Daily Archives: March 22, 2015

Nikos Kazantzakis on the Meaning of Life

The Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis (1883 – 1957) wrote a 33,333 line sequel to Homer’s Ulysses. In Kazantzakis’ poem, the bored Ulysses gathers his followers, builds a boat, and sails away on a final journey, eventually dying in the Antarctic. According to Kazantzakis, Ulysses does not find what he’s seeking, but it doesn’t matter. Through the search itself, he is ennobled—and the meaning of his life was found in the search. In the end, his Ulysses cries out “My soul, your voyages have been your native land.”[i]

Perhaps no one thought deeper about longings, hope, and the meaning of life than Kazantzakis. In his early years he was particularly impressed with Nietzsche’s Dionysian vision of humans shaping themselves into the superman, and with Bergson’s 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 the meaning of 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.”[ii]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.[iii]

I remember being devastated the first time I read those lines. I had rejected my religious upbringing, but why couldn’t I have a hope? 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, be anchored, be at home. Like Ulysses, the only home Kazantzakis found was in the search itself. The meaning of life 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 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 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.”[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.

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), 653
[ii] Christian, Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering, 656.
[iii] Christian, Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering, 656.
[iv] Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco (New York: Touchstone, 1975), 23