This student came to me, he said, “I’m leaving.” He was in one of my more advanced classes, I think it was ‘theory of action’ – if you want anything abstract then it’s theory of action. We were having a great time in class, it was fascinating, although totally irrelevant, and he came to me one morning and he said, “I can’t stay because last night I was drinking beer with my buddies and I realised that I practically couldn’t talk to them anymore. I love my friends, I love my family, and I don’t want to lose them. And if I stay here I’m going to lose them.” I was both horrified and I knew he was right. […] There are all sorts of essays written by people from working class families who become professors and they all tell the same kind of story: some can go back, they switch on and off their personalities, and others have a very hard time doing it.
People keep saying that we need to have a national curriculum and I say to them, “We have a national curriculum – through the media […]”. School’s job is to somehow break through that … we have to work on changing the media. The school is educating the heads, not the hearts or anything else, and the media is educating us in ambition and distraction, […] turning us away from the important problems rather than towards them.
John Dewey talked about educating the whole person. What I talk about is that we need to be thinking about educating not just the whole person, but all our children in the whole range of the culture’s wealth. […] So we need to be thinking more broadly about what parts of culture we’re passing down to our children. There’s also the ‘problem of generations’, and this may be the biggest issue of all. If you start looking at education from the perspective of the culture instead of the individual and one of the main questions, in western culture at least, is: “What are we passing down to the next generation?” Are we passing down our cultural wealth? Or are we passing down our liabilities? And when you look around and you see the greed, the racism, inequality and all the rest, you know that we’re passing down our liabilities. […] Instead of just looking at our own child and how he or she is going to get a job we must start looking at what the culture is passing down. Are we passing down any kind of belief in the value of the Earth and the need to preserve it? No! No, but we’ve got to.
What is the meaning of our existence, if it is not that in our own selves that desire for truth has come to it; own consciousness as a problem? . . .
In attaining self-consciousness, the desire for truth will undoubtedly destroy morality; this is that great hundred-act play that is reserved for the next two centuries of Europe, the most terrible, the most mysterious and perhaps yet the most pregnant with hope of all spectacles . . .
Except for the ascetic ideal, Man, the animal Man, has had no meaning. His existence on earth had no purpose; ‘what is the purpose of Man at all?’ was a question without an answer; the will for Man and the world was lacking; behind every great human destiny rang, like a refrain, a still greater ‘in vain!’ The ascetic ideal simply means that something was lacking, that Man was surrounded by a tremendous void he did not know how to justify himself, to explain himself, to affirm himself; he suffered from the problem of his own meaning. He suffered also in other ways; he was in the main a diseased animal; his problem was not suffering itself, though, but the lack of an answer to that crying question, ‘Why do we suffer?’
Man, the bravest animal and the one most inured to suffering, does not repudiate suffering in itself; he desires it, he even seeks it out, provided that he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose for suffering. The senselessness of suffering, not suffering itself, was the curse which lay upon humanity until the ascetic ideal gave Man a meaning! It was the only meaning offered till now; but any meaning is better than no meaning; the ascetic ideal was in that connection the ‘faute de mieux’ par excellence that existed at that time. In that ideal, suffering found an explanation; the tremendous void seemed filled; the door to all suicidal nihilism was closed. The explanation –there is no doubt about it– brought about new suffering, deeper, more penetrating, more venomous, gnawing more brutally into life; it brought all suffering within the compass of guilt; but in spite of all that – Man had saved himself, he had found a meaning for himself; he was no more tossed about like a leaf in the wind; he was no longer a plaything of chance, a casualty of blind fate; he could now ‘will’ something no matter what, why and how he did so at first – the will itself was saved.
We can no longer conceal from ourselves precisely what this will, under the direction of the ascetic ideal, expresses, which is hatred of anything human, animal or material; abhorrence of the senses, of reason itself; fear of happiness and beauty; the desire to escape from all illusion, change, growth, death, wishing, even from desiring itself – all this means – let us have the courage to confront it – a wish for oblivion, an aversion to life, a repudiation of everything vital to existence, but it is and remains a will! – and to say at the end that which I said at the beginning Man will desire oblivion rather than not desire at all.
Man’s worst sin is unconsciousness, but it is indulged in with the greatest piety even by those who should serve mankind as teachers and examples. When shall we stop taking man for granted in this barbarous manner and in all seriousness seek ways and means to exorcize him, to rescue him from possession and unconsciousness, and make this the most vital task of civilization? Can we not understand that all the outward tinkerings and improvements do not touch man’s inner nature, and that everything ultimately depends upon whether the man who wields the science and the technics is capable of responsibility or not? Christianity has shown us the way, but, as the facts bear witness, it has not penetrated deeply enough below the surface. What depths of despair are still needed to open the eyes of the world’s responsible leaders, so that at least they can refrain from leading themselves into temptation?
The civilizing process begins within the framework of the trickster cycle itself, and this is a clear indication that the original state has been overcome. At any rate the marks of deepest unconsciousness fall away from him; instead of acting in a brutal, savage, stupid and senseless fashion, the trickster’s behaviour towards the end of the cycle becomes quite useful and sensible. The devaluation of his earlier unconsciousness is apparent even in the myth, and one wonders what has happened to his evil qualities. The naive reader may imagine that when the dark aspects disappear they are no longer there in reality. But that is not the case at all, as experience shows. What actually happens is that the conscious mind is then able to free itself from the fascination of evil and is no longer obliged to live it compulsively. The darkness and the evil have not gone up in smoke, they have merely withdrawn into the unconscious owing to loss of energy, where they remain unconscious so long as all is well with the conscious. But if the conscious should find itself in a critical or doubtful situation, then it soon becomes apparent that the shadow has not dissolved into nothing but is only waiting for a favourable opportunity to reappear as a projection upon one’s neighbour. If this trick is successful, there is immediately created between them that world of primordial darkness where everything that is characteristic of the trickster can happen even on the highest plane of civilization. The best examples of these “monkey tricks” as popular speech aptly and truthfully sums up this state of affairs in which everything goes wrong and nothing intelligent happens except by mistake at the last moment, are naturally to be found in politics.
The so-called civilized man has forgotten the trickster. He remembers him only figuratively and metaphorically, when, irritated by his own ineptitude, he speaks of fate playing tricks on him or of things being bewitched. He never suspects that his own hidden and apparently harmless shadow has qualities whose dangerousness exceeds his wildest dreams. As soon as people get together in masses and submerge the individual, the shadow is mobilized, and, as history shows, may even be personified and incarnated.
The disastrous idea that everything comes to the human psyche from outside and that it is born a tabula rasa is responsible for the erroneous belief that under normal circumstances the individual is in perfect order. He then looks to the State for salvation, and makes society pay for his inefficiency. He thinks the meaning of existence would be discovered if food and clothing were delivered to him gratis on his own doorstep, or if everybody possessed an automobile. Such are the puerilities that rise up in place of an unconscious shadow and keep it unconscious. As a result of these prejudices, the individual feels totally dependent on his environment and loses all capacity for introspection. In this way his code of ethics is replaced by a knowledge of what is permitted or forbidden or ordered. How, under these circumstances, can one expect a soldier to subject an order received from a superior to ethical scrutiny? He has not yet made the discovery that he might be capable of spontaneous ethical impulses, and of performing them – even when no one is watching.
The spectacle is the other side of money: it is the general abstract equivalent of all commodities. Money dominated society as the representation of general equivalence, namely, of the exchangeability of different goods whose uses could not be compared. The spectacle is the developed modern complement of money where the totality of the commodity world appears as a whole, as a general equivalence for what the entire society can be and can do. The spectacle is the money which one only looks at, because in the spectacle the totality of use is already exchanged for the totality of abstract representation. The spectacle is not only the servant of pseudo-use, it is already in itself the pseudo-use of life.
At the moment of economic abundance, the concentrated result of social labor becomes visible and subjugates all reality appearance, which is now its product. Capital is no longer the invisible center which directs the mode of production: its accumulation spreads it all the way to the periphery in the form of tangible objects. The entire expanse of society is its portrait.
The victory of the autonomous economy must at the same time be its defeat. The forces which it has unleashed eliminate the economic necessity which was the immutable basis of earlier societies. When economic necessity is replaced by the necessity for boundless economic development, the satisfaction of primary human needs is replaced by an uninterrupted fabrication of pseudo-needs which are reduced to the single pseudo-need of maintaining the reign of the autonomous economy. The autonomous economy permanently breaks away from fundamental need to the extent that it emerges from the social unconscious which unknowingly depended on it.
As soon as society discovers that it depends on the economy, the economy, in fact, depends on society, This subterranean force, which grew until it appeared sovereign, has lost its power. That which was the economic it must become the I. The subject can emerge only from society, namely from the struggle within society. The subject’s possible existence depends on the outcome of the class struggle which shows itself to be the product and the producer of the economic foundation of history.
The consciousness of desire and the desire for consciousness are identically the project which, in its negative form, seeks the abolition of classes, the workers’ direct possession of every aspect of their activity. Its opposite is the society of the spectacle, where the commodity contemplates itself in a world it has created.
Guy Debord (2000) Society Of The Spectacle, Black & Red, pg. 53
Yes. I’d like to congratulate you, on succeeding where so many before you have failed. A bullet between the eyes would have been preferable to this charade. But I’ve learned to pretend over the past nine years — to pretend that my victories mattered only to realise that no one was keeping score. To realise that liars do not fear the truth if there are enough liars. That the devil is just one man with a plan, but evil, true evil, is a collaboration of men, which is what we have here today. If I am a guilty man, my crime is in daring to believe; that the truth will out and that no one lie can live forever. I believe it still. Much as you try to bury it, the truth is out there. Greater than your lies, the truth wants to be known. You will know it. It’ll come to you, as it’s come to me, faster than the speed of light. You may believe yourselves rid of your headache now, and maybe you are… but you’ve only done it by cutting off your own heads.Fox Mulder – X Files – Season 9 Episode 20
Man possess a human nature; this “human nature”, which is the concept of that which is human, is found in all men, which means that each man is a particular example of a universal concept – man. In Kant’s works, this universality extends so far as to encompass forest dwellers – man in a state of nature – and the borgeois, meaning that they all possess the same basic qualities. Here again, the essence of man precedes his historically primitive existence in nature.
Atheistic existentialism, which I represent, is more consistent. It states that if God does not exist, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence – a being whose existence comes before its essence, a being who exists before he can be defined by any concept of it. That being is man, or, as Heidegger put it, the human reality. What do we mean here by “existence precedes essence”? We mean that man first exists: he materializes in the world, encounters himself, and only afterward defines himself.
If man as existentialists conceive of him cannot be defined, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature since there is no God to conceive of it. Man is not only that which he conceives himself to be, but that which he wills himself to be, just as he wills himself to be after being thrown into existence, man is nothing other than what he makes of himself. This is the first principle of existentialism.Jean-Paul Sartre (2007). Existentialism Is a Humanism. Yale University Press. p 22.
Socialism is, without doubt, totally obsolete if it is reduced to its traditional contents: to the “full development of the production forces”; to the collectivization (or socialization) of the means of production; to the appropriation and direct control of the means of production and exchange by the “associated producers”; to the planned management of the economic system conceived as a single large enterprise; to the abolition of wage-labour and commodity relations; to the suppression of the state and of the relative autonomy of the state administration, the judiciary, the press, art, the economy, the private sphere, and so on – in short, if it is reduced to the restoration of the pre-modern, undifferentiated unity of the individual, community and functional spheres of paid work and self-determined activities; a restoration which, breaking radically with the complexity of modern social systems, is intended to have a stable order as its end product.
If, on the other hand, the contents of the socialist projects of the past are viewed not in themselves but in their relationship with the conditions of the time, they still retain a clear meaning for us today. The objective was then, and still is today, to limit the field in which economic rationality may find expression – or, in other words, to limit the logic of profit and the market. The point is to subject economic and technical development to a pattern and orientations which have been thought through and democratically debated; to tie in the goals of the economy with the free public expression of felt needs, instead of creating needs for the sole purpose of enabling capital to expand and commerce to develop.André Gorz (2013) Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology. Verso, p. 8
The nihilist attitude manifests a certain truth. In this attitude one experiences the ambiguity of the human condition. But the mistake is that it defines man not as the positive existence of a lack, but as a lack at the heart of existence, whereas the truth is that existence is not a lack as such. And if freedom i experienced in this case in the form of rejection, it is not genuinely fulfilled. The nihilist is right in thinking that the world possesses no justification and that he himself is nothing. But he forgets that it is up to him to justify the world and to make himself exist validly. Instead of integrating death into life, he sees in it the only truth of the life which appears to him as a disguised death. However, there is life, and the nihilist knows that he is alive. That’s where his failure lies. He rejects existence without managing to eliminate it. He denies any meaning to his transcendence, and yet he transcends himself. A man who delights in freedom can find an ally in the nihilist because they contest the serious world together, but he also sees in him an enemy of the world and man, and if this rejection ends up in a positive desire for destruction, it then establishes a tyranny which freedom must stand up against.
The fundamental fault of the nihilist is that, challenging all given values, he does not find, beyond their ruin, the importance of that universal, absolute end which freedom itself is. It is possible that, even in this failure, a man may nevertheless keep his taste for an existence which he originally felt as a joy. Hoping for no justification, he will nevertheless take delight in living. He will not turn aside from things which he does not believe in. He will seek a pretext from them for a gratuitous display of activity. Such a man is what is generally called an adventurer. He throws himself into his undertakings with zest, into exploration, conquest, war, speculation, love, politics, but he does not attach himself to the end of which he aims; only to his conquest. He likes action for its own sake. He finds joy in spreading through the world a freedom which remains indifferent to its content. Whether the taste for adventure appears to be based on nihilistic despair or whether it is born directly from the experience of the happy days of childhood, it always implies that freedom is realized as an independence in regard to the serious world and that, on the other hand, the ambiguity of existence is felt not as a lack but in its positive aspect.
From the time of his adolescence a man can de fine himself as an adventurer. The union of an original, abundant vitality and a reflective scepticism will particularly lead to this choice.
It is obvious that this choice is very close to a genuinely moral attitude. The adventurer does not propose to be; he deliberately makes himself a lack of being; he aims expressly at existence; though engaged in his undertaking, he is at the same time detached from his goal. Whether he succeeds or fails, he goes right ahead throwing himself into a new enterprise to which he will give himself with the same indifferent ardour. It is not from things that he expects the justification of his choices. Considering such behaviour at the moment of its subjectivity, we see that it conforms to the requirements of ethics, and if existentialism were solipsistic, as is generally claimed, it would have to regard the adventurer as its perfect hero.Simone de Beauvoir (1948) The Ethics of Ambiguity, pp 57-59.
We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away. We try to give it the support of the future, and think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching.
Let each of us examine his thoughts; he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future. We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future along our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be soBlaise Pascal (2008) Human Happiness.
Cicero says that philosophizing is nothing other than getting ready to die. That is because study and contemplation draw our souls somewhat outside ourselves, keeping them occupied away from the body, a state which both resembles death and which forms a kind of apprenticeship for it; or perhaps it is because all the wisdom and argument in the world eventually come down to one conclusion; which is to teach us not to be afraid of dying.
[ … ]
That is why all rules meet and concur in this one clause. It is true that they all lead us by common accord to despise pain, poverty and the other misfortunes to which human lives are subject, but they do not do so with the same care. That is partly because such misfortunes are not inevitable. (Most of Mankind spend their lives without tasting poverty; some without even experiencing pain or sickness). It is also because, if the worse comes to worse, we can sheer off the bung of our misfortunes whenever we like: death can end them. But, as for death itself, that is inevitable.
And so if death makes us afraid, that is a subject of continual torment which nothing can assuage. There is no place where death cannot find us – even if we constantly twist our heads about in all directions as in a suspect land: It is like the rock for ever hanging over the head of Tantalus. Our assizes often send prisoners to be executed at the scene of their crimes. On the way there, take them past fair mansions and ply them with good cheers as much as you like. Do you think they can enjoy it or that having the final purpose of their journey ever before their eyes will not spoil their taste for such entertainment?
He inquires about the way; he counts the days; the length of his life is the length of those roads. He is tortured by future anguish.
The end of our course is death. It is the objective necessarily within our sights. If death frightens us how can we go one step forward without anguish? For ordinary people the remedy is not to think about it; but what brutish insensitivity can produce so gross a blindness? They lead the donkey by the tail:
They walk forward with their heads turned backwards.
No wonder that they often get caught up in a trap. You can frighten such people simply by mentioning death; and since it is mentioned in wills, never expect them to draw one up before the doctor has pronounced the death-sentence. And then, in the midst of pain and terror, God only knows what shape their good judgement kneads it into!
Death can surprise us in so many ways:
No man knows what dangers he should avoid from one hour to another.
[After describing a number of examples of random death]
When there pass before our eyes examples such as these, so frequent and so ordinary, how can we ever rid ourselves of thoughts of death or stop imagining that death has us by the scruff of the neck at every moment?
You might say: ‘But what does it matter how you do it, so long as you avoid pain?’ I agree with that. If there were any way at all of sheltering from Death’s blows – even by crawling under the skin of a calf – I am not the man to recoil from it. It is enough for me to spend my time contentedly. I deal myself the best hand I can, and then accept it. It can be as inglorious or as unexemplary as you please.
But it is madness to think you can succeed that way. They come and they go and they trot and they dance: and never a word about death. All well and good. Yet when death comes – to them, their wives, their children, their friends – catching them unawares and unprepared, then what storms of passion overwhelm them, what cries, what fury, what despair! Have you seen anything brought so low, anything so changed, so confused?
We must start providing for it earlier. Even if such brutish indifference could find lodgings in the head of an intelligent man it sells its wares too dearly. If death were an enemy which could be avoided I would counsel borrowing the arms of cowardice. But it cannot be done. Death can catch you just as easily as a coward on the run or as an honourable man.
It hounds the man who runs away, and it does not spare the legs fearful backs of unwarlike youth;
no tempered steel can protect your shoulders;
No use a man hiding prudently behind iron or brass: Death will know how to make him stick out his cowering head;
we must learn to stand firm and to fight it.
To being depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness; let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death. At every instant let us evoke it in our imagination under all its aspects. Whenever a horse stumbles, a tile falls or a pin pricks however slightly, let us at once chew over this thought: ‘Supposing that was death itself?’ With that, let us brace ourselves and make an effort. In the midst of joy and feasting let our refrain be one which recalls our human condition. Let us never be carried away by pleasure so strongly that we fail to recall occasionally how many are the ways in which that joy of ours is subject to death or how many are the fashions in which death threatens to snatch it away. That is what the Egyptians did: in the midst of all their banquets and good cheer they would bring in a mummified corpse to serve as a warning to the guests.
We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. Knowing how to die gives us freedom from subjection and constraint. Life has no evil for him who has thoroughly understood that loss of life is not an evil.
In truth risks and dangers do little or nothing to bring us nearer to death. If we think of all the millions of threats which remain hanging over us, apart from the one which happens to appear most menacing just now, we shall realize that death is equally near when we are vigorous or feverish, at sea or at home, in battle or in repose.
If I have only one hour’s work to do before I die, I am never sure I have time enough to finish it. The other day someone was going through my notebooks and found a declaration about something I wanted done after my death. I told him straight that, though I was hale and healthy and but a league away from my house, I had hastened to jot it down because I had not been absolutely certain of getting back home. Being a man who broods over his thoughts and stores them up inside him, I am always just about as ready as I can be: when death does suddenly appear, it will bear no new warning for me. As far as we possibly can we must always have our boots on, ready to go; above all we should take care to have no outstanding business with anyone else.
Why, in so brief a span do we find strength to make so many projects?
We shall have enough to do then without adding to it.
On man complains less of death itself than of its cutting short the course of a fine victory; another, that he has to depart before marrying off his daughter or arranging the education of his children; on laments the company of his wife; another, of his sons; as though they were the principal attributes of his being.
I am now ready to leave, thank God, whenever He pleases, regretting nothing except life itself – if its loss should happen to weigh heavy on me. I am untying all the knots. I have already half-said my adieus to everyone but myself. No man has ever prepared to leave the world more simply nor more fully than I have. No one has more completely let go of everything than I try to do.
We ought not to plan anything on so large a scale – at least, not if we are to get all worked up if we cannot see it through to the end.
I want us to be doing things, prolonging life’s duties as much as we can; I want Death to find me planting my cabbages, neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening.
Wherever your life ends there all of it ends. The usefulness of living lies not in duration but in what you make of it. Some have lived long and lived little.
Michel de Montaigne (1603) Essays: To Philosophize is to learn how to die