Category Archives: Philosophy

Nietzsche’s Will to Power

[The following essay is an excerpt from a wider work titled No Fear Nietzsche, available on Amazon Kindle.]

The proclamation that the ideal life philosophy is one in which the individual strives to live according to nature, has been a popular adage amongst spiritual and moral thinkers throughout the ages.  Generally speaking, this stance insists that since nature is what nourishes life, man—being an indisputable part of life—is also an intrinsic part of nature; therefore, he must seek to connect with the natural world to find peace, to ultimately be whole as a person, and as a living being.  Nietzsche considered such an outlook to be both narrow-minded and imbecilic, on account that nature is not only composed of (and nourishes) life, but is also (to a larger degree) made up of non-life, not to mention, plenty of matter that can be accurately described as innately hostile to life.  Thus, to base your life philosophy on living according to nature, demonstrates a naive willingness to self-deceive by virtue of ignoring all the undesirable aspects of the natural order, in favor of retaining a euphoric-sounding cliché about the dubious benignity of one’s surroundings:

Imagine a being like nature, wasteful beyond massacre, indifferent beyond measure, without purposes and consideration, without mercy and justice, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time.[1]

To elevate nature to a status of reverence, according to Nietzsche, reveals more about the person who feels the desire to partake in such an act of misplaced veneration, than anything about nature itself.  Because nature simply is, and all life is simply one of its inherent attributes (amidst a whole array of non-life, and anti-life attributes), any open espousal about the wish to live according to nature becomes completely redundant, since no living (or non-living) entity has any real choice in the matter.  As Nietzsche puts it, “Why make a principle of what you yourselves are and must be?”[2]  You cannot live according to nature, anymore than you can live in opposition to nature; all is encompassed in nature, and everything that occurs in life is already occurring according to nature by default—whether it’s conscious of the fact or not.

Clearly Nietzsche doesn’t see much merit in distinguishing between life and nature, and deems any attempt to do so as philosophically untenable.  The philosopher does recognize how there is a clear difference that needs to be identified between the distinct nature(s) of the living and the nonliving (much of the latter being, as already mentioned, hostile to living).

Like all pieces of matter, living beings are subject to a variety of forces that together operate to sustain physical reality (of which living beings are an inseparable part).  Similarly, Nietzsche maintains that there exists a force, analogous to any other physical force in reality, which is distinctive to the nature of living beings, and accentuates the very essence of what it means to be living as opposed to non-living matter.  He calls this force the will to power.

Despite its popular interpretation, Nietzsche did not personally conceive of the will to power as either a philosophical or metaphorical concept.  To him, the will to power is the underlying force that characterizes the nature of life.  Here, it’s important to mention that Nietzsche also did not mean to refer to the will to power as a mere attribute of life; nor is it meant to be an explanation of life.  Rather (as Nietzsche conceived of it), the will to power is life, above and beyond any conceivable traits or values living organisms wish to personally place on life:

A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength—life itself is will to power; self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent results.[3]

Just as all of physical reality is governed by the theory that bodies of matter exert force on one another, Nietzsche envisioned a comparable physics at work amongst the most basic instinctive functions of living matter, especially in relation of these functions operating between living matters.  None of which is a conscious act on the part of the living being, because the will to power is in no way contingent on the mindfulness of the organisms it’s operating on (again, it is not an attribute of life, it is life).

The will to power is also not a teleological concept, meaning it has no ultimate end-goal or greater purpose/desire in its effect (a common misconception even self-described Nietzscheans have about the subject).  The individual organism’s desire for life (i.e. self-preservation), and instinctive avoidance of death (i.e. nonexistence), should not be confused with the will to power itself.  Just like the force of gravity can’t coherently be said to have the purpose of wanting to keep you grounded to the Earth, the will to power shouldn’t be thought of as operating under the purpose of wanting to keep you alive.  Both may indeed bring about this result, but neither exists in itself for that purpose (or any conscious purpose, for that matter).

Of course, the obvious objection to Nietzsche’s conception of this will to power is in its inescapable dissimilarity with the physical forces the philosopher wished to liken it to.  Unlike a physical force like gravity, which can be measured, detected, and (most importantly) falsified for the sake of running an experimental model of its basic functions, the “will to power” allows for no such tangible confirmation of its existence.  In tradition with other mental concepts and social theories, the will to power seems to be just elastic enough of a premise to be immune to any concrete counterexamples.  In other words, it is a presumption that seeks to explain everything, and (like all such ambitious ideals) it’s relevance for accurately studying reality can be deduced to explaining nothing, at least from the standpoint of empirical reliability.

Nietzsche appeared to have foreseen this objection, and made it a point to clarify his case a bit:

The question is in the end whether we really recognize the will as efficient, whether we believe in the causality of the will:  if we do—and at bottom our faith in this is nothing less than our faith in casualty itself—then we have to make the experiment of posting the causality of the will hypothetically as the only one.[4]

Nietzsche defends the veracity of the will to power through a reductionist approach: if you believe in the existence of cause and effect on the physical level, and accept that a living being’s cognitive functions reside in this physical level (as an inherent part of it), then you have no reason not to believe in the existence of cause and effect acting on this neurological level, too (the realm of the will[5]).  The will to power, according to Nietzsche, is just that; cause and effect, for our base instincts.

But not of a directly physical nature (though it presumably has physical consequences), as Nietzsche puts it, “’Will,’ of course, can affect only ‘will’—and not ‘matter’ (not “nerves,” for example).”[6]  This sounds like a passive acknowledgment towards readers who are pedantic enough to attempt to scrutinize Nietzsche’s desire to define the will to power as being equivalent to an actual physical force, despite the fact that it fails to qualify for this categorization (for reasons listed in the previous paragraph).

Regardless, Nietzsche still wants to maintain that the will to power is essentially a force operating in the physical world, yet he does seem to recognize the fact that it does not function exactly akin to what are understood to be the proper qualities and functions of a force as described by modern physics.  He explains this away by stating that the will to power acts not on matter directly (though physical matter is affected by it), but the will (meaning the instinctive, cognitive faculties that themselves are composed and operating through physical matter on a neurological level).  In other words, to object to the will to power on the basis of its failure to meet the standards of scientific scrutiny, is (from Nietzsche’s perspective) an issue of conflating differing states of observation and functions on the critical reader’s part, rather than an incompatibility in terms on the part of the will to power as an active force in reality.[7]

Nietzsche considers it a given that we already recognize and accept the truth that there exist a number of active factors operating on the instinctive level of the cognitive body, which can be referred to as a living being’s will.  What the philosopher proposes is the consideration that these presumably varying active factors are really one underlying force—the will to power:

Suppose all organic functions could be traced back to this will to power and one could also find in it the solution of the problem of procreation and nourishment—it is one problem—then one would have gained the right to determine all efficient force univocally as—will to power.  The world viewed from inside, the word defined and determined according to its intelligible character”—it would be “will to power” and nothing else.[8]

Leaving aside the question of the empirical verifiability of all of this,  it is fundamentally vital not to forget that the will to power, within Nietzsche’s usage of the term, is not meant to be a mere feature of life.  The will to power is life, and life is the will to power.

Because nature cannot be a guide on which to differentiate between living and non-living (as Nature, writ “romantique,” still makes no active distinction or preference for life over non-life, evident by much of its—unduly anthropomorphized, though no less poignant—hostility towards both life and non-life), the will to power is Nietzsche’s answer to what defines living beings as distinct from the rest of physical matter.

Though the concept itself is not a feature, the will to power does produce a number of unique features amongst living organisms:

It will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant—not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power.[9]

Life, being an accumulation of matter acting on one another, is an exertion of power; including competing and subverting powers.  Though Nietzsche warns not to personify this living force—i.e. the will to power—he does remark that this force does and will personify life.  Moreover, like all competing forces, it will cause friction, and out of this friction will come dominance as some body of living matter’s will to power is bound to eventually run into a weaker body, causing it to naturally gravitate and subvert the less powerful entity’s will through the sheer strength of its magnitude.

Nietzsche also makes it a point to mention that there is no sense in rationalizing or arguing over the morality of this system, as the causal effect of the will to power neither cares (because it’s not consciously aware), nor operates on a moral/immoral framework.  As already stated, it is the basic force of life, not a contemplation of it.  In this light, while our notions of what is “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “bad,” are important in preserving the preferences we have set for ourselves in life and society, it is irrelevant to the basic functions of life itself.  In fact, Nietzsche stresses the idea that much of what modern society has come to denote as bad and immoral, is essentially inseparable from the brute reality of life:

“Exploitation” does not belong to a corrupt or imperfect and primitive society: it belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function; it is a consequence of the will to power, which is after all the will to life.[10]

Life is parasitic in nature; we feed off and/or exploit other living organisms for the benefit of our own existence.  Nietzsche’s philosophy emphasizes the idea that in man’s desire to construct a moral framework (in particular, a so-called objective morality), he often ends up neglecting, vilifying, and denying the aspects of his character that sociocultural trends have deemed as “decadent” and “evil,” despite the fact that these bad traits are as inherent to the human character as any hitherto conventionally approved good traits (and will often manifest themselves even within the implementation of these supposedly “good” traits).  The will to power, not being dependent on the conscious musings of the minds it functions on, has no such reservations.

As a force, an individual living organism’s will to power is not averse to subverting the will of other organisms, even creating the basis of a hierarchical order of rank within the natural world, which unconsciously permeates through to the conscious behavior and actions of living beings—including the social behavior of human beings.

All events in the organic world are a subduing, a becoming master, and all subduing and becoming master involves a fresh interpretation, an adaptation through which any previous “meaning” and “purpose” are necessarily obscured or even obliterated.[11]

The fact that it is fundamentally impossible to promote one’s viewpoint and ideas, without tarnishing and deposing the viewpoint of others (whether this is done aggressively or passively is irrelevant, as the underlying intent is still the same), seems to give a certain amount of credence to Nietzsche’s main thesis here.  Because even if your primary goal is for everyone to adopt a tolerant and moderate mindset, any actual traction you make in propagating this ideal within the greater conscience of human society, will be accomplished at the expense of any differing mindsets that have otherwise been in competition with your own.  The greater benignity and noble intent of your mindset—your instinctive values—in comparison to all others, is of no consequence to Nietzsche’s essential point.  Your will to power grows, spreads, dominates, and subdues to become master, no matter what conscious rationalizations for your instinctive behavior you happen to concoct to justify it.

When it comes to the will to power, intent is meaningless (as all intent and utility assigned are by definition post hoc rationalizations for a wholly deterministic system):

Purposes and utilities are only signs that a will to power has become master of something less powerful and imposed upon it the character of a function.[12]

What Nietzsche is basically saying is that care should be taken not to confuse the will to power with the more colloquially used willpower.  Broadly defined, willpower is the concept that a person can achieve some set desire or decision, through some form of mental concentration or restraint—however defined, willpower is undoubtedly a conscious act.  The will to power, on the other hand, is not conscious, and cannot be harnessed to achieve any purposeful goal or outcome by the living organisms it acts on.  The outcomes that do result from the will to power are the end product of entirely instinctive forces—you absolutely have no conscious control over the process, just like you have no control over how gravity works on your body, or how your atoms are arranged.

Although Nietzsche insists that the will to power has no consciously goal-oriented desires in itself (being a force of pure instinct, and all), he does propose that a sentient being’s creative output in life—the various details and ideals which end up defining value of life for said being—can be ascribed to his unconscious will to power:

For fundamentally it is the same active force that is at work on a grander scale in those artists of violence and organizers who build states, and that here, internally, on a smaller and pettier scale / creates for itself a bad conscience and builds negative ideals—namely, the instinct for freedom (in my language: the will to power).[13]

The will to power is universal in its scope amongst living organisms; however the affect it produces amongst individuals depends on the nature of each person’s particular instincts and impulses.  For the few who instinctively create value, rather than have it commanded to them, their will to power develops and grows into the contributions and advances that come to give life meaning and affirmation.

For the majority who lack the fortitude to be valuecreators of their own accord, and need to parasitically feed of the creative output of others, their will to power—if left unrestrained—also grows and develops, and what it develops is an inversion of anything close to life affirmation; a slave mentality of the individual.

It is Nietzsche’s opinion that this weaker, decadent drive of the will to power represents “the greatest danger for the healthy; it is not the strongest but the weakest who spell disaster for the strong.”[14] The reason for Nietzsche’s alarming pronouncement of the dangers posed by the “weakest” to the “strong,” is the fact that the philosopher views modern society as already being largely dominated by the product of this life-negating force.[15]  This is a disaster in Nietzsche’s eyes, as it fosters a sickening environment wherein the least competent are nurtured to set edicts for all others in society to follow (including their creative superiors):

Those who are failures from the start, downtrodden, crushed—it is they, the weakest, who must undermine life among men, who call into question and poison most dangerously our trust in life, in man, and in ourselves.[16]

The greatest danger expressed by Nietzsche is that this popular reverence for the weaker will within the human conscience has propagated (and will continue to propagated) a host of degenerate values on greater society, where even those individuals whose will to power would otherwise be instinctively inclined to detest and counter such a mentality, will succumb to its influence through the sheer magnitude of its prominence (remember, the herd is much larger in volume than the lone shepherd dog):

Undoubtedly if they succeeded in poisoning the consciences of the fortunate with their own misery, with all misery, so that one day the fortunate began to be ashamed of their good fortune and perhaps said one to another:  “it is disgraceful to be fortunate: there is too much misery!”[17]

The weak are a sick and depressing lot, and so is their will to power.  Given the opportunity to rule, the atmosphere they create will be equally sickening and depressing, so the point that all human developments and achievements that may subsequently arise within this atmosphere will still carry the stench of destitute and misery on them (if taken at face value, it is conceivable that the significant rise in clinical depression and pharmaceutical medication amongst modern societies is one possible result of this trend).

Yet, the obvious question that a reader might raise here is how, if the will to power is the force defining living matter, and the instinctive drive which nourishes all our unconscious passions and impulses, and this entire natural system functions on the basis of strength and dominance, could it ever happen that the stronger variant of the force became subdued by the weaker?

Nietzsche’s answer would most likely be that it wasn’t; at least not directly.  Instead, what the philosopher appears to suggest is that, over the last few centuries (possibly even millennia), the weaker herd-masses have managed to shift the paradigm to elevate their lowly traits (meekness, humility, pity, etc) as noble social virtues, not through strength or confrontation (either physically or intellectually; Nietzsche suggest they lack the fortitude for either), but through stealth and cunning—which is the true “strength” of their weaker will to power.  Thus, the instinctively stronger—and thereby far more creatively dynamic—will to power of the valuecreators has been redefined as a vice that society must tame for the sake of preserving civility and avoiding chaos.

Nietzsche sees something deeply unnatural about this mindset, as it seeks to castrate innate characteristics of human beings as bad and immoral, with the sole intent of preserving its own meek existence within the brute reality of life.  Furthermore, the will of the weak neglects what he considers to be an essential value in life; namely that, “the higher ought not to degrade itself to the status of an instrument of the lower, the pathos of distance ought to keep their tasks eternally separate!”[18]

At times, it does appear that Nietzsche is straying somewhat from the premise he has personally set up for his conception of the will to power.  This is particularly true when he begins to moralize about the depravity of the weakerminded will to power of the masses (which is incidentally dominant in current society), in comparison to the strongminded will to power of the far fewer value-creators, whose creativity and life-value are being subverted by the prominence of their weaker counterparts.  However, Nietzsche did warn us that it is futile to moralize over the effects brought about by the will to power, because (being an unconscious, undirected, purposeless force) it neither cares for, nor requires the subjective input of the bodies of matter it happens to be acting on instinctively.

Taken to its full conclusion, one can make the case that—even granting Nietzsche’s fears about the disaster it holds for society and the value of human existence if the will to power of the weakest continues to rule over the will of the strong—the propagation of the weaker will at the expense of the stronger will, cannot be deemed as a perversion or degeneration of life, since these weaker agents are simply acting in accordance to their will to power (which, going by Nietzsche’s own terms) means that they are just operating in accordance to life itself.

I imagine Nietzsche would have an effective counter to this point, most likely by appealing to the fact that he has also explicitly mentioned how the will to power, as the unconscious force acting on the instinctive level of living beings, operates on the basis of becoming master, and will inevitably subdue competing wills as a rule.  Hence, Nietzsche is not moralizing about the reality of the will to power, but reacting to the competing (in his eye’s negative) effect its weaker variant is causing, as it stands in opposition to his own person.  Something he cannot help himself but do, since his own will to power instinctively forces him to oppose and subdue the competing force that is exerting itself on him.

Nietzsche is not a relativist when it comes to either human moralities, or the underlying instincts that drive them.  He unashamedly has preferences, and considers it a genuinely moral imperative for him to warn modern society to move “away from the inner corruption and the hidden rot of disease!”[19]  that is plaguing its core.  Essentially, because the will to power forces on him no other alternative but to resist the opposing power pulling down at his being.

 

[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil, “On the Prejudices of Philosophers,” Part One (1886), section 9.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, section 13.

[4] Ibid, “The Free Spirit,” Part Two (1886), section 36.

[5] This is not to be confused with the popular concept known as “Free Will,” which Nietzsche wholly rejected as an illusion.

[6] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886), section 36.

[7] Although a reasonable counter, I still maintain that this explanation does little to solve the problem of the will to power’s ultimately unfalsifiable nature, as its description allows for no external confirmation by experimentation.

[8] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886), section 36.

[9] Ibid, “What is Noble,” Part Nine (1886), section 259.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  On the Genealogy of Morals, “Second Essay” (1887), section 12.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, section 18.

[14] Ibid, section 14.

[15] His reasoning involves an even broader concept he calls the Slave-Revolt of Morality, which itself is key aspect of Nietzsche’s Master-Slave Mentality.

[16] Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals (1887), section 14.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man”

British poet Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man” (1734) captures perfectly the symbiotic mindsets emerging during this time period from a religious believer’s perspective; wherein the hitherto dominant worldview based on faith-based reasoning–which was simultaneously nurturing, incorporating, but also quite often competing with–alternative naturalistic philosophies growing among cultured circles of Europe.  But unlike similar works of the time touching on near identical themes, Pope’s poem conveys a unique dose of optimism at the cooperative relationship between faith and science, and the former’s inevitable superiority of the latter.

It begins rather pointedly:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.

If there is one thing that the Enlightenment is known for it is the gradual shift from a focus on a Divinely guided understanding of the world, to one that places greater emphasis on empiricism to study the natural order of things.  That is not to say that all Enlightenment thinkers eschewed the Almighty in their personal philosophy, but that the intellectual work they produced began to rely more on naturalism to explain life, than appealing to the supernatural (this is evident even in works that set out to support the existence of the supernatural realm–like Descartes–while still using largely rationalist arguments as opposed to metaphysical ones to make their case).  What Pope is characterizing in the the above lines is not new, of course, but a reversion to the ancient adage of Protagoras where “Man is the measure of all things,” which had once again now become the starting point of the philosophers of the poet’s day, from whence they advanced all remaining premises and deductions they set out to theorize and prove.

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,

Pope’s diction suggests that man, at his core, exists in a state of constant conflict.  His great wisdom, a feat that has made him capable of attaining unprecedented knowledge, also has the capacity to give rise to great arrogance, stifling modest and balanced introspection.

He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;

Despite man’s reasoned understanding of his great intellect, he nevertheless cannot help but be constantly confronted with his innate limitations.  Least of all, how no matter the vastness of his capability to study and learn expands, this same knowledge betrays the undeniable fact that–just as all things in nature–the fintie mortality of every man, of every talent and intellect, is ever-present and inescapable.

In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;

Unlike the rest of nature, man holds an added burden that while all other creatures have the fortune to maintain a level of blissful ignorance regarding their mortality, man alone must carry forward with full knowledge that there awaits an end to the road of life.  He also carries with him the knowledge that the advent of man in nature, both physically and intellectually, is traced by a tradition of succumbing to an innumerable number of falsehoods, often as direct result of his intellectual limitations.

Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;

It is man’s greatest gift–his intellect, his ability to reason and contemplate the natural world–that is the source of his greatest misery.  Seemingly, the more man understands about the world, and ultimately about himself, the more he is torn as he is confronted with doubts, fears, and insecurities regarding his place in the grand scheme of nature, which his perception places him master of, but his intellect relegates him from.

Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

The conflict between science and religion is a well-attested phenomenon in the modern age, whether one agrees or disagrees with the validity driving either side of the argument.  And it was during Alexander Pope’s lifetime, with the advent of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment ideals, that a true push for alternative ways of understanding the natural world began to take root among the intellectual circles of Europe.

For a devout believer like Pope, these naturalistic alternatives would seem ultimately unsatisfied and foolhardy.  However, unlike the more authoritative stance taken on by religious institutions both in Pope’s days and generations past, the poet doesn’t give a modicum of resistance in his writings to the new scientific values and trends man is leading himself towards:

Go, wondrous creature! mount where science guides,
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time, and regulate the sun;
Go, soar with Plato to th’ empyreal sphere,
To the first good, first perfect, and first fair;

Pope personally rejects the notion that man is the measure of all things, as he accepts the existence of a higher plane of knowledge and being.  Therefore, he gives no credence to the idea that the finite intellectual pursuit of the modern, enlightened man can have any bearing on the infinite knowledge of God.  For the former is by the nature of its earthly creators’ limitations, doomed to fall short of the omniscience and glory of the Creator of all things in existence.

Or tread the mazy round his followers trod,
And quitting sense call imitating God;
As Eastern priests in giddy circles run,
And turn their heads to imitate the sun.

Whatever threat might be perceived by some as coming from the advances in intellectual realms of science, Alexander Pope remains unimpressed, and sees them as self-defeating imitations of the deeper satisfactions and knowledge revealed by spiritual truths, which for the poet far surpass the wisdom and musings of even the cleverest of God’s creations, precisely because they are still God’s creations; be they aware of it, or not:

Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule—
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!

 

Bibliography

Pope, Alexander.  An Essay on Man: Epistle II.  1734.

The Birth of Kratocracy

Some words die in the course of their usage; others before they ever really get a chance to experience life.  It can be presumed how at least a small fraction of these aborted etyma possess within them the potential to contribute to the greater understanding and advancement of human expression.

Of course, this sentiment certainly does not possess universal application across all fields of study.  As, for instance, when it comes to fields like politics; where words are very much meaningless to begin with.  Add an -ism; concoct a series of phonetic abbreviations; maybe combine some neutral sounding words to disguise egregious breaches of national and international law as passable acts of justice (e.g. “enhanced interrogation techniques“, “Due process and judicial process are not one and the same“).  The notion of allowing concrete definitions of terms or phrases into their diction would be toxic to political agents, as it would force them to speak and obey the same language as the rest of society.  A move counterproductive to their career interests, since it might serve to give the impression of accountability for one’s words, and the subsequent actions they bring about; a cruel demand on a group of people whose professional existence consists of purposefully rendering words unintelligible.  Among such personnel the only Gospel is “Babel”; the walls of which shan’t ever cometh tumblin’ down, for they stand too high for those from-out to look in, and for those from-in to look out.  In this context, it’s foolish to expect people who don’t occupy the same stratosphere to hear one another’s voice, yet we still insist on debating endlessly why there exists this loss in understanding between man and statesman?

And what is there to understand, really?  Why must there always be either some deeper meaning to a system, or an ominous conspiracy?  Why isn’t it enough to simply acknowledge that people who reside in the same atmosphere will have their perspective shaped by similar interests?  And in such a situation, what need is there for anyone to conspire about anything when everyone who reaches the same elevation already understands the nature of things just by virtue of having climbed the path?

In a kratocracy, where governance (both political and its financed-proxy) rests with those who are strong enough to seize power through force or cunning, the primary order of business that is expected of every person is to understand who it is you stand under, and follow rank accordingly.  In a kratocratic system, words must remain elastic in their meaning, so that–whenever convenient–the word of law can serve as a mere compilation of semantic loopholes (at least, when applied to the kratocratic lawmakers and financiers themselves).  Anyone who actually makes it up the ranks in this system will understand all of this by fiat; conspiracies and secretive motives are pointlessly redundant in a political order where sabotage and manipulation are not corruptions of the system (hence calls for reform carry little pressure), but inherent attributes of it that get openly rewarded with wealth and power.

Consider the following:  Everyone says they hate the smear ads put out by politicians against their opponents, just like everyone says they “hate” the obscene tabloids that litter the magazine racks of every store.  In other words, the majority of the people who say they detest gossip and mudslinging are obvious liars, on account that if such underhanded antics were truly as universally despised as people claim them to be, this sort of behavior would have fallen into disuse long ago.  But it hasn’t, and it won’t.  Because sabotage and manipulation, as long as they are not pointed out as such, are perfectly decent kratocratic virtues.  Virtues that only become indecent at a lower atmosphere, where the oxygen is too dense to support them.  Up on higher elevation, however, where the gravity of things like ethics and moral conduct don’t appear to weigh a person down as heavily, a different mode of reasoning applies.  None of this is devious or deceptive, as we all passively sanction this disparity for those who occupy seats of authority (both political and by its financed-proxy).  Partly because (as mentioned) we know our rank and don’t really bother to inquire too deeply into the matter, and partly because Babel is much too high up for any of us to strain our necks far enough to really care about what’s going on up there anyway.

The true cunning that sustains a kratocracy is the relatively little effort it takes to sustain it.  Simply draw a few lines in the sand, throw out a few provocative token issues around and behind said lines, and–voila!–watch people preoccupy themselves with these “life or death” topics, and whatever narrative is needed to keep the engine running smoothly will pretty much assemble itself (with the occasional minor tuneup here and there).  Again, no conspiracy needed, since even the people who get caught up in the small-scale politics of the whole thing notice that there is something more important operating around them.  But they don’t care, because as long as they focus on the pet-issues they have adopted as their personal identity, they can say how they’ve done something.  Whether or not its something relevant to challenging and eradicating the source of their cause’s woes is anybody’s guess, because what really matters is the comforting feeling of taking action it gives them.  Thereby, the beauty about a kratocracy is that it allows a person to feel both powerless and powerful at the same time–creating inner dichotomies is the mainstay of cunning authorities.

The Dichotomy of the Martyr and the Satyr:

It’s easy to be oppressed.  In fact, to a growing number of people, this appears to be their primary goal in life.  Observe a group of individuals some time, and watch how–sooner than later–the conversation will descend into a pity-fest of grief and sorrow.  It starts with one person retelling a great trauma in her/his life, and how s/he overcame it.  Which, of course, will cause another person to quickly improvise her/his own tale of painful woe.  Then a third will jump in to match both of the previous life stories with her/his own dose of personal despair.  And around, and around, the self-deprecation goes [where it stops nobody knows–if it ever stops at all, that is].

The assumed purpose in conveying one’s trauma to an audience of equally pitiful (in the sense of being full of pity) onlookers, is to humble oneself by demonstrating the extent of one’s suffering before the cruelty of life, and voice one’s opposition against the systemic source of one’s miseries.  The actual purpose is to elevate one’s sense of self-importance not through any positive accomplishments achieved, but through the sympathies and pities of one’s failures and setbacks.  And if that is not the intent, why go out of your way to rehash matters that are causing you so much apparent pain?  Why would you wish to publicly place yourself (even if just mentally) back in such a situation, unless you gain some–perhaps subconscious–satisfaction out of doing so?  Why would you want to aggrieve others through your anguish, when they cannot feasibly remove your distress for you?  Then again, is removing the trauma really the goal in this mindset?

I may be out of the loop here, but as a general rule oppressed people don’t have the luxury to freely voice grievances about their oppression.  (If they did, how oppressed could they possibly claim to be?)  If they speak of it at all, they do so with the intent to reform, or revolt against, their oppressors, and possibly replace its authority with something more desirable.  People who merely speak (freely and without any evident restraints) about their supposed oppression as a means of gaining acknowledgement for it, are not in the business of either challenging or changing any wrongs in society; what they seek is to attain recognition through metaphorical martyrdom.

Naturally, this martyr complex cannot go wholly unchallenged among the greater public.  And the most biting reaction it will bring about is–what I would call–the Satyr effect.  People who use their past grievances as a means to promote a self-righteous indignation about their person will emit two leading responses: 1. Pity (the desired reaction by the would-be martyr), and 2. Ridicule (i.e. the Satyr effect).  The Satyr sees her/himself as a counterbalance against the overblown austere tone of the martyr.  So, s/he mocks, and ridicules, and uses sharp wit to get the message across that the martyr’s concerns are due little more than a jolly laugh or two.  For her/his part, the Satyr sees her/himself as a hero who speaks the hard truth to the world, and puts a humorous check on the antics of both the authorities and the martyrs of society.

In reality, the Satyr serves the greater purpose of empowering both, by giving them a tangible source to validate their dubious claims of oppression (in the case of the martyr) and benignity (in the case of the authority; who else but a benevolent power allows itself to be mocked mercilessly?–is the popular adage here).  The Satyr can’t admit this, as it would be an acknowledgement of the fact that s/he is simply a byproduct, who exists strictly in reactive form.  And reactions by definition only respond to the products that create them, they do not operate independent of them.  Thus, the Satyr’s image as a hero for truth, and voice for real change or reform, is as unfounded the the martyr’s claim of oppression; and just as self-aggrandizing.

The dichotomy of the martyr and the Satyr are linked together by default.  Where the first appears, the second will follow, and with the advent of the internet age, the rate at which these mindsets spread increases tenfold.  In recent time, they have also become the desired responses by which the modern generation has decided to combat the ills and injustices of the world; unaware of just how helpful this is to the very authorities they claim to be challenging.  This is why, together, the martyr complex and the Satyr effect will ensure that the 21st Century goes down in history as one serious joke.

Reenter kratocracy:

In a kratocracy, you are not oppressed–not really.  If you are among those who fit the personality type, you will be made to feel the wholly illusory role of the oppressed martyr.  Not for the purpose of inflicting any unnecessary pain (or any real pain, for that matter), but to keep you content and docile by giving you the exact dose of self-righteous persecution you crave in order to make your person feel important enough to be faux-oppressed by a “greater” power.  Having tied your self-worth to the “oppressive” system you whinge about, removing this system will be unthinkable as your martyr identity (which is your whole identity) is dependent on its continued existence.  Additionally, you will be too preoccupied with your own unresolvable issues to bother caring too deeply about anything else going on around you.

In a kratocracy, the Satyr–the cynic, the comedian, the witty social commentator–is neither combating nor undermining the governing system by ridiculing its unjust, hierarchical structure.  As the Satyr, you’re actually having the (unbeknownst to you) effect of desensitizing people to the wrongs of the power structure you’re working so hard to mock.  Humor breeds comfort, and comfort breeds content.  It is true that, in feudal days of yonder, it was the Jester who could only speak the brutal truth to the ruler.  Yet, can anyone name a single jester who has ever overthrown a single ruler by virtue of possessing this great privilege of critical commentary?  No, and no jester ever will, because–no matter how much the Satyrs of the world wish it to be otherwise–jokes, even intricately insightful ones, do not have an iota of influence on an authority structure’s hold on power.  (Disagree?–Name one Bush joke in the previous decade that actually had the effect of countering the man’s unwise policies.  Or, for that matter, a single insightful jab at Trump’s lack of qualifications for high office in slowing down his presidential election.  Can’t think of one?  Exactly.)

Kratocracy:  governance by those who are strong enough to seize power through force or cunning.  What could be more cunning than a system where even a presumed defiance can be utilized and converted back into the service of the authority being defied?  Now, at least, it has an identifiable name; a most acidic move against an entity that depends on the elasticity of words and definitions to survive and operate.

Hypotheses non fingo, hypothesis non egeo

“A god without dominion providence, and final causes, is nothing else but Fate and Nature.”[1]

Much of the 18th Century Enlightenment can be explained by the approach framed by one man, Sir Isaac Newton, whose emphasis on analysis and observation served as a model for future scientific generations that sought to follow in his footsteps.  But unlike many of the minds that would succeed him, Newton was a devout believer in divine authority, and saw no reason to dissever the word of the Almighty from the laws of Nature—ultimately deducing them to be one and the same.  Although Newton saw no contradictions in appealing to the supernatural as a valid explanation to matters of scientific inquiry, the empiricism of 18th Century France began to direct science further away towards the realm of strict materialist rationalism.  In the late 18th and early 19th Century, mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace, admiringly called the Newton of France by contemporaries, was the embodiment of the latter sentiment; working relentlessly to understand and solve the minute details Newton had either overlooked or deemed divinely guided.

Laplace’s work was an ambitious attempt to account for how the solar system works; hence appealing to agents beyond the scope of man’s intellect (meaning his intellect) was not just unsatisfactory, but downright unacceptable.  This naturalistic mindset is best illustrated by the oft repeated exchange he had with Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802: the story goes how upon receiving one of Laplace’s latest manuscripts aiming to systematically account for the functions of the universe, Napoleon turned to the mathematician and asked Laplace why it is that he had written an entire book about the intricate details of the universe with no mention of God in it, to which Laplace answered bluntly, “I have no need of that hypothesis.”[2]  This exchange reveals much about Laplace’s personal weltanschauung concerning the utility of accepting metaphysical analyses.  Ironically, it also further imitates Newton’s legacy by setting a precedent; a standard of doing science that influenced the subsequent generation of European thinkers to come.  Except in the model set by Pierre Simon Laplace, theology and deities could have no role in scientific reality.

In Laplace’s quest to decipher the mathematical properties of the universe, he committed himself wholeheartedly to Newton’s theory of universal gravitation as proposed by the English natural philosopher in his Principia Mathematica.  To Laplace, if there existed a concept that could bring all the functions known to science at the time together it was gravity as described by Newton, and it is of importance to note that when it comes to his mathematical calculations, Laplace is a strict Newtonian.  And the system he deduced to be at work from all this was self-operating, and firmly set, rendering appeals to the supernatural redundant in the highest degree.  Thus, Laplace must have been baffled to know that Newton himself was not as strict a Newtonian as Laplace was, because despite laying out a mechanical approach to understanding the cosmos, he still left room for a supernatural agent—i.e. God—to not just set the mechanism in motion, but also tinker with it as the he saw necessary.[3]

One particular case that Newton noted as evidence of occasional divine intervention in the solar system concerned the gravitational interactions of Saturn and Jupiter, whose strange pattern of accelerating and decelerating as they revolved on their orbits produced certain mathematical irregularities that suggested that the planetary system would become unstable over time.[4]  And it is in this sort of an apparently scientific anomaly that Newton asserted that the hand of God is required to sustain and stabilize the system into order.  Laplace could not accept Newton’s conclusion on this problem, and would spent a significant amount of his professional career providing mathematical evidence as to why Newton was wrong to presuppose divine assistance when his own work points to quite the opposite.

Laplace’s earliest attempt to answer the dilemma posed by the Jupiter/Saturn problem, presented in 1773, resulted in his conclusion that the gravitational attraction mutually exerted by planets was negligible, even nil.[5]  However, he did not find this answer satisfactory, and presented another—what he considered more thorough—explanation a decade later to the French Academy of Sciences, in his famous 1785 paper, Memoire sur les inegalites seculaires des planets et satellites.  Here, Laplace approached the Jupiter/Saturn problem by stating that the discrepancies observed in regard to planetary orbits, and how their motions affected the relative stability of the solar system, can be accounted for mathematically because they do in fact regularly reverse themselves when one maps out their motions on a long-term basis, proving the system to be stable after all.[6]  Though we know today that Laplace’s calculations exaggerated the stability of the solar system (there exists quite a bit of irregularity in the cosmos), his unyielding pursuit of a naturalistic explanation to the problem gives a lot of insight into his staunch determinism, where every event is caused by a verifiably preceding event and will result in a predictable consequent, excluding supernaturalism from its framework.  It is the principle around which Laplace would strive to orient his scientific career, and establish his personal ideals under.

By 1802, the year of his famous encounter with the First Consul of France, Laplace was 53 years old and highly regarded as one of the greatest living mathematicians in France.  He had survived the turmoil of the French Revolution that had taken the lives of so many of his colleagues by always maneuvering himself in the right political circles, but never associating himself to any one group closely enough to suffer their eventual downfalls.  Throughout the mid-late 1790s, Laplace began to have an increasing presence within political circles, starting with a string of leading positions in the founding of the Bureau des Longitudes (created in 1795 for the advancement of astronomy in the French Republic) and the Institute National des Sciences et des Arts (serving as a successor to the defunct Academy of Sciences, organized for the purpose of utilizing science for the benefit of the new Republic).  Laplace’s role as a leading figure in France’s scientific community made his inclusion in these activities a necessity for the state, and brought him closer into the spotlight of the national scene, meaning closer to the man who was accumulating more power within France, Napoleon Bonaparte—the recipient of Laplace’s blunt statement about God’s absence in the workings of the universe.

A lot of Laplace’s influence in the early 19th Century can be attributed to his personal relationship with General Bonaparte, who upon seizing power in 1799 appointed the mathematician as his minister of the interior. This gave Laplace his first taste of true political power (even though Napoleon soon regretted the decision, as the ministerial post proved to be a poor match for the meticulous scientists).  Later in life, Laplace would comment how when it comes to politically ambitious individuals, “rather than crave their lot, I am more likely to pity them.”[7]  Though he relieved Laplace as minister of the interior soon after appointing him, Napoleon ensured Laplace’s position in a more politically ceremonial role in the newly forged Senate in late 1799, naming him secretary of the Senate in 1800, and eventually chancellor of the Senate in 1803.  Laplace used his sway in politics to benefit science and its practitioners, and indeed it appears as if his primary actions involved the advancement of scientific institutes,[8] earning him much praise from the rest of the academic world.[9]  This is very much in contrast to his idol Newton, who mostly shied away from the public eye all through his life.  Also unlike Newton, Laplace did not care to allow potential successors to arbitrarily follow in his footsteps, but sought to carefully select the best and the brightest to be included in his scientific projects; founding an elite social club for budding scientists called the Societe d’Arcueil in 1806 to promote what is referred to today as the Laplacian program.  The Laplacian program of precise experimentation and consistent mathematical theory set-up by the Societe would influence the direction of French scientific learning for nearly two decades, only fading out close to Laplace’s death in the 1820s as the group virtually imploded in its overreaching quest to account for everything in existence.

The standard by which Laplace was eager to frame and promote the study of science was a clear reflection of his own ambitious attempt to explain the nature of the various components, and how they operate to make up all the matter surrounding life and the universe.[10]  Thus, the only logically consistent position this sort of mindset could lead to for someone like Laplace is that as far as he is concerned the laws of nature are static, leaving no room for miracles of any sort, chiding past and contemporary scientists for straying away from what he thought ought to have been their better judgment and slipping into the realm of unfounded superstition.[11]

Laplace clearly idolized Newton, and was thoroughly committed to Newton’s theory of gravity as a universal truth that gives a sufficient account of how the solar system functions.  But he never shared Newton’s strong religious convictions, and never understood how a mind so great as to practically invent physics, did not reach the same metaphysical conclusions Laplace himself had done through his own work on calculating the cosmos.[12]  Whereas Newton asserted that the observation of peculiar patterns in the motion of planets and other celestial bodies was a sign for the occasional suspension of natural laws to validate the necessity of a Supreme Being’s oversight in the ultimate structure of the universe, Laplace saw these same peculiarities as natural consequences of these very same laws Newton was willing to suspend, seeing no function for God to play in what he considered to be a wholly deterministic system.

Laplace was a young man he was dubbed the “Newton of France,” but, unfortunately, Newton had not left a lot of unexplored domains for his intellectual heir to discover, leaving the ambitious Frenchman to be content with exploring the areas where his forbearer had been negligent: working out the minuscule details that combine to make up the grand picture.  To a devout believer such as Isaac Newton, the presence of God within our reality is the grandest of all explanations; to a man like Pierre-Simon Laplace, focusing on the minute workings of the larger framework, the concept of God can never reach more than a hypothesis.  A hypothesis that might be satisfactory to the philosophically inclined, but to Laplace, the empiricist, the scientist, it is a hypothesis for which there is no need.

[1] Newton, Isaac.  1687.  Principia Mathematica. “Rules of Reasoning in Philosophy, Rule IV”.

[2] Hahn, Roger. The Analytic Spirit, ed. Harry Wolf. “Laplace and the Vanishing Role of God in the Physical Universe” (Ithaca, 1981), p. 85.

[3] Newton, Isaac. 1776.  Principia. General Scholium.

[4] Gillispie, Charles Couston.  Pierre-Simon Laplace: A Life in Exact Science (New Jersey: Princeton University Press), 1997, p. 47.

[5] Hahn, Roger.  Pierre Simon Laplace: A Determined Scientist (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press), 2005, p. 78.

[6] Laplace, Pierre Simon.  1785.  “Memoire sur les inegalites seculaires des planets et des satellites.”  A detailed account that helps to clarify some of the technical jargon of Laplace’s conclusions can be found in Chapter 16 of Gillispie’s book, titled “Planetary Astronomy”, p. 124-145.

[7] Hahn 2005, p. 130.

[8] Hahn 2005, p. 133-134.

[9] Monatliche Corrospondenz zur Beforderung der Erd-und Himmels-Kunde 6, 1802, p. 272-278

[10] Laplace, Pierre-Simon. 1801. Mecanique Celeste, p. 121-122.   

[11] Moniteur Universal. 28 January 1795, p. 530.

[12] Hahn 2005, p. 201.

The Death of Philosophy

1704, is the year that Isaac Newton published his revolutionary work Opticks; this is also the date that Philosophy, as a means of evaluating the world, conclusively died.  The work looked at the phenomenon of light, not through introspection propositions, but through strenuous experimentation and analyses.  Newton went so far as to stick a bodkin under his eye to see the effect it would have on his ability to see and register light.  No matter how many logical premises a philosopher erects, s/he will never be able to come close to providing this sort of insight about reality.

On the same note, there is no solely philosophical argument that can be made to conclusively demonstrates that two objects dropped from the same height, but of different mass, will hit the ground at the same time.  Nor that the earth orbits the sun.  (In fact, based on observations, a logically philosophical argument could be made to argue against the heliocentric model.)  For any of these things empirical data must be gathered.  When it comes to actually proving the soundness of its premises, philosophical studies today, have to always yield authority to the results of other academic disciplines.

Apologists will insist that my definition of philosophy is a strawman; that I’m stretching its definition in such a way, so I can then turn around and denounce the entire thing when it naturally fails to live up to my faux-interpretation.  I don’t consider this as much of a refutation, but more of an attempt to sidestep the conversation.

Philosophy was once a necessity in academic thought, because it was the pith of academia.  There was once a time when one individual’s musings would have been sufficient to overturn whole paradigms worth of our relations with reality.  However, for the last three centuries, the center of knowledge has gone through a transitional period; that is to say, the worthy functions of philosophy have evolved to more systematic and critical disciplines of thought, and what remains is a thrown away shell of sophistry.

It is no longer enough to ponder about ideas, and be satisfied by a speculation simply because it sounds philosophically plausible.  No!–there must be a convergence on ideas, and these convergences must be verified with broader (and narrower) ideas still, backed by a plethora of tangible empirical evidence.  Otherwise no reliable account of reality has been given, and to continue to build possibly false premises on top of an unverified structure is the antithesis of loving wisdom; it is a desecration of wisdom.

Please don’t misunderstand what I’m trying to say.  I am fully aware that a great deal of our species intellectual development of the last few centuries–even millennia–has been spearheaded by philosophers, and philosophical intrigue.  And at the most fundamental level, it can be argued that all people of functioning mental facilities use philosophy to evaluate the world around them.  What I mean when I say philosophy, is strictly confined to philosophical scholarship.

Indeed, Philosophy, as a viable academic discipline, is dead.  But knowing the nature of man, its shadow is bound to haunt the lecture halls for generations to come.

The Rationality of Suicide

[Disclaimer:  Due to the sensitive nature of the subject, I feel it necessary to mention that the purpose of this article is not to convince anyone to commit suicide, nor is it meant to trivialize the seriousness of suicide as a psychiatric issue.  On the contrary, I see this as a very serious matter, and encourage anyone struggling with suicidal thoughts to seek immediate help from trained professionals, and/or turn to trusted friends and family in their lives to manage through their personal distress.]

For the sake of brevity, allow me to list what forms of suicide I’m not talking about here.  I’m not talking about an act of self-sacrifice for the sake of saving another life.  Generally, people think quite highly of these sort of acts, and view them as very dissimilar to what most of us commonly refer to when we speak of suicide (a point I won’t be arguing against, because I agree that the two are in fact not the same).  Likewise, most people can imagine themselves empathizing with persons who are experiencing such agonizing physical suffering that it would be cruel to deny them their wish to be free of their pain permanently; even going so far as to accept the moral necessity to assist such individuals in their final act.  I would argue that when it comes to the topic of suicide most people see the above scenarios as exceptions to the norm, and therefore wouldn’t hesitate to call for a moment’s worth of pause, sympathy, and contemplation over the circumstantial details surrounding each situation.  However, the sort of suicide I wish to discuss here isn’t warrant for such nuanced introspection in most people’s eyes.  What I’m talking about is the act of a physically healthy, seemingly autonomous individual deciding to take his/her life for no greater reason other than simply not wanting to live any longer.

From what I’ve gathered in the public discourse on this type of suicide (i.e. the definition most people picture when they think of suicide) the topic inspires an almost universal revulsion, condescension, and condemnation of the very idea of it (and, often, the person who committed the act).  At best, the response garners a pitying tsk-tsk from onlookers, before they opine how cowardly and selfish the person is for taking his/her life.  There is an intense knee-jerk hostility in the tone directed towards those who kill themselves, where it almost sounds as if the person who chose to end his/her life has committed some great offense against all our collective sensibilities.  Additionally, there is very much a “How dare you?” subtext that seems to linger between the lines of the reasons people give for their disgust with the act (and, as mentioned before, the individual who has committed it).

“How dare you?  Don’t you know that life is sacred?”

Perhaps, perhaps not.  However, no matter what the objective merit of life may be, this is not much of a retort against the individuals who commit suicide for the mere fact that these individuals might very well agree that life, in general, is sacred and valuable, but they simply don’t extend this moral axiom to themselves as individuals.  This is actually not a contradiction in reasoning, as it’s undeniable that generalized precepts always break down at the level of the individual.  For instance, take the statement that all societies have developed some sort of moral code of behavior for their communities.  This is true, and usually gets internalized by the individuals within the society who follow the moral norms of their community–except for the individuals who don’t.  The existence of individuals who don’t follow societal morals does not invalidate the value of said morals.  Similarly, a person can be within the bounds of reasonable thought to deduce how although life as a whole is important/sacred/valuable/etc., his/her life as an individual plays too negligible of a factor in the greater scheme on which this moral precept operates to matter one way or another.

And there is a dose of rationality behind this, in that as far as society is concerned individuals are largely interchangeable, and even dispensable.  Your life has as much meaning as you can attribute to it on a personal level.  Thus, if an individual person ceases to be able to attribute any worthwhile meaning to his/her life, insisting otherwise isn’t going to instill a different perspective into his/her mind.  This in itself is not a justification for committing suicide, but it is a retort to the insistence that those who commit suicide are committing a crime against the “sanctity” of life as a whole.

“How dare you?  You’re going to die one day anyway, so you might as well appreciate the gift of life you’ve been given no matter how bad you might think it is.”

The problem with this line of logic is that a suicidal person can easily turn it around and ask why, since s/he is going to die one day anyway, it matters whether it’s now or 80 years from now?  In all fairness, I know that the point this reactions is driving at is the notion that no matter how dire one’s circumstances may be, the very fact that you have the opportunity to experience these circumstances, and experience life itself, is something worth preserving for as long as possible; precisely because there will come a time in which you will no longer have the ability to choose between life over death (neither its desirable or less desirable components).  Yet, as poetically appealing as this is, the truth is that this reaction commits the same error in reasoning that the previous one does.  Namely, it conflates the notion of Life (writ large) and generalizes the connotations and values ascribed to it with the values of any individual life.  Yes, life is a rare and fleeting phenomenon that those of us who have had the chance to be born and experience should consider ourselves lucky to have done so.  But this is a meaningless statement to the individual suicidal person who does not feel this way about his/her individual life.

To continuously hark this person about how life itself is grand and a blessing, in all these general terms does not give an iota of a reason why such qualifiers need necessarily be extended to said person’s individual life.  It is a fallacy to take the general attributes ascribed to a group and apply them to the random individual in said group (it’s called the ecological fallacy, to be precise).  Not to mention it is very likely that one motivating factor that drives suicidal persons to kill themselves is the realization that relative to the grand lives they observe all those around them, their individual existence falls short of any such splendor.  Hence, if the argument against suicide rests on the premise that one shouldn’t do it because life is too awesome, and the individual is painfully aware that in contrast his/her individual life is not at all awesome, what exactly is the rationale to continue on (from the perspective of the individual)?

“How dare you?  Suicide is an act of cowardice.  You should face your problems instead of running from them.”

This is where the condescension comes into play.  The demand to face one’s problems becomes a bit of an absurd statement to the individual who views life itself as his/her primary problem.  This person has no choice but to face “their problem” on a daily basis, which is…well…sort of the major part of their problem.  What the statement is really trying to say is that you should face the things in life that are causing you grief and deal with them.  But what if you honestly cannot resolve the issues in life that are causing you to contemplate ending it?  What if you have tried and tried, and searched for decades to find some means to overcome your grief, but have found no remedy, and have concluded that no remedy exists?  Have you failed to “deal” with your problems at this point?  Other than a few catchy, bumper-sticker worthy, feel-good slogans, what actual practical advice can be said to an individual in this situation?  Because to tell someone that they need to “face their problems” is a very, very easy thing to do on anyone’s part, but unless this statement is accompanied with a feasibly attainable set of solutions the distressed individual can utilize to overcome their distress, your profound insights are more likely to just make him/her feel even more hopeless about life.

Suicide is undoubtedly a taboo in most of Western society (in modern times and antiquity), for if it were not we would not have bothered to make it an unpardonable sin both in religious doctrines and secular philosophies.  We, as collective members of what we like to think of is a relatively stable and well-functioning community (and, generally speaking, it is), do tend to empathize strongly with fellow travelers in this land who are suffering and seek out help (though unfortunately we often find ourselves making exceptions this instinctive reaction, too, all for varying reasons and interests).  Yet, when it comes to those who took it upon themselves to permanently withdraw from the anguish they felt in life, we respond with a sense of defensiveness and betrayal.  And I would argue it’s not really because of the individual who committed suicide itself, because unless we knew the individual personally our reactions to the act can only dwell within the realm abstract idealism.  I think it has more to with the fact that we spend a great deal of energy convincing ourselves that whatever pain, whatever setback, whatever dilemma or trauma we have to endure, life itself–that is life for the sake of life–must still be worth pursuing, if for no other reason than that it is the only grand experience of which we can be certain.  Thus, we will always reason that, more often than not, even a painfully tormented life is better than no life at all.  And we will emotively dismiss any suggestion that the act of suicide can be the result of a valid and sound line of reasoning on the part of the individuals who take the dire step.  Because, to be honest, we would rather tolerate for a person to continue living in mental distress, as long as it means we get to preserve our ideals about the greater value of our lives.  Which is what it all ultimately boils down to.

Immanuel Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?”

In 1784, German philosopher Immanuel Kant declared the motto of enlightenment as, “Have courage to use your own reason!”  He goes further to indict laziness and cowardice as the reasons why much of mankind repeatedly fails to uphold this motto, and instead prefers to remain under lifelong tutelage of external influences:

If I have a book which understands me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet, and so forth, I need not trouble myself.  I need not think, if I can only pay–others will readily undertake the irksome work for me.

The theme of self-determination (both politically and as a matter of personal principle) runs deep in the writings that came to define the Enlightenment tradition.  However, emerging within a culture of authoritarianism, to promote the values of individual reason and expression as the primary moral principles in life were inseparable from outright heresy.  But it is exactly this so-called heretical mindset that Kant urges the masses to embrace, precisely because it will free them from those who have appointed themselves as guardians of their thoughts:

After the guardians have first made their domestic cattle dumb and have made sure that these placid creatures will not dare take a single step without the harness of the cart to which they are confined, the guardians then show them the danger which threatens if they try to go alone.

Naturally, Kant considers the implied danger to be a farce concocted by these self-appointed guardians to preserve their own authority, and the deception largely persists because the ordinary man “has come to be fond of this state, and he is for the present really incapable of making use of his reason, for no one has ever let him try it out.”  And that is the primary intent of Kant’s appeal on behalf of reason; simply for the public to be given the opportunity to be guardians of their own mental faculties–i.e. their own enlightenment.  Kant believes that an enlightened public is not only a desirable goal, but an obviously possible one, because “if only freedom is granted, enlightenment is almost sure to follow.”

However, Kant still remains realistic in his own idealism for an enlightened public.  He understands that many prejudices have been ingrained in the public’s psyche that are outright counter to enlightenment thinking, and that therefore “the public can only slowly attain enlightenment.”  He reasons that while tyrannical regimes can be toppled by speedy revolutions, they do not remove said prejudices and predispositions that prevent the public from embracing enlightenment, and that different measures are necessary to reform the ways by which people think (or, rather, refuse to think).

Freedom, of course, is the primary component needed in Kant’s view for an enlightened society.  Namely the freedom to think, and  “make public use of one’s reason at every point.”  Unfortunately, though a simple proposition, there exists much standing in the way of achieving this level of public awareness:

But I hear on all sides, “Do not argue!”  The officer says: “Do not argue but drill!” The tax collector: “Do not argue but pay!” The cleric: “Do not argue but believe!” Only one prince in the world says, “Argue as much as you will, and about what you will, but obey!” Everywhere there is restriction on freedom.

The prince Kant is talking about is Frederick II of Prussia, whose civil reforms the philosopher sees as necessary preconditions for creating an enlightened society.  (Reaffirming this point later on in the essay, when he declares, “Do we now live an enlightened age? The answer is, ‘No,’ but we do live in an age of enlightenment / or the century of Frederick.”)

Despite his call for complete freedom for a citizen to use his reason, Kant does differentiate between a person’s right to espouse his opinion freely, and the right of a state to place certain mandate’s on a person’s freedoms when it comes to exercising its right to govern over said person as a subject to its laws.  For instance:

The citizen cannot refuse to pay the taxes imposed on him; indeed, an impudent complaint at those levied on him can be punished as scandal.  But the same person nevertheless does not act contrary to his duty as a citizen when, as a scholar, he publicly expresses his thoughts on the inappropriateness or even the injustice of these levies.

The hallmark of modern democracy is the right we as a citizenry have to petition our government, either directly or through our elected representatives, to change and shape the laws we abide by in accordance with out collective understand of what is moral and what is just.  Hence, what Kant is proposing above seems rather uncontroversial to us in the 21st century; however, in 1784, a proposition such as this was quite radical indeed.  For to suggest to an absolutist authority, be it monarchical or clerical, that the public ought to be free to openly reason, question, and argue all matters of thinking, including the very function of the authorities that preside over them, is to a hitherto unchallenged power the first an open call for anarchy and heresy.  Kant remains unfazed by such objections, as he clearly lines out how his proposal is neither destabilizing for the state, nor damning for the public’s salvation, because enlightenment–as a product of allowing the pubic its freedom of reason–is the fundamental component in nurturing a society that, even while it remains free to voice its dissatisfaction with the authorities presiding over it, the very freedom of being granted a voice at all endears the public to the system that has set up the parameters that grant such freedoms that treat them “in accordance with their dignity.”

Bibliography

Kant, Immanuel.  “What is Enlightenment?” Berlinische Monatsschrift, 1784.