In the 1800s, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a passage that has since become famous in which he proclaimed "the death of God." Although he is generally condemned for the assertion, people generally misunderstand his point; for Nietzsche, the death of God was not a celebration of a theological event but a lamentation over a historical event. Faith in God was dead, and the consequences were, for Nietzsche, horrifying:
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!" -- As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? -- Thus they yelled and laughed.
The Gay Science
~ Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche's realization was obvious enough: The death of God would be catastrophic. For most of human history, faith in God- called by whatever name- had been central to everyday existence: God created the world; God set the laws of nature in motion; God determined right and wrong; God gave a moral context to human action, and therefore, a moral value to human action. And this pattern was universal: It was as much the case in Oriental cultures as in European cultures, and in every other culture as well. Moreover, much of the order we enjoy in the world today stems from a traditional worldview rooted in religion, again, called by whatever name.
However, all of that began to change in the 19th and 20th centuries when religious skepticism and philosophical nihilism began to sweet through Europe, and through European conquest, the rest of the world. This trend. largely the consequence of resentment towards old world power structures- and thus, towards the underlying religious foundation of old world power structures- began to rip the foundation of civilization out from under it. Slowly but surely, a system of human organization that had lasted for millennia began to decay. Nietzsche saw it before anybody else, and was rightly terrified.
The consequences, though complex and far-reaching, were simple enough in concept: When the concept of God was removed from society, so too would be a number of related concepts that human beings required in order to function with one another, such as virtue, love, and sacrifice. These concepts were so bound up in religion that the death of God was tantamount to the death of all these things- and then what would replace them? Nobody had an answer, because indeed nobody had asked the question yet. But soon enough, the world learned the truth as materialism rushed to take the place of God in the form of two competing systems: capitalism and communism.
Neither of these systems had a spiritual center. The result was that although both of these materialist systems grew in strength, the void at the center of the human being grew larger as well. We are a meaning-seeking species: Religion had given context to the human desire for meaning and mission- and now that context had begun to slowly fade into the background. Consequently, the world began to suffer from what Émile Durkheim referred to as anomie in his book Suicide, a condition of "derangement" and "insatiable will" resulting from social-moral upheaval and a subsequent sense of nihilism.
Today, we see something similar in the form of sky-rocketing rates of psychiatric disorders of any and all kinds, not to mention a number of related social ills- single-mother homes, drug and alcohol addiction, and mass incarceration, to name but a few. All of these social sicknesses, in some fashion or another, are influenced by anomie, and by a general lack of moral-religious context to human behavior. And that is in no way a defense of any particular moral-religious system; it is merely an acknowledgement of the research-supported fact that human beings are religious creatures. So really, there is only one solution to the problem: the revitalization of a sense of meaning and mission in the modern world.
There can be no greater message for those that feel lost, confused, or despondent: The path out of nihilism is the rekindling of purpose. When life has purpose, we can find our way; when life is left without purpose, we rarely bother- or we despair when our solutions continue to fail, which only perpetuates a vicious cycle of depression and self-destruction. But there is a way out of darkness: We must find our mission, and we must find a meaning that justifies that mission.
When our mission has been found, it justifies all our trials and tribulations: pain, hardship, suffering- we find redemption in it all. For the great mission gives them meaning; the great mission gives them purpose. Then we may be reborn from them, brighter and stronger than before.
There is no phoenix without the fire.
~ Joshua van Asakinda
The pursuit of fulfillment has been the focus of philosophy from the very beginning. It was Socrates who first argued that all men seek "happiness," though translation can be misleading. After all, the Greek word commonly translated as "happiness" is eudaemonia (εὐδαίμων), which literally means "nobility of spirit," and which is not at all the same meaning as the English word "happiness." We generally think of "happiness" in binary terms: "happiness" as opposed to "suffering." But this is not at all what Socrates was talking about.
And so it is for this reason that we will discuss fulfillment- a far more specific concept- rather than "happiness."
So, according to philosophers- or at least, those of the early Socratic tradition-, all men seek fulfillment. And at first glance, that may sound ridiculous. Was Hitler seeking "fulfillment?" Stalin seeking "fulfillment?" These are difficult questions. Because it is easier to believe that certain men are inherently evil than it is to believe that all men share in a singular humanity, however far they have wandered from it. How are we to believe that drug dealers and rapists and child sex traffickers are somehow seeking "fulfillment?"
For what it is worth, I am a Buddhist. A teacher once told me that within every individual- no matter how evil!- there is a seed of Awakening, what a Catholic might call the Imago Dei, the Image of God. As the Bible says, "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him." (Genesis 1:27, KJV) And so although this seed- this Image of God- may be so deeply buried that it may never flourish, still there it is. So the question is not, "Do we all seek fulfillment?" We certainly do. No, the question is, "What is it that prevents us from realizing the fulfillment we all seek?"
How is it that some of us go so far astray?
There are two answers to this question, one religious and one practical. We will skim past the religious answer- not because it is not important but simply because this is not a blog about religion- and discuss the practical answer in depth. Still, the religious answer provides an excellent metaphor for the practical answer, and so its value cannot be overestimated.
And so, the religious answer:
The true nature within us is buried by craving, what in the Hindu-Buddhist tradition is referred to as klesa- that is, a "stain" or "defilement"- and what in the Judeo-Christian tradition is referred to as sin- that is, a kind of corruption, though the words in Hebrew and in Greek both literally mean "to miss the mark." In Buddhism, this occurs because of our cravings, what we might call the passions. And these cravings corrupt what is pure within us, and result in all of our happiness and suffering in this world. Because truth is ultimately beyond happiness and suffering; the truth is something else entirely.
And now, for the practical answer, which is two-fold:
First, although we all seek fulfillment, we are led astray by our cravings, by our passions- that is, by our attachments to material things. These attachments result in us being pulled in countless directions, and we find ourselves weak, confused, and despondent; we find ourselves distracted and fragmented. Tragically, no matter how much we satisfy these passions, they are never conquered; no matter how much we eat, or drink, still before long we find ourselves hungry, and thirsty- and that goes for every other material pleasure as well: money, glory, power. No matter the pleasure, the story is always the same, and its conclusion is always empty of meaning.
Furthermore, few of us really know ourselves. The axiom gnothi seauton (γνῶθι σεαυτόν) was written across the door at Delphi: "Know thyself." Few of us know ourselves, and so few of us really know what it is that really fulfills us, or what cravings hide within us that prevent us from realizing that fulfillment. In most cases, this lack of self-knowledge results in boredom, frustration, and nihilism; in some rare cases, however, it results in the kind of monsters discussed earlier. History has no shortage of examples illustrating the dangers of passion run amok.
And so the practical answer must address both of these problems: It must address the fixations that creep about in the subconscious mind, and it must address that most people really do not know themselves at all. Because it is when we do not know what we want that we fall prey to craving. We are a meaning-seeking species; without a positive goal, we will accept a negative goal. But we do require a goal. And that goal must give context to our lives as social creatures.
In fact, research has shown that even drug addiction is linked to a lack of meaning: Rats removed from their families will choose drugs over food, while rats allowed to remain with their families do not. This is why Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is so successful in spite of the modern psychological paradigm's lack of ability to explain its success. The fact is that we all desire purpose in our lives. And that is, ultimately, the secret to fulfillment: We all need a mission, and that mission needs to have a meaning beyond ourselves.
~ Joshua van Asakinda
Writer. Genius. Madman.