33 Nihilism: On Fleeing From Pleasures at the Cost of One’s Life

This essay from Montaigne seems like little more than an observation — that the stoic belief in extreme measures to deny earthly pleasures is similar to that of the Catholic church. He doesn’t take a position for or against the stance, but he offers examples so extreme that it’s easy to conclude that he finds something deeply wrong in the ethos.

Unlike nearly every other essay, this one is not quotable. It consists of two anecdotes. In the first, Seneca advised Lucilius, a man of power and authority in the Emperor’s court, to withdraw from that life and follow a more solitary, intellectual path. And if he can’t handle this, he should commit suicide. Considering how long it took Seneca to break away from Nero — and to take his own life — this was hardly one of his wisest counsels, and maybe I just worked in politics too long, but I interpret it as a Michael Corleone-like moment of realpolitik.

The other anecdote, about St. Hilary and how he advised his daughter either to marry a man devoted to Godly pursuits or to take her own life, ends “happily” with a virtual double suicide of St. Hilary’s daughter and wife. Again, perhaps I’m being too postmodern in my reading, but I can’t help but to see Montaigne irony dripping from this tale from the start.

I choose to believe that Montaigne couldn’t say here what he really believed — that philosophies of extreme self denial are, in the words of Woody Allen, “die now, pay later.” It would take another three centuries for Nietzsche to develop this thought in his brilliant “Beyond Good and Evil.”

In addition to his insight that an ethos of self denial is the most pernicious form of nihilism, in that book Nietzsche also posited an origin for the worldview. He argued that humanity feels a need to deny life because we’re caught up in dualisms. For example, because the opposite of thin is fat, if you don’t meet a standard of thin, then you must be fat and therefore need to begin a starvation diet. People are judged as tall or short, rich or poor, hard working or lazy … good or evil.

Nietzsche suggested that perhaps there are no dualisms. You may not be thin, but that doesn’t make you fat. And just because you failed to live up to some arbitrary standard of virtue, it doesn’t make you evil. On this point, I’m in agreement with Harold Bloom that Nietzsche is a literary critic par excellence. If you want to know why, 30 years ago, “Raging Bull” lost out for Best Picture and why “The Social Network” will likely lose tonight, it’s because both films are Nietzschean … they break out of dualism, lacking good guys or bad guys, just people in dramatic moments, achieving forms of greatness while losing what matters most.

Maybe Nietzsche was just ahead of his time — but then again, this afternoon I spent a couple hours with my three year old twin boys, introducing Mac and Finn to the ultimate good and evil film, The Empire Strikes Back. It too did not win Best Picture 30 years ago — it wasn’t even nominated. But it resonates today, even after four so-so sequels, and will probably work as long as people watch movies.

We believe in good and evil, not because philosophers or priests tell us to, but because we’re humans, born story tellers, and stories are more compelling with good guys and bad guys. I think human consciousness may be nothing more than our ability to tell stories about ourselves. We all want to be the heroes of our stories. We all want to be rich, thin … and good.

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