Category Archives: Philosophy-Popular

The Life and Philosophy of Nikos Kazantzakis

Kazantzakis black and white.jpg

“In my thirty-three years by his side, I cannot remember ever being ashamed by a single bad action on his part. He was honest, without guile, innocent, infinitely sweet toward others, fierce only toward himself.” ~ Elina Kazantzakis

I have previously expressed my affinity for the thought of the Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis (1883 – 1957). I would now like to highlight of a few more of his salient ideas. I begin with a disclaimer. Kazantzakis was a voluminous author who wrote a 33,333 line poem, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, six travel books, eight plays, twelve novels, and dozens of essays and letters; thus no brief summary does justice to the complexity of his thought. He was a giant of modern Greek literature, and nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in nine different years.[2] He is best known in the English-speaking world for his novels, Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ, as both were adapted to the cinema.


Report to Greco

In the prologue to Nikos Kazantzakis’ autobiography, Report to Greco, he writes that there are three kinds of souls: One wants to work; one doesn’t want to work too much; and one finds solace in being overworked. Kazantzakis thought of himself as the third type of soul.

Nikos Kazantzakis was born in 1883 in Heraklion, Greece into a peasant family surrounded by fishermen, farmers, and shepherds. Of his parents he said:

Both of my parents circulate in my blood, the one fierce, hard, and morose, the other tender, kind, and saintly. I have carried them all my days; neither has died … My lifelong effort is to reconcile them so that the one may give me his strength, the other her tenderness; to make the discord between them, which breaks out incessantly within me, turn to harmony inside their son’s heart.

As a child he was enrolled in a school run by French Catholics where he found religious history fascinating with its fairy tales of “serpents who talked, floods and rainbows, thefts and murders. Brother killed brother, father wanted to slaughter his only son, God intervened every two minutes and did His share of killing, people crossed the sea without wetting their feet.” Religion would become a lifelong object of his thinking.

After completing his secondary education, he sailed to Athens where he studied law for four years. He recalled the time with sadness: “My heart breaks when I bring to mind those years I spent as a university student in Athens. Though I looked, I saw nothing … this was not my road …” After he returned home he wandered the countryside, alone except for his books and notebooks. He had begun to feel the pull of writing: “Here is my road, here is duty.” He would never look back.

Indignation had overcome me in those early years. I remember that I could not bear the pyrotechnics of human existence: how life ignited for an instant, burst in the air in a myriad of color flares, then all at once vanished. Who ignited it? Who gave it such fascination and beauty, then suddenly, pitilessly, snuffed it out? “No,” I shouted, “I will not accept this, will not subscribe; I shall find some way to keep life from expiring.”

His Philosophy

In his early years Kazantzakis was moved by Nietzsche’s Dionysian (emotional and instinctive) vision of humans shaping themselves into the superman, and with Bergson’s Apollonian (rational and logical) idea of the elan vital. From Nietzsche he learned that by sheer force of will, humans can be free as long as they proceed without fear or hope of reward. From Bergson, under whom he studied in Paris, he came to believe that a vital evolutionary life force molds matter, potentially creating higher forms of life. Putting these ideas together, Kazantzakis declared that we find meaning in life by struggling against universal entropy, an idea he connected with god. For Kazantzakis the word god referred to “the anti-entropic life-force that organizes elemental matter into systems that can manifest ever more subtle and advanced forms of beings and consciousness.”[i]The meaning of our lives is to find our place in the chain that links us with these undreamt of forms of life.

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. We fight because that is how we want it … We sing even though we know that no ear exists to hear us; we toil though there is no employer to pay us our wages when night falls. [ii]

In his search for his god—or what I would call his search for meaning—he ends not as a believer, prophet or saint, he arrives nowhere. Kazantzakis thought of the story of his life as an adventure of mind, spirit, and body—an odyssey or ascent—hence his attraction to Homer. In, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, Odysseus gathers his followers, builds a boat, and sails away on a final journey, eventually dying in the Antarctic. According to Kazantzakis, Odysseus doesn’t find what he’s seeking, and he doesn’t save his soul—but it doesn’t matter. Through the search itself he is ennobled—the meaning of his life is found in the search. In the end his Odysseus cries out, “My soul, your voyages have been your native land.”[iii]

In the prologue of 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 who struggle bravely to create meaning without expecting anything in return. Unafraid of the abyss, we should face it bravely and run toward it. Ultimately we find joy, in the face of tragedy, by taking full responsibility for our lives. Life is 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.”[iv]

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.

Kazantzakis was always controversial and misunderstood, his philosophy too ethereal for most readers. He was accused of atheism in 1939 by the Greek Orthodox Church, although he was never summoned to trial. They tried again in 1953, outraged by his depiction of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ—a book subsequently placed on the Index of forbidden books by the Roman Catholic Church.

In the last decade of his life Kazantzakis prolific, producing eight books. A psychologist once told him that he possessed energy “quite beyond the normal.” In 1953 he developed leukemia, frantically throwing himself into his work, but wishing he had more time. “I feel like doing what Bergson says— going to the street corner and holding out my hand to start begging from passersby: ‘Alms, brothers! A quarter of an hour from each of you.’ Oh, for a little time, just enough to let me finish my work. Afterwards, let Charon come.” He continued to work and travel, but died in 1957 with his wife at his side.

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.


[i] James Christian, Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering, 11th ed. (Belmont CA.: Wadsworth, 2012), 656
[ii] Christian, Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering, 656.
[iii] Christian, Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering, 653.
[iv] Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco (New York: Touchstone, 1975), 23

The Meaning of Life: Does It Make Sense To Talk About It?

I recently received this query from a thoughtful reader:

can doubts about our ability to know–really know–anything be a legitimate source of life’s meaninglessness?  Bryan Magee‘s just published Ultimate Questions is a meditation about just that. I suppose this is the Kant phenomenon/noumenon thing—albeit taken to a sophisticated level with Magee’s elegantly reasoned arguments …  If our senses, however carefully filtered by reason, together with the limitations of a necessarily subjective vantage point, cannot provide sure knowledge of the “thing-in-itself,” how does it even make sense to discuss the meaning of anything? This would seem to be the kind of thing you’d have to get out-of-the-way before even wrestling with the merits of the arguments for the many forms of intrinsic and extrinsic meaning you’ve been addressing in recent weeks in your blog.

In my view our inability to know the truth about many things may be part of what makes life meaningless, although you could maintain life was meaningful even given our ignorance. Our inability to know things certainly seems to make life less satisfying, although if the truth is really terrible perhaps it is good we don’t know it.

I would disagree that our inability to know the meaning of life implies that it doesn’t make sense to think about our discuss the issue. As I say in my book about the meaning of life, we cannot demand precision about such issues, but that hardly means it’s worthless to discuss them.

I do agree that we can’t really discuss metaphysics with any precision until we know the answer to epistemological questions. John Locke made a similar point about religion. Before we can have productive discussions about religion, we need to ask whether we possess the intellectual wherewithal to really understand the subject. This line of thought eventually led the British Empiricism to Hume’s skepticism, and Kant’s rejection of metaphysics in the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics.

The problem is you can’t really get epistemology out of the way. The epistemological turn in philosophy has led to centuries of dispute about what we can know. The main problem is that we must investigate our cognitive faculties with those same cognitive faculties, so we can’t be any more sure of our thoughts about epistemology than we can about metaphysics. Again I address this in my book on the meaning of life by claiming that we will do the best we can to try to answer urgent questions about life’s meaning, with the caveat that we can’t achieve much precision in this area. Still there is value in reflecting about life’s meaning because doing so may aid our understanding and help us live better. If the effort does that, it is worth it.

Can there be goodness without badness?

I recently received a letter from a former student. She wondered: “can there be goodness without badness?” While most people non-reflexively answer this question in negatively, I do not.  I’ve never found the arguments that there must be bad in order for there to be good, convincing. (A disclaimer—I’ve not thought about this in great detail.)

First of all this is a metaphysical question about the nature of reality. Behind it lies the idea is that there is some kind of balance or symmetry in reality. There’s light and shadow, knowledge and ignorance, sleeping and waking, life and death, yin and yang, etc. So for every attribute, we can probably talk about its opposite attribute. On the other hand is there an opposite of every thing? Of a tree? A person? A chair? Can there only be trees, people or chairs if there are not-trees, not-persons, not-chairs? You could say that the opposites of being and non-being underlie all these example. But can there only be being if there’s non-being? Thousands of years ago Parmenides claimed that there can’t be non-being. And if he’s right then the most basic opposites—being and nonbeing—are incoherent.

Also, consider that while shadows can’t exist without light, light can exist without shadow. While ignorance can’t exist without knowledge, knowledge can exist without ignorance. Moreover, we can easily imagine beings who don’t sleep or die or do evil. So while there is a lot to be said, I’m just not ready to say that reality is structured so that there has to be badness for there to be goodness.

This question could also be construed as an epistemological one. Can we know goodness without badness? If we lived in a perfect world, could we imagine what an imperfect one would be like? Again I don’t see why not. If I’ve only known good beings or thoughts or behaviors, why couldn’t I conceive of their opposites? To say I couldn’t is to suggest a limit on our imagination. So I see no good reason to say we can only know badness if there’s goodness.

I think the prevalence of this idea, at least in Western culture, derives from Christian theodicy. The argument that badness is somehow necessary is often used by religious apologists as an excuse for, and a defense of, the existence of evil in a world created by an omnibenevolent god. But surely their omnipotent god could have created a world with only good. Of course the religious apologist will reply that that isn’t the best world, that there must be badness to build our souls, or help us appreciate good, or let us exercise our free will, etc. But I don’t think that building our characters or the existence of free will—assuming it exists—are worth the price of evil. So, I agree with the near unanimous view of philosophers that a theodicy, full explanations of evil, isn’t possible and defenses of evil don’t work. Moreover, I’d much prefer to live in a reality without evil.

And what of the specific idea that there can’t be goodness without badness? I answer, why not? I can easily imagine such a world or that an omnipotent being could have made it.

Another reason I reject the “there has to be badness” idea is that it is used as an excuse for evil. The idea that evil is necessary limits us.  We then accept that evil is necessary or inevitable when it is not. Death from the plague wasn’t inevitable, nor is slavery, torture, misogeny or racism. Any moral progress we’ve made was because we rejected the status quo. So I don’t accept any evil at all. Not pain, torture, anxiety, depression, alienation, loneliness, hatred, war, death … not any of it. I can imagine a world without all these things. I can imagine a heaven on earth.

And if we create a heaven on earth or in a simulated reality, and find that we no longer appreciate the goodness, then I suppose we can add some badness to help us remember how good we have it. Then that badness really would be good for us. (If goodness can’t exist without badness, then how is a supernatural heaven possible? Do the Gods have to give us an occasional electric shock to remind us of how good heaven is?) But to conclude like the religious apologists do that evil is just the privation of good (Augustine), or that this the best of all possible worlds (Leibniz), is just silly. Pain, suffering, loneliness, death, depression and all the rest are really bad, and this is not the best of all possible worlds.

So no I don’t see why there has to be badness for there to be goodness. There can be goodness only, which is what religious believers imagine their heaven to be like. Of course a supernatural heaven is a fantasy and we don’t have heaven here on earth either, but we can create one if we aren’t stopped by ideas that convince us that there must be badness.

“Some men see things as they are and ask why? Others dream things that never were, and ask why not?” ~ George Bernard Shaw


The Value of Philosophy

What is the value of philosophy? To this question we propose some possible answers. First, it’s natural to wonder, to ask questions. Children are marvelous philosophers who never tire of asking questions. However, you may reply that nature doesn’t necessitate duty, and that you don’t find it natural to philosophize. Second, philosophizing is pleasurable. We find great joy asking questions and considering possibilities. Perhaps that is why Plato called philosophizing “that dear delight.” Nonetheless, you might counter that it doesn’t suit your tastes. Third, we appeal to philosophy’s usefulness. Any kind of knowledge is potentially useful, and if philosophy engenders a bit of knowledge and wisdom, then it’s worthwhile. Nevertheless, you may not value either wisdom or knowledge unless it engenders material reward.

Finally, we argue that philosophy protects us against unsupported ideology, unjustified authority, unfounded beliefs, baseless propaganda, and questionable cultural values. These forces may manipulate us if we don’t understand them and can’t think critically about them. This doesn’t require a rejection of cultural values, only a reflection upon them. Otherwise, they aren’t our values, ideals, or beliefs—we have accepted them second-hand. To this you might respond that reflection is laborious, that ignorance is bliss, and that trust in authority and tradition maintain the continuity of culture.

Therefore you could conceivably reject all of our arguments. In the absence of definitive arguments, individuals must decide whether philosophy is a worthwhile pursuit. We all decide whether the pursuit of wisdom, knowledge, wealth, fame, pleasure, or anything else is worth the effort. In the end, to value philosophy we must believe that reflection, questioning, contemplation, and wonder enrich human life; we must believe with Socrates that “the unexamined life isn’t worth living.” I believe that a life without reflection is hardly worth living.

Questions about the value of philosophy entwine with issues concerning education. What is the point of education? Is it merely to learn practical techniques? Consider a nurse or physician who has mastered all of the techniques necessary to practice their professions. Are they complete nurses or physicians? Most of us would say no; they need to understand the persons they treat holistically, and this knowledge doesn’t come merely from their technical training. Thus, we do recognize the place in our education for philosophy, literature, poetry, psychology and history even though they may not be practical. However, if material needs are all that matter, then the life of the mind may be irrelevant.

But imagine instead that education increases our awareness, diminishes our dogmatism, and enables us to be capable of happiness and wisdom. Is the point of lifting weights merely to push them against the force exerted by gravity? No! We seek instead to transform our physiques, accomplish our goals, learn the valuable lesson that nothing comes without effort, and that life’s greatest joys accompany personal struggle and subsequent triumph.  And through this process our bodies are literally transformed. Analogously, education transforms us in a more fundamental way. Jiddu Krishnamurti stated the case as follows:

Why do we go through the struggle to be educated? Is it merely in order to pass some examinations and get a job? Or is it the function of education to prepare us while we are young to understand the whole process of life? Surely, life isn’t merely a job, an occupation: life is wide and profound, it’s a great mystery, a vast realm in which we function as human beings.

In this context Russell, in The Problems of Philosophy, wrote:

The [person] who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of [their] age or [their] nation, and from convictions which have grown up in [their] mind without the cooperation or consent of [their] deliberate reason. To such a [person] the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find… that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy…. removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt…

Finally, consider the view of the great twentieth-century historian and philosopher Will Durant, who in the preface to The Mansions of Philosophy said this about the purpose of philosophy:

Philosophy will not fatten our purses…For what if we should fatten our purses, or rise to high office, and yet all the while remain ignorantly naïve, coarsely unfurnished in the mind, brutal in behavior, unstable in character, chaotic in desire, and blindly miserable?

Our culture is superficial today, and our knowledge dangerous, because we are rich in mechanisms and poor in purposes … We move about the earth with unprecedented speed, but we don’t know, and haven’t thought, where we are going, or whether we shall find any happiness there for our harassed souls. We are being destroyed by our knowledge, which has made us drunk with our power. And we shall not be saved without wisdom.

Future Technology and Philosophy

(This essay was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, October 11, 2015)

Technology, especially intelligence augmentation and artificial intelligence, have the potential to transform the future of philosophy.  Why? Because our cognitive limitations impede philosophical progress. But while we aren’t smart enough to resolve important philosophical conundrums, our cognitive limitations can be overcome by enhancing our intellectual capacities or by creating superintelligence. As a result, we would be able to better answer philosophical questions rather than being forced by intellectual honesty to remain ignorant. Put simply, if philosophy is an intellectual pursuit, then enhancing our cognitive faculties will make us better philosophers. (My colleague Phiippe Verdoux and Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom have made the same point )

As an example of accepting philosophy’s limitations consider the recent New York Times piece, “There Is No Theory of Everything,” by the philosopher Simon Critchley. (I admire his work and have written about it here and here.) Critchley admits that philosophy hasn’t made much progress “because people keep asking the same questions and [are] perplexed by the same difficulties.”  But Critchley counsels us to accept that philosophy can’t give definitive answers.

Philosophy scratches at the various itches we have, not in order that we might find some cure for what ails us, but in order to scratch in the right place and begin to understand why we engage in such apparently irritating activity. Philosophy is not Neosporin. It is not some healing balm. It is an irritant, which is why Socrates described himself as a gadfly.

Next Critchley applies his insight to the question of life’s meaning. There is nothing wrong with being justifiably perplexed by our lives, he argues, but it a mistake to believe we will find an answer. Instead of seeking answers we should continue to ask questions; we should keep scratching the itch. He approvingly quotes Wittgenstein, “When you are philosophizing you have to descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there.”

But what if philosophy could be a healing balm? What if it worked better than Neosporin?What if we had the intellectual wherewithal to soothe our itch. Then we wouldn’t have to choose between accepting philosophical limitations or subscribing to imaginary supernatural cures for our existential maladies. If we augmented our intelligence we could really begin to understand what it’s all about. This ability to answer our deepest questions provides one of the very best reasons to become posthuman.