So the semester’s almost over and it marks the end of one of the most amazing courses I’ve had the opportunity to take at university so far. A brilliant 4 months of intense philosophy with one of the most brilliant and maverick professors here, and I feel like nothing I could say would do justice to everything that I’ve learnt thus far.
From Viktor Frankl, al-Ghazali and St Augustine to Descartes, Tolstoy and the daddy of them all, Friedrich Nietzsche, we’ve covered a little fraction of all the big names, just enough to get an idea of how they viewed life and the legacy they left behind for those who choose to adhere to their views.
Despite their big names and even bigger controversial ideas or reputations, what’s really surprising is that there’s one thing that plagues them all: philosophers always require you to CHOOSE, and make an either/or distinction between 2 opposites. It begs the question, why must that be the case? Utilitarianism or Kant-ianism, utopia or reality, faith or rationality: its either one or the other, but why? Why is it that an individual HAS to choose to adopt one specific extreme and not in any way be within the ambit of another?
I suppose it’s also quite relatable to the dischotomous bond shared by science and religion: either you’re a man or reason and science and objectivity or you’re a ‘mullah’, who believes in revelation and all the ‘irrationality’ of the scriptures. I don’t see how one can’t strike a balance between the two and maintain both positions. Ibn Khaldun certainly managed to do so, he transformed the realm of historiography, was one of the founders of sociology and a presursor to many of the ideas propounded by Adam Smith, Marx and Durkheim 5 centuries after his death. Yet, at the same time, he was a religious man, not a fundamentalist as we would call him today, but a man of firm faith who believed in prophetic wisdom and the omniscient power of the Divine.
The meaning of life is also another subject that’s dominated much of this course. It seems that the common conclusion between all the thinkers has been this: in order to find a ‘why’ for your existence, you must submit to the something larger than yourself.
Nietzsche talks about this in ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ when he describes that the TRUE philosopher is one that trailblazes through the terrain of thoughts, constantly risking himself and upholding a principle that goes beyond just the man; in a sense, this is the ubermensch. He also relates this to artists who become completely submissive to their creative side, they let themselves flow out in order to create something and do something that surpasses their own selves. Frankl discusses this as well in Man’s Search for Meaning, and that’s something I’ve already discussed before on here in detail.
But there is something that’s actually been bothering me, it has to do with Leo Tolstoy. He was an artist, in the true sense of the word, because his writing was his art. He’s written masterpieces, Anna Karenina and War and Peace and absolute tomes brimming with brilliance. Yet, it wasn’t enough for him, it didn’t quite add meaning to his life the way one would expect. In Confession, he admits that he did it simply to earn more money, garner more fame, etc. but surely it meant more to him than that? I find it really difficult to believe that a writer like Tolstoy could not find satisfactory prupose in his writing, and this puzzles me, because if it wasnt enough for Tolstoy, then what chance does someone like me have?
Sure, Tolstoy went through a great conversion, and became a preachy-preachy Orthodox Christian, and much of his writing was affected by his austere religious views, but his words have a point. If things like art and family are merely distractions that keep you from realising the true reason for your existence, then it’s a pretty miserable state we all live in because for most of us, those 2 things really are what life is all about.
Last but certainly not least: love. This topic was one that evoked A LOT of giggles in the class, but it’s one that is universal and truly about everyone. Many of us have Disney-inspired notions of love or we talk about love as if we really know what it’s all about, but in actuality, it’s something that’s completely beyond a layman’s comprehension.
For Frankl, love was the source of salvation; for St Augustine and Tolstoy, there was a difference in worldly love and divine love, with the latter outweighing the former; for Nietzsche, love is something a man could not do justice to, it is only a woman whose love is what love is meant to be.
We’ve all said ‘I love you’ at some point of our lives, but what we fail to realise is what we really mean is ‘I want to possess you’. This is not love as love should be.
‘I allow you to possess me’ is love. This is the selfless, the brave, the kamikaze, the absolutely absolute form of love that (if you listen to Nietzsche) only a woman can give. In the absence of such love, there is no submission, no passion of struggle, and certainly no greatness.