"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Nihilist In An Activist World

Leo Tolstoy was a nihilist.  His recounting of the French excuse for Napoleon’s loss at the Battle of Borodino – he had a bad cold and couldn’t think straight – is a cheap shot at the French but also a serious statement of determinism.  Every decision made by Napoleon, Kutuzov, Bagration, Murat, or any of the other protagonists in the Napoleonic Wars was determined by centuries of both random and purposeful events knocking about like billiard balls.

The fact that Napoleon thought he was acting according to free will was just whistlin’ Dixie.  His political ambitions, rise to power, and military savvy had nothing to do with the man himself, but with the minor and major players of history including, of course, his valet who forgot to pack his gumboots. 

Tolstoy went so far as to postulate that the ranks of the army are the real engines for world history.  It was the conscripts who turned tail at Austerlitz when the battle could have been won, but who later fought heroically at Borodino.  Their hunger, discontent, wet clothes, disaffection, longing for home, or idealistic dreams of patriotism all contributed more to military success or failure than the leadership of any officer.  

Dostoevsky creates a funny, ironic Devil to confront Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov.  The Devil says that if God had created a perfectly good world, everyone would fall asleep.  Life would be boring.  “Be honest”, he says. “Isn’t evil a lot more fun?”

Dostoevsky was in good company.  Shakespeare’s Iago had no real reason to destroy Othello. Goneril, Regan, Lady Macbeth, and scores of other nihilist characters go about their nasty business with nary a second thought.  Shakespeare knew that the only worth of the individual in a cyclical world was the expression of will and power.

Ibsen created some of literature’s best known villains – women who challenge the status quo and rise above the common bourgeois morality of the times.  Strindberg’s Laura in The Father is the archetype of a woman who refuses to be dominated or manipulated by anyone.  Life is no more than a repetitious and boring cycle, so one has to stay at the apogee of the circle.

It is hard to believe, even with most cursory glimpse at the predictable revolutions of history, that there is either any such thing as free will or that individual actions count for much at all. It is even harder to believe that the world is evolving towards goodness.

The children’s story Chicken Little is one of my favorites. It tells of Chicken Little who believes that the sky is falling because an acorn has fallen on her head.  No one can disabuse her of the notion that the sky is falling and that all the animals are doomed.

Chicken Little likes to walk in the woods. She likes to look at the trees. She likes to smell the flowers. She likes to listen to the birds singing. One day while she is walking an acorn falls from a tree, and hits the top of her little head.

“My, oh, my, the sky is falling. I must run and tell the lion about it”, says Chicken Little and begins to run. She runs and runs. By and by she meets the hen.

“Where are you going?”, asks the hen.

“Oh, Henny Penny, the sky is falling and I am going to the lion to tell him about it.”

“How do you know it?”, asks Henny Penny.

“It hit me on the head, so I know it must be so”, says Chicken Little.

Chicken Little

And on it goes. Stupid Chicken Little and her credulous followers get snookered by Foxey Loxey, go with him into his den and are properly eaten.

Nowadays there are plenty of Chicken Littles around. There are the environmentalists who say that the world will soon turn into a desiccated clump of sage brush and sand unless we do something now.  There are the pacifists and nuclear disarmament preachers who are convinced that a nuclear holocaust is right around the corner.  The public health advocates are convinced that Ebola will soon wash onto our shores or float from Liberia in an airborne form and destroy us all.  Friends of the Bay want to stop overfishing of the Rockfish and Chesapeake Bay oysters or else they will disappear.  Friends of the Rain Forest are certain that the worlds lungs – the tropical rainforests – are becoming smaller and smaller due to human greed and depredation.

A friend of my son’s who went to a very liberal Quaker School had the temerity to stand up for nihilism in a class on Environment and Human Activity.  After listening patiently to speaker after speaker vilify ‘Man’ for his arrogant and brutal rape of the planet, he raised his hand and said, “Man is part of the environment, not independent of it”.

Of course he was right.  Man kills oysters, Bubonic Plague kills people. Man chops down trees. Earthquakes swallow him up.  Man builds tall buildings, heats and cools them, the climate heats up, Man is destroyed, roaches take over. 

The catcalls, raspberries, and whistles were surprising for Barclay Friends School; and after Mr. Filbert, the science teacher, restored calm, he turned to the nihilist student, arched an eyebrow, and said, “Now where did you get that idea?”

I have a liberal activist friend of mine – environment, peace, nuclear disarmament, women, etc.-  who continues to hector me for my political indifference. “But you could make such a difference”, he says. “Get your nose out of Tolstoy and Schopenhauer and help out.”

Now, he is as aware as I am of the arguments of the Russians, Milton, Aquinas, Augustine, Sartre, and the Deconstructionists all of whom have a hard time squaring history with sanguine ideas of progress, good with the persistence of evil, or meaning in face of the random banging of cosmic billiard balls.

Levin, one of the main characters in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has struggled with these questions for many years and in his youth was as nihilist as they come.  When his wife thanks him on behalf of the peasants involved in the agricultural reforms on his property, he tells her that her compliments were irrelevant.  He wants to make money, and if the serfs benefit, so much the better.

As he grew older, however, he was not satisfied with this laissez-faire approach to life, but was not about to convert to religion.  In the last line of the book Levin says:

I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it.

Doing good was the only way to make sense out of a predictable, deterministic life. I believe my activist friend had arrived in the same place.

Nietzsche on the other hand refused to take life lying down like Levin, and postulated that only through the expression of pure will can one validate one’s humanity and rise above the herd.  Few of us are Supermen, and most are like Tolstoy’s Levin.

My faith in nihilism – if that’s what you can possibly call a belief in nothing – is so far unshakeable.  I have resisted the calls of my activist friends, never signed up for active duty with any cause, and to be honest, I am far more preoccupied with my own short destiny and the final extinction than I am saving anyone or anything else.

Pfuhl, a general in the service of Tsar Alexander in the war against Napoleon in 1812 was a typical German – a good man, but so enslaved to logic and the purity of his theories, that he rejects empiricism entirely.  He is was as happy with military failure as he was with success because failure could only have resulted from a deviation from his theories, thus proving them.  As my son’s second grade teacher yelled at him once, “You hardheaded, boy.  Hardheaded.”

I hope I am not like Pfuhl, locked in a chamber of logic until it is too late.  Pigheaded, and unable to give a little. Dostoevsky in A Confession told of his religious epiphany. After decades of logical exegesis, historical inquiry, and intellectual slavishness, he still had no answers.  One day he woke up and realized that millions of people alive today and billions of people throughout history put logic aside and embraced faith.  Maybe that’s all there is to it, Dostoevsky said.  Stop thinking so much.

Of course, a leopard can’t change his spots, and after his epiphany Dostoevsky went on to write The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Brothers Karamazov, two novels where the ultimate questions of life, death, and meaning are again raised.  But his heart was in the right place.

At this point, however, I can’t help but taking a continued dispassionate, disengaged, and disinterested approach to human events which, as Shakespeare noted, keep happening in the same, predictable, and inevitable ways.  Human nature, he said, was responsible; and unless someone changes that, we will continue to suit up and head for Jerusalem.

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