Our Contemporary Nihilism
The characteristic feature of the modern world is not just that many of us have a wider range of choices than ever before--choices about who to become, how to act, with whom to align ourselves. Rather, it is that when we find ourself confronted with these kinds of existential choices, we feel a lack of any genuine motivation to choose one over the others. The burden of choice is a peculiarly modern phenomenon. It proliferates in a world that no longer has any God or gods, nor even any sense of what is sacred and inviolable, to focus our understanding of what we are. It is not just that in earlier epochs one knew on what basis one's most fundamental existential choices were made: it is that the existential questions didn't even make sense.
To say that we live in a secular age in the modern West is to say that even religious believers face existential questions about how to live a life.
The idea that there is no reason to prefer any answer to any other is called nihilism, and Nietzsche thought this the better description of our current condition after the death of God. Nietzsche thought that nihilism was a great joy, since it frees us to live any life we choose, but many find it horrifying instead. As Dostoyevsky puts it, "If there is no God, then everything is permitted." Our view is that nihilism is every bit as closed-minded as fanaticism, and that neither is a sufficient ground on which to base a livable life.
The genuinely confident agent does not manufacture confidence, but receives it from the circumstances.
David Foster Wallace's Nihilism
What we hold sacred, he seems to be saying, is the ability to footnote our commitments--to qualify them, change them, and take them back. Our most sacred commitment, in other words, is the freedom to choose our commitments. And the freedom to unchoose them again, when that is what we choose to do.
The central challenge of the contemporary world, Wallace seems to think, is not just that we don't know how to live meaningful lives; it's that we don't even seem to be able to focus for very long on the question.
The pain of detox, like the hell of boredom, is sustainable only if one builds a wall around each moment. But the experience of doing so gives each moment a kind of vividness, of brilliance and sheen--indeed, a kind of "second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive"--that cannot be felt if we step outside the moment. When the pain or the boredom or the anger or the angst is so overwhelming that it seems as though one cannot live through it for even a second longer, when it is so unendurable that it seems to have transformed itself into the definition of a living hell, then that is the moment when one has no other choice but to build a wall around the present and live entirely in the Now. That is why crushing, crushing boredom is the key. For riding it out forces a choice, in Wallace's view, the choice of total misery or to turn all distractions mute and abide in the joy and gratitude of the eternal Present.
Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.
To control your thoughts about others, about the unpleasant features of the situation you are now in, about whatever it is at this very moment that is causing you unhappiness--to do this is difficult. It takes effort and will, and sometimes you simply can't manage. But it is a possibility, according to Wallace. And not just any possibility but the possibility; the saving possibility for modern life. "[M]ost days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently" at the situation, he tells us. That is the real lesson Wallace wants to get across: that the choice to experience the world as sacred and meaningful--to do so by dint of effort and will--is a choice that is within our power to make. It is a choice that takes strength and courage and persistence, of course; perhaps it takes even a kind of heroism. But it is possible, Wallace thinks. And more than that, it is necessary in the modern world.
In Wallace's Nietzschean view, we are the sole active agents in the universe, responsible for generating out of nothing whatever notion of the sacred and divine there can ever be.
The Homeric Greeks were open to the world in a way that we, who are skilled at introspection and who think of moods as private experiences, can barely comprehend. Instead of understanding themselves in terms of their inner experiences and beliefs, they saw themselves as beings swept up into public and shareable moods. For Homer, moods are important because they illuminate a shared situation: they manifest what matters most in the moment and in doing so draw people to perform heroic and passionate deeds. The gods are crucial to setting these moods, and different gods illuminate different, and even incompatible, ways a situation can matter. The best kind of life in Homer's world is to be in sync with the gods.
Homer's epic poems brought into focus a notion of arete, or excellence in life, that was at the center of the Greek understanding of human being. Excellence in the Greek sense involves neither the Christian notion of humility and love nor the Roman ideal of stoic adherence to one's duty. Instead, excellence in the Homeric world depends crucially on one's sense of gratitude and wonder.
To say that all men need the gods is to say, in part at least, that we are the kinds of beings who are at our best when we find ourselves acting in ways that we cannot--and ought not--entirely take credit for. The gods are whatever stands beyond us that requires our gratitude. A god, in Homer's terminology, is a mood that attunes us to what matters most in a situation, allowing us to respond appropriately without thinking.
The notion that blind luck determines the course of our lives leads quickly to the nihilistic idea that our lives have no meaning. Roman Stoicism is grandfather to the nihilism of the secular age.
When you have a highly honed skill, when you are in the zone, when your actions flow out of you rather than being generated by you, then you are acting at your best; these are shining moments in life, wondrous moments that require our gratitude. In those episodes of excellence, no matter the domain, Odysseus's voice should ring through our heads: "Be silent; curb your thoughts; do not ask questions. This is the work of the Olympians."
The Homeric Greeks had almost no sense of an inner life of the sort that seems so obvious to us. Dreams, feelings, and especially moods, for the Homeric Greeks, were not experienced as occurring in individual minds at all. Rather, moods were public and shared, and people felt themselves swept up in a shared mood like drops of water in a hurricane.
From Aeschylus to Augustine: Monotheism on the Rise
Think of the way Homer presents Odysseus. He is, by turns, father, king, and adventurer, each at the appropriate time. He is never in a situation in which he has to choose one world over another. Indeed, Homer's polytheism allows these multiple roles to coexist in one individual, without any sense that the conflicts among them must be reconciled. Aeschylus's monotheistic tendency to seek unity, by contrast, highlights the conflict that multiple roles can engender, and requires a satisfactory resolution of it in the culture.
The paradigms from different epochs are fundamentally incommensurate. They literally have no common measure on the basis of which they can be compared. What makes sense as a life worth aspiring to in one age might well be reviled in another. There could not have been saints in Homeric Greece, for example. At best there could have been weak people who let others walk all over them. Likewise, there could not have been Greek-style heroes in the Middle Ages. Such people would have been regarded as impulsive and irresponsible sinners. To be a saint or a hero is not just to behave a certain way; it is to be held up as worthy for doing so. The paradigmatic works of art for an age let certain ways of life shine forth. But in doing so they cover up what is worthy in other--radically different--ways of life. Temples, cathedrals, epics, plays, and other works of art focus and hold up to a culture what counts as a life worth aspiring to. Works of art in this sense do not represent something else--the way a photograph of one's children represents them. Indeed, Heidegger says explicitly that the temple "portrays nothing." Rather, works of art work; they gather practices together to focus and manifest a way of life. When works of art shine, they illuminate and glamorize a way of life, and all other things shine in their light. A work of art embodies the truth of its world.
As described in the Gospels, Jesus is a successful reconfigurer. Like a god, he let a new world be. In that new world people are defined by their inner desires and intentions, not their external actions. This is an important move away from Homeric responsiveness to the power of the shining gods, and also away from the Athenian sense of the importance of a culture's background practices dramatized by Aeschylus.
From Dante to Kant: The Attractions and Dangers of Autonomy
A crucial feature of the Enlightenment is that moods--insofar as they are discussed at all--are stripped of the central features that have characterized them in earlier epochs. Typically moods were public and shareable--one could catch the mood of fierce courage from being in the presence of Ares or Achilles, or one could catch the mood of agape from being in the presence of Jesus. But in our current Cartesian characterization of the individual as a subject, moods become private, inner states that are essentially unavailable to others.
In Kant's terminology, we are self-law-givers--"autonomous" agents who ought to act in accordance with the principles we set for ourselves. Nothing outside of us--no God or other force, no impulse, no revered text, no parental demand, custom, or state decree--can be that upon which we base our actions when we are acting at our best.
The danger of the Kantian position is that by making us entirely responsible for our actions we place in our own hands the question of what matters most. But the history of the last 150 years suggests that we are not the proper source for meaning in the world. The step is very short from the Kantian notion of the human being as a fully autonomous self to the Nietzschean notion of the human being as a free spirit who makes up whatever meanings he likes. Precisely because they are freely made up, however, meanings can also be freely taken back. Therefore, they have no authority over the maker.
Fanaticism, Polytheism, and Melville's "Evil Art"
To take seriously our moods--both our highest soaring joys and our deepest, darkest descents--to live in each of them as moody Ishmael can, to do this is to be open to the manifold truths our moods reveal. These truths are not final and permanent, they are not completed any more than is the mystery of the whale. But it is precisely because of their incompleteness that they are divine and true.
What Ahab hates most thoroughly is the idea that the universe might be inscrutable to the last; that ultimately there might be "naught beyond." He therefore holds desperately and passionately to the idea that there is an ultimate, final, and universal truth about how things are; that there is, in other words, a traditional kind of monotheistic God. This misguided passion for monotheism, the book reveals, is the most dangerous and deadly kind there is. Melville's genuine wickedness, in other words, consists in his portrayal of Ahab's monomaniacal monotheism as itself the incarnation of what the universe most abhors. By contrast with this wickedness, the book's spotlessness consists in the polytheistic alternative it offers instead.
At the center of Melville's understanding of the whale is the idea that there is no meaning to the universe hidden behind its surface events, that the surface events themselves--contradictory and mysterious and multiple as they may be--are nevertheless all the meaning there is. Ishmael's amazing strength is that he is able to live in these surface meanings and find a genuine range of joys and comforts there, without wishing they stood for something more. His polytheistic view finds in the communal rituals of daily life, contradictory and polysemic and plural as they are, the meanings that can drive away the drizzly November of the soul.
It is in this context that we can begin to understand Melville's bizarre prophecy, his call to lure back the gods of old. His current world is Ahab's world--a world in which the universe is a set of deep meanings we can strike through to with the strength of our autonomous will. Ahab is a combination of Kant's theory of human beings as autonomous selves and Dante's religious hope for eternal bliss. But these accounts, each unlivable on its own, are the worst kind of wickedness when brought together. They account for the "now egotistical sky" under which we live, and its inability to admit meaning beyond what our self-sufficient will can achieve. And they explain how we have chased away the gods of the earth, leaving only our "now unhaunted hill." It will take a "highly cultured, poetical nation" to lure back "the merry May-day gods of old": a nation of people who can find meaning in the rituals of their daily lives. The meaning they find will be unrepresentable in the sense both that there is nothing deep behind it and that it nevertheless will give us something beyond what we contribute ourselves. That is why the great Sperm Whale shall take the place of Zeus in the coming pantheon of gods. For the overpowering mystery of his blank, unrepresentable brow is what makes every ritual, if properly lived, a site of contentedness, joy, and meaning to wipe away the drizzly November of the soul.
Lives Worth Living In a Secular Age
Nietzsche said that the sacred is whatever it is in a culture at which one cannot laugh.
There are four points to notice about the sacred moments in sport.
In the truly extraordinary moments, something overwhelming occurs. It wells up and carries you along as on a powerful wave. The meaning they give is temporary.
This characteristic of the sacred as we experience it in our culture ties it very closely to the Homeric Greek conception of what is real. What there really is, for Homer, is whooshing up: the whooshing up of shining Achilles in the midst of battle, or of an overwhelming eroticism in the presence of a radiant stranger like Paris. These were the shining moments of reality in Homer's world. And whooshing up is what happens in the context of the great moment in contemporary sport as well. When something whooshes up it focuses and organizes everything around it.
The physis phenomenon is not unique to sport.
There is something inherently dangerous in the phenomenon we are describing.
Living well in our secular, nihilistic age requires the higher-order skill of recognizing when it's appropriate to let oneself be swept up and when it's appropriate to walk away--meta-poiesis.
Until about a hundred years ago, the cultivating and nurturing practices of poiesis organized a central way things mattered. The poietic style manifested itself, among other places, in the craftsman's skills for bringing things out at their best.
The achievement of skill involves substantially more than the mere acquisition of a physical ability. Learning a skill is learning to see the world differently. The task of the craftsman is not to generate the meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill for discerning the meanings that are already there. There is a kind of feedback loop between craftsman and craft: each jointly cultivates the other into a state of mutual understanding and respect. We have seen the name Aristotle gave to this dual cultivation of craftsman and craft. He called it poiesis.
To the extent that technology strips away the need for skill, it strips away the possibility of meaning as well. To have a skill is to know what counts or is worthwhile in a certain domain. Skills reveal meaningful differences to us and cultivate in us a sense of responsibility to bring these out at their best. To the extent that it takes away the need for skill, technology flattens out human life. As we lose our knowledge of craft, the world looks increasingly devoid of distinctions of worth. Flattened out along with this worldly loss of meaning is our understanding of ourselves. Moods of affection and reverence--born of close and skillful attention to distinctions of worth in a domain--are nearly lost to us. To aspire to a life that requires no skill to live it well is to embrace the flattened world of contemporary nihilism. The appropriate response to this danger is not to reject technology per se, but to accept individual technological advances while preserving the poietic practices that resist a technological way of life.
If we are to be human beings at all, we must distinguish ourselves from others; there must be moments when we rise up out of the generic and banal and into the particular and skillfully engaged.
Caring for the goods of a worthwhile domain and cultivating the skill for revealing meaningful distinctions within it are necessary for resisting the technological way of life. Whether a domain is worth caring about is determined by whether it appropriately elicits further and further meaningful involvement with it. Because there are no objective rules about this, one must constantly be open to the possibility that the domain to which one is drawn will reveal itself as too brutal or too trivial or too isolating or too dull or in some other way inappropriate for bringing out everything at its best. One must be prepared, as Helen was, to regret having been drawn into such a world and to allow oneself to be drawn to a more rich and meaningful one. This risk of regret is the risk associated with everything meaningful, a risk without which our lives would descend to meaninglessness and boredom, expressionlessness and angst.