The two greatest ancient philosophers of mortality were Plato and his understudy, Aristotle. Though Plato was an idealist, and Aristotle a materialist, both believed in the immorality of divine Reason. Their famous predecessor, Heraclitus, however, had argued that, since the universe was ceaseless motion and change, nothing was permanent, much less eternal. Plato countered the position by asserting that all motion and change were illusory, and only divine Forms were immutable and, hence, real.
The idealist’s materialist rival, Democritus, the father of the atomic theory, came to Heraclitus’ defense. He said that change was indeed the only reality: therefore, reason couldn’t access absolute truths and even if it could, they would be inexpressible, if not incomprehensible. Exasperated, Plato wanted Democritus’ writings burned. Amused, the Skeptic forefather known as “The Laughing Philosopher,” kept ribbing the rationalist till passing at age 90. His student, Leucippus, carrying on in his name, took another shot over Plato’s bow, quipping: “Don’t try to know everything, or you may end up knowing nothing!”
By this time, the father of Greek comedy, Aristophanes, was mocking Socrates and, by extension, Plato too. In his play The Clouds, Socrates debates with his “Thinkery School” students such weighty questions as how far a flea can jump. Plato, who, like Pythagoras, believed that a true philosopher should avoid “the loss of rational control” in laughter, found this very unfunny. Not so humorless as his mentor, Aristotle advocated “making truth laugh, because only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.”
Later, Albert Einstein, who idolized both philosophers and shared their passion, said, “Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”1
Classical scholar and manic depressive, Nietzsche, wrote in his Joyful Wisdom (aka The Gay Science) : “For most people, the intellect is an awkward, gloomy, creaking machine that is hard to start.” His predecessor, Schopenhauer, explained the downside of professional thinking: “The philosopher… must be like Sophocles’ Oedipus, who, seeking enlightenment concerning his terrible fate, pursues his indefatigable inquiry even though he divines that appalling horror awaits him in the answer. But most of us carry with us Jocasta [Oedipus’ mother] in our hearts, who begs Oedipus, for God’s sake, not to inquire further!”
Nevertheless, later metaphysicians, sharing the Greek passion for the cruel mistress of Reason, kept inquiring further, but with diminishing returns. For two thousand years, Platonic idealists argued with Aristotelian empiricists, each school of thought becoming increasingly complex while trying to uncover expressible absolute truths. In the process, philosophies became cerebral labyrinths, inescapable even with Icarus wax wings.
Seeing that divine Reason alone wasn’t enough to escape the mind maze, post-classic Western philosophers became theologians and introduced something Biblical authors called Faith. St. Paul argued that this numinous sense provided “evidence of things that appear not." (Hebrews 11:1). The invisible object of faith: a single God Creator who was both the cause of everything, absolutely good, and a guarantor of immortality.
Of course, the Greeks had gods, too, but few philosophers took them seriously. When they spoke of god or gods in the abstract, they didn’t mean the bickering, often childish Olympians, but that which was immutable, eternal, and true. In short, ironically, they had faith too, but their Faith was in Reason.
So, the greatest practical question of religion since the birth of Christianity: Are Faith and Reason – the two high roads to the divine -- irreconcilable opposites, or are they complements?
In his 1998 encyclical, Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II proclaimed that they are indeed a synergism. “Faith without reason leads to superstition, while reason without faith leads to nihilism and relativism,” he argued.
Indeed, Christianity would never have become more than an outlaw Jewish sect, had it not married the faith-based Hebrew Bible with reason-based Hellenistic philosophy. In doing so, it assimilated Near Eastern and Western religious thought and experience into a world-wide juggernaut. Following the cross-culturist St. Paul, the first order of business for Christianity’s immortality evangelists was to build Christ’s church on both Plato’s Rosetta Stone of Reason and St. Peter’s Rock of Faith.
Christian faith is not an all-encompassing spiritual perception but an exclusive focus on the God of Moses and Christ who delivers the worshipper from confusion, evil, and death. In this sense, faith is a fulfillment of spiritual desire. As a result, man’s relationship with God becomes a quid pro quo: If he abandons his will by giving God his faith, God will reciprocate with redemption and eternal life.
The most influential among the first Christian theologians was God’s A-team: Saints Anselm, Augustine, and Aquinas. The dogmatists escaped the rebel Prometheus’ punishment by asserting divine authority, not challenging it. As for reason itself, they felt the same way about it as Galileo had, despite the Lord’s curse on Adam and Eve: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”
Taking a bite of the Knowledge apple themselves, Anselm devised the Ontological Proof2, Augustine the Original Sin and Grace Proof, Aquinas the Intelligent Design Proof. But they did so not by logic, much less deduction from empirical fact, but by engaging in what a secularist might call wishful thinking. Avoiding the negativity of such a term, they called it belief.
"I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe,” wrote St. Anselm, “but rather, I believe in order that I may understand."
Augustine went further: “If you comprehend, it is not God.”
Though otherwise a devout intellectual, the Schoolman St. Thomas agreed: “Men must believe before they can reason.” Indeed, after writing 8,686,577 words over the course of three decades, the dogmatist confessed: “Everything I have written seems like so much straw!”
Later, Erasmus, the Renaissance scholar and critic of the Aquinas Mensa group, complained: “They smother me with me dogmas; they are surrounded with a bodyguard of definitions, conclusions, corollaries, propositions explicit and propositions implicit; they are looking in utter darkness for that which has no existence whatsoever!”
More recently Carl Jung wrote: “The Schoolmen left me cold, and the Aristotelian intellectualism of Saint Thomas appeared to me more lifeless than a desert. They all seemed to me like people who knew only by hearsay that elephants existed.”
Tertullian, the founder of Western theology, had warned about this long before the Scholastics set pen to paper. Dismissing Plato and Aristotle as Sophist heretics, he said, “Jerusalem has nothing to do with Athens…I believe because it is absurd!”
William of Ockham was on the same page. The Franciscan scholar said God and the immortal soul could not be reached by complex reason, but only by simple revelation and faith. To him the concepts of his rationalist contemporaries and predecessors were “empty abstractions or mere words” presented as facts. Having no patience for Byzantine arguments, the first less-is-more thinker used his Ockham’s Razor, saying: “It is vain to do with more what can be done with less.”
Indisposed to idle thought himself, Martin Luther, declared that the greatest enemy of faith was reason. "All the articles of our Christian faith, revealed to us in His Word,” the first Protestant wrote, “are in presence of reason sheerly impossible, absurd, and false."
Proving its necessity, especially in relation to Christ’s miracles and resurrection, the word “faith” is used 232 times in the New Testament. Never does Jesus condemn man’s lack of reason, but repeatedly laments his lack of faith. He tells the disciples that, had they faith no bigger than a mustard seed, they could move mountains. (Matthew 17:20). When, later, he appeared to them posthumously on the road to Emmaus, he chastised Thomas for his doubt. “Happy are they who never saw me and yet have found faith.” (John 20: 29). Thus, faith as a divine 6th sense is not believing what you see but seeing what you believe.
Short of wrestling an angel like Jacob, or supposedly seeing the Almighty “face-to-face” like Moses, faith came to God whisperers in various ways. The first resulted from directly communicating with Him as did the prophets. A second came from saintly revelation. A third was awakened by witnessing divine miracles: the parting sea, the tumbling walls of Jericho, the walk on water, the Lazarus resurrection, etc.
In 1619, Rene Descartes had three dreams in which an angel revealed to him a different way of thinking. His new philosophy was called Cartesianism, and he became known as the Father of Modern Philosophy.3
After the revelation, the Frenchman committed himself to resolve the many divisive issues of the day, "as if no one had written on these matters before." So, he decided to reinvent the intellectual wheel while at the same time bolstering Christian faith. No small arrogance was required for the task, but humility is rarely the strong suit of serious thinkers.
To arrive at a single undeniable personal premise from which every other might flow, Descartes asked himself not What is True? But What can I be sure is true? Since the very basis of his inquiry was skepticism about every other doctrine, he concluded that his only certainty was uncertainty – doubt -- and that doubt was none other than thought itself and therefore, he claimed, “the origin of wisdom.” So, he famously declared:
Cogito ergo sum -- I think therefore I am.
Despite the appeal of the aphorism, why was it praised as cloud-parting and revolutionary? After all, Plato and Aristotle had said much the same thing in Greek, not Latin, two millennia earlier. Cogito wasn’t really the immaculate conception it was cracked up to be. But, on the basis of it, Descartes concluded that the thinker/doubter must exist absolutely because the only thing that can’t be doubted or thought nonexistent was thought/doubt itself.
In other words, thinking was man’s essence, his soul, his very being.
The thesis had two problems. First: by definition, an Absolute cannot be relative to or dependent on anything exterior to it; thinking is dependent because it cannot exist without an object, material or immaterial. Second: how many men think in depth about metaphysical, or nonpractical, matters? Had Descartes left his ivory tower among academics and acquainted himself with ordinary humanity, he might have said the essence of the thinking man – not the average man, but the Greeks’ “great-souled“ man – is thought. This, however, would have negated the truth of his generality.
Though the Cogito argument pretends to be assumption-free, its interdependent trinity – “I,” “Think,” “Am” – is based on undefined assumptions. What is “I”? Thinking. What is “Thinking”? Am/Being. In short: a = b = c is a circular a priori abstraction, hence meaningless unless at least one element is clearly defined. This proves the near impossibility of immaculate thought, or pure reason, that starts from scratch with no premises. Even so, Descartes was called philosophy’s first “free” thinker.
Fifty years after the publication of the Frenchman’s Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), John Locke introduced the concept of consciousness, calling it "the perception of what passes in a man's own mind." So, the Cartesian might have more correctly said: I am conscious of thinking therefore I am. Or simply: I am consciousness. But the question of consciousness wouldn’t become a primary focus until the phenomenologists, Husserl and Heidegger, introduced it at the turn of the last century.
Moving on to theology, the father of modern philosophy refined Anselm’s Ontological Argument, an attempt to logically prove the existence of God. Clearly, the saint hadn’t meant Zeus, Odin, or any other alternative deities. The Trinitarian Christian God undoubtedly exists, Anselm argued, because He is intrinsic in the human mind from inception. Doesn’t the fact that the child becomes conscious of god – but not necessarily the Christian God -- later on prove that divinity is an a posteriori concept? Ignoring the question, Descartes expanded the churchman’s thesis by asserting that the God in his mind was a “non-deceiver” – another presumption he doesn’t bother to logically, much less empirically, prove.
In the final analysis, it wasn’t Descartes’ doubt-thought that affirmed for him an absolute benevolent God, but his desire-thinking otherwise known as non-thinking or belief. In effect, then, he turned his Cogito ergo sum into its opposite: Credo ergo sum. I believe therefore I am. So, was his affirmation of dogma really the climax of unbiased, free thought? Or was it a way of throwing the Church’s thought police off his scent? Or, since he’d been raised a devout Catholic, was it his get-out-of-Hell card?
In analyzing philosophers from the Christianity’s founding till the end of the 18th century, it mustn’t be forgotten that all lived under the sword of the Vatican. Many were exiled, excommunicated, tortured, burnt or beheaded as heretics. In 1647, the champion of Christendom, King Louis XIV, sensing the father of modern philosophy might be a closet atheist due to his doubt, canceled his pension and prohibited his lectures. Not forgetting Galileo’s death in prison earlier in the decade, the frail scholar took refuge in Sweden to tutor the patroness of the arts, Queen Christina, in science. At age 54, he is said to have caught pneumonia in her dank chambers and expired. Others suspected that he had been poisoned.
The father of modern philosophy was buried in a Stockholm graveyard for orphans. After being disinterred several times, his body was finally laid to rest in the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Pres… without its head. The skull of Descartes – famous for his Mind-Body dualism -- is now on lonely display in Paris’s Musee de l’Homme.
Immanuel Kant was Descartes’ most celebrated successor. His motto, like the Greeks’, was: Sapere aude! -- Dare to be wise. The German professor dedicated himself to the quixotic job of not only reconciling head-in-the-clouds NeoPlatonics with down-to-earth NeoAristotilians but, most importantly, reconciling Reason and Faith once and for all. Logic-driven mathematics was indispensable to his effort.
"The science of mathematics presents the most brilliant example of how pure reason may successfully enlarge its domain without the aid of experience," he wrote in The Critique of Pure Reason.
It was no mistake that history’s greatest metaphysicians were also physicists and mathematicians:
Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Archimedes, Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, etc. Is it, then, any wonder they tried to apply math to metaphysics to render it a non-subjective discipline or at least a less dicey enterprise?
“All things are numbers. Number rules all!” declared the first math evangelist and son of Apollo, Pythagoras.
“Mathematics is the language in which God wrote the universe,” seconded Galileo.
“Geometry existed before the Creation, is co-eternal with the mind of God, is God Himself,” agreed Kepler who believed his thoughts were God’s very own, but on time-delay.
“Mathematics is a more powerful instrument of knowledge than any other,” declared Descartes, the father of analytic geometry.
Despite the enthusiasm of Kant and his predecessors for measurement and equation, math failed to deliver them to dry land because it focuses on quantity only, not quality. Since quality – the nature or characteristic of a thing – cannot be truly expressed by numeric quantity, the application of math to metaphysics is a dubious proposition at best. If math is regarded as a pure invention of the human mind and a chess game with its own arbitrary rules, its conclusions about “reality” must be fallible, or at least limited. But math fans dismissed this argument by pleading an a priori existence in God’s mind, though every sane thinker in history has conceded that no one has the slightest idea of what is in God’s mind.
So, in the end, math failed to rescue Kant from the paradoxes of reason which he called The Antinomies. Unable to rationally reconcile these thesis-antithesis contradictions, Kant finally allowed: “I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” By the end Critique of Pure Reason, he agreed with the Almighty’s A-team, writing: “We cannot comprehend God; we can only believe in Him.” Since, for many souls, life would be meaningless without divinity, Kant called God “a Necessary Being.” So, before being buried in a Prussian cathedral, he changed his self-definition, as had Descartes and many others, from a rationalist Cogito ergo sum to a fideist Credo ergo sum.
Kant’s successor, Hegel, avoided this about-face by arguing that, in divine contemplation, Reason and Faith were two sides of the same coin. The celebrated professor went on to modernize what he called “antiquated” ontological proofs of God, saying “God is absolute Truth.”
Hegel’s University of Berlin junior colleague and bete noire, Arthur Schopenhauer, called him “Monsieur Know-Nothing,” a “charlatan,” a “swaggerer,” a “sophist” and “a cuttlefish who creates a cloud of obscurity around itself.” Indeed, Hegel had admitted: “Only one man ever understood me, and he didn't understand me.” Targeting not only his idealist rival, but Christian rationalists generally, Schopenhauer declared: “The errors of great minds extend their unwholesome influence over whole generations… and finally degrading into monstrosities.”
Arguing that “Truth is best observed in the nude,” the maverick thinker, like Descartes, decided to develop “a new philosophical system … that has never come into any human head.” The essence of that system, Schopenhauer insisted, wasn’t thinking or faith, but man’s Will. In short: Desidero ergo sum. In the real world, people may not think much, others lack faith, but, undeniably, as Aristotle had first pointed out, “Man is his desire.” So, living in suspended animation of expectation, man is the creature who is what he will be – a sorry state of affairs from the quality-of-life point of view.
Schopenhauer, whose father drowned himself, went on to declare: “Life is not worth living!” He said that man’s “unassailable” Will over his own life trumped all objections of papist sideline quarterbacks. But in his essay, On Suicide, the iconoclast concluded that, though the act was justified, the courageous man shouldn’t submit to it, but press on by sheer force of will.
The second great anti-Hegelian madman was Schopenhauer’s ardent young admirer and fellow Greek scholar, Frederick Nietzsche. His Joyous Wisdom “Madman” hero, carrying a Diogenes lantern in the morning sunshine, cried: "I am looking for God! "Where has God gone? We have killed him - you and I!”
Theo-thanatology had been introduced a few years earlier in The Philosophy of Salvation (1876) by Philipp Mainländer. “God has died and His death was the life of the world,” he wrote. The poet philosopher didn’t look forward to resurrection, reincarnation, Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory, but to nothingness. For him “the supreme principle of morality” was that “non-being is better than being.” For him, Schopenhauer’s Will-To-Live was the will-to-die, making death “salvation.” At age 34, Mainlander hanged himself using a pile of copies of The Philosophy of Redemption as a platform. Disgusted that he hadn’t found the courage of Sisyphus, Nietzsche called his predecessor a “dilettante” and a “sickeningly sentimental apostle of virginity.”
Still, a dead God invites questions. Did Nietzsche or Mainländer mean dead to them, or objectively -- to everybody? And, Who or What was dead: the Christian Trinity, the Abrahamic One-and-Only, or the idea of divinity generally? Finally, since the definitive characteristic of any god is im-mortality, how can he be dead, much less a murder victim?
Though Nietzsche provided no solid answers, he had no illusions about the implications of his obituary. If God were indeed dead, then weren’t morality, salvation and immortality DOA too? Moreover, without divinity, death itself becomes the only inescapable Absolute, rendering life meaningless. Denouncing Kant, Hegel, and other “old maids with theologian’s blood” who perpetuated the “romantic hypochondria” of the Church, Nietzsche insisted that man should bravely press on alone.
“How shall we comfort ourselves?” he asked. “Must we not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
Yes, indeed. And through his own prophet, Zarathustra, successor to The Madman, Nietzsche called that god the Ubermensch. Going beyond Good and Evil, this Superman would become a law unto himself. In so doing, he would avoid hopelessness by immersing himself in the dynamic present world of his own life to “happily dwell in the realm beyond death.” For this reason, Nietzsche’s followers called themselves Existentialists, and their anti-metaphysical motto became: Existence before Essence.
Before spending his last ten years in asylums, Nietzsche ballasted his ship with his Pythagoras-inspired Amor Fati Eternal Return doctrine. The Superman’s challenge, he wrote, was to embrace his fate, no matter how dire, and “believe everything happens for the best.” But the problem, by his own admission, was that “If you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes back into you.” So, even before losing his mind, the abyss-gazer confessed: “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.”
Nietzsche’s struggle with depression was even greater than Schopenhauer’s. He called it “the worst of all penalties that exists on earth.” He feared that his few friends might regard him as a “crazy person driven half mad by solitude,” and he told one “not to worry too much if I kill myself.” For years he had been plagued by migraines, nausea, and seizures. He was convinced that lightning and thunderstorms triggered the attacks, and that his sanity depended on clear weather. He self-medicated with opium, hashish, cocaine, and chloral hydrate (a potent sedative used in asylums). In a moment of rare levity, he once said: “Man does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does.” Though he may never have experienced such pedestrian happiness, he was fortunate enough to be bipolar: his depression was sometimes swept away by sudden, unprovoked ecstasies especially during his solitary mountain marches under cloudless skies. When the darkness returned, he tried to steel himself: “What does not kill me makes me stronger!”
But, in the end, Nietzsche fell into the abyss of his mind and never came back. The Superman’s last words to his long-suffering caretaker were: “Mutter, ich bin dumm” – “Mother, I am dumb.” At his funeral attended by a handful of friends, his sister followed his strict instructions: "Promise me that when I die … no priest utter falsehoods at my graveside. Let me descend into my tomb as an honest pagan." After honoring her brother’s wish, Elisabeth burst into tears, crying, “Zarathustra is dead!” And Nietzsche’s eulogizer, Dr. Ernst Horneffer, beholding the philosopher in his final sleep, declared: “He looks like a dead god. Truly he does!”
For his part, the fideist, Kant, maintained his sanity and sunny disposition till the end. Living to the ripe old age of 80, his own last words to his confessor were: "Es ist gut” – “It is good." Then, according to his first biographer, he died so peacefully that only “the cessation of his breath” could be heard.
The two philosophers represented the conflicting poles of their discipline. If Kant was a Bach/Mozart of the mind, perfect, uplifting, and transcendent, Nietzsche was a Wagner/Beethoven, all sound and fury, Sturm and Drang. If Kant was the cool and collected Apollo, Nietzsche was the wild and passionate Dionysius. If Kant was the son of Prometheus, freed by the Hercules of faith, Nietzsche was the son of Sisyphus pressing on defiantly and alone.
Toward the end of the 19th Century, occultism and theosophy became all the rage in the Europe’s salons and cafes. Then came the World Wars that claimed seventy million lives. Based on Plato’s “True philosophers make dying their profession,” Greek thanatology was revived and refined by the fathers of modern psychology, classical scholars both.
“The goal of all life is death,” wrote Sigmund Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Despite their many disagreements, his pupil, Carl Jung, agreed, explaining: “Shrinking away from death is unhealthy and abnormal and robs the second half of life of its purpose.” However, the two disagreed on details.
A materialist atheist, Freud argued that God was man’s infantile father-figure creation, immortality a self-serving illusion, and religion itself a “collective neurosis. “After part of his cancerous tongue and jaw were removed, calling his life “nothing but torture,” he died by assisted suicide at age 83.
Freud had urged his “crown prince,” Jung, to oppose “the black tide of occultism” and to carry on with his own “numinosum” – his religion surrogate: his Death (Thanatos) and Sex Drive (Eros) dogma. A freelance deist, Jung declined. He went on to develop his own theories based on eternal Platonic-like Forms which he called Archetypes. A believer in the hidden wisdom of the Unconscious, Jung warned against over-thinking: “The more the critical reasoning dominates, the more impoverished and pauperized life becomes.”5 Late in life, during a near fatal heart attack, Jung had an ecstatic, face of eternity near-death experience from which he awakened “regretfully and bitterly.” He returned to the far shore permanently a few years later, age 85. On his headstone were the words of the Oracle at Delphi: Dicitur vel non, deus aderit – “Called or not, the god will be present.” The inscription might have made Freud shutter, but the ashes of the euthanized materialist had been deposited in an ancient Dionysian urn twenty-two years before.
The fathers of psychoanalysis, both of whom had written extensively about suicide, were well acquainted with the opinions of their pagan predecessors. Stoics such as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius considered it an “honorable” option for those who found life incomprehensible, if not intolerable.
Aristotle maintained that it was a cowardly act and a violation of one’s community duty. Plato, seeing both sides of the matter, straddled the fence. Though God had sentenced Adam and Eve to death for disobeying Him and eating the apple of knowledge, the Church fathers – ignoring His “thorns, thistles, and sweat of brow” curse (Genesis 3:18) -- insisted suicide was a rejection of His sacred “gift of life” and of the Sixth Commandment.
Later on, David Hume was the first major Enlightenment philosopher to revive the subject in his Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul, "Why should I prolong a miserable existence, because of some frivolous advantage which the public may perhaps receive from me?” he demanded. Believing that no man’s life was greater than that of an “oyster” and that self-important philosophers were disgracing their profession with nonsense, the architect of British Empiricism complained: “I have exposed myself to the enmity of all metaphysicians, logicians, mathematicians, and even theologians; and can I wonder at the insults I must suffer?”
Ludwig Wittgenstein, considered by many history’s last great philosopher, agreed with Hume. He came to regard as “stupid, dishonest, and disgustingly mistaken” all the metaphysicians he’d once worshipped. He dismissed most philosophies as “nothing but houses of cards” and “grammar masquerading as science.” Confessing that logic had driven him to near madness and suicide, he wrote his mentor, Bertrand Russell, “How can I be a logician before I’m a human being?” Russell had spent his own life in the cerebral maze only to become a Fallibilist, too: “Philosophy seems to me on the whole a rather hopeless business.” Like their predecessors, both geniuses had hoped to make their discipline more scientific; but, by this time, the most scientific of sciences, quantum physics, operated under the cloud of Werner Heisenberg’s 1927 Nobel winning Uncertainty Principle (introduced by Hume two centuries before leading him to famously declare, “The truth is that there is no truth.”).
After abandoning his position as Philosophy Chair at Cambridge, Wittgenstein worried that “my mind’s completely dead.” As a result, his longstanding depression became more severe. "I cannot imagine any future for me other than a ghastly one,” he wrote a friend. “It is as though I had before me nothing more than a long stretch of living death.” Three of his five brothers had committed suicide, and he had contemplated it as well. But the man who was called “God” by his students, went the distance even so. On his deathbed, he asked for “a priest who was not a philosopher” and whispered to him his unexpectedly Kantian last words: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”
Just before Wittgenstein abandoned academia, Albert Camus published The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) which portrayed the cursed man as an “absurd” hero. Since he’d never summit the heavenly mountain with the Philosopher’s Stone, the legendary intellectual knew his life was futile. So, he was left with only two alternatives: Accept his fate and embrace the struggle; or reject it and end his life. For this reason, Camus called suicide the “only truly philosophical problem.” In a moment of playful morbidity, he wondered: “Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?”
Calling the Absurd “the essential concept and first truth,” the Existentialist chose the second option, and received the Nobel Prize in 1957. Two years later, at age 46, deciding at the last minute to take a ride from his publisher instead of on the train, he died instantly in a car crash. Before the accident, the author of Sisyphus and The Plague said: “I know nothing more absurd then to die in an auto accident.”
Echoing Skeptics, ancient and modern, Camus concluded: “the world is not reasonable.” Even so, he imagined Sisyphus never giving up trying to conquer mortality mountain and return with the secret of life. So, the pessimist ended his story with optimism: “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Indeed, even those from Democritus to Wittgenstein most disillusioned with reason found it impossible to throw the metaphysical monkey off their backs: they continued, like St. Thomas, to fill volumes with their cerebral “straw” till the last breath.
Descartes boasted that he would chart his own mountain ascent solo without guides, gear, or oxygen. But he was on Christian air, roped to Plato’s pitons while using the handholds of Anselm. Schopenhauer promised his publisher “a new philosophical system… free of meaningless, empty, and bombastic words.” What he delivered was an 800-page doorstop, retracing the ascents of Kant and the Upanishads, but with daredevil improvisation at the crevasses and icefalls.
Despite the many claims of originality, there have been only two basic approaches to the wisdom peak: Aristotle’s material route up the South face, requiring superhuman endurance; and Plato’s mental route up the sheer, windy North Face, requiring divine assistance. Many future alpinists clipped into Aristotle’s protection, other’s into Plato’s, some into both.
After 2500 years of ascents, the mountain is now draped with a thousand tangled ropes, each with a different name: Idealism, Empiricism, Realism, Nominalism, Dualism, Monism, Atomism, Stoicism, Pantheism, Empiricism, Determinism, Nihilism, Phenomenalism, Existentialism, Logical Positivism, etc.
But has any ism, alone or combined, delivered a climber beyond the Death Zone to a divine, eternal life of the mind?
Impossible to know. But unlikely. Despite their talent and determination, each ancient philosopher carried the entire library of Alexandria on his back and, each modern, that plus a many Critiques of Pure Reason. More debilitating still, most struggled under too much personal baggage. As Icarus discovered when trying to escape his father’s labyrinth, in order to climb, much less fly, a man must cast off everything that weighs him down or might be melted by the sun.
Ironically, the most brilliant thinkers were the most weighed down, blinded by pride and imprisonment in their own genius. Everybody trumpeted the Delphic mandate, “Know Thyself.” But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that Freud, Jung, and others began to deconstruct and deeply analyze the Self and its mortal Will– the very thing that prevented Homo Sapiens philosophers from accessing soul and becoming homo immortalis.
As the saying about Lucifer, the light-bearer, went: Pride goeth before the Fall. Many jumped into the volcano of their own minds to prove their divine immortality. But, as in the case of the first great daredevil thinker, Empedocles, Mt. Etna just belched back a scorched golden sandal.