The New Birth – John Wesley

I’m taking a class at our church on John Wesley and am learning quite a bit. John Wesley was an ordained Anglican minister in England in the 1700s. The Methodist Church is founded upon John Wesley’s leadership despite the fact that he had never intended to create a new denomination.

I’ll write more about his history as I learn it.  For now, I’m making my way through a little book I found at the library called The New Birth.  It’s edited by Thomas C. Oden who has attempted to translate Wesley’s writing into modern English. Oden is considered to be the dominant figure in a movement called “paleo-orthodoxy”.  This is based on church teachings prior to the great schism of 1054.   It stresses the interpretations of the Bible in which both the East and West agreed and is supposedly an extremely conservative, non-denominational movement.   Oden claims a literalist understanding of the Bible is a modern theology and therefore rejects it.  He clearly isn’t conservative in the fundamentalist sense.  But that’s all I know about him.  It could be his translation of Wesley is a bit skewed because the book is now out of print, but I’m enjoying reading it.

The first sermon is “The New Birth”. Wesley says that the essential nature of the new birth is the great change that God works in the soul when he brings it into life – when he raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness.  What I find most interesting is this:

It is the change made in the whole soul by the almighty Spirit of God when it is “created in Christ Jesus”; when it is “made new in mind and spirit,” having “put on the new nature of God’s creating, which shows itself in the just and devout life called for by the truth”; when the love of the world is changed into the love of God, pride into humility, passion into meekness, hatred and malice into a sincere, tender, disinterested love for all of mankind.  In a word, it is that change in which the earthly, sensual, demeaned mind is transformed into the mind which was in Christ Jesus. This is the nature of the new birth.  So it is “with everyone who is born from spirit”.

Richard Rohr said that church denominations are very rarely built upon the teachings of mystics. He says the possible exceptions are George Fox (Society of Friends), Menno Simons (Mennonites) and John Wesley (Methodists).  Based on this sermon, Wesley certainly could have been a mystic!  It seems to me what Wesley is saying here is what all mystical gurus of all world religions teach – in order to see with the third eye, we must transcend the ego.  The New Birth is this new way of seeing through something other than our attachment to the ego (the demeaned mind).

I also find it interesting that he says that through New Birth, we gain a “disinterested love for all of mankind”.   A Course in Miracles frequently refers to the difference between a holy relationship and a special relationship.   A special relationship is based on the specific interests of egoic need – it maintains love for an individual based on what the other person can do for me.  Loving someone, because you are afraid of being alone, for instance, is based on self-interest.  The fear of being alone keeps you from being able to truly love the other.  Fear can show up in even more subtle ways, but it is always based on the self-interest of the ego.  This disinterested love perhaps points to something similar to what A Course in Miracles calls the Holy Relationship.

Another item of interest:

…all unholy temperaments are uneasy temperaments.  I speak not only of the volatile passions such as malice, hatred, envy, jealousy, and revenge.  They create enough of a present hell in our hearts.  I speak also of the softer passions, which may give a thousand times more pain than pleasure if not kept within due bounds. Even “hope” when “deferred” (and how often must this be the case!), “makes the heart sick” (Prov 13:12).

Hope when deferred makes the heart sick!  Proverbs. Of course!  This made me think of Camus and The Myth of Sisyphus, which I spent a lot of time with a few years back.  Camus tries to come up with a reason for people to live despite the hopelessness of the human condition.  Maybe what Camus was referring to wasn’t so much hope, as hope deferred?  I think we have had a tendency to misunderstand hope and faith. Deferred hope would say, "life isn’t how I want it to be now, but it will be one day."  But true hope and faith don’t make any demands on how things are.  They simply trust that all is as it should be – that all is right with the world despite appearances to the contrary.  Those contrary appearances are always based upon the perception of the ego, not the sight of the third eye.

Wesley says that the reason new birth is absolutely necessary is because it is the surest basis of happiness in this world.  He goes on to say, “as well as the world to come”.  But the primary focus is on happiness in this world, now.  The focus is not about achieving happiness in some distant place and time.

Wesley warns his followers not to tell those who seem intent on continuing their willful sinning that they cannot be born again.  Apparently, this was a popular teaching back in his day – that some were beyond “salvation”?  Wesley claims that anyone who tells someone else that they cannot be born again is showing them the way to hell in the name of charity, and that is not charitable at all.

Ran (1985)

Ran is the very first Akira Kurosawa film I ever saw. I borrowed it from the local library and have now seen it several times since. “Ran" means something like chaos and revolt and it is loosely based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, except Kurosawa gave his characters a history.

Ran is such an interesting story. It’s based around the same time period as Kagemusha, but is probably more fictionally based than historically based. A Great Warlord is getting very old and decides to divide his Kingdom between his three sons. All but one son is corrupt. Saburo is the youngest and is the most honest. He observes that Hidetora (the Great Lord) has ruled during a time of disloyalty so how can he expect his sons to be loyal? Hidetora takes this as disrespect and disloyalty and disowns him. Turns out Saburo was right. Hidetora’s sons turn against him.

Kurosawa once said “Hidetora is me”. Hidetora is in his 70s and losing his kingdom and Kurosawa is in his 70s, and losing his ability to get funding for his films. In 1970, his film Dodesukaden was a flop and bankrupted the company he had started with three other directors. Kurosawa actually tried to commit suicide. He survived, but by the time he made Ran, he was almost blind. Also, his wife died during production. Kurosawa had hoped to one day to be a mentor to young directors but was extremely disappointed in the lack of interest of the younger generation. It’s interesting that with Kurosawa’s attempt at suicide and his brother’s actual success, Kurosawa never allows his characters to commit suicide. They are condemned to live. Stephen Prince, who provides the commentary on the film, says Hidetora is condemned to live and cannot escape the Hell of eternal return. (Camus & Nietzsche?)

Prince also says that Saburo would have been the hero in an earlier Kurosawa film.  He has all the traits: defiance of tradition, non-conformity, fearless speaking out, and non-traditional behavior.    But Kurosawa stopped using heroes in his films after Red Beard.

Prince says the true warrior in the film is Lady Kayeda who holds a deep rage against Hidetora because she was married into the family which made her father and brothers relax, but Hidetora killed them anyway and took over their castle. Lady Kayeda lives to destroy the house of Ichimonji to avenge her family.

Lady Sue was also married to one of Hidetora’s sons and Hidetora killed them as well, putting out the eyes of Lady Sue’s brother in return for his life. But she doesn’t harbor rage. Instead, she embraced Buddhism which allowed her to forgive. Prince suggests that Kurosawa sees this as a valid way to transcend the cycle of violence that everyone else in the film is part of.  If others could be as sensitive to Lady Sue’s peace as Hidetora becomes in his older age, then perhaps the cycle could be ended. The problem is, they aren’t sensitive to it and Lady Sue becomes yet another victim of the cycle of violence.

Prince says the question Kurosawa repeatedly asks is why human beings kill one another. In his earlier films, he’d sentimentalize the killing. But in his later films, he stopped backing away from the horror and quit sentimentalizing. Killing is horrible and all technology has taught us is how to kill each other more successfully.

ACIM Lesson 228: God has condemned me not. No more do I.

God has condemned me not. No more do I.

My Father knows my holiness. Shall I deny His knowledge, and believe in what His knowledge makes impossible? Shall I accept as true what He proclaims as false? Or shall I take His Word for what I am, since He is my Creator, and the One Who knows the true condition of His Son?

Father, I was mistaken in myself, because I failed to realize the Source from which I came. I have not left that Source to enter in a body and to die. My holiness remains a part of me, as I am part of You. And my mistakes about myself are dreams. I let them go today. And I stand ready to receive Your Word alone for what I really am.

—————————————

I’ve been thinking a lot about the language in ACIM.  Had I read this during my Catholic days, I would have had such a completely different response to it because it’s all the same language.  Words like “my Father” evoked sentimental feeling in me then, not the automatic distrust it evokes now.  I suppose a lot of what I had automatically accepted has long since been put aside.

I don’t think I have any faith in a creator God anymore (at least the God that created the sky and the moon and the animals and plants, etc.) and have long since ceased to be concerned about the condemning, puppeteering God.  I don’t need convincing that god has not condemned me.

Yet, when reading Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, I recognized in Camus the lingering notion of this condemnation even though he had dismissed God, too.  Even if we get rid of God, we still have remnants of Original Sin brainwashed into our minds.   We distrust ourselves and our fellow man.  It is we who condemn and that still goes on all the time.

There’s the rub.  If we truly believed ourselves to be holy and one with our brothers and sisters, what would there be to condemn?   If someone attacks you, what is it they have done? Accept the attack and you’ve accepted condemnation. See the attack for what it is – a fear based reaction, and there is no need to accept it and no need to condemn.  You can look upon your “attacker” with love rather than mirroring his fear.

So what is this Source from which we came?   If time is an illusion, and the Holy Spirit merely uses it to help our understanding, then we never really came from anywhere.  We simply ARE.  I AM.   What judgment could possibly be real if something that doesn’t come into being and go out of being IS?

No Excuses: Lectures 10-13, Nietzsche

I watched Lectures 6-9 on Kierkegaard but didn’t take notes. (My apologies.) Skipping ahead to the lectures on Nietzsche…

Nietzsche defined nihilism as the highest values devaluing themselves. Judeo-Christianity and morality don’t give us values, they take them away. This is because the focus is on another world, one that is better than this one.

Nietzsche admired the Greeks before Socrates (pre-Socratics) like Heraclitus, Sophocles and Homer. These Greeks are at odds with Plato and Aristotle. Socrates invented the idea of the otherworld and Nietzsche claims this was because he hated life. This notion invented by Socrates created a Greek form of monism that shows up in post-Socratic Greece and also makes it’s way into Judeo-Christian monotheism and into the secular sciences and politics of the West. The focus is on the otherworldly and the belief that a single picture can tie all things together. Likewise, reason is often an escape from life – an escape to something otherworldly.

Nietzsche has an Epistemological Nihilism that is a rejection of what gives rise to skepticism and nihilism:

  • There is no truth.
  • There are many truths.
  • What we call truth is just our interpretation.
  • Rejects distinction between appearance and reality.

Perspectivism: We always see things from a particular perspective. For instance, science only gives us one perspective. It has all sorts of rigorous techniques to make sure we get the truth from that perspective. But whether or not science is the perspective we ought to take up is not itself a scientific question. You can’t just say to be scientific is to be rational because there is still the unanswered question – “Why should I be rational?”

Science itself accepts this. It deals in hypothesis and perspectives. The more perspectives we gain, the better. But the scientific perspective isn’t the only perspective. For Neitzsche, the aesthetic perspective is the one that always wins out.

The idea that the future will be like the past is an idea that has been defended by philosophers as one of the basic necessary beliefs which lies at the foundation of all possible knowledge (especially Kant). But Nietzsche, borrowing somewhat from Darwin’s Origin of the Species, doesn’t agree that the future will be like the past. What we believe to be utter necessity is really just a matter of contingency. What is true is what works in a certain context.

Nietzsche attacks Judeo-Christian morality for it’s emphasis on the otherworldly; for it’s cruelty; and for its hypocrisy. He also attacks the rational morality as defined by Kant. This was a general, universal, rational principle which is binding on all rational creatures. Nietzsche wants to know how universal principles of any form apply to all rational creatures? How can principals apply to everyone equally? Solomon gives the example of grading a class of students – whatever system adopted will be more advantageous to one group and less advantageous to another.

Nietzsche thinks love and respect are stretched so thin they no longer mean anything. Nietzsche doesn’t reject morality. He rejects a certain way of looking at morality. Nietzsche’s Moral Philosophy is a philosophy of virtue or character and it is not defined by rules, principles of good behavior, love or fear of God.

Nietzsche thinks that selfishness, on the one hand, and altruism on the other is a false dichotomy. The idea that we do the right thing and will be rewarded is false. The idea that virtue is it’s own reward was something both Nietzsche and Aristotle wanted to get rid of.

Consider this: Why don’t you lie?

Kant – lying is wrong

Mill – lying hurts people’s feelings. It makes you untrustworthy in the future.

Virtue – I’m not a liar. (Aristotle and Nietzsche)

Nietzsche says he is an immoralist not because he defends bad behavior but because he thinks we need to look at morality in a different way. Ethics for Nietzsche had everything to do with individual character.

What kind of person am I?

The energy we spend judging others is a sort of decadence, nihilism, and immorality. Therefore, Nietzsche finds virtuous people beautiful, not good.

Master Morality is the celebration of a pursuit of excellence.

  • focused on excellence
  • virtues are excellence
  • in pursuit of being a beautiful person, all virtues are taken into account

Slave morality is reactive morality

  • reactive – slaves
  • it is resentment
  • turns master values upside down
  • emphasizes self-denial, asceticism

To be good is not to have what the Masters have. The good is self-denial. We have lived through 2000 years of slave morality, but slavery has not been abolished. It’s simply been sublimated.

Nietzsche uses the analogy of birds of prey and lambs. Lambs want to know why the birds of prey have to be like they are. Why can’t they be more like lambs? That is slave morality. We are born with certain characteristics we can’t change. A bird of prey cannot be a lamb. This is our fate. In this sense, our love of fate is a virtue. There are things we can’t change about ourselves, but what we do with our talents, abilities, etc. is up to us.

This self-realization (an abused term) can be traced back to Aristotle: “Become who you are.” Aristotle talks about unity of virtues. Nietzsche talks about disunity of virtues. You have to choose which path you take. Self-actualization is turning yourself into something.

Willpower has been understood as the amount of resistance we can overcome. Schopenhauer (1788-1860) is the cranky pessimist who said:

  • Reality, or the world as it is, in itself, is something that we can experience.
  • We experience the will in ourselves.
  • The will is reality in itself.
  • The will is not individual, and not our own.

Kant said the will is bound by rationality. Schopenhauer disagreed. It is not bound by rationality, nor does it have an ultimate purpose. The purpose of the will is to continue the species. The purpose of continuing the species is to continue life. The purpose of continuing life? There is no purpose. This is a depressing picture that amounts to nothing. It’s the picture that influenced Camus and his Myth of Sisyphus. If we are just thrown about by forces within us, then what’s the point of life? Schopenhauer said there isn’t one. It’s the philosopher’s job to give us an escape and so he suggests Buddhism and aesthetic appreciation.

Nietzsche was impressed with Schopenhauer, but he rejected Schopenhauer’s pessimism. And, he says there is no thing “in itself”. When you get rid of the “thing in itself” we have to likewise get rid of the idea of mere appearances, too. Both Nietzsche and Schopenhauer rejected the notion of individual free will. Schopenhauer rejected it because it is “the will” and belongs to all of us. Nietzsche rejected it because the notion of free will depends on an imaginary sense of self. The self is always embedded, contextualized. It is indistinguishable from the culture, the world, of biology. To think we can be autonomous is illusory. Free will confuses causes and effects.

Most of the time we just do things. Nietzsche thinks consciousness if overrated. We are biological creatures and much of what we do is a matter of necessity. We spend far too much time judging and justifying.

Nietzsche’s idea of Eternal Recurrence harks back to ancient Greeks and ancient Hindus. It is a test of one’s own attitude toward life. The central question is whether you accept life itself – your life

Evolution doesn’t necessarily mean the best comes out on top. In the end, it might be the cockroach and the Gonorrhea bacteria fighting for survival. In the same sense, the evolution of humanity might create the Last Man. The Last Man is the ultimate middle class consumer. He has no aspirations. He is merely content, comfortable and satisfied. If we are evolving, what do we want to be? The Ubermensch or the Last Man? It’s the same thing as asking whether we want a Master Morality or a Slave Morality.

The Ubermensch is a mere possibility. Something to aspire for and dream about. It is a master morality spiritualized by 2000 years of slave morality. It is free of resentment. It makes fun of the “improvement of man”. You can’t change people. We have to work within the realm of what we are.

Will to Power is an idea borrowed from Schopenhauer’s “Will” (reality in itself – what’s behind all the appearances). Nietzsche rejected a reality behind appearances so the notion of Will in Schopenhauer is a notion Nietzsche thinks has to go. Solomon says “Will to Power” should probably go too, but it doesn’t. He defines it in this way:

  • Power does not refer to military power
  • Power is often the power of thought, imagination, and creativity
  • Power is not power over others, but self-mastery.

Self-mastery is the centerpiece of Nietzschean philosophy. “Will to Power” is basically a slogan that explains a motivation. What motivates us is a desire to feel power (ambiguously understood). It is opposed to the motivational theory of hedonism. Power can also be understood as self-esteem: not just feeling good about yourself, but feeling energized. “Will to Power” is the the opposite of resentment because people who are resentful hold others responsible for their problems rather than taking responsibility for their lives.

Nietzsche’s philosophy is a philosophy of passion and energy. The ultimate passion is the love of life, but not life as life. It’s love of your individual life – what you have done or are doing with it. Philosophy is the affirmation of life, not a means of escape.

No Excuses: Lectures 4-6, The Myth of Sisyphus, The Plague, The Fall

The idea that death makes life absurd is an idea that goes all the way back to the Ancient Greeks. What makes Sisyphus even more absurd is that he doesn’t die. He does the same thing over and over and over again. In Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, we are told that it is the vanity of vanities to expect our lives to add up to something in the end. All of our joys and achievements come to nothing in the end. So this idea of the absurd is also a Biblical notion.

It is natural for rational beings to ask “why”? But the problem is that when you provide an answer, there is another “why” waiting. The justification eventually runs out as does science. Our rational demands in an indifferent universe shows us that reason has problems. Also, reflection poisons experience.

We are supposed to imagine Sisyphus as an absurd hero because he takes on his task and maintains meaning through scorn and resentment. It’s a rebellion. A refusal to accept absurdity.

But there is a problem here. On the one hand, Camus says that life is worth living for life itself. But the reactive gesture and rejection is at odds with the idea of living life for life itself. It’s based on anger that the universe doesn’t meet our demands of it. Really, what Sisyphus’ passion amounts to is a desperation. It is true that in so far as you are wholly engaged in your life and you taste the experience that you have, that is the meaning. But once you elevate yourself to a philosophical level and start asking what is life’s meaning, there is no answer. It’s meaningless.

Sisyphus’ work gives him meaning, but he resents the gods who put him there – he resents his place in life. Nietzsche claims this way of giving meaning to life ultimately destroys itself.

Solomon asks: “What is the role of reason and reflection? How should we live if what we are supposed to do is somehow take philosophical charge of our lives? Can we be like Mersault in The Stranger where we simply throw ourselves back into our lives and resign ourselves to our fate?”

The Existentialists say “no”. That’s far too simple. Solomon says Camus realizes this is far too simple, too so comes at it in a totally different way in The Plague where he says we have to face the absurd together. How do we face the idea of death together? The idea becomes, “I rebel, therefore we all exist.” What we are rebelling from, primarily, is suicide and nihilism – especially philosophical suicide which is an attempt to deny the absurd by appealing to a God or an afterlife, or in defense of cruelty in the name of a future utopia.

Clamence in The Fall represents a really good man. He was a lawyer who willingly took on cases of indigent people who would not be able to pay him back. He was kind, courteous. He’s a lawyer which puts him in the middle of the justice system. As a lawyer, he is neither the judge nor the accused. But he comes to live in Amsterdam and calls himself a judge-penitent. Amsterdam is a city constructed of circles that could be said to resemble the circles of Hell and Clamence lives in the very center.

But how did he go from being an upstanding citizen to a judge-penitent? He turns all of his “good”actions around and sees them in terms of guilt. For instance, he helps a blind man cross the street and then doffs his hat to the man. He describes this gesture as selfish because the blind man can’t see it so really what he’s doing it for is to look good to those who can see it. But why would this be described as his primary motivation? If you have been doffing your hat all your life, it could easily be just a habitual action.

What Camus is trying to show is how easily we can undermine our own conceptions of ourselves. We can think too much about what it is we’ve done or haven’t done and that can be a huge problem. Clamence can’t accept himself. He can’t just say, “that’s the way I am”. All of his thinking lead to misery and guilt. It is often said that the unexamined life is not worth living. But is the examined life worth living? Clamence is very rational, but in a way, he is likewise irrational because he makes himself unhappy. He is proud which is the worst of the seven deadly sins. In Clamence, this pride is hubris because it is an arrogant pride. And wounded pride is the worst sort of self-righteousness.

In a way, what Clamence is doing is holding a mirror up for us. If this character can come to the conclusion that he is guilty, what does that say about us? The idea is that we are guilty by being human. We all find ourselves in a world of injustice and suffering and it makes us feel like we should do something about it but we know there is so much suffering and injustice that we can never possibly do enough.

There are some solutions to this. We could be like Mother Teresa who said she never thinks except in terms of the one person she is dealing with at the time. We can also turn away. What difference is my $1000 going to make anyway? People for a while overwhelmingly chose the later. What difference can I make? What Camus wanted to show is that this “compassion burnout” has been created by pride conflated with Christian self-righteousness.

Solomon says that Camus had intended to go to India to study Buddhism. He recognized the dichotomy he presents is too harsh. Buddhism teaches that reflection on your personal life will always inevitably break down, but the focus remains on a happy, compassionate life. The dichotomy doesn’t exist in Buddhism in the same way it does in the West.

The problem is, there are very few experiences that are just experience and very few reflections that aren’t about our experience. What do we do with this idea that there is experience on the one hand and lived experience on the other? The idea that somehow reflection vs. experience divides the world in a very harsh way. Is this division necessary?

Much of this thinking came about in the 18th Century through Rousseau (1712-1778). He presented the idea of the Noble Savage. People are basically good but society corrupts them. As they become more sophisticated and learn the language of good and evil, they become different -they become superficial, vain, and merely social beings. This is the transition from Mersault to Clamence. Mersault is not corrupted by society, but as soon as it gets its hands on him, Mersault is forced to rebel against the role they want to assign him. Clamence, on the other hand, totally takes on the role and this creates his “fall”.

So what do we do with this split? Is it necessary? And isn’t it kind of interesting that the West had completely ignored Buddhism up until Schopenhauer (1778 – 1860) presented his overly pessimistic views? Solomon says it was Herman Hesse in the 1900s who first started showing how Buddhist ideas could potentially resolve the split.

No Excuses: Lectures 2-3, The Stranger

Solomon says that The Stranger is not an examplar of the Existentialist stand point but what it does is provide a sort of thought experiment. It’s like a Rorschach test. Mersault is a blank screen so what you come away with from the novel says more about yourself than it does about Mersault. Solomon has been teaching for quite some time and says that in the 1960s, his students overwhelmingly saw Mersault as “cool”. Even heroic. But in the 1980s during the “go-go Regan years”, his students saw him as a “nerd” because he wasn’t taking advantage of the opportunities that came up for him.

Mersault: 1) doesn’t think; 2) doesn’t feel emotion; 3) has no morals; 4) has no ambitions; 5) has no response to love. What is meant by this isn’t just love as an emotional feeling. Love requires decision, commitment, a keen sense of self, and the ability to conceive of the self in terms of another. The only thing Mersault seems to appreciate is physical sensations, like the warmth of the sun or the smell of the ocean. But this is not an emotional experience.

Solomon says this is significant because philosophers often discuss thought and emotion as though they are two completely opposed matters. But the reality is that people often think without feeling and often feel without thought. If you don’t have emotion, what is there to think about?

Solomon says that Camus was likely influenced by Kafka’s The Trial (1925) where a man is arrested for no reason and is put to death never knowing what it is he has done. The implication is that we may think we are innocent, but to be human is to be guilty. Camus’ trial is very much in this same spirit. The trial turns Mersault into a human being, in part, because it shows him what it means to be guilty.

Camus is juxtaposing “lived experience” with reflection. Part 1 is about “lived experience”. Part 2 – is about being forced to reflect. Reflection very often interferes with lived experience and lived experience very often interferes with reflection/thought.

Rationality requires thought/thinking; the ability to anticipate consequences; and an adherence to cultural standards. (There is always a cultural, contextual consideration involved.) Emotions are intentional and contain rationality. In fact, what we call rationality is bounded by our emotions. The connection between reason and the emotions is very complicated. Emotions involve value. For instance, love is valued as positive, hatred is valued as negative. Emotions are about the self (which is not to say they are selfish or that they are just about the self.)

Reflection refers to something you see in a mirror. But it is also conceptual thought/contemplation. Philosophers have all too often collapsed these two notions into a loop. You go out of yourself and into yourself – but how can consciousness be the object of consciousness? Therefore, Hegel said you can only come to selfhood through the recognition of others and this is what Camus is showing with Mersault. He comes to selfhood only through the recognition of others. It’s not just the act of murder that is on trial, it is his entire life. What Mersault comes to recognize is that he is a self and that he is guilty.

In Chapter 1, he is innocent in the Genesis sense. He has not eaten of the tree of good and evil. He is completely unaware of the moral significance of what it is he has done. But just as Adam and Eve are chased out of the Garden of Eden because they disobeyed God, Mersault is cast out of his innocent, happy life through imprisonment. This is the stuff of original sin. We are aware people are suffering and we should do something but whatever it is we could do will never be enough. In this sense we are guilty by our humanity.

Camus tries to solve this by saying that it is quantity not quality that is important. We must be willing to open our mind to the indifference of the universe. Mersault does this and thereby dies a “Happy Death”.

Some of the questions from the lectures:

Have you ever met someone like Mersault? I don’t think so. He was completely strange to me.

To whom is Mersault a stranger? In what ways is he strange? Is this lifestyle attractive or appealing to you? Why or why not? He was strange to me. I think more importantly, he was a stranger to himself. His lifestyle is not at all attractive to me. I’m far too passionate. One of my favorite phrases used to be, “Well – shoot me for caring!” I don’t say that so much anymore. (I think my husband finally calmed me down a bit.)

Can a person live without caring? Does the idea of a life without passions sound attractive to you? Why or why not? I suppose someone could live a life without caring. But living a life without passions sounds incredibly dull to me. The passions (compassion) are what make life worth living!

Could a person literally live “for the moment” with no sense of past or future? I think so, but it wouldn’t look at all like Mersault’s life. The past, present, and future are all concurrent and I think you can live in the now within this awareness. But that is not the same thing as being carefree.

What is required to be the agent of one’s actions? Is causing something to happen sufficient? I think it requires a willingness to take responsibility for our actions. So no. Causing something to happen isn’t sufficient. We have to recognize that we have the ability to respond in any situation.

Do you believe that the self (and self-consciousness) arises only with the reflection and judgment of other people? I’m not sure. Maybe. I do believe it is true that we can only truly know ourselves by being able to see the other as “other”. By truly being able to see “the other”, we likewise are able to recognize our unity. That is why I think committed relationships are so important. We tend to see people through our own perceptions so don’t see them at all. Also, commitment makes us hang in there when someone starts seeing in us something we don’t want to see. Then again, “judge not lest ye be judged” – judgment defines the perceiver, not the perceived.

No Excuses: Lecture 1, Intro. to Existentialism

Solomon specifically focuses on Camus, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre in this series. He says he starts with Albert Camus because he is the easiest to understand and also captures the sensibility that represents existentialist thinking.

Solomon says the movement was best defined by Sartre (1905-1980) based on one of his very late interviews: “I have never ceased to believe that one is and one makes oneself of whatever is made of one.” In otherwords, we make ourselves. We are self-creation. This doesn’t mean we are free to do whatever it is we want. A good deal of life is not something we choose, but we still have the ability to make choices within those situations.

Existentialism is a movement that can’t easily be pinned down, but it does have 3 characteristics:

  1. The emphasis is on the individual.
  2. Passions are seen as important. To live is to live passionately.
  3. The concept of freedom is central, but is not understood in terms of politics or metaphysics. Rather, the focus is on the freedom of the individual to make choices and to take the consequences for those choices.

Often, freedom is associated with reason and slavery with the passions. But Existentialists do not accept this view. Hume said that reason is and ought to be the slave of passions. Passions are not the monsters they have been made out to be because without passion, life is meaningless. Existentialism says we should live our lives in terms of passion. Kierkegaard insists on passionate commitment and Nietzsche says it is up to us to discover our talents and to throw ourselves into those talents. But this is done within a balance of contingency and personal choice. (It does not mean we should just do whatever it is we want to do.)

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) made the famous statement, “I think, therefore I am.” His philosophy places the emphasis on thought and suggests existence is reliant upon thought. This is something the Existentialists reject. Nietzsche said that we never exist quite so much as when we are not thinking. The emphasis is also on “I am” (as a thinking person). The Existentialists saw this as far too simple. It’s not enough to simply be “thinking”. We don’t find out about who it is we are through reflection, we find out about ourselves by being engaged in the world.

From some of the questions that were asked at the end of the lesson:

What do you mean by the phrase “personal freedom”? What counts as “being free” for you? Personal freedom, for me, is most definitely about having the freedom to choose no matter the situation. It is really easy to willingly turn that freedom of choice over to others – authority figures, institutions, political systems, etc. without realizing that is what we have done. Being free, for me, is having the courage to make decisions for myself, even if those decisions are counter cultural and make people angry.

Do you believe in fate? What would this mean? If I were to introduce you to a very good fortune teller (who had an accuracy rate of over 95%) and she offered to tell you the outcome of your marriage or the date of your death, would you be willing to ask her? Why or why not? I wouldn’t ask her. Even if she had a 100% accuracy rate, I wouldn’t ask her. What would be the point of knowing the answer to something like that? I’d rather throw myself into the experience rather than being attached to an end result. I’ve been in a marriage that didn’t work and would be willing to go through it all again, even knowing with 100% certainty that it won’t work out. The experience was invaluable to me and so I’m grateful for it even though, in the end, it was a “failure”. I think I’d be giving up my personal freedom if I made the end result more important than the actual process. So why ask? Even if she’s 100% accurate. It doesn’t really matter.

At the end of “No Country for Old Men", when Chigurh is planning to kill Moss’s wife, she tells him he doesn’t have to do it. That he has no cause to kill her. He says, that’s what they all say, “You don’t have to do this”. She reinforces the point – he doesn’t. But he says he does have to do it because he gave his word to her husband (who is already dead and wouldn’t want his wife killed). From Chigurh’s perspective, perhaps it makes sense from a purely logical perspective (based on his warped reasoning), but not from a humane perspective.

He tells her the best he can do is offer her a coin toss. She has to call it and if she calls it right, she can live. But she refuses to call it. She’s not going to let him off the hook. He’s the one committing the violence and he has no cause to kill her. She’s not going to give up her personal freedom by allowing her life to be a matter of a coin toss. Chigurh says he got there the same way the quarter got there – so it’s all a matter of fate in one way or other. Which is true. She doesn’t have any control over the situation she is in. She can’t control whether Chigurh chooses to kill her or not. But she can insist that the power of personal choice is more important than fate by refusing to call the toss.