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Portrait of Benedictus de Spinoza (1632-1677)

Consequence, Duty, and Character: An Exploration of Traditional Ethical Paradigms in the Ethics

As its title so aptly suggests, Benedict de Spinoza’s magnum opus the Ethics (E) is ultimately a treatise concerned with moral philosophy. In particular, Spinoza follows in the eudaimonistic tradition of the ancient Greeks,1 for whom happiness, flourishing, or living well is the end of all ethical pursuits (E IIP49S, VP42).2Is Spinozistic ethics however merely a collection of old, outdated ethical views, both from antiquity and early modern Europe, or is it applicable to our present-day ethical climate? The goal of happiness is certainly agreeable to our modern sentiments, but does the Ethics itself offer an effective and realistic means towards achieving such a state, and does it have sufficient complexity and nuance to stand with contemporary ethical theories?

I will argue that the Ethics does indeed satisfy these conditions. Spinoza’s arguments and prescriptions are very much derived from a realistic conception of human nature, motivation, and capability, which allows him to give effective (although certainly not simple or easy) instructions on how to achieve a flourishing life. Spinozistic ethics shares in the complexity of contemporary moral theories, by giving nuanced attention to the role of consequences, duty, and character in moral action, three traditional elements of ethical discussion. In this paper, I will show the pragmatism and complexity of Spinoza’s ethical framework by comparing it to the three traditional ethical paradigms of consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. In some ways Spinoza will seem to be a follower of each view, although my goal is not to reduce Spinozism to any particular ethical paradigm.3Instead, I will argue that Spinozism’s collective attention to the moral value of consequence, duty, and character is what proves its strength as an ethical way of life, the nuanced relation between these three components being that which makes Spinozistic eudaimonism realistically achievable.

Traditional Ethical Paradigms

In order to compare Spinozism to these ethical paradigms, however, we must first understand what they entail, broadly-speaking.


We will begin with consequentialism. As its name suggests, consequentialism deals with morality in terms of consequences. This view takes individuals to be “morally obligated to act in ways that produce the best consequences” (LaFollette 9). The permissibility or impermissibility of an action is reliant on its results or effects, viz. whether a certain effect is good/desirable or bad/undesirable (Vallentyne 22). For example, if working overtime earns me the money I need to afford to get my car fixed and/or pay my rent, then this act is permissible, because it has a good result. If, on the other hand, working overtime causes me physical and mental strain and/or alienates me from my loved ones, then this act is impermissible, because its result is bad.

The reality, of course, is that both these examples may be true: working overtime has desirable and undesirable results (i.e., the above outcomes can occur simultaneously). This is where the full definition of consequentialism becomes important; the morality of an action is not just a matter of its result being good or bad, because as the above example shows most actions have good and bad results, but rather its goodness or badness compared to the results of other actions. What I want, or rather what I ought to do according to this ethical paradigm, is to perform the act that will produce the greatest possible good or most desirable result (Vallentyne 23-5). To decide whether working overtime is permissible, I have to weigh the costs and benefits of the action and reflect on whether it is the most fruitful action available to me. If my distance from my loved ones will be temporary, my family is desperately in need of stable transportation, and/or I really have no other immediate means to pay my rent, then working overtime is the most desirable action, given my circumstances. If, however, my relationships are already deeply strained to a breaking point, taking the bus is a suitable transportation option and/or a loved one would be happy to lend me the additional money I need for rent, then, while working overtime has desirable consequences, it is not the most fruitful action available to me all things considered, and thus it is not permissible or the right action, ethically.

A further qualification is that traditional consequentialism encompasses far more than just my, or any specific individual’s, interests. Maximizing good results involves not just what is good for me, but “the interests of all affected” by my actions, such as my family, friends, work colleagues, city, country, etc. (LaFollette 9). This feature makes consequentialism an “agent-neutral” ethical paradigm, because its moral reasons for action need not appeal to the agent performing the action, beyond their necessary causal role in it (McNaughton and Rawling 33). My working overtime is therefore far more complex than simply what costs and benefits arise for me. I must reflect on whether I am hindering or helping my loved ones, my fellow workers, my city’s economy, my country’s overall thriving, and so on. Realistically, I cannot adequately reflect on all these components, but the point is that, with the knowledge and resources I currently have, the permissibility of working overtime is reliant on how much good I am putting into the world rather than my own life, even if I can only be aware or sure of its benefits/costs to the people immediately in my life. Consequentialism is then an ethical paradigm that emphasizes results when evaluating the moral permissibility and rightness of actions, with the imperative being to maximize good results, irrespective of the agent’s self-interest.


Deontology takes a different approach to the moral permissibility and rightness of actions; in this ethical paradigm, normativity is stressed through duties or principles of conduct (i.e., rules).4McNaughton and Rawling cite two main categories of moral rule: special relationships and constraints. Special relationships refer to the moral obligations we have towards those whom we share a meaningful bond with, in contrast to strangers or those whom we have no direct relationship to whatsoever (32). In the example of working overtime, if I have a duty to perform this action it will be for the sake of my family’s interests; because I share such an immediate and fundamental connection to them, I owe them moral consideration in a way I do not owe my fellow workers, my employer, my city, or my country. If working overtime harmed my family, but my colleagues were in desperate need of me to perform this action for the sake of their continued employment, my moral duty would be to my family, even if this resulted in many of my colleagues being fired. Here the result of my action is still morally relevant because there is harm I want to avoid, but the deciding factor in what I ought to do is not which result brings the most good, but rather which result I am duty-bound to give the most consideration to, viz. my family’s well-being. Me refusing to work overtime creates a moderate amount of benefit for my family, while creating a significant amount of detriment for my now-fired colleagues. The deontologist could argue, however, that if we grant the moral primacy of special relationships (which most people, including my colleagues, would tend to do intuitively), then I am permitted and obligated to act for the sake of my loved ones first and foremost, and others second. I will likely have a duty to assist others as well, but this duty to others will be secondary or contingent on my primary duty to my loved ones being satisfied.

This complex example can also help us understand the second category of rule: constraints. Constraints are moral restrictions on action: duties we have to not act in certain ways (32). The situation I mention above can also be seen as an example of a constraint, in the sense that I am not permitted to maximize good results at the expense of my loved ones. Another, more famous, example is Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative. A categorical imperative is an action that is “good in itself and therefore [is] necessary.” (The Moral Law 4:414). Such an imperative is then an absolute ought. One is always obligated to follow it because it is by nature good (rather than merely contingently good), in contrast to the hierarchy of duties mentioned above, where any duty that is itself not the primary duty can potentially not be performed if it conflicts with this primary duty (i.e. in this example, the duty to one’s loved ones vs. the duty to others) or simply a higher duty (e.g. one’s duty to oneself can be eclipsed by one’s duty to others if one’s current interests will harm the latter).5

The fundamental categorical imperative is the Formula of Universal Law (FUL), which states: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (4:421). What this means is that one should act only according to rules that are rationally universalizable, that is those which involve no contradiction with one’s intentions. For example, in the case of suicide one could be interpreted as following the rule that, out of concern for their well-being, if the continuance of their life will bring more bad results than good, they should end their life. This maxim is rejected by the FUL, because it is rationally incoherent and thus not universalizable. One intends to serve their well-being by ending their life, which is negating their well-being, consequently creating a contradiction between their intention and act (4:422). Suicide is therefore a prime example of a constraint, because one has a duty (if one accepts the FUL) to never bring about their own death to escape suffering.

The nature of these duties tells us that deontology is an “agent-relative” ethical paradigm, in the sense that the moral reasons appealed to for action make significant reference to the agent, viz. what relations of duties I specifically must follow in comparison to another (33). Special relationships and constraints are both agent-relative. The former obligates me to act toward the interests of those I share a bond with, rather than strangers. Constraints, while applicable to all agents in the case of Kant’s categorical imperative, nevertheless specifically tell me what I am rationally duty-bound not to do in certain situations, such as not instrumentalizing my family for my own ends or acting self-destructively. In summary, deontology focuses on the complex relation between positive and negative duties which dictate an agent’s moral actions.

Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics, while equally complex, takes a more unique approach to moral action, by focusing not just on the action but the overall character or dispositions of the individual performing the action. According to Sandler, virtue ethics consists of the following premises: (1) “A virtue is a character trait a human needs to flourish or live well,” (2) “A virtuous agent is one who acts virtuously. That is, one who has and exercises the virtues,” and (3) “An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would do in the circumstances” (176-7). (1) tells us that virtue is a way of being, involving dispositions to act in certain ways that are conducive to living a good life.6 (2) tells us that the virtuous agent is the one who possesses and acts from those dispositions conducive to living well. Finally, (3) characterizes right action as whatever the virtuous agent, via their beneficial characteristics, would do in a given situation, making this agent the model of proper moral conduct.

Hursthouse (48-50) and Sandler (179-80) clarify, however, that the virtuous agent is the moral model because of more than just their actions, because a characteristic involves more than just acting. A characteristic involves feelings and a way of thinking that shape the actions one performs. If I am vengeful, then my actions might be motivated by anger and the rationalization that the person who harmed me deserves to experience that pain in return. Conversely, if I am compassionate, my actions might be motivated by love and sympathy, accompanied by the thought-process that people are sentient creatures capable of great pain, and thus deserving of respect. This dynamic is however complex. I can punish a wrong-doer or assist someone in need, and yet be virtuous in the former case and not virtuous in the latter, all based on how my actions are driven by feelings and reasoning. I may punish the wrong-doer out of love for my community, rather than hatred or a desire for vengeance, with the reasoning being that this person will bring significant harm to the community, and thus must be removed from it. On the other hand, I can help a senior citizen cross the street out of a spiteful desire to slow down traffic, with my reasoning here being that city people are jerks who deserve to be punished. As a result, performing the right action in virtue ethics is necessary but insufficient for being a moral person. 

Moreover, an important feature of these feelings and thought-processes being virtuous is that they are explicitly directed at virtue in itself (Hursthouse 48-50, 55; Aristotle 1105a27-1105b). If I am virtuously compassionate, I directly desire to be compassionate and I properly reason out my action (e.g., helping the senior citizen cross the street) with the goal of being compassionate for the sake of being compassionate. I am not being compassionate simply to achieve good results or for the sake of something else (e.g., the approval of others or to get some reward from the person I helped), but because compassion is a disposition I know to be proper to my flourishing.7

 As a whole then, virtue ethics, like deontology, can be classified as an agent-relative ethical paradigm. Beyond its connection with the individual’s capacity to live well, the moral reasons behind the permissibility or rightness of an action are constituted by an individual’s character, viz. the feelings and reasoning that motivate that action. A morally permissible or right action is that which would be performed by one who possesses virtuous dispositions (whatever these virtues may be), meaning one’s feelings and thought-processes are harmoniously directed at virtuous action for its own sake. Simply put, if the virtuous person would act that way in a situation, that is what one should morally do.

Spinozistic Ethics

Now that we have a general idea of what these three ethical paradigms have to say about moral action, we can see how Spinoza’s ethical philosophy in the Ethics compares to them.

Spinozism and Consequences

Spinozism shares much common ground with consequentialism. In the Ethics, good is defined as “what we certainly know to be useful to us” (E IVDef. 1) and evil as “what we certainly know prevents us from being the masters of some good” (IVDef. 2). Here Spinoza is equating good with benefit and evil (or bad) with harm, thereby conceptualizing morality in terms of the effects that something is known to bring about. If eating a chicken wrap satisfies my hunger or listening to someone’s problems motivates them to assist me in moments when I myself am vulnerable, these acts can be classified as good because they have beneficial consequences. Conversely, if eating the wrap gives me food poisoning or listening to someone’s problems begins to take over my life and usurp my responsibilities, these acts can be classified as evil/bad because they have detrimental consequences. The goodness and badness of actions are then a matter of their results, that is any action in itself has no moral designation. Support for this claim can be found in Part IV’s preface, which states: “good and evil . . . indicate nothing positive in things, considered in themselves.” Here Spinoza argues that good and evil are not intrinsic classifications, meaning good and evil are not essential properties of anything; rather, they pertain to the relations between things (as evidenced by the reference to benefit/harm in their respective definitions). Since an action is a thing, it too cannot have an intrinsic moral designation, only a relational one. In fact, Spinoza explicitly asserts that “no action, considered in itself, is good or evil . . . instead, one and the same action is now good [beneficial], now evil [detrimental]” (IVP59Dem. 2). These passages support the reasoning of the abovementioned examples, where the acts of eating or listening to someone’s problems are neither good nor evil qua acts; their moral designation is based on the consequences they bring about. So far then Spinozism seems to be in agreement with consequentialism, because both ethical frameworks ground the morality of action in results.

This agreement becomes even stronger when we delve into the nature of benefit and harm in Spinozistic ethics. For something to be beneficial it must bring about “joy” in the person; conversely, for something to be harmful it must bring about “sadness.” Joy is defined as the “passage from a lesser to a greater perfection” (IIIDef Aff. II) and sadness as the “passage from a greater to a lesser perfection (Def Aff. III), “perfection” being understood as one’s “power of acting” (IVPref.). In other words, to experience joy or benefit is to transition to a more empowered or active state, and to experience sadness or harm is to transition to a more disempowered or less active state. Good/bad are in turn associated with joy/sadness and benefit/harm, respectively (IVP41). An act is thus good when it brings about joy and bad when it results in sadness. 

Morality, however, is not quite as simple as these definitions seem to imply. Humans are finite beings (IIP10-13), caught up in an infinite causal chain of other “antecedent finite [causes]” (Nadler Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’ 100) that leave us necessarily passive to some degree in the face of natural forces (E IVP3-4). I say “to some degree,” because humans are not purely passive. All existing things, according to Spinoza, possess a conatus: a striving, power or “existential inertia” to preserve themselves (IIIP6; Nadler “The Lives of Others” 43) and increase their state of empowerment (E IIIP12). Humans therefore experience activity and passivity in their lives, due to their finitude. We have what Aurelia Armstrong refers to as a “dynamic power” of “acting and being acted on” (14). This dynamic is what makes joy and sadness possible, because we can be both empowered and disempowered in our relations to things, our ethical goal being to act in ways that produce fruitful interactions (15). Again, we can see the consequentialist mindset in Spinoza’s ethical approach, because our finitude necessitates the pursuit of empowering affects, making results crucial morally. 

In order to cultivate such relations, though, it is important to recognize the complex relation between joy and sadness, because joy can be circumstantially disempowering and sadness empowering. According to Spinoza, joy qua joy is inherently good, in that it represents empowerment and sadness qua sadness is inherently bad, in that it represents disempowerment (E IVP41). I say “joy qua joy,” however, because the experience of joy or empowerment does not prevent one from subsequently experiencing sadness or disempowerment; in fact, a joy can be the cause of sadness. In the form of “pleasure” (a species of joy), a particular part of one’s body is empowered, and if this part experiences excessive empowerment, the rest of the body will be disempowered (IVP43Dem.). Eating, for example, is in itself empowering and thus a joy through the nutrients food provides the stomach for bodily functioning. If one eats too much food, on the other hand, the stomach is over-empowered (i.e., excessively promoted in its activity) to the detriment of one’s whole body, leading one to feel lethargic, bloated or even nauseous, which are all states of the body’s overall activity being stunted (i.e., sadness). Joy can then be harmful when its scope of benefit is surpassed. Pain (a species of sadness), conversely, can be beneficial when one’s experience of disempowerment results in future greater overall joys (ibid.). In the case of excessive eating, lethargy, bloating, and nausea can be powerful motivators in ensuring that one eats a healthy proportion of food in the future, thereby serving the interests of the body’s state of activity as a whole.  

It is important to note that, in IVP43’s demonstration, Spinoza refers to excessive pleasure as “evil” and pain insofar as it combats excessive pleasure as “good.” Why does he give them these respective moral designations? Because of their consequences.8Excessive pleasure is evil/bad because it is detrimental, and sadness in certain circumstances is good when it is useful for promoting one’s overall empowerment. Spinoza even explicitly says that “[f]rom the guidance of reason, we shall follow a lesser evil as a greater good, and pass over a lesser good which is the cause of a greater evil” (IVP65C). Human finitude, with its ratio of activity to passivity, places us in a moral situation where we must perform a calculus concerning joy and sadness, sometimes disempowering ourselves to a degree in order to prevent greater disempowerment and achieve greater empowerment. Spinoza’s conception of good and evil and human finitude therefore shapes the moral reasoning of his ethics into a matter of costs and benefits, aligning it strongly with consequentialism.

However, this match is not perfect. As mentioned above, consequentialism is an agent-neutral ethical paradigm. Its moral reasoning need not make any reference to the interests of the agent; what matters is maximizing the greatest good(s) possible (i.e., producing the best outcome[s]) in a given situation, even if that results in harm to the agent or the frustration of their interests. Quite simply, the traditional consequentialist is primarily concerned in their actions with promoting the good overall, not their own well-being as a particular good. This is not to say that one’s well-being cannot be relevant to the good overall, of course. On the one hand, promoting the common good of one’s fellow citizens in a state can be personally beneficial, because it provides security and resources one would not have on their own, and on the other hand, if one is seriously injured or dies their family and/or state could be left without significant support in a variety of ways. The point is that the agent’s well-being is not necessarily a major factor (or a factor at all) in the rightness of an action, within a broadly consequentialist framework; the consequences for the common good will therefore always take precedent over the agent’s self-interest if they conflict. Spinoza’s ethics, however, is clearly agent-relative. The conatus, one’s natural striving to persevere (IIIP6), is not merely a component of one’s nature, but their “actual essence” (IIIP7). All things therefore necessarily seek out their own interests, viz. to survive and empower themselves. Spinoza’s conceptions of good/bad and joy/sadness reflect this premise. Something is good if it is useful or brings joy to me and it is bad if it is detrimental or brings sadness to me. Joy and sadness moreover pertain to how I am affected by things, the former an affect of empowerment and the latter disempowerment. 

Spinozist ethics is therefore at its heart an egoistic ethical paradigm.9 Spinoza makes this abundantly clear with his assertion that “[t]he striving to preserve oneself is the first and only foundation of virtue” (IVP22C), because virtue is not realizable prior to the conatus, i.e., one’s self-affirmative essence (Dem.). To be virtuous in other words is to be self-interested. This is not to say, however, that one cannot be mistaken about what is truly in their interest, which is why Spinoza clarifies in his definition of good that it is what one knows to be “certainly” beneficial to them (IVDef.1), which is reinforced by his claim that virtue involves understanding (IVP23). Furthermore, this egoism does not prevent the individual from caring for others. Spinoza argues that “[t]o man . . . there is nothing more useful [and thus empowering] than man” (IVP18S) and classifies the virtue of nobility as “the desire by which each one strives, solely from the dictates of reason, to aid other men and join them to him in friendship” (IIIP59S). One’s self-interest then involves others, as well as understanding of their true benefit to one’s empowerment.10What is important to note here is that the value of helping others is based on the consequences of interacting with them, that is their usefulness, which is consequentialist, but their usefulness is made sense of in terms of the agent’s personal state of empowerment. Spinoza’s ethics, as a result, cannot be classified as purely or fundamentally consequentialist, because the morality of an action is justified by the agent’s state of being, an action’s consequences being necessary but insufficient in classifying it as good or bad.

Spinozism and Duties

How does this egoism relate to Deontology, though? Spinoza outlines in Part IV what he calls the “dictates of reason,” that is what rational thinking tells us is truly good and how we ought to act in order to achieve this good (IIIP59S, IVP18S). The term “dictates” is what tells us Spinoza is not being merely descriptive, but rather making prescriptive claims about what one morally ought to do. The dictates of reason therefore can be said to be duties. The first, and most fundamental, dictate or duty is “that everyone love himself, [and] seek his own advantage . . . that everyone should [emphasis mine] strive to preserve his own being as far as he can” (IVP18S). One’s primary duty, the duty upon which all other duties are derived or are secondary to, is to act in accordance with their true self-interest. Spinozism shares with deontology then an agent-relative approach, ethically. This moral claim is further reinforced by Spinoza’s assertions, as mentioned above, that the conatus is “the foundation of virtue” (IVP22C) and that good/bad pertain to one’s state of empowerment (IVDef. 1 and Def. 2). This self-duty is even arguably a duty of special relationship, because it outlines one’s unique obligation to serve their own interests over others, due to the ontological and psychological primacy of the conatus. Moving beyond this primary duty, however, the dictates of reason continue to function as duties of special relationship. Spinoza goes on to argue that we should “seek . . . the common advantage of all” people (IVP18S) and that reason demands that we should strive to assist others in achieving the good, rationality, and virtue insofar as they are beneficial to our ends (IVP37, IV App. IX and XII). Because we are morally obligated to assist those aligned with our self-duty, our other-directed duties are still in essence obligations of special relationship. I am in turn less obligated by virtue of the dictates of reason to assist someone of minimal benefit to me compared to one who is strongly beneficial to my interests, my duty to others being dictated by this primary (rationally-dictated) self-duty. 

My self-duty is not only a special relationship however, but also a constraint, because I am not permitted morally to act against my overall interests. Remember, evil/bad is what we know to be detrimental, and thus an act that harms my overall interests cannot be a moral duty. The Conatus Doctrine tells us: “Each thing . . . strives to persevere in its being” (IIIP6), that is to empower itself. Part of the reasoning behind this premise is the assertion that “the definition of any thing affirms, and does not deny, the thing’s essence, or it posits the thing’s essence, and does not take it away” (IIIP4Dem.). The idea is that a thing cannot both assert and deny or express and not express its existence simultaneously, because that would be to logically assert x and not-x, which is a contradiction. Each existing thing necessarily must posit its own existence, meaning the destruction of the thing can only come through an external cause (IVP4). Self-destruction is thus metaphysically impossible for Spinoza, because it is logically incoherent. Such reasoning is reminiscent of Kant’s fundamental Categorical Imperative (a morally necessary duty): The Formula of Universal Law. The FUL states that no maxim should be followed that is not rationally universalizable. Because, like Kant, Spinoza sees self-destruction as a logical contradiction, it is not a morally acceptable action; conversely, because the Conatus Doctrine is universalizable, and necessarily so metaphysically, following one’s self-interest is morally permissible and thus a duty. Of course, IIIP6 is only a descriptive premise and not a normative claim; however, Spinoza makes it clear in his dictates of reason that normativity follows from this premise, with his assertion that one should strive to preserve their own being (IVP18S). This in turn makes the rational dictate of self-duty a categorical imperative in some sense. Nadler, in support of this claim, describes all the dictates of reason as “like Kant’s categorical (moral) imperatives . . . [in their] universal [moral] demands on human behaviour” (“The Lives of Others” 46). Since all the dictates of reason are derived from one’s self-duty, which is itself such an imperative, Nadler’s assertion is persuasive. Spinoza therefore shares common ground with deontology, since the fundamental rational duties of his ethics function as special relationships, constraints, and categorical imperatives. 

This common ground is however insufficient to classify Spinozism as a deontological ethical framework. It is true that Spinozistic ethics involves agent-relative duties of special relationships and constraints, and the dictates of reason qua necessary, universalizable norms function much like Kant’s categorical imperative, but the moral justification of these duties is distinctly consequentialist. Remember, what makes anything, including a duty, good is that it brings about beneficial results. The relevance of deontology, as mentioned above, is that it believes in moral obligations that focus on more than just the results of an action, and in fact prioritizes duties like special relationships over what may result from them (i.e., one serves their loved ones’ interests even when it is not beneficial). For Spinoza, conversely, no duty can be made sense of morally irrespective of the results it brings about, because intrinsic moral classifications of things do not exist; good and bad are relational. Duties exist in Spinozistic ethics as moral obligations, but these obligations are always justified on consequential grounds. There is thus no way to escape the instrumental nature of Spinozistic duties, a fact which is distinctly non-deontological. 

One might argue, however, that the Conatus Doctrine or one’s self-duty is nevertheless a categorical imperative and therefore an intrinsic moral duty to value oneself as an end, irrespective of consequences. The problem with this reasoning is that this doctrine is a descriptive metaphysical premise and Spinoza denies the existence of free will. The mind has no “absolute” or indeterminate faculty of will, meaning any volition of the mind is determined by fixed causes that could not have been different (E IIP48). This determinism connects to the conatus, where it is metaphysically necessary that one strive to preserve their being. It is not merely that one should not act contrary to self-interest, but that one cannot act contrary to self-interest.11 A duty for Kant, and arguably many traditional moral thinkers (including deontologists), involves absolute/indeterminate free will, namely the capacity to not perform the moral act, which is why it is praiseworthy (Della Rocca 202-3). A categorical imperative is necessary morally, not ontologically. One should act this way, but one has the capacity not to. As a result, the self-duty of the Spinozist would not be a “duty” or categorical imperative as traditionally understood, because the conatus is ontologically necessary. We may still grant that one should value their own life in itself,12 but because they are incapable of not valuing themselves as an end, the conatus is not a duty in the traditional and deontological sense. Consequently, Spinozism, despite its agreement with certain deontological elements, is not itself a deontological ethical framework, due to its moral emphasis on the results of actions and rejection of indeterminate free will.

Spinozism and Virtue

But what about virtue ethics? Does Spinozism’s relative consequentialist foundations prevent it from prioritizing virtue? Spinoza explicitly uses the language of virtue in his treatise. Parts IV and V are riddled with references to virtue, the above assertion that one’s self-interest or self-duty is the “foundation of virtue” being a prime example (E IVP22C). However, we have already seen that a duty for Spinoza is not quite the same as “duty” traditionally understood, so might Spinoza not understand virtue differently than a virtue ethicist and does his ethics meet Hursthouse and Sandler’s criteria? Spinoza defines virtue as “the power of bringing about certain things, which can be understood through the laws of [one’s] nature alone” (IVDef. 8) or the “very striving to preserve one’s own being” that follows from their nature, that is the conatus (IVP18S). Virtue is, in other words, to be a self-empowered or properly self-interested person. Virtue ethics understands virtue to be a characteristic, and according to the aforementioned criteria, a characteristic of flourishing. 

The Spinozist is then in agreement with this conception of virtue, because to be virtuous for Spinoza is to be disposed to act towards one’s self-interest and for one’s natural, true self-interest to be the cause of one’s actions. Furthermore, virtue is self-empowerment, meaning virtue is a characteristic synonymous with flourishing or what Spinoza refers to as “blessedness” (VP42), which satisfies (1).13We are even given two concrete characteristics that can be classified as virtues: tenacity and nobility. Tenacity is “the desire by which each one strives, solely from the dictates of reason, to preserve his being,” while nobility is “the desire by which each one strives . . . to aid other men and join them in friendship” (IIIP59S). Both are dispositions to act rationally according to one’s nature or self-interest, and thus are dispositions synonymous with one’s flourishing or self-empowerment. It is important to clarify here that tenacity and nobility do not just involve acting in a beneficial way that agrees with reason, but the actual desire is rationally self-interested, which is why these dispositions are virtues. It is because of this rational desire for true self-interest and the fact that virtue is here equated with true self-interest that Spinoza claims virtue should be valued “for its own sake” (IVP18S). The virtuous Spinozist acts from dispositions explicitly directed at virtue, meaning Spinozistic ethics aligns itself strongly with the mindset of virtue ethics. Moreover, it satisfies (2)14 through the characteristics of tenacity and nobility, two concrete virtues the virtuous person possesses in their state of flourishing. Finally, we have (3): “[a]n action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would do in the circumstances” (Sandler 176). Does right action in Spinoza’s ethics agree with this claim? I would argue it very clearly does. For anything, including an action, to be good, right, or morally permissible it must empower the individual to some degree. Since the virtuous person is a self-interested person, that is a person disposed to empower themselves, the right action in a Spinozistic sense will be coextensive with what the virtuous person will do. What makes the action right is when or insofar as it corresponds with one’s conatus – one’s striving to empower themselves. Even if one does not possess tenacity or nobility, and thus is not significantly virtuous, their actions can nevertheless still be right for Spinoza insofar as they pertain to this essential self-interested disposition, that is insofar as the action is legitimately empowering and thus an act the virtuous person would hypothetically perform in a given circumstance. Spinozism is then in many ways a virtue ethic.15


Spinozism overall is an egoistic ethical paradigm with a complex moral relationship to consequence, duty, and character. The metaphysical foundation of the conatus makes it so morality can only be realized through the self-interest of the agent. Good/right and bad/wrong are shaped however not just by reference to the agent’s interests, but the objective consequences of their actions; an act is only good/right insofar as it results in an increase in the agent’s state of empowerment (joy) and it is bad/wrong when it causes disempowerment (sadness). Because of human finitude, which makes it so any action will necessarily involve the activity and passivity of the agent, one is morally obligated to perform a calculus concerning joy and sadness, sometimes using sadness to achieve greater empowerment and avoiding a lesser joy to prevent greater disempowerment. From this broadly consequentialist framework, reason constructs certain duties and characteristics that serve the purpose of greater empowerment, and thus the eudaimonistic goal of living well. The Spinozist has then an explicit moral duty not merely to follow their self-interest, but to act in ways that will more precisely be self-empowering overall. A duty that follows from this self-duty is the duty to others, because to truly empower oneself one must empower others to create a mutually beneficial environment where individuals can act as effective resources for each other. The virtuous person in this framework, that is the one who genuinely and successfully flourishes, is the person rationally disposed to desire their self-interest and the interests of others (thus acting in accordance with the abovementioned duties), which is embodied in the characteristics or virtues of tenacity and nobility, respectively. Human finitude also plays a significant role here, because the ratio of activity to passivity makes one’s virtue a matter of degree. Insofar as one acts from their true self-interest, they are virtuous and flourish; insofar as they are subject to external forces, they lack virtue and are stunted in flourishing. Morality and living well are thus not ethical absolutes. Actions are not always good or bad/virtuous or not virtuous; instead, they tend to be good/virtuous to some extent while being bad/not virtuous to a different extent. 

Spinozism, as laid out in the Ethics, therefore exhibits complexity and practicality through the nuanced interrelation of consequences, duties, and characteristics, as well as its scalar approach to moral evaluation.16These elements reveal Spinozistic egoism to be far more than just simply equating morality with self-interest. Through his references to the consequences of actions, the explicit duties that bring about empowering results, and the kind of rational dispositions necessary for being virtuous and morally good, Spinoza gives us a clear, comprehensive, and persuasive moral guide for successfully living well.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Reprinted in The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised 

Oxford Translation, edited by Jonathan Barnes, translated by W.D. Ross, Vol. 2, Princeton UP, 1984, pp. 1729-1867.

Armstrong, Aurelia. “The Passions, Power, and Practical Philosophy: Spinoza and Nietzsche Contra the Stoics.” The Journal of Nietzsche Studies, vol. 44, no.1, 2013, pp. 6-24. Project Muse, Accessed 25 October 2016.

Della Rocca, Michael. Spinoza, Routledge, 2008. 

Garrett, Don. “Spinoza’s Ethical Theory.” Necessity and Nature in Spinoza’s Philosophy, Oxford UP, 2018, pp. 462-503.

Hübner, Karolina. “Spinoza on Being Human and Human Perfection.” Essays on Spinoza’s Ethics Theory, edited by Matthew J. Kisner and Andrew Youpa, Oxford UP, 2014, pp. 124-142. 

Hursthouse, Rosalind. “Virtue Theory.”  Ethics in Practice, edited by Hugh LaFollette, 3rd ed., Blackwell, 2007, pp. 45-55.

Hursthouse, Rosalind and Glen Pettigrove. “Virtue Ethics.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Winter 2018, Accessed 26 November 2022.

Kant, Immanuel. The Moral Law: Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, translated by H.J. Paton, Taylor & Francis, 2005, Accessed 23November 2016.

Kisner, Matthew J. Spinoza on Human Freedom: Reason, Autonomy, and the Good LifeCambridge UP, 2011

LaFollette, Hugh. “Theorizing about Ethics.” Ethics in Practice, edited by Hugh LaFollette, 3rd ed., Blackwell, 2007, pp. 3-11.  

Lebuffe, Michael. From Bondage to Freedom: Spinoza on Human Excellence. Oxford UP, 2009.

McNaughton, David, and Piers Rawling. “Deontology.” Ethics in Practice, Edited by Hugh 

LaFollette, 3rd ed., Blackwell, 2007, pp. 31-44. 

Nadler, Steven. Spinoza’s ‘Ethics:’ An Introduction. Cambridge, 2006. 

—. “The Lives of Others: Spinoza on Benevolence as a Rational Virtue.” Essays on Spinoza’s  Ethical Theory, edited by Matthew J. Kisner and Andrew Youpa, April 2014, pp.42-56. Oxford Online Scholarship, doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199657537.003.0003. Accessed  24 October 2016.

—. Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die, Princeton UP, 2020.  

Rutherford, Donald. “The End of Ends? Aristotelian Themes in Early Modern Ethics.” The  Reception of Aristotle’s Ethics, edited by Jon Miller, Cambridge UP, 2013, pp. 194-221.

Sandler, Ronald L. Spinoza’s Ethical Theory.  Dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 26 April 2001. UMI, 3012391.

Sangiacomo, Andrea. Spinoza on Reason, Passions, and the Supreme Good. Oxford UP, 2019.Smith, Brandon. “Spinoza’s Metaethical Synthesis of Nature and Affect.” Ithaque, no. 30, 2022, 112, pp89-11. Handle:

—. “Spinoza’s Strong Eudaimonism.” Journal of Modern Philosophy, vol. 5, no. 3, 2023, pp. 1-21: doi:

Spinoza, Benedict de. Ethics, edited and translated by Edwin Curley, Penguin Classics, 1996. 

Vallentyne, Peter. “Consequentialism.” Ethics in Practice, edited by Hugh Lafollette, 3rd ed., Blackwell, 2007, pp. 22-29.

Wolfson, Harry Austryn. The Philosophy of Spinoza: Unfolding the Latent Processes of His Reasoning, 2 vols., Harvard UP, 1934.

Youpa, Andrew. “Rationalist Moral Philosophy.” A Companion to Rationalism, edited by Alan Nelson, Blackwell, 2005, pp. 333-353.

—. The Ethics of Joy: Spinoza on the Empowered Life. Oxford UP, 2020. 

Brandon Smith is a fifth-year doctoral candidate in Philosophy at McGill University. His research concerns Spinoza, historical accounts of happiness, and the history of Eudaimonism.

J. M. W. Turner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What is Called Farting? A Review of “What is Called Thinking?”

According to Heidegger, we (whoever “we” are) have not yet reached the “foothills of thought.” Heidegger includes himself in the “we,” as if he were a fellow pilgrim, a peer among his students, one of the last arrivals to the first foothill of thought – and that only with the strain of great effort, the chance of luck, and the favor of the gods.

If Heidegger claimed the dubious privilege of permanent delay in the lowland marshes of thoughtlessness, what hope is there for the rest of us reaching the foothills, let alone the summits of thought? Are we destined to live and die on the fallow fields of thoughtlessness?

Does our effort (or lack thereof) count for anything?

Do we expend the effort and climb or do we close our eyes and leap?

Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky took a leap. His film, “The Holy Mountain,” is a “vertical” leap. A female seeker, nearing the end of her spiritual quest, scales the edge of the titular Holy Mountain. She loses her nerve, and screams “Help me! I can’t go one step farther!” A crusty older man, a fellow mountain-climbing esotericist, shouts, barks encouragement, and offers advice: “Rub your clitoris against the mountain! Give yourself to the world!”

She rubs her clitoris against the mountain and gives herself to the world. Her arduous vertical climb becomes an effortless – and even enjoyable! – leap.

If only it were as easy as rubbing my testicles against the snow-capped peak of Mount Shasta (a sensitive Sasquatch nose detects my sex pheromones!)

“Rub your testicles against the mountain! Give yourself to Sasquatch!”

A leap is a risk. A risk of what? Is unprotected comportment toward Being/Beyng, like condomless sex, a hazard? Must we remove the sheepskin of Sloterdijk’s virtual “prophylactics,” Buckminster-Fuller-esque retrofuturistic biodomes, canopies sheltering us from H.P. Lovecraft’s Ctulhu? Or worse, sheltering us from a dead Ctulhu? Or worse yet, a Ctulhu that never existed at all? Or, worst of all, the ghost of a Ctulhu that never existed at all?

But not all is lost. We still “have” Being/Beyng. We have our compensation/consolation, much like a middle-aged divorcee who loses his dog but keeps his house. Whatever “have” means and whatever “Being/Beyng” “is” (or “isn’t.”) Being/Beyng cannot be an “it.” But how can “it” (Being/Beyng) be a “non-it?” We do not “have” the “Non-It.” The Non-It has us. Is the “having us” dependent on a leap (on our part), a grab (on Non-It’s part), both, or neither? As with Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” toward God, there is a despair in “being had” just as there is a despair in not “being had.”

There is a despair because Being/Beyng/Non-It seems (in many cases) to either exclude the trivial or transmute it. The trivial hides us, blankets us from the overwhelmingness of Being/Beyng/Not-It.

The “saving power” in despair is that the non-trivial is sweet, all too sweet.

Thinking or approaching the foothills of thinking is “sweet.” Heidegger borrows a line from Holderlin’s poem “Socrates and Alcibiades”:

“Who the deepest has thought, loves what is most alive.”

What is more alive than the object of one’s love and affection? Who is more alive than the one in thrall to the love object?

Heidegger thinks the thinker thinks only one thought, but if I have ever thought one thought and one thought only, it was the thought of my High School crush, my monomaniacal obsession, my unrequited love, the one and only Samantha Epstein.

My infatuation with her was not my fault. “What is Called Thinking” is not a definition of “thinking” but of “called thinking.” We do not call thinking. Thinking calls us.

Samantha Epstein called forth my thought.

I might have spent most of my life not thinking or on the way to thinking, but Samantha’s “call” brought forth my “thinking” alter ego: Nitro.

Nitro (my alter ego) was/is an Ontological Soldier, what Heidegger called a “Lieutenant of the Nothing.”

Nitro, the “Called Thinker,” the Ontological Solder, the Lieutenant of the Nothing, lived clean: no drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes. Healthy eating. Thinking was enough. Like a proto-Zoomer-Trad-Reactionary, Nitro jogged and lifted weights, sat in saunas and sweated. Anything to increase virility, virility for Samantha’s sake.

Nitro was a mostly-heterosexual sodomite, a connoisseur of asses, an expert evaluator of rear-end shapes, sizes, functions, and products. He was mostly interested in Samantha’s tight ass, the ass of all asses. For what “calls thinking” more than ass?

Samantha accidentally farted in gym class, waking Nitro and Nitro’s thinking, a calling forth. She “pooted.” Pooted in Gym class. She stretched and farted, farted ever so accidentally, but loud enough for Nitro (me) to hear the “report,” the sound of a distant firecracker, a New Year’s Eve Roman Candle.

A fart “Calls Thinking” because a fart is never trivial. Her fart showed that she is human, “human” in her “being.” I heard a sound, a sound created by the pressure of gas against Samatha’s anus, the anus of all anuses (and many Germans, including German thinkers, are obsessed with the anus and what it does. Mozart was a Teutonic eproctophile – a lover of farts. Nitro is in good company!)

Samantha and Nitro dress themselves in skintight nylon warm-up suits. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Conchita Alonso in “The Running Man.” They (we) travel in steel pods. They (we) go on missions. They (we) arrange town-wide orgies and invite the pillars of the community, respectable people, townsfolk, all of them showing their assholes to the world, farting this way and that. “Give your assholes to the world!”

I am Nitro. Nitro is me. Deleuze was right: the mask is the one who wears the mask. Nitro is the me “called” to “thinking.” A thinking ass-man.

I live in Florida now, far from Samantha’s New Jersey home. I exercise every day and listen to “The Running Man” soundtrack. Like Kierkegaard, I hope in the absurd, that I may see her again, just as Kierkegaard thought he would one day reunite with Regine Olsen, his never-consummated love.

Samantha “calls” my “thinking.” Better yet, I “call” her “thinking” (she knows of my Sodomitical fantasies about her.)

I “thank” her. She “thanks” me (again, she knows of my Sodomitical fantasies about her.)

We bring forth each other’s “thanc,” the Old English word for thought, what Heidegger calls a “grateful thought, and the expression of such a thought; today it survives in the plural thanks. The ‘thanc,’ that which is thought, the thought implies the thanks.”

Thinking and Thanking are the same activity. Both turn toward Being/Beyng/Not-It. All are brought forth by Samantha’s “poot.”

Like Heidegger, I will close with a question:

“What is Called Samantha’s Farting?”

Will Johnson aka Nitro is a freelance writer and independent scholar. You may contact him at


Painting created in Year 12 Painting at Albany Senior High School, Wikimedia Commons

The Beautiful Nature of Time

The clock’s ticking sound plays the melody we all dance to in this life. Every decision we make is in harmony with the rhythm of the song we are meant to enjoy. We are all dancing and singing along until the lights go out, then it is someone else’s turn to step in tune with the recording life has ready for them. Time is neither right nor wrong, it just is, and it’s our job while we are here to take advantage of it. We play with time because it’s a gift. How we honor this inheritance is entirely up to us. We can spend it assuming, which creates an illusion of progress. Or, we can get on the dance floor and mingle with the very essence which drives this reality we exist in. 

To explore the driving force of time is to dive off the board into the deep pool of our true selves, and it’s deeper than we think. In the web of reality, there are an endless amount of ways we can spin our storylines to interweave with others. In this world, billions of footprints walk around, creating conversation in the form of exchanging moments. This is a universal language all of us as one race share. As long as our heart beats and plays a sound that correlates to the dance, we can still say I love you to that person, make amends with a friend, write that book, and answer any questions that disturb our soul. No matter if we don’t like the answer, it’s better to know than never to know at all.

The answers to questions have an expiration date, which means it mimics the nature of time. Everything is revealed when we look for it. However, we have to be willing to look. It’s no use taking the clock and turning back the hands. The only thing we will do is break the instrument that can reveal what to improve on because time only goes forward in a first-layer interpretation. 

While time goes forward expanding discoveries, we can consciously use what we gain from the past, with an outlook on the future, to determine how we handle the present. Sure, we may not be ready for something, meaning it’s not our time to have it, but it’s always time to make it so we can be prepared for what we want.

Our conscious awareness can shift at any moment when we see time not from a chronological perspective but in a more pliable way for our benefit of living this life. We do this by making things last longer, savoring a good meal, or stretching out a good time with friends. Also, we can shorten what hurts us by quickly occupying our thoughts with positive tasks. Whatever the case or method, we can objectively work ways around the first-layer fundamentals of time for a purpose. The years are not more valuable than the months. The months don’t speak ill of the weeks. The weeks don’t disregard the days. The days don’t look down on the hours. The hours don’t tell the minutes to hush. The minutes don’t try to kill the seconds. All hold an equivalent amount of meaning when we reach a destination. When we reach a goal, we only think of the time in a pessimistic manner when we haven’t gotten there yet, but when we get there, it doesn’t matter how long it took because we are finally there with a reset judgment of where we are. 

Our choices depend on time because if we had an unlimited amount of it, then the thrill of life would be non-existent. It’s actually for our benefit that we don’t live forever because then there would be nothing to gain from experience, and experience is what keeps us from being alone.  We all see time through a unique viewpoint based on our path on this journey, which means that what may seem slow to one can be fast for another. What may be boring to someone will be fascinating for another. Time can be seen clearly through the lens of open-mindedness and with the eyes of our hearts. The eyes of our hearts are what people may refer to as a spiritual sense which allows us to see and feel growth through time. When we grow, a hidden understanding reveals itself and reminds us that there are checkpoints in our life created by time for the simple fact that we were always meant to reach them. 

Time is measured not just by the ticking sounds on a clock but by how we utilize the space between the beginning and the end. There is a saying that goes father time is undefeated. Yes, that is true. We cannot outlive the set departure date to the next phase, which goes on forever beyond our current understanding of time. Where is the next phase? Why is it forever? It depends on what you believe in. I believe that my spirit will ascend into heaven for eternity with God. We all have our translation of what has been around before our existence.

Life will go on without us and continue to write other stories. As soon as the ink hits the paper, it dries immediately, leaving a trail of memories for us to read and appreciate. What a great joy that our story will be on the bookshelf of life. This proves that we are never alone, and our time here is not a waste. Material things wither away, but the impressions and tales we leave behind last not forever but long enough to serve their purpose. We are all here now for a reason, which means we are not accidents. Nothing is by accident, and that’s when we realize time has a plan and course it must follow. 

Time itself must follow a set of laws, and if time must follow the rules, then it is told to do so. By whom do we ask? Again, that all depends on what you believe in. Whether God or science dictates the flow of time on a spectrum we can comprehend, the nature of time is beautiful.

Michael Colon was born and raised in New York City and has a deep passion for writing to express his thoughts about all sorts of life topics in an introspective and retrospective fashion. Michael is a professional technical/copywriter for various platforms and loves writing short stories and creating content that profoundly impacts his readers in a thoughtful and open-minded way. Michael’s mission is for his work to continue to reach the lives of others to see the different outlooks that life offers.
Lipid Islands on Soap Bubble, by KarlGaff

The Faculty of Child-Like Wonder

“Are you a child who has not become world-weary? Or a philosopher who will vow never to become so?”

– Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World (12)

Imagine a world where we are all part of a magic trick. A simple trick everyone knows where a magician pulls a white rabbit out of a top hat. The trick takes several billion years to complete, so while waiting, all mortals are born on the very tip of the rabbit’s fur. This is the perfect place to wonder about all the impossibilities of the trick. To children, this world is new, everything is a discovery, but as an adult, you begin to crawl further and further down the rabbit’s fur where you accept the world as a matter of course, never taking the risk to venture out to the tip of the rabbit’s fragile hair. It is only philosophers who embark on the perilous journey to the tip of the rabbit’s fur in an attempt to discover the universe (Gaarder 12). So, when the magician finally pulls the white rabbit out of the top hat, only the children who have not yet learned boundaries and the philosophers who pledge never to do so are able to see the universe for all it can be (Gaarder 12). This concept was part of Jostein Gaarder’s novel Sophie’s World, and much like the protagonist in the novel, I vowed to never fall down the rabbit’s fur choosing to take on the challenges of a philosopher and preserve the world with child-like wonder. 

I apologize for my ramble, I am sure you are desperate to learn the philosopher I plan to reflect upon, but you must understand that these concepts are very dear to my heart, requiring a proper introduction before I can continue. But alas, here we are, I am back at my desk chair beginning my final expedition of the academic school year, where I am tasked to write about one philosopher’s idea and argue for its significance. I have always believed that life should be artistic, even romanticized, so I was naturally drawn to Friedrich Nietzsche’s conception of humanity as a self-transcending, creative being leading an artful and aesthetic life. As I began to read, I felt as though, on a strange level, I understood the essence of Nietzsche, and was ever so eager to learn more. I chose to reflect upon his work Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book For All and None, a philosophical text written in the form of a prose narrative following protagonist Zarathustra, who after ten years of solitude, descends from his cave in the mountains to teach humanity about the overman and offer his wisdom to the world. The primary purpose of this work is to reflect upon the concept of the overman (Übermensch), a man who has overcome so-called human nature (Nietzsche 115). I propose that the way to actualize the overman’s values and live an aesthetic life is less about understanding a new moral code, but rather learning a new way of seeing: through child-like wonder. There are three facets of Nietzsche’s writing I will investigate in my reflection. (1) “ON THE THREE METAMORPHOSES” the first of Zarathustra’s speeches provide insight into the three stages of progression towards the overman: the camel, the lion, and the child. (2) Nietzsche’s surrealistic style of writing, like a whimsical and enigmatic children’s novel, indicates he is working towards attaining this wonder. This is especially evident in speeches 11 and 12: “ON THE NEW IDOL” and “ON THE FLIES OF THE MARKET PLACE”. (3) Nietzsche’s actualization of the overman, seen in the speech “ON READING AND WRITING”, stands on a mountain peak and looks down upon everything with innocent levity, freedom, and laughter, much like a child who has yet to become weary of the world. Finally, throughout the reflection, I will apply my interpretation of what one must do to become an overman and further analyze the significance of this child-like wonder in concrete aspects of ordinary existence. 

Throughout the prologue, Zarathustra descends from the high point of his mountain to begin his journey. Nietzsche utilizes the contradicting play on words “over” and “under” to imply that his protagonist must “go under” to eventually achieve the overman (Nietzsche 115). Whereas Zarathustra explains that under physically means descending from the mountain and going down (Nietzsche 122), in a later speech, he claims that “in a real man a child is hidden-and wants to play,” (Nietzsche 178). The use of the word “under” additionally refers to reverting to the state of wonder that a child possesses. As an adult, the state has long been hidden, and in order to reclaim this faculty that children possess, Zarathustra must metaphorically “go under” to overcome human nature as the overman. So now it is time to begin the reflection. Much like Zarathustra, I too shall embark on the journey of going under to one day go over. 

Image of Jade Mountain painting, by Li_Mei-shu
Jade Mountain, by Li_Mei-shu

(1)  The Working Camel, Independent Lion, and Creative Child

In order to actualize the overman’s values and live aesthetically, one must relearn how to see the world through the lens of child-like wonder, where the world is new and everything gives rise to astonishment. In Zarathustra’s first speech, “ON THE THREE METAMORPHOSES”, Nietzsche provides insight into what he means by “overman”. The protagonist explains how the spirit undergoes three progressive transformations towards the overman: the camel, the lion, and finally, the child.

The camel is the beast of burden. Although not a particularly creative creature, the camel carries its load effectively and efficiently, persevering through obstacles in its path (Nietzsche 138). This first stage is a reflection on creativity as one must be able to dutifully work to move towards the space of creativity; to go over, one must put in the work (Nietzsche 138). A powerful base is necessary to transcend, and the foundation that the camel provides will allow the spirit to move on in its journey (Nietzsche 138). 

The lion is a ferocious creature whose desire is to conquer his freedom and become the master of his own mind (Nietzsche 138). This stage is vital for brutally slaying his last master and surpassing the former sovereignty (Nietzsche 139). Here some may ask but why is the beast of burden, not enough? Why is the lion necessary in this transformation? Well, although the lion is not yet at the point of creating, he creates the freedom one needs to eventually create (Nietzsche 139). The lion uses strong, poetic strength and motivation to assert his independence and go beyond himself and his community (Nietzsche 139). Alas, the lion is still unable to create, unable to self-transcend, unable to overcome its’ nature. 

The spirit must finally become the child. The child represents a new beginning of innocence, possibility, and a sacred “Yes,” (Nietzsche 139). It is the child who can constantly reevaluate values and introduce the new (Nietzsche 139). This third stage is the stage of self-transcendence, straying away from a fixed, determined mindset, and going beyond one’s own world to invent a new one (Nietzsche 139). 

These, in an essence, are Nietzsche’s Three Metamorphoses that the spirit undergoes in its progression towards the overman: the working camel, the independent lion, and the creative child.  

Now that I have elucidated The Three Metamorphoses, it is essential to point out that the final stage in the progression towards the overman is in fact a child. This child, as the protagonist explains, represents “innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred “Yes,” (Nietzsche 139).  This “Yes” is what is so vital for the game of creation (Nietzsche 139). Adults, on the other hand, are tethered to boundaries, weary of a world that they no longer choose to try and understand. Imagine an adult walking into a room with chairs on the ceiling. Sitting on these chairs are upside-down men with fishing rods reeling from the thin air, little fish. Why they would scream and think it to be absurd. Because they claim that chairs are meant to be on the floor, fish are meant to be in the sea, and upside-down men do not exist because everyone they know stands right side up. They are so fixed in the ways of the world and reside buried deep in the rabbit’s fur. Now, if a child walked into that very room, they would be curious, even excited, as they do not yet know the way things “should” be, but rather are filled with a sort of wonder about every new possibility. I believe this is why Nietzsche made the final stage of progression a child. To emphasize that the spirit is reborn again, rid of all adult prejudices, regressed to a state able to will its own will, and conquer the world they can claim as their own; to go over, one must go under. 

I am now left with the question of relevance. How can this theory be applied in everyday life? Am I able to turn into a camel, or a lion, or a child to achieve creative power? Well, the three metamorphoses seem to closely follow the path of a creative genius. If I can understand how to apply this path to ordinary existence, I might be one step closer to my expedition of going under. Let us take the example of a writer. I am a sucker for good literature, I just could not help myself. In the first stage, the writer must take on the burden of work, just as a camel. They must tirelessly study, read, and practice to achieve technical mastery of the art. The writer has to have a profound knowledge of varying genres, grammar, techniques, and more in order to move on to the next stage. Once achieved, the writer, much like a lion, can assert their independence. With this, they would stray from the path of other writers, leaving a foundation of freedom for future creation. Finally, the writer is tasked to develop their own writing style. They decide what kind of work they wish to write, creating something new and never before seen. The writer has become like a child, viewing the world through a wondrous lens, freed from previous ties, only seeing the fresh, new beginning. In this stage, the writer earns the title of “writer”. Now, they can create works of art that inspire other people to undergo the three metamorphoses and reclaim their child-like wonder. 

A child writing with a quill, facing left in profile, from ‘Various heads and figures’, by Stefano della Bella (MET, 2012.136.807.14)

(2) A Whimsical, Surrealistic, Children’s Book 

 In preparing for this reflection, I read, reread, close read, and took rather extensive notes on Nietzsche’s work. One line, however, has resided in the back of my mind and I can’t help always coming back to it. It occurs in one of the earlier chapters when a child begins to speak and Zarathustra thinks “and why should one not speak like children?” (Nietzsche 146). Of course, the question itself is valid, why shouldn’t we speak like children? Especially in our attempt to reclaim our child-like wonder, speaking in a way that encourages this wonder and preserves our bewildering curiosity can most certainly add to actualizing the overman’s values and living an aesthetic life. What the question really paved the way for was the realization that Nietzsche himself was writing in a child-like way. This style is highlighted in Walter Kaufmann’s editor preface and is especially evident in speeches 11 and 12: “ON THE NEW IDOL” and “ON THE FLIES OF THE MARKET PLACE”. I want to ensure that it is understood I mean child-like and not childish. Nietzsche’s writing is in no way childish, silly, or immature. I argue that Nietzsche writes in a child-like, surrealistic style, like a whimsical and enigmatic children’s novel, which indicates that he too is working towards attaining this wonder.

In his editor’s preface, Kaufmann describes Nietzsche’s work as both a “weird blend of passion and whimsy” (Nietzsche 109) and the “sublime and the ridiculous” (Nietzsche 107). He furthers his explanation by demonstrating how Nietzsche would take a rather straight forward line like “oh, everything human is strange” and turn it into something beautifully nonsensical like “O human hubbub, thou wonderful thing?” (Nietzsche 109). I can’t help but compare this whimsical style to that of a children’s novel. The words are coated with an absurdity that makes the reading feel quite magical. Although this style is reflected throughout the book, I would like to draw attention to a few concrete examples. In speech 11, “ON THE NEW IDOL”, Zarathustra explains the concept of states. Instead of a dreary and dull explanation of the bleak dangers of the state, the protagonist describes the state as the coldest of all cold monsters, that gruesomely devours, chews, and ruminates, the all-too-many (Nietzsche 160-161). The State is something to be feared, yes, but not because of politics or governments or any of that boring stuff, but rather because it is a terrifying, man-eating, monster waiting to destroy all originality by luring humans into its mouth and guzzling them down (Nietzsche 161). Nietzsche is evidently taking a very child-like approach in his critique of the state. He emphasizes the danger of the state and its encouragement of uniformity and mediocrity by describing a terrifying monster. This surrealistic style is further seen in speech 12, “On the Flies of the Market Place”, with the buzzing of poisonous flies, a creature that hums around you with obtrusive praise, to get under your skin and suck your blood dry (Nietzsche 163-165). These creatures are vital in the realization that one must be isolated in solitude, from the masses and the monsters, to harness one’s creativity (Nietzsche 166). 

Nietzsche’s work is whimsical and ridiculous as he uses terrifying monsters to explain his rather serious view of society and evoke fear in the readers. Despite this being an unusual approach, I do believe that his fantastical, child-like, way of writing is arguably more effective to understand than reading pages upon pages of uninteresting political nonsense. When reading, I am captivated, on the edge of my seat, eager to turn the page and read on. In a way, I believe that in writing in this children’s book style, Nietzsche is not only demonstrating how he is working towards attaining the child-like wonder, but also adjusting the eyes of his readers to see the world in this whimsical and surreal way. With this new lens, a daunting exam becomes a 54-foot-tall flesh-eating giant, or a panic attack becomes the blood-sucking anxiety mosquitoes. Just in reading the text itself, I feel as though I am one step closer to learning this new child-like way of seeing. The writing is a key aspect of understating the overman’s values, living an aesthetic life, and going under to go over.      

(3) Surrounded by Clouds of Cotton Candy

At this point in my reflection, I have focused greatly on going under, carefully exploring the progression towards the overman and the child-like writing style that allows readers to grasp their own wonder. With all this talk of going under, I am bound to question where it leads: What is the overman? What does he do? How does he act? What makes him so special that he represents the end goal to which I strive? It is in speech 7, “ON READING AND WRITING”, that the actualization of the overman is finally described. 

Nietzsche utilizes the imagery of climbing up and down a mountain throughout his writing. This is especially relevant as Zarathustra speaks of the one and only overman who stands on the peak of a mountain looking down on all the inferior beings below (Nietzsche 152). The overman has essentially risen to such height that there is nothing he does not look down upon (Nietzsche 152). To him, everything is lower, inferior, not worth his time or energy, and so, even the saddest of tragedies and the most heart-wrenching devastations are subjected to his simple laughter (Nietzsche 153). This is why Zarathustra celebrates cheerfulness and levity: the overman has nothing to look down upon and thus, nothing to take seriously (Nietzsche 153). He lives a life on the highest of high mountain peaks, probably surrounded by clouds of cotton candy and sun that makes his skin sparkle. The overman is allowed to feel unbothered, because in a life that is free and a life that he can truly call his, what is there to worry about? Zarathustra explains this freedom and lightness are often expressed in the form of dance (Nietzsche 153). Now, not only is the overman situated on the very top of the world, surrounded by cotton candy and sparkling sunbeams, but he is also dancing, and while he dances, he laughs, and while he laughs, he cheers, and while he cheers, he simply smiles. Now, isn’t that beautiful? 

​​Now that I have determined how Nietzsche actualizes the overman, the task of making sense of it all comes to light. The overman and his mannerisms closely resemble that of a child who has yet become weary of the world. Children have yet to learn about the saddest of tragedies or the most heart-wrenching devastations. They do not take anything seriously because there is nothing to be serious about. Much like the overman, childhood days are filled with laughter, cheerfulness, and levity because they live in a whimsical, bewildering world where wonderment is infinite. As someone who has constantly tried to stay on the tips of the rabbit’s fur, I have slowly lost my way. I find myself riddled with worries and doubts that prevent my progression toward actualizing the overman and living an aesthetic, free, and laughter-filled life. As a child, I would play music in the public park and dance until the sun went down. Now, I would feel too embarrassed and silly to dance for even a minute out of fear someone might see. As a child, I would write down every new thought I had, showing them to anyone who would listen. Now, I barely have time to write and when I do, I keep it hidden away from the world and possible ridicule. As a child, I would laugh and laugh and laugh. Now, I am afraid of how my laugh might sound or even how laughing makes my face look. I stand in front of a mirror and practice my smile to see which one other people might find most desirable. I’ll smile again and again and again trying to find the perfect one, but when none of them are perfect, I decide not to smile at all. As I sit here and write, I am attempting to truly understand this philosophy to one day live the life I have lost and reclaim the child-like wonder that is hidden within.

The Rose Cloud (Le Nuage rose), by Henri-Edmond Cross


I want to end this work on the notion of the significance of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as a remarkable piece in terms of both the story itself and its application to ordinary life. To actualize the overman’s values and live an aesthetic life, one must learn how to see the world with child-like wonder. What is truly significant about this new way of perceiving, is that it represents an imaginative way of thinking, understanding, and even living, that encourages one to hang on to the very tip of the rabbit’s fragile hair, so they are in the perfect position to wonder at the impossibility of the universe.

During speech 1, “ON THE THREE METAMORPHOSES”, Nietzsche provided insight into the three stages of progression towards the overman: the camel, the lion, and the child. With an understanding of these three transformations, anyone can use them to work towards their own creative endeavors. If you work as hard as a camel learning the technical mastery of your chosen art and are as ferocious as a lion willing to break free from the previous structure and assert your independence, you can achieve the new beginning of child-like innocence and creativity. In later chapters, Nietzsche’s surrealistic and whimsical style of writing shines through. He describes monsters and poisonous flies to explain serious topics making the work feel somewhat like an adult children’s novel. In doing so, the philosopher demonstrates his own attempt toward child-like wonder whilst adjusting the eyes of his readers towards obtaining this lens. Just by reading the text itself, you are that much closer to actualizing life’s problems in a child-like manner, thus making life itself seem less serious and daunting. Finally, this lack of seriousness is vital in the description of the overman himself. Throughout speech 7, “ON READING AND WRITING”, it is finally clear that the overman lives his life with the wonderment of a child, absolved of worry and fear. He has nothing that he doesn’t look down upon so instead, he spends his days laughing, dancing, and living the life that is free. While reading this chapter I realized that I had fallen further down the rabbit’s fur, riddled in doubt and insecurity, that I am stopping myself from achieving the child-like wonder within. This way of seeing, thinking, and living will not occur overnight. One must consciously put in the effort to actualize the overman and live aesthetically. This perilous expedition is certainly not about escapism and avoiding the responsibilities that arise, but rather, about connecting ourselves with life in a stronger, more diverse way. 

I conclude this reflection in a very Nietzschean fashion. Through his writing, the philosopher is never satisfyingly clear on what one must do to become an overman. He inspires the people, but never truly leads the way, urging the readers to choose their own journey and venture alone like Zarathustra himself (Nietzsche 190). This work is my chosen path, one filled with child-like wonder and whimsical creativity;  going under to one day go over. Where the overman climbed a mountain, I have chosen to climb the rabbit’s fur. Sure the climb will be daunting. I may fall, I may concede, but, I may reach the top, among all the other children and philosophers, where I might finally see the end of the magic trick.

Works Cited

Gaarder, Jostein. Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy. London: Phoenix, 1995. Print.  

Nietzsche, Friedrich W, and Walter Kaufmann. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None. New York: Modern Library, 1995. Print.

Alexandra Abitbol is an undergraduate student at McGill University pursuing a double major in English Literature and Philosophy. She has a passion for existentialism and literary romanticism with aspirations to write works of fiction.

'Lost in Thought', James Caroll Beckwith (1852–1917)

Philosophical Ideas to Improve Your Thinking

Philosophy is sometimes seen as an abstract discipline that can be mastered only through reading obscure and difficult-to-understand texts. But, philosophy can provide us with useful practical tools to improve our lives and address problems that arise. Here are some excellent examples of philosophical ideas that can improve your life by improving your thinking.  

Questions:  Philosophers ask questions. It’s what they do best. But, not every question is philosophical. A good philosophical question digs below the surface to examine underlying assumptions that are not often acknowledged.  

One of the best examples of such questioning was Socrates. He was fond of asking questions like, “What is beauty?”  “What is justice?”. His questions seem so easy to answer on the surface but continued questioning by Socrates would soon reveal hidden assumptions and contradictions present in the answer to the original question.  

One of the best uses of this kind of questioning is where there seems to be complete agreement. This may seem counterintuitive but in many cases that agreement is masking an underlying lack of clarity which can be explored by some strategic Socratic questioning.  

Doubt:  The 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes famously began his philosophical investigation with doubt. He attempted to doubt everything to discover if there could be a foundation of knowledge that was indubitable.  He found that foundation in the very act of doubting, recognizing that if he was thinking he had to exist. That could not be doubted. This is what he meant by his famous pronouncement that “I think, therefore, I am”.

The 18th-century British empiricist David Hume continued this tradition of doubt with his skeptical approach to knowledge. He advised that the wise person will “proportion his belief to the evidence”. If the evidence for a claim is weak we cannot be justified in holding a strong belief about it.

In a world of “fake news” and numerous sources of information, this advice can come in very handy. We don’t have to doubt everything, but a healthy dose of skepticism is often warranted when presented with claims that seem too good or too outlandish to be true.  

Categories:  The 18-century philosopher Immanuel Kant began his philosophical investigations by trying to address Hume’s skepticism. In doing so, he hit upon an insight that still influences psychology today.  

His idea was that our minds act as a filter through which we perceive sense experience. These filters he called the “categories of the mind”. They provide the structure for our knowledge of sense experience and include things like space, time, and causality.  

We impose an order on sense experience that may not really be there. In practical terms, we each bring our own unique perspective to whatever problem or situation we are facing. Remembering this can be very useful. We too often assume that people see the world just like we do, and while there are some common elements in our perspectives as human beings, there are also important differences that must be addressed in order to ensure good communication.  

‘Tapestries of Desire’, Hennie Niemann jnr

Wants and Needs: If you want something, does that mean you need it? For many people, the answer seems to be yes. What’s worse, is the all too common mentality that if I want something, I deserve it. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus provided a useful antidote to this kind of thinking.  

For Epicurus, there are three categories of desires. The first is natural and necessary and includes the basics: food, clothing, shelter, as well as friendship, freedom, and thinking. We require these to be happy. And, for Epicurus, these are all that we require to be happy. 

But, there are also natural and unnecessary desires (wants that become confused with needs). These include many of the luxury items in our life; fancy food, clothing, big houses. All of which we desire but do not require to be happy. We need food, clothing, and shelter for survival but we don’t need fancier versions of any of these.  The problem occurs when we believe we need these things, purchase them, and then find that we have to work to afford them and in the process discover we are no happier as a result of acquiring them than we were without them.

Third, Epicurus identifies the unnatural and unnecessary desires for things such as power and fame. These desires are often driven by culture as opposed to any biological need we have. They are not connected to our happiness in any substantial or necessary way.  They do not lead to peace of mind and often lead to greater unhappiness as they require our constant pursuit to maintain and often come at the expense of natural and necessary desires such as the desire for friendship and freedom.

However, they may be at the root of our belief that natural but unnecessary desires are really needs. After all, if you strongly desire fame and power, you will deduce that you need those things that Epicurus classifies as natural but unnecessary. 

Attitude: The Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers were masters of cultivating a good attitude towards life, especially life’s problems. The Stoics recognised that it was important to distinguish between what you can control and what you cannot control. Surprisingly few things are in your direct control, chief among them is your attitude. You cannot control what other people think or do but you can control your attitude towards them and their actions. 

As Epictetus pointed out, “People are not disturbed by things, but by the views which they take of things”.  The Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius echoed this sentiment saying, “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts”.  

The Stoics also offered useful advice for dealing with adversity.  We must recognize that problems are an inevitable part of life.  But, we can cultivate an attitude that meets these problems as challenges.  If we can see problems as opportunities to cultivate a proper attitude and as tests of our virtue, we can better cope with what difficulties arise in the course of our life.  

As you can see, philosophical ideas can be very insightful and practical. While some philosophers write abstract and difficult-to-understand texts, many others specifically wrote and taught to help people improve their lives. As Epicurus once said, “Vain is the word of a philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man. For just as there is no profit in medicine if it does not expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy either, if it does not expel the suffering of the mind”.

Kevin Browne is an adjunct professor of philosophy and Jefferson Community and Technical College in Louisville, KY.  He is also a certified philosophical counselor through the American Philosophical Practitioners Association.  He writes a regular blog and is the host of the Improve Your Thinking podcast.  He can be found online at 

Further Reading:

Lou Marinoff Plato, Not Prozac!  Applying Eternal Wisdom to Everyday Problems

Alain de Botton  Consolations of Philosophy

Christopher Phillips  Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy

Marietta McCarty  How Philosophy Can Save Your Life: 10 Ideas That Matter Most

Felix Nussbaum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Nietzsche and Cognitive Dissonance

Interest in the writings and thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche is at a high ebb. When these moments occur, we have to ask which Nietzsche is receiving the attention, if not accolades. Nietzsche spoke of the “profound” as wearing “masks.” And indeed, Nietzsche’s various opinions appear to wear different philosophical personae. Let us not only consider his thoughts but also whether any of them add meaning and purpose to our livesor are just a stylishly written collection of literary quips that mask an ideology of cruelty.

Nietzsche as a reactionary thinker?

The Marxist revolutionary and polemicist Leon Trotsky wrote an essay upon the occasion of Nietzsche’s death, in which Trotsky observed that Nietzsche’s writings can be understood in multiple ways:

 [T]he writings [are] rich in paradoxes… whose aphorisms are often contradictory and, in general, allow for dozens of interpretations…

Instead of parsing these multiple aphoristic masks, Trotsky preferred a one-dimensional sociological-historical approach. The “natural road,” Trotsky writes, “towards a correct clarification of Nietzschean philosophy is the analysis of the social base that gave birth to this complex product.” Trotsky has no patience for Nietzsche’s poetic-literary-philosophical stance, which Trotsky judges as ideologically defective. It is important, he observes, to disabuse ourselves of any “subjective reactions of sympathy or antipathy for the moral and other theses of Nietzsche” because they “result…in nothing good.”

Disputing any claim that Nietzsche’s Will to Power thesis was novel, Trotsky asserts that Nietzsche’s division of Master Morality versus Slave Morality, and the companion doctrine of a fresh creation (or “transvaluation”) of values, had already been realized in feudalistic Russia.  The higher Russian caste of the “masters,” the “creators of values”, Trotsky argues, had already been erected during the time of Russian serfdom by landlords, who knew that “there exist people who have blue blood and others who don’t and that what is necessary for one group is reprehensible in the others.”

However, lest one think that Trotsky is confusing Nietzsche with a member of the economic exploiting class, an “adventurer of finance or a vulture of the stock market,” Trotsky hastens to add that the class—the parasitenproletariatthat is parasitic on the lower classes is actually much broader than the masters of capitalism.  And Nietzsche, for Trotsky, is the ideologue of this higher-level exploitative class, an aristocratic elite that finds commercialism vulgar and crass. The “pernicious dregs of bourgeois society,” Trotsky writes, “were bound to find Nietzsche’s ideas about a life full of adventures more appropriate” than that of a philistinism preached, for example, by Bentham, the father of British Utilitarianism.

Nietzsche as a self-help guru?

Whereas Trotsky sees in Nietzsche an apologist for the high-end bourgeois status quo—advocating an adventurous life as an exciting perk for a more cultivated aristocracy—others find in Nietzsche a road to personal liberation, though not of the Marxist-Leftist stripe.

This existential interpretation posits Nietzsche’s famous Eternal Return thesis as the outcome of a thought experiment in which we imagine a rerun of our lives complete with all of the choices we have made, along with the consequences of those acts. Could we, hypothetically, live this same life again and again without sinking into hopelessness, complacency, and anguish? This forces an evaluation of the projected visions of how we should really live our lives, encompassing

[the] ultimate embrace of responsibility that comes from accepting the consequences, good or bad, of one’s willful action. Embedded in it is an urgent exhortation to calibrate our actions in such a way as to make their consequences bearable, livable with, in a hypothetical perpetuity.

This vision of Nietzsche as a valuable self-help guru, who liberates us from despair by giving us innovative tools for emotionally coping with our lives, is the exact opposite of Trotsky’s dismissal of any “subjective reaction” to Nietzsche’s views. To have a positive emotional reaction to Nietzsche’s doctrine as a path toward existential freedom is exactly the result intended, putting to rest Trotsky’s claim that Nietzsche’s thought can have no good results.

Wassily Kandinsky, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Nietzsche and Cognitive Dissonance

A study of the best philosophical minds requires coming to grips with philosophy’s version of cognitive dissonance: the mental discomfort felt when a philosopher holds—or seems to hold—two or more conflicting views, that is, presents different philosophical personae.

Trotsky, driven by his one-dimensional, left-wing, revolutionary dogmatism, succumbs to this cognitive dissonance. Refusing to parse Nietzsche’s multiple—and multi-layered—theses, he instead takes refuge in a single-minded, hardline ideological interpretation: as a reactionary defender of the parasitic aristocratic class, Nietzsche’s views contribute nothing worthwhile.

By contrast, the existential interpretation of Nietzsche as a high-level self-help guru, whose Doctrine of Eternal Return is a ‘thought-experiment’ that helps us emotionally adjust to the difficulties of living with our choices, is more attuned to the complexities of Nietzsche’s thought, as well as highlights Nietzsche’s contribution to the human quest for meaning.

An inconvenient Nietzsche?

Yet, was Trotsky entirely wrong about Nietzsche? Criticizing the social and political aspects of Nietzsche detracts nothing from the separate contribution that Nietzsche’s Doctrine of Eternal Return offers toward helping us psychologically adjust to the difficulties of living. It cannot be denied, however, that Nietzsche wore, among his many masks, a reactionary, morally callous persona.

Nietzsche scholar Brian Leiter describes being shocked at realizing 

what Nietzsche believes, that the illiberal attitudes and the elitism [are] really central to the way he looked at things. The suffering of humanity at large was not a significant ethical concern in his view; it was largely a matter of indifference.

Like most important thinkers, Nietzsche needs to be carefully parsed and scrutinized for his specific contributions, not dismissed in toto. Here lies the reward of overcoming philosophical cognitive dissonance: understanding that the flaws and blind spots of great minds do not detract from their valuable contributions to the human search for meaning.

Thomas White is a Wiley Journal contributing author, and a previous contributor to Undercurrent Philosophy, Aeon, The Philosopher’s Eye, and other journals. He is also a poet and speculative fiction writer whose work has appeared in print and online in Australia, Canada, the United States, and Great Britain. The Encyclopedia Britannica selected one of his previously published philosophical essays on Hannah Arendt, Adolph Eichmann, and the “Banality of Evil” for reprinting on its website, 


Janos Thorma – Trees in the Spring

Heidegger on Spring Break

I am not anxious in the sense of “jittery,” though I am jittery and this jitteriness is, thankfully, a somewhat effective vestibule-to-the-vestibule-of-the-vestibule-of-the-vestibule-of-the-vestibule of “the Pastures of Being.” Like the hapless “No-Name” of Kafka’s “Before the Law,” I may spend a lifetime cajoling the first doorkeeper, a man bigger and stronger than me. If I make it past him, I will waste aeons petitioning subsequent doorkeepers. But Heidegger, the ostensible subject of this piece, had no problem with delays. The gods arrive on their own time if they arrive at all. Perhaps “Delay” is one of the gods.

I am not “anxious” in the “everyday” sense of the word. I am anxiety. I am anxious because I stand before nothing. A perfect nothing. Not even blackness or a void (blackness and a void are still something.) No pre-Big-Bang forces that stir up particles and no “turtles all the way down.” A nothing, likewise, impossible to write or speak of because the mere act of writing or speaking about nothing makes nothing a something. A thought experiment that always leads back to what Heidegger considered the most basic metaphysical question of all: “Why are there beings at all, and why not rather nothing?”

Yet, Heidegger in “What is Metaphysics,” quotes Hegel: “Pure Being and Pure Nothing are therefore the same.”

How are “Being” and “Nothing” the same? Well, Being is not and cannot be a “thing.” Being is not a thing, but that things are. Dasein is anxious, standing before Being, which is Nothing.

Humans or Da-Sein (literally translated as “Being-There” because “human” is quite a loaded term, is it not?) stand before “nothing” as well as “things that are” and this means that Dasein is anxiety. Even the most unthinking Dasein – a vapid Spring Breaker – is anxious in the sense that they “are” before both “nothing” and “that things are.” Kierkegaard insisted that “not being in despair” is the most despairing kind of “being in despair.” Likewise, “not being anxious” is the most anxious “anxiety.” One cannot properly enjoy Spring Break on Miami Beach until one has accepted and embraced “anxiety.” And this acceptance and embrace of anxiety may depend on the gods. And the gods may not show up. At all. Honor them if they do.


Edvard Munch – Anxiety

Anxiety carries several “moods”:

Think of a “fun in the sun” beach day, a beautiful summer afternoon. One wades among the waves. Out of nowhere, a shocking thought, the most shocking thought of all: “Wow! I exist! All of this exists! I am me and I exist! I exist and I exist in this world! With oceans! With a sky! I don’t know how I am me, but I am just me! How strange!” A Heideggerian might say “How strange! I am Thrown Being-in-the-World and a Being-Toward-Death. How uncanny!” The feeling is the same for the uninitiated as it is for the seasoned Heideggerian.

Another mood tends to pop up at night, the feeling of what the Germans call unheimlich; an odd “homesickness; a feeling of “not-at-home-ness…”; the “uncanny.” Dasein watches the coconut trees sway in the breeze. Neon lights under a starry sky. Dasein peeks into the windows of the condo, a concrete monolith, a dwelling on the other side of the intercoastal waterway. The dim reading lights of the retired elderly shine forth from a 5th floor apartment. A lamp from the set of The Golden Girls. Dasein feels, for no apparent reason, a pit in the center of his stomach. The day at the beach was fun despite a moment of “Holy cow, I exist!” So, why does Dasein feel a less-pleasant uncanniness at night? One should be having fun! Getting drunk! It is Spring Break, after all. Alcohol “covers over” the common anxiety caused by “anxiety-anxiety”; helps one to forget about “Golden Girls”-esque reading lamps.

Florida, whether it is the time of Spring Break or not, is not life, but death, and that is why philosophy has its moment there. Heidegger writes of a snowstorm buffeting his hut, a cabin in the Black Forest: “On a deep winter’s night when a wild, pounding snowstorm rages around the cabin and covers everything, that is the perfect time for philosophy. Then its questions must become simple and essential.” I disagree. The perfect time for philosophy takes place on South Beach, when our Spring Breaker feels, for just a moment, lonely. Lonely among the throng of revelers.

Anxiety also carries moods of “doom”:

Paul Tillich, writing during the height of the Cold War, knew that we “feared and trembled” before hydrogen bombs. Does not Vladimir Putin have, on ready, two warheads for every major American City, including Miami? We “stand before” (and under) the shadow of hypersonic ICBMs. Inbound from snowy Russia to Sunny Florida.

Or what if an asteroid crashes into the Atlantic Ocean and splashes forth a mega-tsunami, a towering wave taller than the Empire State Building. Think of “standing before” the crest, a wall of water seconds from breaking over Dasein’s head.

But a feeling of “uncanniness” or a “fear and trembling” before a possibly imminent doom are just “moods.”

Dasein is anxiety, “moody” or otherwise.

Perhaps our only “saving power” is a “resolute” anxiety. Is this the only way to hasten the arrival of the gods, if such a “hastening forth” is even possible? An open question… Does one perform this possible hastening by increasing the tension of what Heidegger called Geviert/the Fourfold? Can we increase this tension, all on our own? Another open question…

What is Geviert/the Fourfold?

The Fourfold is the tension between Earth and Sky, Gods and Mortals, a scheme represented by the following diagram: 

Sky and Earth are diametrically opposed, and Mortals and Gods are diametrically opposed, perpendicular to Sky and Earth.

Dasein stands in the tension of the Fourfold, waiting for what may or may not arrive.

Dasein stands, resolute, in a real or metaphorical clearing or grove (or not.) Dasein stares, straight ahead, resolute. But there is also something comical in Dasein’s “resolute stare.” In the words of Jim Morrison, it is like “courage wants to laugh.” I think of a WWE professional wrestler, a lug confronted by a challenger, an equally boorish lug. The challenger insults our champion lug, but our champion lug stares straight ahead, wide-eyed, taking in the insults, digesting the abuse before responding and taking violent action against his impudent opponent.

Stand resolutely in the Fourfold, defiant yet accepting, and stare straight ahead in like manner, even if on the outskirts of a Spring Break twerking contest.

Will Johnson is a freelance writer and independent scholar. You may contact him at

Further reading:

Heidegger, “Being and Time,” “Basic Writings,” and “Contributions to the Philosophy of the Event”

Estaminet andalou

Three Stoics Walk into a Bar and Say . . . Nothing.

Impassive visages unmoved by life’s troubles. Do stoics have wills of iron or are they just plain masochists?


The word “stoic” comes from the Greek word “stoa,” which means “porch,” because that’s where Zeno first taught his students. There, he taught them that virtue is happiness. There are four cardinal virtues, namely; courage, justice, self-control and wisdom. He also taught them that for a Stoic, perception is everything. This is because they believe that it is not problems in and of themselves that cause us to suffer but rather our perception of them. Epictetus coined the term ‘reasoned choice’ – our ability to use our reason to choose how we categorize, respond and reorient ourselves to external events. In essence, we cannot control external events but we can choose our response to them.


Why do the stoics have such a strong emphasis on perspective? How can subjective imaginings change an objective world? Life’s been pinching me and I haven’t woken up yet so why bother? If we saw the world for what it truly is, can we understand our position within it? Perhaps, but to what end? How about this: if we really truly saw the world for what it is and our place in it, can we then act in a way that gets us what we desire? Probably. If not, can we find a way to be content? Possibly. Then what is the possibility that we can find a way to be content regardless of what difficulties we may go through? For a stoic, it’s not only a definite possibility, but also a daily practice.

Eastern philosophers share a similar emphasis on perspective. The heart sutra talks exclusively on the subject of desire and how desire causes us to suffer. Shiki soku zeku. Form is emptiness. What you desire comes from your imagination, it does not really exist. Yet, the discontent from not having it gives rise to our suffering. We wish things were different, we wish we had control, we wish we could change things. Ku soku ze shiki. Emptiness is form. Everything is derived from the same place. The problem is not that you desire certain things. The problem is that you are denying the reality that is in front of you.

You can have the burger. Or you can have the salad. You can have the burger and the salad, with dressing and fries to boot. Only, you can’t neglect the calories. Whether or not you enjoy the meal is up to you.

What You See is What You Get

As we go through our lives we see all around us and we come up with ways of understanding this world. Our understanding of the world is shaped by our past experiences and the meaning we ascribe to what we see around us. Madonna said it best, “Like a virgin touched for the very first time, I didn’t know I was lost until I found you.” We direct our actions depending on our understanding of the world.

Regardless of circumstance, a stoic always looks only to what they can control. This is the ultimate path to happiness. So much so that Epictetus said we should give up all else outside our zone of control to God and Fortune. With things like annoying neighbours and people with bad body odour, sometimes what you need is divine intervention. Truth be told, all too often, we look to blame the situation, the environment or others as the source of our discontent. However, our perspective determines everything. There is hope beyond industrial soap and public hosing. Complaining is not going to help. In fact, it makes it worse. If we decide to do all that we can within our zone of control to solve the problem then there is no need to complain. If there is a solution, you will find it. If not, rest assured that not even God and His host of angels could save you.

Some situations are completely hopeless. There is no changing them and there is no adapting. You must suffer through it. When the only option left is suffering, we must find meaning that justifies the difficulties we are going through. Recycle, for the seals. This is yet another reason why the stoics emphasized perspective. Nietzsche, an ardent student of the stoics, said that, “A man can bear any how so long as he has a good enough why.” This too shall pass. For God and country. Mama ain’t raised no fool. Any situation can be made bearable if we can look at it in a positive light. Further, the value of some things can only be understood through suffering. A bodybuilder may train to look a certain way but the difficulty of training transforms that man into something more than he was before the training. Think broccoli and asparagus; they’re green so they’ve got to be good for you.

Suffering is not the problem. The problem is our perspective. Even in the most dire of situations with no hope for resolution or survival, you can suffer with grace. I am reminded of Anne Frank who lived fully during one of the worst times in human history. If she could find a way to be happy, living in an attic during a war that nearly resulted in genocide, then we can find a way to persevere even when pushed against the wall.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

– William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene III, L. 140-141

Time Waits for No Man

Pavel Brázda, Stroj času, inkoustový tisk na plátně (2007-20115)
Pavel Brázda, Stroj času, inkoustový tisk na plátně (2007-20115)

This is significant because we have short lives. Memento mori. Remember death. Seneca, in his book On the Shortness of Life goes into great detail about why it is important how we mind our time. We have so little of it and yet many of us live as if death were a fantasy and not an ever-present reality. We put aside what is most important to us for trivial reasons, such as keeping up appearances. How many times have we let someone else, or even ourselves, down because of inconvenience? Seneca emphasizes that we need to be aware that the very thing we are dedicating our time to could be the last thing we ever did. Time is like a river; it flows constantly and once it’s gone, it’s never coming back. Tell that to my ex.

Awareness of death allows us to properly prepare for it. From the moment we are born, we are dying. Slowly but surely. Few truly live. This is because many of us are absent from our own lives. We work jobs we don’t like with people we don’t like and all for wealth and status that we don’t really need. And all the while we never realize that our lives could end in an instant. We trudge on, living begrudgingly, all the while heading slowly but surely like sheep to the slaughter. We need to determine what is important to us and why. We need values, dreams, hopes and ambitions. We do this not because life is so terrible that we must color over the truth. We do this because life has unlimited potential, limited only by our minds. Color outside the lines already!

Who Are You?

Socrates once said that the unexamined life was one that was not worth living. He dedicated time each day to reflect on his actions and the world at large in order to understand his place in it. This was of extreme importance to him because he wanted to use his time in the most effective manner possible. He wanted to live to the fullest in each and every moment. To this end, he constantly monitored his actions and the motivations behind them. He monitored his thoughts, habits and mannerisms. He studied himself relentlessly and always aimed at learning to be a better version of himself. Intense? Of course, have you seen his bust? Regardless, it is not enough to simply exist, you need to live. To live is to confront the chaos of being and shape it into an ordered reality that reflects who you are and how you choose to live. One of life’s highest goals is self-actualization and there is no bigger impediment than the self towards the attainment of this goal.

We are our own worst enemies because ultimately, we are the masters of our own fates. We possess the ability to carve out our destinies. However, oftentimes, we forsake our dreams because they are too difficult or too painful. We quit. We have all sorts of logical reasons and an infinite list of excuses but this does not change the choices we make. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Stop eating sugar and telling lies Johnny! There is no in-between, no middle ground. You must choose where you will stand in times of difficulty. Your choices define you. Decide who you want to be and never let circumstances dictate what is possible for you or who you can become. Born of stardust, you were meant to shine.

In today’s digital world, everybody and their grandmother wants your attention. Social media, the news, pop culture, politics, even your local book club wants a piece of you. These institutions exist to further their own causes, which is not a bad thing in and of itself. No Netflix, no Netflix and chill, cool. However, we must take care not to conflate our purposes with those of an institution. Think taxes and democide. Similarly, we cannot live vicariously through other people. Neither should we let them do the same with us. We need to learn the power of ‘No’ and the importance of prioritizing our time, energy and resources for what truly matters to us. You’re not a murderer because you eat meat and vegans aren’t wusses. However, the maltreatment of animals and the environmental pollution caused by the meat industry is real. Think about it. Seneca advises that we must match life’s pace with our own and drink from the river of time just as fast as it flows. We need to go deep inside ourselves, find our weaknesses and strengths, our desires and fears and bring our mental faculties to bear on creating the best possible life. It starts with finding out what you’re going to do with the little time you have left to take in all of life’s majesty.

The Pearly Gates

Even if we live with a nonchalant attitude about life, we must make ourselves present for our own deaths. Life and death are two sides of the same coin. Life ends in death but death creates new life. Every act of creation leads to destruction just as surely as destruction leads to creation. Order and chaos. For the stoic, the prospect of death is one that must be met head-on because there is no escape. It takes a lifetime to learn how to live and what’s more it takes a lifetime to learn how to die.

Heavens Gate and The Pink Panther by Dylan O’Donnell,

I think therefore I am

The quality of our lives is determined by the quality of our thoughts. The mind formulates our understanding of the world. Our experiences, the environment we live in and the people around us. Our mind absorbs everything and finds a method to the madness. Explain how a grown man can fear cockroaches the size of his finger nails. It’s just how our minds work. However, we must take care to control the nature of these thoughts in order to direct them to worthy causes. If we are always lamenting on the difficulties of life, we will never rise above them. If we focus our thoughts on the finer values of life, we will come to experience a richer and fuller life. Don’t just twerk for clout, do it because you love to dance. With such an outlook, we will look to inculcate a strong character built on an iron willpower fiercely determined to make the most out of life and ourselves. By focusing on the ultimate good, we orient ourselves with that outcome and open our eyes to the possibility of living out our dreams. It all starts in the mind.

Tat tvam asi. Thou art that. Mad trippy. It is a Buddhist concept that strikes close to home. It states that we are what we see. The observer and the observed are the same. Why? The world cannot exist outside of ourselves and neither can we exist outside of the universe. You are the universe in ecstatic motion. It seems strange to think so but if we look closer at Stoicism’s emphasis on perspective, we will notice the similarities between the two points of view. Your perspective determines everything. You are what you see. Hence, we become what we constantly think about. We are our thoughts. I think, therefore, I am. All I need now is a cape.

The fate of the universe rests on the shoulders of the individual

Life is a subjective experience. You cannot experience life outside of yourself. You are alive, that is an empirical truth. However, the quality of your life is determined by you and your thoughts. It is what we choose to experience. You know those guys who are depressed at a party? Don’t be one of them. Stay home and read a book, light candles and take a bath, call your grandmother. At any one point in time, there exists infinite possibilities ahead of us. Nonetheless, depending on who we are, we will see only that which we choose to see. Therefore, the value of human life is determined on an individual level. Virtue is happiness and only individuals are capable of being virtuous. The state does not experience freedom, neither does the church undergo redemption. Justice and duty are all subjective truths. Yet, we place a high value on them. These things do not exist without the individual. Yes, baby it’s true, love really hurts without you.

Begin with the end in mind

The point of stoicism is not to suffer endlessly. It is to find happiness in the everyday struggles of life. It is to be content with a world that burns down right after you fix it up. It is to be content in a world that is indifferent to your desires. It is to be content when your best possible outcome is oblivion. It’s all about reasoned choice. Think of the serenity prayer. There’s only so much you can control. Live in accordance with that and express yourself fully in that instance between stimuli and response, reality and desire, faith and fear. It is all we have as humans and it is more than enough in order to live a happy life.

Dennis Kuria is a compassionate autodidact, passionate technopreneur and a holistic adventurer bringing you the hottest, most prudent takes from this side of the metaverse.


Jorge Barradas, Pintura (c.1950)

John Cage and the Modernist Conception of Time

Today, on 5 February 2022, crowds are gathering in Halberstadt, Germany, and audiences are tuning into a livestream to witness a change of chord in the longest and slowest piece of music ever performed, a recital of ASLSP by John Cage which is due to last another 618 years. The last time this happened, in September 2020, Rolling Stone, the New York Times and Classic FM covered the story. The fact that this performance so widely captures the imagination shows it is part of a historic shift – exemplified by the Modernist movement but going far beyond the arts – and reveals how liberating it can be to challenge the practical and conceptual way in which perceptions of time are organised by society and the world around us.

If the news told a heroic narrative about the great achievements of the human race every day, presumably it would tell the story of humanity improving to the point of perfection – eventually, there would be no more reporters, newspapers would go out of print, and the acquisitive media industry moguls’ profits would run dry. Instead, they remain in business.

The news media, advertising and public relations industries derive a lot of power and wealth from setting the agenda with each daily cycle. They record events and edit the voices of history’s protagonists. They express moral judgements and reshape our discourse incrementally with each daily cycle.

Authority over the temporal structure of life is a role that has typically been aligned with power in societies past. During the ancient Chinese Han dynasty, one special category of court historian was the keeper of the imperial calendar, who would set the national narrative. They would mark new eras, observe auspicious events and keep a record of the years that had passed since the start of the Emperor’s reign. Ancient China had some maverick historians, like Sima Qian (c145–c86 BCE), but most historians considered it their role to flatter the Emperor and the dynastic cult. (Sima Qian was castrated after falling foul of Emperor Wu Di who – like most emperors – was fearful of historians’ power to use the past to discredit the present. The popular contemporary historian Michael Wood calls this the ‘anxiety of historians of all ages’.)

In other ancient cultures, the calendar of holy festivals set the pace of economic and social life. Archaeological evidence of the lives of villagers in ancient Roman Egypt in the 5th-7th centuries CE reveals a vibrant festival culture of feasts and processions, attracting high numbers of visitors from abroad. Cults to various deities would appeal to the temple authorities to host their festivities throughout the year, ensuring a steady pace of celebrations throughout the year. Each festival lends a sense of significance and presence to each deity in the pantheon, and raises the social status of the cult or labourers’ association most closely involved in it. Soknapaiou Nesos, one of the villages with the best archaeological records, held a calendar of festivals taking up over half the days each year for a period of Roman rule. The imperial gatekeepers of history and the temple authorities who oversaw the devotional economy of Roman Egypt were civic authorities. In other civilisations, from Empango celebrations in the Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom to anniversaries and jubilees in the British monarchy since Queen Victoria, the structure of civic time reflected social hierarchies and brought the lives of monarchs into the everyday lives of citizens.

By contrast, contemporary media operates in the shadow of the Modernist movement in art, and it is a creative industry. A turn in social and technological understandings around the start of the 20th century, developments in science, historical events and Modernism as a movement in the arts led to a new, amorphous idea of time. Modernists, for the first time, questioned the structural certainties of time, both in experience and in any artificial representation. It unmoored social and civic life from power structures. Although the news media retains its power to set the national narrative and present us with a calendar of daily events and affairs outside of our own agenda, it now arranges our experience of time in a more demotic way.

Those who work in news, radio or television, public relations or campaigning will know how this works. Gatekeepers of current affairs – whether they work in radio, television or print and digital news – repeatedly ask one question: ‘why now?’. Those media gatekeepers pose this question to anyone pitching a story – editor to their reporters, commissioning editors to their producers, or reporters speaking to public relations professionals over the phone. Everything needs a ‘news angle’ – tomorrow’s developments on today’s news. But, once you are over this hurdle, news media doesn’t have to be an elite pursuit. There is more than one answer to the question, ‘why now?’ And the answer isn’t objective, it is creative. For any thought, idea or campaign, there might be many ways of representing it against the calendar.

By way of example, each year, the Fawcett Society has long campaigned on the issue of gender inequality and the gender pay gap. Each year, it compares the average annual salaries of men and women to calculate the date in the calendar year when, all else being equal, women cease to earn money when compared to men in the same role. They use this to determine when its main awareness day – Equal Pay Day – should fall. With planning and forethought, the Fawcett Society can carry its idea across in editorial form. ‘Why now?’ Partly because a charitable foundation with some status has decided that is when the date should fall, but partly because of an inherent characteristic of the idea itself, neatly illustrated against the calendar.

At this point, I want to re-introduce John Cage’s musical composition, Organ2/ASLSP (As Slow as Possible), a work of conceptualism – a kind of postmodernism that inherits, rather than rejects, Modernist ideas. John Cage composed it in 1985 and adapted the piece for organ in 1987. He did not indicate a precise tempo for the piece; the title ‘As Slow as Possible’ refers to the only performance directions included in the score. While performances usually last between 20 and 70 minutes, the performance underway at the Sankt-Burchardi-Church in Halberstadt, Germany will continue for the next 618 years, having started in 2001. The John Cage Organ Foundation Halberstadt is staging it, funding the performance by selling plaques to commemorate each year it continues. Since a properly maintained pipe organ can hold a note indefinitely, the organ’s bellows keep the performance running all day and night in the medieval church. A single note can sound for years. The Cage composition focuses on stripping away the trimmings of any performance. No single performer or audience has the privilege of hearing the piece through to the end.

Still, the composer fills the piece with meaning for the ordinary visitor: it is a 639-year meditation on extra-human perception, forcing you to contemplate the vital components of any piece of music: the instrument; the auditory space around it; time and the duration of the piece; the audience’s own attention span; and the support of passionate Cage scholars, fans and the Foundation which is allowing the performance to run and run.

Halberstadt, St Burchardi Church, where John Cage’s Organ2/ASLSP is being played over 639 years.

It is a piece of public art. On days when the composition requires that the note changes, the church often attracts a large crowd and people around the world read news coverage of the performance. Today, 5 February 2022, is one such day – when the note that the organ has sustained since 5 September 2020 ends and a new one starts. This is the reason I have chosen today to make my own argument, that news and current affairs are – like John Cage’s ASLSP – essentially Modernist in their design and philosophy. Modernism remodelled the concept of time, leaving it vulnerable and uncertain, and turned ‘days’ and ‘years’ into empty concepts that can be exploited as vehicles for new ideas.

ASLSP’s form is typical of the Modernist turn in the 20th Century. Previously, the audience was expected to be taken on a journey or distinguish some kind of narrative in the melody and dynamics of a composition –  a symphony by Wagner or a sonata by Mahler or Bruckner, for example. Through dialectical motions, Classical compositions were able to point to a subject outside of the music itself – a narrative, a discovery, a beginning and an end. With Modernist composers, the music itself became the subject. Whether it was through repetition, atonality or other techniques the music gained a tactility and a form of its own. “Musical sound was no longer a temporally directed force that guided the ear forwards; it became a material object in itself,” Julian Wright explains in the introduction to Time on a Human Scale: Experiencing the Present in Europe, 1860-1930 (ed. Julian Wright and Allegra Fryxell, Proceedings of the British Academy 238, 2021).

The philosopher Julian Johnson describes the shift early on in the 20th century with reference to pioneering Modernist composers like Ravel and Debussy in his chapter in Time on a Human Scale, ‘Music and the Aesthetics of Appearing’. Crucially, after the turn of Modernism, music achieves an ability to enclose and resolve the tension between public and private life. Any listener’s encounter with music brings its own satisfaction, one that does not rely on being taken on the composer’s journey or guided by its narrative. It succeeds in giving the impression that there is an inherent quality to any moment, by its own virtue, not by virtue of that moment’s place as a chapter or page in a linear narrative. Ravel’s Jeux d’eau, for example, has “no point of arrival towards which the music strives, no drama, no narrative adventure of some heroic subject”  (Time on a Human Scale, p171). Johnson concludes:

“The listeners’ experience is shaped by the structural propositions of the music heard: plainchant does not structure time in the same way as Monteverdi; Debussy does not structure time in the same way as Beethoven”.  (Time on a Human Scale, p187)

A listener to Cage’s ASLSP is given an ironic and provocative twist on this new, Modernist idea. The composition tells audiences directly: throw away your preconceptions about time as a fact of nature, driving in a forward direction. Meditate instead on your own experience of it. This is in direct opposition to Schlegel on Beethoven’s Eroica, a typical Classical work: “never before was there a time so deeply, so directly and so exclusively directed towards the future as ours” (quoted in ‘In the Time of the Eroica’ in Beethoven and his World, ed. Scott Burnham, Michael P. Steinberg, Princeton University Press, 2000, p17). With the Halberstadt ASLSP, to enjoy it or take it seriously, it is asking you to begin with immediacy and perception and dismiss the idea of it as a complete piece. To expect linear time to realise a heroic, romantic narrative or any kind of meaning in the melody is impossible. The music is going to outlive the audience, literally. Instead, the light and shade of the private perception of time and duration is brought to the public sphere, for the audience to confront.

There is a link to literary Modernism too. Ulysses and The Waste Land, both published a century ago this year, captured “a day in the life” of their protagonist/subject. Like Modernist music, they collapsed the contradiction between private life and public life. Modernist prose often employs techniques that represent only the subject’s perception and immediate phenomena on the page, no higher, intersubjective narrative. The quality of the stream of consciousness – a term from the psychologist William James – takes no higher form than that fluid pace which the Modernists captured in their poetry and prose. What Modernist writers seemed to suggest was that human subjectivity and intersubjectivity could not impose any meaningful form onto the chaos and music of life. Time was represented just as it was experienced, “on a human scale” as Julian Wright and Allegra Fryxell describe it, and free from structural categories that culture and ‘intersubjectivity’ reduced it to. From a literary and historical perspective, challenging the Romantics, Joyce and Eliot filled their literature with allusions to the Classics, not to heal the broken present with a restoration of the past but to imply continuities between human experience in one past era and in our present one.

As in Modernist music, time is an expanse, not a line, “an infinitely varied but self-contained present,” as Johnson describes it in Time on a Human Scale (p172). The materiality of Debussy’s music is “the exploration of a temporal field experienced as an expanded present”, achieved with techniques like the whole-tone and pentatonic scale (Time on a Human Scale, p183).

Similarly, we have to consider that the grammar of news journalism is not the daily tempo we are led to experience, driven on by one day’s developments on the previous day’s news: a line. That is just an effect of the editorial cycle, the ‘structural proposition’ of a material newspaper landing on the doorstep or posted on the newsstand every morning. Temporality did not, to the Modernists, have such a fixed nature, it is more porous and pliable than that: an expanse, an empty plane. And, as such, the temporal logic of the news media does admit some negotiation. In other words, with some advance planning, you can hijack and pitch stories with a “news angle” where the ‘now’ is in dialogue with events in the distant past and neither the present nor the past have any privileges in human experience. ‘Days’ and ‘years’ can stand in for different ideas and values. All experience of time is riddled and no artifice – like news journalism – can obscure that. Those who manufacture the ‘why now’ will always be influential and the philosophical ideas of temporality we have inherited from Modernist thinkers help us to describe the way in which we inhabit our media ecosystem, structured by a barely-present palimpsest of linear time.

Abstract digital artwork by Giovanni Ussi

However, we now live in Meta-modernism. The Modernist design and philosophy of the news and current affairs media has already been superseded once by Postmodernism (which characterises the pop era from the 1960s onwards) and now by ‘Meta-modernism’, where Modernist and Postmodernist forms cohabit the same medium. In Postmodern aesthetics, what makes a spectacle ‘spectacular’ is the complex, interconnected set of factors that push and pull audiences one direction or another, rather than the spectacle itself. This postmodern principle characterised youth pop culture in the ‘60s – the spectacle draws its potence by defining the moment and preoccupying its audience, not the other way around. That goes part of the way towards describing how content works on social media: all that matters is that you are present for it. Content planning requires a careful balance of ‘stock’, the typical go-to content a content developer shares (‘Tonight’s Football schedule’), and ‘flow’, the content tailored to respond to online trends and real-time search data (‘What time does Arsenal vs. Leicester kick off?’). Meta-modernism broadly describes the disorientating experience of using social media now. Content on social and digital media combines meme with algorithm-driven innovations like the FYP/For You Page, the Trending bar, the News feed and the timeline. It leeches off what remains of traditional news – mastheads-as-brands – and TV/film media (whether through streaming or TV news or elsewhere), generating content through a combination of memes and clips that have been taken out of context.

One key difference between the ‘60s and today is that, rather than simply describing the spectacle, social media is where the spectacle takes place and where the audience is forced to dwell. Tech giants’ data is notoriously inaccessible to social scientists and psychological researchers seeking to test their hypotheses about the addictive quality of social media platforms – arguably, an unethical way to generate revenue from advertisers and marketing partners. There are lots of ways of characterising the nature of being on these platforms. For example, uncomplicated emotions feature strongly. If we were to describe the ‘structural proposition of time’ on social media, we would notice how it takes the commodified form of branded news. Users are (passively) ‘fed’ content, immobilised by the sensational promise of the present, while thumb scrolling through their ‘timeline’, remaining in physical contact, literally, with a continuous structure that represents ‘time’. Social media users are addicted to passing through linear time in constant pursuit of a commodified present and find it hard to escape from one ‘timeline’ to any other temporal proposition.

Media, technology, art and even the spatial organisation of human settlements all shape the ‘structural proposition’ of temporality and influence our behaviour in doing so. Modernism gave people the licence to understand time in a non-linear fashion. Daily life and time no longer had to assume the structure that best suited the hierarchical polity. A whole new diversity of temporal structures helped media and art to reconcile personal perception with public spectacle and represent individual experience. Romantic narratives formed from intersubjective experiences were confined to the peripheries of this artistic world. Beyond this, we have to understand social media’s appeal. It doesn’t try to reverse this transformation, but it does preoccupy people with trends and captivates people in a linear timeline on their own personal level. Without relying on social science, we can already see how algorithm-generated ‘trends’ reinforce new power structures in the digital media and technology ecosystem. These could potentially restore the power imbalances of past societies – the world of the imperial calendar and the temple festival cycles – and the top-down political hierarchies built into the organisation of temporality that went with them.

Sean Canty is a public relations consultant and ghost-writer living in South London. He plays drums, reads a lot of magazines and posts puns on Twitter. He studied Theological and Religious Studies at the University of Cambridge and is interested in learning more about the spatial qualities of time.


Further Reading

John Cage Organ Project

‘As Slow as Possible’ – Wikipedia

Wright, Julian, and Allegra Fryxell, eds. 2021. Time on a Human Scale: Experiencing the Present in Europe, 1860-1930. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Inferno (c.1520) - Anonymous

Hell: A Philosophical Update

Beliefs in Hell and the Apocalypse have perplexed (and vexed) humanity for centuries, including our own. Hell, contrary to what some might think, is not a medieval superstition that has been retired to its own purgatory, but is still alive and well. In fact, Pope Francis and the Vatican backtracked when media reports claimed the Pope was doubting Hell’s existence after his conversation with a journalist friend. Moreover, contemporary theologians still argue for its existence, while, of course, hell (and its demonic inhabitants) have been alive and well in the mass media for years.

Can philosophy finally put this archaic belief to rest? Let us consider the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Does his philosophical project offer clarification to those bewitched by the language of hell, thus liberating them from those eschatological fly-bottles?

First, a reiteration of the salient points from Wittgenstein’s later writings and why they matter—  and why questions about the language of hell are relevant both at the emotional and intellectual level.

Wittgenstein was a thinker engaged in what historian of ideas Arthur O. Lovejoy once called the modern revolt against dualism. As Tim Labron observed in his insightful study, Science and Religion in Wittgenstein’s Fly-Bottle, Wittgenstein in his later writings rejected Realism’s epistemological model of an existing independent reality ‘out there,’ separate from human language and logic, needing only to be decoded by investigating minds whether of a scientific, religious, or philosophical bent.

This anti-Realism, of course, has radical implications for religion; a theological realism that assumes that an independent Ultimate Reality—be it hell, heaven, or God—can be ‘discovered’ by theological minds independent of their forms of language is misconceived.  The terms and concepts of theology and religion operate within the rule matrices of particular language-games (embedded in broader cultural practices), not as mirrors of an external reality.

A rejection of theology as descriptive of a spiritual reality that is ‘out there’ (in imitation of the physical sciences that attempt to describe a material reality also ‘out there’) calls into question a fundamentalist theology that asserts that religious propositions refer to hell’s actual existence.

Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations offers useful critical tools for further examining this realist-literalist language of hell and apocalypse. He describes the power of linguistic images to emotionally control us:

A ‘picture’ held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably. [PI, Sec 115]

Traditional religious beliefs are stories told in the form of images and pictures. As the historian James Carse observed in his book The Religious Case against Belief, the major world religions all are founded on a rich tradition of poetic language. Furthermore, these religions all conceive of salvation as a challenging journey, unfolding like the plot of a novel.  It is no coincidence that notable apologists for Christianity, such as Dante, John Bunyan, and C.S. Lewis, all were skilled storytellers, while Buddhism too recounts powerful, gruesome, sagas about its particular vision of hell. Literary imagery and narrative drama have been at the heart of religion and theology for centuries. They populate its language-game’s universe.

Jonathan Edwards, in the spirit of St. Augustine and Dante, used vivid pictorial language in his famous— or infamous—1741 sermon, a dramatic narrative of sinners being dangled over the pit of hell, a horrifying intimation of an afterlife of unending torment (“…a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God…”).

Such literary tropes emotionally captivate; gripped by this imaginative language, believers think that such narratives offer a universal body of truth about the meaning of the afterlife, but, in reality, they are merely “bewitched” by its terrifying, emotionally charged pictorial images— trapped in the Wittgensteinian Fly-Bottle.

And applying the anti-foundationalism of the later Wittgenstein—that language-games do not point beyond themselves to some ultimate ‘grounding’ in the external world—Jonathan Edwards’ frightening sermonic language is nothing more than a glorified horror tale, the nucleus of the latest film script about the hellish supernatural.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, schoolteacher, c. 1922

The doctrine of hell has been vigorously defended by 21st Century theologians and scholars. Though their exegetical commentary disagrees over what hell is like, they all agree that it actually exists; and while some downplay the ‘hellfire’ imagery, all tacitly assume the literalist-realist assumption that their theological propositions about hell, instead of being only integral to their respective language-games, actually refer to things and events (e.g. sinners going to a real destination known as “Hell”). However, by the lights of Wittgenstein’s critique, theology’s language-game uses images and tropes—emotionally powerful ‘Hell-words’— to refer to an afterlife that does not exist outside of theology’s dramatic narrative.

 Bertrand Russell knew well that these emotionally charged theologies of hell can have unsettling ramifications that go well beyond conceptual confusions. In his discussion (pp.362–-363) in his History of Western Philosophy of the theology of the Elect,  which logically entailed the damnation to Hell of unbaptized infants, Russell observed that it was no wonder that succeeding generations, influenced by such a doctrine, were cruel and superstitious.

From Socrates onward, philosophy’s project of clear, critical thinking, following the argument where it leads, has invariably caused a tension with received beliefs and doctrines based on the uncritical acceptance of authority and tradition, which have been inexorably repeated to us down through the ages.

The language of hell, as well as its apocalyptic embellishments, is the quintessential example of the power of emotionally charged tradition to bewitch human emotions, which explains why this belief still lives, in some form or fashion, in the contemporary world.

Thomas White is a Wiley Journal contributing author, and a previous contributor to Undercurrent Philosophy, Aeon, The Philosopher’s Eye, and other journals. He is also a poet and speculative fiction writer whose work has appeared in print and online in Australia, Canada, the United States, and Great Britain. The Encyclopedia Britannica selected one of his previously published philosophical essays on Hannah Arendt, Adolph Eichmann, and the “Banality of Evil” for reprinting on its website, 

Further reading:

Why is there ‘Something Evil’ rather than ‘Nothing Evil’? Thomas White

The Question of Evil and the Non-human – Thomas White

Hell | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy  – C. P. Ragland