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Freedom and Meaning in an Age of Godlessness

Posted on December 7, 2019 — 15 Minutes Read

Hardly is there any surprise that there is a sequel to The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, considering its close-to-life writing style that is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining, and its personal sharing and remarks that evidently touch many most at heart, for otherwise it would not make a New York Times bestseller. This sequel is evident of the growth and progress that Mark Manson has accomplished since his first book. Detailed footnotes are provided at the end of his second book, Everything is F*cked, to give credit to the thoughts and findings that are the result of meticulous studies of others. Research is cited for a closer examination of the methodologies and the hidden premises should the readers have doubts. The multiplicity of the writings and research cited and the multiplicity of the thoughts and ideas narrated testify to the amount of time and work Mark invested in his second publication.

Destruction of the Hope–Despair Dichotomy by Amor Fati

Situated in this day and age of an undeniable sense of hopelessness and nihilism despite the material success, this sequel is divided into two parts. The first of which builds upon the notion of perspectivism, that dates as far back to the Monadology of the 18th-century German logician, mathematician and philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and is lifted to its full height and colour by the thoughts and writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, a 19th-century German philosopher and cultural critic who exerted a profound influence on modern intellectual and philosophical development. Mark employed this throughout his first book for the presentation of a perspective of living and happiness that are contrary to the beliefs of some, and now in his second venture, to unveil the destructive side of hope, and to advocate for a destruction of the entire hope–despair dichotomy by a notion of amor fati, that is the unconditional embrace and acceptance of the good and evil of one’s journey, as a response to the modern crisis of hopelessness. Mark then presented in the second part of the book a value system, that is rid of the hope–despair dichotomy and as such its inherent destructiveness, and is grounded instead on humanity, which he believes to be of timeless and universal virtues and principles, that ascribe unconditional values to those who perceive them, based on his reading of the second formulation of the categorical imperative, of the thoughts and writings of the 18th-century philosopher and the central figure in modern philosophy, Immanuel Kant.

Meaning and Value Grounded in Situated Emotion and Experience

Bold and well-read, there are however a couple of crucial flaws that render Mark’s project untenable. Hope, in the narration of his book, refers roughly to our inherent and evolutionary desire to pursue and enact a particular set of values, which in another perspective means to forgo those that are deemed as inferior, in a process that between groups of different value systems results inevitably in conflicts and destruction. A universal value system that is able to withstand the test of time, be it of the doctrine of God or of science, or of a set of virtues or principles formulated by either a sublimation of the instrument of logic or any other ahistorical and acultural means, as Mark reads of Kant, is nonetheless unattainable for as Mark affirms in the first part of the book, that we ascribe values and meanings to emotions generated by our experiences. These experiences are, needless to say, historically and culturally situated, that people of different history and culture will not share the same sets of situated experiences, not to mention the emotions thus generated and the values and meanings subsequently ascribed. Paradoxical it would seem then that if Mark is right in his diagnosis of the problem of this day and age, the purpose and the influence of his project are in doubt. One with a keen mind will note that one experience at least common to those who are reading this and perhaps the book as well, is the reading itself which Mark may reason as the common experience that may, with a bit of hope in full irony, induce an emotion and a subsequent value and meaning, that will serve as the starting point of the conversion, to the universal religion of humanity that he envisions. Doubtful is however the impact of words and of one casual reading despite its charm and wittiness, relative to the narrative of values and meanings constructed on the various experiences for each in their journeys.

Humanity in Enlightenment

The Formula of Humanity, that Mark reads of the second formulation of the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant, has also one crucial flaw, that results in notions that are no less problematic than those before his project, which one with studies in philosophy and command of reductio ad absurdum, will be inclined to pose questions regarding the validity and the attainability of his proposition, and this is not the problem with its strict adherence to universalisability that are well identified by many. Beginning as early as the 17th century with the publication of Principia Mathematica by Sir Isaac Newton, the Enlightenment gifted the world the scientific method as well as countless wonders and accomplishments. One of which is the emergence of the consequentialist value system, dating as far back to the hedonism of Epicurus, that affirms value in happiness or pleasure, which in light of the scientific method was developed into Utilitarianism, with a commitment to pleasure as the highest good and the one and single value, and a distinctive feature of impartiality and agent-neutrality.

Men on a Misguided Conception of a Means–End Distinction

Traditional ontologico-ethical thesis of this kind commits nonetheless to a concealed and unexamined premise, unbeknown to most at the time and still to some today, that men are objects of introspection, and mistake instances of our possibilities for the defining character and the meaning for one to be. These instances of possibility may be of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, developing the goodness innate of human nature, or of acting in accordance with logos for it is the unique human faculty. In fact the possibility could well be to devote oneself to a doctrine of salvation and redemption, or to amass personal gains by means that may be inexcusable and condemnable. This misguided notion of men as objects of introspection leads thinkers and philosophers past, to import the means–end distinction for an interpretation of men, as means to certain external ends. Ontological conception of men in this direction results in consequential ethics, with the most prominent of which born in the Enlightenment as Utilitarianism, that reduces men in service of certain purposes beyond. Philosophical dichotomy of any kind often promises opposition and it is no exception with men in the paradigm of a means–end distinction. As a result there arises the contrasting formulation, that men are ends in themselves with therefore intrinsic value. This direction of the ontological conception of men leads to deontological ethics, with the Kantian doctrine being most prominent, that affirms the value within with no regard to the choices and the actions of one.

Problems with Men in the Paradigm of a Means–End Distinction

Philosophy aims to transcend common understanding, yet it becomes problematic if its assertions are in distinct opposition with the intuition many find most at heart. This view of men in either construction is precisely in dissent with that intuition, for otherwise men are either rid of any value and are reduced to mere instruments for some purposes beyond, or are warranted of a value regardless, which would align one who commits crimes of a colossal magnitude, with one who contributes to the flourishing of mankind. Rejection against both views may be reasoned within even this misconstruct of men as means or ends, by further importing the distinction between the two forms of means, which are identified apart as early as in the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, one of the most influential ancient Greek philosophers, and is cleared and disclosed in the exegesis by the 20th-century New Zealand classical scholar, Leonard Hugh Graham Greenwood. Means, Aristotle reasons, may be of either a constitutive or a determinative character of its end. In which case it is in the form of an internal or constitutive means to its end with a logical dependency between the two. For means however that is of logical independence to its end, the means is denoted as external means, that is to the fullest extent instrumental. Despite the ontological conception of men in direction of consequential ethics, reduces it in service of certain ends beyond, for no ends are to be attained without the means of men, one may argue that men in such case, are constitutive means that they are in service of. This allows men to derive a notion of value from that which they are constitutive instruments to, and renders both views of men as either means or ends as problematic as the other. One with command of reductio ad absurdum will be inclined to reexamine the concealed presupposition beneath this philosophical construct, in light of the troubling assertions. Attempting to ground value, in the rise of the scientific method, and the death of God and with it the fall of a universal and spiritual value, in men who are capable of its bestowment and ascription, regardless of the choices and actions of one for as long as these are conscious wills, as Mark holds in the book, is as such infeasible and unattainable.

Men as Dasein and Being-toward-Death

It is peculiar that there seems to be none, before Martin Heidegger, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, who recognises that all of these instances of the possibilities of men, demand an ontological presupposition that suggests men are of possibility and potentiality. The lack of treatment of whose thoughts and writings as such constitutes perhaps the most critical shortcoming of this book that limits and diminishes its merit. Martin Heidegger is believed to be the first in Western philosophy who unveils an understanding of men as a way of Being as Dasein, in the literal sense of there-being that attests to the plurality of the human possibilities, and a notion of non-reflective and non-contemplative engagement of discoveredness with the world, that reveals its signfication as a referential totality and a meaningful whole, in reference to Dasein. This understanding rejects years of thinking grounded on a hidden and unexamined foundation and subsequently narrated in a misguided direction, that misviews men in the paradigm of a means–end distinction, and misconstructs men on a subject–object dichotomy, which subsequently results in a misconceived fact–value dualism, that are unfortunately beyond the scope of the present discussion, and provides an account of death that is not as an event at the end of, and as such in a way outside, living. Rather, death, as one’s ownmost, nonrelational, and not-to-be-outstripped possibility of impossibility, reveals an understanding of living as a journey of dying and men as Being-toward-Death (Sein-zum-Tode).

Problems with the Political Affiliation of Martin Heidegger

Negligence of this depth is hardly accidental considering both Mark’s first and second books are filled with references to the thoughts and writings of Western philosophers, some of whom, especially those who are associated with existentialism are influenced by or immensely tied to Martin Heidegger. In the two-page Acknowledgement at the end of this book, Mark gives also his appreciation of the NYC Chapter of Literary Safari for the thought-provoking philosophical exchanges during this monthly book club meetings and in which he specifically quotes ‘Being is always the being of being’ which is from page 29 of the translated edition of Martin Heidegger’s magnum opus, Being and Time, in which his ideas of ways of Being and Dasein are meticulously articulated. If it is evident that Mark is well aware of the thoughts and writings of Martin Heidegger and their relevance to his project, the more plausible reason for completely omitting any mention of Heidegger in both his books is perhaps of a more commercial nature, on account that Heidegger was associated with the Nazi during the the Second World War, and his translated and recently published, Black Notebooks, documents an undeniable degree of anti-semitism, that any mention of Heidegger or his thoughts in either book will promisingly upset a substantial part of his audience, who are primed with the notion of political correctness, and are more concerned with being on the popular side of often a false and polarised argument, than with critical assessment and judgement. If this is the reason for omitting any mention of Heidegger or his thoughts in both his books, it is understandable on ground that a book that is never sold and read is perhaps worse than writing no book at all considering the time and effort wasted in the process. Yet for the depth that this omission forgoes it is inexcusable.

Freedom and Meaning in an Age of Godlessness

Perspectivism may have aided in the unveiling of the destructive side of what Mark names hope, a blunt rejection of hope on ground of it having a downside is perhaps as devastating as rejecting pain and avoiding problems that Mark outspokenly writes against in his first book, for the negligence of the opportunity and possibility of transformative growth and improvement that pain and problems allow. If the flaws in this book detailed above are troubling, and its shortcoming unfortunate, then this incoherence with the proceeding publication is all the more befuddling. While throwing the baby out with the bath water is hardly a resolution, there is another path to approaching this problem of hopelessness, that may offer a more plausible way forward. Nihilism is not a problem unique to this age, for ever since the Enlightenment which Friedrich Nietzsche remarks as the beginning of the decadence of religious authority and of religious ground for meaning, that many come to know as the death of God, philosophical inquiries have been propounded for an understanding of and a resolution for this emerging groundlessness. One philosophical tradition of this propounding comes to be known as existentialism, founded upon the thoughts and writings of the 19th-century Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, who first and foremost notes that for all the positive knowledge the philosophical tradition before him had constructed and secured, it seemed to have failed to express the situation of one in existence. Embarked since then is a philosophical tradition that attends the way one exists, hence the name existentialism, and one’s existential conditions, with the most peculiar of which being this feeling of meaninglessness, that Kierkegaard describes as a sense of dread, which manifests when one faces the burdensome existential freedom and responsibility. Friedrich Nietzsche, as a forerunner of the existentialist movement, gazed also into this emerging groundlessness, and foresaw a couple of responses to the death of God. One of which he names the age of the Letzter Mensch, and he despises it for it is an age in which men know of no conflict and challenge, nor hope and risk, which would likely be the age of men in time if Mark’s proposal was to come true, in contrast with the antithesis of the age of the Übermensch in which men act to create new values, and rise above the vacuum of nihilism.

Martin Heidegger, while reorienting the philosophical tradition from the misguided direction in the metaphysics of presence, and reawakening the question of the most pressing urgency and importance, that is the question of the meaning of Being in general, which unfortunately has been neglected since the ancient Greek, and rejecting the paradigms of means–end distinction, subject–object dichotomy, and fact–value dualism in traditional metaphysics and ontology in the process, reconceives men as a way of Being as Dasein and penetrates this feeling of meaninglessness which he names Angst, to reveal that while this shattering experience of the world, as a meaningful whole, slipping away into a nihilistic void or an existential nothingness, may seem to detach one from the world, it at the same time reveals Dasein as Being-in-the-world, and directs one to the most fundamental issue of philosophy – why is there something rather than nothing? This experience of groundlessness, while devastating may it be, allows one to be free from the world that one always finds oneself in, and offers an opportunity for a resolution and a reinterpretation of meaning with regard to one’s finitude in one’s journey onwards of living and dying. One may then attain Eigentlichkeit (Authenticity) by rising from the Das Man (the ’they’), find grounds for meaning in our own choices, and bear the responsibilities that come with them, on the background and in the light of our Geworfenheit (thrownness) and Entwurf (projection) that characterises one’s existence. Freedom in this philosophication is as such the foundation that renders meaning possible in an age of Godlessness.

This view of men is free of the problems with traditional ontology, and paves the way for the subsequent existentialist inquiries to come. Momentary dust may we be in this vast multiverse, our choices and actions towards the days of our last bear our meaning and truth.