of Morals, III, §15

It is here that the ascetic priest provides the sufferer with not only a means for deadening the pain but also a meaning for his suffering, the answer to “why do I suffer?”

At first the guilt acts as a narcotic for their suffering, but it ultimately turns out to actually increase suffering through the intense feeling of guilt.

The ascetic priest gets the sufferer to discharge his emotions against himself.

“All the sick and sickly instinctively strive after a herd organisation as a means of shaking off their dull displeasure and feeling of weakness.”

Genealogy of Morals, III, §18

The individual is distracted from his own concerns by focusing on the needs and wellbeing of the community. All of this is encouraged by the ascetic priest. The three slogans of the ascetic ideal are:

“poverty, humility, chastity.”

Genealogy of Morals, III, §8

So, what does Nietzsche propose as an alternative ideal to give meaning to suffering? He states that a counterideal was lacking until Zarathustra:

“The fundamental conception of [Thus Spoke Zarathustra is] the idea of the eternal recurrence, this highest formula of affirmation that is at all attainable.”

Ecce Homo: On The Genealogy of Morals

The eternal recurrence supposes that one would want to repeat life eternally, one accepts every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh and everything unutterably small or great in one’s life.

This is the alternative ideal for whom pain is not considered an objection to life and something to be avoided. However, Nietzsche believes that this task is only a possibility for the highest life affirmers who have embraced suffering.

Thus, there are two possibilities for the alternative ideal: to accept suffering as a means for human greatness – and only one who has done so, could ever accept the second possibility, to accept the eternal recurrence.

We can now answer the question “Why do I suffer?” with, “I suffer, not as a punishment, but in order to become better and stronger”.

Suffering and harsh conditions are required to make an individual great and fruitful. The overcoming of painful situations can be physical, psychological, or both – and one often gains a mental strength, a strength of will.

Concerning profound suffering, Nietzsche writes that:

“It almost determines the order of rank how profoundly human beings can suffer… Profound suffering makes noble; it separates.”

Beyond Good and Evil, §270

The order of rank supposes that humans are fundamentally unequal in their capabilities because of their physiological make-up, which affects both their physical and mental capacities. This inequality plays itself out so that there are higher types and lower types.

Those who are predetermined to be strong enough to suffer well are separated out from the lower types insofar as the latter do not suffer well. A part of suffering well is that one is made noble by it. Having suffered profoundly, the sufferer acquires a knowledge of terrible places that he alone knows about; he is prideful of his knowledge. He needs not to be pitied.

This nobility is present in those who suffer well, by those who are higher in the order of rank. The lower types, too, have gained knowledge of terrible places, but instead of feeling pride, they feel afraid – they crave the pity and safety of others.

One with a noble soul has reverence for himself. This faith in oneself is juxtaposed to that of religious faith. The higher type has a faith in himself and his capabilities; he does not need help from others to bear his suffering, nor does he need their pity. Insofar as one has this faith in oneself, one is distinguished from those of a lower rank.

In addition to suffering and having faith in oneself, the higher type willingly suffers as much responsibility as possible, while the lower type would rather take on as little responsibility as possible, for it is uncomfortable at best.

However, if some individuals are predisposed to suffer well and others poorly, and if suffering can be meaningful for its life enhancing qualities, and those who suffer poorly cannot find opportunities for enhancement in suffering, then the alternative ideal of suffering is not going to be equally available to all.

Therefore, it is only the higher type who can avoid both nihilism and asceticism. The ascetic ideal still has a role to play as the primary means for the majority of people to stave off nihilism.

To live is to suffer; to be able to embrace one’s life means being able to embrace one’s fate as a creature who is born to suffer. Seeing our suffering as meaningful for its necessary and life enhancing aspects should mean a rejection of nihilism. Further, if we couple this alternative ideal with the eternal recurrence, we affirm life at its highest:

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity.”

Nietzsche, Ecce Homo: On the Genealogy of Morals


The Problem of Suffering – Existentialism & Psychology

The problem of suffering is its meaninglessness, rather than suffering itself. It is hard to deny that to live is to suffer, as long as we do not mean that to live is only to suffer.

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