Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietsche, And Jaspers Essay, Research Paper
March 27, 2000
Trev, wake up!
Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Jaspers write of many important issues concerning our existence and society in general, but the one that interests me the most is the belief in the ignorance and stupidity of the majority of the human race. We are so narrow-minded, so asleep, so afraid of exploring ourselves and what is beyond this all-encompassing story we have created and in which we live (and ironically hate). These four philosophers all seem to see the big picture. Some wish they never had, others feel born again and superior to the rest of mankind. Regardless, until the entire world understands, there is no hope for man’s survival.
I will begin with Mr. Nietzsche who speaks with a very vicious and pointed attitude. He is quite angry with people in general for being shallow, for falling asleep to the cultural drone humming in the back of all our heads. It is so easy to live day-to-day like dead bodies, doing what you are told, working constantly to avoid thinking too much. (That’s why I love work!). We fear what is inside. We are afraid to exist as our souls and our minds. Society, science, and even academic philosophy avoid looking inward, or paradoxically, seeing the big picture. The entire world is putting us to sleep. They “attempt to understand this canvas and these colors, but not the image”(Nietzsche in Kaufman, 124). Only the true philosopher, the true understander of existence, can reveal that place where material can no longer corrupt you. There are so many obstacles (we refer to them as culture and custom) in this world that obstruct our path to higher consciousness where we will realize the oneness of everything and achieve conscious love. As soon as we realize we are all bubbles floating on the same ocean, we become completely free from these obstacles and have nothing to fear, not even death. This is heaven on earth.
Nietzsche recognized religion as perhaps the greatest obstacle of them all. It supposedly was created to help overcome all the other obstacles, but now further disorients us and almost leads us in the opposite direction. Interestingly, Nietzsche sees as the root of growing nihilism not societal or psychological corruption, but Christian interpretation. I’m not quite sure I understand this, but the way I see it is Christianity (along with many religions) – the one institution created to salvage and give meaning to life – is, through its current and growing hypocrisy, taking meaning away from life. Jesus was a great teacher. His key message was that if we love one another and do not allow ourselves to get caught up in the mundane aspects of life, we can achieve a higher level of being and find true happiness. Christianity developed out of Jesus’ teaching as a sort of stepping-stone to help people understand Jesus and get to the place he was talking about. Christianity is like a set of guidelines to lead us to higher consciousness. But we have made a complete mockery of Christ and his teaching. Christianity has lost sight of its original goal and become totally preoccupied with rules and regulations. We do not need religion; it is just here to help us. But instead of higher consciousness becoming the goal, religion is now the goal. As long as you follow the rules and regulations of the church, as long as you have faith, you are a good person. Wrong! You are a nihilist. In The Antichrist Nietzsche brutally attacks the priests and theologians who advocate this fictitious world of God, the devil, sin, redemption, free will, etc, which “falsifies, devalues, and negates reality” because we cannot stand the sight of it (Nietzsche, 533). The church has pronounced holy precisely what the Jesus the evangel felt to be beneath and behind himself (Nietzsche, 536). The kingdom of heaven is not a place we go after we die. It is a state of the heart and we can be there right now, here on earth, if we follow Jesus’ true message.
But what is Jesus’ true message? If nothing else it is to be yourself, love your neighbor, and avoid the crowd at all costs (nice segue, right?). Soren Kierkergaard has a big problem with “the crowd” of which so many humans seem to be a part. This mass of people existing in the state of consciousness called waking sleep is the wheels of our civilization yet have no thought of where they are going. Kierkegaard is awake, and therefore superior to everyone around him. His time was one of technological pioneering, society blindly moving forward looking for ways to make like easier. Many boarded the bandwagon of change, following the technological revolution for no good reason. Kierkegaard went out into the streets of Copenhagen and tried to trick people into seeing the truth by criticizing society when he had no right to, because he was a lunatic idler (in disguise, of course). His main problem with the crowd is that is a refuge for all who fear individuality and the decision-making that comes with it. He speaks repeatedly of how the journalist can write anything he wants (things he would never say speaking one-on-one with another person) and his words will touch thousands upon thousands of ears and be taken seriously, but because of the anonymity of both the author and the public reader, responsibility for things said can be totally avoided. The crowd is weakness. The crowd is untruth. Nietzsche says the same thing: people are afraid to look inward. They seek refuge from their minds in work and constant activity. Jesus would have no association with the crowd. Truth, individuality, and higher consciousness radiated from him. Jesus could only be “what He is, the truth, which relates itself to the individual”(Kierkegaard in Kaufman, 96). That is why so many feared Him, and still do. That is why he was killed.
Kierkegaard continues to explain why so many turn their backs on higher consciousness with his concept of dread. Dread is a feeling that befalls us when we realize potential or possibility in ourselves, when we learn something new that forces us to make a choice or decision, or simply to think in a new way. People fear freedom. They fear choice because once one is confronted with opportunity he is expected to take advantage of it. If you learn something that brings you out of ignorance you can never go back to living in that ignorant manner with a clean conscience because now you know better than to live like that. If you do not modify your existence based on what you have learned, you are looked down upon. Some people appreciate possibility (ie. of becoming less ignorant) because they are willing to change or they like the option to choose. Most people would much rather have never been told that the entire human race originated from a single population in Africa 200,000 years ago. They wallow in their ignorance and hate being pressured to change. The Underground Man must be the most amazing example of dread one could imagine. He is the manifestation of dread. His entire mind exists inside the realm of dread, and dread in the worst way. He is faced with an incredible amount of potential and opportunity because of his heightened consciousness yet more than anyone is unable to make the “qualitative leap” simply because he is drowning in choices, in freedom as it would seem.
Kierkegaard is also very concerned with what it means to become a Christian. What is the individual’s relationship to Christianity? He questions why anyone would base their eternal happiness on something about which they cannot be certain (like historical Christian documentation), but then goes on to say that faith and passion are certainty, and they are what make you a true Christian. By the end of Kierkegaard’s selection I have decided that he greatly admires the true Christian, but looks down upon religious doctrine in that it is a crutch for those who are not truly passionate about God. He raises the very important contrast between objective truth and subjective truth. Which is truer? A thing certainly is not true simply because you believe it is true, but I do believe that subjective truth is the more important of the two. There is more merit in the man who prays with entire passion to and idol than there is in the man who prays to the true God but with a false spirit. I have a great respect for passion, but infinite passion with no objective foundation does not work (like the example that blacks were born from the devil). Kierkegaard puts it best in saying “The truth is precisely the venture which chooses an objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite”(Kierkegarrd in Kaufman, 117). So it is a combination of the intellect and emotion that makes us a “true” Christian. This ties in with Nietzsche’s ideas of Christianity in that many so-called Christians strictly rely on the objective, exoteric aspects of religion for comfort and totally lack the passion required to become a true Christian. Kierkegaard is right. We are Christians as a matter of course (Kierkegaard in Kaufman, 120). Nearly everyone I know calls himself or herself a Christian, but I have met only two or three of them who took the title seriously and were truly passionate and had great faith. People are afraid, or maybe just unwilling, to take the risk. Passionately believing in something that is uncertain to you is dangerous. As civilization thrusts forward and reliance on reason and objective truths become more and more fundamental, our need for God to explain life continues to decrease. Hence, being a Christian with infinite passion in today’s world is both shameful and foolish. We have killed God, says Nietzsche.
I like Dostoevsky very much because I understand the though process of the Underground Man. Last year, in fact, I was sure I was on my way to becoming what I can now term the Underground Man (thanks to this class!). That was when I was overly conscious, hyper-aware, and very insecure. I was far from the state of the Underground Man, but surely in the initial stages of paranoid-schizophrenia! My thoughts seemed diseased. Not that consciousness itself was a disease, but that my heightened awareness was in some way poisoned. Thus I feel Dostoevsky (when I say Dostoevsky I am speaking of his Underground Man) is wrong to call consciousness a disease. His disgusting thoughts are not the product of higher consciousness but of a diseased mind. His thoughts are not normal; this is what I believe.
Dostoevsky admits right away that he is more intelligent than anyone else around him. However, he also admits that this is his downfall: an intelligent man is bound to be an essentially characterless creature, while a man of character, a man of action, is inevitably a limited creature (Dostoevsky in Kaufman, 4). So in one sense he looks down upon the stupid, unconscious, average man who exists without thinking, yet in the other he severely envies (to the point of loathing, he adds) the average man precisely because he is unconscious (his absence of excessive thought enables him to be a man of action). In rereading Notes from Underground I realize that Dostoevsky is an absolute genius. I am in awe at his depth of understanding of heightened consciousness. I will take his mouse example and apply it to myself. I, at one point, for about three years, thought too much. I became very self-conscious, analyzing everything I said and everything said to me. I became ashamed. I became immobile, and it was most acute when I smoked marijuana. I was so immobile when high that I was afraid to speak. I would want to converse and retort, felt compelled to, knew exactly when something should be said and what its content should be, but could not because I was surrounded by a “vileness in the form of questions and doubts . . .caught up in a fatal morass”(Dostoevsky in Kaufman, 11). And when I did speak, I crumbled, and my insecurity was revealed, and hence I thought of myself as worthless, a mouse. No one called me worthless but myself, but I was convinced that, objectively speaking, I was worthless. I was a person who did nothing, entertained nothing, and benefited no one in any way. Only God knows why I was alive. There are others in the world who are worthless but are not conscious of it. This puts me all the more at fault because I realize my worthlessness and therefore should be able to change. But I cannot change; it is impossible. Thanks to modern medicine, this is where I stop and the Underground Man picks up. He, realizing he cannot change himself, crawls into the black hole of despair and drowns himself in remembering every time he was humiliated. Then he drowns himself in his own sick feelings about himself. After many, many years he begins to accept his seriously flawed character. He takes pride in his disease and becomes masochistic. He defiles and degrades himself in the face of others, welcomes the “poison of unfulfilled desires turned inward,” and in the end feels a strange pleasure in it all.
Forgive my digression. I think the lesson Dostoevsky provides is ignorance is bliss. His alienation is accentuated by the social standards of his time. The decisive “man of action” is the one who achieves and becomes something. Unfortunately in this world, you need to think quick, act fast, and be sure in order to survive. You have to know how to live on the surface, to interact with others’ personalities (masks). Dostoevsky only knows how to exist as his internal being, his true being. Perhaps due to his lonely upbringing he never learned how to interact as the world interacts, on an external level. And since he could not do this he was alienated from the start, and continued to be alienated and to have his true self corrupted by mixing essence and persona with out distinguishing between the two, producing his current contorted being: a paranoid and a schizophrenic. You see, many people possess some degree of higher consciousness, but they also know how to interact on the level on which our society is founded – the level of the mundane. These people possess being (ability to act and choose) and knowledge (emotion, intellect) and are on their way to understanding (being awake). Dostoevsky possessed tremendous knowledge, but very little being. Therefore, he had understanding (and maybe had even reached the “self consciousness” level a step above the “awake” level) but it was manifested in a negative way because of his lack of being. (This is my best and final attempt at explaining Dostoevsky position!)
Carl Jaspers: the final chapter. Unlike our other three philosophers, Jaspers, at least as it appears to me, is less concerned with the specific. (He is much nicer also!) He tries to conceptualize and project consciousness and being in their broadest sense. He focuses less on the individual, the crowd, God, higher consciousness as a destination, and more on how these things exist inside and outside our consciousness. Jaspers’ story is the most complex yet, but fortunately he goes to great pains to explain himself. Still, I had a difficult time working through his philosophy, so bear with me.
We humans live and think in horizons, but the fact that we have horizons indicates there is something beyond them, surrounding the given horizon (Jaspers in Kaufman, 211). Jaspers now introduces the Encompassing, its two modes – Being itself and the Encompassing which we are – and the three manifestations of the latter mode: empirical existence, consciousness as such, and spirit. Jaspers makes a distinction between the consciousness of living beings and consciousness in general, or empirical existence versus the Encompassing of empirical existence (aka. Being itself, or existenz). He calls the first an actuality and the second an inactuality. Right now, as I think, I am conscious but enclosed in my own individuality. In my self-awareness I exist as only an actualization of truth, as a mere reflection of my true self. My existence, my conscious existence, that is, is a result of the intersection of timelessness with the temporal. This reminds me of two things: Kant’s noumena and phenomena, and the ocean analogy. Empirical existence sounds like Kant’s Phenomena in that it is the point at which non-physical things and ideas like life, consciousness, and the soul become objectively accessible to us. We grasp, analyze, and understand these things. Then we see past this place, where unknown meets the mind, to the unknown where we (and everything) exist in pure essence. This we cannot grasp. Another way to view the situation is that we are all bubbles on the surface of the ocean. Everyone comes from and returns to the same place: the ocean. Realizing this, we reach a higher level of consciousness similar to conscious love. So the way we exist normally (in the matrix, haha) is an Empirical existence as an indirect manifestation of our true selves (Being itself), in other words, as a reflection. We achieve consciousness as such when we realize these limitations of our consciousness, when we realize that nothing we see is in its true form, but rather something created from our own mind. Spirit is recognizing that everyone is everything because we are all part of the same whole (the ocean). “The individual as spirit is not himself, but the unity of contingent individuals and of the necessary universal”(Jaspers in Kaufman, 220). Kant hit a dead end and decided we will never be able to step outside our conscious to see things as they really are. Jaspers, however, takes us further. He says we can surpass the Encompassing which we are; we can become our genuine selves. We can Be, in the most fundamental yet most absolute way. This is existenz, where everything appears to everything else in its true form, as if one were looking down upon the Encompassing. This I achieve existenz through transcendence. “Transcendence is the power through which I am genuinely myself” (Jaspers in Kaufman, 219). Existenz is eternity in time. This is where no boundary of any sort can be found. This is where pure communication occurs. This is absolute truth. This is God. Existenz is experiencing the noumena.
Jaspers goes on to talk about reason and existenz being contingent upon one another, but I will not get into that. My interpretation of Jaspers is convoluted enough, and for that I apologize. If I had more time I would explain myself better. The bottom line for me is that Jaspers has combined the power of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche with his own and has explained quite convincingly that we can experience God, that there is hope for mankind, and it begins with paying a bit more attention. I can do that.
I was conscious once, but it was a bad sort of conscious, like Dostoevsky’s. I was in horror of the terrible thoughts passing thru my head. That’s when I was convinced I had a diseased mind. Prozac has nearly cured me of that poisoned consciousness, and I’m now beginning to see bits and pieces of the higher consciousness I think these philosophers understand. There is so much bull*censored* in this world (for example, why do we have first impressions?). That’s why I chose the theme of narrow-minded, sleeping humans. Because the way we live is ridiculous, and although I enjoy mundane life a great deal, I know existence runs much deeper than this, and I would like to know those depths and how to get there. What can man do? A hell of a lot. We have just been reading the question the wrong way.
Kaufman, Walter. “Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sarte”
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Notes from the Underground”