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):
- 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.
- 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 ).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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).
- 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:
- The way of Socrates and Hamlet
- The way of the Buddha and Seneca
- The way of Sisyphus and Antigone
- The way of the acidic Darwinist
- The way of Oedipus
- The way of Don Quixote
- The way of Jesus
- 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?