Herd Morality & the Philosophical Problem of Suicide

*This was written on August 4th, 2018.

Since there hasn’t been much activity within our cordial guild recently, I’ve decided to stoke the fire a bit by producing some type of post. I must admit this post will probably not be a fully formed but instead will be a compendium of thoughts and unanswered questions. Furthermore, I probably won’t spend much time editing it. What I believe is important for myself (and maybe us) at this moment is that we proceed despite the apparent busyness that consumes most of our lives. Like many, I fear producing something that is far from perfect and may contain some form of error. Yet this is the risk we take when we write (and live for that matter), and if I waited until I produced a perfectly logical argument, then I should probably go ahead and roll over and die (a little dark foreshadowing here). So, with that being said, I will proceed to share a few thoughts, explorations, and problems that have been both troubling and liberating me in the past few weeks.

Camus and the Philosophical Problem of Suicide

Just a few days ago I read Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus for the first time. Thanks to an outstanding citizen of this guild who let me borrow it of course. Like all existential writers, Camus’ writing seems to resonate deeply with me. It leaves one somewhat melancholy yet deeply hopeful. The existentialists have a way of smashing your worldview into bits and then offering you a glimmer hope from the rubble. Yet I feel as if that faint glimmer surrounded by darkness was always present within me as if it wasn’t something that the reading of Camus necessarily created. Instead, it seems Camus was able to put into words the deep feeling of existential anxiety already present. Unlike the positivists, the existentialist aren’t just critical of all knowledge that is not “scientific,” they’re critical of even that. Another aspect of what differentiates them from the positivists is that the existentialists are concerned with the most important questions regarding one’s individual existence, as opposed to only questions regarding the age of rocks (here’s a reference to William Jennings Bryan’s comment at the Scopes Monkey trail–“The Rock of Ages is more important that the age of rocks!”).

If you’re not familiar with Camus (pronounced “Camoo”), his writing is riddled with epistemological doubt. After pondering the nature of existence, he concludes that it is remarkably absurd. Those deep desires for accomplishment, meaning, and order confront a world that is starkly problematic, meaningless, and without order. This dissonance he calls, once again, absurd. If you don’t remember anything about Camus, remember that he thinks pretty much everything is…you guessed it–absurd. After beginning his eloquent treatise, he proceeds to quickly argue that we can know very little in this life outside of two fundamental facts: 1) that you exist 2) that you will die. From there, Camus proceeds to answer what he believes is the most important question within philosophy: Is life worth living? Should one choose to live or to end one’s life? While Camus establishes a very minimal foundation for what one can truly know, he seems to somehow insert hope into this dismal picture through the individual’s personal choice to create meaning with one’s life despite its inherent meaninglessness. What’s interesting is that I recently met up with a gentleman that used the phrase “After existentialism, light…” on his own blog. Although I’m not exactly sure what he meant by this, I do know that he wrote it after reading the Myth of Sisyphus, and that it functions to describe the essence of what existentialism seems to be–a journey into darkness.

For some that journey in and back out of darkness into one’s existential choice of created meaning is not enough. One may ask: is this all there really is? Is it really just about one’s choice and pursuit of meaning? Some find that this falls short. Here I’m reminded of Dostoyevsky’s violent struggle to comprehend the existence of God. It’s something to the extent of; I cannot know God exits yet He must existence because I need him to exist. And here lies another existential choice–faith in God. Before we jump to the choice of faith, maybe we should spend more time exploring the choice for life itself and personal created meaning that Camus refers to.

          Schleiermacher & Dogmatics

Existentialists like Camus become more appealing to me as I gain a greater understanding of the vastness of Christian theology and its diversity accompanied by the historical realities of its effects on the world. Honestly, it’s difficult to not seriously study church history without being at least humbled regarding the certainty of one’s theology and tradition. No ideology or tradition is safe from history’s cold LED lights. Yet the idea of just choosing a path and following it seems much less substantial at times than all the groups who fight for a position at the top of the theological totem pole. They’re all engaged in dogmatics; there always ready for a fight. Once they determine the boundaries of their theology, it’s game on. I’m often guilty of this myself. As soon as I hear someone espouse a perspective diametrically opposed to mine, I’m listening carefully with the intention of critiquing the other vantage point. All of this seems to be occurring while being tempted by the great German religious Romantic. He (Schleiermacher) suggests that myself and my opponents are just standing from different “vantage points” of the Infinite and Eternal. These vantagepoints must be concrete since we’re within different communities and are vastly different individuals with immensely dissimilar experiences and tendencies. He whispers, “religion is the Whole” while I work to quickly construct arguments to protect my own theological position. Honestly, when I’m constructing these dogmatic arguments and responses I never hear Schleiermacher’s voice. It’s not until afterward when I reflect on the conversation I begin to consider the weight of his propositions. Now I’m beginning to realize that this all just sounds a lot like the laments of a very confused student of Christianity.

          Existentialism & Art

Like Dostoyevsky, I find myself banging my head against the wall at times (metaphorically speaking of course) until I’m in a similar position. There’s no way I can know if God truly exists, but I have to choose to have faith that God must exist because in a way my life requires it–because I believe life itself requires it. Without Him, we’re left with individuals trying to create meaning out of material matter like kids in a sandbox. What’s even worse is, like children, we have the inherent capacity to hurt one another. So now we’re children crafting meaning out of a dirty sandbox while trying our best to “behave” without parental oversight. Yes, there’s art, which both Camus and Nietzsche seem to heavily emphasize. Yet, if all we have in life is art then we’re simply one small step north of nihilism. Radiohead can only provide me with a brief melancholy solace and not much more. I cannot imagine art sustaining one against the suffering, anxiety, and malevolence often inherent in life.

            On Being a Recovering Fundamentalist 

In my musings I often imagine someone asking me why I read people like Camus or Nietzsche (more on him later). Why would I read something that seems inherently anti-Christian or detrimental to Christian faith or even faith in life itself? I’m not sure I have a good “Christian” answer for this question. I do know that these two individuals deal is brutal honestly when it comes to what can truly know. They pull no punches and say what we all would probably say if we spent enough time thinking about these issues as they did. These authors can often function as a crucible of faith making one’s faith purer in light of the modern and post-modern critique. Some of us have the option of remaining in ignorance from these critiques, yet those of us who wish to submerge ourselves in literature and education must adequately address them. At this moment in my own life, I’m doing my best to listen and not only defend my views in order to hear what needs to be heard. Sometimes you have to suspend judgement, which often harder than it sounds. In a way I’m a recovering fundamentalist so I need a little grace in this area.  Without this conscience effort, I become like many Christian apologists who simply read people like Camus and Nietzsche to find fault and nothing else. They engage with these great thinkers with a 10-foot pole. This intellectual disease has been exacerbated in the information age where people don’t even take the time to read the great thinkers themselves, instead they just read what some else tweeted about that person who probably has never even read or studied them seriously. Since I’m beginning to rant once again, I’ll stop here.

Nietzsche and Christian “Herd Morality”  

As some of you are aware, I’ve become quite fond of Nietzsche. You may find this interesting since he is often considered, and rightly so, Christianity’s greatest critic. Yet, I find in Nietzsche a masculine virility and an abrasive courage in the pursuit of truth. Furthermore, Nietzsche is probably the most politically incorrect modern philosopher, which I find quite entertaining and refreshing. In the most recent work I’ve read, Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche vigorously attacks the foundations of Western philosophy in brief biting rants—chiefly against Christianity of course. Although it’s easy to dismiss Nietzsche as a mentally unstable, sexist, and potentially tyrannical philosopher, the attacks that he hurls at Christianity should nonetheless be heard. So, in an effort to be semper discentes, I’m going to hurl one of Nietzsche’s critiques to this guild to see what each of you think of the gentleman with arguably the greatest mustache of all Western philosophy.

When Nietzsche speaks of Christianity, he sees it as parasitic and insidious for two reasons. First, is what he calls slave morality or herd morality. As Nietzsche scanned history he noticed that the chief sources of Christian doctrine came essentially from Jews and slaves or Jews who were slaves. These individuals were poor, weak, and without status or power. Yet out of this powerless community comes a theology that venerates and celebrates the position that the community itself was in. As the poor and weak Jews and Christians began to envy their rich and powerful Roman oppressors, they created a faith that venerates weakness, poverty, and ostracization while at the same time demonizes power, strength, position, and wealth. Nietzsche sees this as extremely problematic because it limits those individuals who have the unique ability to achieve and are destined for greatness. Here he often refers to Napoleon and Caesar as exemplars of this type of individual. In Nietzsche’s mind this slave or “herd morality” led to the downfall of the Roman Empire and to the Christianization of the Western world. Now those exceptional individuals who exhibit strong leadership and an ability to change the world for the better must struggle against a church that envies their power and condemns their pursuit of a better world. The second reason (among many others) Nietzsche deems Christianity as despicable is because of its obsession with the other-worldly. In his mind, Nietzsche sees Christians as getting in the way of mankind’s evolution because of their refusal to work towards making “this life” a better. Christians go around seeking to proselytize everyone and make them content with their current station in life instead of seeking to change the world to create a better life. Now many others have raised this specific critique, but Nietzsche’s seems to draw blood because of his biting rhetoric. In both of these critiques, Nietzsche envisions the early Christians as creating a morality that elevates and venerates their own position in the world while encouraging apathy towards this life. They are using their position to bring down those who they envy for their strength, power, and wealth; those individuals who would possibly be mankind’s salvation.

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