I am the representative embodiment of my nihilistic culture. I am narcissistic, insatiable, petty and apathetic and I am above all an emotional invalid. Yet, up until very recently, I was not consciously aware that I was guilty of having any of these wholly pejorative attributes, because I had unconsciously suppressed my inherent will to attain a meaningful existence, in favor of the comfort and security that complacency and futility provide. There exists in me a void that is not uncommon to find in the members of my Eurocentric society which is derived from the conscious or unconscious knowledge that our culture is entirely devoid of meaning. This is, more specifically, the plight of my generation, which has been defined by its disillusionment, apathy and inaction, rather than its accomplishments, beliefs or ideologies.
Escapism is the safety mechanism that enables our flight from actuality and subsequently our ability to exist, because we have been cursed with a wealth of advantages and a lack of restrictions. For example….I am free to choose my own religion, I am not stifled by or subjected to economic disadvantage, I am not bound to subservience by an oppressive or tyrannical government, I am blessed with a myriad of conveniences by my technologically advanced society and I come from a nurturing and supportive family, so who the hell am I to complain about my circumstances. The only explanation I can give, in retort to my profession that I have been cursed by my inherent advantages is…since my life is completely devoid of any profound suffering, it is subsequently lacking any meaningful happiness, because man only experiences these feelings in terms of their relative relationship to one another. Thus, I vainly invent my own wholly unfounded reasons to bemoan my existence, in the same way that a hypochondriac invents his psychosomatic illnesses, because the longer we feign to have a justifiable cue for suffering, the more that that suffering actualizes itself. The primary source of my anxieties is derived from the inherent knowledge that I am condemned to be free, in a society of relatively few restrictions, which subsequently requires me to be the master of my own destiny. Thus, I am not only culpable for determining my own fate, but I am also wholly responsible for finding a meaningful purpose in my existence which instills me with an intense feeling of trepidation, because I'm not sure I'm ready to shoulder such a profound responsibility. I live in a nihilistic society, that is founded on man's narcissistic will to pleasure and power that is run by the all-powerful green and that is defined by its laziness and lack of tradition. Thus, it seems almost futile to search for a meaningful existence in our Western culture, because it is this very society that has taught me my convoluted and misplaced system of priorities and beliefs, but man can find a meaning for living regardless of his predicament. Therefore, in this paper, I will attempt to redefine what I believe is the essence and meaning of my human existence, by combining the meditations of a variety of different philosophic thinkers with the conclusions I have attained through the contemplation of my own personal experiences.
Nihilism is the characteristic value-disease of our times. The word comes from the Latin root for nothing, and it describes the belief that human values have no evacatory or meaningful power. Although there have been transient episodes of nihilism throughout our species' cultural history, the label is usually applied to the crisis of valuation that now infects our Western culture. Friederich Nietzsche, the famous German existentialist philosopher, predicted that the traditional European system of beliefs, which are primarily derived from the teachings of Christianity and Greek Philosophy, would be questioned and subsequently abandoned during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He believed that with the widespread proliferation of education people would start exercising their free-will and temporarily abandon the herd mentality that has historically caused the masses to blindly accept the ideology of others. Nietzsche prophetically predicted that with this newly acquired freedom of thought, and the subsequent death of traditional European values, people would frantically search for and embrace, new, false sources of meaning. He included as examples: the forthcoming of cataclysmic wars, the proliferation of materialistic greed and the pursuit of ever more powerful forms of intoxication, all of these theories coming to their fruition during this century. The traditional European values that have defined our culture for centuries are certainly not yet extinct, but their prevalence and influence has been severely curtailed, subsequently creating a state of confusion that has given way to one of the most tumultuous eras in history. This century has seen the rise to power of maniacal demagogues, like Hitler and Stalin, the devastation of two World Wars, the political influence of imperialistic corporations, and the creation of a widespread drug culture. We have not yet awakened to the necessary evolution that is required to cure our diseased system of values, because we refuse to see fault in them out of cowardice. Thus, Nietzsche concludes that mankind, through its inherent fear of leading a meaningful existence, has become so far removed from God that we have, in fact, killed him.
As Nietzsche predicted, we live in a convoluted world of misplaced priorities, where the will to a meaningful existence has been all but replaced by man's constant flight from actuality, which is derived from an inherent inclination to intellectual laziness. If a person becomes consciously aware of the perversity of our Western culture, they will undoubtedly become severely depressed and disillusioned, but this realization can be cured in any number of ways. A person can completely lose themselves in their occupation and daily activities, subsequently becoming a machine, believing their worth is measured solely by their level of production. A person can adopt an opinion as an absolute doctrine, such as racism, giving them a convenient scapegoat for their shortcomings, and absolving them of all feelings of responsibility and culpability for their actions. A person can compensate for their lack of a meaningful existence by attaining wealth, power and prestige, vainly mistaking these impostors, consciously or unconsciously, as modes of attaining happiness. A person can lose themselves in the delusory would of Dionysian pleasures, such as…drugs, alcohol or sexual conquest, existing only to enjoy the transient and fleeting flight from reality that is derived from orgasmic euphoria.
Finally, a person can join a collective organization or cause, in order to escape from the responsibilities that exercising their free-will and expressing their individuality entails, in favor of subjecting themselves and succumbing to the beliefs of others. In the preceding examples there is a unifying theme of escapism, which comes from man's innate fear of taking control of his own destiny, because he does not want to be responsible for his own misfortunes. The journey to a meaningful existence is a frightening undertaking, because it requires an arduous and diligent pursuit of one's goals, regardless of the suffering and pain attaining it entails. It means making your own decisions, with the hope that the results will prove to be advantageous, and accepting them even if they end up proving otherwise, because man can often derive more profound meaning from his suffering than he can from his success. That is why Nietzsche says…That which does not kill me, will only make me stronger.
The man in Dostoyevsky's essay NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND professes to having invented a meaningless existence for himself so that at very least he could live in some way. In my opinion this is not a testament to nihilism, as it explicitly appears to be, but rather the reflections of a man who has become conscious of the lack of meaning in his own existence. It is a celebration of human individualism which this acutely conscious man regards as both the absurdity of existence and the essence and meaning of being human. Thus, he considers his consciousness to by a blessing as well as a curse, because if he were completely unaware of his seemingly absurd situation, he would be able to act instinctually and unconsciously without being inhibited by his ability to reason. The narrator argues that independence of choice is dependent upon not only the ability to act in accordance with what a person believes to be beneficial and good, but also the ability to act in a way that will inflict suffering and pain. The propensity of man to act in direct conflict with what he consciously believes to be beneficial, is a concept Edgar Allen Poe called man's inherent perversity which is the theme of many of his most famous works, not the least of which is THE IMP OF THE PERVERSE. The man from Underground explains this enigmatic phenomenon by saying that the conscious man delights in suffering because it is the source of his consciousness, because without it there would be nothing left to contemplate. Similarly, he professes that man ironically seems to enjoy entropy and disorder, because the reason for his existence is based on his trying to attain meaning, but never actually achieving it. That is, because once a person realizes all of their goals, and is enlightened to the meaning of his life, there will no longer be any reason for him to live. Therefore, man thrives on the process of attaining meaning, even though he doesn't want to actually attain it, which is a fundamentally absurd theoretical concept, but nonetheless, is the most integral component of our existence. The man in NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND simultaneously alerts us to the inherent absurdity of our nature, while celebrating our ability to freely choose our own destiny, because he is conscious of man's plight of constantly struggling to attain an unattainable goal.
Albert Camus' essay THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS is an allegory about the absurdity of human nature, in which Sisyphus is the quintessential absurd hero. This man, sentenced to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain and then watching its descent, is damned by the Gods to the unspeakable task of spending eternity exerting himself toward accomplishing nothing. But Sisyphus is conscious of his plight and he surmounts it by concentrating on his freedom, his refusal to hope, his scorn of the Gods, and his passion for life. His inherent knowledge that there's no end to his suffering, is similar to the plight of mankind who is forced to live in a world with no absolute meaning. Thus, the absurd person must demand to live solely with what is known and to bring nothing that is not certain. In the case of humankind, this means that all I know is that I exist, that the world exists and that I am mortal. In THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS Camus opposes himself to the rationalism of classical philosophy which seeks universal and enduring truths and a definite hierarchy of values and truths. He believes that truth is only found by a subjective intensity of passion and our value is determined by our freedom and our revolt. Thus, the only joy we have is in knowing that our fate belongs to us and in our defiance and struggle to overcome death.
Camus, Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche all seem to believe that it matters little what reason we continue to struggle so long as we testify to man's allegiance to man and not to abstractions and absolutes which completely negates the possibility of faith and religion. I wholly agree that there is no one unifying meaning to man's existence which transcends all things, but in my opinion this does not mean that I should automatically believe that all abstract things are false. I think that having faith is an integral component of leading a meaningful existence, particularly considering the only things that I know with absolute certainty are, I exist, the world exists and I am mortal. There is certainly room for religious faith in our existence, provided that we do not completely indoctrinate ourselves to believe that the scripture and values of that faith are entirely true. Religious fanaticism and fundamentalism not only deny a man's freedom and individuality, but also make him potentially dangerous to others, because he starts believing that anyone that does not share his system of beliefs is his enemy. Therefore, I believe, in order for a religious faith to be healthy, a person needs to practice their religion without inhibiting their individuality and furthermore, by entertaining the possibility that their faith might potentially prove to be in vain. These same principles hold true for secular forms of faith, such as the belief in a particular political ideology or social cause, because like a faith in religion, they are beneficial as long as they are not taken to an extreme. I share this belief with William James and Viktor Frankl who agree with many of the fundamental ideas of existentialism, but also stress the importance of faith in leading a meaningful existence.
William James' essay THE WILL TO BELIEVE uses the traditionally scientific method of empirical study to describe philosophic ideas that have generally been discussed in terms of their certitude and objective evidence. Empiricism is a regard to matters of fact as hypotheses liable to modification in the course of future investigation, and he uses it as a method of finding meaning in human existence. James ardently resists using an absolutist approach to studying philosophy because he believes that, although it is possible to attain truth, we can't infallibly know when we have with any certainty. The empiricist, like the existentialist, believes that it is impossible to know something for certain, but instead of giving up hope, he continues to quest for the truth, because he still has faith in its existence. James believes that the only way that man can come closer to understanding the meaning of his existence is by collecting a wealth of experiences, and then pensively reflecting upon them. He believes that, in life, the quest for the truth is paramount, and the avoidance of error is secondary, in making decisions and performing actions. Therefore, James is critical of skeptics who suspend their judgment about a hypothesis simply because they want to avoid being wrong at all costs. It is no profound revelation that a person who has confidence and faith that they are going to succeed are much more likely to achieve their goals than a person filled with trepidation and self-doubt, but the most important thing is for that person to accept failure graciously. James sums up this belief when he says…Act for the best and hope for the best and take what comes.
We must have faith in our convictions, because insight of logic is not the only thing that influences our creeds, there is also the emotional component. Pascal calls this the heart, a force that is wholly independent of reason, when he says…The heart has its reasons that reason knows not of.
The inherent influence of emotion on a person's decision making process can provide the cue to accept something solely on faith, because passion and love are often the source of irrational behavior and that is not necessarily a pejorative thing. For instance, if I am madly in love with a woman, there is no possible way for me to ever know for certain whether or not she feels the same way about me. Thus, I am forced to either accept that she will reciprocate my love on faith, and risk the frightening possibility that she won't or live my life as a cynical and melancholy bachelor, constantly pondering about what could have been. Despite the overly-simplistic nature of my example, which bears a striking resemblance to Pascal's wager, there is little doubt that it is beneficial to accept things on faith, regardless of the potentially pejorative consequences, because a person who relies solely on their rationality is damned to become an emotional invalid. Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning, is composed of two distinctly different parts: the first section is an autobiographical account of his traumatic experiences in the Nazi death camps and the second part is a description of his personal theory of psychoanalysis which is called logo therapy. For the purpose of this paper I am going to concentrate solely on the second section of this book, because I only have time enough to briefly summarize some of its major ideas. Frankl's theory of logo therapy, in its simplest form, is the psychoanalytical process that assists a patient in discovering the meaning in his or her life. It evolved out of his ability to derive meaning in his own existence, while he was being subjected to the brutal, naturalistic and dehumanizing suffering of the Nazi concentration camps. Frankl, during his captivity, was robbed of his family, his pride, his possessions and his health, but he was miraculously able to survive because he was wholly committed to the furthering of his work and the love of his wife.
Logo therapy was also created to provide its patients with a compassionate and nurturing view of human existence which is a component that is missing from nearly all other approaches to psychotherapy. Since most people have enough to live by, but essentially nothing to live for, the goal of logo therapy is to make people feel responsible to life for something. Frankl is essentially an empiricist in the tradition of James, because he believes that the meaning in a person's existence can be discovered in the experiences of his external environment, rather than buried in his subconscious. Thus, when a person forgets himself, by giving himself to a cause or to serve another, the more human he becomes and the more he actualizes himself. This theory should not be misconstrued to mean a person should abandon their free will, it simply means that the best way for a person to learn about himself is through his relationship to others. Frankl, like many other existentialists thinkers, believes that the essence of life is suffering, and to survive is to find meaning in that suffering. Thus, when a person chooses to be worthy of their suffering they gain the capacity to surmount their outward fate and subsequently their inner-anxieties and neuroses. It is certainly no surprise that chief among Frankl's concerns is the rapid proliferation of nihilism in the twentieth century, a phenomenon which he has named the existential vacuum. It is a neurosis that is often derived from boredom, which makes it seem like a benign illness, but it is often responsible for creating the foundation, from which many other much more serious conditions arise. Depression, aggression, addiction and even suicide have been directly linked to nihilism and the existential vacuum, therefore, it is not to be confused with simple laziness and apathy and it should not dismissed as a petty problem.
Frankl, like James, refutes the doctrine of monism, because he believes the meaning of life is a wholly personal experience that is constantly changing. Thus, it is not man who is asking the meaning of life, but rather, it is man who is questioned by life to find meaning, and man's response should be to become vigilant in his pursuits, responsible for his actions and consciously contemplative of his situation.
I live in a culture that is obsessed with opulence and ostentation, instant gratification and overnight success and above all the escape from actuality at any cost. It is a time when problems are solved by synthetic means and meaningful spirituality has been all but replaced by self-help seminars and twelve-step programs. The Western world has invented a cure for almost everything: if a person is feeling depressed they see their pharmacist, if they have low self-esteem they see their plastic surgeon, if they feel unfulfilled they learn how to get rich by buying and selling real-estate with no money down, if they have trouble expressing their emotions they join a support group or buy the instructional books on tape and if they don't have the money for these things they can always charge it to their credit card and worry about it later. The computer is slowly eliminating the existence of necessary human interaction: it is replacing meaningful human knowledge with an overload of primarily useless information, it is substituting virtual reality for actual experience, and it is helping to burgeon a generation of hackers and video game champions, rather than intellectuals and athletes. It isn't hard to imagine why our culture is now comprised primarily of narcissists and nihilists, myself inclusive, because we have forgotten how to interact with each other, let alone how to lead a meaningful existence. I was not conscious of the void in my own existence until I read the literature required of this course and now I am trying to systematically redefine my misplaced values and beliefs by combining the teachings and ideologies I have learned, with my own personal experiences. As I mentioned before I have been fortunate enough to come from a fairly affluent and nurturing family, but in my opinion, the lack of misfortune and suffering in my experiences has caused me to live without questioning why, because I have never had a profound enough reason to question the meaning in my life. I believe that I am fortunate to have been enlightened to my nihilism, because many people in my culture do not become aware of the lack of meaning in their existence until much later in life, when it is affectionately called a mid-life crisis. I wholly agree with the existentialist belief that there is no determinism and that man is free to be the master of his own fate. I also believe that man's existence depends on suffering, because it not only can provide a person with a profound source for meaning, but it is also provides the necessary comparison by which success and happiness are measured. My beliefs, like those of James and Frankl, divulge from the theories of existentialism at this point, because I value faith to be an integral component of my existence. I have a devout faith in the existence of God, an afterlife, love and truth, although I know that during my lifetime I will never know with any degree of certainty whether any of these things exist. Now comes the hardest part which is finding out what the meaning of my existence is and to be perfectly honest, at this point, I have no idea what it is. Perhaps it is simply to discover my calling in life while I am still young. After all I only became conscious of the utter lack of meaning in my existence a short time ago.
Nevertheless, I am wholly confident that I will find something, by which or for which to live in the near future, because as Nietzsche brilliantly stated…He who has a way to live, can bear almost any how.
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