BEL 1015 First Year Seminar
October 17, 2018
Nihilism is the belief that morality is baseless, and life has no inherent value. From Nietzsche’s perspective, religion leads to nihilism, because religion is life-denying. Christianity in particular endorses a lifestyle of charity and altruism, always prioritizing others over the self. Nietzsche’s proclamation that “God is dead” does not originate from the non-existence of a higher power, but that this higher power is not the pinnacle of morality – that humans don’t need God to tell them right from wrong. Morality denies our will to power – the ambition driving us all to our highest possible achievements in life – because it restricts our right to self-preservation and prosperity. We are societally prescribed the ethical code by which we are expected to live: sacrificing self for others, never pursuing, or even fashioning, an end goal. Once we subscribe to the notion that morality is naught, we can begin down the path to the over-human. The Übermensch embraces natural desires. Likewise, reasoning for purpose alone forgets the fundamental joys of life.
In chapter two of A Confession, Tolstoy is doubting the morality of the Russian Orthodox priests of that time. He believes they are living immorally, living out their own selfish desires and arguing amongst themselves about what doctrine and who among them is teaching the most correct theology. Out of this, Tolstoy loses his faith in his familiar religion but begins to develop his “faith in progress,” even as he witnesses beheadings in France and his own brother’s death from illness at a young age. However, in chapter four, his life comes to a halt, and he describes his anguish “as though I had lived a little, wandered a little, until I came to the precipice, and I clearly saw that there was nothing ahead except ruin.”
Tolstoy’s experience of nihilism partly confirm’s Nietzsche’s account, as Tolstoy loses faith in the things he expects to find it in, or rather, what he thinks he’s supposed to find it in; i.e. Christian religion, humanity’s inherent goodness, family. However, during the time that Tolstoy’s loss of a God-centered faith was most prevalent, he was not entirely without belief. Without intent, he created a kind of religion out of his thoughts. He existed completely inside his own mind, never embracing his emotions, only perpetuating them. He could not think his way out, and for this reason he was unlike Zarathustra. Zarathustra proclaims a loss of purpose for those who think they have found it, and a lack of purpose for ones still searching. He encourages a life spent enjoying the finer things of earthly life, not worrying about what comes after. Tolstoy was a wealthy, successful author with “a good, loving, and beloved wife, fine children, and a large estate,” yet also a profound sense of hopelessness and belief he had nothing to stay alive for. This negates Nietzsche’s account of nihilism: Tolstoy had every material thing one could wish for in this life, and still was left wanting.
Pascal believes humans are oblivious creatures; but more than that, we are arrogant: ‘We naturally believe we are far more capable of reaching the center of things than embracing their circumferences” (S226). We fail to recognize our limitations because we believe we have the ability to know all. We believe we are God, that because we are physically bigger and more intellectually self-aware than most other things we can see with our eyes, we don’t consider the universe beyond our visual perception. We do not value the possibility, and, according to Pascal, the truth of an omnipresent, omniscient being who knows more than what we should. Pascal’s most absolute belief is that God, and only God through Christ, is capable of possessing infinite knowledge and giving us the humility to accept our lack. We should feel anxious over the search for meaning, and guilty that we have sought answers in the human world. Here, even the richest of us are only rich in material things, living and dying and having had no significant purpose in either.
Both Nietzsche and Pascal believe anxiety and nihilism lead us to our life-purposes, or at least an understanding of what life is not. In S20/L401, Pascal explores humanity’s struggle to find meaning within itself – that when we go looking for happiness in secular things, we come out beholding misery, leading to a nihilistic view of life. For this reason, Pascal believes we should not let existential anxieties lead us into nihilism, but instead we can and should overcome our fears through a life dedicated to Christ, disregarding all forms of selfish pleasure. In contrast, Nietzsche believes in the benefit of nihilism to the extent of denouncing religion, particularly Christianity. He encourages self-exploration and demands we inspect ourselves to understand the outside world, preaching on the Übermensch, an over-human that can only be attained by disregarding others.
In Zarathustra’s speech On the Three Metamorphoses, he asks, “What is difficult? asks the spirit that would bear much, that I may take it upon me and rejoice in my strength.” He follows this by listing several calamities the camel must willingly suffer, indicating that we, too, must invite such burdens onto our backs if we want to become higher than ourselves. Nietzsche sees these complications and the anxieties that come with them as necessary and things to be embraced. How we confront our anxieties decides how much we rise in strength or fall in weakness.
I find Nietzsche’s account of nihilism-anxiety to be the most persuasive and Tolstoy’s the most realistic. In an ideal world, we would never have to experience the misery of nihilism as the prerequisite to a fulfilling life. Despair for the sake of despair is not admirable, even if we learn to embrace our burdens in the process. It is romantic to believe our meaning is in ourselves, and that if we only look beyond our ignorance we will receive the truth of our existence. It is romantic to believe we are gods, but it is not practical even if it is true. The weight of the world is too heavy for any one human to carry, and so we must choose to put it down. It is a weight Tolstoy knew well enough to also know its implications in the physical world and how it moves too steadily inside us to allow us even a slight move forward.
BEL 1015 First Year Seminar
October 17, 2018
Pascal defines life by its ending and what comes after it. His interpretation of death is that it is an inevitable certainty and that we should spend our time on earth preparing for it in what he deems the only meaningful way – by spending every waking moment of our finite lives serving the infinite power of God. In S681, Pascal notes that he, and by extension, all people, have to live without worry for the future, as any fear of a human experience such as death will prevent us from attaining full life. Moreover, he believes that we should not concern ourselves with human emotions or desires and would be better off avoiding them entirely if we are to be the devout Christians we must. Our purpose on earth is to prepare for and establish our heavenly place, and we do this by sacrificing the desires and pleasures of this world. ? This is not so easily accomplished, however, as humans are inherently curious and have passion for exploring the unknown. Pascal recognizes this and acknowledges his own similar struggle in S227/L194 when he asks “Why have limits been placed on my knowledge?” He responds by claiming that we should aspire to “know a little about everything” (S228) if we are restricted from knowing everything about everything. A person living Pascal’s vision of the fullest life is one who is content with our restriction and places trust in the all-knowing God’s decision to shield us from the knowledge we desperately wish to behold. Pascal’s conclusion that we must pursue the divine over all else is the driving force behind his inquiries of the infinite.
Tolstoy, even having lived a life of great professional and personal success, finds himself without a will to live. Feeling lost, he turns first to scientific knowledge in hopes he will discover the meaning of life by understanding its mechanisms. Unlike Pascal, who understood mankind’s inability to grasp infinite knowledge, Tolstoy felt he would find the necessary answers in the analytical. As he searches it becomes clear that rather than resolving his profound questions, science presented him with an even greater lack of absolution, saying on page 57, “I knew that I could find nothing in the way of rational knowledge except a denial of life; and in faith I could find nothing except a denial of reason.” He then concludes that accessing the answers to life’s most paralyzing questions can only be achieved by renouncing reason and replacing it with faith.
We first find Tolstoy as a man who has lost his faith in the religion he was brought up in – a belief system made familiar yet also distasteful to him as he observes the immoral behaviors and hypocrisy of Orthodox priests, who preach on peace but pray for triumph in war. He considers again the possibilities of religious purpose after his failure to locate meaning in science. His ultimate conclusion begins with this thought: “…wisdom of man is preserved in the answers given by faith…it is these answers alone that can reply to the question of life.” Tolstoy disregards his previous firm belief in reason and shifts his attention to faith alone, showing that the resolutions we find and their impacts on our lives are valid without having to be true or logically sound. Existential questions can only be answered by existential means, and Tolstoy’s idea of a genuinely and wholly alive person is one who passionately places certainty in the uncertain. Although he doesn’t name a specific It in terms of a god, we know he wants all humans to put their allegiance in Something, and subsequently make a choice: find our purpose in faith, living without reason; or denounce the concept of faith entirely at the cost of meaningful existence.
Nietzsche resents humans tendency toward escapism. He observes society’s imbalanced attention to the otherworldly, neglecting the consequences of their actions on earth. Zarathustra spoke on the “will to power,” all humans’ right to exert their dominance over others in order to achieve personal gain. A person who fully realizes her will to power becomes an over-human, but no one can become an over-human without embracing the struggles of life. Thus, the stronger of us are those who are willing to undergo suffering without seeking reprieve in spirituality. The weakest humans are those who turn to anyone or thing other than self in times of crisis.
Nietzsche views religious people as pious electorate. Christians in particular live haughty, plain lives in order to secure their afterlife, creating God as something to lazily alleviate their existential concerns. Nietzsche understands humans deep desire for meaning as something produced by religion. If we knew, as he does, the nonexistence of a life after this, we would have no need for faith in a transcendent Being beyond our plane. Jesus preached that love for neighbor is second only in importance to love for God. In contrast, Zarathustra teaches that we should prioritize ourselves over all others, replacing religion with another kind of spirituality, cultivating the holiest faith as faith in our future as over-humans. He suggests in Neighbor-Love that we should reevaluate our seemingly selfless actions: “You flee from yourselves to your neighbor and would like to make a virtue out of that: but I see through your “selflessness” (Part One, 16.) In short, we have to abandon our conditioned belief that others are more important than ourselves, and leave ignorance behind in the search for enlightenment. Nietzsche’s vision of a perfectly bloomed person is one who roots their potential in the things of this earth, giving over to the bodily pleasures of life.
I believe life is comprised of a medley of philosophies. All three thinkers we have studied acknowledge that humans will never comprehend as much as we would like. As someone who is not religious, Pascal’s devotion to God intrigues me. Studying his thoughts has inspired my own developing desire for faith and devotion. I admire his talent for acceptance and would like to yield the sure confidence and comfort he has in the unknown. His wager on the possible consequences of a life spent in reverence to God is a sequence of thoughts I had never considered before. I have no right or, truthfully, any capability of criticizing the genuine Christian. Having said this, I would wager myself that the meaning of life is not a necessary inquiry. It is a stagnant concept continuously over-thought and over-simplified by philosophy, all but endangering our capacity for insight, and certainly weakening it. We must consider how incompletely we thrive when we are consumed by how we should live, or for what, or at the feet of whom.