What's It All About, Alfie?
The Meaning of Life
Is That All There Is?
There is nothing in the cosmos that gives us more pleasure than a cartoon that hits a philosophical idea right on the head. And this is one of them. In this cartoon, the prolific comedy writer and cartoonist Paul Noth pictures a God who not only embraces twentieth-century existentialism's absurdist point of view, he hopes to wring a few laughs out of it.
The question of the meaning of life is generally considered the biggest of the big philosophical questions. If there is no answer to this one, then asking any other philosophical questions seems kind of pointless.
Of course, in modern times, many analytic philosophers find the whole meaning-of-life question pretty silly. "Hey, what is the meaning of 'meaning,' bozo?" they ask. Good question, although there is something unseemly about being called "bozo" by an analytic philosopher.
The twentieth-century existentialists-especially Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Samuel Beckett-concluded that not only is life meaningless, it's absurd. It's all one big Cosmic Gag. The kind where you choke laughing.
Sartre says we humans, unlike things, have no "predetermined essence." There is no objective meaning to our lives, as there is to, say, an ashtray, which has a given reason to exist, namely, to hold ashes and butts. Of course, we could hold ashes and butts too, but for us it would be a choice-the choice to be a human ashtray. (You may be wondering why anyone would choose to be an ashtray. We aren't naming any names, but we do know this one guy-we'll call him Reggie-who chose to be a doormat.) But we could also choose to be something else: for example, a hippie or a tax lawyer. Sartre says that's because our existence "precedes our essence." We aren't handed life's meaning, so it's imperative that we choose it for ourselves.
That's the downside of Sartre's dictum, that we have to make a choice, even if we don't want to. So, on the one hand, we're perfectly free-great. But, on the other hand, we have no objective guidelines on how to use that freedom-yikes! Who can say for sure whether it's better to choose to be a hippie or a tax lawyer? And yet we must choose-and be responsible for that choice. Suddenly, we aren't feeling so good.
Without any objective guidelines, it's an arbitrary choice. That's ridiculous. In fact, it's absurd. Doesn't that mean our very existence is also absurd? Afraid so. But it's also absurd to think we're just another object in the world with a preprogrammed essence.
So, what the hell, some of the existentialists said, let's all just embrace the absurdity of it all and keep on dancing. In his seminal essay on absurdism, "The Myth of Sisyphus," Camus likened the human condition to the man in the Greek myth who spent his entire life pushing a rock up a hill only to have it roll down so he could start all over again. That doesn't sound a whole lot like party time. Yet, Camus concludes, "We must imagine Sisyphus happy."
Now that's really absurd.
The thinker who best captured the sense of existential absurdity was Samuel Beckett, particularly in his classic play Waiting for Godot. In that play, Didi and Gogo, the two vagabonds doing the waiting, spend the whole time not knowing who it is they are waiting for or why. Gogo cries out, "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful!"
But Didi says, "What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come."
You call that a blessing? Who the hell is Godot? And why does he never come? And how can we spend our entire lives in the vain hope that he will one day show up?
Well, says Gogo, "We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?"
But perhaps the most absurdist and despairing line in the play belongs to a third character, the brutal Pozzo, who says, "One day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more."
Yet, for some reason, the play makes us laugh. Try and figure.
Going for Broke
Dick Ericson's cartoon is a puzzler. Or, as a literary critic might say, "It is brimming with delightful ambiguities."
Is the doctor in the cartoon informing the patient that he is on the brink of death and there is only a small possibility that this last-chance pill will save him?
Or is the doctor telling the patient that the pill itself may very well be lethal, but taking it may be worth the risk?
In either event, things don't look very promising for the hapless patient. And if the latter interpretation is right, the patient is faced with a life-or-death decision, the ultimate risk.
When it comes to taking risks, especially the Big One, naturally we turn to the high priest of risk taking, Friedrich Nietzsche, the nineteenth-century German metaphysician and moral philosopher. In Friedrich's Weltanschauung (worldview), for people who want to live life to its fullest, who answer the call to be an †bermensch (superman), taking a life-or-death risk is the Katze's Pyjamas (cat's pajamas). Life just doesn't get any more real and vivid than that.
This is the philosopher who wrote: "The devotion of the greatest is to encounter risk and danger, and play dice for death."
Nietzsche also wrote: "What makes life 'worth living'?-The awareness that there is something for which one is ready to risk one's life."
In other words, if Nietzsche were to compose succeeding panels to Dick Ericson's cartoon, we would see the patient gobble down the pill, then strut around the doctor's office with his chest thrown out and a superior look on his face . . . before toppling over onto the floor, mausetot (dead as a doornail).
In Bradford Veley's wonderful cartoon, we begin to grasp the formative conditions that can lead a cold-blooded vertebrate with gills and fins to become either a pessimist or an optimist philosopher.
It turns out there is "pessimism," a personal attitude, and then there's "PESSIMISM," a philosophical worldview. But do we really care? They're both downers.
Yet, philosophical pessimism actually can be quite interesting, because it challenges conventional worldviews. And challenging conventional worldviews has always been a big part of the philosopher's job description.
One popular worldview (or Weltanschauung) that philosophical pessimism likes to challenge is the idea of progress, ongoing progress, even the so-called progress of evolution. And the big Weltanschauung that philosophical pessimism disses is the one that claims that human life has any meaningful value whatsoever.
There have been philosophical pessimists in virtually every major period of Western thought, from Heraclitus in ancient Greece to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in the nineteenth century to many existentialists in the twentieth century, especially Camus.
Arthur Schopenhauer's name is often the first to come to mind when we think of pessimism, but whether Schopenhauer's worldview is ultimately pessimistic is a tricky question. He did believe that human existence is insatiable striving, and that striving inevitably creates suffering. So far, he would seem to qualify for the title of pessimist. But, like the Buddhist sages whose work he read and loved, he also thought there was a way out: renunciation of all desire and the adoption of an attitude of resignation. Okay, it isn't Disney World, but he did call it a "way out," so we'll give him some points on the optimism side of the ledger.
Moreover-again like the Buddha-Schopenhauer found ultimate meaning in compassion: the realization of the suffering of others and the desire to alleviate it. Verdict: optimism! Okay, maybe just nonpessimism-but that's our last offer.
There are a number of other claimants to the title of pessimist, most of them sourpusses.
But not all. Two of our favorite philosophical pessimists are exceptions because they were very funny pessimists: the pre-Socratic sophist Gorgias and the nineteenth-century Italian essayist and aphorist Giacomo Leopardi. Both seemed to subscribe to the idea that as long as you're going to be a pessimist philosopher, you may as well have some fun with it. Why not leave 'em laughing? This may account for why these two are less well-known than the big-time grumblers, Rousseau and Schopenhauer.
Gorgias was a popular orator specializing in parody who traveled from town to town doing his shtick for paying audiences in a period predating HBO comedy specials (fourth century BCE). His relentless theme was total nihilism; he said absolutely nothing mattered because, in the end, nothing really existed. But he delivered his philosophical pessimism with wit. Snappy one-liners, like, "Being is unrecognizable unless it manages to seem, and seeming is feeble unless it manages to be."
Italian poet and philosopher Giacomo Taldegardo Francesco di Sales Saverio Pietro Leopardi (his jaunty nickname, "the hunchback of Recanati") was also a very wise wise-guy of pessimistic philosophy. In colorful poetry and prose, he lamented the mess that man-to say nothing of woman-had made of civilization, and he didn't see any improvement coming up. He got off such zingers as, "Children find everything in nothing; men find nothing in everything." And this gem, "In all climates, under all skies, man's happiness is always somewhere else."
Veley's fish with his nose in the air can relate.
All Things Considered, I'd Rather Be in Philadelphia
It's remarkable how many popular cartoons address the humdrumness of everyday life. Somehow, it must resonate with many of us. Heaven knows, this one by Dave Carpenter resonated us straight into melancholia.
For Martin Heidegger, the twentieth-century German existentialist and phenomenologist, the problem of "everydayness" was fundamental to his philosophy of "being-in-the-world." He saw us as "thrown" into the world without a clue of what we are doing here, so we cast about for a satisfying existence-what he calls a "project." Religion or some other ideology, including seeing everything through the eyes of objective science, often does the trick for that.
But inevitably, Heidegger says, we "fall" into the everydayness of conventional life, its morality, its customs, its chitchat about the passing scene-its Monday Night Football, its Blue Bloods reruns, tra-la, tra-la. In other words, we do not create our own project, we simply fall into one. And when we become conscious of our fall-like when we tweet about the actual goings-on of our everyday life-the old humdrums set in.
Viktor Frankl, a Viennese existentialist and psychotherapist, described a similar phenomenon in more down-to-earth terms in his magnum opus, Man's Search for Meaning. Wrote Frankl, "'Sunday neurosis' [is] that kind of depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest."
Happily, Frankl believed we could emerge from these Sunday blues by self-creating a meaning to our lives. He said man's greatest gift is the ability to "will meaning," and he set up a new school of psychotherapy-logotherapy-devoted to helping us determine meaning in our lives. Thanks, Viktor, we're feeling better already. Well, marginally.
Is It Now Yet?
The Philosophy of Time
Time Is a River- Watch Your Step
If you're still contemplating suicide after reading the last section, here's a little picker-upper-and it's about time.
Leave it to that wag Harley Schwadron to incorporate three philosophers-Parmenides, Heraclitus, and J. M. E. McTaggart-into a single cartoon meditation on the nature of time.
Using some fancy and fascinating logic, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Parmenides concluded that the One True Fact about the universe-and everything in it-is that it is permanent. Everything that is, always was and always will be.
For Parmenides, time was a logical impossibility. Time is the measure of change and motion. Both change and motion, he said, involve something passing out of existence and something new coming into existence in its place. But how can something come into existence? It must have been nothing before that. But "nothing" can't exist. If it did, it would be something, right? So, change and motion must be illusions, and without change and motion, there's no such thing as time. QED!
Enter the Father of Flux, Heraclitus, a contemporary of Parmenides (but then, to Parmenides, everyone was a contemporary). Heraclitus said the One True Fact about the cosmos is that it is always and endlessly changing. Nothing is permanent, like, say, a snowman on the verge of puddledom. The primary principle is flux.
When Heraclitus famously wrote that a man cannot step into the same river twice, he meant that the river just keeps rolling along, with new water sloshing by each moment. It is in constant flux. Some scholars believe he also meant that the river-stepping man himself is constantly changing too. That guy named Cleandros who stepped into the river yesterday is a different guy from the identical-looking Cleandros doing some foot dipping today, because humans, too, are in constant flux. In other words, it's not just snowmen who are fluid, so to speak.
The work of both Parmenides and Heraclitus has come down to us only in fragments, so we don't know exactly what either of them meant. Might Heraclitus agree that the snowman exists forever in some form: water, then water vapor? A carrot nose, then vegetable rot? If so, is that really inconsistent with Parmenides's idea that everything is permanent? Might modern scientists just say that both of them would accept the law of conservation of matter (for any system closed to all transfers of matter and energy, the mass of the system must remain constant over time)? It's hard to say, especially since that law wasn't formulated until a couple of millennia after both Parmenides and Heraclitus were particles of dust.
In the early twentieth century, British philosopher J. M. E. McTaggart reframed Parmenides's notion with an amusing twist. In "The Unreality of Time" McTaggart speculated that time isn't a flow from past to present to future. Rather, every moment of what we call the past, present, and future is, as Parmenides said, eternal. And time is just a construct we place on it. Or as Woody Allen put it, "Time is God's way of keeping everything from happening at once."
In any event, it seems unlikely that the loan officer's assessment of the snowman's creditworthiness is going to turn on what position he takes on the metaphysics of time. Loan officers just don't seem to get the practicality of philosophy.
Copyright © 2018 by Thomas Cathcart. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.