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The death of myths and the age of anxiety – the great existential dilemma

Author of this article is Mr. Atit Shanti Rijal.  Mr. Atit holds a great interest in philosophy and is an avid reader and likes to share his knowledge and understanding and sometimes, his own philosophical ideas and thoughts through publishing platform like us.

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Myths have remained an integral part of human history. We believe that we are being looked after and that we are loved unconditionally – by a “creator” and a “controller” force.

We believe that there is a meaning to life and that we have a central place in the cosmic existence. We have believed in myths for they have provided easy answers to our questions. We believe we have a duty to fulfill and that we expect others to fulfill theirs’.

We humans have found comfort in religious documents and in romantic literature. But, as we moved on in time, our natural tendency to question things gave rise to realism. Realistic views of the world has made several of us fearful of the huge void that is our existence. We now have varied answers to how and why we exist, we have varied philosophies dealing with human existence.

We do not know for a fact what existence actually means and, now find it harder to give meaning and purpose to life.

As answer-hungry beings, we suffer. We suffer, since we do not know why “we” exist in a rock that hangs on a vast nothingness.

We do not know the beginning and might never know the end.

Does a moral life lead to a smooth after-life? Does an immoral life continue the circle of birth and death? What is a moral life? How do we define a “normal” course of human action? Is life what a group of people (society) define it to be?

These questions are asked by many of us, but, find it hard to put forward because our society has made us to believe that life is in fact beautiful, that success is the ultimate goal, failure devalues life, that love can be easily found, and, that respect is gained through our taste in and choice of class. The “meaning” of life is pre-determined “for us” by those who were born before us.

We fear of being judged – judged of our sanity being questioned, since these are not normal topics for a normal societal person. How dare you rise above the general mass and ask questions that we do not seem to like? Existentialism bores us, do you not understand? Reality is what we have made it to be. This is existence. This right here is the reality.

We would rather believe that human civilization is “certain”.

We are afraid of changes.

And, thus, as we grow older, we slowly begin to “accept” the normality, that is society. We go to functions with the intention of showing our class to people – our class that has been defined by our societies. We have less intellectual discussions and try to stay away from topics that do not suit our liking. We confirm with the norms of the society no matter how hard some are to achieve, or, how meaningless and futile they are to perform.

We build our image as our society wants it to be. We find it extremely tiring to revolt against some of the childish illusions our society wants us to put up with.

But some have indeed started to question myths. They have started questioning the “existence and creation myth” that we are made to believe. From the 129th hymn Nasadiya Sukta to modern thinking and discourses, some of us have started to revolt.

Some of us have started to separate myths and the existence of consciousness.

We have started to question our being. Why are we here? What purpose are we to serve? We have stopped sticking to a singular idea of creation – we have started questioning all of them.

To some this is a welcome release from the restraints of moral, social, and spiritual dogma. To others it is a dangerous and terrifying breach with reason and sanity, tending to plunge human life into hopeless chaos. To most, perhaps, the immediate sense of release has given a brief exhilaration, to be followed by the deepest anxiety.” (The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety, Alan Watts)

Those of us who have now started revolting the old ideas are but faced with anxiety. We are very desperate to rid ourselves of this angst. We are anxious because we as humans have killed myths and now have no answers.

For if all is relative, if life is a torrent without form or goal in whose flood absolutely nothing save change itself can last, it seems to be something in which there is “no future” and thus no hope.” (The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety, Alan Watts)

One clearer thing is that we are not promised with an after-life, neither are we promised with God’s love and affection for maintaining our life as per our religious standards. We might have no purpose after all. We will study, work for the rest of our lives, retire and then die – quietly around a group of a few people and, then slowly and gradually be forgotten.

This knowledge, however, creates a dilemma – and the dilemma creates an existential crisis.

Many of us find liberation in being able to question the long known traditions of our family, our social life, of our government, the economy of our nation and of our religious belief. We begin to understand that only few things can be regarded to be true and fixed.

But many of us are anxious because we see these institutions fail and now have no rock to hold on to. We have been accustomed to believe that the pain and suffering of our life has some meaning and that we will be able to grab some surplus in the future. It is hard for some of us to believe that we as humans can however, fail.

We cannot accept that we as humans are insignificant in this cosmic reality because, we have, for much of our history, found comfort in myths – we have believed them to be true. But since myths are debunked, we find it hard to grant them positions in our consciousness.

We have abandoned gods and their mythical stories and have said frequently that our scientifically enlightened mind rejects something that has no basis in reality.

In the course of our scientific development, we forgot that myth while still alive had helped us with our existential questions. “Among the so-called neurotics of our day there are a good many who in other ages would not have been neurotic—that is, divided against themselves. If they had lived in a period… in which man was still linked by myth with the world of the ancestors…. they would have been spared this division within themselves.” (Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections)

Myths provided ready answers to our questions about the unknown, it helped us to construct a meaningful story about the existence of life. Nietzsche and Jung point out that myths and religions in a teleological manner provide meaning to life. “The Pueblo Indians believe that they are the sons of Father Sun, and this belief endows their life with a perspective (and a goal) that goes far beyond their limited existence. It gives them ample space for the unfolding of personality and permits them a full life as complete persons. Their plight is infinitely more satisfactory than that of a man in our own civilization who knows that he is (and will remain) nothing more than an underdog with no inner meaning to his life.” (Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols). “Considered from the standpoint of realism, the symbol is not of course an external truth, but it is psychologically true, for it was and is the bridge to all that is best in humanity.” (Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation)

We are now enlightened and have “killed” all the existing gods, and cannot go back to a debunked theory that we now know was never true. Carl Gustav Jung in his autobiography explains how we cannot go back now for we have been aware. But, Jung also saw the psychological problems of not having myths around and, how uncomfortable he was after having realized this fact.

Man today, stripped of myth, stands famished among all his pasts and must dig frantically for roots…” (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy). Since the death of myths, we are unable to make sense of our existence and are desperately trying to run away from the existential angst. We are frantically looking for distractions, to avoid anxious thoughts of our insignificance in this universe.

Now, we have built a coping mechanism against the death of myths – we have found comfort in entertainment. We are pleasured by television programs, photos and stories in magazines, shiny vehicles, alcohol and pornographies. We want to find good looking partners, easy payments and, less disputes. We find comfort in the lives of celebrities and search for their stories in internet where we spend countless of daily hours without realizing how wasteful our search for pleasure actually is. We would rather scroll downwards to new Facebook and Instagram posts than getting things done that we have been promising ourselves to complete.

We have time and again realized that pleasures are addictive because they are short lived. But they have temporarily ridden us of our existential angst and, have thus become important aspects of our lives. We thus exceed our limits to attain them. We are irritated and angry at ourselves and others when we fail to receive pleasure.

We require distractions so much so that we will sub-consciously jerk our legs or bite our lips frequently to avoid thoughts when we have our eyes off our phone, television and computer screens. Though we have killed our myths, we are still frantically searching for the meaning of our existence and thus are in a dilemma because we do not know how to.

According to Nietzsche and Jung we have replaced myths with other collectivist ideologies like politics. These ideologies have made us believe that they are indeed contributing to something big. We worship certain ideologies like the communism and democracy or whatever form these ideologies take. But they have time and again proven inadequate. Through multiple failed revolutions we have chosen our rulers and we still are in agony.

We have found pleasures and comfort in identity politics, but have lost our individual being. We have forgotten cultural unity by tying them with political theories. We have encountered multiple examples of how political ideologies have failed to provide happiness to people but we still run after them with desperation to find meaning. Jung portrays state as a mere modern pretence, a shield, a make-belief, a concept. Politics fails to provide individual importance. Politics is thus another myth that we have used to replace the original one.

Now, that we realize that these myths are not true and that they have died, can we remain intact with our being? The real question is, do we succumb to a nihilistic attitude after finding out how our existence is meaningless or, that we are not as important as we think? Do we have a rather negative view on life or, our existence as a whole?

Jung and Nietzsche argue that a nihilistic attitude would certainly lead to a wasted life. But what are we to do about the anxieties that follow the existential angst?

Nietzsche points out that we are in dire need of organizing our “own” individual meaning to our individual life. We are not in an age of the death of god but are in an age of the hero. The hero as per Nietzsche is someone who has the strength of his/her willpower to control his/her inner chaos which has been built because of our attachment to myths. The hero takes the challenge and faces up to the existing “individual” chaos and discovers “individual” solutions. The hero does not negate the past myths, but acknowledges them as sources of knowledge to find solutions for existential burdens of our time.

In order to be this “hero”, Nietzsche thought that it is necessary to stop clinging to religious theories or, mass movements and, to start to look within oneself. Every single individual according to him has a seed of unrealized potential, and the purpose of life is to see that potential and work towards actualizing it.

Nietzsche thought that “…we are not humans from the start; we need to become human. Toward this end, we need the insight “that only we are responsible for ourselves, that accusations that we have missed our life’s calling can be directed only at us, not some higher powers”. We are in no need of the delusion of a supernatural world, because the very task of becoming human is the truly colossal achievement.” (Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography: Rudiger Safranski).

Though everyone has an inner desire to become their best self, the path to self-realization and self-improvement is hindered by fear and laziness, which according to Nietzsche are two universal human characteristics which prevent people from realizing their potential. These characteristics stop people from realizing their dreams and for most part of their life, people are disappointed and regret that they have missed several opportunities. A human’s life is thus filled with guilt and anxiety of not being able to achieve.

Nietzsche provided some solutions to these innate characteristics. He thought that humans need an “organizing idea”. He urged people to set an ultimate goal that they desired to achieve. The harder the goal, the greater one has to become to achieve it.

On the path towards the realization of such goals, the individual according to Nietzsche will find plenty of setbacks and pain. Nietzsche also thought that many individuals will run back to the comforts of ordinariness once they are faced with such difficulties and thus, leave their goals midway to their realization. These individuals are thus, ignorant regarding the value of such goals.

People are accustomed to believe that suffering is malevolent. The first reaction of people on suffering is to flee. We will again try and find sources of distractions to be temporarily released from these psychological pain. We do not wish to believe that our life can have sufferings.

Nietzsche on the other hand, saw value in suffering. He explained that “there is as much wisdom in pain as there is in pleasure…that it hurts is no argument against it but its essence.” (The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche). This idea was also explained by Jung, who thought that anxieties and other forms of neuroses were not negative phenomenon. These neuroses may produce suffering, but they also inform us that our current way of living is concerning and that we are in need to improve it.

Nietzsche in his famous “the will to power” says “To those human beings who are of any concern to me, I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities – I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self contempt, the torture of self mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not – that one endures.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche).

Nietzsche thought that suffering could be the key to liberation, if one learns how to utilize it to his/her advantage. An individual is to acknowledge his/her suffering, willingly face it and see that there is an opportunity to grow and increase his/her wisdom.

Anxieties are an innate human characteristic. We as humans are troubled by everyday existential angst. But we need to understand that, that is the only true reality of life. We will experience births, illnesses and deaths of people around us and ultimately ours’ own. We will not be here forever, we will not see or experience everything since our lives are very short. We need to understand that our existence is nothing more important than a mere dandelion. This realization would lessen our ego and we would start seeing everyone and everything as having an equal existence. This awareness should liberate us from holding on to things that have become problematic.

We need to know and accept that life has no meaning, and that it would be foolish of us to find something that does not exist. We are here to not find meaning but experience our “personal” existence and create our “personal” meaning as we move towards the basic truth – the end.

Mr. Atit holds a great interest in philosophy and is an avid reader and likes to share his knowledge and understanding and sometimes, his own philosophical ideas and thoughts through publishing platform like us.

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Arts & Literature

Philosophical Enlightenment: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

This article talks about Plato’s allegory of the cave which heavily influenced the thinkers in later centuries and became one of the causes of European enlightenment or, the Age of Enlightenment.

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Enlightenment in western philosophy was given a platform by European thinkers such as Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu, Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, Immanuel Kant, and Christian Wolff among others. Philosophical enlightenment during the 18th Century Europe was thought to be an answer to dramatically improve Human life. This enlightenment was born out of the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th century. The scientific revolution broke age old thinking patterns and gave birth to realism.

Philosophical enlightenment as a concept urges its followers to aspire for intellectual progress. Such progress could improve individual lives and also the society as a whole. Thinkers such as Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke and others stressed on “logical arguments” which could be achieved through research.

This article talks about Plato’s allegory of the cave which heavily influenced the thinkers in later centuries and became one of the causes of European enlightenment or, the Age of Enlightenment.

Plato’s cave is a chapter in The Republic (514a-520a) which explores the effect of education and the lack of it on our nature. Allegory of the Cave is written as a conversation between Socrates and Glaucon (son of Ariston and the major conversant with Socrates in the Republic).

Plato writes the allegory to show the importance of philosophical education. In this allegory of the cave, Socrates tells Glaucon to imagine a cave where there are a group of prisoners. These prisoners were born there and are chained since they were children (the hands, feet and neck have all been chained). For the entirety of their lives, these prisoners can only see what is in front of them – which is the back wall of the cave.

Behind them at some height, there is a blazing fire. Between the fire and the prisoners is a low wall, behind which, there are men who carry various objects around. The fire casts the shadows of these objects directly on the back wall of the cave. These shadows are the only things the prisoners ever see and thus they think that the shadows are themselves the objects.

When the people who carried the objects spoke or engaged in conversation with each other, the prisoners could have thought that the sound came from the shadows – making the prisoners strongly think that the shadows were real.

“Then in every way such prisoners would deem reality to be nothing else than the shadows of the artificial objects.” (Socrates to Glaucon, Book VII, The Republic by Plato)

The prisoners talk to each other regarding the shadows and their meaning of them. They feel that the shadows give them wisdom to learn about life. They form dialogues and are happy that they have found meanings in life.

When one of the prisoners is freed from the shackles, the first thing he finds is that the shadows are similar to the objects that were being carried. But the objects that were forming the shadows had so much more to them.

The prisoner is now taken outside of the cave and is in front of the great sun. He sees the sun and is temporarily blinded by the light and thus suffers pain in his eyes.

“…, what do you suppose would be his answer if someone told him that what he had seen before was all a cheat and an illusion, but that now, being nearer to reality and turned toward more real things, he saw more truly? And if also one should point out to him each of the passing objects and constrain him by questions to say what it is, do you not think that he would be at loss and that he would regard what he formerly saw as more real than the things now pointed out to him?” (Socrates to Glaucon, Book VII, The Republic by Plato)

At first, he is only able to see the shadows that have been formed on the ground, because the shadows are familiar to him and the sun has caused pain in his eyes. He is slowly able to see reflections and finally shifts his focus from the shadows of trees and animals on the rocks, the reflections in the water – to the “real” objects that are creating them.

He sees the colors of the birds and the flowers, the patterns on rocks and the intricacies of tree barks.

He sees the objects as they are – in reality. This makes him confused, for he was habitual to the shadows. He denies the reality of the objects at first, but then questions if the fire that is burning so bright behind the objects actually created the shadows. He now starts questioning more. But this time his questions are more guided by the complexities of things “as they are”.

“…there would be need of habituation…to enable him to see the things higher up. And so, finally, I suppose, he would be able to look upon the sun itself and see its true nature, not by reflections in water or phantasms of it in an alien setting, but in and by itself in its own place.” (Socrates to Glaucon, Book VII, The Republic by Plato)

The prisoner finally understands that the sun is the cause of everything. He figures out that the sun causes light, sight and then reveals the true nature of the objects.

He then sees the world grow darker – the sun has gone and the moon is being seen. He sees the patterns of stars in the sky. He starts questioning about the vastness of the universe that surrounds him.

He sees objects in their own place and not just as reflections.

He finally starts contemplating about the sun as it is. He starts seeing objects first as they are and then starts to reason about them.

He sees that the shadows are nothing but illusions created due to the direct contact between realistic objects and the sun.

He can see clearly now that the world is not finite. He sees that knowledge is not finite.

He is astonished by this new found knowledge and searches more for truth. He becomes realistic and is now unresponsive towards the shadows which previously governed his thought patterns.

The prisoner has now risen above the wisdom of the cave.

He is excited to share his knowledge with the prisoners he has lived with.

As the prisoner returns back to the cave, he finds out that his visions have been changed. He can now see less in the dark and is less responsive to the shadows that had governed his life. It takes some time to adjust to the darkness.

The other prisoners laugh at him for having his visions destroyed by going out of the cave. They laugh at him because – he now no longer shares the same belief. They then start becoming angry at him for going outside the cave – he has become blasphemous. The prisoners think he should be executed.

He is now a stranger in a pack that he was a part of. They despise him – for he is an offender.

For Plato and for many philosophers after him, the allegory of the cave is the story of enlightenment, a story of the time before philosophy.

We as humans are born in the shadow and many of us live the rest of our lives in it, without ever questioning the actual truth. Many of us never question the reason for shadows and blindly follow what is shown to us.

We are forced to experience things as the desires of the society (the cave) we live in. We derive our understanding of cultures, traditions, religions, romance, fame, power, politics and other concepts (shadows) as per the desires of the group (the men carrying the objects behind the wall).  Humans are pleasured by the false conception of these things. They have been created by the society and reflect as shadows on the walls of our mind. These phantoms or shadows are what keeps us from being enlightened or “Conscious”.

When we get out of the cave (that is our society) and see the light (the world of ideas, thoughts and reality), and finally start questioning, we are primarily mocked for being cynical. This could discourage many who have seen the light and thus send them back to the cave that they were liberated from. But some of the humans revolt against the stronghold of the shadow.

But Plato discourages us to share our “new found” knowledge, bluntly with the others. This could anger others and surely get us into troubles.

Socrates was executed by the Athenian government under accusations that he was corrupting the youth with false ideologies and that he was guilty of impiety (not believing in the gods of the state). He was killed by the decision made by the majority of fools. Plato hated Athenian democracy because he saw the possibility of cave dwellers having majority power to take false decisions. These decisions were based upon the concept of the shadows and did not include higher consciousness.

But Plato still insisted that willingness to step outside of the cave is not enlightenment alone – and that there must be a willingness to return back and educate those who are yet to see the sun. However, this is to be done carefully.

This process of carefully educating the masses is known as the “Socratic method”. Those who have seen the sun should not be indulged into forcing people to see “what is”, but rather give their arguments and stimulate dialogue from the listeners. This would generate critical thinking and eliminate hypotheses by eradicating those ideas that lead to multiple contradictions. This is Plato’s ideal method of dialectics.

Plato insisted that “wisdom starts with owning up to ignorance”. We should confess that we actually know nothing. This would make us open to understanding things and listen to different views of people regarding these things. For, not knowing, according to Plato, was paradoxically a kind of knowledge in itself. This has been referred to as the “Socratic ignorance” which paradoxically is also known as “Socratic Wisdom”.

We need to understand that we indeed do not recognize how life is supposed to be. We should understand that we do not comprehend the ways some concepts like politics, government, relationships, and others work. We need to lay out our ideas and welcome others’ to eliminate contradictions. One way of eliminating contradictions could be through logic. Logical interpretations of our ideas, and, citing resources and existing patterns of behavior of humans when faced with similar situations should be done.

The allegory of the cave describes the metaphor of life and shows us the relation between education and truth. For Plato, the major function of education is to dispose us towards the truth and not just show them to us. Education should be able to make us face the truth.

For Plato, education was awareness of “being”, along with, the awareness of other objects. Education is the source of enlightenment.

The stages of enlightenment in the allegory of the cave are:

1. Owning up to ignorance.

2. Reaching knowledge.

3. Building the capacity to understand “the good” (the sun).   And, finally,

4. Raising questions and fostering dialogues.

Those who have been educated are the teachers (Socrates) who do not themselves bring the truth out, but rather by means of questioning create a platform for dialectics and then cause the learner to rationally speak out and finally figure out the truth.

Plato further says that one has to have a desire to learn. Those who do not desire cannot be forced to learn. Thus, acquiring knowledge is a transformative process that requires painful movement. In order to learn, one has to be willing to turn their chained bodies towards the light, one has to be willing to turn around their soul and be willing to change their ideas.

We are all prisoners of the ideologies fed to us, by our society, by our state. Many of us do not dare to seek knowledge outside the cave. Many of us remain prisoners for the rest of our lives, but at times there are those who seek to learn more than what has been offered. These individuals who are willing to learn are open to new dimensions of truth that they had never before encountered.

An enlightened person for Plato means that this person is willing to learn and stops clinging to ordinariness and pleasures and is willing to rise above and look upwards.

In conclusion

Enlightenment is not something that opens portals to secretive universal knowledge, but is rather what gives rise to inquisitiveness. This inquisitiveness to learn about “the good” (the source of reality) fosters individual development. Enlightenment is thus, a process of understanding the difference between the illusions that create a facade and the reality behind those facades.

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Word Of The Day

Word Of The Day: Tump

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Curated by: Srisha Poudel

Definition 1

a small rounded hill or mound

(eg: There is a little tump over the pond.)

Definition 2

to tip or turn over especially accidentally

(eg: He tumped over.)

Synonyms

accident, sudden, bush

Antonyms

intentional, huge

Nepali Meaning

उल्टिनु


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Word Of The Day

Word Of The Day: Tousle

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Curated by: Srisha Poudel

Definition 1

to make untidy

(eg: Nathan’s tousled head appeared in the hatchway.)

Definition 2

to mess up

(eg: He always had time to tousle a young boy’s hair .)

Synonyms

untidy, messy, unkempt, disordered, disarranged

Antonyms

arrange, unsnarl, untwist, disentangle, tidy

Nepali Meaning

सफा सुग्घर नभएको


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