Now that I have summarized some of the main ideas in Kazantzakis’ thinking, and have also 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 the 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.
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 believe 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.
Why then should we abandon 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!
- I derived these insights from Peter Bien’s: Kazantzakis, Volume 2: Politics of the Spirit (Princeton Modern Greek Studies).