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Kierkegaard & Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard are often grouped together as some of the first thinkers in what would become existential philosophy. However, Nietzsche (who outlived Kierkegaard by decades) likely never encountered the other’s work directly. The differences between them are therefore stark. Although diametrically opposed on religion, both philosophers find some common ground in making the subject the most prescient matter in their works. It is this similarity which leads them into comparable territory – it forces them to reconsider the metaphysical tribulations that were (and still are) ingrained in Western culture, critiquing and dismantling them, all in hopes of giving the individual the philosophical focus it so deservingly needs. Nietzsche arguably does this best since he begins by overturning basic assumptions, leaving nothing unchecked, and then works his way up to the individual and the herd. Thus, although Kierkegaard writes poetically of the self, Nietzsche truly provides existentialism with an all-encompassing critique of contemporary thought by beginning with basal ontology and then moving forward, in an engaging fashion.

I. Ontological Differences and Categorizations of the Self

Kierkegaard does not have a strident ontology of anything but the self. For him, the self is all-encompassing and the most pressing issue. Therefore, he is not concerned with the categorization of “being” in the tradition of Aristotelian thought. Rather, he turns his focus to subjective experience. This is particularly why in Martin Heidegger’s notes on Being and Time he gives Kierkegaard much credit. He writes, “Søren Kierkegaard explicitly seized upon the problem of existence as an existentiell problem, and thought it through in a penetrating fashion” (Perkins, 187). Heidegger recognizes Kierkegaard as the first to establish the self not as a category of thought, but rather as a way of being. In other words, one becomes a subject rather than thinking subjectivity into being. It is on this basis that Kierkegaard largely stays away from abstractions on religion, the self, or society. In the same vein as Nietzsche’s polemics against metaphysics, William Barrett describes Kierkegaard’s skepticism in Irrational Man:

Existence and theory about existence are not one and the same, any more than a printed menu is as effective a form of nourishment as an actual meal. More than that: the possession of a theory about existence may intoxicate the possessor to such a degree that he forgets the need of existence altogether (Barrett, 141).

Kierkegaard was attempting to fight against the dominant Hegelian philosophy of the time, which posited that man was merely a victim of social forces – a philosophy where the individual disappears in change, rather than creating the change himself. Whereas many thinkers of his time influenced by Hegel and Kant saw existence as a concept, Kierkegaard realized that “[his] own existence [was] not a matter of speculation to [him], but a reality in which [he was] personally and passionately involved” (Barrett, 145). Therefore, Kierkegaard viewed the categorization of the self as a perversion of subjectivity. Existence is not mirrored as a concept in the mind, it is self-created and self-categorized through the “Either/Or of choice” (Barrett, 145). No metaphysical abstractions will do the self justice – only the subjective choices truly represent it.

Similar to Kierkegaard, Nietzsche’s conception of “being” is difficult to pinpoint since he is mostly a political writer interested in polemics. Yet, his ontology is the cornerstone of his greater ideas and is therefore necessary to understanding his positions fully. His ontology can thus best be watered down to a kind of opposition to Kantian conceptions of “being.” Kant considers there to be two realms of knowledge regarding an object, that which is phenomenon (i.e. experienced by the senses) and that which is noumenon (i.e. “something that is thought” or “the object of an act of thought”). Thus, Kant differentiates a “thing” from a “thing-it-self” and posits that the latter is not fully knowable since we can only infer from the appearances of phenomena. Kant uses noumena as a way to defend reason and metaphysics by arguing they are a “necessary limitation” since they leave questions of the divine outside of its scope.

The "thing-in-itself" is seen as that which is beyond perception.

The “thing-in-itself” is seen as that which is beyond perception.

For Nietzsche, Kant’s distinction is a meaningless metaphysical construction. A “thing-in-itself” cannot be conceived separate from its appearance, since that would undermine our entire ability to perceive. Noumenon is therefore identical to phenomenon. It is from here that Nietzsche begins to break down Western metaphysics from its dogmatic roots. By eliminating the “metaphysical realm,” Nietzsche inadvertently opens the door to an innumerable amount of questions – if there is no noumenon, if appearance is all we have, then there is no objective ethics, no distinction between metaphysics and science, and no knowledge greater than us. This trail of thought inevitably leads to a form of subjectivity, one which Kierkegaard embraces as the only real truth. Nietzsche pushes this idea to its ultimate conclusion by arguing for a morality beyond good and evil, giving agency to the individual rather than to “objective” categorizations of what one ought to do. It is through his rejection of the noumenon that he affirms life, the subject, and experience as the basis of philosophy itself.

Questions of noumenon for Nietzsche are useless since this reality is the only reality we can conceive of. Discussions on “ideal” or “greater” forms are thus useless in accruing usable knowledge. Nietzsche writes in Twilight of the Idols, “the reasons for which this world has been characterized as apparent are the very reasons which indicate its reality; any other kind of reality is absolutely indemonstrable… The apparent world is the only one, the true world is merely added by a lie” (Addis, 27). It is here that he accuses Western metaphysics of perpetrating a lie, of creating a “true” world of greater forms that distorts our actual perceivable reality. He goes even further, laying a criticism on Kant’s influence on metaphysics in The Challenge of Every Great Philosophy by contrasting him with Schopenhauer.

Kant clung to the university, subjected himself to governments, remained within the appearance of religious faith, and endured colleagues and students… Schopenhauer [had] no consideration for the scholars’ caste, stands apart, strives for independence of stat and society… wherever there was any kind of tyranny, it has hated the lonely philosopher (Kaufman, 123).

Therefore, Nietzsche mostly rejected metaphysics as institutionally illegitimate. William Barrett speaks of this in the Irrational Man, arguing that “Nietzsche ridiculed the very notion of Being as one of the most deceptive ghosts spawned by the brains of philosophers, the most general and therefore the emptiest of concepts” (Barrett, 178). Hence, there are no transcendent features of humanity that are always true irrespective of context. Such claims are that which philosophers want to be true since every great philosophy, as Nietzsche writes, “is the personal confession of the author” (Magnus, 216). Therefore, for Nietzsche, Western metaphysics ironically proves his argument for will to power – be it Kant’s a priori arguments for noumena, or Plato’s forms, these metaphysical claims are merely descriptions of what the author wants to see in the world, all to grant him to the power of knowledge, in the hopes of foolishly making the world more recognizable.

Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche value the subject and largely reject metaphysics, which is where they intersect ontologically. Kierkegaard’s position against universals bears resemblance to Nietzsche’s position of perspectivism – that there are many different interpretations, and different perspectives, of a particular truth. He echoes this sentiment in Three Upbuilding Discourses, “When one person sees one thing and another sees something else in the same thing, then the one discovers what the other conceals” (Hong, 59). Therefore, it is through subjective perspectives and the commonality between them that we find truth and fulfillment as individuals, rather than through categorizations and abstractions.

II. Ontology Applied: Consciousness, the Subject, and the Masses

Nietzsche and Kierkegaard both place emphasis on the individual, but apply these emphases differently. Nietzsche is concerned with the will of the individual in social relations and is thus concerned with questions of consciousness that Kierkegaard neglects to mention. He begins this inquiry from his ontology – if there are no metaphysical claims “beyond” human capacities, all that is required is the will for it to be done. It is from here Nietzsche explores consciousness, stemming from his ontological foundations.

gay-scienceHe theorizes in the Gay Science that “consciousness has developed only under the pressure of the need for communication… consciousness is really only a net of communication between human beings” (Solomon, 70). This “net of communication” Nietzsche speaks of can be conceived as a type of organization within an individual himself. In other words, consciousness is necessary to reconcile and communicate competing instincts, drives, desires, and passions. Given all of this burden internally, man is left powerless. Nietzsche writes:

Our actions, thoughts, feelings, and movements enter our own consciousness… as the most endangered animal, he needed help and protection, he needed his peers, he had to learn to express his distress to make himself understood (Solomon, 70).

It is here that Nietzsche’s position on the self becomes clear – we are not a kind of “Platonic essence” or a “Cartesian thinking substance”; we are a product of competing drives and perspectives. He goes further argue a controversial point that cements most men into the herd.

My idea is, as you see, that consciousness does not really belong to man’s individual existence but rather to his social or herd nature (Solomon, 71).

It from here that man finds himself stuck. Nietzsche describes our “subconscious world [as one of] servant organs working in mutual co-operation and antagonism” (Samuel, 34). We neglect this internal relationship and create a “little tabula rasa of the consciousness” through induced forgetfulness“ to make room again for the new, and above all for the more noble functions and functionaries, room for government, foresight, predetermination” (Samuel, 34). Thus, the creation of structure and the herd requires a kind of forgetfulness that is self-induced.

Kierkegaard fails to properly discuss consciousness in the context of the crowd. He only briefly explores phenomenology in The Concept of Anxiety where he argues that anxiety serves as a means for the mind to induce self-conscious reflection before a choice of either/or. The lack of analysis on consciousness leaves a gap in Kierkegaard’s work – he jumps into analyses of the self without fully establishing his foundations. Nietzsche’s claims, on the other hand, build off each other by philosophically reaching the self from the ground-up rather than assuming certain characteristics of the self and its interaction with the world.

Looking past consciousness, Nietzsche begins to dismantle the herd and its characteristics. He sees it as the main opponent of the individual since it values what does not have value. The herd accepts pessimism and makes value judgments based on fear and peer-approval rather than personal conviction; They take comfort in being in relation to others. For Nietzsche, the herd denies their own will. Similarly, Kierkegaard writes that “a crowd – in its very concept – is untruth, since a crowd either renders the single individual wholly unrepentant and irresponsible, or weakens his responsibility by making it a fraction of his decision” (Solomon, 13). The crowd (or the herd) therefore dissipates responsibility among itself, acting as one unit, but not taking responsibility as one. This creates a dissonance between action and accountability, which Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are correct to be wary of.

III. How Do We Ought to Live?

The question of what we ought to do is a difficult one and both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche treat this question differently. Kierkegaard argues that the leap to faith is necessary reach the religious state where one is personal dialogue with God. It is at this level that the self is actualized and becomes fully authentic in serving a greater subjective purpose. Therefore, the religious stage is beyond living as a mere ethical individual; it suspends the universal ethical for a subjective realization of God’s purpose. Nietzsche, too, suspends the universal ethical, but he does this from a very different philosophical position. Nietzsche’s discussion of ethics is not normative. He is very polemical in his writing and fervent in his criticisms, but he does not prescribe an easy solution to the social ills he diagnoses. He is simply interested in removing constraints, both real and imagined, which prevent individuals from reaching their actual potentiality. He worked to bring philosophy down from divine instruction to more human relations, in the grasp of our will. Kierkegaard, alternatively, wishes for us to subjectively realize this divine instruction rather than have it be commanded to us by others.

Despite not having a normative description of ethics, the point to take away from Nietzsche’s writing is clear – He was for the affirmation of life, to be able to look back on your life and confidently say “once more,” and to be able to celebrate one’s whole life in full. Kierkegaard was for this affirmation, but with strings attached which envelops man into an innumerable amount of paradoxes and inconsistencies. Despite Kierkegaard’s push for subjectivity above all else, he still leaves man’s subjectivity in the presence of God. Despite his desire to be authentic, his argument for the divine still robs the individual of pure autonomy since he is beholden to a greater power beyond himself. Nietzsche would find this to be a perversion of man’s will. Therefore, abandoning the divine as a legitimate argument truly places power back into the hands of the individual by eliminating the unnecessary contradictions Christian theology brings and all the institutional baggage it holds.

In Buddhist philosophy, the single-stroke circle represents continuity and the mind when it is not wandering. Its form bears resemblance to Nietzsche's affirmation of life; that one would do it all over again if need be, for eternity. This piece, Ensō (2000), is by Kanjuro Shibata XX

In Buddhist philosophy, the single-stroke circle represents continuity and the mind when it is not wandering. Its form bears resemblance to Nietzsche’s affirmation of life; that one would do life all over again, if need be, for eternity. This particular piece, Ensō (2000), is by Kanjuro Shibata XX.

IV. The Existential Diagnosis

Being polemical authors, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are both heavily invested in social criticism and vindicating the self against the masses. Kierkegaard identifies these social ills in The Present Age where he eloquently argues against the social excesses of temporary pleasure as a means of coping with existential angst. It is an age of confused spontaneity and misdirection, an “age of advertisement and publicity” where “nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere” (Solomon, 4). It is also an age where the public domineers, leveling passion to the lowest common denominator; “it hinders and stifles all action” (Solomon, 7). Kierkegaard argues that the public is “the most dangerous of all powers and the most insignificant” since one can speak to the whole nation on behalf of all, but yet actually be speaking to no true individual at all.

Nietzsche characterizes his contemporary society as approaching the “advent of nihilism” and Kierkegaard would surely agree. However, they would differ on the reasons behind the cultural malaise that sweeps Europe. Nietzsche would attribute the age of nihilism as a consequence of the death of God. He writes in The Gay Science, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms” (Kaufmann, 126). Nietzsche is arguing that we have exhausted religion as a moral compass and source of meaning, yet the objectivity we derived from the divine we still use foolishly. Kierkegaard would certainly disagree with this characterization, instead arguing that the cultural malaise is due to a lack of true religiosity of the self through institutional Christendom. Here, Kierkegaard’s and Nietzsche’s diagnosis of society can be synthesized to form a more complete picture – the kind of hedonism Kierkegaard describes is one of worry and concern, but it is directly linked to Nietzsche’s characterization of nihilism. It is because we are living in the age of nihilism that the present age is so bleak.

V. Conclusion

Overall, Nietzsche provides a far more nuanced existential critique of society and the limitations imposed on individuals from realizing themselves fully. Kierkegaard sets the foundation for analysis of the self through his assertions, but he fails to build on his ideas. Nietzsche’s thought can be mapped from his ontology, to his definition of consciousness, and then consistently applied to his social criticisms – Kierkegaard fails to create this basis and instead places the ideal individual in the hands of God. Inadvertently, Nietzsche pokes holes into Kierkegaard’s dependence on the divine through his anti-Christian rhetoric, during which he makes the case that the divine is yet another limitation on self-realization. Therefore, Kierkegaard – although passionate and refined in his interpretation of God – fails to capture the spirit of individuality fully, since it is constantly being anchored in Christian imagery. Nietzsche breaks all assumptions, questioning the very basis of Western though, forcing us to start from scratch and affirm life for what it is, in all its contradictions and absurdities.

***

– Perkins, Robert L. The Concept of Anxiety (International Kierkegaard Commentary). Mercer University Press, 1985. Print.

– Barrett, William. Irrational Man; A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Doubleday, 1958. Print.

– Addis, Laird. Nietzsche’s Ontology. Ontos Verlag, 2012. Print.

– Kaufmann, Walter Arnold. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre,. New York: Meridian Books,    1956. Print.

– Magnus, Bernd. The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche. Cambridge, England. Cambridge University    Press, 1996. Print.

– Hong, V. Howard. Hong, Edna H. Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses: Kierkegaard’s Writings, Vol. 5.    Reprint Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992. Print.

– Samuel, Horace B. The Genealogy of Morals. New York. Dover Publications, Inc., 2003. Print.

– Solomon, Robert C. Existentialism. 1st ed. New York: Modern Library, 1974. Print.

Anxiety is the unpleasant feeling of an unrealistic fear. It is a human response to the absurdity of life’s displeasure and its seemingly aimless journey. Such feelings are largely created before choices of consequence, when an individual feels powerless, and where such an action could lead to possible pain.

One of the few actual sketches of Søren Kierkegaard.

The classic example is one philosopher Søren Kierkegaard mentions in his writing, The Concept of Anxiety. Take it that a man is standing alongside a cliff. He looks down and sees the drop below him. He fears the he may fall, but at the same time, he is terrifyingly intrigued. He has an impulse to jump, but he also experiences fear because he knows it would mean his imminent death. Kierkegaard calls this the “dizziness of freedom” — we have the freedom of choice, to make even the deadliest of choices, and this induces existential anxiety and dread. For most people, the fear of the death strays us away from jumping. For those that psychotically lack it, they succumb to their impulses and jump. In the case of the Biblical story of Adam of Eve, anxiety is understood by Kierkegaard as a precursor to sin. God tells Eve not to eat the fruit or she would face death and pain. Through this restriction, Eve is given a choice whether or not to eat the forbidden fruit. The anxiety of the moral decision is captured by her interaction with the serpent which tempts her to eat it — like the cliff, she feels compelled to jump. Kierkegaard, through this story, comes to a conclusion on sin. Sin is always preceded by anxiety. And the first such instance in Genesis, according to old Christian theology, was precluded by anxiety.

Although I take literal interpretations of Biblical texts with a grain of salt, the religious language in Kierkegaard’s writing can be replaced with more secular lingo and still be considered valid. “God” is symbolic of objective morality and sin is the failure to live up to it. Whenever an immoral act is committed, and a grave choice is involved, there is existential anxiety that precedes it. Kierkegaard contends that this anxiety can be mediated through eternal values that transcend the choices we are placed into, since our decisions are subject to the twists and turns of everyday life. He argues we must establish meaning through objective concepts that we should abide by. To explain this, he illustrates an image of a sailor lost at sea.

How, then, shall we face the future? When the sailor is out on the ocean, when everything is changing all around him, when the waves are born and die, he does not stare down into the waves, because they are changing. He looks up at the stars. Why? Because they are faithful; they have the same location now that they had for our ancestors and will have for generations to come. By what means does he conquer the changeable? By the eternal. By the eternal, one can conquer the future, because the eternal is the ground of the future, and therefore through it the future can be fathomed. What, then, is the eternal power in a human being? It is faith. What is the expectancy of faith? Victory-or, as Scripture so earnestly and so movingly teaches us, that all things must serve for good those who love God. [Eighteen Upbuilding Discourse, 19]

The Signal of Distress by Winslow Homer

The Signal of Distress by Winslow Homer

I disagree with Kierkegaard’s final conclusion on faith, because I take it that moral objectivity can be reached without divine inspiration, but his thought process is valid. Through an “eternal” morality, one can guide oneself through all of life’s moral decisions. The closest such axiom that exists in secular thought would be the “Golden Rule” which is derived from empathy: one should not treat others in ways that one would not want to be treated. Moral conclusions should not be based on the arbitrary ebbing and flowing of subjective life. If that was the case, to the common observer, heinous acts of immorality would be considered “moral” in the time period they were committed. Because slavery was at one time considered “moral” by popular standards, did that make it truly ethical? No, because it breaks eternal moral codes that are always true. Regardless of the time period, these principles stand tall and serve as a guide with which to judge decisions made in the past and those yet to be made.

Anxiety, therefore, is a symptom of a lack of existential direction. It is induced when an individual is lost in the random spontaneity of the natural world. Likewise, such anxiety can be mitigated when the individual develops a proper objective view on life. However, there is a minor caveat — the conclusions that the secular explanation gives us through the Golden Rule is one that still lacks proper foresight. Surely, acts of self defense are morally permissible, but how does that fit within the context of the Golden Rule? We know the assailant is committing an immoral act according to this axiom, but the question of self-defense is left unanswered. Therefore, an objective moral code that is derived from secular understanding requires a more nuanced explanation that is all-encompassing. It requires expanding to cover all aspects of an ethical life. It also requires constantly being tweaked using the Golden Rule as an objective starting point. Although not complete, the Golden Rule is the closest estimation of a moral maxim that many of our own decisions can be based around.

Kierkegaard, on the other hand, turns this conclusion on its head and argues that faith brings one to an eternal understanding that would work to subdue the existential anxiety and dread we experience. A morality based on divine command, a list of necessary obligations, is the simplest solution to the problem of objective ethics — the question is, however, from which command on high does one follow and is it ever disputable? I would prefer an objective ethics that is able to be tinkered with until a seemingly perfect code is established. One that is always applicable but subject to minor changes based on enlightened understanding, rather than an absolutist position that is easily exploited by power. Regardless, Kierkegaard is correct in his assertion of the necessity of an all-encompassing life view. It is necessary so that, just like the sailor of the story, one does not get lost in the waves of everyday life itself, which is too oftentimes muddled with subjective preferences and fleeting emotions. And succumbing to such feelings would be a perversion of reason and a squandering of life’s many splendors.

Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910)

The Three Questions is a short story by Leo Tolstoy that was published in 1885. It contains a few moral sayings to live by, which we oftentimes just take as a given, but Tolstoy managed to keep you guessing for these answers until the big reveal at the very end.

A king poses three questions to his dear kingdom and is willing to grant a large sum of money for those that can answer them. The questions were simple.

  • What is the right time for every action?
  • Who are the most necessary people? 
  • What is the most important thing to do? 

For each question, however, he received all different kinds of answers.

In reply to the first question, some said that to know the right
time for every action, one must draw up in advance, a table of days,
months and years, and must live strictly according to it. Only
thus, said they, could everything be done at its proper time.
Others declared that it was impossible to decide beforehand the
right time for every action; but that, not letting oneself be
absorbed in idle pastimes, one should always attend to all that was
going on, and then do what was most needful. Others, again, said
that however attentive the King might be to what was going on, it
was impossible for one man to decide correctly the right time for
every action, but that he should have a Council of wise men, who
would help him to fix the proper time for everything.

The answers to the second question were a bit less lettered, but still unconvincing.

Equally various were the answers to the second question. Some said,
the people the King most needed were his councilors; others, the
priests; others, the doctors; while some said the warriors were the the most necessary.

And finally, the last question also received many different answers.

To the third question, as to what was the most important occupation:
some replied that the most important thing in the world was science.
Others said it was skill in warfare; and others, again, that it was
religious worship.

The king was not satisfied with these responses. He decided to consult a hermit who lived in the woods beyond the outskirts of town. The king put on simple clothing and wandered up to the hermit’s house by himself without his usual guards to discover the answers to his three quandaries.

When the King approached, the hermit was digging the ground in front
of his hut. Seeing the King, he greeted him and went on digging.
The hermit was frail and weak, and each time he stuck his spade into
the ground and turned a little earth, he breathed heavily.

The king posed the three questions to the wise hermit, but he received no response other than a recommendation to dig. The king offered his support to the hermit, since he was weak and tired. The hermit thanked him and the king dug. After digging two beds, the hermit suggested the king rest. The king insisted he dig until he was finished and he did so until sunset. After finishing, he posed his same three questions again. The hermit responded with an observation, “here comes someone running, let us see who it is.”

The King turned round, and saw a bearded man come running out of the
wood. The man held his hands pressed against his stomach, and blood
was flowing from under them. When he reached the King, he fell
fainting on the ground moaning feebly. The King and the hermit
unfastened the man’s clothing. There was a large wound in his
stomach. The King washed it as best he could, and bandaged it with
his handkerchief and with a towel the hermit had. But the blood
would not stop flowing, and the King again and again removed the
bandage soaked with warm blood, and washed and re-bandaged the wound.
When at last the blood ceased flowing, the man revived and asked for
something to drink. The King brought fresh water and gave it to
him. Meanwhile the sun had set, and it had become cool. So the
King, with the hermit’s help, carried the wounded man into the hut
and laid him on the bed. Lying on the bed the man closed his eyes
and was quiet; but the King was so tired with his walk and with the
work he had done, that he crouched down on the threshold, and also
fell asleep–so soundly that he slept all through the short summer
night. When he awoke in the morning, it was long before he could
remember where he was, or who was the strange bearded man lying on
the bed and gazing intently at him with shining eyes.

After resting, the man said faintly to the king, “forgive me!” Confused, the king responds, “I do not know you, and I have nothing to forgive you for.” The man explains:

“You do not know me, but I know you. I am that enemy of yours who
swore to revenge himself on you, because you executed his brother
and seized his property. I knew you had gone alone to see the
hermit, and I resolved to kill you on your way back. But the day
passed and you did not return. So I came out from my ambush to find
you, and I came upon your bodyguard, and they recognized me, and
wounded me. I escaped from them, but should have bled to death had
you not dressed my wound. I wished to kill you, and you have saved
my life. Now, if I live, and if you wish it, I will serve you as your
most faithful slave, and will bid my sons do the same. Forgive me!”

The king was thrilled to have made peace with an enemy so easily. In an act of kindness, he then grants the man some servants, his own physician, and promised would restore the property that was formerly taken from him.

After leaving the man, the king walked alongside the porch to find the hermit. Again, he posed the three questions to him longing for an answer — the hermit responds, “you have already been answered!”

“Do you not see,” replied the hermit. “If you had not pitied my
weakness yesterday, and had not dug those beds for me, but had gone
your way, that man would have attacked you, and you would have
repented of not having stayed with me. So the most important time
was when you were digging the beds; and I was the most important
man; and to do me good was your most important business. Afterwards
when that man ran to us, the most important time was when you were
attending to him, for if you had not bound up his wounds he would
have died without having made peace with you. So he was the most
important man, and what you did for him was your most important
business.

It was then the king’s questions were finally answered. The most important time is now, the one which concerns you immediately. The most important person is whoever you are with. And, finally, the most important thing is to do good with who you are with.

And, only then, did the king finally receive three true and honest answers for his questions.

*** 

The Three Questions by Leo Tolstoy

“The Pinch of Poverty” by Thomas Benjamin Kennington

Altruism — the most charitable, the most genial, the most endearing ethic — is promoted in Western society as the pinnacle of what is ‘good.’ Helping others before helping oneself is the crux of the democratic ideology, one that guides us and facilitates a feeling of social and cultural unity that strengthens human relations. It has become so inherent that it lay outside our mere conscious ideology. It has developed to be central to our being, and has thus become an obligatory act in order for one to be seen as a ‘good person.’

I take the golden rule in stride and I cherish it as a moral maxim for proper human relations. However, the Western conception of altruism has reached a disingenuous aura about it that cheapens the whole character of giving. In the First World, and other nations of Christendom, conceptions of ‘proper’ morality are derived from the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. The mantra is one of universal pity and, most importantly, universal love. Friedrich Nietzsche, quite famously, criticized such conceptions of morality in many of his texts for watering down their true meaning. A vindication of the ‘slave morality,’ Nietzsche vehemently opposed the undermining of the strong by the Judeo-Christian tradition of universality, which made man into a flock rather than an independent being. His gripe was, in essence, that if love is universal, one truly loves no one; if pity is universal, it is cheapened and means little. It becomes an obligation, done without question, rather than an honest moral calling.

When child labor was on our own American soil, the suffering was closer to home and easier to empathize with.

Such is the caricature of modern Western ethics, which is well-grounded in this Judeo-Christian moral responsibility. It corresponds love with selflessness, when in retrospect, love is perhaps the most selfish virtue of them all — the longing to deviate attention towards one individual despite all others. Most crucial, however, is the Christian caricature of pity which has ramifications in contemporary ideology most concretely. Take it, for example, the bleeding-heart liberal that so desperately desires to help others — he wishes to help everyone. Moved by the conditions around him, he feels compelled to do something. A noble endeavor, but to what end? Current conceptions of pity, especially towards poverty, tend to take the form of dissociating abstractions rather than a real phenomenon we can touch and feel. The West has done, for the most part, a proper job of exporting poverty to mainly areas outside of their bounds (i.e. the Third World) where production is brutal and dangerous, but is well beyond the public’s immediate consciousness. Perhaps most of us know of the tragedy that is Third World production, but we do truly Know? Can we truly empathize with the unnecessary pain and toil that goes into commodity creation, or do we just accept it while superficially denouncing it? When properly examined, Western pity may, ironically, be a subtle concession to the status quo. In this twisted moral code, poverty can be mitigated by buying a new pair of Toms, ghastly pollution can be solved with a few less plastic bags, and water deprivation can be cured by a conspicuous purchasing of Ethos water. Such is the eternal bliss of the modern consumer — capitalism with a human face, as its called. Sprinkle a little welfare, a friendly face, and a commodity with an ethical cause and you’ve solved the moral crises of production.

This is what leads me to believe that modern pity is, for the most part, one mostly of dissociation and perhaps even utter disillusionment. You donate a few dollars to a charity, to a decent cause, but have you truly alleviated the positions which created the suffering to begin with? Surely, it makes one feel warm, but does it not exasperate the issue rather than cure it? Modern morality should be about bringing to fruit a real call to action rather than a few token good works. I would categorize charitable giving as, fundamentally, such a token good work, one that gives the illusion of actual action. Surely, it is better than no action at all, but it, in essence, creates a temporary solution rather than a concrete one. And so the cyclical nature continues, with the Third World still dependent and the West still ubiquitously benevolent and longing to help. And no progress is made, except for a few dollars being thrown at poverty-stricken families in hopes helping them.

The abstraction of poverty, grief, and suffering is mostly a recent phenomenon and it corresponds with the rise of mass marketing and, more generally, the Internet. The human condition is expected to be moved by a starving African child, but when it presents itself as a commercial while sitting on a couch patiently waiting for the next programming, it comes off as less-then-urgent. It becomes a nonchalant mentioning of a real struggle, to which the American consumer responds likewise — I’ll donate a few dollars here, I’ll do what I can, but I have a family to take care of myself. The issue is that individuals cannot place themselves in that suffering, in that pain, since they are so distanced from it. And here lies the moral dilemma and the reason for the lethargy in modern activism. We see the suffering, but we don’t truly feel it; We see it as an image rather than as a condition. 

More generally, such dissociation is present in other aspects of social justice beside the fight to end world poverty. With the creation of the Internet, although possessing the ability to stimulate politically-charged movements, it has sadly lead to the creation of supposed ‘slactivists’ that lack the vigor to pursue any true cause outside of their immediate bedrooms. These self-congratulatory armchair activists pride themselves on fighting a grave injustice. Signing internet pleas, changing their Facebook profiles to lighten an alleged injustice (as in the Kony 2012 sham), or wearing certain clothing to support something or another — the illusion of actual action is watered down to petty online signatures and nicely-packed slogans that make nifty bumper stickers. If only we had sent Adolf Hitler a few more petitions during the height of Nazi rule he would have relinquished power– what were we thinking?

Rather than abstractions, let us feel real sympathy. Rather than token givings, let us fix the conditions which created the need.  In order to pinpoint true suffering, to actually Know the true hollowness of poverty, we must be fully attuned to all its horror. Oscar Wilde captures this sentiment most eloquently in his beautiful essay, The Soul of a Man under Socialism:

[The majority of people] try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.

But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.

And thus is the crux of the issue — let us question the basis of poverty we see, the ugliness we encounter, and the horror we experience.  Pity is not a cheap spontaneous ordeal; Pity is genuine expression of empathy, one which must precede the drive to solve the impoverished environment that evoked it.

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