There was a time early in my life when I had an innocent, somewhat naive picture of how the world functions. I thought that some things, namely the things in life you love and cherish, will last forever and constitute a safe haven among the constant flux of change and chaos around you. While this may seem like a childish belief, if you consider the motivating desire behind it, it's not so strange after all. Our lives resemble very much that of a circus artist. In your early childhood years you watch the adults make their dangerous performances to get on with life. After a while you also realize that sometimes these performances fail and how that might have fatal consequences. When you slowly begin to imitate their moves with a safety net, the game of life opens up before you, but also welcomes all the horror and disaster it brings with it.
During what is also known as the teenage years, you come to loathe the safety, your desires motivating you to become a professional circus artist tomorrow, revealing that you're still part child in that you don't recognize life as a process no one and nothing can speed up at will. Right after that period, when the teenager has developed into a mature but still young and adventurous spirit, I held this belief that there still, somewhere in life, were safety nets you can rely upon. Music that always will seduce you. Literature that never will fail to captivate your interest. Feelings and memories that refuse to go away. Places in the forest that will remain intact until the end of time. Why do we construct safe havens for ourselves? The answer probably corresponds to simple human psychology: we recognize the world around is largely uncertain, so we figure we need to find a place where we feel safe, no matter what. "Home sweet home" is simply a variant of this belief. So, is it true?
I came to realize the answer when I one day strolled down a path to my secret, very special place in the forest, only to find large bulldozers destroying the entire area. They were freeing up housing space for the city's welfare junkies. The change the area was going through immediately struck me as both amazing--and unsurprising. It was amazing to witness a place I'd spent countless hours in, suddenly transform from a dynamic, wild, uncertain and beautiful forest into static, tamed, self-evident and ugly clear-felled area. But at the same time it was unsurprising in the sense that the raw logic of reality told me this was bound to happen. If not today, maybe tomorrow, or in two years ahead. What difference would it make?
We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.
When Heraclitus claimed we cannot step into the same river twice, he was not talking about how we best avoid keeping our feet dry. Instead he was intuitively trying to hint at how the world is in constant change and how we as individuals relate to that world of eternal flux. The idea of Panta rhei (everything is in a state of flux) is in fact an ancient idea, dating back to mankind's first religions. The ancient Hindus noted how our mundane world is transient and depends upon limited concepts such as space and time. Beyond that realm was Brahman, the transcendent and eternal reality, with whom the individual soul, Atman, would converge once it had transcended the earthly life through religious ethics. Even the ancient Sumerians believed the earthly existence could be transcended by recognizing and fully accepting its fundamental limitations, most famously advocated by Gilgamesh, the mythic king of Uruk.
The idea of a world where nothing remains static except the principle or process of eternal strife and change is at first an unsettling thought to many. It means we cannot rely upon anything outside of this principle. There's no safe ground; nothing we can hold on to and claim our own. In daily life we assume countless things that we hold to be carved in stone. We believe our beloved ones will be there for us tomorrow, if we need them. We assume there's always a home to return to if we are led astray. We depend upon our job for daily survival. On top of the very mundane, we also believe personal things such as favourite spots in the forest, old childhood areas, memories, ideals and dreams will largely remain the same. Without many of these things, we would deem life uncertain and possibly threatening. Our minds are so powerful that we often confuse life itself for our idea of how it should conform to our worldview. How desperate we become when we realize this has never been the case!
All things are an interchange for fire, and fire for all things, just like goods for gold and gold for goods.
Heraclitus is sometimes called "the weeping philosopher," because of a rumoured misanthropy and melancholy. What may have forced him to become a Zarathustra-like loner is the cold insight into the destiny of humanity. We're doomed to be a part of a world that, like a crystal ball, takes new shapes and colours for all of eternity. The things we believe are "safety zones" constitute attachments to the world. The danger in this is that we quickly forget the wisdom of Heraclitus: the world isn't at all static or conforming. It behaves like fire, thriving on burning the old and giving shape to the future. The world is thus eternal in that its process is self-sustaining. We construct attachments either because we're ignorant of this fact, or simply because we've recognized the world to be ever changing, and therefore try to hide inside our minds where the world appears differently. But eventually even your attachment will break. It's not a threat; it's a compassionate promise.
When we start to view the world in terms of a Heraclitean fire, our worldview develops into that of philosophical nihilism. We stop trying to refer any universal meaning from our existence. We stop trying to "save" things from changing. We stop worrying about death, pain and loneliness. We become hardened, as Nietzsche would say, because we've gone past the stage where we flinch before horror and instead learn to accept it. But we cannot stop at acceptance, because just like nihilism stops at fatalism unless there's an impetus that looks beyond mere emptiness, we have to find a way to relate to the world. Watching the fire burn is not enough--we're a part of it, so we need to learn how to appreciate it for what it is. This pragmatic intention leads us into the heart of the philosophy of active nihilism: love your fate (romantics would add: with passion). Face the inevitable with joy. Prepare for war, but do it with respect and love.
We must know that war is common to all and strife is justice, and that all things come into being through strife necessarily.
Heraclitus wept, not just because of the tragic fate of humanity, but also because he may have been one of the few thinkers of his time that recognized the immense beauty of the situation. We are doomed to all kinds of horrors, for sure, but in the context of existence, are we not merely soldiers in an eternal battle, desperately trying to fight a war we cannot win--a war that, despite this fact, needs to go on? How can we go on fighting unless we stand up straight? How can we participate in life without always keeping in mind that nothing around us is certain? Despite what some people think, this doesn't mean that, as comedian Bill Hicks expressed it, "it's just a ride," because what is essential here is not whether our experience is real or a mere Matrix fantasy. Say you figured out that life was just an imagination by God. Would you change your life, and if so, how? Or would you shrug and go on with life, knowing that it ultimately didn't matter?
The fire within and around us doesn't suggest we become fatalists. On the contrary, it has left the space open for you and me to embrace our existence from our own perspective and try to make something meaningful out of it. The choice is ours. But what we do learn from the Pantha rei impetus is that participation with life must never lead to unhealthy attachment. We only fool ourselves in the end. Like the ancient Hindus, the nihilist recognizes nothing is certain except his fate. He doesn't reject family, secret places in the forests, youthful memories and dreams of tomorrow, but he regards them as methods to experience and personal growth. Life itself thus becomes a means to experience. How do we justify such a thought?
We find the key in Heraclitus' genius metaphor of the world as a huge burning fire: we have to learn to embrace the process as an aesthetic activity. Nietzsche famously declared this as an entire philosophical concept; "will to power," although often confused as a desire to attain domination over others or other things around you, could really be expressed as "will to self-expression." When we start to value life in terms of aesthetic preferences (review your library, CD collection, favourite childhood memories, and then think about this), we cast aside morality in the name of nihilism--both as sceptics and students of life, because there's no need for moral justification, only a desire to participate in struggle because of the pleasure, experience, fulfilment and strength that it brings. Nihilism in this context can be seen as a kind of holistic hedonism; an attempt to enjoy all of life, despite that we're still just dust particles among the flames that threaten to consume us all. And we cherish our own fall.
The will to power is a consequence of Pantha rei; you, like everything else around you, are transient, so your goal in life will be to differentiate from the world by expressing your spirit and leaving a lasting legacy behind. We change from getting caught up in attachments, especially the modern distractions like politics, entertainment and senseless pleasure, to aim for personal transcendence, and through that lifestyle, changing the world around us. Instead of becoming target for change like the stoics or Buddhists, the Heraclitean nihilist wants the world to become target for his or her change. We force ourselves upon the world and actively become participants in the struggle. In this regard, from our point of view, the world is with necessity incomplete without us, because we only know the world through our minds, but through our dreams and actions we have the possibility to make it "fully" real.
The world is not "unreal," but it's false in the sense that it threatens to turn us into a reflection of itself, instead of when we mark the world with our presence and make it ours. If the world essentially is art, then we must treat it as such and carve out our heart in it like we form beauty out of clay and poetry out of thoughts on paper. We no longer have to be afraid of the world, because we start to see it as our tool to make it reflect our vision. Ironically, this is how we can escape the problem of attachment: don't expect the world to resemble your dream, unless you realize that dream in the world through action. Don't let the world control you into becoming whatever it has in store for you. Nothing will remain.
The only true safety existing is the knowledge that we are born as artists into a world of war, and as long as we choose to joyfully treat it as the canvas of our dreams and fantasies, the most remarkable and amazing can come true. For this reason I declare myself a nihilist, and the home I will spend a lifetime reaching, although I'm certain that it forever will remain outside of my reach, is the horizon beyond my dreams. It's something that, despite remaining only a vision of what I wish to achieve in life, one day possibly might be real, if only so for a blink of a second in the face of eternity.
October 29, 2008
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