Monthly Archives: February 2017

Summary of Samuel Scheffler’s, Death and the Afterlife

In the recent book, Death and the AfterlifeSamuel Scheffler offer two imaginative thought experiments in an attempt to understand our attitudes toward death and meaning.

In the first, the doomsday scenario, we are asked to imagine that we will live out our normal lifespan, but that thirty days after our deaths an asteroid will destroy the earth and all life on it. Needless to say most of us would find this a depressing prospect, independent of the fact that we would not die prematurely. Scheffler argues that this shows that the lives of others who live on after we die, what he calls the “collective afterlife,” matter more to us than we ordinarily think, and that our individual survival matters less to us than we normally suppose.

In the second, the infertility scenario, we again live out our normal lives but must do so with the knowledge that the species is infertile. With the last human death, humanity dies out. Scheffler argues that this knowledge would demoralize us, undermining our attempt to live happy lives. Again we see that the collective afterlife is more important to us than we usually realize.

Scheffler then contrasts the relative calm we feel about the fact that all those now living will one day be dead, with the horror we experience thinking about either of the above scenarios. This suggests that the fact that we and those we love won’t exist in the future bothers us less than that some unknown people won’t exist in the future. As Scheffler says:

the coming into existence of people we do not know and love matters more to us than our own survival and the survival of the people we do know and love. . . . This is a remarkable fact which should get more attention than it does in thinking about the nature and limits of our personal egoism.

MARK JOHNSTON REPLIES

But is it true that we really care more about potential people in the future than our loved ones now? This idea was challenged in a piece in the January 02, 2014  edition of the Boston Review by Mark Johnston entitled, “Is Life a Ponzi Scheme? Johnston asks us to imagine that the population of our tribe is half of humanity, and our tribe is also infertile. Would we really prefer the death of our tribe if we knew that the remaining half of humanity will repopulate the planet to its previous levels in a few generations, and then all of them will die a few generations later? Johnston thinks most of us would answer no to this question, and that his thought experiment belies Scheffler’s claim that we care more about unknown future persons than our present loved ones.

Johnston also argues that it is not just any future for humanity that matters to us, but rather valuable ones. Thus a future in which gangs fight for cosmic space or we are food for aliens is not better than one in which we perished altogether. Johnston prefers we perish rather than suffer such terrible fates. This leads him to consider whether our lives have meaning: a) if humanity has a future or; b) only if humanity has a valuable future. The problem with either of these is that if value depends on the future, then value will eventually be undermined—since the universe will ultimately end.

To avoid such a depressing conclusion Johnston advises us to value our lives now rather than holding them hostage to some future. And we should not be demoralized by the thought of our own or humanity’s death: “The kind of value that properly calls forth joy is not something that waits to be validated by the collective life to come. As a consequence, we already live in a rich ecology of value that surrounds us here and now, no matter what happens in the future.”

MESSERLY REPLIES

I challenged Johnston’s views in my recent book: The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives. There I argue that what I call complete meaning is not possible without (individual/collective) immortality. That is not to say that mortal beings can’t live meaningful lives, just that they would be completely meaningful only if they possessed both infinite quantity and quantity—only if they didn’t end. In my view this is possible because future technologies may make death optional and grant us immortality if we so choose.

This argument for immortality provided by future technologies is buttressed by Scheffler’s insight that we care about the future of our descendants. We care about the future because if there is no future then life is (nearly) pointless. Johnston is right that futurity can’t provide meaning if there is no future, and in that case all we can do is value the present as he counsels. But if there is a future of value and meaning—brought about by science and technology—then our role in bringing about that future gives life meaning. As for the eventual death of the universe, this too is uncertain given considerations of the multiverse, and the possibility of advanced intelligence determining the fate if the universe when they become sufficiently powerful.

Without the prospect of a good and lasting future for our descendants then, there is little or no meaning to our present lives. And that is what Scheffler’s thought experiments so beautifully and artfully illuminate.

Death and the Afterlife

How To Cope With This Stressful Presidency

What prepares men for the totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness  … has become an everyday experience of the ever growing masses of our century. The merciless process into which totalitarianism drives and organizes the masses looks like a suicidal escape from this reality. ~ Hannah Arendt

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, March 6, 2017.)

The American Political World Is Bad And Getting Worse 

At the request of a reader depressed by today’s American political situation, I’ve updated a previous post from about a month ago, as things keep getting progressively worse.  My own views—in more complete form—about the tragedy and danger of electing someone so manifestly unqualified, so psychologically, morally and intellectually unfit, have been expressed over and over in previous posts.  Trump is essential an amygdala with a twitter account.

My readers’ pain about our current state of affairs results from being more educated than most about the issues, political climate, new president, recent history, and the corruption, shenanigans, lies, and bs that surround us. Perhaps ignorance is bliss. And, as we have seen in a previous post, less education, even accounting for all other factors, was the biggest predictor of Trump support. It also evokes sadness to think of all the people who will suffer and die if some of the promises of the Republicans come true—the loss of health care for millions, increased economic inequality, deportations, expediting environmental degradation and climate change, increased likelihood of war, etc.

Plato told us more than 2,000 years ago that you can’t have a good life without a good government, and you can’t have a good government without morally and intellectually virtuous leaders. He told us that democracy is one of the worst kinds of government—it’s the blind leading the blind—and that it inevitably leads to tyranny where power joins with vice. Trump in charge of nuclear codes; Perry in charge of nuclear energy; Tillerson and Exxon in charge of diplomacy; Sessions in charge of the law; Devos in charge of education, Price in charge of health and human services—it would be hard for a dystopian novel to invent all this. Its 2017, but we live in 1984. The ministry of truth tells lie; the ministry of peace fights war; ignorance is strength and no lie is too bold.

If only the masses truly understood what they did. They thought their TV was broke so they decided to try something new. Call knowledgeable people? No! Instead they banged on their TV with a hammer. Might work. Probably will make things worse.

And let me add—a society that has no respect for truth will make bad decisions. Replacing the rule of law and the pre-eminence of reason with the rule of the passions is a prescription for tyranny and anarchy, as Aristotle told us long ago. 

Sure one can wonder how we got from Nixon’s southern strategy, to Reagan saying government was the problem, to Delay’s and Gingrich’s moral corruption, to Republican obstructionism and disdain for truth, to the Tea Party, to the freedom caucus, to nearly one-party fascist rule. But this is the job of historians and political scientists to unpack. The past is closed, and we must move forward. It is a dark time.

How To Cope 

My reader doesn’t want more gloom and doom or historical analysis—she wants advice about coping. Lacking any special insights, I’ll just try to think the problem out as I write.

It seems there are at least two things you’re coping with today if you are relatively conscious of what’s going on politically. First, the bad things that have already happened, and second, the bad things that might happen as a result of this past.

As for what has already happened, you can’t do anything about it, so it is pointless to waste time thinking about it—to worry is an exercise in mindlessness. As for what might happen, we must remember that we don’t know the future. Many things we worry about never happen, so many of our worries waste our energy. I know this is easier said than done, but realizing the pointlessness of worry is a start.

What is not pointless is doing something to make the dystopian future less likely. This may include writing, marching, creating beauty, getting politically active, or simply helping those few that you can help. It might mean being a good parent, so that we less psychologically damaged individuals running the government; it might mean learning more about marital conflict resolution; it might mean meditating to achieve greater mind control; it might be all of these things and more. But it definitely means doing something as opposed to ruminating about all the bad things that are happening.

Yet here we must also remember the sage advice of the Stoics, Buddhists, and Hindus. As they long ago discovered, you can’t control the world, you can only influence it. You shouldn’t be indifferent, passive, or apathetic; rather, you should discharge your duties to help the world, remembering that you can’t control the outcome of your efforts. Thus, as long as you do what you can, you shouldn’t feel shame or guilt.

This advice may seem trite, but I don’t know what else to say. Change what you can; ignore what you can’t, and recognize the difference between the two, to paraphrase Niebuhr’s serenity prayer. Reflecting on this, it isn’t surprising that we can’t say much more than has been said in the 10,000 years of human culture. It isn’t likely that we would discover something that all the sages and seers missed. Perhaps then trite isn’t the right word for our advice. Our advice may lack originality, but that doesn’t make it worthless.

In short my advice is: 1) learn to control the mental disturbance caused by obsession over a past that you can’t change, or a future that may not come to be; and 2) act now to better the world and ourselves based on the best knowledge available, with the recognition that you can’t control the outcome of your efforts. We are suggesting a middle way between the helplessness and impotence that accompanies worry, and the hubris of thinking we can perfect the world, and are responsible that perfection.

Note – For more on this topic see yesterday’s excellent article in Salon “Beware the Trump brain rot: The cognitive effects of this administration’s actions could be disastrous.”)

These Two Pieces of Advice in World Literature 

The most profound statement of these points—that we try to control our minds and fight to better the world—that I’m aware of come from French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes, who wrote about the peace that accompanies the stoical mind, and the Greek novelist and essayist Nikos Kazantzakis, who wrote deeper than anyone I’ve ever encountered about fighting the battle of life, and taking pride in our efforts.

Here is Descartes:

My third maxim was to endeavour always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than the order of the world, and in general, accustom myself to the persuasion that, except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power; so that when we have done our best in respect of things external to us, all wherein we fail of success is to be held, as regards us, absolutely impossible: and this single principle seemed to me sufficient to prevent me from desiring for the future anything which I could not obtain, and thus render me contented; for since our will naturally seeks those objects alone which the understanding represents as in some way possible of attainment, it is plain, that if we consider all external goods as equally beyond our power, we shall no more regret the absence of such goods as seem due to our birth, when deprived of them without any fault of ours, than our not possessing the kingdoms of China or Mexico; and thus making, so to speak, a virtue of necessity, we shall no more desire health in disease, or freedom in imprisonment, than we now do bodies incorruptible as diamonds, or the wings of birds to fly with. But I confess there is need of prolonged discipline and frequently repeated meditation to accustom the mind to view all objects in this light; and I believe that in this chiefly consisted the secret of the power of such philosophers as in former times were enabled to rise superior to the influence of fortune, and amid suffering and poverty, enjoy a happiness which their gods might have envied. For, occupied incessantly with the consideration of the limits prescribed to their power by nature, they became so entirely convinced that nothing was at their disposal except their own thoughts, that this conviction was of itself sufficient to prevent their entertaining any desire of other objects; and over their thoughts they acquired a sway so absolute, that they had some ground on this account for esteeming themselves more rich and more powerful, more free and more happy, than other men who, whatever be the favours heaped on them by nature and fortune, if destitute of this philosophy, can never command the realization of all their desires.

And here is Kazantzakis (with my commentary):

Kazantzakis believed that the meaning of our lives is to find our place in a chain that links us to the more subtle and advanced forms of life that will, hopefully, arise in the future.

We all ascend together, swept up by a mysterious and invisible urge. Where are we going? No one knows. Don’t ask, mount higher! Perhaps we are going nowhere, perhaps there is no one to pay us the rewarding wages of our lives. So much the better! For thus may we conquer the last, the greatest of all temptations—that of Hope.[i]

I remember being devastated the first time I read those lines. I had rejected my religious upbringing, but why couldn’t I at least hope that life was meaningful? Why was Kazantzakis taking that from me too? His point was that the honest and brave struggle without hope or expectation that they will ever arrive, ever be anchored, ever be at home. Like Ulysses, the only home Kazantzakis found was in the search itself. The meaning of life, he thought, is found in the search and the struggle, not in any hope of success.

In the prologue of his autobiography, Report to Greco, Kazantzakis claims that we need to go beyond both hope and despair. Both expectation of paradise and fear of hell prevent us from focusing on what is in front of us, our heart’s true homeland … the search for meaning itself. We ought to be warriors struggling bravely to create meaning without expecting anything in return. Unafraid of the abyss, we should face it courageously and run toward it. Ultimately we find joy by taking full responsibility for our lives—joyous in the face of tragedy. Life is essentially struggle, and if in the end it judges us we should bravely reply, like Kazantzakis did:

General, the battle draws to a close and I make my report. This is where and how I fought. I fell wounded, lost heart, but did not desert. Though my teeth clattered from fear, I bound my forehead tightly with a red handkerchief to hide the blood, and ran to the assault.”[ii]

Surely that is as courageous a sentiment in response to the ordeal of human life as has been offered in world literature. It is a bold rejoinder to the awareness of the inevitable decline of our minds and bodies, as well as to the existential agonies that permeate life. It finds the meaning of life in our actions, our struggles, our battles, our roaming, our wandering, and our journeying. It appeals to nothing other than what we know and experience—and yet finds meaning and contentment there.

Just outside the city walls of Heraklion Crete one can visit Kazantzakis’ gravesite, located there as the Orthodox Church denied his being buried in a Christian cemetery. On the jagged, cracked, unpolished Cretan marble you will find no name to designate who lies there, no dates of birth or death, only an epitaph in Greek carved in the stone. It translates: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

The gravesite of Kazantzakis.

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[i] James Christian, Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering, 11th ed. (Belmont CA.: Wadsworth, 2012), 656.
[ii] Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco (New York: Touchstone, 1975), 23

In Defense of Optimism

The Australian philosophers Michael and Caldwell make a pragmatic case for optimism in, “The Consolations of Optimism.” (This relates to my last post, “Hope: A Defense.”)They argue that the optimist and pessimist may agree on the facts, but not on their attitude toward those facts: “optimism is an attitude, not a theoretical position.”[i] So optimism doesn’t assume any cluster of beliefs, and can’t be undermined for being irrational like a belief can.

The reason for preferring optimism has nothing to do with how the world is—optimism isn’t a description of reality. Instead, optimism is reasonable because it helps us live well. To better understand this reasonable optimism, the authors turn to the Stoics. We often characterize the Stoics as emotionless and indifferent; individuals who put up with their fate, accept life’s shortcomings, and live without hope. Such resignation toward the life is cynical and pessimistic. But the authors interpret stoicism differently. Stoics, they say, advocate embracing what we cannot change rather than fighting against it. Thus Stoicism is realistic, not cynical.

And a stoical attitude doesn’t mean not caring or being indifferent to unpleasant things, rather it doesn’t add lamenting to one’s caring. (This caring is like my hoping or wishing.) Stoics don’t deny that pain and suffering exist—because that is to deny reality—but accept such evils without resenting them. The Stoics reject responding to situations with strong, irrational emotions that would cloud judgment, counseling instead to remain calm and optimistic.“This way of experiencing pains without losing equanimity is the key to stoical optimism.”[ii] Optimism leads to happiness and is therefore reasonable.

The pessimist demands things from reality and resents that reality does not provide them. Optimists are typically more accepting of the world’s limitations. Of course optimists may lose their optimism when bad fortune strikes, but they are generally happier than pessimistics—this is the rational ground for optimism. Yet optimism is not wishful thinking. Wishful thinking involves beliefs that are false, whereas optimism is an attitude that does not necessarily involve beliefs.

Furthermore, optimism has other positive results, as the case of Hume’s attitude toward his impending death reveals. Diagnosed with a fatal disease, Hume began his ruminations on his situation thus: “I was ever more disposed to see the favorable than unfavorable side of things: a turn of mind which it is more happy to possess, than to be born to an estate of ten thousand a year… It is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at the present.”[iii] While many fear death or react variously in ways that disturb tranquility “Hume’s calm and sanguine resignation stands like a beacon of reasonableness, calling out for emulation.”[iv]

To summarize, optimism is a reasonable response to life because we are happier, and our lives go better, when we are optimists-–although we know that our efforts may be in vain.

Optimism Reconsidered

Saul Alinsky also made the case for optimism:

My personal philosophy is anchored in optimism. It must be, for optimism brings with it hope, a future with a purpose, and therefore, a will to fight for a better world. The question arises: Why the struggle, the conflict, the heartbreak, the danger, the sacrifice? Why the constant climb? Our answer is the same as that which a mountain climber gives when he is asked why he does what he does: “Because it is there.” Because life is there ahead of you and either one tests oneself in its challenges or huddles in the valleys in a dreamless day-to-day existence whose only purpose is the preservation of an illusory security and safety.

My friend and graduate school mentor Richard Blackwell conveyed a similar theme in a hand-written letter to me more than twenty years ago:

As to your “what does it all mean” questions, you do not really think that I have strong clear replies when no one else since Plato has had much success! It may be more fruitful to ask about what degree of confidence one can expect from attempted answers, since too high expectations are bound to be dashed. It’s a case of Aristotle’s advice not to look for more confidence than the subject matter permits. At any rate, if I am right about there being a strong volitional factor here, why not favor an optimistic over a pessimistic attitude, which is something one can control to some degree? This is not an answer, but a way to live.

To summarize, all of the above writers agree; optimism is beneficial. In my next posts, I’ll discuss other supporters of hope; Victor Frankl on tragic optimism; and consider critics of hope including Kazantzakis, Nietzsche, and the Stoics.

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[i] Michaelis Michael & Peter Caldwell, “The Consolations of Optimism,” (2004) in Life, death, and meaning, ed. David Benatar, (Lanham MD.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 383.
[ii] Michael & Caldwell, “The Consolations of Optimism,” 386.
[iii] Michael & Caldwell, “The Consolations of Optimism,” 389.
[iv] Michael & Caldwell, “The Consolations of Optimism,” 390.

A Defense of Hope

Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope … is not the same as joy that things are going well … but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.                                                                                     ~  Vaclav Havel

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 27, 2017.)

Optimism As an Expectation About the Future

I begin with optimism, a concept closely related to hope. The American Heritage Dictionary defines optimism as: “A tendency to expect the best possible outcome …” Optimists believe that things will improve, while pessimists believe that things will get worse. So optimism is a dispositional attitude which reflects an expectation that future conditions will work out for the best. I reject such optimism because I don’t expect good outcomes, or believe that things will get better in the future.

Optimism As an Attitude in the Present

The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers another meaning of optimism: “an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events …” So optimism in this sense refers, not to expectations about the future, but to an attitude that we have in the present. This is the kind of optimism that sees the glass as half-full rather than half-empty, or looks on the bright side of life. Optimism as a positive attitude is generally beneficial—you tend to be happier seeing the glass half full—while expectations for the future set us up for disappointment. I recommend this attitudinal optimism, as long as it excludes expectations.

Hope As an Expectation About the Future

The American Heritage Dictionary offers this definition of hope: “To wish for something with expectation of its fulfillment. To look forward to with confidence or expectation.” Here again the emphasis is on future expectations. And I reject such hope because I don’t expect or anticipate that my wishes will come true. 

Hope As an Attitude in the Present That Motivates Action

But hope, like optimism, can also refer to an attitude we have in the present; a kind of hope illuminated by contrasting it with its opposite—despair. When I despair, I no longer care; I just give up because my actions feel like they don’t matter. Why take the test if I’m sure I’m going to fail? Why play the match if I’m sure I’m going to lose? Why fight for truth and justice if they can’t be realized?

But hope is the opposite. Hope entails caring, acting, and striving. To hope is to reject despair—to care although it might not matter; to act in the face of the unknown; to express fidelity to our comrades; and to not give up. I don’t know if my actions will improve my life or better the world, but I can choose to hope, care, act, and strive without expecting success. So this hope isn’t about future expectations; it’s an attitude which informs my present. And it’s not about resignation or acceptance. Instead, hope is the wellspring for the cares and concerns which manifest themselves in action.

The Difference Between Optimism and Hope

The key difference between optimism and hope is that optimism—even if devoid of expectations—usually relies on a belief that a desirable outcome is probable, whereas hope is independent of probability assessments. I may hope for outcomes that are very unlikely, but it is hard to be optimistic in such cases. Put another way, attitudinal hope conquers despair similar to how optimism bests pessimism. So attitudinal hopefulness is a stronger version of attitudinal optimism because despair is more devastating than pessimism.

Hope Is an Attitude That Makes My Life Better

But what is the point of all this hoping, caring, acting, and striving if we don’t know if we will succeed? One answer is that an attitude of hoping and caring that leads to action is inherently good. Consider the joy we take in playing games, solving puzzles, or writing blog posts, even if such actions may be objectively pointless. Such actions are a form of playing. We often do these things, not for any future rewards, but because we want to, as we find doing them fulfilling.

But devoid of hope, in the grip of despair, we wouldn’t even try to play the game or solve the puzzle or write the blog, and we would miss the inherent joy such actions might bring. Moreover, if I despair, I won’t enjoy my life as much as if I had adopted a hopeful attitude. So there is also a pragmatic reason for adopting a hopeful attitude—it makes my life go better; it helps me live well; it makes me happier. So hope is both inherently and instrumentally good for us.

Attitudinal hopefulness rejects despair and leads to caring and acting. I adopt attitudinal hopefulness because it spurs action and makes my life better. I recommend such hope. 

Hope As Wishing Without Expectations

Yet hope is more than simply an attitude we adopt in the present; hope also entails having certain desires, dreams, wants, or wishes for the future. (This is the fundamental distinction between the act of hoping and the objects of our hopes.) Now I have already rejected such hopes if they include the idea of expectations. But I can have hopes, desires, dreams, wishes, or wants without any sense that they will be fulfilled. In this sense there is nothing intellectually objectionable about having hopes and dreams—so long as there is a realistic possibility that they can be fulfilled. However, this hopeful wishing is not faith. I don’t believe or expect that my wishes will come true, although I imagine that they could, and I’m not hoping for something that’s impossible.

Hope As Wishing Leads to Action

Attitudinal hope in the present moment rejects despair, makes our lives better, and spurs action. But so too can hope—as wishing without expectation—motivate action. Wishful hoping provides the impetus for acting to fulfill those hopes, which in turn makes the fulfillment of those hopes more likely.

This connection between hopeful wishing and action is easy to see. For example, suppose I hope to be a lawyer. If for some reason this is impossible, then it is counter-productive to have this false hope. But if nothing prevents me from becoming a lawyer, then the desire to be one motivates me to act toward that end. So hoping like this is not a false hope, as long as my hopes are realistic. In short, my hopes and dreams give me reasons to act.

Wishful hopefulness also rejects despair and motivates action. I recommend this hope. 

What Do I Hope For?

What then are the objects of my hopes? They are relatively vague or indeterminate. I hope that something better will emerge, that things will work out for the best, that my life and universal life are meaningful, that truth, goodness, and beauty matter, that justice ultimately prevails, and that the world can be improved. In short, I hope that somehow it all makes sense, even though philosophical nihilism constantly beckons.

What Is the Source of This Hope?

I don’t know the exact sources of these hopes, but I feel them with an ineffable fervency. To best explain, I wax poetically. Maybe the source of these hopes is some cosmic longing within me, or perhaps what I call me is just misnomer for the longing of some cosmic consciousness. Perhaps, as the French existentialist Gabriel Marcel put it, “Hope consists in asserting that there is at the heart of being, beyond all data, beyond all inventories and all calculations, a mysterious principle which is in connivance with me.”1

These poetic descriptions are a bit metaphysically speculative for my tastes. I’d prefer to say this hoping emanates from biological and cultural sources. Our biological drives to survive and reproduce, combined with the emergence of consciousness and culture, steer us toward hoping and acting. Having hope benefitted our ancestors, made their lives go better, and aided their survival. In short, we are the descendants of those who hoped.

Losing Hope

Still, any of us can lose our hopeful attitude; we can give in to despair. And that’s because hope and despair exist in a dialectical relationship. We can respond to despair with hope, and within hope there is always the possibility of despair. To despair is to say there is nothing worthwhile in the world; to hope is to affirm that your concerns, your actions, your love, and your life, all matter.

Still it is easy from the safety of my study, with an adequate supply of life’s necessities, to opine about the value of hope. No doubt some people are in hopeless situations. Perhaps they are starving, fleeing violence, in endless pain, or in solitary confinement. For them hope is no salve, and their lives possibly pointless. These hopeless situations should make us all weep.

But notice what hope recommends, at least for those of us lucky enough to have our basic needs met. We are called upon to forgo acceptance and resignation, and to try to improve the world. Be sympathetic, but also act! We may not succeed, but we can try. For hope is better than despair and, even if we all ultimately face the abyss, we can meet it no better.

Conclusion

We should adopt this attitudinal hopefulness—expressed as caring and striving—because it is part of our nature, spurs action, and makes our lives better. We should also adopt wishful hopefulness—wishing without expectations—for the same reasons.

I don’t know if life is meaningful; if truth, beauty, goodness and justice matter; if there is any recompense for my efforts; if suffering can be ameliorated; or if anything matters at all. I don’t know if my wishes will be fulfilled, or my hopeful attitude can be sustained. But I see no value in giving into despair, at least not yet. For now I still have hope.

I conclude with a famous passage about hope from William James‘ essay, “The Will To Believe.” I first encountered it more than 40 years ago, and it still moves me:

We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. … If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.2

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1. The Philosophy of Existentialism. Translated by Manya Harari. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1995) 28.

2. William James, Pragmatism and Other Writings (New York: Penguin, 2000), x. (He attributes the quote to Fitz James Stephen.)

Kazantzakis’ Epitaph: Rejecting Hope


Now that I have summarized some of the main ideas in Kazantzakis’ thinking, and have written a detailed summary of his, The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, I would like to consider further his idea of hope, which I first encountered in this passage:

We all ascend together, swept up by a mysterious and invisible urge. Where are we going? No one knows. Don’t ask, mount higher! Perhaps we are going nowhere, perhaps there is no one to pay us the rewarding wages of our lives. So much the better! For thus may we conquer the last, the greatest of all temptations—that of Hope. [i]

I remember being devastated the first time I read those lines so many years ago. I had rejected my religious upbringing as a youth, and never regretted my decision, but why couldn’t I still hope that life had meaning, that things matter, that there is ultimate justice? Why was Kazantzakis taking away these hopes?

After all, I had comforted distraught students over the years saying that, although we don’t know that life has meaning, we can still hope that it does. Often these students were distressed by the meaninglessness and absurdity they encountered in existential thinkers like Sartre and Camus, or by the erosion of their religious beliefs after classes in philosophy of religion. Was I wrong to comfort them with vague hopes?

Kazantzakis thinks rejecting hope is so important that in, The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, it is one of the three duties to be fulfilled in preparation for the spiritual life. The first duty is to bravely accept our cognitive limitations, and the second duty is to accept the heart’s anguish at being unable to find meaning in life. This leads to the third duty:

The moment is ripe: leave the heart and the mind behind you, go forward, take the third step. Free yourself from the simple complacency of the mind that thinks to put all things in order and hopes to subdue phenomena. Free yourself from the terror of the heart that seeks and hopes to find the essence of things. Conquer the last, the greatest temptation of all: Hope. This is the third duty.

Moreover his epitaph, carved on his tombstone in Greek reads: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” 

Analysis of the Epitaph

A few have questioned the translation of the epitaph. The most common English translation is: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” A few others translated it: “I expect nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”  As this commentator explains:

The first translation may be the most literal, but the second — at least in my view — is the one that best captures the true spirit of Kazantzakis’ philosophy. Influenced by Buddhist teachings, Kazantzakis was not opposed to that form of hope that is often coupled with faith and optimism. He was opposed to hope that is based upon desire and  expectations of favorable outcomes, because he believed that desire and expectations, like fear, keep people focused on future events, rendering them incapable of living and experiencing life in the present moment.

The appeal of this second translation is that it allows for hope. For to hope for something is not necessarily to expect something. (I can hope to win the lottery without expecting to.) So perhaps Kazantzakis only rejects hoping with expectation, but allows us to hope without expectation. And what is it to hope without expectation? This would be akin to wishing or wanting without expecting that our wishes or wants are fulfilled.

Now this raises another question. Can we hope without there being an object of our hoping? Can we just hope, without hoping for something? I don’t think so. No more than we can wish or want without wishing or wanting for something. But for Kazantzakis, to hope for something—say truth or meaning or the betterment of the world—requires some justification for believing that our hopes have a good chance of being fulfilled. Yet Kazantzakis’ first two duties specifically reject the notion that the mind or heart can justify believing in any of these things—hence the duty to overcome hope.

So while I would prefer to say that Kazantzakis believes that we should have optimism or hope without expectation, he doesn’t believe this. The usual translation fits best with his other writings; he is advising us to reject hope of any kind.

Nietzsche

To better understand Kazantzakis’ view consider how Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, distinguishes between: 1) weak pessimism; 2) strong pessimism; and 3) Socratic optimism. Nietzsche associates weak pessimism with Eastern renunciation; strong pessimism with the Eastern notion of harmonizing contradictions; and Socratic optimism with Western philosophy’s emphasis on: logic, beauty, goodness, and truth. For Nietzsche pessimism refers to the fact that reality is cruel, ugly, irrational, and impermanent, while optimism is the view that reality is orderly, intelligible, and open to betterment. Optimists mistakenly believes that they can overcome the abyss and make the world better by action, but Nietzsche wants us to see reality realistically and become pessimists.

Yet Nietzsche didn’t want us to be weak pessimists who deny the passions and seek nothingness like the Buddha. Instead, he wanted us to be strong pessimists who affirm life rather than renounce it, who fill life with their enthusiasm, and who take pleasure in what is hard and terrible. Salvation and freedom come from accepting the contradictory and destructive nature of reality, and responding with joyous affirmation. In Nietzsche’s language, Kazantzakis was a strong pessimist.

Conclusion

Why then should we abandoned hope according to Kazantzakis? Because if we will only struggle when hopeful, then hope impedes our quest, since so often we have no reason to hope. Rather than hoping for good outcomes, or to understand with the mind or heart, we should ascend and move forward. Though tempted by optimistic views, the courageous renounce hope, and carry on in its absence.

Kazantzakis includes the rejection of hope among his sacred duties, and in his short epitaph. We may want to think otherwise, but Kazantzakis believed that by rejecting all hope, we find true freedom. To think otherwise distorts his thinking.

Buddha greatly influenced Kazantzakis, but on the topic of hope Nietzsche was his guide. (Kazantzakis devoted an entire chapter of his autobiography to Nietzsche.) If there are any doubts about Kazantzakis’ rejection of hope or optimism, this profound passage from Report to Greco should put the matter to rest:

Nietzsche taught me to distrust every optimistic theory. I knew that [the human] heart has constant need of consolation, a need to which that super-shrewd sophist the mind is constantly ready to minister. I began to feel that every religion which promises to fulfill human desires is simply a refuge for the timid, and unworthy of a true man … We ought, therefore, to choose the most hopeless of world views, and if by chance we are deceiving ourselves and hope does exist, so much the better. At all events, in this way man’s soul will not be humiliated, and neither God nor the devil will ever be able to ridicule it by saying that it became intoxicated like a hashish-smoker and fashioned an imaginary paradise out of naiveté and cowardice—in order to cover the abyss. The faith most devoid of hope seemed to me not the truest, perhaps, but surely the most valorous. I considered the metaphysical hope an alluring bait which true men do not condescend to nibble. I wanted whatever was most difficult, in other words most worthy of man, of the man who does not whine, entreate, or go about begging. Yes that was what I wanted. Three cheers for Nietzsche, the murderer of God. He it was who gave me the courage to say, that is what I want!

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  1. I derived these insights from Peter Bien’s: Kazantzakis, Volume 2: Politics of the Spirit (Princeton Modern Greek Studies).