The Eight Ways of Being in the World

It’s hard to live in the world. Suffering happens. Then more suffering happens. Then you die. In the face of these facts, Albert Camus wrote that the first question of philosophy is suicide. But if you’re not going to do that, then what will you do?

As I see it, the menu of options is actually pretty thin (and if you think I’ve missed an option, please share it):

  1. The first is the ironic agnostic route through existence. This is the path of Socrates, who claimed not to know anything, but asked a lot of questions. Under stress, the ironic Socratic path can morph into the extremities associated with the hyperconscious “Hamlet Syndrome” (to think or not to think, to believe or not to believe, to do or not to do, to be or not to be). For its negative capability, poets, like Emily Dickinson, and postmodernists, like Jacques Derrida, seem drawn toward this life stance.
  2. The next three paths are atheist routes grounded in pessimism. The first is the way of resignation. Things are obviously bad. I see that things are obviously bad. I’m not denying that things are obviously bad. I therefore lower my expectations dramatically. I recognize that desire and aversion are at the root of all suffering, so I’m going to stop desiring and avoiding things and learn to wisely “go with the flow.” In the East, this is the path of the Buddha; in the West, it’s the path of Stoics like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, and the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. In Hindu guise, it’s what Krishna teaches Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. In conventional pantheistic guise, it’s submission to the balance and cycles of nature (think of the forest “people” in Avatar ).
  3. The second atheist path grounded in pessimism is Albert Camus’s way of rebellion. Living in the full acknowledgement of the universe’s apparent absurdity, I’m not resigned to it, but live in rebellion against it, and in solidarity with others. I see that it’s futile to push the rock of my values and goals up the mountain of existence, and I know that it will one day roll back upon me, but I choose the way of Sisyphus over the way of the Buddha. As an actor on a stage, I play my chosen role in full knowledge that the curtain will soon close and all my actions will come to naught. In Camus’s great novel, The Plague, this stance toward the world is exemplified by Dr. Rieux. A permutation on this way of being in the world can also be found in ancient tragic drama, Sophocles’s Antigone  being a superlative example. Antigone, as you’ll recall, faces an irreconcilable choice (to bury her brother or patriotically obey the State’s command that she not do so). In this conflict of loyalties, she chooses to bury her brother in the full recognition that her gesture of love toward him is meaningful only to her, and that it must end in her death. I put in this category philosophers like Isaiah Berlin. Berlin was exquisitely aware of the impossibility of making the world fully cohere as a meaningful whole, and yet he was willing to live and think in the face of this fact, and nonetheless make—and embrace—the not wholly adequate choices before him.
  4. The third pessimistic atheist route through existence is to acknowledge, with Camus, that the universe is purposeless and absurd, but remove from Camus’s rebellion the prosocial gloss, the solidarity with humanity. This is the path of the acidic Darwinist who has absorbed, in a crass way, the nihilistic implications, not just of Darwin, but of Machiavelli and Nietzsche, and sees the human world as a competitive theater for the exercise of violence, power, manipulation, will, struggle, and the survival of the fittest. The Nazi propaganda film, Alles Leben ist Kampf (1937)—“All Life is Struggle“—is an example of this way of thinking about the world. I would include among contemporary people who have self-consciously absorbed an acidic form of Darwinism those like Varg Vikernes, well known in Norway’s black metal scene, and other neofascists.
  5. The next route through life is moral atheist optimism. The optimistic moral atheist thinks that nihilists, agnostics, and atheists who indulge in existential hand wringing and pessimism are a bit silly. Yes, we die, but we won’t know it when we’re dead, and the world can be lived in rationally and morally now, so get on with it. In other words, this is the path of Oedipus—the competent, good, and self-made man. Like Oedipus, the optimistic moral atheist is a “heroic vitalist” (Harold Bloom) unflinchingly devoted to knowing the truth and doing what is right. No gods are needed for help, or missed. Science is sufficient, thank you very much. Of course, Oedipus ended badly, plucking out his eyes when he reached full knowledge of the truth, but a pessimist (Sophocles) wrote the end of that play. If Ayn Rand or Richard Dawkins had written Sophocles’s play for him, they would have ended it very differently. Think of Howard Roark or Daniel Dennett in the role of Oedipus, shrugging at the news of a terrible fate, and getting on with his life just the same. The optimistic atheist is confident that Oedipus (and humanity) can, without the weary and capricious gods—and absent a lot of melodramatic existential angst—have a better fate than Oedipus.
  6. The next route through existence is the way of Don Quixote. Don Quixote is a close kin to the optimistic atheist, but a bit less worried about objective reality, and a bit more open to living in the strictly aesthetic imagination. Don Quixote is not a reductionist. The world, at one level, may be an unhappy place, and just a lot of atoms shuffling in the void, but Don Quixote is happy to escape from these facts into dream, fantasy, imaginative projects, self-chosen disciplines, games, and causes (from art, to vegetarianism, to travel, to environmentalism, to raising children).
  7. The path of Jesus. This is the path of transcendence in all its forms, and is not exclusively Christian. It’s the path that looks at the world with a hard eye and says, “This existence is unsatisfying. I’m out of here.” It looks at the world in pessimistic terms, but by faith denies the pessimistic conclusion, positing some sort of world “next door” that can be leaped into for optimism, hope, and refuge (Don Quixote “born again”). It is Dostoevsky looking at Hans Holbein’s image of Christ after crucifixion and saying that, in the face of this horror, I nevertheless put my faith—against all outward appearances—in the resurrection. It’s the path of willfully wishful thinking; of self-indoctrination; of Pascal’s wager, practicing a religion till you actually think you sort of believe it (fake it till you make it).
  8. All of the above paths are, to some extent, aware paths. They are all the products of thought. Each sums up the world in a particular way, and each offers a very deliberate response to the world. But there is another way of being in the world that I would call the path of Saturn—the unaware path—the path of thoughtless appetite, of the range of the moment, of least resistance. As you’ll recall from Greek myth, Saturn, on learning of his fate (that one of his children would someday overthrow him), proceeds to gobble them up as fast as they arrive, careless for his own children’s lives and future. This is the path taken by all undisciplined people. It is the path of rampant and mindless consumerism and cultural conformity. If you are content to not think, and to live with the cliches and common sense opinions that float around you within your tribe, then you’re on this very sleepy path. Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden  that “the commonest sense is that of men asleep, which they express by snoring.” The indifferent agnostic, the sleepy atheist, and the self-satisfied, doubt-free theist are all on this path. Nietzsche called a person who lived in this comfy, inertial fashion “the last man”. It wasn’t a compliment. Hannah Arendt saw this sleepy path–the path following thoughtless cliches–as a deep source for evil, and is part of what she meant by her phrase, “the banality of evil.”

So here are the eight ways of being in the world again, in a nutshell:

  1. The way of Socrates and Hamlet
  2. The way of the Buddha and Seneca
  3. The way of Sisyphus and Antigone
  4. The way of the acidic Darwinist
  5. The way of Oedipus
  6. The way of Don Quixote
  7. The way of Jesus
  8. The way of Saturn

Note that two paths are grounded in confusion and drift (1 and 8), three in pessimism (2-4), and three in optimism (5-7). I find myself generally trudging (stumbling?) along the Socrates-Hamlet path, but I’m sympathetic with most of the other paths as well. But are there other options? Have I missed something? And which path are you on?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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18 Responses to The Eight Ways of Being in the World

  1. andrewclunn says:

    I aspire toward #5, though truth be told I feel I would be better characterized by #3.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Andrew:

    That’s interesting. I think if you’re going between 5 and 3 that you’re a good man, but acquainted with the sufferings, perplexities, and limitations of existence as well.

    Except for 4 and 8, I feel the emotional tug of all these paths.

    I did a lot of meditation and yoga at one point in my life (before having kids), for example, but felt, like Madonna, the tug to “die another day”—not lapse into forms of resignation just yet.

    —Santi

  3. andrewclunn says:

    Hmmm, that’s interesting. I don’t really feel the pull of #7 or #8, if only because once abandoned, they cannot be reclaimed. Though if you self identify with #1, I can see how you might empathize with #7. Regarding #4, there’s an extreme existential power in its clarity. Imagine a shark that were aware of its state, as a powerful killing machine, feared and certain, remaining virtually over millennia simply because it is so effective at what it was meant to be, the predator of the seas. #4 is about looking at your genome and saying, “This is my sole. It is what ties me to my ancestors. When I am long gone this is what shall remain of me. My nature is my destiny and I shall not fail to win in the struggle for its survival!” Powerful stuff, that.

  4. santitafarella says:

    Andrew:

    I think that a lot of people manage to have 7 (hope of heaven) and all the benefits of the world as well (as the bling worn by televangelists attests). The path of Jesus purely followed (sell all you have etc.) is a path of renunciation (like the Buddha’s path). And, of course, renunciation is not terribly American. The American Jesus (not the historical Jesus) is the one that most Americans (like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck) follow.

    In short, keep your Jesuses straight! : )

    As for 4, I’m frightened by it. It’s the realm of Dionysus. I can see what you’re saying. The realm exists (obviously). Underlying all of our pro-social humaness is an evolutionary strategy of tribes in competitition. I get it. And to think of yourself as a robust and powerful machine—vital and potentially dangerous and to be contended with after 3 billion years of evolution—that’s cool. That’s part of your persona being projected into the world—perhaps even a source of self esteem. Mentally, I understand. But how it translates into society is unsettling. I think that Nietzschean, pseudo-Darwinian underground black metal culture (for example) is tapping energies that are best left sublimated.

    But now I’m sounding like the upper-class Victorian who says on hearing of Darwin’s theory of evolution: “I hope it’s not true we’ve evolved from apes, but if it is true, we mustn’t tell the children or the servants!”

    Check out, for example, these black metalists getting in touch with their inner caveman. Is it ironic? Yes, of course. Is it also disturbing. Yes, I think so. See here:

    —Santi

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  7. Ok I’m more like this, what place me in a solid # 5 I guess. However, I think all this are too much schematic, and real people can mix things in very surprising ways. So I don’t think there are only these “8 ways”, even if I can’t figure out a 9th, 10th,…myself.
    I also disagree with your “acidic darwinist”, please leave Chuck alone.

  8. santitafarella says:

    Gato:

    I agree that people can move around these categories (depending on mood—especially with regard to optimism and pessimism).

    I like Thomas Nagel’s reduction of the ways of being in the world to an even shorter list:

    https://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2010/01/23/a-fanciful-map-of-bohemia-1896/

    As for Chuck (Charles), I was trying to figure out a word or phrase for that category that would sum it up adequately, incorporating the word black or acid to represent (for example) black metal culture combined with dog-eat-dog.

    —Santi

  9. However, I think I see things differently. Those ways to me look more like:
    There are Realists. Reality is what it is, lets face it and deal with it, the best way possible, and then there are different aproaches, pessimistic or optimistic, or neither. Atheism there been a consequence.
    There are tose who deny Reality as it is, with a lot of wishful thinking.
    And there are those who don’t go as far as denialists, but don’t have balls to face facts, and just hope for the best, anoying Realists in the process. 🙂
    Or I may be full of bullshit, I’m not sure…

  10. santitafarella says:

    Gato:

    You’re not full of shit; you’re just talking like noble Oedipus: bravery and truth over all, with no blinking.

    I like the Oedipus path; it’s undeniably noble. I just think that life is more tragic than that (as did Sophocles, which is why he made Oedipus, as a character, the self made, godless man—the Daniel Dennett/Richard Dawkins of his day).

    It’s like Moses on the mountain with God. God turns his back to him. No man can see god’s face (or the truth unfiltered) and sustain that gaze without blinking or looking away—or dropping dead or tearing out your eyes (at some level).

    Freud is important here, I think. Reality is something that human beings are very clever at concealing from themselves (for purposes of anxiety management).

    So long as we are not zombies or automatons, but feeling and contingent creatures with shadows in our psyches, and afraid of the dark, the Oedipus path will always be an extraordinarily difficult one: an elite path barely suited for the average pathetic and frightened mortal (like me).

    —Santi

  11. Eric Blair says:

    How about all of them at once, or does that constitute another way to live?
    Certainly, I could square #3 and #7. Jesus himself was not above moments of rebellion against fate. The promise, or hope, of heaven or of God does not instantly evapourate the absurdity of our lives; it may even make it more pronounced. Likewise, it doesn’t strip us of our need to rebel, either. At least, on certain days. Faith and hope, like love, are not constant; they come and go with the seasons, leaving us, between miracles, tormented by death and desperately in love with life. In that torment and love, we strengthen our solidarity with humanity, with whom we share these fleeting temptations.
    And, just as inevitably, in this solidarity the seeds of our rebellion take root against the apparent indifference of God, even though we know our belief in Him, or It, or the possibility of Wholeness, alone offers the prospect of serenity, even of sanity.
    Thus we are eternally pulled between heart and mind, between the pessimism of objective science and optimism of subjective interpretation like art and love and religion, between the commitment to be true to ourselves no matter what and the responsibility to insist our truth embrace humanity. The battle of instincts continues.

    EB

  12. santitafarella says:

    Eric:

    Nicely put. We are all, if you will, people of sorrows and acquainted with grief (and contradictions). You said: “[I]t doesn’t strip us of our need to rebel, either. At least, on certain days.”

    That “certain days” part, I think, is key.

    I would suggest conceiving our lives—daily and even hourly—as akin to playing chess. What move shall we make now? My assertion is that, at any given moment, there are eight basic moves. Or to put it another way: all human moves seem to fall into eight broad possibilities.

    I have yet, in any case, thought of a ninth move (something that falls outside of the eight).

    A Christian, for example, might spend a day decompressing in Don Quixote mode, playing video games or watching I Love Lucy reruns; an atheist might get the vicarious pleasure of reading the Bible.

    —Santi

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  14. I like the way you’ve teased out the subtleties in the different positions. As someone said above, we have a tendency to mix and match a lot of these positions.

    Love your work

    Jonathan

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