Love, life and the meaning of it all

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.


On teaching and preaching

I had a very interesting class today.  The course is called Foundations of Liberal Arts and its a philosophy course in the sense that we’ll be studying various renowned philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, al-Ghazali and Descartes to name a few) in order to learn and analyse what makes up “the true, the good and the beautiful.”

So anyways, we started off with along discussion about how nothing in this universe, including the universe itself, is necessary at all.  In fact, the universe was a mere POTENTIALITY that turned into ACTUALITY because of some sort of NECESSARY CONDITION.  This condition, we concluded, could either be pure chance, some necessary law/creator/force or the desire/will of the potentiality to grow into an actuality.  It must seem confusing right now but it was actuallyreally interesting.  This went on for a while, and we even got into alot of nitty gritties of science and physics and what all of it has to say about this.  Science, apparently, advcates that the universe was created due to pure chance.  In fact there’s even some really famous science-ish guy called Roger Penrose who calculated that the mathematical likelihood of the universe being created by pure chance is 1:10(to the power of)10(to the power of)123.  Its a really TINY number, very close to 0 but NOT 0.  Infact, I was taught today that the distance between this number and 0 is INFINITY. HOW? No idea!

Anyways, the discussion then moved on to the reading we had to do of Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and we talked a bit about how it was different from other narrative works mostly because Frankl was actually qualified as a psychiatrist to write about and analyse the concentration camps.  Experience clearly does make big difference when it comes to doing something well.  Which brings me to my main point.  Now I’m quite sure our professor is very well qualified to teach this course.  He has ALOT of degrees and has even written a few scholarly books.  Yet he himself said very straightforwardly that having degrees and such accolades does not give a teacher the right to impose any sort of thought pattern on any student in the class.  It does not make the instructor superior to the student in any way just because the teacher is..well, teaching.  And thus far, he was following his own advice pretty well.  Until today.

Somehow, and I have no idea how, while discussing the Holocaust, he suddenly paused and started talking in very Islamic terms that what happened to the “Bani-Israel” would happen to the Muslims.  In other words, he was saying that the Holocaust that the Jews went through is what Muslims will have to undergo in the future, that there will be a Muslim Holocaust.  Now the professor is a pious man, he dresses modestly, and maintains a long beard which is indicative of his faith and never before has he tried to talk about it to the students.  And, certainly, there ARE definitely signs of a Muslim Holocaust happening, I do not deny it, but what he did next really confused me.  He started to quote Quranic verses to support what he had just said and stated that this was expressly for the Muslims in the class.  Fair enough.  But what I did not understand was how the recitation of Quranic verses and in any way linked to the Holocaust and Victor Frankl’s narration of what he went through.  I do not know if the rest of the class was perplexed as I was, but no one was really saying anything.  So I decided to raise my hand and ask how any of this was relevant to what we had just read.  I was really not expecting the poor reaction I got from the professor.

He responded by getting very worked up and saying that depending on the degree of my faith as a Muslim, it would vary in its relevancy.  That people with high devotion and piety will find the link to the reading more relevant than maybe I would.  First of all, this was insulting.  I may not be as religious as the professor or even some of the hijab-wearing girls in class (whom I have respect for, rather than any sort of negative feelings), but how does that give him the right to say to me that becuase my faith may not be as strong, I may not care about there being a Muslim Holocaust as much.  Furthermore, this is the same professor that vowed to not impose his own beliefs and thoughts in the classroom.  So why and how do the recitation of Quranic verses help anyone else in the class except him?  He would recite the Quranic verse and then translate it and look around the room to see if anyone else understood, repeatedly asking, “Anyone? Really? No one?”  Does that not sort of imply that he is letting his own piety come in the way of his instruction, by expecting a few, even one student to know the translation of the Quran?

I guess he sensed my annoyance and probably found me rude, which is why he asked to speak to me after class.  He spent 5 minutes telling me he couldn’t answer my question properly because it would start off the debate on how many Muslims believe that the Holocaust is just a made up story and never really happened.  Fair enough.  Then he became defensive about quoting the Quranic verses and told me they were probably more relevant scientifically than any Marxist or feminist theory I may have learnt.  Excuse me?  Just because I questioned you in class about your teaching, that makes me a Marxist AND a feminist?  No one has to make any apologies about quoting the Quran and I myself agree it holds alot of scientific value than plenty of other theoretical works but that is no reason to insult a student’s views and theories.

We may not all be as good of Muslims as he is but what right does that give him to judge us, to judge me?  This is just while studying the work of relatively secular Victor Frankl, what happens when we get to the more religiously charged al-Ghazali material?  I was told this course was about learning of “the true, the good, and the beautiful”.  How is predicting a Muslim Holocaust and then telling a student it does not apply to her because she’s not Muslim enough fit that description in any way at all?