Pain and death

‘Yes, much bitter dying must there be in your lives, you creators!’ Thus Spoke Zarathrustra, Friedrich Nietzsche

Creation is one of the unique things about human existence-without creation existence becomes difficult and tiresome, perhaps even completely pointless. Marxist theory suggests that a life devoid of creation is the reason why people turn to religion. Many jobs involve little or no creation, and Marx believed that this lack of creation leads people to religion as a form of consolation, an idea developed later by Freud. Nietzsche said ‘Creating-that is the great redemption from suffering’. Creation is painful in itself, but through this painful creation there is a salvation from suffering. Nietzsche combats the way which people turn to religion for salvation, and entreats that we should rather create in order to save ourselves. Why, though, must creation involve ‘bitter dying’? Because that which precedes creation is self-destruction. Sacrifice must be had if we want to create. Pain and death, then, can give rise to a redemptive and greater form of life.

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Solipsism

Can we know whether anybody else exists? Are we the only conscious being that exists? Is everything else a projection? Some say so. Solipsism is the belief that everything external to our mind is unsure, and that it is impossible to know whether anything outside ourselves is real.

Gorgias the Sophist was the first philosopher to entertain solipsism and scepticism, and Descartes, in his meditations, wrote that we can only know that we ourselves exist. Solipsism can lead to depersonalization disorders and indifference to the world-if it doesn’t exist, why care for it? However, a solipsistic world view is bound to crumble when surrounded with other people, otherwise permanent detachment, and maybe even madness, will ensue.

Art

What is art for? Is it to reflect reality or to create something different from it? Is art a way of appreciating what exists, or is it a means of escape, a way out from the real world?

Nietzsche was hugely appreciative of art, particularly music, being a composer himself, and said that without music, ‘life would be nothing’. This idea of the power and importance of art comes from Schopenhauer, and stems originally from Kant, although Kant thought music was a low form of art, opposing Nietzsche who held music in high esteem. It is not clear why we make art, though it seems a necessary part of life, something that most people cannot avoid doing. In some ways it is a form of self-expression. Yet what has occurred to me is that art portrays one thing: a desire for liberation. In this it seems that art is frequently used as a way of escaping reality and taking oneself elsewhere, not as a distraction as such, but more as a will to be someplace else which is, ultimately, purer. Music offers at least a moment of some kind of perfection, even if that perfection is temporary and man-made. And how, then, does one go about the creation of art? Again, Nietzsche must be quoted:

‘For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication.’

 

What is morality?

This is a question which has been asked for centuries, but is there any definitive answer even now? The most common debate is that of relativism and absolutism, whether there are things which are universally right and wrong at all times for all peoples, making morality objective, or whether everything is relative, either culturally or individually, and therefore subjective.

Morality presupposes freedom. If we are not free, then there is no actual morality, just an idea of what it should be like. There is no doubt that societies cannot function without this idea of freedom, otherwise the judicial system would collapse, since nobody could be blamed for anything, since no actions are made freely. However, just because societies would not be orderly without the concept of freedom and objective morality, this does not necessarily mean that freedom and objective morality are actualities. Free will may just be an illusion, and merely provides a basis for responsibility and a system of justice, as well as our brains tricking ourselves into thinking that we are making choices when really we aren’t.

Again, the objectivity of morality seems somewhat absurd. How does one know what is actually right and actually wrong? The general claim is that morality comes from God, thereby making it objective, but what kind of morality is it that comes from God and how do we find this out? There are so many different interpretations of scripture, and religions differ and oppose each other constantly in moral beliefs, all claiming that their own morality is the divine one. It seems to me impossible to reach past our subjective nature to any objective truth about morality. Even if there was a right answer as to what to do, how would we attain this answer without the trouble of subjective interpretation arising?

Morality keeps society orderly and maintains a system or justice, but this system of justice seems based on a set of subjective principles which are then proposed as objective from a standpoint of power. A moral statement seems to be a preference or opinion put forward as a fact. Yet this solves nothing, and the question of what is right and what is wrong may go forever.

The bitterness of life

The thought of dying can make life seem bitter. Death can propose itself to us as a struggle to be coped with, but only if we let it. The reality of death is inevitable, so it is how we deal with this eventual reality that is crucial, for this may influence our actions now and in the future. If being dead seems terrible, it is because we are clinging onto life, and to hope, too much. Being dead is a tragedy if we expect an excessive amount from life. We are fortunate to be alive at all, let alone forever.

Life is but a break from the state of being dead, and it is an opportunity to explore existence before we return to the ground we came from. Life only becomes bitter if we expect too much from it.

‘To hope is to contradict the future.’ Emil Cioran

The Golden Mean

In Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses the Golden Mean, the mid-ground between deficiency and excess. For example, in social intercourse, the mean is wit, the deficiency boorishness, and the excess buffoonery. He believes virtue to be in-between the two extremes, and by living the mean we will become virtuous and good people. He admits that acting as the mean suggests is incredibly difficult, and it is easy to slip from the mean into excess or deficiency, since sometimes they are closely related. The question that must follow is whether the mean is always the good thing, or whether excess or deficiency is at times necessary or good. Is the mean the right thing to act upon, or does it breed mediocrity?

Know what you want

Knowing oneself is difficult and tiresome, if at all possible. Nevertheless, knowing what we want is crucial for getting something out of life. Without this knowledge of what we want, we become aimless, and rather than pursuing what we desire, we are taken along with the crowd, chasing whatever the latest craze is.

Knowing what we want should provide a reason for doing what we are doing now: ‘Why am I doing this? Because I want X.’ Why we want X is another question altogether, but knowing what we want enables us to work out what we must do to get what we want.

How, then, do we get to know what we want? This takes time, no doubt, as well as contemplation. What we want depends on our views of life and existence. The reason we think we are here for may in fact be the greatest influence when trying to work out what we want. It isn’t easy, and we may never know what we really want, yet some deliberation may help us realise that what we are currently doing is not worthwhile.

The concept of commitment

What are we committed to? Nothing, really. All commitments are, objectively, arbitrary. We could die any moment. Our heart could stop beating and we would die, our commitments dying with us. The possibility of death belittles and undermines our ideas of commitment. This does not necessarily mean that we should just throw everything up in the air and choose to have no commitments whatsoever. No, this possibility of death means that you can choose what you commit yourself to, without feeling obliged to do things. Louis CK said ‘You never have to do anything because you can kill yourself.’ A dark yet sobering thought. Commit yourself to what you want to commit yourself to. But to do that, you have to know what you want.

Live dangerously

Progress isn’t made without taking risks. Development comes through putting ourselves in positions unknown, making them known, becoming strong by exposing weakness. Repetition with no steps forward will not bring fulfilment. If we do not take risks, we risk becoming lost in mediocrity. The greatest risk, then, is to dare not to take risks.

Nietzsche’s notorious quote ‘that which does not kill me makes me stronger’ is relevant here. The greatest reason for not taking risks is fear: fear of danger, humiliation, and, ultimately, failure. We would rather stay where we are than fail, but failing is a necessary part of evolution and growth as a human being. Nietzsche said to ‘build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius.’ For the greatest yielding of progress, the possibility of failure or pain is also the greatest possible. We are left with a choice-living dangerously or living in mediocrity.

Can we speak of God meaningfully?

For the past century or so, the question of religious language has caused numerous problems, the biggest being whether talking of God is meaningful or meaningless.

Thomas Aquinas established the via negativa, a way of talking about God which aims not to say what God is, but what God is not. Moreover, the use of analogy is for Aquinas a way of talking about God. He uses the example of a bull to explain analogy of attribution. An expert can tell the health of a bull from its urine, but the health of the bull is not in the urine as such, and is just a reflection of the actual health of the bull. Likewise, the world is a reflection of God, and a reflection of his goodness (problems obviously arise here). The language of symbol is a way of explaining things that cannot otherwise be explained because of their nature as experienced (William James would describe them as ineffable). However, the use of religious language does not seem to get very far, particularly with skeptics or atheists, seeming helpful only to those who believe already.

A.J. Ayer used the verification principle to do away with all religious and moral statements as mere noise and nothing else. The verification principle states that ‘a proposition is only cognitively meaningful if it can be definitively and conclusively determined to be either true or false (i.e. verifiable or falsifiable).’ Moral statements are for Ayer nothing more than an expression of approval or disapproval of something, but add nothing factually to a statement (his theory is known as the ‘boo-hurrah’ theory). Since religious statements cannot be verified, Ayer claims that they are ‘evidently nonsense’.

Ludwig Wittgenstein believed that language is that of a game, and that when we speak we are partaking in a language game. We play many different language games, he argued, with many different people and in many different places. Outside a language game, the language is meaningless, but inside it is meaningful (which begs the questions whether language games is all there is, and if this is so, whether objectively all language is just primitive noise, though Wittgenstein probably would not agree with this). Religious language is another language game, but does that mean that if you are not playing the game the language is meaningless? Perhaps so.

Speaking of God is difficult, regardless of one’s belief. It remains unclear as to the meaning of religious language, and whether it holds any weight at all.