Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 3, Chapter 8: Nietzsche)

In the last post on this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, we began exploring Part 3: The Existentialists, beginning with chapter 7 on Kierkegaard.  In this post, we’ll be taking a look at Nietzsche’s philosophy in more detail.

Ch. 8 – Nietzsche

Nietzsche shared many of the same concerns as Kierkegaard, given the new challenges of modernity brought about by the Enlightenment; but each of these great thinkers approached this new chapter of our history from perspectives that were in many ways, diametrically opposed.  Kierkegaard had a grand goal of sharing with others what he thought it meant to be a Christian, and he tried to revive Christianity within a society that he found to be increasingly secularized.  He also saw that of the Christianity that did exist, it was largely organized and depersonalized, and he felt the need to stress the importance of a much more personal form of the religion.  Nietzsche on the other hand, an atheist, rejected Christianity and stressed the importance of re-establishing our values given the fact that modernity was now living in a godless world, albeit a culturally Christianized world, but one that was now without a Christ.

Despite their differences, both philosophers felt that discovering the true meaning of our lives was paramount to living an authentic life, and this new quest for meaning was largely related to the fact that our view of ourselves had changed significantly:

“By the middle of the nineteenth century, as we have seen, the problem of man had begun to dawn on certain minds in a new and more radical form: Man, it was seen, is a stranger to himself and must discover, or rediscover, who he is and what his meaning is.”

Nietzsche also understood and vividly illustrated the crucial differences between mankind and the rest of nature, most especially our self-awareness:

“It was Nietzsche who showed in its fullest sense how thoroughly problematical is the nature of man: he can never be understood as an animal species within the zoological order of nature, because he has broken free of nature and has thereby posed the question of his own meaning-and with it the meaning of nature as well-as his destiny.”

And for Nietzsche, the meaning one was to find for their life included first abandoning what he saw as an oppressive and disempowering Christian morality, which he saw as severely inhibiting our potential as human beings.  He was much more sympathetic to Greek culture and morality, and even though (perhaps ironically) Christianity itself was derived from a syncretism between Judaism and Greek Hellenism, it’s moral and psychologically relevant differences were too substantial to avoid Nietzsche’s criticism.  He thought that a return to a more archaic form of Greek culture and mentality was the solution we needed to restore or at least re-validate our instincts:

“Dionysus reborn, Nietzsche thought, might become a savior-god for the whole race, which seemed everywhere to show symptoms of fatigue and decline.”

Nietzsche learned about the god Dionysus while he was studying Greek tragedy, and he gravitated toward the Dionysian symbolism, for it contained a kind of reconciliation between high culture and our primal instincts.  Dionysus was after all the patron god of the Greek tragic festivals and so was associated with beautiful works of art; but he was also the god of wine and ritual madness, bringing people together through the grape harvest and the joy of intoxication.  As Barrett describes it:

“This god thus united miraculously in himself the height of culture with the depth of instinct, bringing together the warring opposites that divided Nietzsche himself.”

It was this window into the hidden portions of our psyche that Nietzsche tried to look through and which became an integral basis for much of his philosophy.  But the chaotic nature of our species combined with our immense power to manipulate the environment also concerned him greatly; and he thought that the way modernity was repressing many of our instincts needed to be circumvented, lest we continue to build up this tension in our unconscious only to release itself in an explosive eruption of violence:

“It is no mere matter of psychological curiosity but a question of life and death for man in our time to place himself again in contact with the archaic life of his unconscious.  Without such contact he may become the Titan who slays himself.  Man, this most dangerous of the animals, as Nietzsche called him, now holds in his hands the dangerous power of blowing himself and his planet to bits; and it is not yet even clear that this problematic and complex being is really sane.”

Indeed our species has been removed from our natural evolutionary habitat; and we’ve built our modern lives around socio-cultural and technological constructs that have, in many ways at least, inhibited the open channel between our unconscious and conscious mind.  One could even say that the prefrontal cortex region of our brain, important as it is for conscious planning and decision making, has been effectively high-jacked by human culture (memetic selection) and now it’s constantly running on overtime, over-suppressing the emotional centers of the brain (such as the limbic system).

While we’ve come to realize that emotional suppression is sometimes necessary in order to function well as a cooperative social species that depends on complex long-term social relationships, we also need to maintain a healthy dose of emotional expression as well.  If we can’t release this more primal form of “psychological energy” (for lack of a better term), then it shouldn’t be surprising to see it eventually manifest into some kind of destructive behavior.

We ought not forget that we’re just like other animals in terms of our brain being best adapted to a specific balance of behaviors and cognitive functions; and if this balance is disrupted through hyperactive or hypoactive use of one region or another, doesn’t it stand to reason that we may wind up with either an impairment in brain function or less healthy behavior?  If we’re not making a sufficient use of our emotional capacities, shouldn’t we expect them to diminish or atrophy in some way or other?  And if some neurological version of the competitive exclusion principle exists, then this would further reinforce the idea that our suppression of emotion by other capacities may cause those other capacities to become permanently dominant.  We can only imagine the kinds of consequences that ensue when this psychological impairment falls upon a species with our level of power.

1.  Ecce Homo

“In the end one experiences only oneself,” Nietzsche observes in his Zarathustra, and elsewhere he remarks, in the same vein, that all the systems of the philosophers are just so many forms of personal confession, if we but had eyes to see it.”

Here Nietzsche is expressing one of his central ideas, by pointing out the fact that we can’t separate ourselves from our thoughts, and therefore the ideas put forward by any philosopher are really betraying some set of values they hold whether unconsciously or explicitly, and they also betray one’s individual perspective; an unavoidable perspective stemming from our subjective experience which colors our interpretation of those experiences.  Perspectivism, or the view that reality and our ideas about what’s true and what we value can be mapped onto many different possible conceptual schemes, was a big part of Nietzsche’s overall philosophy, and it was interwoven into his ideas on meaning, epistemology, and ontology.

As enlightening as Nietzsche was in giving us a much needed glimpse into some of the important psychological forces that give our lives the shape they have (for better or worse), his written works show little if any psychoanalytical insight applied to himself, in terms of the darker and less pleasant side of his own psyche.

“Nietzsche’s systematic shielding of himself from the other side is relevant to his explanation of the death of God: Man killed God, he says, because he could not bear to have anyone looking at his ugliest side.”

But even if he didn’t turn his psychoanalytical eye inward toward his own unconscious, he was still very effective in shining a light on the collective unconscious of humanity as a whole.  It’s not enough that we marvel over the better angels of our nature, even though it’s important to acknowledge and understand our capacities and our potential for bettering ourselves and the world we live in; we also have to acknowledge our flaws and shortcomings and while we may try to overcome these weaknesses in one way or another, some of them are simply a part of our nature and we should accept them as such even if we may not like them.

One of the prevailing theories stemming from Western Rationalism (mentioned earlier in Barrett’s book) was that human beings were inherently perfect and rational, and it was within the realm of possibility to realize that potential; but this kind of wishful thinking was relying on a fundamental denial of an essential part of the kind of animal we really are.  And Nietzsche did a good job of putting this fact out in the limelight, and explaining how we couldn’t truly realize our potential until we came to terms with this fairly ugly side of ourselves.

Barrett distinguishes between the attitudes stemming from various forms of atheism, including that of Nietzsche’s:

“The urbane atheism of Bertrand Russell, for example, presupposes the existence of believers against whom he can score points in an argument and get off some of his best quips.  The atheism of Sartre is a more somber affair, and indeed borrows some of its color from Nietzsche: Sartre relentlessly works out the atheistic conclusion that in a universe without God man is absurd, unjustified, and without reason, as Being itself is.”

In fact Nietzsche was more concerned with the atheists that hadn’t yet accepted the full ramifications of a Godless world, rather than believers themselves.  He felt that those who believed in God still had a more coherent belief system given many of their moral values and the meaning they attached to their lives, since they were largely derived from their religious beliefs (even if the religious beliefs were unwarranted or harmful).  Those that were atheists, many of them at least, hadn’t yet taken the time to build a new foundation for their previously held values and the meaning in their lives; and if they couldn’t rebuild this foundation then they’d have to change those values and what they find to be meaningful to reflect that shift in foundation.

Overall, Nietzsche even changes the game a little in terms of how the conception of God was to be understood in philosophy:

“If God is taken as a metaphysical object whose existence has to be proved, then the position held by scientifically minded philosophers like Russell must inevitably be valid: the existence of such an object can never be empirically proved.  Therefore, God must be a superstition held by primitive and childish minds.  But both these alternative views are abstract, whereas the reality of God is concrete, a thoroughly autonomous presence that takes hold of men but of which, of course, some men are more conscious than others.  Nietzsche’s atheism reveals the true meaning of God-and does so, we might add, more effectively than a good many official forms of theism.”

Even though God may not actually exist as a conscious being, the idea of God and the feelings associated with what one labels as an experience of God, is as real as any other idea or experience and so it should still be taken seriously even in a world where no gods exist.  As an atheist myself (formerly a born-again Protestant Christian), I’ve come to appreciate the real breadth of possible meaning attached to the term “God”.  Even though the God or gods described in various forms of theism do not track onto objective reality as was pointed out by Russell, this doesn’t negate the subjective reality underlying theism.  People ascribe the label “God” to a set of certain feelings and forces that they feel are controlling their lives, their values, and their overall vision of the world.  Nietzsche had his own vision of the world as well, and so one could label this as his “god”, despite the confusion that this may cause when discussing God on metaphysical terms.

2. What Happens In “Zarathustra”; Nietzsche as Moralist

One of the greatest benefits of producing art is our ability to tap into multiple perspectives that we might otherwise never explore.  And by doing this, we stand a better chance of creating a window into our own unconscious:

“[Thus Spoke Zarathustra] was Nietzsche’s poetic work and because of this he could allow the unconscious to take over in it, to break through the restraints imposed elsewhere by the philosophic intellect. [in poetry] One loses all perception of what is imagery and simile-that is to say, the symbol itself supersedes thought, because it is richer in meaning.”

By avoiding the common philosophical trap of submitting oneself to a preconceived structure and template for processing information, poetry and other works of art can inspire new ideas and novel perspectives through the use of metaphor and allegory, emotion, and the seemingly infinite powers of our own imagination.  Not only is this true for the artist herself, but also for the spectator who stands in a unique position to interpret what they see and to make sense of it the best they can.  And in the rarest of cases, one may be able to experience something in a work of art that fundamentally changes themselves in the process.  Either way, by presenting someone with an unusual and ambiguous stimulus that they are left to interpret, they can hope to gain at least some access into their unconscious and to inspire an expression of their creativity.

In his Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche was focusing on how human beings could ever hope to regain a feeling of completeness; for modernity had fractured the individual and placed too much emphasis on collective specialization:

“For man, says Schiller, the problem is one of forming individuals.  Modern life has departmentalized, specialized, and thereby fragmented the being of man.  We now face the problem of putting the fragments together into a whole.  In the course of his exposition, Schiller even referred back, as did Nietzsche, to the example of the Greeks, who produced real individuals and not mere learned abstract men like those of the modern age.”

A part of this reassembly process would necessarily involve reincorporating what Nietzsche thought of as the various attributes of our human nature, which many of us are in denial of (to go back to the point raised earlier in this post).  For Nietzsche, this meant taking on some characteristics that may seem inherently immoral:

“Man must incorporate his devil or, as he put it, man must become better and more evil; the tree that would grow taller must send its roots down deeper.”

Nietzsche seems to be saying that if there are aspects of our psychology that are normal albeit seemingly dark or evil, then we ought to structure our moral values along the same lines rather than in opposition to these more primal parts of our psyche:

“(Nietzsche) The whole of traditional morality, he believed, had no grasp of psychological reality and was therefore dangerously one-sided and false.”

And there is some truth to this though I wouldn’t go as far as Nietzsche does, as I believe that there are many basic and cross-cultural moral prescriptions that do in fact take many of our psychological needs into account.  Most cultures have some place for various virtues such as compassion, honesty, generosity, forgiveness, commitment, integrity, and many others; and these virtues have been shown within the fields of moral psychology and sociology to help us flourish and lead psychologically fulfilling lives.  We evolved as a social species that operates within some degree of a dominance hierarchy, and sure enough our psychological traits are what we’d expect given our evolutionary history.

However, it’s also true that we ought to avoid slipping into some form of a naturalistic fallacy; for we don’t want to simply assume that all the behaviors that were more common prior to modernity let alone prior to civilization were beneficial to us and our psychology.  For example, raping and stealing were far more common per capita prior to humans establishing some kind of civil state or society.  And a number of other behaviors that we’ve discovered to be good or bad for our physical or psychological health have been the result of a long process of trial and error, cultural evolution, and the cultural transmission of newfound ideas from one generation to the next.  In any case, we don’t want to assume that just because something has been a tradition or even a common instinctual behavior for many thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years, that it is therefore a moral behavior.  Quite the contrary; instead we need to look closely at which behaviors lead to more fulfilling lives and overall maximal satisfaction and then aim to maximize those behaviors over those that detract from this goal.

Nietzsche did raise a good point however, and one that’s supported by modern moral psychology; namely, the fact that what we think we want or need isn’t always in agreement with our actual wants and needs, once we dive below the surface.  Psychology has been an indispensable tool in discovering many of our unconscious desires and the best moral theories are going to be those that take both our conscious and unconscious motivations and traits into account.  Only then can we have a moral theory that is truly going to be sufficiently motivating to follow in the long term as well as most beneficial to us psychologically.  If one is basing their moral theory on wishful thinking rather than facts about their psychology, then they aren’t likely to develop a viable moral theory.  Nietzsche realized this and promoted it in his writings, and this was an important contribution as it bridged human psychology with a number of important topics in philosophy:

“On this point Nietzsche has a perfectly sober and straightforward case against all those idealists, from Plato onward, who have set universal ideas over and above the individual’s psychological needs.  Morality itself is blind to the tangle of its own psychological motives, as Nietzsche showed in one of his most powerful book, The Genealogy of Morals, which traces the source of morality back to the drives of power and resentment.”

I’m sure that drives of power and resentment have played some role in certain moral prescriptions and moral systems, but I doubt that this is likely to be true generally speaking; and even in cases where a moral prescription or system arose out of one of these unconscious drives, such as resentment, this doesn’t negate it’s validity nor demonstrate whether or not it’s warranted or psychologically beneficial.  The source of morality isn’t as important as whether or not the moral system itself works, though the sources of morality can be both psychologically relevant and revealing.

Our ego certainly has a lot to do with our moral behavior and whether or not we choose to face our inner demons:

“Precisely what is hardest for us to take is the devil as the personification of the pettiest, paltriest, meanest part of our personality…the one that most cruelly deflates ones egotism.”

If one is able to accept both the brighter and darker sides of themselves, they’ll also be more likely to willingly accept Nietzsche’s idea of the Eternal Return:

“The idea of the Eternal Return thus expresses, as Unamuno has pointed out, Nietzsche’s own aspirations toward eternal and immortal life…For Nietzsche the idea of the Eternal Return becomes the supreme test of courage: If Nietzsche the man must return to life again and again, with the same burden of ill health and suffering, would it not require the greatest affirmation and love of life to say Yes to this absolutely hopeless prospect?”

Although I wouldn’t expect most people to embrace this idea, because it goes against our teleological intuitions of time and causation leading to some final state or goal, it does provide a valuable means of establishing whether or not someone is really able to accept this life for what it is with all of its absurdities, pains and pleasures.  If someone willingly accepts the idea, then by extension they likely accept themselves, their lives, and the rest of human history (and even the history of life on this planet, no less).  This doesn’t mean that by accepting the idea of the Eternal Return, that people have to put every action, event, or behavior on equal footing, for example, by condoning slavery or the death of millions as a result of countless wars, just because these events are to be repeated for eternity.  But one is still accepting that all of these events were necessary in some sense; that they couldn’t have been any other way, and this acceptance should translate to one’s attitude toward life reflecting this by some kind of overarching contentment.

I think that the more common reaction to this kind of idea is slipping into some kind of nihilism, where a person no longer cares about anything, and no longer finds any meaning or purpose in their lives.  And this reaction is perfectly understandable given our teleological intuitions; most people don’t or wouldn’t want to invest time and effort into some goal if they knew that the goal would never be accomplished or knew that it would eventually be undone.  But, oddly enough, even if the Eternal Return isn’t an actual fact of our universe, we still run into the same basic situation within our own lifetimes whereby we know that there are a number of goals that will never be achieved because of our own inevitable death.

There’s also the fact that even if we did achieve a number of goals, once we die, we can no longer reap any benefits from them.  There may be other people that can benefit from our own past accomplishments, but eventually they will die as well.  Eventually all life in the universe will expire, and this is bound to happen long before the inevitable heat death of the universe transpires; and once it happens, there won’t be anybody experiencing anything at all let alone reaping the benefits of a goal from someone’s distant past.  Once this is taken into account, Nietzsche’s idea doesn’t sound all that bad, does it?  If we knew that there would always be time and some amount of conscious experience for eternity, then there will always be some form of immortality for consciousness; and if it’s eternally recurring, then we end up becoming immortal in some sense.

Perhaps the idea of the Eternal Return (or Recurrence), even though this idea began many hundreds if not a few thousand years before Nietzsche, was motivated by Nietzsche’s own fear of death.  Even though he thought of the idea as horrifying and paralyzing (not least because of all the undesirable parts of our own personal existence), since he didn’t believe in a traditional afterlife, maybe the fear of death motivated him to adopt such an idea, even though he also saw it as a physically plausible consequence of probability and the laws of physics.  But either way, beyond it being far more plausible an idea compared to that of an eternal paradise after death, it’s also a very different idea; not only because one’s memory or identity isn’t preserved such that one actually experiences immortality when the “temporal loop” defining their lifetime starts all over again (i.e. the “movie” of one’s life is just played over and over again, unbeknownst to the person in the movie), but this idea is also different because it involves accepting the world the way it is for all eternity rather than an idea revolving around the way they wish it was.  The Eternal Return fully engages with the existentialist reality of human life with all its absurdities, contingencies, and the rest.

3. Power and Nihilism

Nietzsche, like Kierkegaard before him, was considered to be an unsystematic thinker by many, though Barrett points out that this view is mistaken when it comes to Nietzsche; a common view resulting from the form his writings took which were largely aphoristic.  Nietzsche himself even said that he was viewing science and philosophy through the eyes of art, but nevertheless his work eventually revealed a systematic structure:

“As thinking gradually took over the whole person, and everything else in his life being starved out, it was inevitable that this thought should tend to close itself off in a system.”

This systematization of his philosophy was revealed in the notes he was making for The Will to Power, a work he never finished but one that was more or less assembled and published posthumously by his sister Elisabeth.  The systematization was centered on the idea that a will to power was the underlying force that ultimately guided our behavior, striving to achieve the highest possible position in life as opposed to being fundamentally driven by some biological imperative to survive.  But it’s worth pointing out here that Nietzsche didn’t seem to be merely talking about a driving force behind human behavior, but rather he seemed to be referencing an even more fundamental driving force that was in some sense driving all of reality; and this more inclusive view would be analogous to Schopenhauer’s will to live.

It’s interesting to consider this perspective from the lens of biology, where if we try and reconcile this with a Darwinian account of evolution in which survival is key, we could surmise that a will to power is but a mechanism for survival.  If we grant Nietzsche’s position and the position of the various anti-Darwinian thinkers that influenced him, that is, that a will to survive or survival more generally is somehow secondary to a will to power, then we run into a problem: if survival is a secondary drive or goal, then we’d expect survival to be less important than power; but without survival you can’t have power and thus it makes far more evolutionary sense that a will to survive is more basic than a will to power.

However, I am willing to grant that as soon as organisms began evolving brains along with the rest of their nervous system, the will to power (or something analogous to it) became increasingly important; and by the time humans came on the scene with their highly complex brains, the will to power may have become manifest in our neurological drive to better predict our environment over time.  I wrote about this idea in a previous post where I had explored Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, where I explained what I saw as a correlation between Nietzsche’s will to power and the idea of the brain as a predictive processor:

“…I’d like to build on it a little and suggest that both expressions of a will to power can be seen as complementary strategies to fulfill one’s desire for maximal autonomy, but with the added caveat that this autonomy serves to fulfill a desire for maximal causal power by harnessing as much control over our experience and understanding of the world as possible.  On the one hand, we can try and change the world in certain ways to fulfill this desire (including through the domination of other wills to power), or we can try and change ourselves and our view of the world (up to and including changing our desires if we find them to be misdirecting us away from our greatest goal).  We may even change our desires such that they are compatible with an external force attempting to dominate us, thus rendering the external domination powerless (or at least less powerful than it was), and then we could conceivably regain a form of power over our experience and understanding of the world.

I’ve argued elsewhere that I think that our view of the world as well as our actions and desires can be properly described as predictions of various causal relations (this is based on my personal view of knowledge combined with a Predictive Processing account of brain function).  Reconciling this train of thought with Nietzsche’s basic idea of a will to power, I think we could…equate maximal autonomy with maximal predictive success (including the predictions pertaining to our desires). Looking at autonomy and a will to power in this way, we can see that one is more likely to make successful predictions about the actions of another if they subjugate the other’s will to power by their own.  And one can also increase the success of their predictions by changing them in the right ways, including increasing their complexity to better match the causal structure of the world, and by changing our desires and actions as well.”

On the other hand, if we treat the brain’s predictive activity as a kind of mechanistic description of how the brain works rather than a type of drive per se, and if we treat our underlying drives as something that merely falls under this umbrella of description, then we might want to consider whether or not any of the drives that are typically posited in psychological theory (such as power, sex, or a will to live) are actually more basic than any other or typically dominant over the others.  Barrett suggests an alternative, saying that we ought to look at these elements more holistically:

“What if the human psyche cannot be carved up into compartments and one compartment wedged in under another as being more basic?  What if such dichotomizing really overlooks the organic unity of the human psyche, which is such that a single impulse can be just as much an impulse toward love on the one hand as it is toward power on the other?”

I agree with Barrett at least in the sense that these drives seem to be operating together much of the time, and when they aren’t in unison, they often seem to be operating on the same level at least.  Another way to put this could be to say that as a social species, we’ve evolved a number of different modular behavioral strategies that are typically best suited for particular social circumstances, though some circumstances may be such that multiple strategies will work and thus multiple strategies may be used simultaneously without working against each other.

But I also think that our conscious attention plays a role as well where the primary drive(s) used to produce the subsequent behavior may be affected by thinking about certain things or in a certain way, such as how much you love someone, what you think you can gain from them, etc.  And this would mean that the various underlying drives for our behavior are individually selected or prioritized based on one’s current experiences and where their attention is directed at any particular moment.  It may still be the case that some drives are typically dominant over others, such as a will to power, even if certain circumstances can lead to another drive temporarily taking over, however short-lived that may be.

The will to power, even if it’s not primary, would still help to explain some of the enormous advancements we’ve made in our scientific and technological progress, while also explaining (at least to some degree) the apparent disparity between our standard of living and overall physio-psychological health on the one hand, and our immense power to manipulate the environment on the other:

“Technology in the twentieth century has taken such enormous strides beyond that of the nineteenth that it now bulks larger as an instrument of naked power than as an instrument for human well-being.”

We could fully grasp Barrett’s point here by thinking about the opening scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where “The Dawn of Man” was essentially made manifest with the discovery of tools, specifically weapons.  Once this seemingly insignificant discovery was made, it completely changed the game for our species.  While it gave us a new means of defending ourselves and an ability to hunt other animals, thus providing us with the requisite surplus of protein and calories needed for brain development and enhanced intelligence, it also catalyzed an arms race.  And with the advent of human civilization, our historical trajectory around the globe became largely dominated by our differential means of destruction; whoever had the biggest stick, the largest army, the best projectiles, and ultimately the most concentrated form of energy, would likely win the battle, forever changing the fate of the parties involved.

Indeed war has been such a core part of human history, so it’s no wonder Nietzsche stumbled upon such an idea; and even if he hadn’t, someone else likely would have even if they wouldn’t have done so with the same level of creativity and intellectual rigor.  If our history has been so colored with war, which is a physical instantiation of a will to power in order to dominate another group, then we should expect many to see it as a fundamental part of who we are.  Personally, I don’t think we’re fundamentally war-driven creatures but rather that war results from our ability to engage in it combined with a perceived lack of and desire for resources, freedom, and stability in our lives; but many of these goods, freedom in particular, imply a particular level of power over oneself and their environment, so even a fight for freedom is in one way or another a kind of will to power as well.

And what are we to make of our quest for power in terms of the big picture?  Theoretically, there is an upper limit to the amount of power any individual or group can possibly attain, and if one gets to a point where they are seeking power for power’s sake, and using their newly acquired power to harness even more power, then what will happen when we eventually hit that ceiling?  If our values become centered around power, and we lose any anchor we once had to provide meaning for our lives, then it seems we would be on a direct path toward nihilism:

“For Nietzsche, the problem of nihilism arose out of the discovery that “God is dead.” “God” here means the historical God of the Christian faith.  But in a wider philosophical sense it means also the whole realm of supersensible reality-Platonic Ideas, the Absolute, or what not-that philosophy has traditionally posited beyond the sensible realm, and in which it has located man’s highest values.  Now that this other, higher, eternal realm is gone, Nietzsche declared, man’s highest values lose their value…The only value Nietzsche can set up to take the place of these highest values that have lost their value for contemporary man is: Power.”

As Barrett explains, Nietzsche seemed to think that power was the only thing that could replace the eternal realm that we valued so much; but of course this does nothing to alleviate the problem of nihilism in the long term since the infinite void still awaits those at the end of the finite road to maximal power.

“If this moment in Western history is but the fateful outcome of the fundamental ways of thought that lie at the very basis of our civilization-and particularly of that way of thought that sunders man from nature, sees nature as a realm of objects to be mastered and conquered, and can therefore end only with the exaltation of the will to power-then we have to find out how this one-sided and ultimately nihilistic emphasis upon the power over things may be corrected.”

I think the answer to this problem lies in a combination of strategies, but with the overarching goal of maximizing life fulfillment.  We need to reprogram our general attitude toward power such that it is truly instrumental rather than perceived as intrinsically valuable; and this means that our basic goal becomes accumulating power such that we can maximize our personal satisfaction and life fulfillment, and nothing more.  Among other things, the power we acquire should be centered around a power over ourselves and our own psychology; finding ways of living and thinking which are likely to include the fostering of a more respectful relationship with the nature that created us in the first place.

And now that we’re knee deep in the Information Age, we will be able to harness the potential of genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and artificial reality; and within these avenues of research we will be able to change our own biology such that we can quickly adapt our psychology to the ever-changing cultural environment of the modern world, and we’ll be able to free up our time to create any world we want.  We just need to keep the ultimate goal in mind, fulfillment and contentment, and direct our increasing power towards this goal in particular instead of merely chipping away at it in the background as some secondary priority.  If we don’t prioritize it, then we may simply perpetuate and amplify the meaningless sources of distraction in our lives, eventually getting lost in the chaos, and forgetting about our ultimate potential and the imperatives needed to realize it.

I’ll be posting a link here to part 9 of this post-series, exploring Heidegger’s philosophy, once it has been completed.

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Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 2, Chapter 5: “Christian Sources”)

In the previous post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, we explored some of the Hebraistic and Hellenistic contributions to the formation and onset of existentialism within Western thought.  In this post, I’m going to look at chapter 5 of Barrett’s book, which takes a look at some of the more specifically Christian sources of existentialism in the Western tradition.

1. Faith and Reason

We should expect there to be some significant overlap between Christianity and Hebraism, since the former was a dissenting sect of the latter.  One concept worth looking at is the dichotomy of faith versus reason, where in Christianity the man of faith is far and above the man of reason.  Even though faith is heavily prized within Hebraism as well, there are still some differences between the two belief systems as they relate to faith, with these differences stemming from a number of historical contingencies:

“Ancient Biblical man knew the uncertanties and waverings of faith as a matter of personal experience, but he did not yet know the full conflict of faith with reason because reason itself did not come into historical existence until later, with the Greeks.  Christian faith is therefore more intense than that of the Old Testament, and at the same time paradoxical: it is not only faith beyond reason but, if need be, against reason.”

Once again we are brought back to Plato, and his concept of rational consciousness and the explicit use of reason; a concept that had never before been articulated or developed.  Christianity no longer had reason hiding under the surface or homogeneously mixed-in with the rest of our mental traits; rather, it was now an explicit and specific way of thinking and processing information that was well known and that couldn’t simply be ignored.  Not only did the Christian have to hold faith above this now-identified capacity of thinking logically, but they also had to explicitly reject reason if it contradicted any belief that was grounded on faith.

Barrett also mentions here the problem of trying to describe the concept of faith in a language of reason, and how the opposition between the two is particularly relevant today:

“Faith can no more be described to a thoroughly rational mind than the idea of colors can be conveyed to a blind man.  Fortunately, we are able to recognize it when we see it in others, as in St. Paul, a case where faith had taken over the whole personality.  Thus vital and indescribable, faith partakes of the mystery of life itself.  The opposition between faith and reason is that between the vital and the rational-and stated in these terms, the opposition is a crucial problem today.”

I disagree with Barrett to some degree here as I don’t think it’s possible to be able to recognize a quality in others (let alone a quality that others can recognize as well) that is entirely incommunicable.  On the contrary, if you and I can both recognize some quality, then we should be able to describe it even if only in some rudimentary way.  Now this doesn’t mean that I think a description in words can do justice to every conception imaginable, but rather that, as human beings there is an inherent ability to communicate fairly well that which is involved in common modes of living and in our shared experiences; even very complex concepts that have somewhat of a fuzzy boundary.

It may be that a thoroughly rational mind will not appreciate faith in any way, nor think it is of any use, nor have had any personal experience with it; but it doesn’t mean that they can’t understand the concept, or what a mode of living dominated by faith would look like.  I also don’t think it’s fair to say that the opposition between faith and reason is that between the vital and the rational, even though this may be a real view for some.  If by vital, Barrett is alluding to what is essential to our psyche, then I don’t think he can be talking about faith, at least not in the sense of faith as belief without good reason.  But I’m willing to concede his point if instead by vital he is simply referring to an attitude that is spirited, vibrant, energetic, and thus involving some lively form of emotional expression.

He delves a little deeper into the distinction between faith and reason when he says:

“From the point of view of reason, any faith, including the faith in reason itself, is paradoxical, since faith and reason are fundamentally different functions of the human psyche.”

It seems that Barrett is guilty of making a little bit of a false equivocation here between two uses of the word faith.  I’d actually go so far as to say that the two uses of the word faith are best described in the way that Barrett himself alluded to in the last chapter: faith as trust and faith as belief.  On the one hand, we have faith as belief where some belief or set of beliefs is maintained without good reason; and on the other hand, we have faith as trust where, in the case of reason, our trust in reason is grounded on the fact that its use leads to successful predictions about the causal structure of our experience.  So there isn’t really any paradox at all when it comes to “faith” in reason, because such a faith need not involve adopting some belief without good reason, but rather there is, at most, a trust in reason based on the demonstrable and replicable success it has provided us in the past.

Barrett is right however, when he says that faith and reason are fundamentally different functions of the human psyche.  But this doesn’t mean that they are isolated from one another: for example, if one believes that having faith in God will help them to secure some afterlife in heaven, and if one also desires an afterlife in heaven, then the use of reason can actually be employed to reinforce a faith in God (as it did for me, back when I was a Christian).  This doesn’t mean that faith in God is reasonable, but rather that when certain beliefs are isolated or compartmentalized in the right way (even in the case of imagining hypothetical scenarios), reason can be used to process a logical relation between them, even if those beliefs are themselves derived from illogical cognitive biases.  To see that this is true, one need only realize that an argument can be logically valid even if the premises are not logically sound.

To be as charitable as possible with the concept of faith (at least, one that is more broadly construed), I will make one more point that I think is relevant here: having faith as a form of positivity or optimism in one’s outlook on life, given the social and personal circumstances that one finds themselves in, is perfectly rational and reasonable.  It is well known that people tend to be happier and have more fulfilling lives if they steer clear of pessimism and simply try and stay as positive as possible.  One primary reason for this has to do with what I have previously called socio-psychological feedback loops (what I would also call an evidence-based form of Karma).  Thus, one can have an empirically demonstrable good reason to have an attitude that is reminiscent of faith, yet without having to sacrifice an epistemology that is reliable and which consistently tracks on to reality.

When it comes to the motivating factors that lead people to faith, existentialist thought can shed some light on what some of these factors may be.  If we consider Paul the Apostle, for example, which Barrett mentioned earlier, he also says:

“The central fact for his faith is that Jesus did actually rise from the dead, and so that death itself is conquered-which is what in the end man most ardently longs for.”

The finite nature of man, not only with regard to the intellect but also with respect to our lives in general, is something that existentialism both recognizes and sees as an integral starting point to philosophically build off of.  And I think it should come as no surprise that the fear of death in particular is likely to be a motivating factor for most if not all supernatural beliefs found within any number of religions, including the belief in possibly resurrecting one from the dead (as in the case of St. Paul’s belief in Jesus), the belief in spirits, souls, or other disembodied minds, or any belief in an afterlife (including reincarnation).

We can see that faith is, largely anyway, a means of reducing the cognitive dissonance that results from existential elements of our experience; it is a means of countering or rejecting a number of facts surrounding the contingencies and uncertainties of our existence.  From this fact, we can then see that by examining what faith is compensating for, one can begin to extract what the existentialists eventually elaborated on.  In other words, within existentialism, it is fully accepted that we can’t escape death (for example), and that we have to face death head-on (among other things) in order to live authentically; therefore having faith in overcoming death in any way is simply a denial of at least one burden willingly taken on by the existentialist.

Within early Christianity, we can also see some parallels between an existentialist like Kierkegaard and an early Christian author like Tertullian.  Barrett gives us an excerpt from Tertullian’s De Carne Christi:

“The Son of God was crucified; I am unashamed of it because men must needs be ashamed of it.  And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.  And He was buried and rose again; the fact is certain because it is impossible.”

This sounds a lot like Kierkegaard, despite the sixteen centuries of separation between these two figures, and despite the fact that Tertullian was writing when Christianity was first expanding and most aggressive and Kierkegaard writing more towards the end of Christianity when it had already drastically receded under the pressure of secularization and modernity.  In this quote of Tertullian’s, we can see a kind of submission to paradox, where it is because a particular proposition is irrational or unreasonable that it becomes an article of faith.  It’s not enough to say that faith is simply used to arrive at a belief that is unreasonable or irrational, but rather that its attribute of violating reason is actually taken as a reason to use it and to believe that the claims of faith are in fact true.  So rather than merely seeing this as an example of irrationality, this actually makes for a good example of the kind of anti-rational attitudes that contributed to the existentialist revolt against some dominant forms of positivism; a revolt that didn’t really begin to precipitate until Kierkegaard’s time.

Although anti-rationalism is often associated with existentialism, I think one would be making an error if they equivocated the two or assumed that anti-rationalism was integral or necessary to existentialism; though it should be said that this is contingent on how exactly one is defining both anti-rationalism (and by extension rationalism) and existentialism.  The two terms have a variety of definitions (as does positivism, with Barrett giving us one particularly narrow definition back in chapter one).  If by rationalism, one is referring to the very narrow view that rationality is the only means of acquiring knowledge, or a view that the only thing that matters in human thought or in human life is rationality, or even a view that humans are fundamentally or primarily rational beings; then I think it is fair to say that this is largely incompatible with existentialism, since the latter is often defined as a philosophy positing that humans are not primarily rational, and that subjective meaning (rather than rationality) plays a much more primary role in our lives.

However, if rationality is simply taken as a view that reason and rational thought are integral components (even if not the only components) for discovering much of the knowledge that exists about ourselves and the universe at large, then it is by all means perfectly compatible with most existentialist schools of thought.  But in order to remain compatible, some priority needs to be given to subjective experience in terms of where meaning is derived from, how our individual identity is established, and how we are to direct our lives and inform our system of ethics.

The importance of subjective experience, which became a primary assumption motivating existentialist thought, was also appreciated by early Christian thinkers such as St. Augustine.  In fact, Barrett goes so far as to say that the interiorization of experience and the primary focus on the individual over the collective was unknown to the Greeks and didn’t come about until Christianity had begun to take hold in Western culture:

“Where Plato and Aristotle had asked the question, What is man?, St. Augustine (in the Confessions) asks, Who am I?-and this shift is decisive.  The first question presupposed a world of objects, a fixed natural and zoological order, in which man was included; and when man’s precise place in that order had been found, the specifically differentiating characteristic of reason was added.  Augustine’s question, on the other hand, stems from an altogether different, more obscure and vital center within the questioner himself: from an acutely personal sense of dereliction and loss, rather than from the detachment with which reason surveys the world of objects in order to locate its bearer, man, zoologically within it.”

So rather than looking at man as some kind of well-defined abstraction within a categorical hierarchy of animals and objects, and one bestowed with a unique faculty of rational consciousness, man is looked at from the inside, from the perspective of, and identified as, an embodied individual with an experience that is deeply rooted and inherently emotional.  And in Augustine’s question, we also see an implication that man can’t be defined in a way that the Greeks attempted to do because in asking the question, Who am I?, man became separated from the kind of zoological order that all other animals adhered to.  It is the unique sense of self and the (often foreboding) awareness of this self then, as opposed to the faculty of reason, that Augustine highlighted during his moment of reflection.

Though Augustine was cognizant of the importance of exploring the nature of our personal, human existence (albeit for him, with a focus on religious experience in particular), he also explored aspects of human existence on the cosmic scale.  But when he went down this cosmic road of inquiry, he left the nature of personal lived existence by the wayside and instead went down a Neo-Platonist path of theodicy.  Augustine was after all a formal theologian, and one who tried to come to grips with the problem of evil in the world.  But he employed Greek metaphysics for this task, and tried to use logic mixed with irrational faith-based claims about the benevolence of God, in order to show that God’s world wasn’t evil at all.  Augustine did this by eliminating evil from his conception of existence such that all evil was simply a lack of being and hence a form of non-being and therefore non-existent.  This was supposed to be our consolation: ignore any apparent evil in the world because we’re told that it doesn’t really exist; all in the name of trying to justify the cosmos as good and thus to maintain a view that God is good.

This is such a shame in the end, for in Augustine’s attempt at theodicy, he simply downplayed and ignored the abominable and precarious aspects of our existence, which are as real a part of our experience as anything could be.  Perhaps Augustine was motivated to use rationalism here in order to feel comfort and safety in a world where many feel alienated and alone.  But as Barrett says:

“…reason cannot give that security; if it could, faith would be neither necessary nor so difficult.  In the age-old struggle between the rational and the vital, the modern revolt against theodicy (or, equally, the modern recognition of its impossibility) is on the side of the vital…”

And so once again we see that a primary motivation for faith is because many cannot get the consolation they long for through the use of reason.  They can’t psychologically deal with the way the world really is and so they either use faith to believe the world is some other way or they try to use reason along with some number of faith-based premises, in evaluating our apparent place in the world.  St. Augustine actually thought that he could harmonize faith and reason (or what Barrett referred to as the vital and the rational) and this set the stage for the next thousand years of Christian thought.  Once faith claims became more explicit in the Church’s various articles of dogma, one was left to exercise rationality as they saw fit, as long as it was within the confines of that faith and dogma.  And this of course led to many medieval thinkers to mistake faith for reason (in many cases at least), reinforced by the fact that the use of reason was operating under faith-based premises.

The problematic relation between the vital and the rational didn’t disappear even after many a philosopher assumed the two forces were in complete harmony and agreement; instead the clash resurfaced in a debate between Voluntarism and Intellectualism, with our attention now turned toward St. Thomas Aquinas.  As an intellectualist, St. Thomas tried to argue that the intellect in man is prior to the will of man because the intellect determines the will, since we can only desire what we know.  Scotus on the other hand, a voluntarist, responded to this claim and said that the will determines what ideas the intellect turns toward, and thus the will ends up determining what the intellect comes to know.

As an aside, I think that Scotus was more likely correct here, because while the intellect may inform the will (and thus help to direct the will), there is something far more fundamental and unconscious at play that drives our engagement with the world as an organism evolved to survive.  For example, we have a curiosity for both novelty (seeking new information) and familiarity (a maximal understanding of incoming information) and basic biologically-driven desires for satisfaction and homeostasis.  These drives simply don’t depend on the intellect even though they can make use of it, and these drives will continue to operate even if the intellect does not.  I also disagree with St. Thomas’ claim that one can only desire that which they already know, for one can desire knowledge for it’s own sake without knowing exactly what knowledge is yet to come (again from an independent drive, which we could call the will), and one can also desire a change in the world from the way they currently know it to be to some other as yet unspecified way (e.g. to desire a world without a specific kind of suffering, even though one may not know exactly what that would be like, having never lived such a life before).

The crux of the debate between the primacy of the will versus the intellect can perhaps be re-framed accordingly:

“…not in terms of whether will is to be given primacy over the intellect, or the intellect over the will-these functions being after all but abstract fragments of the total man-but rather in terms of the primacy of the thinker over his thoughts, of the concrete and total man himself who is doing the thinking…the fact remains that Voluntarism has always been, in intention at least, an effort to go beyond the thought to the concrete existence of the thinker who is thinking that thought.”

Here again I see the concept of an embodied and evolved organism and a reflective self at play, where the contents of consciousness cannot be taken on their own, nor as primary, but rather they require a conscious agent to become manifest, let alone to have any causal power in the world.

2. Existence vs. Essence

There is a deeper root to the problem underlying the debate between St. Thomas and Scotus and it has to do with the relation between essence and existence; a relation that Sartre (among others) emphasized as critical to existentialism.  Whereas the essence of a thing is simply what the thing is (its essential properties for example), the existence of a thing simply refers to the brute fact that the thing is.  A very common theme found throughout Sartre’s writings is the basic contention that existence precedes essence (though, for him, this only applies to the case of man).  Barrett gives a very simplified explanation of such a thesis:

“In the case of man, its meaning is not difficult to grasp.  Man exists and makes himself to be what he is; his individual essence or nature comes to be out of his existence; and in this sense it is proper to say that existence precedes essence.  Man does not have a fixed essence that is handed to him ready-made; rather, he makes his own nature out of his freedom and the historical conditions in which he is placed.”

I think this concept also makes sense when we put it into the historical context going back to ancient Greece.  Whereas the Greeks tried to put humanity within a zoological order and categorize us by some essential qualities, the existentialists that later came on the scene rejected such an idea almost as a kind of categorical error.  It was simply not possible to classify human beings like you could inanimate objects or other animals that didn’t have the behavioral complexity and a will to define themselves as we do.

Barrett also explains that the essence versus existence relation breaks down into two different but related questions:

1) Does existence have primacy over essence, or the reverse?

2) In actual existing things is there a real distinction between the two?  Or are they merely different points of view that the mind takes toward the same existing thing?

In an attempt at answering these questions, I think it’s reasonable to say that essence has more to do with potentiality (a logically possible set of abstractions or properties) and existence has more to do with actuality (a logically and physically possible past or present state of being).  I also think that existence is necessary in order for any essence to be real in any way, and not because an actual object needs to exist in order to instantiate a physical instance of some specific essence, but because any essence is merely an abstraction created by a conscious agent who inferred it in the first place.  Quite simply, there is no Platonic realm for the essence to “exist” within and so it needs an existing consciousness to produce it.  So I would say that existence has primacy over essence since an existent is needed for an essence to be conceived, let alone instantiated at all.

As for the second question, I think there is a real distinction between the two and that they are different points of view that the mind takes toward the same existing thing.  I don’t see this as an either/or dichotomy.  The mind can certainly acknowledge the existence of some object, animal, or person, without giving much thought to what its essence is (aside from its being distinct enough to consider it a thing), but it can never acknowledge the essence of an actual object, animal, or person without also acknowledging its existence.  There’s also something relevant to be said about how our minds differentiate between an actual perception and an imagined one, even between an actual life and an imagined one, or an actual person and an imagined one; something that we do all the time.

On the other side of this issue, within the debate between essentialism and existentialism, are the questions of whether or not there are any essential qualities of human beings that make them human, and if so, whether or not any of these essential qualities are fixed for human beings.  Most people are familiar with the idea of human nature, whereby there are some biologically-grounded innate predispositions that affect our behavior in some ways.  We are evolved animals after all, and the only way for evolution to work is to have genes providing different phenotypic effects on the body and behavior of a population of organisms.  Since about half of our own genes are used to code for our brain’s development, its basic structure, and functionality, it should seem obvious to anyone that we’re bound to have some set of innate behavioral tendencies as well as some biological limitations on the space of possibilities for our behavior.

Thus, any set of innate behavioral tendencies that are shared by healthy human beings would constitute our human nature.  And furthermore, this behavioral overlap would be a fixed attribute of human nature insofar as the genes coding for that innate behavioral overlap don’t evolve beyond a certain degree.  Human nature is simply an undeniable fact about us grounded in our biology.  If our biology changes enough, then we will eventually cease to be human, or if we still call ourselves “human” at that point in time then we will cease to have the same nature since we will no longer be the same species.  But as long as that biological evolution remains under a certain threshold, we will have some degree of fixity in our human nature.

But unlike most other organisms on earth, human beings have an incredibly complex brain as well as a number of culturally inherited cognitive programs that provide us with a seemingly infinite number of possible behaviors and subsequent life trajectories.  And I think this fact has fueled some of the disagreement between the existentialists and the essentialists.  The essentialists (or many of them at least) have maintained that we have a particular human nature, which I think is certainly true.  But, as per the existentialists, we must also acknowledge just how vast our space of possibilities really is and not let our human nature be the ultimate arbiter of how we define ourselves.  We have far more freedom to choose a particular life project and way of life than one would be led to believe given some preconceived notion of what is essentially human.

3. The Case of Pascal

Science brought about a dramatic change to Western society, effectively carrying us out of the Middle Ages within a century; but this change also created the very environment that made modern Existentialism possible.  Cosmology, for example, led 17th century mathematician and theologian, Blaise Pascal to say that “The silence of these infinite spaces (outer space) frightens me.”  In this statement he was expressing the general reaction of humanity to the world that science had discovered; a world that made man feel homeless and insignificant.

As a religious man, Pascal was also seeking to reconcile this world discovered by science with his own faith.  This was a difficult task, but he found some direction in looking at the wretchedness of the human condition:

“In Pascal’s universe one has to search much more desperately to find any signposts that would lead the mind in the direction of faith.  And where Pascal finds such a signpost, significantly enough, is in the radically miserable condition of man himself.  How is it that this creature who shows everywhere, in comparison with other animals and with nature itself, such evidence marks of grandeur and power is at the same time so feeble and miserable?  We can only conclude, Pascal says, that man is rather like a ruined or disinherited nobleman cast out from the kingdom which ought to have been his (his fundamental premise is the image of man as a disinherited being).”

Personally I see this as indicative of our being an evolved species, albeit one with an incredibly rich level of consciousness and intelligence.  In some sense our minds’ inherent capacities have a potential that is far and beyond what most humans ever come close to actualizing, and this may create a feeling of our having lost something that we deserve; some possible yet unrealized world that would make more sense for us to have given the level of power and potential we possess.  And perhaps this lends itself to a feeling of angst or a lack of fulfillment as well.

As Pascal himself said:

“The natural misfortune of our mortal and feeble condition is so wretched that when we consider it closely, nothing can console us.” 

Furthermore, Barrett reminds us of Pascal having mentioned the human tendency of escaping from this close consideration of our condition through the two “sovereign anodynes” of habit and diversion:

“Both habit and diversion, so long as they work, conceal from man “his nothingness, his forlornness, his inadequacy, his impotence and his emptiness.”  Religion is the only possible cure for this desperate malady that is nothing other than our ordinary mortal existence itself.”

Barrett describes our state of cultivating various habits and distractions as a kind of concealment of the ever-narrowing space of possibilities in our lives, as each day passes us by with some set of hopes and dreams forever lost in the past.  I think it would be fair to say however, that the psychological benefit we gain from at least many of our habits and distractions warrants our having them in the first place.  As an analogy, if one day I have been informed by my doctor that I’m going to die from a terminal illness in a few months (thus drastically narrowing the future space of possibilities in my life), is there really a problem with me trying to keep my mind off of such a morbid fate, such that I can make the most of the time that I have left?  I certainly wouldn’t advocate burying one’s head in the sand either, nor having irrational expectations, nor living in denial; and so I think the time will be used best if I don’t completely forget about my timeline coming to an end either, because then I can more adequately appreciate that remaining time.

Moreover, I don’t agree that religion is the only possible cure for dealing with our “ordinary mortal existence”.  I think that psychological and moral development are the ultimate answers here, where a critical look at oneself and an ongoing attempt to become a better version of oneself in order to maximize one’s life fulfillment is key.  The world can be any way that it is but that doesn’t change the fact that certain attitudes toward that world and certain behaviors can make our experience of the world, as it truly is, better or worse.  Falling back on religion to console us is, to use Pascal’s own words, nothing but another habit and form of distraction, and one where we sacrifice knowing and facing the truth of our condition for some kind of ignorant bliss that relies on false beliefs about the world.  And I don’t think we can live authentically if we don’t face the condition we’re in as a species, and more importantly as individuals; by trying to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible.

When it comes to the human mind and how we deal with or process information about our everyday lives or aspects of our overall condition, it can be a rather messy process with very complicated concepts, many of which that have fuzzy boundaries and so can’t be dealt with in the same way that we deal with analyses relying strictly on logic.  In some cases of analyzing our lives, we don’t know exactly what the premises could even be, let alone how to arrange them within a logical structure to arrive at some kind of certain conclusion.  And this differs a lot from other areas of inquiry like, say, mathematics.  As Pascal was delving deeper into the study of our human condition, he realized this difference and posited that there was an interesting distinction in terms of what the mind can comprehend in these different contexts: a mathematical mind and an intuitive mind.  Within a field of study such as mathematics, it is our mind’s ability to logically comprehend various distinct and well defined ideas that we make use of, whereas in other more concrete domains of our experience, we rely quite heavily on intuition.

Not only is logic not very useful in the more concrete and complex domains of our lives, but in many cases it may actually get in the way of seeing things clearly since our intuition, though less reliable than logic, is more up to the task of dealing with complexities that haven’t yet been parsed out into well-defined ideas and concepts.  Barrett describes this a little differently than I would when he says:

“What Pascal had really seen, then, in order to have arrived at this distinction was this: that man himself is a creature of contradictions and ambivalences such as pure logic can never grasp…By delimiting a sphere of intuition over against that of logic, Pascal had of course set limits to human reason. “

In the case of logic, one is certainly limited in its use when the concepts involved are probabilistic (rather than being well-defined or “black and white”) and there are significant limitations when our attitudes toward those concepts vary contextually.  We are after all very complex creatures with a number of competing goals and with a prioritization of those goals that varies over time.  And of course we have a number of value judgments and emotional dispositions that motivate our actions in often unpredictable ways.  So it seems perfectly reasonable to me that one should acknowledge the limits we have in our use of logic and reason.

Barrett makes another interesting claim about the limits of reason when he says:

“Three centuries before Heidegger showed, through a learned and laborious exegesis, that Kant’s doctrine of the limitations of human reason really rests on the finitude of our human existence, Pascal clearly saw that the feebleness of our reason is part and parcel of the feebleness of our human condition generally.  Above all, reason does not get at the heart of religious experience.”

And I think the last sentence is most important here, where we try and understand that the limitations of reason include the inability to examine all that matters and all that is meaningful within religious experience.  Even though I am a kind of champion for reason, in the sense that I find it to be in short supply when it matters most and in the sense that I often advertise the dire need for critical thinking skills and the need for more education to combat our cognitive biases, I for one have never made the assumption that reason could ever accomplish such an arduous task of dissecting religious experience in some reductionist way while retaining or accounting for everything of value within it.  I have however used reason to analyze various religious beliefs and claims about the world in order to discover their consequences on, or incompatibilities with, a number of other beliefs.

Theologians do something similar in their attempts to prove the existence of God, by beginning with some set of presuppositions (about God or the supernatural), and then applying reason to those faith-based premises to see what would result if they were in fact true.  And Pascal saw this mental exercise as futile and misguided as well because it misses the entire point of religion:

“In any case, God as the object of a rigorous demonstration, even supposing such a demonstration were forthcoming, would have nothing to do with the living needs of religion.”

I admire the fact that Pascal was honest here about what really matters most when it comes to religion and religious beliefs.  It doesn’t matter whether or not God exists, or whether any religious claim or other is actually true or false; rather, it is the living need of religion that he perceives that ultimately motivates one to adhere to it.  Thus, theology doesn’t really matter to him because those who want to be convinced by the arguments for God’s existence will be convinced simply because they desire the conclusion insofar as they believe it will give them consolation from the human condition they find themselves in.

To add something to the bleak picture of just how contingent our existence is, Barrett mentions a personal story that Pascal shared about his having had a brush with death:

“While he was driving by the Seine one day, his carriage  suddenly swerved, the door was flung open, and Pascal almost catapulted down the embankment to his death.  The arbitrariness and suddenness of this near accident became for him another lightning flash of revelation.  Thereafter he saw Nothingness as a possibility that lurked, so to speak, beneath our feet, a gulf and an abyss into which we might tumble at any moment.  No other writer has expressed more powerfully than Pascal the radical contingency that lies at the heart of human existence-a contingency that may at any moment hurl us all unsuspecting into non-being…The idea of Nothingness or Nothing had up to this time played no role at all in Western philosophy…Nothingness had suddenly and drastically revealed itself to him.”

And here it is: the concept of Nothingness which has truly grounded a bulk of the philosophical constructs found within existentialism.  To add further to this, Pascal also saw that one’s inevitable death wasn’t the whole picture of our contingency, but only a part of it; it was our having been born at a particular time, place, and within a certain culture that vastly reduces the number of possible life trajectories one can take, and thus vastly reduces our freedom in establishing our own identity.  Our life begins with contingency and ends with it also.

Pascal also acknowledged our existence as lying in the middle of the universe, in terms of being between that of the infinitesimal and microscopic and that of the seemingly infinite lying at the cosmological scale.  Within this middle position, he saw man as being “an All in relation to Nothingness, a Nothingness in relation to the All.”  I think it’s also worth pointing out that it is because of our evolutionary history and the “middle-position” we evolved within that causes the drastic misalignment between the world we were in some sense meant to understand, and the micro and cosmic scales we discovered in the last several hundred years.

Aside from any feelings of alienation and homelessness that these different scales have precipitated, we simply don’t have an intuition that evolved a need to understand existence at the infinitesimal quantum level nor at the cosmic relativistic level, which is why these discoveries in physics are difficult to understand even by experts in the field.  We should expect these discoveries to be vastly perplexing and counter-intuitive, for our consciousness evolved to deal with life at a very finite scale; yet another example of our finitude as human beings.

It was this very same fact, that we gained so much information about our world through these kinds of discoveries, including major advancements made in mathematics, that also promoted the assumption that human nature could be perfected through the universal application of reason.

I’ll finish the post on this chapter with one final quote from Barrett that I found insightful:

“Poets are witnesses to Being before the philosophers are able to bring it into thought.  And what these particular poets were struggling to reveal, in this case, were the very conditions of Being that are ours historically today.  They were sounding, in poetic terms, the premonitory chords of our own era.”

It is the voice of the poets that we first hear lamenting about the Enlightenment and what reason seems to have done, or at least what it had begun to do.  They were some of the most important contemporary precursors to the later existentialists and philosophers that would soon begin to process (in far more detail and with far more precision) the full effects of modernity on the human psyche.

Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 2, Chapter 4: “The Sources of Existentialism in the Western Tradition”)

In the previous post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, I explored Part 1, Chapter 3: The Testimony of Modern Art, where Barrett illustrates how existentialist thought is best exemplified in modern art.  The feelings of alienation, discontent, and meaninglessness pervade a number of modern expressions, and so as is so often the case throughout history, we can use artistic expression as a window to peer inside our evolving psyche and witness the prevailing views of the world at any point in time.

In this post, I’m going to explore Part II, Chapter 4: The Sources of Existentialism in the Western Tradition.  This chapter has a lot of content and is quite dense, and so naturally this fact is reflected in the length of this post.

Part II: “The Sources of Existentialism in the Western Tradition”

Ch. 4 – Hebraism and Hellenism

Barrett begins this chapter by pointing out two forces governing the historical trajectory of Western civilization and Western thought: Hebraism and Hellenism.  He mentions an excerpt of Matthew Arnold’s, in his book Culture and Anarchy; a book that was concerned with the contemporary situation occurring in nineteenth-century England, where Arnold writes:

“We may regard this energy driving at practice, this paramount sense of the obligation of duty, self-control, and work, this earnestness in going manfully with the best light we have, as one force.  And we may regard the intelligence driving at those ideas which are, after all, the basis of right practice, the ardent sense for all the new and changing combinations of them which man’s development brings with it, the indomitable impulse to know and adjust them perfectly, as another force.  And these two forces we may regard as in some sense rivals–rivals not by the necessity of their own nature, but as exhibited in man and his history–and rivals dividing the empire of the world between them.  And to give these forces names from the two races of men who have supplied the most splendid manifestations of them, we may call them respectively the forces of Hebraism and Hellenism…and it ought to be, though it never is, evenly and happily balanced between them.”

And while we may have felt a stronger attraction to one force over the other at different points in our history, both forces have played an important role in how we’ve structured our individual lives and society at large.  What distinguishes these two forces ultimately comes down to the difference between doing and knowing; between the Hebrew’s concern for practice and right conduct, and the Greek’s concern for knowledge and right thinking.  I can’t help but notice this Hebraistic influence in one of the earliest expressions of existentialist thought when Soren Kierkegaard (in one of his earlier journals) had said: “What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act”.  Here we see that some set of moral virtues are what form the fundamental substance and meaning of life within Hebraism (and by extension, Kierkegaard’s philosophy), in contrast with the Hellenistic subordination of the moral virtues to those of the intellectual variety.

I for one am tempted to mention Aristotle here, since he was a Greek philosopher, yet one who formulated and extolled moral virtues, forming the foundation for most if not all modern systems of virtue ethics; despite all of his work on science, logic and epistemology.  And sure enough, Arnold does mention Aristotle briefly, but he says that for Aristotle the moral virtues are “but the porch and access to the intellectual (virtues), and with these last is blessedness.”  So it’s still fair to say that the intellectual virtues were given priority over the moral virtues within Greek thought, even if moral virtues were an important element, serving as a moral means to a combined moral-intellectual end.  We’re still left then with a distinction of what is prioritized or what the ultimate teleology is for Hebraism and Hellenism: moral man versus intellectual man.

One perception of Arnold’s that colors his overall thesis is a form of uneasiness that he sees as lurking within the Hebrew conception of man; an uneasiness stemming from a conception of man that has been infused with the idea of sin, which is simply not found in Greek philosophy.  Furthermore, this idea of sin that pervades the Hebraistic view of man is not limited to one’s moral or immoral actions; rather it penetrates into the core being of man.  As Barrett puts it:

“But the sinfulness that man experiences in the Bible…cannot be confined to a supposed compartment of the individual’s being that has to do with his moral acts.  This sinfulness pervades the whole being of man: it is indeed man’s being, insofar as in his feebleness and finiteness as a creature he stands naked in the presence of God.”

So we have a predominantly moral conception of man within Hebraism, but one that is amalgamated with an essential finitude, an acknowledgement of imperfection, and the expectation of our being morally flawed human beings.  Now when we compare this to the philosophers of Ancient Greece, who had a more idealistic conception of man, where humans were believed to have the capacity to access and understand the universe in its entirety, then we can see the groundwork that was laid for somewhat rivalrous but nevertheless important motivations and contributions to the cultural evolution of Western civilization: science and philosophy from the Greeks, and a conception of “the Law” entrenched in religion and religious practice from the Hebrews.

1. The Hebraic Man of Faith

Barrett begins here by explaining how the Law, though important for its effects on having bound the Jewish community together for centuries despite their many tribulations as a people, the Law is not central to Hebraism but rather the basis of the Law is what lies at its center.  To see what this basis is, we are directed to reread the Book of Job in the Hebrew Bible:

“…reread it in a way that takes us beyond Arnold and into our own time, reread it with an historical sense of the primitive or primary mode of existence of the people who gave expression to this work.  For earlier man, the outcome of the Book of Job was not such a foregone conclusion as it is for us later readers, for whom centuries of familiarity and forgetfulness have dulled the violence of the confrontation between man and God that is central to the narrative.”

Rather than simply taking the commandments of one’s religion for granted and following them without pause, Job’s face-to-face confrontation with his Creator and his demand for justification was in some sense the first time the door had been opened to theological critique and reflection.  The Greeks did something similar where eventually they began to apply reason and rationality to examine religion, stepping outside the confines of simply blindly following religious traditions and rituals.  But unlike the Greek, the Hebrew does not proceed with this demand of justification through the use of reason but rather by a direct encounter of the person as a whole (Job, and his violence, passion, and all the rest) with an unknowable and awe-inspiring God.  Job doesn’t solve his problem with any rational resolution, but rather by changing his entire character.  His relation to God involves a mutual confrontation of two beings in their entirety; not just a rational facet of each being looking for a reasonable explanation from one another, but each complete being facing one another, prepared to defend their entire character and identity.

Barrett mentions the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber here to help clarify things a little, by noting that this relation between Job and God is a relation between an I and a Thou (or a You).  Since Barrett doesn’t explain Buber’s work in much detail, I’ll briefly digress here to explain a few key points.  For those unfamiliar with Buber’s work, the I-Thou relation is a mode of living that is contrasted with another mode centered on the connection between an I and an It.  Both modes of living, the I-Thou and the I-It, are, according to Buber, the two ways that human beings can address existence; the two modes of living required for a complete and fulfilled human being.  The I-It mode encompasses the world of experience and sensation; treating entities as discrete objects to know about or to serve some use.  The I-Thou mode on the other hand encompasses the world of relations itself, where the entities involved are not separated by some discrete boundary, and where a living relationship is acknowledged to exist between the two; this mode of existence requires one to be an active participant rather than merely an objective observer.

It is Buber’s contention that modern life has entirely ignored the I-Thou relation, which has led to a feeling of unfulfillment and alienation from the world around us.   The first mode of existence, that of the I-It, involves our acquiring data from the world, analyzing and categorizing it, and then theorizing about it; and this leads to a subject-object separation, or an objectification of what is being experienced.  According to Buber, modern society almost exclusively uses this mode to engage with the world.  In contrast, with the I-Thou relation the I encounters the object or entity such that both are transformed by the relation; and there is a type of holism at play here where the You or Thou is not simply encountered as a sum of its parts but in its entirety.  To put it another way, it’s as if the You encountered were the entire universe, or that somehow the universe existed through this You.

Since this concept is a little nebulous, I think the best way to summarize Buber’s main philosophical point here is to say that we human beings find meaning in our lives through our relationships, and so we need to find ways of engaging the world such as to maximize our relationships with it; and this is not limited to forming relationships with fellow human beings, but with other animals, inanimate objects, etc., even if these relationships differ from one another in any number of ways.

I actually find some relevance between Buber’s “I and Thou” conception and Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence: the idea that given an infinite amount of time and a finite number of ways that matter and energy can be arranged, anything that has ever happened or that ever will happen, will recur an infinite number of times.  In Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, he mentions how the concept of eternal recurrence was, to him, horrifying and paralyzing.  But, he also concluded that the desire for an eternal return or recurrence would show the ultimate affirmation of one’s life:

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?  Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.

The reason I find this relevant to Buber’s conception is two-fold: first of all, the fact that the universe is causally connected makes the universe inseparable to some degree, where each object or entity could be seen to, in some sense, represent the rest of the whole; and secondly, if one is to wish for the eternal recurrence, then they have an attitude toward the world that is non-resistant, and that can learn to accept the things that are out of one’s control.  The universe effectively takes on the character of fate itself, and offers an opportunity to a being such as ourselves, to have a kind of “faith in fate”; to have a relation of trust with the universe as it is, as it once was, and as it will be in the future.

Now the kind of faith I’m speaking of here isn’t a brand that contradicts reason or evidence, but rather is simply a form of optimism and acceptance that colors one’s expectations and overall experience.  And since we are a part of this universe too, our attitude towards it should in many ways reflect our overall relation to it; which brings us back to Buber, where any encounter I might have with the universe (or any “part” of it) is an encounter with a You, that is to say, it is an I-Thou relation.

This “faith in fate” concept I just alluded to is a good segue to return back to the relation between Job and his God within Hebraism, as it was a relation of never-ending faith.  But importantly, as Barrett points out, this faith of Job’s takes on many shapes including that of anger, dismay, revolt, and confusion.  For Job says, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him…but I will maintain my own ways before him.”  So Job’s faith is his maintaining a form of trust in his Creator, even though he says that he will also retain his own identity, his dispositions, and his entire being while doing so.  And this trust ultimately forms the relation between the two.  Barrett describes the kind of faith at play here as more fundamental and primary than that which many modern-day religious proponents would lay claim to.

“Faith is trust before it is belief-belief in the articles, creeds, and tenets of a Church with which later religious history obscures this primary meaning of the word.  As trust, in the sense of the opening up of one being toward another, faith does not involve any philosophical problem about its position relative to faith and reason.  That problem comes up only later when faith has become, so to speak, propositional, when it has expressed itself in statements, creeds, systems.  Faith as a concrete mode of being of the human person precedes faith as the intellectual assent to a proposition, just as truth as a concrete mode of human being precedes the truth of any proposition.”

Although I see faith as belief as fundamentally flawed and dangerous, I can certainly respect the idea of faith as trust, and consequently I can respect the idea of faith as a concrete mode of being; where this mode of being is effectively an attitude of openness taken towards another.  But, whereas I agree with Barrett’s claim that truth as a concrete mode of human being precedes the truth of any proposition, in the sense that a basis and desire for truth are needed prior to evaluating the truth value of any proposition, I don’t believe one can ever justifiably make the succession from faith as trust to faith as belief for the simple reason that if one has good reason to trust another, then they don’t need faith to mediate any beliefs stemming from that trust.  And of course, what matters most here is describing and evaluating what the “Hebrew man of faith” consists of, rather than criticizing the concept of faith itself.

Another interesting historical development stemming from Hebraism pertains to the concept of faith as it evolved within Protestantism.  As Barrett tells us:

“Protestantism later sought to revive this face-to-face confrontation of man with his God, but could produce only a pallid replica of the simplicity, vigor, and wholeness of this original Biblical faith…Protestant man would never have dared confront God and demand an accounting of His ways.  That era in history had long since passed by the time we come to the Reformation.”

As an aside, it’s worth mentioning here that Christianity actually developed as a syncretism between Hebraism and Hellenism; the two very cultures under analysis in this chapter.  By combining Jewish elements (e.g. monotheism, the substitutionary atonement of sins through blood-magic, apocalyptic-messianic resurrection, interpretation of Jewish scriptures, etc.) with Hellenistic religious elements (e.g. dying-and-rising savior gods, virgin birth of a deity, fictive kinship, etc.), the cultural diffusion that occurred resulted in a religion that was basically a cosmopolitan personal salvation cult.

But eventually Christianity became a state religion (after the age of Constantine), resulting in a theocracy that heavily enforced a particular conception of God onto the people.  Once this occurred, the religion was now fully contained within a culture that made it very difficult to question or confront anyone about these conceptions, in order to seek justification for them.  And it may be that the intimidation propagated by the prevailing religious authorities became conflated with an attribute of God; where a fear of questioning any conception of God became integrated in a theological belief about God.

Perhaps it was because the primary conceptions of God, once Christianity entered the Medieval Period, were more externally imposed on everybody rather than discovered in a more personal and introspective way (even if unavoidably initiated and reinforced by the external culture), thus externalizing the attributes of God such that they became more heavily influenced by the perceptibly unquestionable claims of those in power.  Either way, the historical contingencies surrounding the advent of Christianity involved sectarian battles with the winning sect using their dogmatic authority to suppress the views (and the Christian Gospels/scriptures) of the other sects.  And this may have inhibited people from ever questioning their God or demanding justification for what they interpreted to be God’s actions.

One final point in this section that I’d like to highlight is in regard to the concept of knowledge as it relates to Hebraism.  Barrett distinguishes this knowledge from that of the Greeks:

“We have to insist on a noetic content in Hebraism: Biblical man too had his knowledge, though it is not the intellectual knowledge of the Greek.  It is not the kind of knowledge that man can have through reason alone, or perhaps not through reason at all; he has it rather through body and blood, bones and bowels, through trust and anger and confusion and love and fear; through his passionate adhesion in faith to the Being whom he can never intellectually know.  This kind of knowledge a man has only through living, not reasoning, and perhaps in the end he cannot even say what it is he knows; yet it is knowledge all the same, and Hebraism at its source had this knowledge.”

I may not entirely agree with Barrett here, but any disagreement is only likely to be a quibble over semantics, relating to how he and I define noetic and how we each define knowledge.  The word noetic actually derives from the Greek adjective noētikos which means “intellectual”, and thus we are presumably considering the intellectual knowledge found in Hebraism.  Though this knowledge may not be derived from reason alone, I don’t think (as Barrett implies above) that it’s even possible to have any noetic content without at least some minimal use of reason.  It may be that the kind of intellectual content he’s alluding to is that which results from a kind of synthesis between reason and emotion or intuition, but it would seem that reason would still have to be involved, even if it isn’t as primary or dominant as in the intellectual knowledge of the Greek.

With regard to how Barrett and I are each defining knowledge, I must say that just as most other philosophers have done, including those going all the way back to Plato, one must distinguish between knowledge and all other beliefs because knowledge is merely a subset of all of one’s beliefs (otherwise one would be saying that any belief whatsoever is considered knowledge).  To distinguish knowledge as a subset of one’s beliefs, my definition of knowledge can be roughly defined as:

“Recognized patterns of causality that are stored into memory for later recall and use, that positively and consistently correlate with reality, and for which that correlation has been validated by having made successful predictions and/or successfully accomplishing goals through the use of said recalled patterns.”

My conception of knowledge also takes what one might call unconscious knowledge into account (which may operate more automatically and less explicitly than conscious knowledge); as long as it is acquired information that allows you to accomplish goals and make successful predictions about the causal structure of your experience (whether internal feelings or other mental states, or perceptions of the external world), it counts as knowledge nevertheless.  Now there may be different degrees of reliability and usefulness of different kinds of knowledge (such as intuitive knowledge versus rational or scientific knowledge), but those distinctions don’t need to be parsed out here.

What Barrett seems to be describing here as a Hebraistic form of knowledge is something that is deeply embodied in the human being; in the ways that one lives their life that don’t involve, or aren’t dominated by, reason or conscious abstractions.  Instead, there seems to be a more organic process involved of viewing the world and interacting with it in a manner relying more heavily on intuition and emotionally-driven forms of expression.  But, in order to give rise to beliefs that cohere with one another to some degree, to form some kind of overarching narrative, reason (I would argue) is still employed.  There’s still some logical structure to the web of beliefs found therein, even if reason and logic could be used more rigorously and explicitly to turn many of those beliefs on their head.

And when it comes to the Hebraistic conception of God, including the passionate adhesion in faith to a Being whom one can never intellectually know (as Barrett puts it), I think this can be better explained by the fact that we do have reason and rationality, unlike most other animals, as well as cognitive biases such as hyperactive agency detection.  It seems to me that the Hebraistic God concept is more or less derived from an agglomeration of the unknown sources of one’s emotional experiences (especially those involving an experience of the transcendent) and the unpredictable attributes of life itself, then ascribing agency to that ensemble of properties, and (to use Buber’s terms) establishing a relationship with that perceived agency; and in this case, the agent is simply referred to as God (Yahweh).

But in order to infer the existence of such an ensemble, it would seem to require a process of abstracting from particular emotional and unpredictable elements and instances of one’s experience to conclude some universal source for all of them.  Perhaps if this process is entirely unconscious we can say that reason wasn’t at all involved in it, but I suspect that the ascription of agency to something that is on par with the universe itself and its large conjunction of properties which vary over space and time, including its unknowable character, is more likely mediated by a combination of cognitive biases, intuition, emotion, and some degree of rational conscious inference.  But Barrett’s point still stands that the noetic content in Hebraism isn’t dominated by reason as in the case of the Greeks.

2. Greek Reason

Even though existential philosophy is largely a rebellion against the Platonic ideas that have permeated Western thought, Barrett reminds us that there is still some existential aspect to Plato’s works.  Perhaps this isn’t surprising once one realizes that he actually began his adult life aspiring to be a dramatic poet.  Eventually he abandoned this dream undergoing a sort of conversion and decided to dedicate the rest of his life toward a search for wisdom as per the inspiration of Socrates.  Even though he engaged in a life long war against the poets, he still maintained a piece of his poetic character in his writings, including up to the end when he wrote about the great creation myth, Timaeus.

By far, Plato’s biggest contribution to Western thought was his differentiating rational consciousness from the rest of our human psyche.  Prior to this move, rationality was in some sense subsumed under the same umbrella as emotion and intuition.  And this may be one of the biggest changes to how we think, and one that is so often taken for granted.  Barrett describes the position we’re in quite well:

“We are so used today to taking our rational consciousness for granted, in the ways of our daily life we are so immersed in its operations, this it is hard at first for us to imagine how momentous was this historical happening among the Greeks.  Steeped as our age is in the ideas of evolution, we have not yet become accustomed to the idea that consciousness itself is something that has evolved through long centuries and that even today, with us, is still evolving.  Only in this century, through modern psychology, have we learned how precarious a hold consciousness may exert upon life, and we are more acutely aware therefore what a precious deal of history, and of effort, was required for its elaboration, and what creative leaps were necessary at certain times to extend it beyond its habitual territory.”

Barrett’s mention of evolution is important here, because I think we ought to distinguish between the two forms of evolution that have affected how we think and experience the world.  On the one hand, we have our biological evolution to consider, where our brains have undergone dramatic changes in terms of the level of consciousness we actually experience and the degree of causal complexity that the brain can model; and on the other hand, we have our cultural evolution to consider, where our brains have undergone a number of changes in terms of the kinds of “programs” we run on it, how those programs are run and prioritized, and how we process and store information in various forms of external hardware.

In regard to biological evolution, long before our ancestors evolved into humans, the brain had nothing more than a protoself representation of our body and self (to use the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s terminology); it had nothing more than an unconscious state that served as a sort of basic map in the brain tracking the overall state of the body as a single entity in order to accomplish homeostasis.  Then, beyond this protoself there evolved a more sophisticated level of core consciousness where the organism became conscious of the feelings and emotions associated with the body’s internal states, and also became conscious that her feelings and thoughts were her own, further enhancing the sense of self, although still limited to the here-and-now or the present moment.  Finally, beyond this layer of self there evolved an extended consciousness: a form of consciousness that required far more memory, but which brought the organism into an awareness of the past and future, forming an autobiographical self with a perceptual simulator (imagination) that transcended space and time in some sense.

Once humans developed language, then we began to undergo our second form of evolution, namely culture.  After cultural evolution took off, human civilization led to a plethora of new words, concepts, skills, interests, and ways of looking at and structuring the world.  And this evolutionary step was vastly accelerated by written language, the scientific method, and eventually the invention of computers.  But in the time leading up to the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and finally the advent of computers and the information age, it was arguably Plato’s conceptualization of rational consciousness that paved the way forward to eventually reach those technological and epistemological feats.

It was Plato’s analysis of the human psyche and his effectively distilling the process of reason and rationality from the rest of our thought processes that allowed us to manipulate it, to enhance it, and to explore the true possibilities of this markedly human cognitive capacity.  Aristotle and many others since have merely built upon Plato’s monumental work, developing formal logic, computation, and other means of abstract analysis and information processing.  With the explicit use of reason, we’ve been able to overcome many of our cognitive biases (serving as a kind of “software patch” to our cognitive bugs) in order to discover many true facts about the world, allowing us to unlock a wealth of knowledge that had previously been inaccessible to us.  And it’s important to recognize that Plato’s impact on the history of philosophy has highlighted, more than anything else, our overall psychic evolution as a species.

Despite all the benefits that culture has brought us, there has been one inherent problem with the cultural evolution we’ve undergone: a large desynchronization between our cultural and biological evolution.  That is to say, our culture has evolved far, far faster than our biology ever could, and thus our biology hasn’t kept up with, or adapted us to, the cultural environment we’ve been creating.  And I believe this is a large source of our existential woes; for we have become a “fish out of water” (so to speak) where modern civilization and the way we’ve structured our day-to-day lives is incredibly artificial, filled with a plethora of supernormal stimuli and other factors that aren’t as compatible with our natural psychology.  It makes perfect sense then that many people living in the modern world have had feelings of alienation, loneliness, meaninglessness, anxiety, and disorientation.  And in my opinion, there’s no good or pragmatic way to fix this aside from engineering our genes such that our biology is able to catch up to our ever-changing cultural environment.

It’s also important to recognize that Plato’s idea of the universal, explicated in his theory of Forms, was one of the main impetuses for contemporary existential philosophy; not for its endorsement but rather because the idea that a universal such as “humanity” was somehow more real than any actual individual person fueled a revolt against such notions.  And it wasn’t until Kierkegaard and Nietzsche appeared on the scene in the nineteenth century where we saw an explicit attempt to reverse this Platonic idea; where the individual was finally given precedence and priority over the universal, and where a philosophy of existence was given priority over one of essence.  But one thing the existentialists maintained, as derived from Plato, was his conception that philosophizing was a personal means of salvation, transformation, and a concrete way of living (though this was, according to Plato, best exemplified by his teacher Socrates).

As for the modern existentialists, it was Kierkegaard who eventually brought the figure of Socrates back to life, long after Plato’s later portrayal of Socrates, which had effectively dehumanized him:

“The figure of Socrates as a living human presence dominates all the earlier dialogues because, for the young Plato, Socrates the man was the very incarnation of philosophy as a concrete way of life, a personal calling and search.  It is in this sense too that Kierkegaard, more than two thousand years later, was to revive the figure of Socrates-the thinker who lived his thought and was not merely a professor in an academy-as his precursor in existential thinking…In the earlier, so-called “Socratic”, dialogues the personality of Socrates is rendered in vivid and dramatic strokes; gradually, however, he becomes merely a name, a mouthpiece for Plato’s increasingly systematic views…”

By the time we get to Plato’s student, Aristotle, philosophy had become a purely theoretical undertaking, effectively replacing the subjective qualities of a self-examined life with a far less visceral objective analysis.  Indeed, by this point in time, as Barrett puts it: “…the ghost of the existential Socrates had at last been put to rest.”

As in all cases throughout history, we must take the good with the bad.  And we very likely wouldn’t have the sciences today had it not been for Plato detaching reason from the poetic, religious, and mythological elements of culture and thought, thus giving reason its own identity for the first time in history.  Whatever may have happened, we need to try and understand Greek rationalism as best we can such that we can understand the motivations of those that later objected to it, especially within modern existentialism.

When we look back to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, for example, we find a fairly balanced perspective of human nature and the many motivations that drive our behavior.  But, in evaluating all the possible goods that humans can aim for, in order to derive an answer to the ethical question of what one ought to do above all else, Aristotle claimed that the highest life one could attain was the life of pure reason, the life of the philosopher and the theoretical scientist.  Aristotle thought that reason was the highest part of our personality, where one’s capacity for reason was treated as the center of one’s real self and the core of their identity.  It is this stark description of rationalism that diffused through Western philosophy until bumping heads with modern existentialist thought.

Aristotle’s rationalism even permeated the Christianity of the Medieval period, where it maintained an albeit uneasy relationship between faith and reason as the center of the human personality.  And the quest for a complete view of the cosmos further propagated a valuing of reason as the highest human function.  The inherent problems with this view simply didn’t surface until some later thinkers began to see human existence and the potential of our reason as having a finite character with limitations.  Only then was the grandiose dream of having a complete knowledge of the universe and of our existence finally shattered.  Once this goal was seen as unattainable, we were left alone on an endless road of knowledge with no prospects for any kind of satisfying conclusion.

We can certainly appreciate the value of theoretical knowledge, and even develop a passion for discovering it, but we mustn’t lose sight of the embodied, subjective qualities of our human nature; nor can we successfully argue any longer that the latter can be dismissed due to a goal of reaching some absolute state of knowledge or being.  That goal is not within our reach, and so trying to make arguments that rely on its possibility is nothing more than an exercise of futility.

So now we must ask ourselves a very important question:

“If man can no longer hold before his mind’s eye the prospect of the Great Chain of Being, a cosmos rationally ordered and accessible from top to bottom to reason, what goal can philosophers set themselves that can measure up to the greatness of that old Greek ideal of the bios theoretikos, the theoretical life, which has fashioned the destiny of Western man for millennia?”

I would argue that the most important goal for philosophy has been and always will be the quest for discovering as many moral facts as possible, such that we can attain eudaimonia as Aristotle advocated for.  But rather than holding a life of reason as the greatest good to aim for, we should simply aim for maximal life fulfillment and overall satisfaction with one’s life, and not presuppose what will accomplish that.  We need to use science and subjective experience to inform us of what makes us happiest and the most fulfilled (taking advantage of the psychological sciences), rather than making assumptions about what does this best and simply arguing from the armchair.

And because our happiness and life fulfillment are necessarily evaluated through subjectivity, we mustn’t make the same mistakes of positivism and simply discard our subjective experience.  Rather we should approach morality with the recognition that we are each an embodied subject with emotions, intuitions, and feelings that motivate our desires and our behavior.  But we should also ensure that we employ reason and rationality in our moral analysis, so that our irrational predispositions don’t lead us farther away from any objective moral truths waiting to be discovered.  I’m sympathetic to a quote of Kierkegaard’s that I mentioned at the beginning of this post:

“What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act.”

I agree with Kierkegaard here, in that moral imperatives are the most important topic in philosophy, and should be the most important driving force in one’s life, rather than simply a drive for knowledge for it’s own sake.  But of course, in order to get clear about what one must do, one first has to know a number of facts pertaining to how any moral imperatives are best accomplished, and what those moral imperatives ought to be (as well as which are most fundamental and basic).  I think the most basic axiomatic moral imperative within any moral system that is sufficiently motivating to follow is going to be that which maximizes one’s life fulfillment; that which maximizes one’s chance of achieving eudaimonia.  I can’t imagine any greater goal for humanity than that.

Here is the link for part 5 of this post series.

Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 1, Chapter 3: “The Testimony of Modern Art”)

In the previous post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, I explored Part 1, Chapter 2: The Encounter with Nothingness, where Barrett gives an overview of some of the historical contingencies that have catalyzed the advent of existentialism: namely, the decline of religion, the rational ordering of society through capitalism and industrialization, and the finitude found within science and mathematics.  In this post, I want to explore Part I, Chapter 3: The Testimony of Modern Art.  Let’s begin…

Ch. 3 – The Testimony of Modern Art

In this chapter, Barrett expands the scope of existentialism, its drives and effects, on the content of modern art.  As he sees it, existentialist anxiety, discontent, and facing certain truths resulting from our modern understanding of the world we live in have heavily influenced if not predominated the influence on modern art.  Many find modern art to be, as he puts it:

“…too bare and bleak, too negative or nihilistic, too shocking or scandalous; it dishes out unpalatable truths.”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that these kinds of qualities in much of modern art are but a product of existentialist angst, feelings of solitude, and an outright clash between traditional norms and narratives about human life and the views of those who have accepted much of what modernity has brought to light, however difficult and uncomfortable that acceptance is.

We might also be tempted to ask ourselves if modern art represents something more generally about our present state.  Barrett sheds some light on this question when he says:

“..Modern art thus begins, and sometimes ends, as a confession of spiritual poverty.  That is its greatness and its triumph, but also the needle it jabs into the Philistine’s sore spot, for the last thing he wants to be reminded of is his spiritual poverty.  In fact, his greatest poverty is not to know how impoverished he is, and so long as he mouths the empty ideals or religious phrases of the past he is but as tinkling brass.”

I can certainly see a lot of modern art as being an expression or manifestation of the spiritual poverty of our modern age.  It’s true that religion no longer serves the same stabilizing role for our society as it once did, nor can we deny that the knowledge we’ve gained since the Enlightenment has caused a compartmentalizing effect on our psyche with respect to reason and religious belief (with the latter being eliminated for many if the compartmentalization is insufficient to overcome any existing cognitive dissonance).  We can also honestly say that many in the modern world have lost a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives, and feel a loss of connection to their community or to the rest of humanity in general, largely as a result of the way society (and in turn, how each life within that society) has become structured.

But, as Barrett says, the fact that many people don’t realize just how impoverished they are, is the greatest form of poverty realized by many living in modernity.  And we could perhaps summarize this spiritual poverty as simply the lack of having a well-rounded expression of one’s entire psyche.  It seems to me that this qualitative state is tied to another aspect of the overall process: in particular, our degree of critical self-reflection which affects our vision of our own personal growth, our ethical development, and ultimately our ability to define meaning for our lives on our own individual terms.

One could describe a kind of trade-off that has occurred during humanity’s transition to modernity: we once had a more common religious structure that pervaded one’s entire life and which was shared by most everyone else living in pre-modern society, and this was replaced by a secular society that encouraged new forms of conformity aside from religion; and we once had a religious structure that allowed one to connect to some of the deeper layers of their inner self, and this was replaced with more of an industrialized, consumerist structure involving psychological externalization which lended itself to the powers of conformity already present in the collective social sphere of our lives.

Since artistic expression serves as a kind of window into the predominating psychology of the people and artists living at any particular time, Barrett makes a very good point when he says:

“Even if existential philosophy had not been formulated, we would know from modern art that a new and radical conception of man was at work in this period.”

And within the modern art movement, we can see a kind of compensatory effect occurring where the externalization in modern society is countered with a vast supply of subjectivity including the creation of very unique and highly imaginative abstractions.  But, underneath or within many of these abstractions lies a fundamental perspective of modern humans living as a kind of stranger to the world, surrounded by an alien environment, with a yearning to feel a sense of belonging and familiarity.

We’ve seen similar changes in artistic expression within literature as well.  Whereas literature had historically been created under the assumption of a linear temporality operating within the bounds of a well-defined beginning, middle, and end, it was beginning to show more chaotic or unpredictable qualities in its temporal structure, less intuitive plot progressions, and in many cases leaving the reader with what appeared to be an open or unresolved ending, and even a feeling of discontent or shock.  This is what we’d expect to occur if we realize the Greek roots of Western civilization, ultimately based on a culture that believed the universe to have a logical structure, with a teleological, anthropomorphic and anthropocentric order of events that cohered into an intelligible whole.  Once this view of the universe changed to one that saw the world as less predictable and indifferent to human wants and needs, the resultant psychological changes coincided with a change in literary style and expression.

In all these cases, we can see that modern art has no clear-cut image of what it means to be human or what exactly a human being is, for the simple reason that it sees human beings as lacking any fixed essence or nature; it sees humans as transcending any pre-defined identity or mold.  Lacking any fixed essence, I think that modern conceptions of humanity entail a radical form of freedom to define ourselves if we choose to do so, even though this worthwhile goal is often difficult, uncomfortable, and a project that never really ends until we die.  Actually striving to make use of this freedom is needed now more than ever, given the level of conformity and the increasingly abstract ways of living that modern society foists upon us.

Another interesting quote of Barrett’s regards the relationship between modern art and conceptions of the meaningless:

“Modern art has discarded the traditional assumptions of rational form.  The modern artist sees man not as the rational animal, in the sense handed down to the West by the Greeks, but as something else.  Reality, too, reveals itself to the artist not as the Great Chain of Being, which the tradition of Western rationalism had declared intelligible down to its smallest link and in its totality, but as much more refractory: as opaque, dense, concrete, and in the end inexplicable.  At the limits of reason one comes face to fact with the meaningless; and the artist today shows us the absurd, the inexplicable, the meaningless in our daily life.

This is interesting, especially given Barrett’s previous claim (in chapter 1) about existentialism’s opposition to the positivist position that “…the whole surrounding area in which ordinary men live from day to day and have their dealings with other men is consigned to the outer darkness of the meaningless.”  Barrett’s more recent claim above, while not necessarily in contradiction with the previous claim, suggests (at the very least) an interesting nuance within existentialist thought.  It suggests that positivism wants to keep silent about the meaningless, whereas existentialism does not; but it also suggests that there’s some agreement between positivism’s claim of what is meaningless and that of existentialism.  Both supposedly contrary schools of thought make claims to what is meaningless either implicitly or explicitly, and both have some agreement as to what falls under the umbrella of the meaningless; it’s just that existentialism accepts and promulgates this meaninglessness as a fundamental part of our human existence whereas positivism more or less rejects this as not even worth talking about, let alone worth using to help construct one’s world view.

Barrett finishes this chapter with a brief reminder of the immense technological progress we’ve made in modern times and the massive externalization of our lives that accompanied this change.  But there is a growing disparity between this external power and our inner poverty; an irony that modern art wants to expose.  Tying this all together, he says:

“The bomb reveals the dreadful and total contingency of human existence.  Existentialism is the philosophy of the atomic age.”

And that pretty much says it all.  Originally, life on this planet (eventually including our own species) was born from the sun, in terms of its elements and its ultimate source of energy.  Now we live in an age where we’ve harnessed the power that drives the sun itself (nuclear fusion); the very power that may one day lead to the end of our own existence.  I find this situation to be far more ironic than the disparity between our inner and outer lives as Barrett points out, as we are on the brink of wiping ourselves out by the very mechanism that allowed us to exist in the first place.  Nothing could be a more poetic example of the contingency of our own existence.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore Irrational Man, Part 2: The Sources of Existentialism in the Western Tradition, Chapter 4: Hebraism and Hellenism.

Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 1, Chapter 1: “The Advent of Existentialism”)

William Barrett’s Irrational Man is a nice exposition on existential philosophy which begins by exploring the state of modern humanity and philosophy and tracing its roots from ancient Greece, its development through the Medieval period and the Enlightenment, all the way to the mid-twentieth century.  He explores what he believes to be the primary cultural sources of existentialism and then surveys the contributions of perhaps the four most prominent existential philosophers: namely, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre.  I’d like to explore Barrett’s book here in more detail and I’m going to break this down into an analysis of every section and chapter, with each chapter analyzed within a separate blog post.  Below is the first post of this series; Part 1, Chapter 1: The Advent of Existentialism.

Part I: “The Present Age”

Ch. 1 – The Advent of Existentialism

Early on, Barrett gives a brief description of positivism, which he describes as a philosophical theory which holds that science is not only what distinguishes our post-Enlightenment civilization from all others, but it also claims that science should be the ultimate ruler of human life, to which Barrett remarks that science has never held this role before nor could it given the details of our psychology as human beings.  It’s true that science has never held this role before and it’s also true that the way we generally use science is ill-suited for the job of guiding our day-to-day lives in order to meet all of our psychological needs.

However, I think it would be mistaken to say that the scientific method, and empirical methods generally, can’t be used (even in principle) to determine (or to help determine) the choices one ought to make in one’s life.  While science as an enterprise isn’t generally used in this way (we tend to use it to solve more specific technical challenges and to determine well-defined mechanisms underlying various phenomena), we shouldn’t simply assume that the knowledge we’re able to gain from it will never include information pertaining to our decision-making, our preferences and values, and our ultimate goals in life.  On top of this, if one wanted to know whether or not a life “ruled by” science could meet all of one’s psychological needs, one could only test this hypothesis by employing (at the very least) an informal version of the scientific method.  So in some rudimentary sense, science and its methods (of testing hypotheses and building upon the results of such testing) are unavoidable as they pervade our lives and are inseparable from any falsifiable inquiry that arises therein.

On the flip-side, we shouldn’t assume that science on its own is capable of anything at all, let alone meeting all of our needs as a species.  What I mean by this, and one thing that I’m sure Barrett would have agreed with, is that the use of science itself and the desire to use it for some particular aim first requires an underlying set of philosophical views such as some kind of an epistemology, an ethics, etc.  This also means that science as a concept and as an instrument for gaining knowledge shouldn’t be criticized if it leads to undesirable consequences; rather it is the philosophical views of the scientist(s) undertaking some research project, and/or the philosophical views of the people that use that knowledge once it has been discovered, that should be criticized accordingly.

Barrett goes on to say:

“Positivist man is a curious creature who dwells in the tiny island of light composed of what he finds scientifically ‘meaningful,’ while the whole surrounding area in which ordinary men live from day to day and have their dealings with other men is consigned to the outer darkness of the ‘meaningless.’ “

And I couldn’t agree more that this kind of positivist thinking is flawed and incomplete as we need to take introspection, intuition, and raw experience into any complete account of our reality.  The German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg actually echoed similar sentiments in his later life where he said:

“The positivists have a simple solution: the world must be divided into that which we can say clearly and the rest, which we had better pass over in silence. But can any one conceive of a more pointless philosophy, seeing that what we can say clearly amounts to next to nothing? If we omitted all that is unclear we would probably be left with completely uninteresting and trivial tautologies.”

In Heisenberg’s quote here we can see the relevance of thinkers like Wittgenstein and Nietzsche, and how they explored different conceptions of meaning as well as the importance of (what Nietzsche called) perspectivism, or striving to look at the world as a whole or at any particular phenomena from as many viewpoints as possible without becoming trapped in the constraints of our language and culture.  In order to avoid dogmatism, we must be willing to at least consider different ontologies and different ways of looking at our own existence, our place in the world, and what is most important to us.  And although science shouldn’t be excluded from our sources of meaning or from our methods of determining what is and what is not meaningful, people shouldn’t expect these concepts to be restricted to the domain of science.

So what is existentialism then, according to Barrett?  Well, he sees it as a philosophical movement (and a kind of revolt) against the oversimplification of man (human beings) as assumed within positivism.  It seeks to replace this fractured view of man and instead gather all the facets of the human condition and assemble them into one coherent picture of man.  And it does so even when it requires acknowledging the darker and more questionable parts of our nature and existence; by exploring and accepting the uglier side of humanity that many in the Enlightenment tried to discount and leave by the wayside.

This post-Enlightenment view of man, which pictured man as inherently rational, went largely unchallenged for more than a hundred years (until Kierkegaard), and aside from Kierkegaard’s works which Barrett explores, I think we could also perhaps credit the work of Charles Darwin and his On the Origin of Species as well as his The Descent of Man, for firmly challenging any prevailing doubts about our animalistic and irrational origins.  Once it became apparent that human beings were the distant cousins of other primates and the more distant cousins of fish and reptiles and so on, it became that much harder to distance ourselves from the irrationality that pervades the rest of the animal kingdom.  And so it became harder to deny that we still had some level of irrationality at the core of our being, even if it was accompanied with a capacity for reason and rationality.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore Irrational Man, Part 1, Chapter 2: The Encounter with Nothingness.

The Book of Acts as Historical Fiction

Previously, I wrote a series of posts that mentioned several elements from Richard Carrier’s historical/literary analysis of the Gospels in the New Testament (showing that they are not historically reliable, but are rather allegorical fictions), as discussed in his book On the Historicity of Jesus.  I decided to write a complementary post which mentions various elements from Carrier’s analysis of the Acts of the Apostles, since it is believed to have been written by the same author as The Gospel According to Luke.  Let’s begin.

Although it is implied in the preface of the book of Acts that it is supposed to be some kind of historical account, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  In fact, Acts has been thoroughly discredited as nothing more than a work of apologetic historical fiction, and the scholarship of Richard Pervo conclusively demonstrates this to be the case.  Regarding any historical sources that Luke may have used for Acts, the only one that has been confirmed with any probability was that of Josephus (a person who never wrote about Jesus Christ nor Christianity, yet was likely used by Luke for background material), and although there may have been more historical sources than Josephus, we simply don’t have any evidence preserved from those other possible historians to make a case one way or the other.  All of the other sources that we can discern within Acts are literary sources, not historical ones.  Included in these literary sources is what may possibly have been a (now-lost) hagiographical fabrication, and basically a rewrite of the Elijah-Elisha narrative in some of the Old Testament (OT) texts of Kings, although placing Paul and Jesus in the main roles instead, which obviously would have been a literary source of historical fiction (not any kind of historical account).

The scholar Thomas Brodie has argued that this evident reworking of the Kings narrative starts in Luke’s Gospel and continues on until Acts chapter 15, thus indicating that Luke either integrated this literary creation into his story or he used an underlying source text, such as some previous Gospel that not only covered the acts of Jesus but also the acts of the apostles.  So it appears that Luke either used this source text or his own literary idea and then inserted more stories into it, effectively expanding the whole story into two books, while also utilizing some material from Mark and Matthew during the process (and potentially other now-lost Gospels) and some material from the epistles of Paul.  In any case, the unnamed source text mentioned thus far is a hypothetical one that can only be inferred to have existed from the evidence of what’s written in Acts.  Luckily, the remaining literary sources that scholars can discern Luke used are indeed sources we actually have and thus can directly compare to and analyze.

As an example, the scholar Dennis MacDonald has shown that Luke also reworked fictional tales written by Homer, replacing the characters and some of the outcomes as needed to suit his literary purposes.  MacDonald informs us in his The Shipwrecks of Odysseus and Paul (New Testament Studies, 45, pp. 88-107) that:

The shipwrecks of Odysseus and Paul share nautical images and vocabulary, the appearance of a goddess or angel assuring safety, the riding of planks, the arrival of the hero on an island among hospitable strangers, the mistaking of the hero as a god, and the sending of him on his way [in a new ship].

Paul actually tells us himself that he was shipwrecked three times, and that at least one time he spent a day and night adrift (2 Cor. 11.25).  It’s possible that Luke was inspired by this detail given by Paul and used it to invent a story that expanded on it, while borrowing other ideas and details from famous shipwreck narratives including those found in Jonah, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid.  In fact, Acts rewrites Homer a number of other times.  Paul’s resurrection of the fallen Eutychus was based on the fallen Elpenor.  The visions of Cornelius and Peter were constructed from a similar narrative that was written about Agamemnon.  Paul’s farewell at Miletus was made from Hector’s farewell to Andromache.  The lottery of Matthias we hear about was built off of the lottery of Ajax.  Even Peter’s escape from prison was lifted from Priam’s escape from Achilles.  There are other literary sources besides Homer that the author of Acts used as well.  For example, the prison breaks in Acts share several themes with the famously miraculous prison breaks found in the Bacchae of Euripedes such as the miraculous unlocking of chains and being able to escape due to an earthquake (compare Acts 12.6-7 and 16.26 to Bacchae pp. 440-49, 585-94).

However, the source that Acts seems to employ more than any other is the Septuagint.  While MacDonald has shown that the overall structure of the Peter and Cornelius story is based on writings from Homer, the scholar Randel Helms has shown that other elements were in fact borrowed from the book of Ezekiel in the OT, thus merging both story models into a single one.  For example, both Peter and Ezekiel see the heavens open up (Acts 10.11; Ezek. 1.1), both of them are commanded to eat something in their vision (Acts 10.13; Ezek. 2.9), both respond to God twice by saying “By no means, Lord!” using the exact same Greek phrase (Acts 10.14, 11.8; Ezek. 4.14, 20.49), both are asked to eat unclean food, and finally both protest saying that they have never eaten anything unclean before (Acts 10.14; Ezek. 4.14).  Clearly, the author of Acts isn’t recording anything from historical memory, but rather is assembling a fictional story using literary structures and motifs that don’t have much if anything to do with what happened to Peter or Paul.  The author appears to be inventing this “history” in order to convince his readers of how the previously-required Torah-observance was abandoned in early Christianity, and to convince his readers that this abandonment of Torah-observance was even approved by Peter all along, and confirmed to be approved of through divine revelation.  Yet, we know this to be a lie because Paul even tells us himself (in Gal. 2) that he was for a long time the only advocate for a Torah-free version of Christianity, and it was merely tolerated by Torah observers like Peter (and often contentiously so).  Similarly, in Acts 15.7-11, we can see that it is basically just Paul’s speech from Gal. 2.14-21 put into Peter’s mouth, which is the exact opposite of what Paul told us actually happened.

In fact, all the other stories in Acts are just like this, where they are a fictional product created from prior literary sources that had no relevance to any actual Christian history, just so Luke could make a point that he thought was important.  There may have been some actual authentic sources behind some of the events we read about throughout Acts, but there is simply no evidence for them, nor any way to discern what those historical elements could even be since if any exist, they are embedded in what looks to be a literary invention as opposed to any kind of real history.  It seems that Luke was writing this to sell some particular idea of how the church began and later evolved in its early years.  Just as Luke had done in his Gospel, Acts tries to portray the Torah-observant and Gentile sects of Christianity as having been continuous and harmonized, it tries to stress the close relationship between Paul and the other apostles, and also the unity of the first believers.  In doing so, the author of Acts had to undermine the Epistles of Paul, most especially Galatians.

One example that shows us the historical revisionism seen throughout Acts is the fact that Paul tells us himself that he “was unknown by face to the churches of Judea ” until a number of years after his conversion (Gal. 1.22-23), he tells us that after his conversion he went away to Arabia before eventually returning to Damascus, and he tells us that he didn’t go to Jerusalem for at least three years (Gal. 1.15-18).  Yet, in Acts 7-9, the author tells us that Paul was known to and interacting with the Jerusalem church non-stop from the beginning (even before his conversion), and rather than going to Arabia immediately after his conversion, in Acts we are told that he went immediately to Damascus and then back to Jerusalem but a few weeks later, never ever spending so much as a minute in Arabia.  So Acts is filled with confirmed instances of historical revisionism, rather than any actual historical accounts.

Another more obvious example of Luke’s inventiveness in Acts is when he expands Jesus’ post-resurrection time on earth to an entire span of forty days, with Jesus hanging out (in secret) with his disciples and dozens upon dozens of other believers.  During this time, he has Jesus teaching them even more than he did while he was alive, before having Jesus fly up to outer space to reside with angels (Acts 1.3-12).  This is a clear-cut example of myth in the making.

The scholar Burton Mack has given other examples of how Luke’s version of the history of early Christianity in Acts is entirely unrealistic.  He tells us:

Luke says that the standard sermon was preached to the Jews on the day of the Pentecost and often thereafter, whereupon hundreds converted and the whole world became the church’s parish overnight…[but this is] a story that does not make sense as history by any standard.

Not only is this nonsensical in terms of the ridiculously hyperbolized growth rate, but also in the most general sense of how people would have really behaved.  As Mack says:

No Jew worth his salt would have converted when being told that he was guilty of killing the messiah.  No Greek would have been persuaded by the dismal logic of the argumentation of the sermons.  The scene would not have made sense as history to anyone during the first century with first-hand knowledge of Christians, Jews, and the date of the temple in Jerusalem.  So what do we have on our hands?  An imaginary reconstruction in the interest of aggrandizing an amalgam view of Christianity early in the second century.  Luke did this by painting over the messy history of conflictual movements throughout the first century and in his own time.  He cleverly depicted Peter and Paul as preachers of an identical gospel…That is mythmaking in the genre of epic.  There is not the slightest reason to take it seriously as history.

To summarize Mack’s conclusion, the narrative we see in Acts is so incredible and unrealistic, it couldn’t possibly have been based on historical events.  Rather, it is what Luke wanted to have happened and/or what he wants his readers to believe happened.  This sentiment applies throughout the entire book of Acts.  In terms of background information, this conclusion comes as no surprise since all other “Acts” literature written by Christians was entirely fabricated as well, for example the Acts of Peter, the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Andrew, the Acts of John, and the Acts of Thomas, and all of these Christian fabrications look quite similar to the Acts that we find in the NT.  There simply isn’t any reason to trust the Acts found in the NT anymore than these other Christian fabrications, especially after having demonstrated that it is riddled with hyperbole and historical fiction.

Adding to this is the large number of literary coincidences (just as we saw in the earlier post-series concerning the four Gospels in the NT), which aren’t at all believable as history.  As the scholar Robert Price observed:

Peter and Paul are paralleled, each raising someone from the dead (Acts 9.36-40, 20.9-12), each healing a paralytic (3.1-8, 14.8-10), each healing by extraordinary, magical means (5.15, 19.11-12), each besting a sorcerer (8.18-23, 13.6-11), each miraculously escaping prison (12.6-10, 16.25-26).

Likewise, just as Peter was sent by God to save Cornelius after he sends for Peter following a vision (Acts 10), Paul is also sent by God to save the Macedonians “when a certain Macedonian man ” sends for him in a vision (Acts 6.9-10).  Luke also made Paul’s story parallel that of Christ’s, where, as Price tells us “both undertake peripatetic preaching journeys, culminating in a last long journey to Jerusalem, where each is arrested in connection with a disturbance in the temple “, and then “each is acquitted by a Herodian monarch, as well as acquitted by Roman procurators “.  Furthermore, both are interrogated by “the chief prests and the whole Sanhedrin” (Acts 22.30; Luke 22.66; cross-referencing Mark 14.55, 15.1), and finally both know that their death is pre-ordained and they both make predictions about what will happen afterward, not long before they die (Luke 21.5-28; Acts 20.22-38; cross-referencing 21.4).

Notably however, Paul does almost everything at a larger scale than Jesus.  Paul’s journeys traverse a much larger region of the world, almost the entire northeastern Mediterranean in fact.  Paul also travels on and around a significantly larger sea than Jesus did (Mediterranean vs. Sea of Galilee).  Even during the one particular journey by sea where Paul faces death from a perilous storm, and is saved by faith, on Paul’s occasion his ship is actually destroyed thus dramatically exceeding the level of peril that Jesus had faced during the storm he encountered.  We also hear that Paul’s trial spanned several years rather than merely a single night as was the case for Jesus.  Unlike Jesus, we hear that there were actual armies plotting to assassinate Paul, and also unlike Jesus, we hear that Paul had actual armies come to rescue him (Acts 23.20-24).  Whereas Jesus was said to stir up violence against himself by his reading scripture in a synagogue (Luke 4.16-30), Paul actually stirs up violence against himself by his reading scripture in two synagogues (Acts 13.14-52, 17.1-5).  Though Paul and Jesus both die and are resurrected from the dead, Paul alone marches right back in the city unharmed and continues to preach the gospel in public throughout the region (as if entirely unimpeded), winning many more disciples for Jesus as a result (Acts 14.19-21), whereas Jesus didn’t win any new disciples after his resurrection and didn’t even attempt to do so.  Even at the end, unlike Jesus, Paul is eventually sent to meet none other than the emperor of Rome himself — another example of something that Jesus was never said to have accomplished.  So despite all the coincidental parallels between Paul and Jesus, by Luke’s account in Acts, Paul has been colored as someone who was not only far more famous and more successful than Jesus was, but also one who faced more dangers and at larger scales.

All of these parallels found between Peter and Paul, and between Paul and Jesus, are simply wholly improbable as history.  Another parallel (or set of parallels) worthy of mention concerns the account of Paul’s conversion (Acts 9.1-20), which looks like nothing more than a rewrite of the Emmaus narrative found in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 24.13-35), which is another demonstrably fictional story.  Both stories involve a journey on a road from Jerusalem to another city (Emmaus: Luke 24.13; Damascus: Acts 9.1-3).  Both stories feature a revelation of Jesus Christ; in Luke the revelation came as “they drew near (eggizein) ” the city where “they were going (poreuein) ” (Luke 24.28), whereas in Acts the revelation came as Paul “drew near (eggizein) ” the city where “he was going (poreuein) ” (Acts 9.3).  In both stories we read that Jesus appears and rebukes the unbeliever and then gives them instruction, and accordingly they become believers and then continue on their way to preach what they’ve now come to believe.  Both stories involve at least three men on the road together and yet only one of those men is actually named (Paul [as Saul] in Acts, and Cleopas in Luke 24.18).  In both stories “the chief priests” of Jerusalem are portrayed as the enemies of the church (Luke 24.20; Acts 9.1, 14).  In Luke’s Gospel we hear that God said Jesus had to suffer whereas in Acts we hear that God said that Paul had to suffer (Luke 24.26; Acts 9.16).  Both stories feature some form of blindness, where Paul is blinded by the divine light of his vision in (Acts 9.8), and Cleopas and his friend are unable to see that their fellow traveler is Jesus (Luke 24.16).  Both stories also end with this blindness reversed (Acts 9.17-18; Luke 24.31).  In Luke’s Emmaus narrative, the visitation occurs on the third day (Luke 24.21), and in Acts the visitation is followed by a blindness that lasts for three days (Acts 9.9).  Finally, in Luke, the blindness is cured after a meal begins (Luke 24.30-31), where in Acts, a meal begins after the blindness is lifted (Acts 9.18-19).

As we can see, in order for Acts to be any kind of history, one would have to assume that all of these parallels are merely historical coincidences which is orders of magnitude less probable than that they are simply inventions that were intentionally created to reflect one another.  It’s certainly possible for a couple of these coincidences to be historical, but it is nigh impossible for all of them to be historical.  Either way, there isn’t any way to weed out any of the possible historical details from within this plethora of fictional constructions.  Overall, Acts just shares far too many features with popular adventure novels that were written during the same period, in order to lend it any trust as history.  Here’s an overview of those features:

1) They all promote a particular god or religion.
2) They are all travel narratives.
3) They all involve miraculous or amazing events.
4) They all include encounters with fabulous or exotic people.
5) They often incorporate a theme of chaste couples that are separated and then reunited.
6) They all feature exciting narratives of captivities and escapes.
7) They often include themes of persecution.
8) They often include episodes involving excited crowds.
9) They often involve divine rescues from danger.
10) They often have divine revelations which are integral to the plot

Since Acts shares all of these features and thus looks exactly like an ancient novel of the period, there is simply no good reason to assume that all of the parallels it has with other literary sources are merely historical coincidences.  Rather, we should conclude that they are in fact what they have been shown to be: literary constructs and other elements of fiction.

Luke, Acts & The Historicity of Jesus

Clearly Luke constructed tales that were meant to affirm the historicity of Jesus, that Jesus was resurrected from the dead (resulting in a conspicuously empty tomb), that he was touched by his disciples, that he slept and dined with them during a forty-day “retreat” that was held in secret behind closed doors, and that he then flew off into outer space while they all watched (Luke 24 and Acts 1).  It goes without saying that all of this is ridiculous and obviously not historical.  There aren’t any witnesses to these events other than fanatical followers, and so not a single disinterested person ever verified any of it.  It isn’t until Acts 2 that we first hear about the public history of the Christian mission where Christians start publicly announcing their gospel.

However, something rather strange occurs at this point.  Throughout Acts‘ supposed history of the movement, from the time it goes public in the city of Jerusalem, at no point in the story (not in any of the 28 chapters) do we hear about either the Romans or the Jews ever showing any knowledge of there being a missing body.  Likewise, we never hear about them taking any action to investigate what could only be to them a crime of tomb robbery and desecration of the dead, which were both quite severe offenses punishable by death.  Matthew’s Gospel even claims that the Jewish authorities accused the Christians of such crimes before Pilate himself (Matt. 27.62-66; 28.4, 11-15), and although this too is certainly fiction, it does illustrate what could not have failed to happen, if a body actually went missing.

Due to the fact that Christians were trying to use the missing body as evidence for a risen Jesus, they certainly would have been the first suspects of such a tomb robbery, if it had indeed occurred.  At best, they would have been secondary suspects, if indeed Joseph of Arimathea was the last person known to have custody of the body (Mark 15.43-46; Matt. 27.57-60; Luke 23.51-56; John 19.38-42).  So he would have been the first person hauled in for questioning, and yet, conspicuously he is nowhere mentioned in this history of the church, as if nobody knew anything about him (or as if he didn’t exist).  If he hadn’t been hauled in for questioning (whether he existed or not), the Christians would have been next in line to be hauled in for questioning for such an offense.  Yet, we never hear a single event in Acts where Christians were accused by Romans or Jews of grave robbery, which implies that there wasn’t any missing body to investigate, and thus no empty tomb known to the Roman or Jewish authorities.  This means that Christians couldn’t have been pointing to an empty tomb as evidence, for they would have been questioned about it, and possibly convicted whether they were involved or not with the disappearance of the body.  Acts is conspicuously silent on this matter and suggests that there were never any disputes whatsoever regarding the body, there weren’t even any false accusations of theft mentioned, nor were there any questions about it at all.

More importantly, the Romans would have had a larger problem to deal with here other than simply grave robbery, for the Christians were said to have been preaching that Jesus had escaped his execution (whether described as a supernatural event or not), that he was seen congregating with his followers, and that he disappeared.  It is doubtful that Pilate or the Sanhedrin would have believed any claims that Jesus had risen from the dead (nor is there any evidence that they did believe this), but if the tomb was empty and Jesus’ followers had been reporting that he had continued to preach to them and thus was still a fugitive, Pilate would have been inclined if not obligated to haul in every Christian for questioning and undergo a massive manhunt for such a threatening escaped convict.  Furthermore, the Sanhedrin would have also been obligated to find and kill Jesus as per their initial plan.  However, we don’t hear any of this happening in Acts.  Nobody asked where Jesus was hiding at, nor who helped him to escape.  This is more than enough to prove that Acts‘ account of the events here is fiction, let alone completely unrealistic.  There was no missing body, no empty tomb, and thus no criminal that was on the run from the law, for if the Roman or Jewish authorities had heard any of this being publicly preached as claimed in Acts, we would no doubt have heard about the expected repercussions, including the likely persecution of Christians by the Roman and Jewish authorities that would have been interrogating them.

If we are to grant that the original Christians believed any of the events in Acts as historical, then the absence of all of these pertinent details and expected events (regarding the missing body), at best, supports the theory that the original Christians were actually preaching that Jesus rose in an entirely new body (a spiritual resurrection) as opposed to the old one that he discarded and left in the grave.  In line with this theory is what Paul wrote, that the body that dies “is not the body that is to come “, but instead this buried body is left to be destroyed, while an even better “replacement ” body is already stored up in heaven waiting for each of us (1 Cor. 15.35-50; 2 Cor. 5.1-4).  At worst, and more likely than any other theory that has been proposed, is that Acts is entirely a fabrication, and there was in fact no historical Jesus, and the earliest Christians instead believed in a celestial Jesus (where he was effectively an archangel) whom communicated to them exclusively through revelation and through hidden messages in scripture, which is a theory that is supported by the material found in Paul’s epistles (the earliest and most reliable Christian sources we have in the NT).

In closing, we can see that Acts, just like the Gospels in the NT, is not at all reliable in terms of having any historical merit.  There are numerous parallels found throughout suggesting that there were many literary sources used for its contents, and Luke was inventing the material contained within, while adding some historical peripheral details (demonstrably obtained from Josephus) to add local color to the stories he was writing as most authors of fiction are known to do.  Other than those less relevant peripheral details, the actual events described within it are entirely unrealistic, not corroborated by any independent evidence, and are exactly what we’d expect to find in an ancient novel of the period in question.  Again, for those interested in this topic, I highly recommend reading Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus, as I have only mentioned a fraction of that which is contained in his overall analysis, and it is very important that one reads all of the background knowledge and evidence to fully understand just how weak the case for historicity really is.  You will not be disappointed.

The Gospels as Allegorical Myth, Part 4 of 4: John

The final post in this series will mention a few elements from Richard Carrier’s analysis of the Gospels as found in his book On the Historicity of Jesus, specifically pertaining to The Gospel according to John.  As with the previous three Gospels, John also appears to have written a religious novel filled with allegorical myth and fiction, and doesn’t appear to be interested in reporting any factual historical accounts.  Likewise, just as was the case with Luke and Matthew, John quite evidently had knowledge of the previous Gospels and used them as sources.  Though some scholars have maintained that John was writing independent of the other Gospels, there is simply no evidence to support that independence.  Rather, there is abundant evidence that John did in fact know about those Gospels and used them as (at least some of the) sources for his own, with the main difference being that John simply redacted them much more freely than Luke or Matthew did with their sources.

One example of John’s apparent knowledge of Mark’s Gospel, for instance, is the fact that John copies Mark’s pairing of the “Feeding of the Five Thousand” miracle with the miracle of Jesus walking on the water, in exactly the same sequence (So John 6 was likely derived from Mark 6.31-52).  However, as we saw in the analysis regarding Mark’s Gospel, Mark’s specific choice of pairing and sequencing of various miracles were intentionally placed as they were for the purpose of producing a particular literary structure.  Additionally, the paired events themselves are obviously ridiculous and historically implausible, so the most likely reason John shared the pairing that Mark employed is that he in fact borrowed it all from Mark.  Adding to this likelihood is the sheer number of details that they both have in common, including the details that “five thousand” people were fed, exactly “twelve baskets” of crumbs remained, that Jesus performed this miracle starting with exactly “five loaves and two fishes”, and that the amount of food needed to feed the crowd would have cost “two hundred denarii”.

In John’s Gospel, we also find the same literary structure for the narrative regarding Peter’s denial of Christ that Mark originally wrote in his Gospel (compare John 18.15-27 with Mark 14.53-72).  John also mentions the story of Jesus curing a blind man with spit that we first heard about in Mark, although in John, we can see that he freely changed some of the details.  Whereas in Mark, Jesus only uses spit for the magic spell, in John, Jesus uses spit mixed with dirt to make mud which he applies to the blind man’s face.  John also changes the additional magic that Jesus had to use in order to get the spell to work.  In John, after Jesus applied spit, he told the blind man to go “wash in the Pool of Siloam” to get the spell to work, whereas in Mark, the blind man was “half cured” from the spit (as we infer when he tells Jesus that although he could see now, the people he saw looked “like trees walking around”), then Jesus simply touched his face once more and then the spell worked successfully (compare John 9.6-7 with Mark 8.23-25).

John also has numerous similarities with material in Luke and Matthew as well (especially Luke).  Only in John and Luke’s Gospels do we hear about the new character, Martha, the sister of Mary (Luke 10.38-42; John 11.1-12.2).  Only in them do we hear about the miraculous scene where Jesus produces an extremely large catch of fish (Luke 5.1-11; John 21.1-4).  Only in them do we hear the claim that there was in fact a second Judas among the twelve disciples (Luke 6.16; John 14.22).  We also only hear in these two Gospels that Judas Iscariot was possessed by Satan (Luke 22.3; John 13.16-27).  In them alone, we hear specifically that the disciples chopped off the right ear of the high priest’s slave (Luke 22.50; John 18.10).  Both alone mention that Pilate declared Jesus innocent thrice (Luke 23.4, 16, 23; John 18.38, 19.4, 6).  Both alone claim that Jesus had been buried “where no man had yet been laid” (Luke 23.53; John 19.41).  Only in these two Gospels do we hear that there were two angels seen outside of Jesus’ empty tomb (Luke 24.4; John 20.12).  Both alone say that the resurrected Jesus visited the disciples in Jerusalem (not Galilee as in Matthew and Mark) and inside a room (rather than outdoors as in the other Gospels) as well as having Jesus show his wounds and even share a meal with them (Luke 24.33-43; John 20.18-29, 21.12-13).  To be sure, John modifies and adds to many of the contents he’s borrowing from Luke, but either way, the number of similarities and coincidences between the two is far too great to conclude that John isn’t using Luke as a source (even if he is doing so rather creatively).

After we concede to the fact that John is using the other Gospels as sources, we can take notice of the fact that John intended on rebutting a particular theme that those previous Gospels all had in common, that “no sign shall be given” that Jesus is the Messiah (e.g. Mark 8.11-12), which was in line with what Paul said when he mentioned that no signs were given to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ (1 Cor. 1.22-24).  So in Mark for example, even though he invents miracles to put in his stories as allegories, he is careful to make sure that only the disciples (no independent witnesses) are the ones that ever notice, mention, or understand those miracles.  The only thing remotely close to an exception to this in Mark is at the end of his Gospel, when the three women saw that the tomb was empty and heard from a man sitting inside that Jesus had risen (which wasn’t really a miracle that they witnessed, but they were surprised nevertheless), and yet even with this ending we are told that the women simply ran away in fear and never told anyone what they had seen (Mark 16.8).

Matthew had already added to this material in Mark, “correcting” it by instead having Jesus say that “an evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign” and therefore “there shall no sign be given except the sign of Jonah“, meaning the resurrection of Jesus on the third day (Matt. 12.39, 16.4).  Thus we can see that Matthew took what Mark wrote and went one step further, by allowing that one sign, and narrating the story so that the Jews “know” about it (hence his reason for writing Matt. 28.11-15).  So Matthew invented new evidence that we never saw in Mark.  Luke merely reinforced what Matthew had written (Luke 11.29), yet added to it with his invention of the parable of Lazarus (Luke 16.19-31) as well as the public announcement that was made to the Jews (Acts 2), thus illustrating the previous Gospels’ “no sign shall be given” theme.

John rebuts this entire theme by packing his Gospel full of “signs” and by taking Luke’s parable of Lazarus and turning it into an actual tale of Lazarus (John 11-12).  We even read in John 2.11 that “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him“, thus implying that it was because of these signs that his disciples believed in him (something we don’t hear about in any other Gospel).  We read just a few verses later in John 2.17-18 that when Jesus was asked for a sign, he simply says that his resurrection will be a sign.  Notably however, John doesn’t say here that this will be the only sign.  Quite the contrary, for in John 2.23 we hear that “When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing“, and later we read that “a great multitude followed him because they beheld the signs he did ” (John 6.2), followed by John telling us that when people “see the sign he did“, they declared that Jesus was a true prophet (John 6.14).  In John 3.2, we read that a Pharisee named Nicodemus said to Jesus “no one can do these signs that you do, unless God be with him“, and even in John 4.48-54 we read that Jesus said “You will in no way believe unless you see signs and wonders” and then he provides them with a miracle to see.  We are even explicitly told that these signs were indeed the evidence that showed that Jesus is the Christ (John 7.31, 9.16, 10.41-42), and there are several other references to the signs that Jesus gave, including John telling us that there were even more than those mentioned in his Gospel (John 20.30).  So John clearly attempted to rebut this theme present in the other Gospels, and made it blatantly obvious that he was doing so.

Adding to this rebuttal seen throughout John’s Gospel is his resurrection narrative that was the most ridiculous of all — the “Doubting Thomas” narrative (John 20.24-29), where the resurrected Jesus asks Thomas to stick his finger and hands in his open wounds so that he would believe.  So we have multiple examples of the author of John (or authors, as scholars actually believe there were multiple authors that contributed to the extant manuscripts of the Gospel we now have) creating proof, and insisting that all this new evidence justifies belief that Jesus is the Christ.  This is also why John alone invented an eyewitness “source” for his Gospel (never heard of before in the others), whom he referred to as the “Beloved Disciple” (although it is implied that this unnamed person was Lazarus), and said that he got all of his information from him.  In any case, the incredibly propagandistic style and contents in his Gospel make it thoroughly untrustworthy (more than any of the other Gospels in fact) in terms of historical accuracy.

Beyond this obvious propaganda, John is also filled with several long, implausible speeches (that we’ve never heard of before his Gospel) of Jesus, and yet conspicuously absent from these speeches are the Sermon on the Mount, as well as any appreciable amount of moral instruction.  We also see many new characters (such as Lazarus and Nicodemus) and new events that the other Gospel writers seemed entirely unaware of.  John also scrambles the order of many events, for example, moving the episode of Jesus clearing the temple from the end of his ministry to the beginning of it.  John also expands Jesus’ ministry from one to three years, having Jesus go on multiple trips to Judea and Jerusalem rather than only once.  John even moved the date (and thus also the year) of Jesus’ execution in order to make Jesus’ death correlate with the exact day that the Passover lambs were slaughtered, likely in order to make a different theological point with regard to viewing Jesus as the Passover lamb.  Thus John appears to be the worst of all the Gospels in terms of him most freely redacting what the previous Gospel authors wrote, adding and inventing whatever he wanted.  Thus, if John is trying to convince his readers that what he wrote is factual history, then by modern standards, John is clearly lying (just as Luke was).

One of the biggest problems that scholars have faced when trying to analyze John’s Gospel is the fact that we don’t have what John originally wrote.  Scholars are aware that somebody later on rearranged the Gospel, adding and removing content and ultimately scrambling the order of many scenes.  One can see quite clearly that his Gospel has been altered just by noting that it finishes with two different endings, where each ending was written completely unaware of the other (John 20.30-31 and 21.24-25), with each serving as conclusions to two different resurrection appearance narratives (with John 21.1 added as a hasty attempt to stitch the two together).  This “multiple ending” problem had actually happened in Mark’s Gospel as well, where there are at least five different known endings.  Even the famous story of the adulteress (John 7.53-8.11) with the famous line “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” wasn’t present in the original text as scholars know that this was added by a later editor.  There is plenty of evidence in fact that suggests that there are corruptions throughout the entire text.

We can see in John 5, for example, that Jesus goes to Judea (specifically Jerusalem; 5.1), and yet in John 6 Jesus is not in Judea but rather “went off to the other side of the sea of Galilee”.  This is a problem because the sea of Galilee is nowhere near Jerusalem, let alone in Judea.  Evidently, in the original text, preceding John 6.1, Jesus was in Galilee at some location on the opposite end of the sea of Galilee (and not in Jerusalem), so the order of events became jumbled due to various alterations over time.  We’re also told in John 2 (13, 23) that Jesus was in Jerusalem and then we’re told that he entered Judea (3.22), but obviously if he was in Jerusalem (a city in Judea) then he was already in Judea, so it seems that some part of the text was deleted here that would have mentioned Jesus returning to Galilee prior to him re-entering Judea a second time.  There are other examples like this which I’m not going to mention here because there are more interesting materials in John that I’d like to get to now.

As with the other Gospels, John also has several literary structures of his own.  One of the most brilliantly crafted is the sequence where Jesus is traveling from Cana to Cana (something we’ve not yet heard of until John).  This role of Cana is a literary construct that John likely invented to illustrate different degrees of faith and how to obtain those levels of faith.  The story takes place over several days and the literary sequence starts with a miracle at Cana “on the third day” (turning water into wine) and ends with another miracle at Cana on another “third day” (“resurrecting” a father’s son), which is also combined with other notable references as an obvious metaphor and allusion to Jesus’ future resurrection.  Here is what this quite elegant literary structure looks like:

Traditional Context (features a woman as a mother)

–   John 2.1-12: A wedding completed at Cana.

–        – Featuring a mother and her son.

–        – A miracle is requested and fulfilled.

–        – Complete faith in a traditional Jewish context.

–        – Story ends at Capernaum (2.12).

I.  Traditional Context (ends with a man)

–                    A. John 2.13-22: Clearing of the Temple.

–                          – A miracle is requested and not fulfilled (2.18).

–                          – Jesus’ words are thrown back at him (2.19 = 2.20).

–                          – A question is thus voiced as disbelief (2.20).

–                          – A metaphor (of resurrection) is misunderstood (2.19-22).

–                          – The temple Jews have no faith.

–                     B. John 3.1-21: Nicodemus the Pharisee.

–                           – Jesus is believed because of his miracles (3.1-2).

–                           – Jesus’ words are thrown back at him (3.3 = 3.4).

–                           – A question is thus voiced as doubt (3.4).

–                           – A metaphor (of rebirth) is misunderstood (3.3-4).

–                           – A “teacher of the Jews” (3.10) has partial faith.

–                      C. John 3.22-36: John the Baptist.

–                            – Jesus is believed because of his word (3.27-34).

–                            – Jesus’ words are explained; Jesus is the savior (3.35-36).

–                            – John has complete faith.

II. Marginal Context (begins with a woman)

–                       A. John 4.1-15: The Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well

–                             – A miracle is requested and not fulfilled (4.15).

–                             – Jesus’ words are thrown back at him (4.10, 13-14 = 4.11-12, 15).

–                             – A question is thus voiced as disbelief (4.11-12; 4.15 is sarcasm).

–                             – A metaphor (of living water) is misunderstood.

–                             – The woman has no faith.

–                        B. John 4.16-38: The Samaritan woman reconsiders.

–                              – Jesus is believed because of his miracle (4.16-19).

–                              – Jesus’ words are thrown back at him (4.16 = 4.17).

–                              – A question is then voiced as doubt (4.29).

–                              – A metaphor (of spiritual messiah) is misunderstood (4.21-25).

–                              – The Samaritan woman has partial faith.

–                         C. John 4.39-42: The Samaritans of Sychar.

–                               – Jesus is believed because of his word (e.g. 4.41).

–                               – Jesus’ words are understood; Jesus is the savior (4.42).

–                               – The Samaritans have complete faith.

Marginal Context (features a man as a father)

–   John 4.43-53: A funeral averted at Cana.

–        – Featuring a father and his son.

–        – A miracle is requested and fulfilled.

–        – Complete faith in a marginal Jewish context.

–        – Story began at Capernaum (4.46).

John clearly invented this material to make a point, and it looks like he designed it all to fit into a particular pattern of metaphors and parables: two miracles that parallel and invert one another occurring at Cana, and nestled in between two sequences of three conversational narratives, with the first of those triads paralleling the second in terms of the developing faith in each example (no faith, partial faith, and finally complete faith).  We can also see that the first triad is in a traditional Jewish context, and then the second one repeats the same themes in a relatively marginal context, with John alternating the roles of men and women (something we also saw Mark do in his Gospel).  Note also how the two events that ensconce this overall structure both involve an announced problem of some kind (running out of wine in the first event, and an official son’s illness in the last event).  Both involve a request to fix the problem, both involve a rebuke where Jesus says something ornery to the person making the request.  Both also involve a reaction where the requester then puts complete faith in Jesus, followed by a successful solution to the problem (where what they believed Jesus could do, he successfully accomplishes).  John also repeats the same literary components in traditionally Jewish and in marginally Jewish contexts (so we have two sets of each); first a traditional Jewish context (a Jewish wedding) followed by another traditional context (temple Jews and John the Baptist), followed by a marginally Jewish context (Samaria) finally followed by another marginal context (helping a Herodian official).

So we can see that John, just like the other Gospel writers, has created literary structures (a triadic ring structure in the case above) filled with metaphor and allegorical messages (in this example regarding different levels of faith and their respective effects, as well as allusions to the crucifixion and resurrection which I’ll mention more in a moment), as opposed to John reporting any kind of historical events as he claims in his preface.  Once again, it is simply very implausible for historical events to occur in such an order and with such coincidental patterns, and this is compounded by the number of historical implausibilities that are all entirely expected elements to find within fiction.  These implausibly coincidental sequences as well as the types of events and behaviors are not something we ever expect to occur in real life.  John is in fact writing a religious novel here, and is inventing material and arranging it in very specific ways to serve his own literary and theological purposes.

Like the other Gospel writers, John also borrows texts from the Old Testament (OT) and rewrites them or adapts certain ideas in his narratives.  For example, the first miracle at Cana, which is John’s only “new” miracle not present in the other Gospels, illustrates this fact.  This story exemplifies the Word of God in the book of Exodus, where we hear that Aaron “did the signs in the sight of the people, and the people believed” (Exodus 4.30-31), which is the basic model that John employs for his entire Gospel.  In the story found in Exodus, we read that God told Moses that he would give him three signs to perform such that if they didn’t believe after the first two signs he gave, they would definitely believe after the last one was given, with the latter point seen in the following verse:

“If they will not believe even after these two signs, nor listen to you, then you shall take some water that you took from the river, and pour it on the dry ground, and the water that you took out of the river shall become blood upon the ground.” (Exodus 4.9)

As we can see, the last miracle Moses was going to perform was turning water into blood, which closely parallels John’s first miracle of having Jesus turn water into wine, thus John appears to be starting where Moses left off and transforming “the last” into “the first”.  One may recall that toward the end of John’s Gospel, at the crucifixion, we read that Jesus spews both water and blood from his body (John 19.34), and so Jesus’ ministry appears to have ended with a reminder of the miracle that it began with.  This is something that Jesus even alludes to in John 2.4 where two references to John’s crucifixion scene are mentioned (Jesus references the hour of his death, and references the fact that he would no longer be his mother’s son).  This demonstrates that John rewrote the crucifixion scene (including the spewing of water and blood from Jesus, which is unique to John’s Gospel alone) as he had these parallels in mind when he matched it with his scene at Cana.  In accord with this intentional matching is the fact that the crucifixion is an anti-type of the scene at Cana: at Cana his mother gives a command to Jesus, and at the crucifixion Jesus gives a command to his mother; at Cana we hear his mother saying to do whatever Jesus says, and at the crucifixion Jesus tells Mary what to do; whereas at Cana Jesus’ mother asks him to make wine from water, at the crucifixion Jesus gives them blood with water; at Cana we hear Jesus asking what he has to do with her, and at the crucifixion he says that he has nothing to do with her (due to a transformation of kinship); at Cana Jesus says that his hour has not yet come, and at the crucifixion his hour had indeed come.  John even repeats the same Exodus theme where he says that the miracle of the water and blood coming from Jesus happened “so that you may believe” (John 19.35), just as God had told Moses what would happen after performing his turning water into blood.  So there is strong evidence here that John is simply replicating the last miracle that Moses performed.  There is also evidence that John borrowed and adapted some of his details from a similar miraculous tale told of Elijah in 1 Kings 17.8-24.  In that story, we read another tale involving a woman and her son, although in that particular story they expected to die soon because they were starving to death (1 Kings 17.12).  The woman’s son is approaching death from illness and Elijah is called upon to heal him (1 Kings 17.24), similar to what we hear happen in John when Jesus later saves a man’s son from deadly illness (his second miracle at Cana).

Related to this is the odd fact that Jesus seems quite rude to his mother when he says “Woman, what have I to do with you?“, which upon further analysis doesn’t appear to be any kind of historical report, but is rather an anti-type of Elijah, when in the tale with Elijah, the woman in need of food says to him “What have I to do with you?” (and the exact Greek is used in both the story with Jesus and that of Elijah in the Septuagint translation of 1 Kings).  In both stories the prophet involved tells those needing food to take empty pitchers and remove from them the required provision, which then miraculously appears before them.  Thus, rather than John being concerned with any kind of factual history, this is just another example of a literary construct John invented, and that he carefully integrated into his revised account of the crucifixion and the entire Cana-to-Cana structure.  John is simply lying and passing it off as history, as the evidence illustrates more and more upon closer analysis.

One good demonstration of John’s overall inventiveness is when he creates an eyewitness, the “Beloved Disciple” (John 21.24, 19.35, 19.25-27, 20.2-8), who is inserted into the same story told by the previous Gospels, and yet this person is conspicuously absent from those previous Gospels.  Unlike in John, there aren’t any male disciples at the cross in any of the other Gospels, nor is anyone resting on Jesus’ chest at the Last Supper.  John clearly inserted this character into the stories that he borrowed and redacted from the other Gospels, and then dishonestly claimed that this person was his “source” for the contents in his Gospel.  This is further confirmed by the fact that John makes considerable effort to imply that the “Beloved Disciple” was in fact Lazarus, a character that was not among the list of twelve disciples mentioned in the previous three Gospels. In fact, Lazarus wasn’t ever mentioned in any of the other Gospels except in Luke’s Gospel when he was only mentioned as a deceased character in Jesus’ fictional parable of “Lazarus and the Rich Man”.  How do we know that John made considerable effort to imply that this never-before-heard-of witness was Lazarus?   There are many reasons, for example, the fact that only one character in his Gospel is described several times as “the one whom Jesus loved”, and that was indeed Lazarus (John 11.3, 5, 36).  Also, right after Lazarus was introduced and described as Jesus’ beloved, we hear that he is reclining with Jesus at supper the very next day (12.1-2, 9-11).  So when we later hear that “the one whom Jesus loved” is also reclining with Jesus at the Last Supper, it is quite obvious that this is supposed to be Lazarus once again.  This should also be the case for every other instance when we hear a reference to “the one whom Jesus loved“, such as at the crucifixion, at the empty tomb, and finally at the resurrection (John 19.26-27, 35, 20.2-8, 21.7, 20).

The final giveaway that the Beloved Disciple is Lazarus is the fact that we hear in John 21.21-24 that a rumor had spread around the community that the Beloved Disciple would not die, and there simply isn’t any reason for this speculative rumor to have arisen other than the fact that in John’s Gospel, Lazarus had been resurrected from the dead by Jesus. So clearly people were wondering if Lazarus would ever die a second time, hence the rumor that began to circulate.  We also hear that the Beloved Disciple was the first person to see the burial cloths that Jesus had cast off and left in his then empty tomb, and earlier in John we were told that Lazarus had been wrapped in burial cloths which he also cast off at his resurrection.  Accordingly, Lazarus is the first person to believe that Jesus had risen since he had experienced a similar resurrection himself and could relate to it firsthand (John 20.8).  However, there are even more similarities worth noting.  In both Jesus’ and Lazarus’ resurrection accounts, we hear the peculiar detail of the soudarion (a small cloth covering the face of the deceased), and in both stories this cloth is clearly distinguished from the burial wrappings.  In both, we hear references to being bound or unbound by these wrappings, as some metaphor for becoming unbound or liberated from death.  Additionally, in both accounts we are also given a colorful and detailed description of these burial wrappings, their placement, etc.  So the many parallels make it quite obvious that the “Beloved Disciple” is in fact Lazarus.

All the details that John gives us about the Beloved Disciple being Lazarus merely exposes that John is lying throughout his Gospel, because there is no corroboratory evidence that Lazarus ever existed, not even from the demonstrably untrustworthy Gospels that John himself used as sources.  Nobody else knows anything about this Lazarus character (let alone his most extravagant resurrection story, in fact the most incredible resurrection story told in any of the Gospels) and we simply don’t hear anything about him except in John’s Gospel.  Thus, a non-existent Lazarus couldn’t have witnessed anything, despite John telling us that he did.  This absence from the other Gospels implies that this is a definite fabrication.  Adding to the exposure of this lie, is the fact that John assigns a high level of importance to the whole Lazarus resurrection event.  The event is so integral to the plot that John tells us that it was because of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and thus gaining so many newly convinced followers, that the Jewish elite then plotted to kill Jesus (John 11.53).  Yet, we don’t hear anything about this integral reason for the plot against Jesus in any of the other Gospels.  So the fact that John made this “Lazarus resurrection” story integral to his Gospel, just further illustrates that his Gospel is a fabrication, where he is just rewriting “history” (or more accurately he is rewriting the pseudo-historical accounts given in the other Gospels) as he pleases, likely to suit his own purpose of re-emphasizing the many “signs” that were said to be proof that Jesus was the messiah.

Lastly, John appears to have invented this Lazarus tale in order to reverse and thus to rebut or refute the Parable of Lazarus as found in Luke.  The bottom line here is that whenever we find instances of imaginary people in earlier stories being turned into real people in later stories (i.e. Luke’s Lazarus versus John’s Lazarus), what we are seeing is in fact a major marker for myth-making, and one that was quite common in antiquity.  Furthermore, the fact that John turns Luke’s imaginary Lazarus into a real person isn’t the only indication that he is trying to refute Luke.  There are several other indicators of this in fact.  In Luke’s parable, we hear about a rich man that ends up burning in hell and he sees up in heaven a dead beggar named Lazarus that he once knew, and he sees this Lazarus resting on the “bosom of Abraham”, so he begs Abraham to resurrect Lazarus from the dead so that he may warn his still-living brothers in order to avoid the same torturous fate.  The parable ends with Abraham refusing to resurrect Lazarus because “if they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16.31), thus further repeating the point mentioned in the synoptic Gospels that Jesus would not be performing signs since they won’t persuade anyone.  One coincidence worth noting here is the mention of Luke’s Lazarus resting on the bosom of Abraham (Luke 16.22-23), thus ever more confirming that John’s “Beloved Disciple” who we hear was reclining “on Jesus’ bosom” (John 13.23) was in fact Lazarus.  More importantly, we can see that in Luke’s parable, Lazarus does not rise from the dead, whereas John completely reverses this as well in his Gospel, and not only does Lazarus rise from the dead, but his resurrection actually convinces many people to turn their favor toward Jesus and be saved, which goes completely against what Jesus said in Luke’s Gospel (as well as what the other Gospels were saying).

Not only is John’s Lazarus sited as convincing others through his being resurrected, but John also sites Lazarus as a witness to the crucifixion, the empty tomb, and to Jesus’ resurrection (and as the source for John’s entire Gospel), thus illustrating that the overall purpose of John inventing Lazarus was to convince people (despite this going against what Jesus had said wouldn’t work in Luke).  So it is clear that John’s invention of Lazarus was to be a refutation for Luke, and this only further reduces any chances that John is ever accurately reporting history in his Gospel, for he’s freely redacting the Gospels he used as sources, and not at all interested in preserving what they had to say (if he assumed they were accurate histories, which even if he thought so, we can see that they are not), nor is he receiving this from any kind of witness.  As it has been made quite clear by now, what we are seeing in John’s Gospel is allegorical myth and fiction, with these stories created to serve specific literary aims even beyond the creation of literary structures that we saw an example of early on in this post.  As such, just as with the other Gospels, John’s Gospel can’t be trusted as any kind of reliable historical sources.  Rather we are seeing numerous examples in the Gospels of employing well-known ancient literary methods of writing fiction and allegory (most especially students of literary Greek, which the Gospels were written in).

It should also be noted as I near the conclusion of this post, that the common historical methodological criteria that scholars have tried to use to sift out possible historical details of Jesus that are buried in a sea of myth have been proven to be either fallacious and/or unreliable, and this has been demonstrated by the fact that when scholars apply these same criteria to the exact same evidence under consideration, they get different results (which proves the methods are unreliable).  Since fiction often contains peripheral details that are historical and since fiction is written in all manner of genres, due to the principle of contamination we are unable to establish if there are any details in any of the Gospels that can support the historicity of Jesus.  The best method proposed thus far, and one that has been proven reliable mathematically and proven to be logically sound is the application of Baye’s Theorem.  So for those that wish to refute Carrier’s arguments or his conclusions, one must do so by refuting the prior and consequent probabilities that Carrier defends, and one must support their own proposed probabilities with evidence and logically sound argumentation.

This concludes this particular series of posts.  As mentioned in the previous post, regarding The Gospel According to Luke, I may eventually make a fifth post to complement that one, and discuss Luke’s book of Acts to illustrate how it too is quite obviously fiction, and looks very much like a typical ancient novel with all the goodies one would expect to find therein.  For those interested in the most recent scholarship regarding the historicity of Jesus Christ, I highly recommend reading Richard Carrier’s book, as it is the most comprehensive analysis regarding the historicity of Jesus I’ve ever read or heard of, and is very well documented and well researched (featuring a nice 40-page bibliography with everything well referenced regarding extensive work from numerous top scholars in the field).  I only provided readers of this post-series with a small fraction of what Carrier researched and wrote in his book, but I hope that for those interested, it was informative and fascinating!