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
If the child has a generally friendly environment and is happy, he will without much trouble get over the pain of any one loss that may happen to him. The impulse of life and hope ought to be sufficient, provided the normal opportunities for growth and happiness exist.
During adolescence, however, there is need of something more positive in the way of attitude towards death, if adult life is to be satisfactory. The adult should think little about death, either his own or that of people whom he loves, not because he deliberately turns his thoughts to other things, for that is a useless exercise which never really succeeds, but because of the multiplicity of his interests and activities. When he does think of a death it is best to think with a certain stoicism, deliberately and calmly, not attempting to minimise the importance, but feeling a certain pride in rising above it. The principle is the same as in the case of any other terror: resolute contemplation of the terrifying object is the only possible treatment. One must say to oneself: ‘Well, yes, that might happen, but what of it?’ People achieve this in such a case as death in battle, because they are then firmly persuaded of the importance of the cause to which they have given their life, or the life of someone dear to them. Something of this way of feeling is desirable at all times. At all times, a man should feel that there are matters of importance for which he lives, and that his death, or the death of wife or child, does not put an end to all that interests him in the world. If this attitude is to be genuine and profound in adult life, it is necessary that, in adolescence, a youth should be fired with generous enthusiasms, and that he should build his life and career about them. Adolescence is the period of generosity, and it should be utilised for the formation of generous habits.
The place of stoicism in life has, perhaps been somewhat underestimated in recent times, particularly by progressive educationists. When misfortune threatens, there are two ways of dealing with the situation: we may try to avoid the misfortune, or we may decide that we will meet it with fortitude. The former method is admirable where it is available without cowardice; but the latter is necessary, sooner or later, for anyone who is not prepared to be the slave of fear.
The adults should display in their own conduct a certain gay courage, which the young will unconsciously acquire from their example. In adolescence, large impersonal interests should be set before the young, and education should be so conducted as to give them the idea (by suggestion) of living for purposes outside themselves. They should be taught to endure misfortune, when it comes, by remembering that there are still things to live for; but they should not brood on possible misfortunes, even for the purpose of being prepared to meet them. Those whose business it is to deal with the young must keep a close watch upon themselves to see that they do not derive a sadistic pleasure from the necessary elements of discipline in education; the motive for discipline must always be the development of character or intelligence. For the intellect, also, requires discipline, without which accuracy will never be achieved.
Discipline is best when it springs from an inner impulse. In order that this may be possible, it is necessary that the child or adolescent should feel the ambition to achieve something difficult, and should be willing to make efforts to that end. Such ambition is usually suggested by some person in the environment; thus even self-discipline depends, in the end, upon an educational stimulus.
Bertrand Russell (1935) In Praise of Idleness: ‘Stoicism and Mental Health’
Conviction is the belief that in some point of knowledge one possesses absolute truth. Such a belief presumes, then, that absolute truth exists; likewise, that the perfect methods for arriving at them have been found; finally, that every man who has convictions makes use of these perfect methods. All three assertions prove at once that the man of convictions is not the man of scientific thinking; he stands before us still in the age of theoretical innocence, a child, however grown-up he might be otherwise. But throughout thousands of years, people have lived in such childlike assumptions, and from out of them mankind’s mightiest sources of power have flowed.
The countless people who sacrificed themselves for their convictions thought they were doing it for absolute truth. All of them were wrong: probably no man has ever sacrificed himself for truth; at least the dogmatic expression of his belief will have been unscientific or half-scientific. But actually one wanted to be right because one thought he had to be right. To let his belief be torn from him meant perhaps to put his eternal happiness in question. With a matter of this extreme importance, the ‘will’ was all too audibly the intellect’s prompter. Every believer of every persuasion assumed he could not be refuted; if the counterarguments proved very strong, he could still malign reason in general and perhaps even raise as a banner of extreme fanaticism the ‘credo quia absurdum est.’1 it is not the struggle of opinions that has made history so violent, but rather the struggle of belief in opinions, that is, the struggle of convictions.
If only all those people who thought so highly of their convictions, who sacrificed all sorts of things to it and spared neither their honour, body nor life in its service, had devoted only half their strength to investigating by what right they clung to this or that conviction, how they arrived at it, then how peaceable the history of mankind would appear! How much more would be known! All the cruel scenes during the persecution of every kind of heretic would have been spared us for two reasons: first, because the inquisitors would above all have inquired within themselves, and got beyond the arrogant idea that they were defending the absolute truth; and second, because the heretics themselves would not have granted such poorly established tenets as those of all the sectarians and ‘orthodox’ any further attention, once they had investigated them.Nietzsche, Friedrich (1878) Man Alone With Himself (excerpts from ‘Human, All Too Human’)
Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for the others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish for ever.Bertrand Russell (1935) In Praise of Idleness
The Hour-Hand of Life: Life consists of rare, isolated moments of the greatest significance, and of innumerably many intervals, during which at best the silhouettes of those moments hover about us. Love, springtime, every beautiful melody, mountains, the moon, the sea – all these speak completely to the heart but once, if in fact they ever do get a chance to speak completely. For many men do not have those moments at all, and are themselves intervals and intermissions in the symphony of real life. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1878) Aphorisms on Love and Hate (excerpts from Human, All Too Human)
On days like today, days that everyone has from time to time, we need some light to ease the dark settling into our lungs …
… Sarah Kay and spoken word poetry is always a good place to start.