Summary of Kazantzakis’: The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises

(Note – It is unusual for an atheist like myself to read a book like this, but I wanted to understand the origins of Kazantzakis’ rejection of hope. What I found therein was some of the most poetic imagery I have ever encountered. I found a heart longing for truth and meaning, and a voice that spoke to me from the grave. I am better for the experience of having reading it. I have written previously about Kazantzakis’ life and philosophy here.)

“Prologue” – Life is characterized by ascent toward immorality, and descent toward death.
“The Preparation” – Duties: 1) accept mental limits; 2) create with the heart; 3) reject hope.
“The March – We should transcend: 1) ego; 2) race; 3) humanity; and 4) the earth.
“The Vision” – The word god refers to an anti-entropic power.
“The Action” – Our struggles make god a reality.
“The Silence” – In the end we merge with the abyss.

The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises (1923), serves as a guide to the spiritual life, and tries to help us understand the evolving nature of the divine. In the book’s prologue, Kazantzakis differentiates between two forces:

WE COME from a dark abyss, we end in a dark abyss, and we call the luminous interval life. As soon as we are born the return begins, at once the setting forth and the coming back; we die in every moment. Because of this many have cried out: The goal of life is death! But as soon as we are born we begin the struggle to create, to compose, to turn matter into life; we are born in every moment. Because of this many have cried out: The goal of ephemeral life is immortality! In the temporary living organism these two streams collide: (a) the ascent toward composition, toward life, toward immortality; (b) the descent toward decomposition, toward matter, toward death … It is our duty, therefore, to grasp that vision which can embrace and harmonize these two enormous, timeless, and indestructible forces, and with this vision to modulate our thinking and our action.

These considerations led Kazantzakis to enumerate three duties in the first section of the work, which he titled: “The Preparation.” The first duty refers to the mind’s power to know a reality beyond appearances.

… I do not know whether behind appearances there lives and moves a secret essence superior to me. Nor do I ask; I do not care. I … paint with a full palette a gigantic and gaudy curtain before the abyss. Do not say, ‘Draw the curtain that I may see the painting.’ The curtain is the painting.

Here are echoes of Kant’s distinction between the noumenal and phenomenal worlds. But while Kant said we can never know the “things in themselves,” Kazantzakis says we can’t even know if there is a reality beyond appearances. He concludes that the mind must give up its desire to know truth, assuming such a thing even exists. This leads to the first duty:

“To SEE and accept the boundaries of the human mind without vain rebellion, and in these severe limitations to work ceaselessly without protest—this is where man’s first duty lies.”

What attitude should we take toward this duty? Kazantzakis tells us:

I recognize these limitations, I accept them with resignation, bravery, and love … In sudden dreadful moments a thought flashes through me: “This is all a cruel and futile game, without beginning, without end, without meaning.” But again I yoke myself swiftly to the wheels of necessity, and all the universe begins to revolve around me … Discipline is the highest of all virtues … This is how … you may determine the omnipotence of the mind amid appearances and the incapacity of the mind beyond appearances—before you set out for salvation. You may not otherwise be saved.

I hear echoes of the Stoics and Buddhist in these passages. Accept that your knowledge is limited, but remember too that a disciplined mind is free. The second duty refers to the heart’s desire to merge with reality, and to deal with the anguish of the search for meaning.

I have one longing only: to grasp what is hidden behind appearances, to ferret out that mystery which brings me to birth and then kills me, to discover if behind the visible and unceasing stream of the world an invisible and immutable presence is hiding. If the mind cannot … then if only the heart could!

And what does the heart discern? “Behind all appearances, I divine a struggling essence. I want to merge with it. I feel that behind appearances this struggling essence is also striving to merge with my heart.” Now the mind and the heart battle. The mind is limited, but the heart rejects limits; it wants immortality. The mind wants the heart to “become serene, and surrender” but the heart protests: “Who plants us on this earth without asking our permission? Who uproots us from this earth without asking our permission?” The tension, between what mind can know and what heart wants, appears irresolvable.

Kazantzakis proceeds by illuminating the human condition with poetic imagery:

I am a weak, ephemeral creature made of mud and dream. But I feel all the powers of the universe whirling within me. Before they crush me, I want to open my eyes for a moment and to see them. I set my life no other purpose. I want to find a single justification that I may live and bear this dreadful daily spectacle of disease, of ugliness, of injustice, of death. I once set out from a dark point, the Womb, and now I proceed to another dark point, the Tomb. A power hurls me out of the dark pit and another power drags me irrevocably toward the dark pit.

As for our fellow travelers he says:

I strive to discover how to signal my companions before I die, how to give them a hand, how to spell out for them in time one complete word at least, to tell them what I think this procession is, and toward what we go. And how necessary it is for all of us together to put our steps and hearts in harmony …

And what is the meaning of it all?

… the purpose of Earth is not life, it is not man. Earth has existed without these, and it will live on without them. They are but the ephemeral sparks of its violent whirling. Let us unite, let us hold each other tightly, let us merge our hearts … so long as the warmth of this earth endures, so long as no earthquakes, cataclysms, icebergs or comets come to destroy us … let us create for Earth a brain and a heart, let us give a human meaning to the superhuman struggle. This anguish is our second duty.

The third duty derives from the failure of the mind or the heart to ultimately satisfy his thirst for meaning, or god.

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.

Yet the rejection of hope does not imply passivity—we still should strive. “We fight because we like fighting, we sing even though there is no ear to hear us. We work even though there is no master to pay us our wages when night falls.” This should remind us that we are radically impermanent:

I revolve for a moment in air, I breathe, my heart beats, my mind glows, and suddenly the earth opens, and I vanish … Say farewell to all things at every moment … Look about you: All these bodies that you see shall rot. There is no salvation. Look at them well: They live, work, love, hope. Look again: Nothing exists! The generations of man rise from the earth and fall into the earth again.

How should we respond to all this? He answers, as usual, with beautiful prose:

The endeavors and virtues of man accumulate, increase, and mount to the sky. Where are we going? Do not ask! Ascend, descend. There is no beginning and no end … What is our goal? To be shipwrecked! … Without hope, but with bravery, it is your duty to set your prow calmly toward the abyss. And to say: “Nothing exists!” … Neither life nor death. I watch mind and matter hunting each other like two nonexistent erotic phantasms—merging, begetting, disappearing—and I say: “This is what I want!”

We don’t ask where we are going; we proceed; we ascend; we find meaning in the struggle. He concludes this section with what will be his epitaph:

I know now: I do not hope for anything. I do not fear anything, I have freed myself from both the mind and the heart, I have mounted much higher, I am free. This is what I want. I want nothing more. I have been seeking freedom.

These preparatory exhortations are meant to free us from the hopes and fears that trouble us, and which impede both individual development and the ascent of the species. With our duties in place, he now moves on to the second section: The March.” It begins with a cry from within human consciousness to help free some upwardly striving reality. 

… when I hear the Cry, my emotions and the Universe are divided into two camps. Someone within me is in danger, he raises his hands and shouts: “Save me!” Someone within me climbs, stumbles, and shouts: “Help me! Which of the two eternal roads shall I choose? … Of the two, I choose the ascending path. Why? For no intelligible reason, without any certainty … “Upward! Upward! Upward!” my heart shouts, and I follow it trustingly. I feel this is what the dread primordial cry asks of me … I do not know from where he comes or where he goes. I clutch at his onward march … I listen to his panting struggle …

Some invisible tide seems to be moving forward and upward, but it needs our help to proceed. There are four steps on this journey or march. (Some interpreters call these things we must transcend to unite with god or reality. I prefer of them as successive, expanding circles of consciousness which manifest the ascent of the cosmos.)

The first step, describing the transcendence or ascent he calls “The Ego.” We are physically, intellectually, and emotionally deficient; we have a body, brain, and heart, but we should “struggle to subdue them to a rhythm superior to that of the mind, harsher than that of my heart—to the ascending rhythm of the Universe.” This is clearly Kazantzakis’ god, this evolutionary process by which higher levels of being and consciousness emerge.

“Where are we going? Shall we ever win? What is the purpose of all this fighting? Be silent! Soldiers never question!” … But within me a deathless Cry … continues to shout. For whether I want to or not, I am … part of the visible and the invisible Universe. We are one. The powers which labor within me, the powers which goad me on to live, the powers which goad me on to die are … its own powers also … an onrush of the Universe fears, hopes, and shouts with me … It is not I but He who shouts.

The second step, describing the second thing we must overcome, he calls, “The Race.”

“THE CRY IS not yours. It is not you talking, but innumerable ancestors talking with your mouth. It is not you who desire, but innumerable generations of descendants longing with your heart … Future generations do not move far from you … They live, desire, and act in your loins and your heart … You are not one; you are a body of troops, One of your faces lights up for a moment under the sun. Then suddenly it vanishes, and another, a younger one, lights up behind you. The race of men from which you come is the huge body of the past, the present, and the future. It is the face itself; you are a passing expression … “Do not die that we may not die,” the dead cry out within you … “Finish our work! Finish our work! … Deliver us!”

Still the individual is unique and important, for “As soon as you were born, a new possibility was born with you … you brought a new rhythm, a new desire, a new idea, a fresh sorrow … you enriched your ancestral body …” Now it is up to you to carry on:

How shall you confront life and death, virtue and fear? All the race … asks questions … and lies waiting in agony. You have a great responsibility. You do not govern now only your own small, insignificant existence. You are a throw of the dice on which, for a moment, the entire fate of your race is gambled. Everything you do reverberates throughout a thousand destinies. As you walk, you cut open and create that river bed into which the stream of your descendants shall enter and flow  … “I am not done! I am not done!” Let this vision inflame you at every moment.

We then must we do?

… Someone is fighting to escape you, to tear himself away from your flesh, to be freed of you. A seed in your loins, a seed in your brains, does not want to remain with you any more … A power greater than you passes through you … shouting: “Gamble the present and all things certain, gamble them for the future and all things uncertain! Hold nothing in reserve … We may be lost, we may be saved. Do not ask. Place the whole world in the hands of danger every single moment …”

Now Kazantzakis leads us to the third step “Mankind.” We must transcend, not only our ego and our race, but humanity itself and its humble beginnings:

See how he has detached himself from the animal, how he struggles to stand upright, to co-ordinate his inarticulate cries, to feed the flame between his hearthstones, to feed his mind amid the bones of his skull. Let pity overwhelm you for this creature who one morning detached himself from the ape, naked, defenseless, without teeth or horns, with only a spark of fire in his soft skull … look at the centuries behind you. What do you see? Hairy, blood-splattered beasts rising in tumult out of the mud …

The “multitudes ascend like grass out of the soil and fall into the soil again, fertile manure for future offspring.” This leads to the realization “of blind, heartless, brainless, ravenous powers” that permeate existence. “We sail on a storm-tossed sea … The centuries are thick, dark waves that rise and fall, steeped in blood …” How should we respond?

Gaze on the dark sea without staggering, confront the abyss every moment without illusion or impudence or fear. WITHOUT ILLUSION, impudence, or fear. But this is not enough; take a further step: battle to give meaning to the confused struggles of man.

And how might we do this?

Encompass through one century, then through two centuries, through three, through ten, through as many centuries as you can bear, the onward march of mankind. Train your eye to gaze on people moving in great stretches of time. Immerse yourself in this vision with patience, with love and high disinterestedness, until slowly the world begins to breathe within you …

All of this brings Kazantzakis full circle back to the voyages of Odysseus:

We are … out of a gigantic Odyssey … to give meaning to our voyage, to battle undauntedly … and then … to erect in our brains, marrow of our marrow, our Ithaca. Out of an ocean of nothingness, with fearful struggle, the work of man rises slowly like a small island. Within this arena … generations work and love and hope and vanish. New generations tread on the corpses of their fathers, continue the work above the abyss and struggle to tame the dread mystery. How? By cultivating a single field, by kissing a woman, by studying a stone, an animal, an idea …

Against the powers which seek to overwhelm us, we can live honorably:

The mind is a seafaring laborer whose work is to build a seawall in chaos. From all these generations, from all these joys and sorrows … a single voice rings out, pure and serene … because, though it contains all the sins and disquietudes of struggling man, it yet flies beyond them all and mounts higher still.

Now that the ego, the race, and humanity have been transcended, there is the fourth step, what he calls “The Earth.” He begins: “IT IS NOT you who call … It is not only the white, yellow, and black generations of man calling … It is the entire Earth …” Here he connects us with something even larger than our ego or humanity—the entire history of cosmic evolution. But there is more to come, and here I find a prefiguring of transhumanism:

… I passed beyond the thick-leaved plants, I passed beyond the fishes, the birds, the beasts, the apes. I created man … and now I struggle to be rid of him … Only now … do we begin dimly to apprehend why the animals fought, begot, and died; and behind them the plants; and behind these the huge reserve of inorganic forces. We are moved by pity, gratitude, and esteem for our old comrades-in-arms. They toiled, loved, and died to open a road for our coming. We also toil with the same delight, agony, and exaltation for the sake of Someone Else who with every courageous deed of ours proceeds one step farther. All our struggle once more will have a purpose much greater than we … It is as though the whole of life were the visible, eternal pursuit of an invisible Bridegroom who … hunts down his untamed Bride, Eternity.

The third section, which lays out Kazantzakis’ conception of his god, is called “The Vision.” His view somewhat reminds me of Hegel’s idea of absolute spirit, although I’ve always been mystified by Hegel’s philosophy. For Kazantzakis Spirit is this march onward and upward, an anti-entropic power from which order emerges out of chaos. In his words: “God is struggling to heave upward … God struggles in every thing, his hands flung upward toward the light.” So it seems that all this ceaseless, cosmic striving is his god. The struggle to find god, is god. 

The fourth section, which encourages us to help god emerge, is called, “The Action”. Kazantzakis says that “God is imperiled. He is not almighty, that we may cross our hands, waiting for certain victory. He is not all-holy, that we may wait trusting for him to pity and to save us … He cannot be saved unless we save him with our own struggles; nor can we be saved unless he is saved.” This is a kind of process theology—divinity is becoming

It is not God who will save us—it is we who will save God, by battling, by creating, and by transmuting matter into spirit … But all our struggle may go lost. If we tire, if we grow faint of spirit, if we fall into panic, then the entire Universe becomes imperiled. Life is a crusade in the service of God. Whether we wished to or not, we set out as crusaders to free … that God buried in matter and in our souls … We do not only free God by battling and subduing the visible world about us; we also create God.

The final section of the work, which Kazantzakis added toward the end of his life, is titled “The Silence. It  first reiterates some of his previous themes: 

The ego, race, mankind, earth, theory and action, God—all these are phantasms … good only for those simple hearts that live in fear, good only for those flatulent souls that imagine they are pregnant. Where do we come from? Where are we going? What is the meaning of this life? That is what every heart is shouting …

Now he introduces the idea of the silence.

This ultimate stage of our spiritual exercise is called Silence. Not because its contents are the ultimate inexpressible despair or the ultimate inexpressible joy and hope. Nor because it is the ultimate knowledge which does not condescend to speak, or the ultimate ignorance which cannot. Silence means: Every person, after completing his service in all labors, reaches finally the highest summit of endeavor, beyond every labor, where he no longer struggles or shouts, where he ripens fully in silence … with the entire Universe. There he merges with the Abyss … How can you reach … the Abyss to make it fruitful? This cannot be expressed, cannot be narrowed into words, cannot be subjected to laws; every man is completely free and has his own special liberation. No form of instruction exists, no Savior exists to open up the road. No road exists to be opened.

This reminds me of Wittgenstein’s: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Or of Aquinas’: “Such things have been revealed to me in prayer that what I have written seems to me to be rubbish. And now in silence I will await the end of my life.” Or even Taoism’s: “The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao; The name that can be defined is not the unchanging name.” For Kazantzakis, our role is to align ourselves with the ascent toward higher levels of being and consciousness, but even these words don’t fully capture truth—neither the mind or heart can.

Kazantzakis’ conclusion to these spiritual exercises shocked me. After reiterating that god needs our help in order to become real, Kazantzakis says:

Blessed be all of those who free you and become united with you, Lord, and who say: ’You and I are one.’ And thrice blessed be those who bear on their shoulders and do not buckle under this great, sublime, and terrifying secret: ‘That even this one does not exist!’

Here it seems that Kazantzakis advocates nihilism—nothing ultimately matters. But I don’t think this is quite right. He is asking us to keep going, to always ascend. Like Odysseus, we should never anchor, as the journey itself is our true homeland. We may not know the meaning of our lives, but we can still play our small role as links in a chain that leads, hopefully, onward and upward. That is the meaning of our lives.    

It is hard to communicate the experience I have had reading Kazantzakis. I don’t share his theological sensibilities, but I was raised with them so I understand them. If he were alive today I think he would be a transhumanist, although he might reject all salvific narratives. Where are we going? As he said, don’t ask just proceed without fear, without hope, and you will be free. In future posts I will explore his rejection of hope.


[i]  Quoted in James Christian, Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering, 11th ed. (Belmont CA.: Wadsworth, 2012), 656.

All translations are from this site:

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