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Episode 93 – Nietzsche part 4 – Love

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Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)


On this episode, we take a look at Friedrich Nietzsche and his thoughts on the concept of love. See the full transcript of this episode here.

Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher of the late 19th century who challenged the foundations of Christianity and traditional morality. He was interested in the enhancement of individual and cultural health, and believed in life, creativity, power, and down-to-earth realities, rather than those situated in a world beyond.

Continue reading Episode 93 – Nietzsche part 4 – Love

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Episode 93 Transcript

So by now you’re probably realizing something about Nietzsche…you’re probably realizing, if for no other reason than just cause I’ve… needlessly rambled about it throughout the course of this series…but what you probably realize by now is that Nietzsche’s not writing his philosophy so that every single person in the world can take a little something from it…he’s writing his philosophy for a select few people that are actually going to try at existence…he’s writing it for a very small handful of people that aren’t interested in FEELING like they know everything about the world…but people that are actually going to try to understand things deeper than they’ve been led to believe about things over the course of their life.
I mean, at any stage of life… it’s very easy to be coaxed into complacency about how you look at the world…I mean I’m sure we can all imagine some 45 year old person…listening to some passionate 21, 22 year old person with strong, reinforced convictions about how people are and how the world works and all kinds of things…and they say to themselves look, I’ve been there before. I too used to think I knew everything about the world…but you know what… you live a couple years longer…few failed marriages later…a few heated discussions at a PTA meeting…you’re eventually going to wake up and realize how the world ACTUALLY works. Believe me…I’ve been where you are before.
Well whenever I read Nietzsche’s philosophy I always feel like he’s this guy that’s 120 years old and he’s talking to that 45 year old and he’s saying you know what…i’ve been where you are…but if you see a few more presidential elections…play some badmitton down at the YMCA…you watch a few more seasons of the price is right…THEN you’ll understand how the world actually works or maybe…you’ll come to terms with the fact that this whole life thing…is much bigger than that, that maybe 100 years is not enough time to become as well versed in things as you want to believe you are.
Well there are certain subjects that people like to tell themselves they’ve arrived at a destination about. Some subjects are more common than others. And one of the MOST common ones…is the concept… of love. We all feel like we know what love is…we’ve all felt it. Powerful concept…love. Probably not a big surprise that so many philosophers over the years have tried to take a closer look at it and understand it. Given how good it feels to EXPERIENCE love…probably not a surprise that so many people build their lives around feeling or giving or spending time with the people they love…the most.
Some people even take this to the extreme…some people say…that all you need…is…love. You know they look around them…understandably…and they think man…there’s people stealing from other people…people are killing eachother…cyber bullying is the pandemic scourge of our time…all these philosophers try to complicate things so much it’s actually very simple…everyone just needs to love eachother. If only we could show everyone how great it is to love everyone around you. These people say love…is some sort of panacea for all of the worlds problems. Instead of dropping nukes…we should be dropping giant canisters of DVDs of When Harry Met Sally. If only the whole world understood love like I do…then everything would be fixed.
But the way you treat somebody that you love hasn’t always been the way harry treated sally.  No, the things we do in the NAME of love…have changed drastically over the course of history and they can easily change in the future. I mean 100 years ago…my kid may have…i dont know…gone down to the grocery store and bought an ice cream cone for 4/10ths of a cent without permission…and when he comes home and I see all the chocolate on his face…I may say to myself…you know what…I love this kid…I love him dearly…I am not going to allow him to become a person who doesn’t understand the value of discipline for the rest of his life…I don’t want to…but I have to beat him…in the name of love I have to beat em.
Tons of other examples of this but the point is: the way that people treat the ones they love is highly influenced by the cultural backdrop that they were born into. St. Augustines man burning in a building comes to mind. In other words…even if everyone in the world loved eachother…people might still steal from people they love in the name of feeding others that they love who are starving…people may still assault other people in the name of love…maybe love is actually a pretty complex thing that needs to be unpacked. I mean love is far from a static thing…right? We use the word love to describe any number of different emotional states…we say things like I love my dog, I love my children, I love my parents, I love my domestic life partner, I love this pizza that I just ate from Chuck E Cheese….in all these contexts the same word is describing emotional states that are extremely different from eachother…so what exactly do we mean when we say love? Maybe there’s something similar about all of these different scenarios that we describe?
I think when somebody says that all people need to do is love eachother… its one of those statements most philosophers would hear and say it sounds great…but they probably wouldn’t think it’s a very useful synopsis when it comes to actually getting to the bottom of the cause of these problems or how to actually solve them…in other words in practice, how do you get… everyone in the world to love eachother? I mean it’s a little like walking into a hospital… and seeing all the different kinds of pain and suffering in a hospital…you know you see people in the cardiac ward, you see a guy with a broken leg, you see someone with hypertension and you say you know what? These doctors try to complicate things all the time…but in reality it’s actually very simple: all these people need are drugs. All they need is drugs. Yeah, but what KIND of drugs? How high of a dose? When do they need them? Is giving them drugs really a solution or is it just temporarily masking the problem? There’s more to it than just saying drugs: case closed.
Well the point of this episode is to eventually talk about how Nietzsche sees love…but I think it’ll give his views some context if we take a look at some other notable philosophers throughout history and how THEY viewed love…and when it comes to philosophers writing about love…by far the most famous account of love ever written has to be Plato in his work the Symposium.
Now we talked a little about this on the Plato episode, but…come on…that was three years ago…I was horrible back then. I’ll make it quick. The Symposium is a fictional book written by the Greek philosopher Plato about a dinner party…where various noteworthy figures from Athens at the time meet up to talk about a particular subject…apparently they DID that kind of stuff back then…and the subject of this particular night’s dinner party is love. Everybody takes turns getting up in front of the group giving their thoughts on love. Now, barring the funny, pretty ridiculous theory given by Aristophenes which was probably just Plato getting back at him for slandering Socrates in one of his plays…besides that…in terms of philosophy the book is pretty slow up until we start hearing what Socrates has to say about what he heard about love from a philosopher named Diotima.
Now Diotima…nobody knows whether she actually existed…but its one of those things like: everyone else in the Symposium existed, why wouldn’t this be a real person…but Diotima told Socrates about how she sees love as sort of a progression. A progression…ascending up rungs of a ladder…where throughout your various experiences with love in your life…you go through a number of phases…each one of them a rung on this ladder… where you become more and more aware of what love truly is. Seeing as how this is one of the most famous accounts of love ever given, let’s talk about these rungs a little.
So Diotima would say that when you come of age in this world and you enter into a romantic relationship of some sort…the first type of love that you’re going to experience…the first rung on this ladder… is what she calls bodily love…now…bodily love…is exactly what you’d expect it to be…a love of someone’s body…an infatuation with another person…maybe they make you smile a lot maybe you have this uncontrollable desire to touch the person when you’re around them. But, either way…we all know about this one…we’ve all seen this one before so I won’t waste your time giving examples of it…but the interesting thing is that Diotima says that once you’re in this place… where you love somebody for their body…if you start to look closer at that feeling that you have towards this person…in other words if you think about what exactly it is that you love about their body…what inevitably happens is that you start to notice…the things you like about this persons body… are not exclusive to them in any way…there’s a lot of other bodies out there that have these exact same qualities. You eventually realize there are thousands if not millions of bodies out there that you might potentially love. Now much like Socrates does…where he goes into the public square…asks people for their definition of courage…and he looks at all of them and tries to find our what’s similar about them to hopefully arive at a better understanding of what courage is…maybe you take a look at all of these millions of bodies and try to find out what is similar between them…and at the end of that process…you’re left with a certain type of person…you know I like people with brown hair and blue eyes…for example…a type.
But remember this is only the first rung… on the ladder…Diotima says once you get to this place THEN what happens…this person whose body you’re in love with…well, it’s inevitable…you’re gonna be spending a considerable amount of time with them. Eventually what you HAVE to realize…is that this person is more than just a piece of meat. No, they’re a person…they have feelings too…they have all their own thoughts, opinions, ideas…eeek. Diotima says that what eventually happens after we’ve had enough conversations with them about their thoughts on stuff…eventually you start to realize that love is not as shallow as you first thought it was…that body…sure it looks good now…but i dont care if you’re dwayne the rock johnson…in 50 years…you’re gonna look like a sun dried tomato out there…Diotima says you realize….that there’s a deeper form of love available to you by loving someone’s personality…or as she refers to it: the soul.
Now it’s in these first two stages that most people spend their entire lives. I mean you think about the progression of the average person’s love life…throughout their twenties maybe they have a few debaucherous relationships…maybe they’re with the wrong people personality wise but they overlook it because they think they’re attractive…maybe eventually they want someone more mature…maybe they end up finding someone who’s personality they admire and decide to get married to that person. But still… even if… you find yourself admiring something about the personality of someone you’re married to…when it comes to most people’s relationships…you still have one foot in the door of this bodily love…i mean it doesn’t matter if somebody has the BEST personality in the world, most people aren’t going to marry them if they look like Golem from Lord of the Rings. Most people sort of settle into a mixture between what Diotima describes as this bodily love and the love of the soul.
Now an important thing to note I think is that getting stuck in any of these rungs of the ladder for your entire life doesn’t make you a bad person. Plato would say, all of this love is ultimately a good thing…the question just becomes…how much of a good thing do you experience throughout your life. Because what inevitably happens once you love a collection of personality traits that somebody has…is that just like in the case of the bodily love…you realize… that these characteristics you love about someone aren’t somehow exclusive to them. No, you realize there are thousands of other people out there that embody these very same characteristics…now the GREATER implication of realizing this…to Diotima…is that realizing this… removes this visage that has been clouding your ability to move on to the third rung of the ladder…that to TRULY understand love is to understand that love is not this interpersonal exchange between two people that can ONLY exist between two people. What you realize is that what you love about this other person really has nothing to do with them as people…what you love are concepts that they embody.
Now again, to Diotima, once you realize this…the next step is to realize… that person you love, wasn’t born in a vaccuum. This person wasn’t floated down the river Nile in a basket and raised as one of their own by a pack of hippos. This person was born into a very specific cultural context by a very specific group of people who all had ideas of their own…and what you realize at this point… is that everything about this personality that you love so much really was forged by certain aspects of culture…laws and institutions that cultivated these personality traits that this person embodies that you love. The ultimate point is: the next few rungs on the ladder are loving the laws and institutions that create the people or things that you love, then a love of knowledge of those laws and institutions, then a love of knowledge itself, finally culminating in a love of the Platonic form of beauty or the good itself.
Tons of interesting conversations to be had about these last three rungs but I think the most important thing that I want to repeat is that…lets say you never get to the top rung of this ladder where you understand the form of beauty itself…that doesn’t make you a dumb person…that doesn’t make you a bad person…Diotima’s just saying that the good feelings you feel when you’re experiencing love GREATLY increase with each rung that you move up on this ladder…and that much like a dog…when they’ve gotten a little taste of human blood…once they’ve tasted it…they can never go back to lamb and rice alpo. That once you’ve tasted that forbidden fruit of the next rung on the ladder, all the other forms of love just sort of lose their appeal they’re not as good as what you’ve experienced. I mean I’m sure we can all imagine…if for your whole life you’ve just loved people for their body and then you get together with some pelican looking podcaster dude…and he dies in some tragic podcasting related accident…after experiencing that higher level of love on this ladder, it stands to reason that having a relationship after that where it’s all about the body again…it would probably feel like something’s missing. At least that’s what I tell myself everyday.
Well as you know if you’ve listened to this podcast from the beginning…is that this hierarchical conception of love laid out in the Symposium paved the way for love as it was laid out in the middle ages. That love…in it’s most basic flawed form… is love of the body…some people even say it can’t even be considered love…it’s actually lust. That moves onto a love of your fellow human beings, that moves onto a love of truth, all of which is inferior to the ultimate love…the love of God.
And this became the dominant perception for what love is for quite some time, and although there was work done on love before this: something very interesting happens to the concept of love right about the mid 18th century. More specifically, with the way that you treat somebody that you love. What happened was…well, Romanticism happened. Romanticism is a cultural movement…some would even say codified doctrine of ideas…about the way human beings should be interacting with various aspects of the world that they live in…falling underneath that umbrella of course…is the way that we treat people that we love. Romanticism is often seen as a pushback to an era that came before it where there was a lot of emphasis put on reason as the way to arrive at conclusions about things. Too much reason.
Maybe a good place to start is to say that: historically speaking…being in a relationship with somebody that you love or getting married…hasn’t always been about…what we would often call today…romantic feelings that you have towards the other person. People used to get married for all KINDS of practical reasons…because it was financially prudent to do so…because they had a relative that could help you greatly advance your career…any number of reasons. Now in today’s world… if you got married to somebody simply because it was a good financial move for you…people wouldn’t really take too kindly to that…they’d tell you that you’re getting married for all the wrong reasons that something’s missing. Well where did that come come from? A big part of it… comes from is this movement of romanticism in the mid 1700’s.
Romanticism pushes the idea…that it is possible…and even expected…to meet someone…get to know them…feel these intense, romantic feelings that you often feel in the initial stages of a relationship…and you should expect this heightened emotional state to persist indefinitely all throughout the course of your lives together…a life long love story, as it’s often put. That the litmus test, for who you should love or who you should marry…shouldn’t be based on practical considerations like how good it is for your career or something like that…but that these initial feelings that we have will decide for us. When you meet someone, and they make you feel this way…you’ve done it. You have now found your soul mate. You’ve found the one and only someone for you…from this point forward…you and your soul mate are going to enjoy an all expenses paid vacation where every day of your lives you fall deeper and deeper in love with them with each passing day. Any boredom within the relationship, any longings for somebody else or novelty within that relationship, is not something that should be EXPECTED in a long term relationship…it’s a sign that the relationship is not going well…its demon that’s tormenting the relationship that needs to be exorcised.
Now in many traditional conceptions of romanticism, and there’s some variance here because we’re talking about a very large period of time, but the general idea is that when you love someone deeply enough…if you can’t accept them at their worst you don’t deserve them at their best…that to truly love someone…is to be tolerant of all of their shortcomings as people…you know love is patient, love is kind, love is understanding…corinthians 13.
If someone comes home from work and a lot of times they’re in a bad mood and they’re not really reciprocating the love in that moment…you know what…I love this person…I understand this isn’t the entirety of who they are I understand this isn’t about me right now…sure, the way they’re treating me right now makes me feel bad, but I’m gonna go find something else to do while they work through these emotions. Another example: if someone quits their job and pursues their dream of becoming a street performer…a mime. And they go out miming the streets for three years and people just don’t like their act that much…you know your box is horrible. Someone might say you know what…we may not have that much money…and yes they could easily go back and get their other job and help out, but I don’t care if we have to live in squalor for the rest of our lives at least we’ll be together with these strong feelings that we have.
What’s intersting to think about is that many of these romantic ideas of love ask you to be TOTALLY tolerant about some things, but TOTALLY intolerant about other things. I mean if the person you love has romantic feelings for somebody else, or if they’re telling you tons of things you need to change about yourself or if they’re not fornicating with you on a regular basis…these are all signs that the there’s something seriously wrong with the relationship, not things you need to be tolerant of. Again, love should be this highly intuitive thing…this feeling that you have…you know you spent 6 years at the university learning to become a dentist…but when it comes to asking how to love or who to love or why to love or anything like that…that you’ll just kind of wing it…I’ll figure it out…remember romanticism was a movement that was the antithesis to a world where they thought we were reasoning too we much about the ways we behave…no forget reasoning…what really matters is how you FEEL about this person.
Like have you ever seen the Bachelor…I haven’t of course…but if I ever had I would have to say man…look at what this show’s become. Oh how the mighty have fallen. First episode. I think I could definitely fall in love with this guy. Third episode. I think I might be falling for him. 5th episode. Okay now I’ve definitely started the falling process, I tripped on something, I’m off balance, gravity is definitely pulling my trajectory in the downward motion but I haven’t quite fallen yet…what are these people even talking about? This is what you get when you fully eradicate reason from this process…vague emotional states, waiting for some other vague emotional state to arise and people can’t even tell you whether they’re actually in them or not.
But here’s the thing…this isn’t their fault! This is just what they’ve been told to expect when it comes to finding a life long relationship by every TV show, RomCom and Disney Movie they’ve ever come across from the moment they were born. Nobody should feel bad about having this expectation…it’s not their fault…it’s culture’s fault. And even on that note, there’s nothing wrong with bringing this expectation into your relationships…I just think a lot of modern commentators would say that if you DO bring in these expectations…barring a level of luck comparable to winning the lottery…you’re probably going to be largely dissapointed by your relationships…it’s such a tall order to fill. Most people are probably going to stick it out in a relationship far too long, telling themselves this person’s their soul mate…and then one day when it all goes up in flames they’ll tell themselves well looking back…the signs were there all along…maybe this NEXT person’s my one and only someone…where’s my Ryan Gosling? Either that or they’ll find themselves six months in saying man…I just not getting those butterflies that I used to get…maybe they’re not the one…and they spend their whole lives looking for this 60 year love affair that might not ever come.
Now it’s because of this, that when most modern thinkers talk about love they usually start from this point in the discussion. You know one of the most famous accounts of love ever was by a guy named Arthur Schopenhaur…he has this parable…where he compares marriage to two porcupines trying to huddle together to keep warm…and that the art of being with someone you love is trying to find the right distance where you’re still keeping eachother warm, but you’re not SO close that your  porcupine spikes are stabbing eachother. You know to Schopenhaur everything is about this survival oriented will to life and that when we get married and we have these romantic relationships…what we’re attracted to in someone else are REALLY what we see as our shortcomings…the hope being…that if your counterpart makes up for some of these areas that you’re weaker in…that those weaknesses are probably gonna be less likely to prevent you from prospering…as a unit…you guys are better off together.
This brings us to Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s view on love has multiple layers to it, which is actually what makes it so interesting. On one hand…just like he tries to do with everything else we tell ourselves we have strong convictions about…love is no different…he’s trying to show us…that when we love someone…maybe we’re a little more selfish than we like to give ourselves credit for…but on the other hand, he’s not denouncing anyone for BEING in love and he’s certainly not saying that no one should BE in love.
See, Nietzsche…as we’ve talked about before…huge fan of Heraclitus. Loves the idea of looking at two things that we commonly think of as opposites, and finding ways that they are actually the same thing manifesting itself in two different ways. For example, day and night. Are they opposites? Or are we talking about the same thing just in two different states.
Same thing goes when he breaks down the psychology of love. Often times people talk about loving someone…they say love is caring about someone more than you care about yourself…i love this person…i would sacrifice anything for them…i am completely selflessly committed to this other being. Now…Nietzsche would say…how convenient that this person is trying so hard to paint themselves as such a selfless person…you know what love TRULY is? When you look at it close enough…love starts to strongly resemble greed. He says:
“Greed and love: what different feeling these two terms evoke! Nevertheless, it could be the same instinct that has two names – once deprecated by those who have, in whom the instinct has calmed down to some extent, and who are afraid for their ‘possessions’, and the other time seen from the point of view of those who are not satisfied but still thirsty, and who therefore glorify the instinct as ‘good’.”
In other words, we love to pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves how great we are for doing things in the name of loving this other person…and we often like to think of someone who’s greedy in a negative light…but what if love and greed are the same instinct manifesting itself in different ways…that at the root of either of these words is this instinct or this desire that some thing will be ours…as he puts it “to change something new into ourselves”. He says love and greed…these are the same thing…the only difference between whether we classify it as love or as greed just comes down to how satisfied somebody is with what they already have. For example, let’s say you’re a huge fan of italian sportcars…and you save up and you finally get one…sitting in the driveway. Somebody else comes along, maybe he likes italian sportcars too…and he wants THAT italian sportcar, yours!
Let’s say there’s nothing he wants more in this entire world than to have your italian sportscar sitting in his half vacant warehouse where it will live out the rest of its sportcar days with this guy. But you say  no, no, you love that car…you don’t want it to go anywhere. Let’s say this guy doesn’t give up…this guys gonna write a pursuasive essay to that car begging it to come to his warehouse…this guy doing whatever it takes to make it his…maybe he’s trying to find some way to convince the state to take your sports car away from you so he can have it…not crazy to think you might feel like the guy was being a little greedy. Yet, being a lover of cars yourself…if in your travels YOU came across this very same car…you would certainly want it…and in THAT context you’d just think about how much you wanted that car as your love of cars, not as you being greedy. Replace an italian sports car with your significant other and take note of the similarities.
Now here’s the interesting part: even if we can agree upon the idea that love is greed…let’s just say that it is…Nietzsche’s not judging you for that…he’s not saying this makes you a bad person for loving someone. He thinks that love, just like everything else, is a will to power….and in this case…love is sort of a mutually beneficial will to power…when two people are in love…yes to Nietzsche they are both just greedily desiring to change something new into ourselves…but greed or no greed…Nietzsche thinks love and friendship are some of the most amazing things life has to offer. He says you should find someone, love them, enjoy all the very real benefits of loving someone…just take a closer look at why it is that you’re doing these things and don’t try to justify your actions with a nice sounding story that you like to tell yourself about how it’s really all about this other person.
Now, the reason I chose love as the topic of today’s episode…well…two parts to it. One, this is a perfect example of one of these concepts that everyone has strong opinions on coming into the episode that Nietzsche tries to get us to question our deepest assumptions about. And two, this is a perfect example of one of Nietzsche’s ideas that if you just heard the first line: love is greed…you might be tempted to think that Nietzsche was just this empty, joyless, become powerful, take advantage of people kind of guy… but then when you understand where he’s coming from, though it’s still abrasive…his point is alot more nuanced than you might first think.
I think this is the reason why so many people misunderstand Nietzsche. They read a single line out of context and they make tons of sweeping generalizations about the guy as a person. This is the reason, as we talked about, why his work could so easily be distorted by his sister after his death when she was bumping elbows with Hitler and the Third Reich. But one of the most chilling passages I’ve ever read from Nietzsche is not from any of his philosophy…it’s a line out of his autobiography. It’s a line where he seems to foreshadow exactly what happened with his work after he died. He seems to predict how impactful his work was going to be. He says:
“I know my fate. One day my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous — a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, a decision that was conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far. I am no man, I am dynamite.”

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Episode 79 Transcript

Well, we’re going to talk a lot about what Kierkegaard MEANS when he is saying that today…but I think to understand what he’s saying in its entirety…it’s necessary for us to look at another quote by Kierkegaard…written years apart in a completely different work of his…and um…for the sake of it appealing to our modern ears that are accustomed to…you know…NOT talking like we’re wearing a coon skin hat in the 1800’s…I’m gonna paraphrase it a bit and it goes like this:
The biggest danger one can face in this life…is losing ones self. The reason why is that it can leave you…it can as he says “pass off in the world” without you even realzing it. Everything else you lose…five bucks…your wife…your phone…it’s immediately evident to you that you’ve lost it…you know you’re getting in your pajamas…pat down your pockets and say OH NO! i left my phone at Applebees!…when you lose your SELF though…you could go months or even YEARS without even realizing it!
This is why it’s a particularly nefarious situation to be in…you might not even realize that you’re in it…see to Kierkegaard, most people living today…probably in the upwards of 90% of people that are alive at any given time…are not actually being true to their “selves”…like we talked about last time…a lotta people are lost…a lotta people find themselves either lost in the finite…you know conferring their identity onto social conventions or whatever culture happened to fall into their lap when they were born…or lost in the infinite…stuck in a state of analysis paralysis about the truly infinite possibilities that they can choose from and never really acting on one.
And as we were talking about last time…truly being a self… requires you to have the realization that… yeah there are an infinite number of things I can do, but it also requires you to actually make a choice and act on one that corresponds with who you truly are.
See, when we find ourselves in this balancing act between the two…the finite and the infinite as Kierkegaard calls them…we experience what he calls a state of “dizziness”… dizziness caused by the fact that we look at the sheer magnitude of possibilities we have… coupled with the fact that eventually…we gotta choose one of them.
As you can probably imagine, our heads get filled with all of these questions…we start catastrophizing…what if I’m wrong? what if this is a huge mistake? what if I wake up when I’m 60 a retired Navy Admiral with a prosthetic hip and realize I did everything all wrong?? And this is the essence of anxiety…to fear some future outcome, that we really have little control over anyway. You know Kierkegaard says:
“Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eyes as in the abyss…anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”
See it’s really important to make this part of Kierkegaards thinking clear…at the risk of sounding redundant…what hes saying is that anxiety is the reaction… to the idea that you have freedom to choose from millions of options but you have to eventually choose one and act on it. Now, it’s interesting…this freedom that we have…you’d have to acknowledge as a fellow human being… it can be both a blessing and a curse…. I mean, on one hand, were free hooray! we can do anything we want! on the other hand…wow…im free to do anything…what if I make a mistake? This is like Barry Scwartz’s lecture on the paradox of choice. We seem to be happier as human beings when we have LESS options rather than more. He gives the example of salad dressings in the grocery store I think.
You know imagine if there were only three bottles of salad dressing to choose from when you walked down the aisle at the grocery store…ranch, blue cheese and bar b que. Not that anyone…uses bar b que dressing. Anyway imagine if there was somebody in the world that actually used bar b que dressing…they would walk down that hypothetical aisle in the grocery store and they would be pleasantly surprised to find BBQ dressing…easy choice over the ranch and blue cheese to that… guy or gal.
But that’s not the reality we live in is it. You go down the salad dressing aisle…GOOD LUCK. You got BBQ, spicy BBQ, honey BBQ, mesquite BBQ, low fat BBQ, lousiana BBQ…the more options you have, the harder the decision is to make and the more likely it is you’re gonna go home and put your loosiana BBQ salad dressing on your salad and think…maybe I should’ve gotten the spicy BBQ instead. Now snap back to Kierkegaard…we’re not talking about salad dressings here…we’re talking about your LIFE…and we’re not talking about 10 options to choose from in the grocery store…we’re talking about practically and INFINITE number!
It’s no wonder he talks about how when we find ourselves in this is a weird limbo state between freedom being really good for us and really bad for us …that we might feel a little uncomfortable…we might feel A LOT uncomfortable…this emotional state…is something that he repeatedly refers to as a state known as “dread”.
Now you know I don’t like to make assumptions on this show, but I’m going to assume when everyone woke up this morning they didn’t say to themselves…you know…let’s be in a state of dread today…yeah that sounds good…no. Dread is horrible, dread is agonizing. And if we’re just talking statistically here…what do most human beings do when they find themselves in an incredibly uncomfortable situation? They get away from it…they find a way to run from it. This is the reason many people don’t exercise…it’s the reason many people don’t have difficult but necessary conversations with people…it’s the reason most people to Kierkegaard desperately look for some way to avoid this tough road to becoming a self.
Now I like to think of this whole process that Kierkegaard lays out of becoming a self as sort of a descension down a staircase. Right? We started out completely lost either in the finite or the infinite…once we were made aware of that we took a step down the staircase to a state of dread…and once we found ourselves in that uncomfortable situation we take another step down the staircase into a state that Kierkegaard calls “despair”.
Now, despair is where most people spend their entire lives. He says despair comes from the attempt to rid yourself OF yourself. He calls despair a “sickness of the spirit”.
Now maybe you believe in an incorporeal spirit that inhabits your body that is responsible for your emotional state and all sorts of other things…but for the rest of you godless monsters that are just treading water on this planet until you inevitably end up in a chain gang in one of the seven circles of hell…for the rest of you…the word “spirit” doesn’t have to alienate you. Think of spirit in the context of how it’s often used in within casual conversation, “I don’t feel in good spirits today.” Think of the sickness of the spirit as a disease that is afflicting your emotional state.
And these words that he uses…sickness…disease…this is really how Kierkegaard views this state of despair…like a latent disease. Or actually, not a latent disease but a disease that is symptomless but still always quietly inside of you waiting to strike. It’s like having herpes of the spirit.
We can relate this to any other undiagnosed disease. I mean, if you don’t go in for your regular checkups and take an inventory of your body every once in a while…you might just collapse on the ground one day and find out youve been living symptomless with cancer for the last nine months of your life…find out this disease has been doing tons of damage without you even realizing it. same thing with despair to Kierkegaard.
See, because when you’re in a state of despair it’s not like you’re necessarily walking around pouting like a seven year old that didn’t get what they want for christmas. No, you can seem like the happiest person in the world and still have this void of despair inside of you that is just waiting to rear its ugly head.
See if despair is a disease, then the problem is with diagnosing the disease. Not only is the person afflicted by it often unable to even know whether they’re a victim of it, but remember despair is that next stair on the staircase when you’re running from that state of dread…people run from that sense of dread in thousands of different ways, where do you even begin to look?
Kierkegaard has a great quote that’s always stuck with me over the years:
“Most men are subjective toward themselves and objective toward all others, fightfully objective sometimes – but the task is precisely to be objective toward oneself and subjective toward all others.”
The problem is with being sufficiently self aware and honest enough with yourself to realize what exact type of despair you’ve gotten yourself locked into to avoid that state of the dizziness of anxiety and dread. There’s no way we can go over all of the different kinds of despair here today, but the one type of despair that Kierkegaard thought was the most common for people to fall into is what he called “a sickness of despair over something earthly”.
We’ve all seen this one before. It’s essentially conflating your identity and your self worth with something external to you in the world… that you really have no control over. I can wax on forever about how Kierkegaard describes it…best way to help you understand what he means is just to give you some examples.
Let’s say you come of age in the world you realize you’re lost in the finite…you step down the staircase into a state of anxiety and dread…you run from it, step down to the next stair and you find yourself in a state of despair…now, when youre in the state of despair you should be feeling intense anxiety, but to distract yourself away from this monumental task of being a true self you dedicate all of your life to swimming. You refer to yourself as a swimmer. You go down to the pool…every single day and…swim. You identify with this activity so much that you even say things like, “man, if I got into an accident and for some reason couldn’t swim any more, what am I at that point? I’m nothing. I would just kill myself.”
Now let’s say you get into a horrible accident at the zoo. An elephant has a seizure and falls on your legs…your legs are mangled…beyond repair…the doctor has to amputate them. Let’s say you can never swim again. How would you feel? Well you’d probably feel like your life was over…like a giant piece of who you were was taken from you by an epileptic elephant…you’d probably feel empty inside.
But what Kierkegaard would say is that that emptiness that you’re feeling was there all along, you had just been distracting yourself away from the task of being true to yourself by attaching yourself to this earthly activity and making THAT into who you are.
It has echoes of the episode we did a while ago about Kant’s idea of “What is enlightenment?” You know it’s so easy to outsource your understanding of a particular subject to a book and just parrot lines out of it whenever that topic comes up…it’s so easy to outsource your morality to a pastor or your diet to a diet guru. What Kierkegaard is saying here is that it’s really an alluring concept to even outsource who we are as individuals! Our values, our priorities…everything that makes you…you! But if we’re outsourcing it to swimming or to hiking or to ping pong…that’s not necessarily you, right? You could just be running from the discomfort of this state of despair.
Another thing that Kierkegaard says might keep us in this state of despair a lot longer than we have to be is the transient nature of things that we have no control over. Example: Somebody loves their significant other…immensely. They’re the love of their life. They can’t imagine their lives without them. They couldn’t live without them. If they ever found out this person in their life met a tragic demise…I would clasp the smiling cold steel of this dagger and drive it deep into my breast so as to feel at least something…one last time.
Yeah, yet another example of someone avoiding this process of being a true individual. But imagine they didn’t die. Imagine things were going great…you felt whole inside and then you guys broke up…and you felt agony…you felt empty inside…but then you guys got back together and you felt great again…but then you broke up again and you felt empty. Kierkegaard would say that the emptiness that you feel was inside of you through the good times AND the bad, and that to be a true self requires you to contend with the anxiety and emptiness inside of you.
It’s kind of funny. A lot of us spend tons of energy trying to not ever have to deal with this anxiety that comes along with becoming a true self, when in reality, at least to Kierkegaard…feeling intense anxiety means you’re on the right track.
See think of this staircase we’ve been descending down…what is the point of all of these different steps? Well it’s to get away from anxiety…the anxiety that you’re faced with when you find yourself needing to choose from an infinite number of options and act on one of them. We’ve RUN from this anxiety the whole time, but Kierkegaard thinks we should embrace it. It’s a necessary part of being a human being. Ironically, as negative of a connotation as anxiety typically has associated with it, the more intense anxiety you feel about making this choice…the closer you probably are to arriving at your true self.
Instead of just outsourcing who you are to some culture you can’t control or some person you can’t control or whatever you’re doing…embrace your freedom. Kierkegaard sees the process of becoming an individual as sort of a baptism by fire; yes you will experience anxiety and dread and all of these temporary feelings…but just like the discomfort you feel when you’re lifting weights at the gym…that adversity is a catalyst for growth.
I know this isn’t a revolutionary concept or anything, but that’s how I’ve always viewed going out for a run or lifting weights at the gym…it’s directly analogous to life itself. The same way you’re met with resistance and you don’t want to do it and you feel like quitting but you push through it in the gym…life throws you resistance…life  things you don’t want to do and I think because of that training… you are much less likely to quit.
Now some of you are probably saying…I’m already an individual. I don’t follow anyone’s rules not even my own. I don’t outsource my self. In fact this whole process sounds really easy…who’s this Kierkegaard guy talking like he’s so enlightened…oooh I’m a self! Look at me!
I would implore you…not to undersell how difficult this is…in fact Kierkegaard writes extensively about how difficult it was for him to become an individual even after he understood the process of becoming one. He said:
“What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I must know…what matters is to find a purpose…to find a truth that is true for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die…This is what my soul thirts for as the African desert thirsts for water.”
Listen to that…a truth that is true for me. As weird as it seems living in this millenium…Kierkegaard was uncovering something here in philosophy that had gone largely unexplored up until this point in history. You know…for so long in philosophy we’d concerned ourselves with trying to use reason or our senses to try to find some sort of objective TRUTHS about the universe that we live in…arguing the whole way about what the most reliable means of doing so is.
But as we’ve learned over the course of 80 episodes or so is that since antiquity… no matter how brilliant of a person is trying to take on this task…objective truth is a very slippery thing…not only do we not know if it’s possible to attain, but would we know the truth if we saw it? Would it bring us any sort of enlightenment when it comes to what it means to be a human being?
See a huge reason WHY Kierkegaard does so much work talking about these things like…the process of how we make choices, how important it is to take action on those choices, the freedom of our will that we all possess…the reason he talks about this so much is that he is rejecting the notion that Hegel had just laid out…that ultimately our choices are mostly a byproduct of whereever we happened to be born within the framework of that historical process of change. Kierkegaard is trying to make the case that the choices we make are free choices, and that we need to remain vigilant in keeping an inventory of ourselves because these choices are OUR responsibility…not some manifistation of something out of our control.
Again, what is that historical process of change other than the conglomeration of billions of individual subjective existences. This would be the first shot fired towards a target that would eventually be called “existentialism.”
That said, if you despise me right now is the time to turn the podcast off. For everyone else I want to thank you all for the outpouring of support. I went hiking a couple days into the woods trying to emerge on the other side with some sort of new perspective or at least hopefully pushing a figurative reset button. I was just walking along, completely oblivious…i’m by no means a skillful hiker or somebody that understands the land…and I came across this black bear…it was probably 40 feet away from me and it just stared at me. And because I’m a genius I didn’t have bear spray or really any idea of how to deal with the situation at all…so I just stared back. And it felt like time was moving in slow motion and as it was happening there was just this bird chirping…singing a song…like nothing was going on.
Anyway, maybe I’ll write about it in length…a free audio book or something if enough people wanna hear about it but in that moment something changed for me and I don’t think of myself as cured of anxiety but I had a thought that has made me not feel it since that moment. For that, for you guys and for that black bear I am grateful. Thank you for listening…i’ll talk to you next time.

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Episode 92 – Nietzsche pt. 3 – Thus Spoke Zarathustra

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Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)


On this episode, we take a look at Friedrich Nietzsche and his revolutionary work entitled Thus Spoke Zarathustra. See the full transcript of this episode here.

Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher of the late 19th century who challenged the foundations of Christianity and traditional morality. He was interested in the enhancement of individual and cultural health, and believed in life, creativity, power, and down-to-earth realities, rather than those situated in a world beyond.

Continue reading Episode 92 – Nietzsche pt. 3 – Thus Spoke Zarathustra

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Episode 91 – Nietzsche pt. 2 – The Will to Power

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Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)


On this episode, we take a look at Friedrich Nietzsche and his often misunderstood concept of ‘the will to power.’ See the full transcript of this episode here.

Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher of the late 19th century who challenged the foundations of Christianity and traditional morality. He was interested in the enhancement of individual and cultural health, and believed in life, creativity, power, and down-to-earth realities, rather than those situated in a world beyond.

Continue reading Episode 91 – Nietzsche pt. 2 – The Will to Power

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Episode 90 – Nietzsche pt. 1 – God is Dead And So Is Captain Morgan

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Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)


On this episode, we take a look at Friedrich Nietzsche and his views on the role of religion and alcohol as calming influences. See the full transcript of this episode here.

Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher of the late 19th century who challenged the foundations of Christianity and traditional morality. He was interested in the enhancement of individual and cultural health, and believed in life, creativity, power, and down-to-earth realities, rather than those situated in a world beyond.

Continue reading Episode 90 – Nietzsche pt. 1 – God is Dead And So Is Captain Morgan

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Episode 89 – Simone De Beauvoir

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Simone De Beauvoir (1908–1986)


On this episode, we take a look at Simone De Beauvoir and her revolutionary work The Second Sex. See the full transcript of this episode here.

There are some thinkers who are, from the very beginning, unambiguously identified as philosophers (e.g., Plato). There are others whose philosophical place is forever contested (e.g., Nietzsche); and there are those who have gradually won the right to be admitted into the philosophical fold. Simone de Beauvoir is one of these belatedly acknowledged philosophers. Identifying herself as an author rather than as a philosopher and calling herself the midwife of Sartre’s existential ethics rather than a thinker in her own right, Beauvoir’s place in philosophy had to be won against her word.

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Episode 88 – Sartre and Camus pt. 3

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The Great Debate


On this episode, we take a look at the great post WW2 debate between Sartre and Camus. See the full transcript of this episode here.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus first met in June 1943, at the opening of Sartre’s play The Flies. When Sartre was standing in the lobby, according to Simone de Beauvoir, “a dark-skinned young man came up and introduced himself: it was Albert Camus.” His novel The Stranger, published a year earlier, was a literary sensation, and his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus had appeared six months previously. The young man from Algiers was marooned in France by the war.

Continue reading Episode 88 – Sartre and Camus pt. 3

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Episode 87 Transcript

 

This is a transcript of episode #087 on Albert Camus. Check out the episode page HERE.

 

So as you probably know by now…philosophy…more specifically the more abstract, out there ideas in philosophy can be a pretty tough thing to just cannonball into and fully understand them right off the bat…and I think most educators realize this…and a useful tool that i think a lot of them use to sort of…set up a skeleton of an idea that they can flesh out later with more of the details… is they try to take big ideas or even entire branches of philosophy and distill them down into a single sentence…or a single question.

 

For example, epistemology…notoriously referred to as the branch of philosophy that asks: how do we know what we know? Now, that’s great as a working definition of epistemology if you need a frame of reference as you’re learning about it…but the more you DO learn about it the more you realize that… that’s really only a fraction of what epistemology actually deals with.

 

Metaphysics…notoriously referred to as the branch of philosophy that asks: what is everything made out of and how did it get here. Again, great definition for educational purposes, but the more you look into it the more you realize all of the metaphysics that definition is leaving out. 

 

Now the guy we’re going to be talking about today, Albert Camus, he thought that he had found the most fundamental question in all of philosophy…a question that he thought…no matter what other philosophical question you could ever come up with…it was ultimately going to be a follow up question to THIS question…but the problem is if I just SAY the question…uh i’ve I’ve found that a lot of people initially disagree with him and end up poised waiting to disagree with everything else the guys saying.

 

So what I wanted to do to give some context to this question…just so we can better understand where Camus is coming from when he’s asking it…is I wanted to tell you a story from Greek Mythology about a King named Sisyphus. Sisyphus was the kinda king…he wasn’t really feeling the whole Pantheon of Gods thing…you know the whole I’m gonna rape you and then blast you all over the cosmos and make you into the big dipper…no Sisyphus was known as someone all throughout his life that didn’t really march to the beat of the drum of the God’s so it came as no surprise when one day…when it was his time to die…Hades…LORD OF THE UNDERWORLD came to get Sisyphus, wrap him up in chains, and suck him down into the blackened recesses of his realm. 

 

Now Sisyphus…cunning as he was…when death shows up to take him…he starts talking to the lord of the underworld…and somehow convinces him of testing the chains out on himself before he uses them on him…so when death’s all tied up and says yep these chains definitely seem to be in working order!…Sisyphus just throws him in his closet and goes on about his business. Now as you can imagine…there are some consequences when death doesn’t show up to work…for one thing…people can’t die. Throughout the myth of Sisyphus they give all kinds of examples of how people would get killed on the battlefield and still show up to dinner that night…people would get like run over by a horse and just stand up and dust themselves off. Point is: the Gods soon realized what had happened. Now as you can ALSO imagine…for Sisyphus…kidnapping the lord of the underworld and hiding him in your closet has some serious consequences as well. So the God’s sentenced him to one of the most horrible fates imaginable…it’s a motif we’ve all probably seen at some point in our lives…Sisyphus is the guy condemned by the gods to a lifetime… of rolling a boulder up a hill…back breaking, grueling labor…only to reach the top of the hill and have the boulder inevitably roll back down to the bottom for him to start over again. Condemned to a lifetime of pain and anguish and working hard only to have his efforts be completely futile in the end…the boulder will always roll back down to the bottom of the hill.

 

Now Camus would say…what a wonderful metaphor for your life. Now I’ll explain his reasoning in a second but just imagine…if this is true…imagine If the life you live right now is comparable to rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it inevitably fall back down again…if that is true…then as Albert Camus says, “There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is the decision of whether or not to commit suicide.” This is his fundamental philosophical question that I was talking about…this is the question that underlies EVERYTHING else. Should we commit suicide?

 

Now hold on at this point you might be saying…alright…don’t you think that’s just a little bit melodramatic…Camus? My life isn’t that bad…I’m not condemned by the Gods…I’m not rolling a boulder up a hill everyday…I don’t even like boulders. 

 

Well it’s a metaphor…Camus would say: look. we’re born, we grow up, we get a job and it’s so easy in this modern life for people to fall into this momentum of living the same exact day over and over again…up, work, home, TV, bed, up, work, home, TV, bed, up work…you get it. 

 

This isn’t how human beings were meant to live…it’s monotonous, it’s tremendously unfulfilling, it’s practically devoid of anything that feels even remotely rewarding. Saddest part about it to Camus is that most people just go along with it and don’t ever really question it. This is just the way life is! I’ve resigned myself to a life of sleeping pills and caramel macchiatos. 

 

But not everybody ends up this way. Camus would say if you’re not one of these people that just sort of sheepishly goes along with it and never questions it…well…then you’re one of the lucky few that get to have your very own existential crisis! Congratulations. Because what happens when you really take a look at that lifestyle…that up, work, home, TV, bed…lifestyle…is you start to wonder if any of this stuff you’re doing everyday matters at all. You start to feel isolated…alienated. You start to look at death looming on the horizon, you start to wonder…am I wasting this gift of life… and you can’t help but feel really uncomfortable. 

 

So IN an attempt to alleviate this discomfort…You start to ask yourself some really tough questions…questions that are trying to get some clarity about this existence: what is the purpose of my life or the universe for that matter…what is the meaning…is life really just me watching netflix until I go casket shopping one day? 

 

Camus talks about how when we find ourselves in this uncomfortable place we seem to have this longing for happiness…and this appetite for clarity…or an appetite for being able to make sense of everything…trying to find the purpose that we serve…and an extremely common place people start LOOKING for that purpose…just given the last several thousand years of human thought…is that they try to look for some sort of preordained cosmically prescribed meaning to it all. They look at their place within the universe and they start to ask…what plan did this universe have for me? What function do I serve in the grand scheme of things?

 

They ask these questions and what do they get? Silence. Nothing answers you back as a human being when you ask those questions. It’s not like some customer service rep from the universe call center picks up. Well Camus would say…given that fact…that leaves you with a very real problem on your hands……Because if nobodies picking up at the call center for the universe……we don't KNOW what the purpose of the universe is. We don’t KNOW what our purpose is…or if we even have one…and what’s worse is that…you’re just a human being. The only tools you have…to arrive at the MEANING OF THE UNIVERSE…are your eyes, ears…you know your sensory experience…and your ability to reason. That’s it!

 

The fact that you’re met with silence…when you ask those fundamental questions of your existence…probably means your tools aren’t doing the job that well. Now you can draw any number of conclusions from this…a common one is that…maybe we DO in fact have a purpose…but TO whatever prescribed that purpose…it’s just not very important for us to know for certain what that purpose is…or maybe…if we KNEW what our purpose was…it would sabotage our ability to fulfill that purpose. 

 

For example Genesis 1:28. God tells Adam rule over all the fish and fowl and every living creature that moves on the ground. Which I just realized doesn’t really cover underground animals…maybe moles are onto something…uh…point is if you believe that the purpose of every animal in the world is for us to rule over them, part of that being that God allows us to eat these creatures…A cow doesn’t know it’s purpose…and you can imagine how if that cow KNEW it’s purpose…it might inhibit its ability to fulfill that purpose…it would be trying to stay away from us lucky humans as much as possible so it can survive. Maybe… it’s the same way for human beings…maybe if we were able to know for certain what our purpose was…it would sabotage our ability to accomplish it. 

 

Now another possibility you might arrive at when you ask these questions and are met back with silence…is that maybe…the universe has no meaning…or even if it does…maybe just because of these crude tools these eyes ears and ability to reason…maybe it’s impossible for you to ever discover that meaning with certainty at all. 

 

But you know what? when you’re asking these questions…who really wants to believe all that? I’m not gonna let some existential crisis ruin my day…so you hold out hope! Maybe I DO have a purpose! After all…sure I’m just a human being…but the flip side of that is…I’m just a human being…who am I to make some proclamation about there being no meaning to everything in the universe. So you reserve judgement…keep your eyes peeled for that meaning…and go on with your life…usually with a set of idealistic expectations about how the universe in gonna be treating you…after all…if you DO play some sort of role in the grand scheme of things…easy assumption to make from there is that the universe must have some way to protect that investment. 

 

So you go on throughout your life armed with that set of exceptions keeping your eyes open!…and then…inevitably…the universe smacks you in the face…life happens…your sister gets hit by a car…you don’t get the job that you wanted…these things happen all the time. What we see as horrible tragedies…lives are completely destroyed. Human suffering is visited on a scale that is hard to comprehend. When these things happen to us…and they DO happen just less frequently than they otherwise would because you live in the luxury of the modern world…when these things happen to us…one thing seems clear in that moment…whatever purpose the universe has for you…it doesn’t seem to insure that you’re going to be financially stable…or surrounded by a big family at Thanksgiving…in that moment…the universe seems pretty uninterested in whether you’re going to be happy…in that moment…the universe seems pretty uninterested in you.

 

Now Camus says we find ourselves in these moments a lot…especially when we’re young… And because we’re so desperately trying to find this cosmic meaning to our life that we swear must be out there somewhere…we start to get confused and scared…we start to have this inner monologue. Why is this happening to me? All of this tragedy seems to be so random…I’m not a bad person…why are all these terrible things happening to me and this criminal over there never has anything bad happen to them…maybe the way I act doesn’t have any bearing at all on whether the universe allows some tragic course of events to unfold in my life. Maybe it all is just random…But if that’s true…I still have my original question…what is the meaning of my life?

 

Now listening to that inner monologue there…there’s a lot of tension. Tension between expectations that person has about what SHOULD be happening to them and the reality of what actually DID happen to them. Camus would say this tension…tension that he thought we all face at some point and i’m sure we’ve all had a similar inner monologue to the one we just heard at SOME point in our lives…that tension is explained… by the contrast between the fact that you’re running around searching for some cosmically determined meaning to your life that the universe is going to guarantee for you…when the reality is…the universe doesn’t seem to have a meaning…or at least if it does…we don’t know what it is, and it’s impossible for us to know what it is…at least right at this second. 

 

What this means if this is true…is that all that desire to find some cosmic meaning…all of the anxiety and regret…the pain you feel when you see your loved ones in pain or however the universe decides to smack you in the face at that moment…that is the pain of you rolling the boulder up the hill like Sisyphus and watching the boulder tumble back down to the bottom…all of your efforts for nothing. 

 

See ultimately to Camus…it doesn’t matter how hard you push the boulder…it doesn’t matter how much you agonize over trying to find that cosmic meaning…eventually…you’re gonna die…everyone you've ever known is going to die…your name is gonna be forgotten…Wal Mart is gonna take over the world…the sun is going to inflate and explode and destroy any trace of you that could possibly be left…ultimately, because you didn’t choose to be born… you have been condemned to a lifetime pushing a boulder up a hill only to find out that it was all pointless.  

 

Now if this sounds pretty ridiculous…this is why Camus describes this existence as “absurd”. He says:

 

“Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”

 

 

Now if you’re saying to yourself wow Camus thank you…no no thank you for that wonderful speech…you just made the whole family feel really depressed…you know call me crazy Camus…but I don’t WANT to feel like this…I don’t want to feel like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill for the rest of my life for no reason! .. And he would probably say back, Yeah, No kidding…NO ONE DOES. You’re living in a constant state of absurdity with the universe. But whether you want to acknowledge it right now or just shove your head in the sand… the fact remains you ARE like Sisyphus…and that uncomfortable feeling that you want to avoid for the rest of your life…EVERYONE ELSE wants to avoid it too! And Camus would say that people have no shortage of creative ways that they’ve come up with over the years…to escape this state of acknowledging the way that things actually are. 

 

Now one of the go to ways that might come to mind is to just, to commit suicide. After all, if you’re condemned to a life of the painful and agonizing work of pushing a boulder up a hill…and you know that all that pain, effort and sacrifice isn’t really leading to anything…why wouldn’t you just cling onto the boulder like a koala baby…and uh…let gravity do the rest. Certainly does solve your problem right? Well Camus would say, no it actually doesn’t. 

 

Somebody that commits suicide as a response to the absurdity of the world is looking at the problem in a really misguided way. The problem is not with the fact that you’re alive. The TRUE problem is with the disparity between your search for meaning and how the universe doesn’t seem to have one that you can arrive at. If this is truly a problem, any solution to that problem is going to have to do with repairing that disparity. All you’re really doing by committing suicide is running away from the ACTUAL problem. It’s like fixing a leaky faucet by moving to a different house…got news for you…that things still in there drippin. 

 

There must be a better way! 

 

Now I know what you're saying…wow that was it? That was the answer to the most fundamental philosophical question? That was like three sentences! Well no. See because to Camus…that is not the only way that you can commit suicide in this existence. There’s another type of suicide. The one we just talked about is what he called physical suicide…the other kind is what he calls philosophical suicide. 

 

So at the risk of sounding redundant I just wanna reiterate something real quick so you can see just how similar these two types of suicide are to Camus. You find yourself in a state of the absurd…the reality of this world that we live in is that you want to be able to make sense of it and find meaning in it, but you don’t know that meaning, you don’t know how to find that meaning and it may ultimately be either entirely meaningless or impossible for you to ever find the meaning. So when you live in that world…one way to leave that world… is to commit physical suicide… but as we just talked about you don’t really solve the problem…the faucet is still leaking inside of your house…you just live in a different house…Now ANOTHER way to leave this world that doesn’t really solve the problem is to commit philosophical suicide…or to focus your attention on some OTHER world that doesn’t actually exist…a world where this anxiety and tension that comes along with the reality of this absurdity no longer exists. This is like living in a house with a leaky faucet…and it’s dripping all day…driving you insane…you can’t sleep because there’s this leaky faucet that’s constantly dripping in your ears…so instead of fixing the faucet you put in earplugs and pretend like faucets don’t actually exist. 

 

Now, the most obvious example of this from human history would be religion, I mean, common to most denominations at least in our modern world…they literally focus their attention on another world, one devoid of anxiety, one that provides meaning to everything you do in your life… but make no mistake followers of religion are not even close to the only people guilty of philosophical suicide to Camus. Though I think it’s interesting to pause on them for a second to notice something unique about Camus. 

 

Camus uses the word meaningless a lot…but let’s not misunderstand where he’s coming from. Camus doesn’t see himself as some sort of…you know…anti Thomas Aquinas…who’s goes into great detail and writes entire books presenting how he has a philosophical proof of how the universe has no meaning. No, he sort of comes at it from the other side…he just tries to explain the reasons why there is such a huge incentive to create and confer that meaning onto the universe. That state of the absurd is a pretty horrible place…if somebody’s willing to PHYSICALLY commit suicide…Camus would say they’re DEFINITELY going to be willing to adopt some awesome meaning for their lives where they get to live forever… and then walk around with a confirmation bias. 

 

Now as I said…followers of religion aren’t the only people out there looking to another world to alleviate this feeling of the absurd. What I mean by another world is simply some pre-manufactured system of beliefs that doesn’t really reflect THIS worlds reality…it’s really just an attempt to simplify the world down into terms that are easily understandable so that you don’t have to contend with the true, unbridled ambiguity of it all. 

 

This could be any number of things: nationalism, racism, sexism, your political outlook…even things like watching sports or playing video games with every free second. Again, the goal of committing philosophical suicide is to sort of revel in a state of certainty that somebody else gave you…a state of certainty that doesn’t actually exist so that you can get rid of the uncomfortable feeling of answering those fundamental questions about your existence. Again, it’s putting earplugs in and pretending like faucets don’t exist…and if that’s a funny visual…look around you…most people are doing it right now. 

 

Now for Camus…this runs into the same problem as physical suicide. It doesn’t actually solve the problem…it just deludes you into believing that you already know everything about existence. Now if you’re out there saying, what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with a little hope Camus? 

 

Hope? Stop hoping…stop looking at some other world that doesn’t exist in a TV screen or a book or in your reductionist view of the way things are…stop looking at that other world and start looking at this one! That hope, that constant looking to some other world robs you of so much in this one. Hope may be calming to that state of absurdity…but think of the cost! It robs us of the here and now. Everything we COULD be experiencing now, but aren’t.

 

See Camus didn’t think suicide was the answer to this existential crisis. Physical Suicide and Philosophical Suicide are just two ways of RUNNING from the problem…but Camus thought how bout instead of RUNNING from the problem…you welcome the problem with open arms…you EMBRACE the problem. CHAIN yourself to the problem. Find comfort in the uncomfortable.

 

See what Camus thought people that commit philosophical suicide never understood…is that not running from the absurd…but facing your existence head on and acknowledging it…that makes you a pretty amazing person. That’s a pretty awesome accomplishment. How many other people are brave enough to do something like that? And he thinks you should think of it this way…to Camus someone that is able to be aware of the absurd and not run and hide from is known to him as an absurd hero. See because to be aware of the absurd in a strange way is to be superior to it. 

 

Take the absurd head on…stop hoping and looking to another world that may not ever exist and spend your time in the wealth of the here and now…which seems to Camus to be sensory in nature. 

 

Camus talks about enjoying the little things…enjoying the company of family and friends and good food and just sort of appreciating the sensory experience we were given.

 

Do things that make you feel good. If you love spending time with your family…enjoy them and appreciate them…because you never know when this disinterested universe is going to take them away…Enjoy your food…you never know when this disinterested universe is going to throw a world wide dustbowl our way and you’ll be fighting to the death for a bag of peanuts. 

 

Yeah, maybe we ARE like Sisyphus…maybe nothing we do will ever live on eternally and maybe all the anxiety and regret and hard work we put into this life ultimately has no meaning. But the Gods only condemned Sisyphus to push the boulder…they didn’t condemn him to resent the process. Camus says we should imagine Sisyphus smiling while pushing the boulder…understanding the ultimate futility of his efforts, but enjoying it anyway as much as he can. 

 

This is a model of how we should live our lives. You don’t have to hate or run away from the absurd…you can embrace it and smile anyway. Imagine if you were 13 years old again and your parents grounded you for staying out too late…the only reason that punishment works is because you hate the idea of being grounded, the only reason your parents use it is precisely BECAUSE you don't like it. I mean, how much sense would it make for your parents to say you're grounded…go to Disneyland! It wouldn’t work. Imagine enjoying every second of being grounded. Wouldn’t have been that bad! This is what we have to do with the absurd…push our meaningless boulder, but smile and enjoy it as much as we possibly can. 

 

Now the last two episodes have been on Sartre and Camus…two people that for part of their life were practically best friends and for the other part of their life were worst enemies. The next episode is going to be on one of the most famous back and forth debates in the history of the world…between Sartre and Camus. Thank you for listening…I’ll talk to you next time. 

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Episode 87 – Sartre and Camus pt. 2

FRANCE. Paris. French writer Albert CAMUS. 1947.

Albert Camus (1913-1960)


On this episode, we take a look at Albert Camus and his work on existentialism. See the full transcript of this episode here.

Albert Camus (1913–1960) was a journalist, editor and editorialist, playwright and director, novelist and author of short stories, political essayist and activist—and arguably, although he came to deny it, a philosopher. He ignored or opposed systematic philosophy, had little faith in rationalism, asserted rather than argued many of his main ideas, presented others in metaphors, was preoccupied with immediate and personal experience, and brooded over such questions as the meaning of life in the face of death.

Continue reading Episode 87 – Sartre and Camus pt. 2