Monday, July 31, 2023

Rel 411 - Time and Existentialist Creation

Time and Existentialist Creation

On a Thursday in Bangalore India, I sat in a conference room of an engineering firm, listening to a small cadre of managers talk in detail about their manufacturing prowess, when I experienced an epiphanic moment. For a handful of minutes, a vision of sorts flashed in my mind, where I was a therapist sitting in a chair in a quiet room and across from me was a patient. I asked the patient to contemplate the most precious commodity humans possess: time. I told this client that they needed to feel the anxiety of time and to deliberate long and deeply about how they were going to spend the remainder of their time in life. I then turned to an hourglass sitting on a table, turned it over and asked the patient to feel the grains of sand fall from the top and pile at the bottom.

While I have been a student of existentialist philsophy for a number of years, I gained a deeper appreciation for it in this course. In this essay, I’ll focus on three lessons I learned from this class. The first is the pressing urgency of time in the context of living authentically. After having learned of the importance of existence preceding essence, I feel more keenly the need to use my time toward my own “meaning-giving project” (Crowell). Did my boredom in India lead to that epiphany which caused me to consider my own grains of sand? The second lesson I learned from this course was about the need for choice and action on finishing my life project. While the project is en media res, I nonetheless have had a re-kindling of effort to work towards making that creative project into a reality. From Sartre I learned the concept of “bad faith” regarding how being the perpetual dreamer does nothing but whittle away the grains of sand in return for nothing. While dreaming of transcendence is needed, so too is action. The third lesson I learned from this course, via Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, was that I must always create with no expectation of fame, immortality or any type of reward. As Camus writes, “to work and create ‘for nothing’ … this is the difficult wisdom that the absurd thought sanctions” (Camus 103). The protagonist of the film The Shawshank Redemption fittingly summarizes these three lessons when he said, “get busy living, or get busy dying.”

Did I experience profound boredom in that conference room in India? Possibly. My enlightenment might have been what Heidegger called Augenblick or “a moment of vision” in which I was experiencing such unadulterated dullness that I achieved an awareness of what I am missing in life (Gibbs 602). Indeed, Camus seems to confirm that such moments of brilliant boredom cause one to snap back into existential reality. He writes in Myth of Sisyphus, “Rising, tram, four hours in the office or factory, meal, tram, four hours of work, meal, sleep and one day, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the same rhythm - this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the 'why' arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement” (Camus 19). One scholar has noted the worth of boredom in that “it has specific value in awakening our ability to experience meaningfulness, often through its negation; when bored, we may question meaning or, more precisely, lack of meaning by indifference” (Gibbs 603). For me, in that awakening moment in India, a contrasting vision came to me, in which I found myself “taking a stance on being” and I felt the urgency to make progress on what is meaningful to me (607).

The second pivotal lesson I learned from this course is related to action and making progress on my life project. From Sartre, I learned of the concept of bad faith and more specifically, the bad faith of not acknowledging my facticity and only focusing on my pure transcendence – in other words, only wishing for some possibility but never acting (Flynn 74). Like the woman on a date, in Sartre’s example, to not commit to a choice and action in order to become something (i.e. the woman refusing to admit that she is a body who can enjoy the touch of a man and postponing commitment) is living in bad faith (Anderson 6:07). To live in good faith is to admit to myself that my facticity as a human requires making a choice towards transcendence via focused and diligent work in order to change and make dreams into a reality. Good faith requires choice and action.

The third lesson I learned was more of a reminder of a brutal truth. All too often, our life projects aim at more than existence. We strive for lasting fame, status, power or abundant wealth – to overcome and become more than our circumstances. Indeed, Nietzsche wrote much of this with his concept of will to power. I discussed this idea in one of my essays when I quoted Nietzsche, “What is good?—All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad?—All that proceeds from weakness.  What is happiness?—The feeling that power increases—that a resistance is overcome” (Wilkerson). However, Camus importantly clarifies that we ought not expect anything in return for our efforts. While the notion of the will to power may spur us to action, we must never forget that ultimately our creative project will be buried by space and time.

In a moving passage from The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus explores the challenging question of whether a person can persistently create with no expectations – to create for no reason other than to create. The point demands the full quote be mentioned.

I want to know whether, accepting a life without appeal, one can also agree to work and create without appeal and what is the way leading to these liberties. I want to liberate my universe of its phantoms and to people it solely with flesh and blood truths whose presence I cannot deny. I can perform absurd work, choose the creative attitude rather than another. But an absurd attitude, if it is to remain so, must remain aware of its gratuitousness (Camus 93).

Taking this absurdist attitude is a revolt against our condition. Too many times, people, including myself, feel the utter despair of casting maximum effort into a project or presentation, only to have it briefly acknowledged and then forgotten about. It is tempting, for me, to assume an attitude of: better to have never loved than to have a broken heart. The “higher fidelity” Camus and Sisyphus teaches us is to not only recognize our absurd condition but to also rebel and create projects despite our strange state of being (111). A scene from the film A River Runs Through It captures this attitude nicely.

The father of the protagonist was also the schoolteacher for his sons. The older son (the main character named Norman) was taught how to write well by his father. In the film, Norman muses, “while my friends spent their days at Missoula Elementary, I stayed home and learned to write the American language.” In the scene, Norman writes an essay and then hands the paper to his father. The father reads it, turns to his son and says, “half as long.” Norman returns to the project, labors over the paper and then walks back to his father to have it graded. The father reads it, pauses and says, “Again, half as long.” Norman drags his feet back to his desk and makes additional edits. Again, he appears before his father, who reads the essay. This time, the father judges the essay acceptable and says, “Good, now throw it away.” Normal wads the paper – representing his work, effort and time – and throws it in the trash bin and runs off to go fishing. We must have that same perspective for our projects – work diligently on them but be perfectly willing to let them go when the next adventure calls. This is to create gratuitously.

In conclusion, I’ve gleaned three lessons from this course. The first is the rekindling of pressing urgency with regards to the use of my time toward my own “meaning-giving project” (Crowell). It would seem boredom has played a role in this rekindling. The second lesson I learned was to be aware of “bad faith” on my part, and to choose and act with good faith towards making my creative project into a reality. Lastly, Camus reminded me that the existential absurdist must always create “for nothing” – I must embrace this perspective and brutal truth, knowing full well the benefit is in the creative process, not the enduring creation (Camus 103). Perhaps Nietzsche captures the spirit of urgency, action and the notion of creating for nothing, when he wrote,

the secret of the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously! Build your cities under Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves! Be robbers and conquerors, as long as you cannot be rulers and owners, you lovers of knowledge! Soon the age will be past when you could be satisfied to live like shy deer, hidden in the woods! (Kaufmann 106)

Works Cited

A River Runs through It. Directed by Robert Redford, Columbia Pictures, 1992.

Anderson, Ellie. “Sartre’s Theory of Bad Faith.”, 29 Apr. 2022, Accessed 25 July 2023.

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. 1955. Translated by Justin O’Brien, Penguin Books, 1979.

Crowell, Steven. “Existentialism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).”, 9 June 2020,

Flynn, Thomas R. Existentialism : A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Gibbs, Paul. "The Concept of Profound Boredom: Learning from Moments of Vision." Studies in Philosophy and Education, vol. 30, no. 6, 2011, pp. 601-613. ProQuest,, doi:

Kaufmann, Walter Arnold. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. 1956. New York, Meridian Books, 1960.

The Shawshank Redemption. Directed by Frank Darabont, Columbia Pictures, 1994.

Wilkerson, Dale. “Nietzsche, Friedrich | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Rel 411 - Jean-Paul Sartre: Breaking the Mold, Living Authentically

 Jean-Paul Sartre: Breaking the Mold, Living Authentically

Sartre contends existence precedes essence (Sartre). Coming from a Mormon background, I was taught I pre-existed, which simply meant my essence came before my existence (Marshall 197). From the moment I was born, my essence would be defined by others and God. But after 38 years of living Mormonism, I came to realize I was not living authentically – there was a gap between who I intrinsically felt I was and what others (family, religious leaders, neighbors and peers at work) thought I ought to be. The first step was to accept that my existence came prior to my essence. Afterward, I began to reconcile the gap and unify my psyche. This process has taken several years and is still a work in progress. In brief, I recognized I needed to “radically escape bad faith”, and subsequently I realized I had freedom to take steps to break the mold in which I was raised and to begin to live authentically (Detmer 88).

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or more commonly known as the Mormon church, one of the underlying doctrines of the faith is the concept of pre-existence. This dogma is taught to all members from a very young age, and then reinforced throughout their lives. Members of the religion are taught they are “spirit children” of a “Heavenly Mother and Father” (Marshall 197). Before humans’ physical existence, God had laid out a plan for his children, which included daily activities and various milestone rituals and “practices [which] intricately cross sect members’ physical, temporal, and social planes of existence” (197). This plan for each member is the essence of who they are and what they must become. In other words, each member, assuming they remain in the religious fold, never has a chance, from the beginning of their life, to define what their essence is or will become. In short, in the Mormon faith, essence precedes existence. However, as experienced by myself and thousands of other Mormons, placing essence before existence creates problems. One of Jean-Paul Sartre’s pillars of his existential philosophy is to emphasize that existence precedes essence.

In his well-known lecture entitled “Existentialism is a Humanism” Sartre lays out his argument for placing the recognition of one’s existence before defining one’s essence. He uses an analogy of a creator of a book or paper-knife conceiving those objects in his mind. This conception, in the creator’s mind, is the essence of those objects, and before those objects are produced with physical material, one can claim their essence precedes existence. Applying the analogy to God and humankind, theists, like the Mormons, claim that humanity’s essence was conceived by God prior to humans taking mortal form. However, in all of humanity’s existence, it has collectively never agreed or settled on the definition of God, nor has it found proof of God’s existence. While all discussion on God has been conjecture, what is known to humanity is its own existence – we exist. And even if granted the premise of God’s existence, humanity still lacks access to the mind of God in order to ascertain human essence. Thus, Sartre argues “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards” (Sartre). Given the individual exists first, he is then faced with the prospect of establishing his essence – this is his life project. This project involves blunt honesty with oneself in a perpetual struggle to live with authenticity. To live authentically, one must be on the look-out for “bad faith” actors and paradigms in one’s life.

While the individual’s life project to define his essence remains in flux, he must be alert to outside impositions, self-deceptions and perpetual dreaming with no action (Flynn 72-74). These forms of bad faith span two poles, one which is the “facticity” of the individual and the other is his “transcendence” (74).  Outside imposition (living for others) and self-deception (“dull resignation to one’s fate”) fall under the form of bad faith of facticity, while perpetual dreaming with no action falls under the form of bad faith stemming from transcendence (73).

For me, having been raised in the Mormon faith, I realized I was suffering from bad faith in the form of facticity.  My religious leaders, parents, friends and neighbors sought to impose a specific role on me. They made demands of my life and argued it was my duty and obligation to be Mormon. In a similar vein, Sartre uses an example of “service industry” roles “which [demand] of all persons in the service industry that they give up their status as autonomous human beings and exhaust themselves utterly in serving their social function” (Detmer 79). The other form of bad faith from the facticity pole is resigning oneself to his fate – a lazy argument, in a sense. All too easy for me, and a line of thinking I continually battle today, is to lie to myself by leveraging any and all stories which are “selective and slanted” toward what I think I cannot change about myself (Detmer 81). Overcoming this form of bad faith, for me, is to constantly battle the Mormon “autopilot” programming of my first 38 years of existence (Marshall 205).

The other form of bad faith I must fight is that of “the dreamer” (Flynn 74). Having left the Mormon faith, I was left with a new-found freedom to make myself who I wished and intended to be. Through the course of the last several years, I have dreamed of becoming either a teacher of philosophy, a life coach or a psychoanalyst, despite the fact that I’ve worked in the Information Technology field for over twenty years. While I am prone to making plans and dreaming, I must overcome this bad faith and work towards making those dreams into a reality. While working towards a degree in philosophy is a good first step, I must continue to define my essence as someone who is knowledgeable in philosophy, psychology and their application towards helping others overcome bad faith and define their own essence.

Living authentically means maintaining a tension between the two poles and not “insisting [life is about] either transcendence or facticity” (Flynn 74). Authentic living must emphasize and rely on freedom.  Sartre notes, “the actions of men of good faith have, as their ultimate significance, the quest for freedom itself” (Detmer 138). This simply means that I have the power and the duty to choose who I will be as an individual. I can no longer throw my hands in the air, pointing to God or my religion or any other fact of my existence, and blame them for who I am. Nor can I admire my dreams of who I think I should be, while never acting on them. Indeed, my existential freedom demands I accept my circumstances – my facticity – and to prod myself towards the future by exerting my freedom and will – my transcendence. Between these two poles, “living authentically involves living without regret” (Cox 138). Lastly, living authentically is not a one-and-done choice, rather it is a constant re-commitment through an ever-evolving life. “Authenticity is the continued task of choosing responses that affirm freedom and responsibility … [and] continually resisting the slide into bad faith that threatens every project” (139). It is simply not falling into another pre-defined mold.

In conclusion, Sartre contends existence precedes essence, which frees the individual to life authentically. Living authentically is keeping oneself ever wary of falling into bad faith. The project of life, like a jazz song, jibs, jives and riffs and is ever moving. Sartre’s character in Nausea comes to this realization: “what summits would I not reach if my own life were the subject of the melody?” (Golomb 145). The aim of life is not reaching a destination, but rather one of breaking the mold and creatively improvising off one’s circumstances.

Works Cited

Cox, Gary. Sartre: A Guide for the Perplexed, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2006. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Detmer, David. Sartre Explained : From Bad Faith to Authenticity, Open Court, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Flynn, Thomas R. Existentialism : A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Golomb, Jacob. In Search of Authenticity : Existentialism from Kierkegaard to Camus, Taylor & Francis Group, 1995. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Marshall, E. Brooks "The Disenchanted Self: Anthropological Notes on Existential Distress and Ontological Insecurity among Ex-Mormons in Utah." Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, vol. 44, no. 2, 2020, pp. 193-213. ProQuest,, doi:

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism Is a Humanism, 1946.”, 2019,

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Phil 320 (Environmental Philosophy) - Piousness as a Deep Ecology Solution to Environmental Challenges

 Piousness as a Deep Ecology Solution to Environmental Challenges

Considering roughly one third of the world is Christian and another fourth is either Muslim or Hindu, one can argue that the majority of the world's multi-billion population is religious (Johnson, Grim 10). And given that individual beliefs yield ethics, one could argue that finding ways in which "the role religion could play as an element in solving current environmental problems" is worthy of discussion and implementation inasmuch as it could be applied to 60% of the world's population (Jackson 11).

Arne Næss – founder of deep ecology philosophy – contends that many who support the deep ecology mindset are "partly motivated by basic philosophical or religious premises and feel that all living beings have intrinsic value” (Næss 239). He further relates this religious premise to the God described by Spinoza. And given this piousness or the love of God as a starting point, one may secure for himself a deep foundation from which he builds a strong belief system which is further tied to love of self and others, including all beings and ecosystems. From this belief system, one’s ethics can be applied in several ways.

One case study from India demonstrates how a religion "emphasizes the harmony of all religions" which bolsters its mission "to help the impoverished populations of India through education, medical service, and helping small villages in the field of rural development" (Jackson 21). While its mission does not directly focus on the environment, its efforts often "co-laterally help the environment" (21). Connecting piousness as a way of life to holistic environmental solutions shows how deep ecology thinking can be applied in a broad-ranging and impactful way throughout the religious world.

The basic premise of deep ecology stems from a reaction to what Næss called the “shallow ecology movement” whose objective was to “fight against pollution and resource depletion” which essentially benefited “the health and affluence of people in developed countries” (Brennan and Lo). Deep ecology, on the other hand, sought to shift the focus away from an anthropomorphic view to an ecocentric and biocentric emphasis, whereby it recognizes the intrinsic value of all living beings and ecosystems. The “deep” aspect of the deep ecology movement is precisely about removing the anthropomorphic view of humans and placing them in a perspective of interconnectedness with all things in the world. The philosophy “asks deeper questions about the place of human life” and strives to enlighten humans to conceive of themselves “as integral threads in the fabric of life” rather than agents endeavoring to dominate the world (Bhandari 810). While Næss took great efforts to explain his philosophy, he simplified his philsophy with what he called the Apron diagram with its four levels, with one of those levels being the 8 point deep ecology platform.

In sum, the Apron diagram is a four-level framework for organizing a discussion around premises, principles, policies and actions. Level 1 represents foundational “ultimate premises, worldviews, and ecosophies” (Næss 107). It is at this level where discussions around God, ontology and other aspects of the aim of life are discussed. Level 2 covers the eight-point deep ecology platform. The first five points emphasize the flourishing of all life and some delineation of human behaviors including the “substantial decrease of the human population” (111). The remaining three points highlight the need for changes in “economic, technological, and ideological structures” and policies which would place a greater emphasis on “life quality” as opposed to increased standards of living (111-112). Given this platform, one then derives “normative or factual hypothesis and polices” at level 3. And from these hypotheses and policies one can ultimately derive “particular rules, decisions, and actions” found at level 4 (107). Returning to level 1 of the diagram, Næss discovered a rich heritage in the ideas on God from Baruch Spinoza.

Næss succinctly explains the essence of Spinoza’s God when he discusses God as “complete” in that God is both “the creative and the created” (Næss 236-237). Spinoza viewed God as one whole. He argued God is “infinite … (self-caused), [and a] unique substance of the universe” and that God is this substance, and all else that exists in the universe is in God (Nadler, “Baruch Spinoza (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)”). Since everything is God, humans and objects in the cosmos are simply modes or affections (Benedictus De Spinoza et al., Ethics, Part 1, proposition 15). Næss later observes God is creativity “intimately interrelated … by particular beings” which have intrinsic value (Næss 238). He notes that “it makes sense to care for these beings for their own sake, as creative beings” (239). The Stoics’ concept of God or Nature was not unlike that of Spinoza. One prominent Stoic, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote, 

“All things are interwoven, and the bond that unites them is sacred, and hardly anything is alien to any other thing, for they have been ranged together and are jointly ordered to form a common universe. For there is one universe made up of all that is, and one god who pervades all things, and one substance and one law, and one reason common to all intelligent creatures, and one truth” (Book 7, chapter 9).

From these fundamental, deep beliefs, one can derive principles and lived ethics.

If an individual views himself as a part of the Whole – a part of God – then one can not only derive a sense of self-love, but a sense of love for all beings, creatures and entities in the world. Næss observes “love of the immanent God is love of God’s expressions, not of a separable God. A being expresses God’s nature or essence; therefore, love of God cannot be different from love of such a being” (Næss 240). In the caring crossfire of the Whole loving its seemingly infinite parts, one begins to lose the sense of self-distinctiveness and pivots to a paradigm of identifying “I” with “all.” And if the “I” is lost in the “all” then individual actions are only self-serving to all. Returning to Marcus Aurelius, he noted a similar sentiment: “What brings no benefit to the hive brings none to the bee” (Book 6, chapter 54). In sum, piousness towards the Whole produces sound ethics for all.

One Indian religion’s ideology is similar to what Næss encouraged: things, including religions, are part of the Whole and are unified. The religion’s paradigm of “the unity of all religions” is further exemplified with its mission: “to work in service to man and to God” through “education, medical service” and the development of small rural villages (Jackson 21). Two projects which helped develop the villages were an electrification project and a land shaping project.

For the electrification project, the villages usually depended on gas generators for their electrical needs. To secure renewable sources of energy, the mission contracted electricians and engineering experts to procure and install “hundreds of solar home power units” (22). For the land shaping project, the goal was to increase agricultural efficiency while minimizing deforestation. By shaping the land and creating a system of “ponds and uplands” the village saw a 50% increase in crops and wider access to fisheries, thus reducing illegal hunting (22).

When the head monk of the mission was queried about these “environmental projects” he was perplexed (22).  The monk did not see these projects as solely benefiting the environment, but rather he was motivated “to work for one's own salvation, and for the welfare of the world” or in other words to “work for the greater good of humanity in order to better one’s own karma” which in turn is viewed as “honoring God” (23). In sum, this mission and the monk who leads it, did not simply isolate piousness and environmental sustainability, rather, they saw all things interconnected working in a unified effort to help themselves, others and to honor God.

While the vast majority of the world is religious, there is a growing number of populations which are leaning agnostic or atheist (Sherman). Is piousness applicable to this segment of the world? If one applies a traditional religious view of an anthropomorphic God, they may not think piousness is necessarily a good thing. And this is why, perhaps, Næss and the aforementioned Indian religion advocate for a wider pious paradigm. If one can imagine God as all-things, and focus on the interconnectedness of all things, then perhaps one may secure an all-encompassing piousness – an intellectual love of God.

In review, given most of the world’s population is pious, the philsophy of deep ecology can leverage this fundamental premise to form broad coalitions of beliefs across many religions, such as that which the mentioned Indian religion strives for. These coalitions in piousness can then be leveraged to institutionalize best practices which support ecological sustainment in developing countries, such as India. In brief, perhaps all we really do need is love, or as Spinoza wrote, “God’s love of men and the mind’s intellectual love of God are one and the same” (Nadler, Spinoza’s Ethics : An Introduction 273).

Works Cited

Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. Translated by Robin Hard, Oxford University Press, 2011.

Benedictus De Spinoza, et al. Complete Works. Hackett Pub, 2002.

Bhandari, Rupsingh. “Deep Ecological Consciousness and Interconnectedness in William Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey.” Technium Social Sciences Journal, vol. 27, no. 27, Jan. 2022, pp. 808–14, Accessed 3 Mar. 2022.

Brennan, Andrew, and Yeuk-Sze Lo. “Environmental Ethics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).”, 3 Dec. 2021,

Jackson, Timothy, and Ba Bs. Deep Ecology in Action: A Cross-Cultural Series of Case Studies on the Conservation Efforts of Monks and Religious Leaders in India, Mongolia, and Thailand. 2009,

Johnson, Todd M., and Brian J. Grim. The World's Religions in Figures : An Introduction to International Religious Demography, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Nadler, Steven M. “Baruch Spinoza (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).”, 2016,

---. Spinoza’s Ethics : An Introduction. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009.

Næss, Arne. Ecology of Wisdom : Writings by Arne Naess. Edited by Alan R Drengson and Bill Devall, Counterpoint, 2010.

Sherman, Bill. "Report: Atheism Rate Growing Worldwide." McClatchy - Tribune Business News, Aug 25, 2012. ProQuest,

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Rel 411: Friedrich Nietzsche: Saying, “yes, yes!, YES!!” to Your Life

Friedrich Nietzsche: Saying, “yes, yes!, YES!!” to Your Life

Toti se inserens mundo” is how Seneca described someone who lives life to its fullest (Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales Letter 66). Pierre Hadot analyzed this passage from Seneca and translated this phrase as “plunging oneself into the totality of the world” which meant “to go beyond the self, and think and act in unison with universal reason” (Hadot 207-208). In a sense, this is a challenge and a call to the individual who would strive in life, to feel the anxiety and challenge of living the best life he can, and not be timid, but “out of joy [plunges his soul] into chance” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra 167). Nietzsche contends that this striving to overcome all is at the root of every human’s desire and is the will to power. He further offers a tantalizing thought experiment, known as the eternal recurrence, which the individual can use to spur himself to constantly question if he is living the best life. If the individual can exclaim “yes” to his fate and his challenges in life, time and time again, then he is overcoming all and exerting his will to power. As Nietzsche writes in The Gay Science, “all in all and on the whole: some day I want only to be a Yes-sayer!” (157).

The concept of the will to power certainly is varied and complex. But there is one thread which is woven throughout Nietzsche’s works: the power to overcome – to exert one’s will. One scholar of Nietzschean philosophy cites The Anti-Christ in explaining what is good or bad in Nietzsche’s philosophy. “What is good?—All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad?—All that proceeds from weakness.  What is happiness?—The feeling that power increases—that a resistance is overcome.” (Wilkerson).

The author further explains that exerting one’s will to overcome is as much an effort at self-mastery and is a matter of who the individual obeys and to whom he listens. If one can command oneself, then one exerts his will to power (Wilkerson). This concept of self-mastery is further bolstered by Nietzsche’s ideas on “strict schooling at the proper time” (Nietzsche The Will to Power 516). He is a proponent of a strict education, but also notes that without it, some men are still fortunate to have the school of hard knocks teach them in “the form of a long, lingering illness, which demands the utmost will-power and self-sufficiency; or in the form of a calamity which suddenly befalls him and his wife and child at the same time, forcing him to take action in such a way as to restore his energy and resilience, strengthening his 'moral' fibre and his will to live” (516). In sum, the common theme in the will to power is the idea of the individual assuming radical self-discipline, “to be capable at any time of taking the lead; to prefer danger to comfort,” to say “yes” to any trial or challenge life throws at him and to be the one who both commands himself and obeys himself (516). And while the individual’s will to power relies on self-mastery, one must also recognize his place in the world, a place which Nietzsche calls “a monster of energy, without beginning or end” (585).

This world, according to Nietzsche, waxes and wanes and is “forever changing, forever rolling back, with enormous periods of recurrence” and eternally self-creates and self-destroys and “has no aim if it does not lie in the happiness of the circle” (585). He concludes this passage by explicitly stating “This world is the will to power – and nothing besides! And even you yourselves are this will to power – and nothing besides!” (586). The eternal recurrence is another topic intertwined throughout Nietzsche’s philosophy. In the preceding passage, he connects the idea of the will to power for the individual with the will to power for the world. On another occasion, he uses the idea of eternal recurrence to prod the individual to question whether he is using his will to power to create the best life possible for himself.

Nietzsche describes the “idea of eternal recurrence” as “the highest formula of affirmation that can possibly be attained” (Stolz 188). As described in The Gay Science, he asks the reader to imagine a demon confronting him with the proposition of living his life repeatedly for eternity, in all aspects – “every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great … in the same succession and sequence” (Nietzsche 194). What would his reaction be? Would he exclaim “Yes!” or would he be “crushed” by the thought (194)? The experiment and one’s reaction to it is meant to spur one to action and evaluate their state of life to the point of affirming they love their life or to the point of making profound changes.

The thought experiment of eternal recurrence is meant to be “the great cultivating thought” which reveals “’what one is’ now (being), and who they could become (becoming)” (Stolz 192). It is meant to be a “weapon” or “hammer” to crack open the shell of the individual raised in “the herd animal status quo” and prompts them to “become strong in character through the revaluation of all values” (192, 197, 193). Much of this work ought to be developed “in a state of solitude” precisely in order to unlearn what one has been taught in school systems and colleges or “sites of student conformity into animal consciousness” (196, 198). Furthermore, as one repeats this thought experiment often through their life, they must apply discerning self-inspection, heeding how they feel about their character, and then committing to discard undesirable qualities and vowing to enhance those they wish to strengthen (195). Through a life-long process, their life becomes a “singular work of immortal art” as a “plan to express their superiority” (194). Their lived philosophy turns into a “YES!!” in response to fate.

In conclusion, Nietzsche contends that striving to overcome all is at the root of every human’s desire and is the will to power. He further offers a provocative thought experiment, known as the eternal recurrence, with which the individual spurs himself to constantly question if he is living the best life. If the individual can exclaim “yes” to his fate and his challenges in life, time and time again, then he is overcoming all and exerting his will to power. He can confidently judge his life thus: 

“Have you ever said Yes to one joy? Oh my friends, then you also said Yes to all pain. All things are enchained, entwined, enamored -

– if you ever wanted one time two times, if you ever said ‘I like you, happiness! Whoosh! Moment!’ then you wanted everything back! 

– Everything anew, everything eternal, everything enchained, entwined, enamored, oh thus you loved the world – 

– you eternal ones, love it eternally and for all time; and say to pain also: refrain, but come back! For all joy wants – eternity!” (Nietzsche Thus Spoke Zarathustra 263). 

Works Cited

Hadot, Pierre. Philosophy as a Way of Life : Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Edited by Arnold I Davidson, Translated by Michael Chase, Blackwell Publishing, 2017.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Edited by Bernard Williams, Translated by Josefine Nauckhoff, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

---. The Will to Power : Selections from the Notebooks of the 1880s. Translated by R Kevin Hill and Michael A Scarpitti, Penguin Books, 2017.

--. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Translated by Adrian Del Caro, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Seneca. “Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales.” (PhiloLogic4), University of Chicago, Accessed 17 June 2023.

Stolz, Steven A. “Nietzsche, Eternal Recurrence and Education: The Role of the Great Cultivating Thought in the Art of Self‐Cultivation (Bildung).” Journal of Philosophy of Education, vol. 55, no. 1, 2021, pp. 186–203,

Wilkerson, Dale. “Nietzsche, Friedrich | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Rel 411: Nietzsche on Slave Morality and Herd Mentality

To understand slave morality, one must understand master morality.

Master morality begins with an aristocrat (someone who possesses power in the form of hereditary monarchy or someone who is in power in government or wealth) and he sees himself as "noble, powerful, and strong" (Kirwin). Thus being in power, possessing nobility, power and strength, is defined as "good" in the master morality code of ethics.  The "bad" of master morality is anything low-class found among the "ill-born masses" (Kirwin).

Slave morality is a reaction against master morality; Nietzsche calls it a "slave revolt in morality" (Lanier). Based in religion, priests lead the revolt and call anything "evil" which the master morality calls "good." And what is "good" in the slave morality is "meek, mild, and servile—qualities which the slave class possess of necessity, but which they now cast as the products of their own free choice" (Kirwin). As a result, the so-called goods of the world (i.e. power, wealth, authority) are not to be obtained in this life, but that ultimate justice will be attained for the slaves in the after-life (Kirwin). What is preached in slave morality is "those who suffer and are oppressed on earth will receive their reward in heaven, while the evil masters will face an eternity of punishment in hell" (Kirwin).

Related to slave morality is herd mentality.  To understand herd mentality, one must understand the two different types of beings Nietzsche categorized: "the higher human beings" and "those who belong to the herd" (Academy of Ideas). The higher human beings strive for creativity and have a "unifying life project" which effects will be felt by humankind long after the higher human being passes away. This creativity and independence of the higher human being demands solitude from the herd.

The individuals of the herd seek "only comfort and contentment" (Academy of Ideas). Parts of the herd also retain a strong resentment of the higher human beings. They are envious of the higher human beings and instead of using that envy to better themselves, they seek to tear down the higher human beings. One form of tearing down the higher human beings is the concept of slave morality, as described above.

Works cited

Academy of Ideas. “Nietzsche and Morality: The Higher Man and the Herd.”, 30 Jan. 2017, Accessed 30 Mar. 2022.

Kirwin, Claire. “Nietzsche’s Ethics | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Lanier, Anderson R. “Friedrich Nietzsche (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).”, 17 Mar. 2017,

p.s. I though the Academy of Ideas video was so good, I've embedded it here below - it's worth the 13 minutes of time!

Feedback from professor Dr. Achilles Gacis:

Moral reasoning, for Nietzsche, in western cultures is infused with Christian morality which he postulates is inspired by deep resentment from when the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt. When Nietzsche talks about “morality” he is ​referring to Judeo-Christian morality because that​ is the dominant sense of morality in 19th century ​Europe at the time.​ Since we are all trying to assert ourselves in the world, Nietzsche thinks that Judeo-Christian morality is also a “will to power” in much the same way.​ Nietzsche wants to understand the history of morality and how terms like good and evil emerged. ​

On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche​ draws an analogy. This is how “morality” begins:​

That the lambs dislike the birds of prey does not seem strange: only it gives no ground for reproaching these birds of prey for bearing off little lambs. And if the lambs say among themselves, "These birds of prey are evil, and he who is least like a birds of prey, who is rather its opposite, a lamb,— would he not be good?" There is no reason to find fault with this institution of an ideal, except perhaps that the birds of prey might find it a little ironically and say "We don’t dislike them at all, these good lambs, we even love them: nothing is more tasty than a tender lamb."

By way of analogy, just like the lambs, Judeo-Christian morality is born out of resentment - a desire to enact revenge on the predators, but an inability to directly do so. So they psychological revenge in the form of morality. That's certainly one way to assert one's will-to-power, and Nietzsche admires this clever move.

Nietzsche’s point is that if you were a lamb you could imagine and probably even want a different moral universe. Getting killed by a bird of prey isn’t preferable! But now imagine the moral view of the birds of prey. It seems unlikely that predators would want or even need to imagine a moral universe. They are, after all, just doing what wolves do. Life as a predator is what it is. They don’t dislike the lambs, they are just living out the will-to-power.

The lambs, however, have a very good reason to want a different moral universe. For starters, a world where lambs can just be lambs without having to worry about predators all the time. But since the lambs can’t physically confront the situation the only option is a psychological shift. ​By convincing the birds of prey that predatory behavior was bad wrong, perhaps they’d stop feeding on lambs. But that’s pretty unlikely at this stage, so another option is to convince yourself and other lambs that predator-like behavior is bad and evil. ​This would by default, then show the lambs to be good and moral. Why?  Because they aren’t acting like predators.​ Suddenly, the life of a lamb has much more meaning and worth because they are moral and righteous.​ This, according to Nietzsche, is where the genealogical roots of Christian morality begins.  

Nietzsche is critical of this form of morality because it’s particularly pernicious. It’s pernicious mainly because we are no longer slaves like the ancient Hebrews, and so there’s no need for this type of ‘ressentiment.’ Most importantly, resentment-based morality lacks the capacity for growth and creativity because it’s essential form is to simply be *against* things rather than standing for any particular affirmative values. 

Nietzsche also seems to be stating something about how our moral frameworks embody values themselves. This turns the idea that our morals come from values on its head. Nietzsche thinks some moral frameworks are healthier than others, more capable of being "life affirming" than others.

In this way too, Nietzsche is challenging the idea that moral reasoning can be purely rational and objective in applying moral principles.

Monday, June 12, 2023

Rel 411: Finite and the Infinite

The finite and the infinite are two views of the self.  According to Kierkegaard, the aim is to not be stuck in the finite nor admiring ad nauseum the possibilities of the infinite.  One must find a way to make oneself "concrete" by combining the two. As he writes in The Sickness Unto Death, "The self is the conscious synthesis of infinitude and finitude which relates itself to itself, whose task is to become itself, a task which can be performed only by means of a relationship to God. But to become oneself is to become concrete. But to become concrete means neither to become finite nor infinite, for that which is to become concrete is a synthesis" (chapter 3).

He describes the finite as "narrow-minded and mean-spirited" (chapter 3). To live this way is to be silent in the day-to-day drudgery of life. His colorful language describes a man's will as virtually non-existent and one which dare not cast its gaze into the abyss of infinite possibilities.  He writes of the finite existence: "precisely by losing his self in this way, [he] has gained perfectibility in adjusting himself to business, yea, in making a success in the world. Here there is no hindrance, no difficulty, occasioned by his self and his infinitization, he is ground smooth as a pebble" (chapter 3). To be stuck in the finite is to go about business as usual and don't cause any waves which might cause difficulties. The finite is a life which "occasions no embarrassment but makes one’s life easy and comfortable" (chapter 3).

The infinite, on the other hand is unlimited imagination.  Kierkegaard writes, "The fantastical is doubtless most closely related to fantasy, imagination, but imagination in turn is related to feeling, knowledge, and will, so that a person may have a fantastic feeling, or knowledge, or will. Generally speaking, imagination is the medium of the process of infinitizing entranced by the, wild, endless possibilities" (chapter 3).  While thrilling, one can become dizzy and distracted about all the things he could do. And if he spends all his time in imagination, he will forget to live and strive to make any of these possibilities a reality.

The aim, therefore, is to "synthesize" the two into the "concrete." In other words, one must choose from the infinite possibilities and escape the silent business-as-usual life and then make that possibility into a reality. He writes, "The man’s concrete self, or his concretion, has in fact necessity and limitations, it is this perfectly definite thing, with these faculties, dispositions, etc." (chapter 3).

Work cited

Kierkegaard, Sören. “The Sickness unto Death – Religion Online.” Religion Online, Princeton University Press, 1941, Accessed 12 June 2023.

reply from Dr. Achilles Gacis:

It’s easy to see how Kierkegaard's existential philosophy is influenced by Socrates and the idea of the examined life.

As an existentialist, Kierkegaard sees the primary problem of philosophy the problem of being... the problem of being human. Kierkegaard thinks that the tools of philosophy are important not so much for knowledge in general, but for sorting out how to be, how to live one's life. The descriptives offered by Soren are indeed eloquent, yet articulation and terminology is limited when it comes to experiential and even subjective knowledge that is sought after in the spiritual and/or holistic.           

If we look at Kierkegaard as the created (human) questioning the creator (God) as God being the author of being, then where does any notion of “free will” and “self-determination” come in? How fulfilled can one be merely using their own consciousness? How can the created that operates within a finite dimension define the creator, who is infinite and without limitation? 

One can delve further, but this is not an exercise to invalidate Kierkegaard but just to understand how we can maximize our own approach of a holistic existentialism.

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Phil 416: Søren Kierkegaard: Confronting “the Possibility of Freedom”

Søren Kierkegaard: Confronting “the Possibility of Freedom”

The starving, young boy, Michael Kierkegaard, was watching over sheep in the bitter cold. He must have resented his lot in life, and in a defiant act “stood on a hilltop and cursed God” (Carlisle). However, he would regret this act and come to believe that in response to his impiousness, God had cursed him and would take “the lives of all seven of his children before they reached the age of 34 (the age of Jesus Christ at his crucifixion)” (McDonald). All but two of his children (Peter and Søren) indeed died before the age of 34. Being fully aware of this perceived curse, Søren Kierkegaard’s own anxiety would strike him like a whip and drive him, from a young age, to find his purpose in life and become accomplished, before the age of 34 (McDonald). While many people may not be anxiously pursued by a perceived god-curse, they still suffer a similar angst in endeavoring to understand their place in life. Thankfully because of Søren Kierkegaard’s suffering and his quest to be the Christian Socrates, those who read his works may find answers in their pursuit to grow through anxiety and onward to the “possibility of freedom” (Kierkegaard 196).

Born on May 5, 1813, in Copenhagen, Kierkegaard’s unease grew strong as a young boy. He “looked up at his stern father with fear and trembling,” and one time he observed “the anxiety with which my father filled my soul, his own frightful melancholy, the many things in this connection that I cannot even write down” (Carlisle). By the age of 17, he entered the university at Copenhagen, and for the next eleven years would laboriously study, anxiously seek his meaning in life, waffle back and forth with marriage and then finally defend his dissertation in 1841 (McDonald). It was during these years his anxiety deepened, especially regarding his securing his true aim in life. He wrote,

What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth that is true for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die” (Carlisle).

In the final year of university, he proposed to Regine Olsen, and she consented. However, in his search to find his purpose in life, he came to realize that he could not marry Regine. While there appears to be no explicit reason for backing out of the proposal, there does seem to be some indication that the calling of becoming “the Socrates of Christendom” had a stronger sway on him, and in that role, he could “not subject Regine” to the life of his “philosophical task” (Carlisle).

For the next fourteen years until his death on November 11, 1855, Kierkegaard would write profusely and leverage various writing methods such as pseudonyms, “irony, parody, satire, humor, and deconstructive techniques” in order to awaken Christians out of their intellectual ruts and routines (McDonald). Like an unremitting horsefly, Kierkegaard “constantly [irritated] his contemporaries with discomforting thoughts” to force them “to take individual responsibility for knowing who they are and for knowing where they stand on the existential, ethical and religious issues” (McDonald). This discomfort was the initial stage of prodding his readers and fellow-Christians into a state of anxiety.

Anxiety is the soil for growth and possibility. “Kierkegaard sees man as the creature who is continually beckoned by possibility, who conceives of possibility, visualizes it, and by creative activity carries it into actuality” (May 39). In this mindset of possibility, man experiences more anxiety. But in order to achieve freedom, the individual must “confront that anxiety and move ahead despite it” (41). Yet in that moment of intending to “move ahead,” the individual “at the same time wishes not” to move ahead (42). The choice to press on is the hallmark of a healthy individual, while the unhealthy person remains “shut-in” (42). Another obstacle for a person to overcome is the “belief in fate” (44).

Regarding fate, Kierkegaard wrote that it “is the unity of necessity and the accidental” (Kierkegaard 96). Consequently, when one accepts the belief of fate, “the full meaning of anxiety and guilt are not felt” (May 44). And because of the lack of anxiety, “fate sets limits on creativity” and for the “creative genius” to attain success, he must move “through anxiety and guilt” (44). Indeed, one must embrace the anxiety one feels and treat it like a painful prescription from a doctor.

By having an open mind and welcoming possibilities, one must view anxiety as medical treatment that is painful. To achieve what one imagines, one must pay the price to be healed. This dreadful remedy reveals to him his existence, and his “human situation … [and] the fact of death” (46). However, one must not shirk the procedure. Kierkegaard reminds us to be like Socrates, who, when faced with the hemlock did so “as a patient [who] says to the surgeon when a painful operation is about to begin, ‘Now I am ready.’ Then anxiety enters his soul and searches it thoroughly, constraining out of him all the finite and petty, and leading him hence whither he would go” (46).

In conclusion, Kierkegaard’s life, from his childhood to his lived experience, to his voluminous writings, was a life of educational angst. While his father and his momentary fiancé provided him much consternation, he nonetheless confronted these and all his anxieties – including searching and securing his true aim in life: becoming the Christian Socrates. Once secure in his unique objective in life, he leveraged many techniques to induce discomfort and anxiety in his readers. And if his readers embrace this anxiety, as did Kierkegaard, then their obstacle becomes the path toward the possibility of freedom and meaning. In sum, anxiety is “an adventure that every human being must go through – to learn to be anxious so that he may not perish either by never having been in anxiety, or by succumbing in anxiety” (Kierkegaard 155). 

Works Cited

Carlisle, Clare. Philosopher of the Heart. E-book ed., Penguin UK, 2019.

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Concept of Anxiety : A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin. Translated by Reidar Thomte and Albert Anderson, Princeton University Press, 1980.

May, Ph.D., Rollo. The Meaning Of Anxiety, Hauraki Publishing, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central,

McDonald, William. “Søren Kierkegaard (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).”, 2017,

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Phil 416 - The Absurd Mission

The Absurd Mission

In his seminal work The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus quotes the Dostoevsky character Kirilov who ruminates on the idea that upon dying Christ “did not find himself in Paradise” and that his life, suffering and torture “had been useless” (Camus 98). Kirilov ponders a Christ who lived “in the midst of falsehood and [died] for a falsehood” (98). Camus commentates that Jesus in this situation is “the complete man” since he is in “the most absurd condition” (98). Three men, from the 1750s living in the south American region near Iguazu Falls, found themselves in a similar situation, where they devoted and gave their lives to helping the Guarani natives, knowing full well they would receive no recompense and perhaps knowing their work would be useless. From the idea of men working consciously knowing their labors could be fruitless, to the moment the Guarani king, in exasperation, realizes the absurdity of God changing his mind, The Mission demonstrates what living an existentially absurd life may look like. To begin, one must ask: what is absurdism?

One can almost hear a boxing match announcer, with a loud, reverberating voice exclaim, “in the left corner, riled up, energized and ready to rumble, we have The Human Condition, seeking to secure and explain the meaning of human existence. And in the right corner …” The announcer falls silent as there is no opponent. This paradox of humanity’s “impulse to ask ultimate questions and the impossibility of achieving any adequate answer” is what Camus calls “the absurd” (Aronson). As a result of this bizarre position, the human comes to feel “weariness, anxiety, strangeness, nausea, and horror in the face of one’s mortality” (Pölzler). What is one to do in this illogical predicament? Camus declares there are three options: suicide, hope, or revolt. Immediate escape from this paradox in the form of suicide is at least understandable. Hope or taking a “leap” is simply delaying the inevitable, in that the human seeks rational meaning in God or some transcendence but will ultimately never secure it (Camus 43). The third option encapsulates the heart of absurdism. Revolt is to accept the meaninglessness. Revolt is 

to work and create 'for nothing', to sculpture in clay, to know that one's creation has no future, to see one's work destroyed in a day while being aware that, fundamentally, this has no more importance than building for centuries - this is the difficult wisdom that absurd thought sanctions” (103). 

Much like Sisyphus pushing a rock uphill, to have that effort support nothing, and to perform the task again, happily, is to live the absurd; to be present and live despite meaninglessness. The 1986 film entitled The Mission features hallmarks of Camus’ absurdist philsophy.

The Mission is a historically factual movie occuring in the 1750s near modern-day Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. It follows the fate of a Jesuit priest named Father Gabriel who climbs Iguazu Falls to convert the Guarani to Christianity after they tie a Jesuit missionary to a wooden cross and send him down the falls, to his death. While working with the Guarani, Father Gabriel encounters a Spanish mercenary named Rodrigo Mendoza, who enslaved and murdered many Guarani. Mendoza descends the falls with many slaves. Upon returning to the city, his fiancé, Carlotta, breaks off their engagement in order to be with Mendoza’s brother. After catching his brother and former fiancé in bed, Mendoza kills his brother in a jealous outrage. Starving himself out of depression, Mendoza is convinced by Father Gabriel to join him as a form of penance. Mendoza climbs the falls and begins working to establish the mission. The mission becomes successful in a peaceful Guarani community. However, the Treaty of Madrid is signed, which demands that the Spanish crown take control of the mission’s land. The mission faces two options: leave the land or fight the Spanish army. Father Gabriel believes fighting goes against the principles of Christianity and decides to remain peaceful, even if it means death Mendoza fights. They both die along with many others and the surviving Guarani children escape into the jungles while their parents are enslaved.

Two main illustrations of absurdism in The Mission are: first, the nature of the Jesuits’ work “for nothing,” and second, the “strangeness” the Guarani king experiences when he realizes God had changed his mind and he wonders if the Jesuits are the people who they claim to be (Camus 103, 20).

No part of the movie better exemplifies the nature of absurdism than when Mendoza takes his vows to become a Jesuit. He explicitly promises “to labor and not count the cost and serve with no reward save the doing of [God’s] will” (The Mission 0:49:03- 0:51:00). While Mendoza may seemingly be taking a leap of faith, he is nonetheless conscious that he will work and create with no expectation of remuneration. To quote Camus again, “to work and create 'for nothing' … to know that one's creation has no future, to see one's work destroyed in a day while being aware that” (Camus 103). Ultimately, the work of the Jesuits amounts to nothing. All their labor and service and even their lives are destroyed in a day. After being shot multiple times, Mendoza, in a final effort to seek meaning or even witness a miracle, struggles to remain alive to witness the fate of Father Gabriel. But even the devout Father, along with dozens of Guarani are mowed down by musket fire (1:55:19-1:56:45). One can’t help but wonder if this image of Mendoza dying is what Kirilov imagined when Christ entered paradise realizing he died for a “falsehood” (Camus 98).

The other illustration of the absurd is when the Catholic Cardinal Altamirano, who is deciding the fate of the mission, must adhere to the Treaty of Madrid and informs the Guarani they must abandon the mission. In an intense exchange between the cardinal and the Guarani king, the king explains how the Jesuits taught his people it was God’s will they establish a mission, and now that God is telling them to leave, he does not understand - this makes no sense to the king. He says, “it was the will of God that they came out of the jungle and built the mission” and that they don’t understand why God has changed his mind and that ultimately, they were wrong to trust the church (The Mission 1:20:56-1:25:00). God’s rationale is odd to the Guarani and thus is indicative of someone experiencing the early stages of the absurd – grasping “that strangeness of the world” (Camus 20).

In conclusion, while we may never know the true intentions and conscious choices of Father Gabrial and Mendoza, we can observe absurdism illustrated in the film The Mission. From the concept of men working consciously knowing their labors could be and are fruitless, to the king’s moment of realization of the strangeness of the world, The Mission demonstrates what living an existentially absurd life may look like: living a life of “higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks” or in other words, to revolt against the absurd and live in a meaningless universe (Camus 111). 

Works Cited

Aronson, Ronald. “Albert Camus.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011,

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. 1955. Translated by Justin O’Brien, Penguin Books, 1979.

Pölzler, Thomas. "Camus’ Feeling of the Absurd." Journal of Value Inquiry, vol. 52, no. 4, 2018, pp. 477-490. ProQuest,, doi:

The Mission. Directed by Roland Joffé, Columbia-Cannon-Warner Distributors, 1986.

Sunday, April 9, 2023

Phil 416 - Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic in Psychotherapy

Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic in Psychotherapy

Hegel’s three-part, recursive dialectical process provides a framework for explaining the reality of many things. One specific application called, the “master-slave dialectic” elaborates on the individual’s “development of self-consciousness” in terms of desire, recognition and alienation (GIVENS and NUMBERS 200). While this dialectic process may be applied and have practical use in a client-therapist setting, in some cases of therapy it may not be practical given that some psychoanalytic work is not linear and in fact the dialectical process expends more effort for smaller returns (Kronemyer).

The dialectic process is a dialogue or discussion of ideas, between people or even within oneself, which volleys back and forth, and pivots into additional ideas after which the process repeats with subsequent ideas. In each cycle, the first step in the discussion is a proposal or an idea. This introductory idea may be called the thesis or “the moment of the understanding” (Maybee). Following the thesis, the dialogue is met with a reactionary, opposing idea, in which the principal idea is negated. This reaction could be called the antithesis or the “negatively rational moment” (Maybee). However, this second movement does not entirely negate the first, rather it sublates it, which means it “both cancels and preserves” and pushes toward the third moment (Maybee). This third moment is “speculative or positively rational” in which it secures “the unity of the opposition” of the first and second moments and can be termed the synthesis (Maybee). Hegel’s dialectic is usually applied in areas which pertain to the individual or in social environments. One specific example is Hegel’s master-slave dialectic and its application to psychotherapy.

In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the dialectic is used to explain an individual’s “development of self-consciousness” through the ideas of desire and recognition which is “also termed the master-slave dialectic” (GIVENS and NUMBERS 200). In this dialectic, the thesis is desire, as an individual eats and drinks to survive and, in general, yearns for “fulfillment and growth” (200). While pursuing this desire, the individual is confronted by other individuals who also desire the same things, and in this meeting, the individuals seek “interpersonal acknowledgement” and “recognition” (200). The antithesis of desire is recognition, in which the individual moves from self-sustainment “to a struggle to the death for recognition” (205). This conflict metaphorically reaches a pitched battle in which life is risked and one party yields and the other “emerges as the victor” (206). The yielding individual accepts the role of “slave” in order to survive and the victor assumes the role of “master” and “wields power over the slave” (206). Lastly, the synthesis of desire and recognition for the slave evolves into alienation, where the slave is estranged from freedom, and works for the master. Yet in this alienation, the slave “through labor, attains freedom, self-awareness, and the power to transform the natural world” (208).

Practical application of psychotherapy via the master-slave dialectic can be used in each phase of the evolution. One specific application in psychotherapy occurs viz-a-viz recognition and alienation, in which the client suffers “anger, frustration, and self-loathing” in an effort to “obtain recognition from” the therapist (211). While the therapist may be viewed as assuming the role of master, she nevertheless “resists the role” and instead seeks to facilitate the process wherein the client reaches escape velocity and is able to break free of alienation (211). In the client-therapist relationship, the client receives the recognition he desires “without punishment” from the masters of modern society such as “schools, prisons, hospitals, clinics” and “anonymous organizational structures” such as corporations (209, 211). Through recognition the client transforms himself and no longer feels alienated but adapts and discovers new freedoms. This rudimentary example indeed demonstrates the applicability of Hegel’s dialectic to explain some reality in the arena of psychotherapy, however, others disagree that it can be utilized to explain reality, even in this field.

David Kronemyer, who works in the Department of Psychiatry at ULCA noted in a letter to the editor of The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry that Hegel’s dialectic “has proliferated to numerous other contexts, many involving psychiatry; for example, the migration from psychoanalysis to behaviorism to cognitive therapy” (Kronemyer). But at a lower, practical level Kronemyer does not view the dialectic as applicable. For example, while validation of the client may be viewed as the thesis, and the antithesis may be understood as change, he contends “the process of therapy is evolutionary—a ‘random walk’ incorporating (nonexclusively) flexible thinking, adaptive behavior, and emotional awareness” (Kronemyer). In other words, successful therapy often does not always follow the Hegelian dialectic process and is much more haphazard than iterative. And to underscore his point even further, Kronemyer summarizes, “Holding two opposing thoughts in your mind at the same time is far more effortful than holding two complementary ones. Clinicians should divest themselves of the concept of ‘dialectic’ and focus instead on emotional regulation” (Kronemyer).

In conclusion, Hegel’s iterative dialectic process provides a structure for exploring the reality of things. The “master-slave dialectic” is one particular avenue to apply the dialectic especially in the arena of the maturation of the individual’s self-consciousness. The ideas of desire, recognition and alienation provide a construct for the client and therapist to successfully help the client evolve and develop his self-consciousness. While this dialectic method can be applied practically in psychotherapy, other experts in the field do not think it is as applicable, given that psychoanalytic work is not linear. Indeed, the dialectic may lead the client and therapists down paths that ultimately do not address the root of emotional disturbances. 

Works Cited

GIVENS, JOEL, and MEGAN NUMBERS. “Of Human Bondage: The Relevance of Hegel’s Dialectic of Desire and Recognition for Humanistic Counselors.” The Journal of Humanistic Counseling, vol. 55, no. 3, Oct. 2016, pp. 200–14, Accessed 3 Oct. 2019.

Kronemyer, David. “Just What Is ‘Dialectical’ about Dialectical Behavior Therapy?” The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, vol. 78, no. 3, Mar. 2017, pp. e310–10, Accessed 1 May 2019.

Maybee, Julie E. “Hegel’s Dialectics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).”, 2016,

Friday, March 3, 2023

Phil 405 term paper - The Consolation of Stoic Optimism

The Consolation of Stoic Optimism

    A sudden or expected death of a loved one, war, terror attacks, physical assaults, and violent car accidents are types of shocking events which confront individuals at least once in their lifetime (Bonanno, 20). Stoic metaphysics embraces an optimistic view that all events, including the ones listed, will ultimately work out well. However, one of the most prolific modern academics of Stoicism, wondered if this is a problem with the philosophy. After detailing Stoic metaphysics, including the properties of Nature, pneuma, and the philosophy’s optimistic view on providential determinism, A.A. Long mentions “one of the least palatable” characteristics of the philosophy: “trust” in Nature that all is well (170). He goes on to observe the “chilling and insensitive” attitudes of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius which embrace a “faith that all will turn out well in the end” (170). Does a belief in Nature, fate, and that all events will ultimately unfold well help the individual secure a eudaimonic life? Or is this belief inconsiderate and does it minimize the emotions one feels as a result of his fate? With the right perspective, beliefs and attitude, one can achieve a flourishing life regardless of circumstances without necessarily minimizing one’s emotions.

    If one embraces Stoicism’s metaphysical framework, beginning with the concept of pneuma pervading everything through the forces of unity, life, movement and rationality, which logically leads to the idea of Nature or God as one whole, then one can rationally conclude a deterministic fate, in which humans participate in the fate of the Cosmos. Furthermore, despite a deterministic view, at least one research paper offers some evidence that a disbelief in free will can lead to moral behavior and empathy, thus countering the lazy argument (Caspar). One modern day psychologist bolsters this view with arguments from Spinoza and Joseph Wolpe. Therefore, taken as a whole belief system, assuming an optimistic perspective about conjoined fated actions and determinism, humans can flourish and be resilient (live an excellent life) regardless of circumstances and they can even experience a flowing self-determination in the face of any adversity, including death, loss and violent events. Indeed, this has been confirmed by some modern research. Because of their optimism, humans mostly exhibit resilience (Bonanno and Zimmerman). The entire argument, from metaphysical beliefs to determinism, to conjoined fated actions, to obtaining eudaimonia leads to the promise Epictetus gave his students: “[securing a] desire that never fails in its aim, aversion that never falls into what it wants to avoid, motivation that accords with one’s duty, purpose that is carefully weighed, and assent that is not over-hasty” (Discourses 2.8).

    At the very core of Stoic metaphysics is the substance pneuma. In brief, it simply and literally means wind or breath (Liddell and Scott). Long uses various phrases which expand on the literal definition, by describing pneuma as “fiery breath”, “artistic fire”, “the active principle”, “vital spirit … hot breath … vehicle of the logos”, “force or energy”, “‘field of force’ activating matter” and “intelligent director of everything” (150-164). John Sellars defines pneuma as “identified with God and reason” and “a conscious and rational organizing principle” and as “the soul of the cosmos” (97).  He cites Aetius who described God as “creative fire (pur technikon)” and Stobaeus who called it the force “causing growth and preservation” (98-99). Implicit in these descriptions is movement and action.

    Pneuma is in “perpetual motion” and therefore is the cause of other movements in the cosmos (Sambursky 21). Furthermore, this motion not only exists in bodies, but is also the framework for how the cosmos operates.  The motion is like that of waves or ripples after a pebble is tossed into still water. Quoting Stobaios, Sambursky writes, “It begins in the centre of the body and extends outwards to its boundaries, and after touching the outermost surface it turns back till it arrives at the same place from which it started” (31).

    Besides being in perpetual motion, pneuma is considered the active element and mixes with passive elements (fire, air, water, earth) and binds itself to them causing bodies to exist. Pneuma may be mixed with elements to three varying degrees. First is mingling which could be described as a “mechanical mixture” like that of a mosaic, second is fusion, which mixture causes “a new substance,” and third, “complete interpenetration” in which all parts are “jointly occupied by all the components in the same proportion” (Sambursky 12-13). Additionally, depending on the extent to which pneuma is mixed with passive elements will determine how alive an object is and if it has a soul or not (Sellars91). In sum, the extent of pneuma in passive elements determines if an object has simple forces of unity, or is living, or has movement or possesses rationality.

    Given that pneuma is in constant motion, mixes with passive elements, and is the cause of tension and the coherence of everything, the cosmos is one unified whole. Like the glove and hand analogy, whereby the glove would represent the passive elements, and the hand would represent the active force, the cosmos is set in motion and is active by virtue of pneuma. Sambursky succinctly summarizes this idea and notes how the cosmos is one whole because Nature is unbroken in time and space.  Referring to pneuma, he wrote, “It was divine power (viz. Force) impressing a definite state upon matter on the one hand, and causal nexus linking the successive states of matter on the other, and in both these aspects it revealed itself as a spatially and temporally continuous agent” (Sambursky 37). Given their view that the cosmos is one “agent,” the Stoics believed that fate was tied up with Nature - a topic on which Chrysippus had a few things to say.

    Regarding fate, Chrysippus aligns with Zeno’s position, Zeno being the founder of Stoicism.  In some fragments which remain of his writings, we learn Zeno said, “fate is the chainlike cause of existing things or the reason in accordance with which they are ordered … [and is] the moving power of matter according to identical rules and in the same way and it does not differ from providence and nature” (Gould 142). Chrysippus reaffirms Zeno’s stance by calling fate “a certain natural order of all things, following closely upon one another and moved in succession from eternity, and their intertwining with one another is unalterable” (143). Rival philosophical schools attacked Chrysippus’ views on fate arguing that free will was removed and that since fate has been decided, human agency becomes irrelevant (i.e., the lazy argument). In response, Chrysippus would refine his argument with the ideas of “proximate” and “perfect” causes along with the idea that certain things are “in our power” and others are not (149).

    A proximate cause might be the proposition of eating a large unhealthy meal or committing adultery, but the perfect cause would be the individual assenting to the proposition, or not. Chrysippus would expound on this idea with the cylinder analogy. A cylinder may be sitting on a slope and the “initial force” to start the rolling process would be the proximate cause (i.e., the proposition of an unhealthy dinner or the opportunity at committing adultery in the previous example) (149). But “the cylinder’s own form” would be accountable for the ongoing movement down the slope, which would represent the proximate cause (i.e., assenting or not to eating the unhealthy dinner or committing adultery in the previous example) (150). Sellars makes this distinction even clearer by explaining Chrysippus’ ideas on “simple fated things and conjoined fated things” and by providing an example of a mortal being (Sellars 103). He writes that while “Socrates will die” is a “simple fated thing” it is not certain that “Socrates will die this afternoon” because he will opt to visit a doctor and therefore his actual chance of survival is termed his “cojoined fate” since Socrates has some choice in the matter (104). While Chrysippus did much to bolster his views to counter the lazy argument response on fate, modern research also provides a few other reasons which counter the lazy argument on determinism and fate.

    One research study investigated the relationship between people’s belief or disbelief in free will and how their moral actions aligned with those beliefs. In this study, the researchers instructed all participants to complete various questionnaires to determine where their beliefs resided on a scale of belief in free will, determinism and fate. When the participants arrived at the lab, two large groups were formed: the Control group and the No Free will group. In the Control group, participants read a passage from a book which explained how “psychologists tried to develop a method to assess consciousness” while the No Free Will group read a passage from the same book about how “human behavior is totally determined by genetics” (Caspar, et. al. 3). They were then placed in groupings of three individuals in a room: one as “agent,” one as “victim,” and one as “experimenter” (3). The selection of the roles was random, and all participants eventually played one of the three roles. In every situation, the agent was given money if the agent delivered a painful shock to the victim, but if they did not deliver the shock, no money was given. In these sub-groupings, there were two conditions the agent was presented with: the free-choice condition, in which the agent was totally free to give the shock or not, and the coercive condition in which the experimenter told the agent to give the shock, in which case the agent could decide to give the shock or not.

    The results of this experiment indicate “the No Free will group inflicted fewer shocks in the free-choice condition than participants in the Control group” (6-7). While gender does seem to play a factor, the results still indicate that when given a free choice, participants who believed they had no choice in fact demonstrated greater prosocial or moral behaviors. The study further noted that “the reduction of immoral behavior in the no free will group for female participants stems from the induced beliefs” as opposed to their “core beliefs” (7). Additional conclusions from the study show that vengeful behavior was also reduced in the same No Free will group, “and that the higher female participants scored on free will, the more vindictive they were” (7). In sum, this research study reveals that a disbelief in free will does not necessarily lead to one adhering to lazy argument thinking, but it also reveals deterministic thinking can even lead to higher prosocial thinking and behavior.

    If one believes that much of their life and circumstances are determined by things beyond their control, then perhaps they will focus their efforts on empathy and improving societal and environmental conditions which promote improved moral behaviors, rather than seeking to instill punitive forms of persuasion. Indeed, it seems deterministic thinking can cause one to have more compassion and understanding. Donald Robertson, a modern-day psychologist, observed the connection between determinism and empathy by drawing parallels in the ideas of Spinoza and a 20th century psychiatrist named Joseph Wolpe. He noted that to understand the world rationally “is to do so by reference to … the essential idea of Nature itself.” He then quotes Spinoza, whose metaphysical beliefs are similar to the Stoics: “we can desire nothing save that which is necessary, nor can we absolutely be contented with anything save what is true: and therefore insofar as we understand this rightly, the endeavour of the best part of us is in harmony with the order of the whole of nature” (Robertson).

Robertson then notes the relationship between determinism and living in harmony with Nature, to the ideas of the psychiatrist Wolpe, who said this of determinism and empathy:

Objectivity, empathy, and sensitivity to suffering are intrinsic to the behaviour therapist’s approach to his patients. The objectivity follows from the knowledge that all behaviour, including cognitive behaviour, is subject to causal determination no less than is the behaviour of falling bodies or magnetic fields. […] To explain how the patient’s neurosis arose out of a combination or chain of particular events helps [empathic] understanding (Robertson).

The point to this long thread about determinism and empathy is to counter the idea which Long calls “chilling and insensitive” about the idea that “all will turn out well in the end” (170). Taking an optimistic perspective is not disturbing and inconsiderate, but rather it is a rational way for the individual to arrive at acceptance of events as they are and empathic understanding for himself and humanity.

    Furthermore, this thread of thought on determinism and empathy ought to inform the individual to not only validate his own emotions and those of others when they perceive that much is beyond their control - that these perceptions don’t have to be distressing and indifferent -but that we can experience greater and deeper understanding of our shared human experiences and help others see the higher fidelity of existence. The higher fidelity in thinking and perception allows us to truly grasp and comprehend what is up to us, and in that space, we can adjust our attitude towards an optimistic perspective which will lead to resilience in the face of adversity. In fact, resilience seems to be the default human reaction to adversity.

    Humans are a tough and resilient species. One study of 67 potentially traumatic events, such as “mass shootings, hurricanes, spinal cord injuries,” observed that two-thirds resiliently recover from the event (Zimmerman). The article which references this study concludes by noting what psychologists have observed in people who are resilient and flourish in virtually any circumstance: they have a “positive, realistic outlook … [and] look for opportunities in bleak situations, striving to find the positive within the negatives” (Zimmerman). A professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College, George Bonanno, conducted this research on human resilience in the face of traumatic events, and observed “multiple pathways to resilience” (25). Of note are his findings which align with the optimistic perspective on Stoic determinism. He noted that “hardiness” which includes commitment “to finding meaningful purpose in life” and “that one can learn and grow from both positive and negative life experiences” are hallmarks in those who demonstrate resilience to adverse events (25). These traits align with the Stoic perspective that all events and circumstances can work out for the best. And closely related to this optimistic view, Bonanno further observes, are those responses of “positive emotion and laughter” which have the effect of “quieting or undoing a negative emotion” after an “aversive event” (26).

    To tie all these threads together, the idea that ultimately all works out well (Stoic optimism), not only embraces determinism, but also reminds the individual of what is up to him, namely, his attitude and the ability to grasp the reality of his situation. This higher fidelity in thinking allows him the space to be more empathic with his own situation and that of others. This empathy can counteract the “chilling and insensitive” perspective Long mentions (170). Furthermore, this cognitive space empowers the individual to breed a growth and learning mindset regarding all events in his life, including traumatic events. This optimism, in the form of seeking meaning and purpose, along with the optimistic characteristics of “positive emotion and laughter” can equip the individual to resiliently endure most events in his life (Bonanno 26). Being psychologically prepared and equipped with this mentality, the individual thus gains confidence in his pursuit of leading a fulfilling and flourishing life – he knows when tough times come, these events will provide meaning and opportunity for him to practice excellence in living.

    In conclusion, the entire argument, from metaphysical beliefs to determinism, to conjoined fated actions, to securing eudaimonia leads to the promise Epictetus gave his students: “[securing a] desire that never fails in its aim, aversion that never falls into what it wants to avoid, motivation that accords with one’s duty, purpose that is carefully weighed, and assent that is not over-hasty” (Discourses 2.8). This mindset is not disturbing nor callous, but rather optimistically equips the individual to be psychologically and emotionally durable and possess the confidence to face any adversity. Not only can one wisely respond to any desire, aversion, or event in his life, but he can also feel confidence and gratitude in his mental paradigm. Lastly, Marcus Aurelius compares this robust self-determination to that of ocean waves colliding against the cropping of rocks.

Be like the rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm, and round it the seething waters are laid to rest. 'It is my bad luck that this has happened to me.' No, you should rather say: 'It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearful of the future.' Because such a thing could have happened to any man, but not every man could have borne it without pain (Meditations Book 4, chapter 49).

Works Cited

Bonanno, George A. "Loss, Trauma, and Human Resilience: Have we Underestimated the Human Capacity to Thrive After Extremely Aversive Events?" American Psychologist, vol. 59, no. 1, 2004, pp. 20-28. ProQuest,, doi:

Caspar, Emilie A., et al. “The Influence of (Dis)Belief in Free Will on Immoral Behavior.” Frontiers in Psychology, no. 8 20, 17 Jan. 2017, 

Epictetus, et al. Discourses, Fragments, Handbook. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Gould, J B. The Philosophy of Chrysippus. 1970. Netherlands, Brill Academic Pub, 1971.

Liddell, Henry George, and Robert Scott. “Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, a Greek-English Lexicon, πνεῦμα.”, 1940, Accessed 12 Feb. 2023.

Long, A. A. Hellenistic Philosophy : Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics. University Of California Press, 1986.

Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome, et al. Meditations. Penguin Classics, An Imprint Of Penguin Books, 2014.

Robertson, Donald J. “Spinoza’s Philosophical Psychotherapy.” Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life, 26 Sept. 2019, Accessed 18 Feb. 2023.

Sellars, John. Stoicism. Routledge, 2014.

Zimmerman, Eilene. What Makes Some People More Resilient Than Others: RESILIENCE. ProQuest, Jun 18, 2020,

Sunday, January 8, 2023

To Exist is to Think

Writing prompt: 

What ought to come first in a robust philosophical project? Is there any point in seeking out knowledge of being if we do not even understand how the mind works, what constitutes knowledge, and so forth? Conversely, is there any point in seeking to understand knowledge if we lack any robust conception of reality, and the things that are there to be known? Defend your position.


Reading the assignment this week, I came across this passage which struck me profoundly. "The only alternative to Parmenides’ insight that 'the same is for thinking and for being,' the insight which is metaphysics, is the postmodern and nihilistic notion that reality itself is a construct, a myth, an illusion, that there is no such thing as reality" (Perl, 15).  To not-be is also to not-think; to be nihilistic.  The consideration and study of being ought to be very tightly coupled with thinking.  If forced to say which ought to come first, I would say ontology.

On this topic, I think Camus brutally succinct, when he wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards."

Stated differently, there is a point to studying ontology if you decide life (being) is worth keeping and enduring.  If not, and suicide (i.e. choosing to not-be) is the answer, then seeking to learn and comprehend knowledge would be irrelevant.

But if one decides to continue his or hers existence, then the project of studying ontology, even if we do not, nor cannot, fully comprehend it, is worth the effort.  Perhaps after some time pursuing the study, you may come to decide why it is better to not exist than to exist. To use an analogy: you are to begin a new job (assume it is relatively basic). It would be rational to understand why the job exists at all, so that you understand the objective of your job. And while you begin your job and learn your job (epistemology), you may come to either agree or disagree as to the purpose of the job you are fulfilling. From there, you may decide to alter the objective of the job you've been given or give it up altogether.

In sum, while the priority may seem that being comes first, learning and gaining knowledge is tightly coupled with the studying of existence. Perl makes this observation in his introduction when he notes several "classical tradition" examples of analogies which compare being and thinking to an "erotic" union (10). 

Work cited

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. Vintage Books, 2018.

Perl, Eric. Thinking Being: Introduction to Metaphysics in the Classical Tradition. BRILL, 6 Feb. 2014.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Stoic Optimism on Fate

I'm a mentor for students taking the Stoic Essentials Studies course at the College of Stoic Philosophers.  Because this question keeps coming up with nearly all my students, I decided to capture my thoughts on this topic.

At some point, whether at the beginning of the course or some time during it, a student will express some version of this concern regarding the Stoic view on fate: it's hard to believe that everything happens for a reason.

Every time a student shares this concern, I share what A. A. Long wrote on the subject along with my perspective.

Long, who has perhaps studied Stoicism longer than anyone alive today, makes this observation:

"If Nature's providence is all-embracing then any event which causes injury or suffering has to be interpreted as something which, if all the facts were known, would be recognized as beneficial by rational men. As Pope, following Shaftesbury, wrote: 'All discord, harmony not understood, all partial evil, universal good.' But all the facts cannot be known and therefore the supposed value of much that happens must be taken on trust. This optimistic attitude towards natural events, no matter how terrible they may seem, is one of the least palatable features of Stoicism. It is one thing to say that human vision is limited, unable to grasp the full cosmic perspective. But even at its noblest, in the writings of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, there is something chilling and insensitive about the Stoic's faith that all will turn out well in the end. They were the only Greek philosophers who tried to find a rationale for everything within their concept of a perfect, all-embracing Nature" (170, emphasis added).

I don't have an answer for people who express this concern, as this aspect of Stoicism weighs on my mind too.  The way I choose to look at fate is this: it is what it is and the sooner I can accept events as they are, the sooner I can pivot to focus on how I choose to react and move forward.  Perhaps the Stoics belief in 'all will turn out well' is just a short cut to get to acceptance.

Work cited

Long, A. A. Hellenistic Philosophy : Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics. University Of California Press, 1986.

Monday, December 19, 2022

Phil 415 - Stoic Threads in Hobbesian Philosophy

 Stoic Threads in Hobbesian Philosophy

On November 28, 2022, the world’s largest active volcano erupted for the first time in almost 40 years (Derrick). As the world witnessed the hot, fiery lava spew out and flow down the mountain, it was reminded, albeit on a small scale, that the universe loves to change and be in constant motion. One can’t help but observe in awe the hot lava settling and pondering how long it will take for the first biological life to emerge once the lava cools, decomposes and becomes the rich soil in which life will grow. While this fiery substance proves to be a key ingredient for life, the Stoics and Hobbes theorized on another substance which is the cause in all motion in the universe, including human passions: the substance of God.

Hobbes’s ideas on the materialism of God and the passions have their roots in Stoicism. While the Stoics viewed pneuma as the essence of God and motion in all bodies, Hobbes conceived God as “subtle fluid or spirit” (Gorham, 38). As God is the source of existence, things remain in motion by self-perpetuation. Both Hobbes and the Stoics claim oikeiosis, or self-preservation as the prime mover of people and that it is inherent in all living things. Yet, if this impulse for self-preservation is left unchecked by reason, it leads to unbridled passions (Santi, 67). As to how reason should be applied to rein in passions, Hobbes’s and the Stoics’ views part ways and diverge widely. Whereas the Stoics would teach the individual to be rational and to perhaps stamp out passions, Hobbes sees passions playing a pivotal role prior to the formation of the State and then having the absolute ruler manage people’s passions via an “enlightened sovereign” (71). One might say the Stoics prefer a bottom-up approach to dealing with passions while Hobbes would be a top-down approach (i.e., the Leviathan). Regardless of which paradigm for passion management is used, all lives begin with motion. Hobbes’s own inception of motion begins with fear. 

The Spanish Armada appeared over the horizon off the English coast – war! Close to 130 ships attacked England between July 31 and August 4, 1588 (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica). The sight of the armada must have instilled fear in many as it was “an awesome spectacle to behold … [each ship] with lofty turrets like castles” (Hanson). Leading up to the clash, the people of England were in the grips of terror, including Thomas Hobbes’s mother.  Hobbes wrote, “rumor went everywhere through our towns that the last day for the nation was coming by fleet. And at that point, my mother was filled with such fear that she bore twins, me and together with me fear” (Martinich, 2). Hobbes and his “twin” were born April 5, 1588 – close to 4 months before the armada was to be seen off the coast of Plymouth. Hobbes would smartly observe of his birth, that the harrowing circumstances would affect him throughout life and would explain his “hatred for the enemies of [his] country” (2). The cause of the Spanish armada sailing to England is a complicated web of multiple causes and effects and lots of motion, both actual and political.

As with many philosophers of his day, Hobbes would have been familiar with multiple ancient and contemporary theories as to the ultimate cause of all motion. Most of these theories go on to attribute some force - calling it God - as the source cause of all motion. Among the many philosophies with which Hobbes was familiar was that of the Stoics and their theories on metaphysics. The Stoics noted both active and passive elements in the universe. The active was associated with the “rational principle (logos)” and they called this “God and Mind and Fate and Zeus” (Gorham, 37). More specifically, the Stoics called the essence of the substance of God pneuma and they likened it to “sperm or seed which contains the first principles or directions of all the things” (Baltzly). Hobbes, who would have encountered many Stoic ideas via his time tutoring and working with the Cavendishes, conceived the essence of God “as an infinitely subtle fluid or ‘spirit’ … [which is] ‘thin, fluid, transparent, invisible body” (Gorham, 38-39, 44). To remove all doubt as to his possible source of his ideas of the essence of God, he also wrote that his definition of “spirit” means “breadth, air, wind” in Latin and pneuma in Greek (39). If Hobbes’s spirit of God and the Stoics’ pneuma are the primal cause of existence, what is the next chain in the grand causal effect? Both Hobbes and the Stoics align on “the doctrine of oikeiosis … the principle of self-preservation” as the explanation of the cosmos’s perpetual motion (Santi, 67).

 In his article, Psychology and Politics: Hobbes, Chrysippus the Stoic and the Passions, Santi quotes Diogenes Laertius, who wrote that a “living being has, as first impulse, that of conserving itself … [pushing] away what is harmful … and [getting] near to what is proper as well as familiar” (67). In the same article, he quotes Hobbes: “necessity of nature makes men to will and desire bonum sibi, that which is good for themselves, and to avoid that which is hurtful” (67). This impulse to survive is the cause of many actions and movements in the universe, which sustain life and cause change. Is it any wonder, then, when an individual, or a family face dire circumstance, or even perceived threats to their survival, that they begin to take action to ensure their existence? This type of thinking is precisely at the root of the cause and effect of the English Civil War.

As with the invasion of the Spanish Armada, the causes of the English Civil war were complex and tangled. But the fundamental cause of grievances between the English monarchy and the English parliament was about money and the viability of citizens’ existence. While the monarchy wanted to raise funds to support its lifestyle or even start a “war against Scotland,” the “majority of members” of parliament wanted to address and manage their “grievances about ship money, forced loans, coat and conduct money” – things which they had been complaining about for more than a decade (Martinich, 122). Even though Hobbes’s livelihood would not be greatly impacted by demands from the king, he had written things in “defense of absolute sovereignty” and he had seen other people, who were in favor of an “absolute monarch,” be charged and arrested by Parliament (161). When Hobbes witnessed “the king’s chief ministers” as well as “the king’s chief counselor and the highest-ranking clergymen” being charged and arrested, he knew “Parliament wasn’t [acting] logical” and in a matter of days, he made arrangements to flee to France and then left in such a hurry, “he did not even wait for his luggage to be packed” (161-162).

While historians may debate as to whether Parliament, the monarchy or even Hobbes were acting logically or not, it does not take much imagination to see how an impulse to survive can be taken to an extreme. Returning to Santi, he makes the connection between the impulse for self-preservation and passion. Quoting Chrysippus the Stoic, he writes, “an impulse can also be rational, following right reason, but in the majority of people it is irrational and ‘contrary to nature’: it is ‘an excessive impulse’ that originates the passions” (68). Similarly, Hobbes agrees that passions are based on “memories of the past” or “expectations of the future” and that these passions “originate, in the mind” (68). Alas, this is where Hobbes and the Stoics cease in agreement, and subsequently depart into different directions regarding the management of passions.

Without getting into the full explanation of the Stoic theory of passions, the Stoics believe that passion is something the sage would never experience, since the Stoic sage would not have any “false beliefs about what is good and bad” (Brennan, 38). In other words, a practicing Stoic would not hold the belief that desire for money, or the fear of pain is either good or bad. If applied to Hobbes when he faced the threat of arrest from Parliament, instead of fleeing to France, perhaps he would have remained to perform his duties in England.

While the Stoics would recommend the individual work to hold correct beliefs about the world and to rationally control passions, Hobbes views passions as a force to be joined with reason in a “positive alliance” (Santi, 69). The key aspect of his idea is the “contrast between what drives conflict and what allows cooperative endeavor, rather than any quasi-Stoic view about how reason can overcome the passions” (Schmitter). Hobbes writes that “competition of riches, honour, command, or other power, inclines to contention, enmity, and war” but he also holds that “desire of ease, and sensual delight” along with the desires for learning and a “love of the arts” and fame, cause “men to obey a common power” (Santi, 69). He sees passion as the driving force both leading up to the creation and the sustaining of the State. For him, the telos of humankind is to live in a state of obedience to an ultimate sovereign who would preserve their security and ensure their passions are satisfied rationally (69-70). In fact, in his Leviathan, he “hopes that his theoretic principles will be embraced by an enlightened sovereign” who also is “the only legitimate moral philosopher … be it a king or an assembly” (71). If any additional nails are needed to close the coffin on an endorsement of a personal philosophy, as opposed to a State philsophy, Santi notes that Hobbes thought the “ancient philosophers were wrong and presumptuous in proposing their personal philosophic view as the true way of living” (71). For Hobbes, “the laws of the commonwealth … are the ground and measure of all true morality” (71).

In his masterpiece, Leviathan, in the first part of On Man, he gloomily described the human life as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes, 102). But as one reflects on Hobbes’s life, one comes to find the countless people with whom he worked – he was never alone.  One learns he was well compensated and connected to powerful people – he was never poor.  One further learns that his life was most assuredly not short – he died at age 91 on December 4, 1679. But as for life being brutish, perhaps he was correct. Because of the perpetual motion of unreasonable passions, he felt the effects of foreign powers at home and abroad, he witnessed a civil war in his homeland and “lived in a time of upheaval, sharper than any England has since known” - in a time of great division amongst the government, religions, militaries and economies (Williams). Given this “brutish” context, it is no wonder Hobbes advocated for a Leviathan to rule over people who could not rule themselves.

In conclusion, a few key threads in Hobbes’s philosophy can be traced back to Stoicism – namely his ideas on God and human passions. The Stoics and Hobbes identified fine, pervasive substance as the essence of God. This essence, in turn is the catalyst for self-preservation, which they both indicate as the prime mover of people and that it is inherent in all living things. Both agree that unchecked self-preservation can lead to passions. However, Hobbes and the Stoics part ways as to how the passions ought to be managed. The Stoics advocate for individuals to be rational and to perhaps eradicate passions, but Hobbes sees passions performing a crucial role prior to the formation of the State. The State then rules over her subjects and manages people’s passions via an “enlightened sovereign” (Santi, 71).  In sum, the individual lives for the State, and the State is “the ground and measure of all true morality” (71). 

Works Cited

Baltzly, Dirk. “Stoicism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2019, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2019,

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