René Descartes and the benefit of the doubt

The French philosopher René Descartes is best-known for his statement Cogito, ergo sum – I think, therefore I am. But what is the deeper philosophy behind this statement?

When trying to understand Descartes’ philosophy, it is important to bear in mind that he was not only a philosopher, but also a mathematician – any high school student has to contend with Cartesian coordinates, probably the best-known result of his work in mathematics. Descartes wanted to introduce mathematical rigour into philosophy, and this meant that he first had to get rid of everything that was without rigorous foundation. He radically questioned everything: our perceptions, and reality as it appears to us – it could all be just a dream. Maybe none of it really exists? Some truths, however, pass the test of this radical doubt: basic notions of time, space, and also mathematical truths like 2+2=4 remain true, even in dreams.

This is the point where Descartes realizes that one thing is undoubtedly true: our mind, our awareness exists. Whatever is going on in this awareness may be deeply deluded, but we can be sure that we exist, because we have an immediate experience of our awareness. This is an undebatable truth. Unfortunately, Descartes let himself slip into arguments that are not quite as rigorous as his initial idea: he tried to prove the existence of God, starting from his initial argument. He probably felt the need to do this because, even though his initial argument is very strong, it is useless if we are interested in making statements about anything except our own existence. Descartes’ argument is the following: we find in ourselves the idea of a perfect being (God). Since we are imperfect and limited, it is impossible that we generated this idea by ourselves, which necessitates the existence of God, who must have planted the seed of this idea into us. If we assume, however, that anything that we think can be wrong and is not provable with mathematical rigor, it is obvious that this argument of the existence of God is somewhat contrived and much weaker than his initial argument.

Descartes began a tradition in Western philosophy: the need to find a point of absolute truth, which would allow the philosopher to attach a philosophical framework to it. Schopenhauer, for example, sought this point of absolute truth in “will”. Ultimately, all of these attempts are doomed: the points of absolute truth philosophers have come up with are often questionable (Schopenhauer’s “will”, for example, strikes me as a rather arbitrary choice, lacking in substance). Even when they are convincing, as in the case of Descartes, they are of little use. The instant we leave the point of absolute truth, the mathematical rigour is gone – we have to use our flawed minds to come up with arguments, which means that they lack the strength and clarity of the basic assumption.

So why read and think about Descartes, if his thinking was a useless exercise in applying mathematical rigour to philosophy, without practical use? First of all, his radical doubt reminds us to be humble, it reminds us of the fact that we know very little, and that the things we know are doubtful. This is a recurring theme (Socrates had the same realization) and probably the most fundamental teaching of philosophy – we know nothing. Most of us are quick to nod here, but we quickly forget this truth and walk around in our everyday lives, armed with notions and opinions and judgments, convinced that we are right: if our preferred politician were in power, the economy would be better. Our coworker is a bad person. Our friend took a wrong decision. People in general are unreliable. Do we really know these things? If we were to investigate with Descartes’ rigour, we would have to admit that most are guesses at best, and that we should be much more humble in our assessments.

Ideologues in particular present a worldview that is based on fixed assumptions that are presented as undoubtedly true. The worldview rests on these assumptions, and everything else is viewed from the angle of these assumptions. The basic assumption of Nazism was that there is a struggle of the races for world domination. Communism taught that class struggle would inevitably lead to the victory of the working class and the emergence of Communism/Socialism. Religious ideologies are based on the assumption that one religion is “true” and superior and that everyone else should be converted or killed. Trumpism teaches that there is a conspiracy of the liberal elite and foreign powers, that this conspiracy wants to destroy the United States, and that Donald Trump is the savior who will prevent this from happening.

Descartes’ skepticism teaches us to closely examine the basic assumptions of our worldview, and the conclusions we draw from them. Are they really as solid as they look to us, or are we fooling ourselves?

Erich Fromm and the Discontents of Materialism

In his book To Have or to Be, Erich Fromm analyzes the profound sense of dissatisfaction that is present in the materialistic societies of the West. He conceptionalizes the problem as two opposite ways of life: one that is centered around having vs. one that is centered around being.

Fromm begins his book with an analysis of the ideological assumptions that underlie Western capitalist societies. They are:

  1. “The aim of life is happiness, that is, maximum pleasure, defined as the satisfaction of any desire or subjective need a person may feel”
  2. “Egotism, selfishness, and greed, as the system needs to generate them in order to function, lead to harmony and peace”

To sum it up, the belief is that pursuit of self-interest makes the system more efficient, which allows more people to satisfy their desires, which is equivalent to increased happiness. What is good for man becomes less and less of an important question, and it is replaced by what is good for the growth of the system. Possible conflicts between the two are covered up by assuming that what is good for the system is also good for the people.

Not only does this ideology fail to make the important distinction between desires aimed at momentary pleasure on the one hand, and legitimate needs that are necessary for well-being on the other, it also introduces a value system that eliminates ethics from economic behavior. As Fromm points out, up to the development of capitalism, economic behavior had always been subject to ethics and morality. In the new ideology, economic growth becomes the only reference frame for judging an action to be “good” or “bad” – irrespective of whether it leads to suffering or if it entails deception or other immoral behaviors.

The pervasive belief that happiness is achieved through accumulating more and more possessions and through the satisfaction of desires leaves many people empty, depressed and dissatisfied. This mode of being, which attempts to deal with life through accumulating possessions, is the mode of having. Opposed to this is the mode of being, which focuses on the development of one’s full human potential. It is characterized by being vibrantly alive, by being engaged in productive activity, rather than in the pursuit of more and more possessions. The mode of having is not limited to material objects and money – almost any aspect of life can be subordinated to the need to possess. Take someone who has a high level of education. If this person is caught in the mode of having, he accumulates knowledge to possess it, to impress others, to feel that he is better than them, and to reach a position of power. Someone who is focused on being, on the other hand, studies out of genuine interest, to question himself, to see things from a new perspective, to enlarge and develop himself, and to teach others, to elevate them and help them grow. Relationships can also be approached from the mode of having or from the mode of being: Am I in a relationship to “have” a partner, or because the relationship fosters growth in myself and my partner? Even asceticism can be a practiced in the mode of having: these are the people who like to have the idea of themselves as spiritual, ascetic people. They may outwardly appear as though they had renounced all possessions, but internally they very much cling to a certain idea of themselves.

As Fromm observes, to the degree that our need to possess decreases, our ability to truly be increasesOnly if we are not driven by the need to possess, we are free to experience joy and to be truly alive. Once again it is the mystics who lead the way: the Buddha, Meister Eckhard, the philosopher Spinoza and many more. They carefully investigated every dimension of the tendency of our mind to become entangled in its need to seek safety in possessions.

Now we can examine ourselves: are we living more in the mode of having or in the mode of being? Is what is currently on our minds an expression of our need to possess, or of a genuine interest in the thing-in-itself? Usually, it is a mixture of the two. We may, for example, learn an instrument, both because we like music, but also because we like the idea of ourselves being able to play an instrument. It is a good indicator of healthy development if our need to possess gradually decreases, and our ability to appreciate beauty and to be creative increases.

Primo Levi and the teachings of Auschwitz

If This Is a Man is Primo Levi’s account of the time he spent as a prisoner in Auschwitz. It is one of the best-known and most poignantly written testimonies of the horrors of the Holocaust.

Levi was an Italian Jew. He was arrested in 1944, when the German army had occupied the northern half of Italy – Mussolini’s fascists had never been ardent antisemites, and until the occupation Italian Jews had been relatively safe. Levi was transported to one of the labor camps in the vicinity of Auschwitz, and he managed to survive; through luck, and because he was a chemist, which allowed him to seek shelter in a position that made use of his education and protected him from backbreaking work.

There are several observations Levi made that distinguish his book. Levi notes the cynical mockery that formed the backdrop to the obvious brutality. It was not enough for the nazis to physically exterminate the Jewish prisoners. Even before they killed them, they wanted to utterly reduce them to nothingness. Upon arrival, the prisoners were robbed of their personal objects, separated from their families, shaven, showered, clothed in new clothes, a number was tattooed on their arm, and they were only addressed by their numbers, not their names. Many prisoners seemed to forget they had a name. Permanent hunger, exhaustion and the constant possibility of death reduced their horizon to the next meal, the next break, and made clear thinking impossible. Dreams, hopes and aims were unreasonable and irrational. Even before these prisoners were murdered in the gas chambers, they were already reduced to the lowest possible state of existence. Their death merely represented the conclusion of a process of dehumanization that began the instant the prisoners were shoved into cattle wagons and transported to the camps.

The aim of the humiliating, nonsensical procedures the prisoners were subjected to was to mock them and to break them. It is well-known that the gates of Auschwitz were lettered with the words: “Work makes you free”. Little rhymes in the bathrooms reminded the prisoners to maintain hygiene: “After using the toilet and before lunch, don’t forget to wash your hands” – in a camp that was designed to kill them, the prisoners were reminded of washing their hands. The nazis wanted to utterly destroy any hope that was left within the prisoners – essentially, they told them: “Look, we can do all these terrible things to you: we reduce you to nothingness, torture and murder you, make fun of you, and nobody stops us. Nobody will help you. You are lost. God does not exist. Justice does not exist. There is no hope for you.” This is pure sadism – if you can destroy the light of hope inside a person, you have absolute control over him/her, you are his/her god.

The highest manifestation of this sadism was the so-called “Sonderkommando” – “commando for special purposes”. The prisoners who formed this group had to guide newly arrived prisoners into the gas chambers, and subsequently clean the chambers and burn the remains. In return, they received better rations. While they were privileged and sometimes even treated with respect by the German guards, these prisoners were a problem, since they had seen the darkest secrets of the system. After a few months, new prisoners were selected for the “Sonderkommando”, and their first duty was to guide their predecessors into the gas chambers. Symbolically, the prisoners were made complicit in the destruction of their own people, they were made part of a system that would ultimately consume themselves as well.

Levi astutely observed the symbolic meaning of all that happened to him as a prisoner. He also noted how a new social structure emerged under the extreme conditions of the concentration camp. In the hierarchy of the camp, ordinary criminals were the most privileged, since they were neither politically suspect nor judged racially inferior. The German authorities selected the most brutal of them to be put in charge of the Jewish prisoners, who had the lowest status. In between stood the political prisoners. A complicated economy of trade, corruption and mutual favors emerged in this sociotope. Under the circumstances, only the best-adapted prisoners survived, ordinary prisoners fell prey to hunger and exhaustion after a few weeks or months. The extreme situation magnified differences in character that remain hidden in ordinary life; clever persuasiveness or primitive lack of sensitivity that may have comparably small consequences in ordinary life could make the difference between life and death in the concentration camps. Even small vices became magnified under the circumstances; all the more so pronounced inclinations towards violence. His descriptions of those few who managed to preserve their humanity and compassion shine all the more brightly against the backdrop of suffering and brutalization.

Some of the experiences Levi recounts are surreal, compared to ordinary life. An example is his exam with a German chemist, whose assessment decided whether Levi would be allowed to work in a privileged position (possible survival) or go back to the ordinary prisoners (certain death). The neatly dressed German chemist tested Levi’s chemistry knowledge; Levi stood before him, bald and emaciated, frantically trying to remember what he had learned during his studies in Turin, seemingly a lifetime ago. I couldn’t help but remember how much anxiety my exams at school and in university had caused me, and how little was at stake, in comparison.

Levi’s book remains relevant, not only to understand what happened in the past, but also to see clearly human nature, to see what humans can do to each other. We like to believe that we live in a civilized age, that we have transcended barbarity. But the truth is that the layer of civilization is thin, precariously held in place by the relative stability and wealth of our societies.

Speaking Truth to Power: The Trial of Socrates

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Socrates

Socrates, one of the most famous philosophers, was sentenced to death, essentially for the mischief he caused with his inquisitive mind. He was accused of influencing the youth with his dangerous thoughts, and of undermining the belief in the gods. In the Apologia, Plato recounts the legal self-defense Socrates delivered.

One day, the Delphic oracle told Socrates that he was the wisest man of all. This left Socrates deeply confused. He did not believe himself to be wise; on the contrary, he was convinced that he knew very little. Then again, the oracle did not lie, so he wanted to understand better what its statement meant. He spoke to all the people who were considered to be wise: politicians, poets, and artisans. Socrates made the following observation: “In conversation with with him [a politician] I had the impression that this man appeared to many other people, but most of all to himself, to be wise, but he was not. Therefore, I tried to show him that he was convinced that he was wise, but that he was actually not wise; this is why I became hated by him and many others. When I was leaving him I thought to myself: obviously I am wiser than this man. Neither of us knows anything useful or special; but this man believes to know, even though he does not, whereas I do not know, but I also do not believe to know. Thus by this small amount I am wiser than him…” Looking at the society of Athens, Socrates said: “The most famous seemed to me the most wretched; when I examined things according to God, others, who were held in lower regard, seemed to me more reasonable.” Socrates arrived at the conclusion that what the oracle had told him had to be interpreted thus: among humans, he who understands, like Socrates, that he is not wise at all, is the wisest. In his legal self-defense, Socrates declared that he followed the wishes of the gods when he tried to make evident to those who believed to be wise that they were not, in fact, wise. The accusation that he was corrupting the youth was due to the fact that he was teaching the youth to question the wisdom of those who professed to be wise. Socrates’ critics invented the accusations that Socrates was undermining the faith in the gods, that he was presenting right as wrong and wrong as right, simply because they were not wise and had nothing substantial to point to. Socrates explains that the reason he is hated is that he speaks the truth, not that he distorts it.

In the remaining parts of his speech Socrates refutes the accusations of godlessness. He also explains that he cannot and will not change his opinions, even in the face of the impending death sentence. Giving up the pursuit of truth and virtue would estrange him from God, and it would make life worthless. He justifies his live-style and points out that he who fights for justice must lead a withdrawn, solitary life, rather than a public one.

Socrates ends his speech with a prophecy. His opponents were thinking that in punishing Socrates they were able to rid themselves of being held accountable for their lives; Socrates predicts that right after his death they would be punished much more severely than Socrates was. He points out that he who believes that he can rid himself of his accountability through executing his critics is mistaken. The only way is to work on oneself to become good and virtuous.

Socrates was subsequently sentenced to death. His friends offered to help him escape, but he refused. He accepted his death sentence and drank the cup of hemlock.

Reading Plato’s account of Socrates’ speech, it is not surprising that Socrates had many enemies. Socrates’ dedication to philosophy meant that he questioned everyone and everything, including himself. He did not accept opinions or explanations just because they were tradition or because they were held by respected authorities. To Socrates, only the truth of a statement mattered, not if it was uttered by an adolescent, a beggar, a professor, or a politician – this was his understanding of the true spirit of philosophy: radical dedication to truth. The threat of punishment did not discourage him from speaking truth – his comfort and self-interest were not important to him. Naturally, this meant that he found himself in opposition to authority. Authority relies on people doing what they are told, and therefore Socrates posed a threat to it, and had to be eliminated.

Socrates embodies the true spirit of education: endless curiosity and the rejection of preconceived notions. For sure, Socrates was a well-educated man, but that was exactly what led him to the realization that he knew very little. For whenever we learn something new, we also learn about the limits of our knowledge, and we must acknowledge that the unknown far surpasses what we understand. This sharply contrasts to those who accumulate knowledge to feel good about themselves, to condescendingly patronize others. As Socrates explains, often one can find more wisdom among less educated people, who do not use knowledge to feel superior and are therefore more aware of the limits of their knowledge.

Organizations as well as individuals need renewal and adaptation to survive: traditions have to be questioned, established norms and behavior patterns have to be adapted and revised, flaws and corruption have to be overcome. These changes, however, are resisted, and the people who identify the need for them are often seen as enemies. It is tempting to eliminate those who point out flaws, instead of making an effort to adapt, change, and examine oneself critically. But, as Socrates points out, it is only a matter of time until the need for change sweeps away obsolete structures and habits, both for individuals and organizations.

In his dedication to philosophy, Socrates shares many aspects with the mystics: humility, dedication to truth, curiosity, introspection. In particular, he makes the connection between humility, the pursuit of truth, and God. He says that he cannot give up his convictions, because that would separate him from God. His connection to God also means that he is not afraid of death, and he is willing to die for his convictions, since he knows that they are in alignment with God.

Socrates stands in a long line of people who were punished and ostracized because they criticized the establishment and pointed out its corruption. The tendency of organizations to become corrupt as well as their violence against critics is a perennial problem. Socrates is an inspiring example of someone who fearlessly spoke truth to power, who fought for a sane and just society. He is relevant now more than ever.

Knowing God

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Jesus Christ.

– Philippians 4

In his book Knowing God, James Innell Packer writes about what it means to be close to God. He begins with the distinction between knowing God and having knowledge about God. It is possible to know a great deal about God, without necessarily knowing God, i.e. having experienced his presence. Essentially, it is the distinction between dogma and experience. There is a great deal of dogmatic knowledge that can be accumulated, but knowing God is about feeling his presence.

Knowing God has nothing to do with one’s particular religion. Different religions simply represent the different cultures and historical circumstances that gave birth to them. While some religions stress certain aspects of God more than others, or communicate them particularly poignantly, they all strive to approach the same point, simply from a different direction. Once we transcend the particular customs of our religion, and become familiar with God, really get to know Him, the experience will be the same. Indeed, mystics of all religions have upset the dogmatic establishment of their particular religion, simply because they sought wisdom wherever they could find it, even if it was in the writings of the adherents of another religion.

According to Packer, those who know God share these characteristics:

  1. Great Energy: Those who know God have great energy, for praying and for action in the service of God.
  2. Boldness: Those who know God do not fear consequences.
  3. Contentment: Those who know God have peace of mind, because they know that any worldly problem is insignificant compared to the greatness of God.

I think the main reason why personal knowledge of God changes one’s perspective and motivations so drastically is that the primary source of meaning and safety is no longer the self, but God. If we do not know God, if we do not feel without any doubt that he is here, then the only way to a feeling of safety is to defend our self-interest. That means that we must bow to authority, we must manipulate situations and people to ensure that we are safe. If we know that God exists, and with that I mean not some intellectual knowledge or fragile belief, I mean that if we feel in every fibre of our body that God exists and that we are part of Him and His creation, then we are safe, whatever happens – the Bible speaks of “a peace which surpasses all understanding”. We can accept things as they are, and we no longer need to please and manipulate. At the same time it gives the strength to oppose those who act against God, who hurt and demean.

Sadhguru, an Indian mystic, was once asked if he believed in God. He replied that he did not believe God existed; he knew it. He went on to explain that there is no point in “believing” in God if you do not feel that He is present. How do we arrive at such an awareness of the presence of God? Through contemplation and meditation. If we empty ourselves of our selfish desires, we become a suitable vessel for God, and He will come to us and we will be able to feel His presence.

Knowledge of God makes it impossible to be indifferent towards destructive behavior. As long as we are mainly interested in our self-interest, we care very little about whether other people’s behavior is immoral or not. Without God, existence is meaningless and all life philosophies are equally arbitrary – it does not matter how we live our lives. But if we know that God exists, this also entails an ideal about what humans should aspire to be. It represents a reference frame that judges our behavior – have we realized our human potential to be close to God, or have we not? We become aware that unwholesome behavior separates us from God, and creates suffering.

[The above statements reflect my personal point of view. I realize that religion is a very personal topic, and I do not want criticize readers who have a different opinion and perspective. If you do have a different perspective, do not hesitate to leave a comment below. I would be happy to discuss.]

Friedrich Nietzsche and the Death of God

One of Friedrich Nietzsche’s most famous phrases is his statement that God is dead. In The Gay Science, he tells the story of a madman who went to the marketplace and shouted that he was looking for God. This caused amusement among the onlookers; many of them no longer believed in God. The madman announced: “Where is God? I will tell you! We have killed him, – you and me! We all are his murderers! But how did we do it? How did we manage to drink the ocean? Who gave us the sponge to erase the horizon? What did we do, when we unshackled the Sun from the Earth? Where is it going now? Where are we going now? Away from all suns? Do we not fall incessantly? Backwards, sideways, forward, to all sides? Is there an above and below? Do we not wander in an infinite nothingness? Do we not feel the cold breath of empty space? Has it not gotten colder? Is there not more and more night? […] God is dead! God remains dead! And we all killed him! […] The holiest and most powerful the world possessed, it bled to death beneath our knives, – who will wipe this blood from us? With what water can we cleanse us? […] Is this deed not too great for us? Do we not have to become Gods ourselves, to be worthy of it?”. The madman and all the people around him fell silent. Then he announced that he had come too early, that the event still had to reach people’s ears.

Friedrich Nietzsche correctly saw that the discoveries of modern science had undermined the stability of the Western societies. Their value systems had become unmoored, the moral framework based on Christianity destabilized. There were three main attacks on the special status humanity had enjoyed so far:

  1. Copernicus found that it is the Earth that orbits the Sun, not the Sun the Earth. This dislodged humanity from its place at the center of the universe. Later it became clear that even the Sun is not at the center, but only one among trillions of other Suns in the Milky Way and other galaxies.
  2. Darwin found out that humans evolved from animals through evolution.
  3. Freud discovered that even in our own minds, we are not in control. A large part of our motivations and our personality is unconscious.

Thus from being God’s special creation, endowed with supreme insight, at the center of the universe, humans were demoted to the status of intelligent apes, who don’t understand their own minds, traveling trough space on one of the trillions of planets in the universe. This demolished the basis of the moral framework that had hitherto been in place; Nietzsche’s story captures the sense of disorientation and anxiety this caused. Nietzsche also intuited the moral disasters it would lead to. Indeed, the fascist and communist movements of the 20th century tried to replace the Christian moral framework with a new, pseudo-scientific framework that was not constrained by notions of compassion and mercy. Before, human beings had been creations of God and endowed with intrinsic dignity; now they were slaughtered like animals, with pseudo-scientific arguments about race and class. Nietzsche anticipated these developments decades before they actually came about; like the “madman” in the story, Nietzsche came too early.

Thus the outcome of the demolition of the Christian moral framework was nihilism (Nietzsche: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”). Since the absolute reference frame God provided is gone, the world disintegrates into competing ideologies and life philosophies, all of which are equally arbitrary. The consequences of this nihilism are palpable even today – is it not a widespread life philosophy, explicitly or implicitly, to say that there is no God (or at least to behave as though he didn’t exist), to say that there is no absolute reference frame for good and bad, and that one should just try to be as successful as possible and to enjoy life? How many people spend their lives in the silent desperation of this nihilistic hedonism? Trying to numb themselves with television and the internet? Are not many of the problems of modern society results of the attempt to fill the void within and the lack of a moral coordinate system? Drugs, overeating, ruthless pursuit of self-interest, abuse, violence?

What, then, is the solution to this problem? The only way out of this dilemma is to create meaning by oneself – to create meaning in the inside, rather than taking it from the outside, “to become Gods ourselves”, as Nietzsche writes. Nietzsche did not say that religion and the existence of God had been refuted, he merely noted that the special status of humanity is no longer an obvious fact, and that this undermines the Christian morality. In the middle ages, the existence of God and the central status of humanity in creation was an obvious fact of human life, and this is no longer the case. We have to dig deeper if we want to find God – we have to become fully human, we have to look inside ourselves and find the truth there. In fact, mystics in many religions state that we have to become one with God, we have to empty ourselves of our selfish garbage, to make space for God within ourselves – to become God, in some sense. This is an answer to the problem of nihilism.

It seems to me that now, more than 120 years after Nietzsche, we are again in a similar situation of existential insecurity and fear. Only now, it is not the Christian worldview that has died, it is the modern belief in progress and the eventual victory of democracy. After the end of the Cold War, it was believed that the last big conflict had ended, that peace and democracy would reign supreme, that there would be “the end of history”. Now we have to recognize that this belief was wrong: the world is far from peaceful, we are about to destroy the planet with global warming, and in many regions of the world democracy is in retreat and autocratic systems take hold. This year, the coronavirus outbreak has shown that the stability of our systems is an illusion: the epidemic overwhelmed health care systems and stopped economies, and the economic, political and social repercussions will accompany us for a long time. The questions this raises are the same Nietzsche raised more than one hundred years ago: “Where are we going now? Away from all suns? Do we not fall incessantly? Backwards, sideways, forward, to all sides? Is there an above and below? Do we not wander in an infinite nothingness? Do we not feel the cold breath of empty space? Has it not gotten colder? Is there not more and more night?”.

Erich Fromm on Group Narcissism

In his book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Erich Fromm discusses group narcissism as one of the most important causes for aggression. Ordinary narcissism is, according to Fromm, the attempt to feel safe by convincing oneself of one’s intrinsic superiority, as opposed to trying to overcome existential anxieties through work and connection to others, which would be the healthy solution. Questioning the narcissist’s sense of superiority and entitlement leads to narcissistic rage and retaliation, because the narcissist’s sense of security is threatened.

Defensive aggression is aggression with the purpose of defending against something that threatens one’s life or the resources and circumstances necessary to survive. This kind of aggression is useful and necessary under certain circumstances. The problem with narcissists is that they regard it as their vital interest that everyone and everything behave according to their wishes, and any opposition to this triggers aggression.

Group narcissism is, as the name implies, the narcissistic sense of superiority of a group of people. Even the least important member of the group can feel like a giant through his/her affiliation to the group, because the group is superior to everyone else. The individual in the group identifies with the group’s superiority; attacks on the image of the group as superior are perceived as a threat to the self-esteem of the individual. Group narcissism is socially much more acceptable, because it can be presented as patriotism and loyalty. Someone who believes himself to be intrinsically superior to other people may be regarded as crazy, but someone who believes his country to be superior to all other countries is a patriot, because it is a belief that is shared by many.

Group narcissism is deeply entrenched, because the members of the group reassure each other that their worldview is correct. Since the members are deeply invested in defending their group, criticism of the group identity trigger anger and aggression.

In politics, group narcissism is an easy and cheap way to create social cohesion as well as a sense of meaning and satisfaction in the population, albeit at the expense of those who do not belong to the “superior” group. Historical examples are Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. More recently, Donald Trump and other populist politicians have been using group narcissism to garner popular support.

Group narcissism is, however, not limited to politics, where it manifests in the form of nationalism. It can be found anywhere in society: in the intellectual elite and in academia, where some people believe themselves above the rest of the population, among the wealthy and rich, among doctors, in the Church. Any social group is vulnerable to succumbing to the need to feel superior.

Plato’s allegory of the cave

In his work Republic, Plato presents the allegory of the cave, which is one of the best-known philosophical allegories. Plato describes the process of gaining insight and the problems that come with it.

Plato describes the unenlightened man as shackled to a wall, deep inside a dark cave. His head is fixed in a certain position, such that he can only see the opposite wall. Further up in the cave, there is a fire that casts its light down onto the wall the man is facing. On the levels between the man and the fire, there are people carrying objects, and these objects cast shadows on the wall. Far above the fire, there is the entry of the cave, where the blindingly bright sunlight of the day can be seen.

Plato explains that the man must necessarily believe that the shadows the objects cast onto the wall must be reality, since he is unable to see anything but these shadows. If there were several men, all of them shackled to the wall, and if they were able to discuss what they see, they would surely agree that the shadows are reality.

If one of them were to be freed, and able to turn his head and to see the light above as well as the objects that are being carried around in front of the light, he would be in pain from moving his body for the first time, and blinded by the brightness of the light. His paining eyes would drive him back to the shadows, and he would cling to the belief that the shadows are reality. If he were dragged into the sunlight, against his will, he would be in pain, and, blinded by the sunlight, unable to recognize any of the objects that he is shown as real. Only after some time he would get used to the light, and he would be able to see reality.

Now, however, he would consider himself blessed for having left the dark cave, and he would pity those who are still shackled to the wall, down in the cave. Thinking back to the empty discussions he had about the shadows of the objects and the opinions about them, he would rather be a poor beggar than go back to ignorance.

If the man were to go back into the cave, he would be unable to see, since his eyes are now used to the brightness of the day, and the people down in the cave would make fun of him and agree that he ruined his eyes when he left the cave. The man would have to argue about the shadow of truth with people who have never seen truth itself. These people would agree that there is no point in leaving the cave, and they would attempt to kill anyone who tries to free them from their shackles.

In this allegory, Plato explains the difficulties of personal growth and of gaining insight. We are all attached to our opinions about the world and ourselves, and we like to believe that they accurately represent reality. But the fact is that it is impossible to see reality directly, our knowledge is always incomplete, our perspective is always limited to a certain angle. From time to time we run into trouble because of our limitations. We suffer, because we have to see things from a new angle, which is uncomfortable and stressful, but after a while we get used to it, and we enlarge our perspective. Then, we may look back to our old selves, and we are happy that we left some of our limitations behind. Anyone who embarks on a journey of personal growth is familiar with this experience.

Plato also points out that, if we manage to progress very far on the path of personal growth and insight, our behavior may appear unintelligible and strange to ordinary people. It may even be regarded as insane, and we may make a fool of ourselves. For example, in modern society, a certain degree of predatory self-interest is regarded as normal and may even be lauded as “persuasiveness” or “assertiveness”. Someone who has transcended self-interest to a certain degree, and who is motivated by compassion and concern for others, may be exploited, and ridiculed as naive.

The allegory also contains a warning. Many people prefer ignorance, they do not want to make the effort to grow, or they are not ready yet, and they fear truth. If you approach them with a truth that challenges their limitations and threatens them, they will fight, to defend their worldview. Aggression against those who have freed themselves of ideological shackles is the hallmark of all totalitarian systems, but in any community there is some sort of ideological mainstream with certain limitations, and those who confront these limitations are at risk of being ostracized and scapegoated. This is what happened to Plato’s teacher Socrates, who was sentenced to death, essentially for causing mischief with his free thinking.

Ignacio Matte Blanco and the Logic of the Unconscious

In his book The Unconscious as Infinite Sets: An Essay in Bi-logic the Chilean psychoanalyst Ignacio Matte Blanco presents a framework for understanding the unconscious with the tools of mathematical logic. It is a fascinating attempt to make the unconscious understandable.

To understand better the context Matte Blanco was working in, I want to begin with explaining a fundamental concept of psychoanalysis: the phenomenon of transference. To put it simply, transference is our tendency to bring our childhood experiences into our adult relationships. Exploring the transference and working it through is an important part of psychoanalysis. Therapists are attractive objects for transference, since we come to them to talk about our problems and to seek help, not unlike a child that approaches its parents for help. Therefore, we tend to encounter the same problems that shaped us when we were children. The point is that in the transference, we do not see the therapist the way he/she is – we project our childhood experience onto him/her, and struggle with the same problems we struggled with as children. In contrast to the predicament we encountered as a child, in the safe environment provided by the therapist we can explore our feelings and work them through, and we can find a satisfactory solution, which ultimately frees us from our affliction.

To give an example, imagine someone who grew up with unreliable, abusive parents. As a child, she internalizes deeply that everyone will eventually abandon her and hurt her. It is not hard to imagine how this will cause problems in her adult relationships. In the therapeutic relationship with a therapist, she will be subconsciously believe that the therapist is also unreliable and abusive, and she will have difficulties with being open and with trusting the therapist. If the therapist is trustworthy and capable, the patient will explore her lack of trust and her inability to be open in therapy. This will allow her to work through her trauma, eventually she will be able to trust her therapist, and this will convince her that some people can be trusted and will not hurt and abandon her. She will clearly see her neurosis and overcome it.

Matte Blanco noted the difference between symmetrical logic and asymmetrical logic, and used it to better understand psychological phenomena, like transference. An asymmetrical relation is a relation that cannot be inverted. As an example, the statement “I am taller than my sister” becomes wrong if I invert it: “My sister is taller than me”. Asymmetrical logic helps to understand the relations between two objects by finding differences. It is the logic of our conscious, the logic of everyday problem-solving, the logic of science. Symmetrical logic, on the other hand, is the logic of the unconscious, it tends to erase differences and emphasize similarities. A symmetrical relation can be inverted, and remains true. For example, the statement “I am John’s cousin” remains true when I invert it: “John is my cousin”. If I am John’s cousin, he is also my cousin. Matte Blanco noted that the unconscious tends to treat asymmetrical relations as though they were symmetrical. This leads to interesting consequences; for instance, the unconscious treats a part of the whole as equivalent to the whole. An example would be: “The arm is a part of the body”. Understood with symmetrical logic, this is equivalent to “The body is a part of the arm”. This means that for the unconscious, the difference between the part and the whole vanishes. Similarly, temporal concepts like “before” and “after” have no meaning – to the unconscious, things happen in an eternal now, there is no past, present, and future.

Matte Blanco also noted that the unconscious treats people and objects as belonging to different classes (a class being a collection of things that share a characteristic). As an example, take two people, person A and person B. A is a woman, B is a man. A is small, B is tall. We can say that A belongs to the class of humans who are female. She also belongs to the class of humans who are of small stature. That distinguishes her from B, who belongs to the class of humans who are male, and the class of humans who are tall. Matte Blanco realized that the unconscious sees all members of a class as identical, even if they differ in characteristics other than the characteristic that defines the class they share. As an example: the unconscious may treat all women as identical, despite the fact that among women there is great diversity. Consciously, someone may be aware of the differences between women, but the unconscious perceives them all as the same. Our thinking is always partially symmetrical and partially asymmetrical. The deeper into the unconscious we go, the more symmetrical our thinking becomes – this is why in dreams, the women the person of the above example encounters may all be very similar, since the differences we process with asymmetrical thinking are not present. But also in our everyday lives symmetric logic is present and underlies our thinking.

How is this related to practical problems like the transference described above? 

Let’s look at the patient described above. Her parents belong to the following classes: “people who are supposed to take care of her”, “people who are not trustworthy”, “abusive people”, “unreliable people”, and many more. Her therapist, if he is a good therapist, may belong to these classes: “people who are supposed to take care of her”, “trustworthy people”, “reliable people”, “caring people”. Now, from the point of view of asymmetrical logic, her parents and the therapist are completely different people – the only aspect they share is the parental role with respect to the patient. But the symmetrical logic that is active in the patient’s unconscious leads her to believe that, because the therapist shares one characteristic with her parents, he also shares all other characteristics, i.e. that her therapist and her parents are identical.

What this means is that whenever we perceive things and think about them, the infinite multitude of our past experience is always present in the symmetrical unconscious. When I interact with a man, I do not only interact with this person, I interact with all the men and ideas of maleness I have so far encountered in my life. To the symmetrical unconscious this man is identical to all the men I have met so far, and how I perceive him will depend on the experiences I have made with men. The same is true for all women; for all parental figures: parents, teachers, therapists, priests. If I take a decision, all the decisions I have taken so far are present in my mind. If I try to do something new, all my past experiences with newness will color the experience. And so on and so forth.

Erich Fromm and the Anatomy of Human Destructiveness

In his book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Erich Fromm provides an analysis of human aggression. He discusses the differences between aggression in animals and in humans, and discusses how the specifically human forms of cruelty are connected to existential needs.

Fromm delineates three important existential needs: the need to be one with the world and to overcome existential loneliness, the need to have an effect on the world, and the need for stimulation. It becomes clear that for each existential need there is a healthy way and a destructive way to satisfy it.

With respect to the need to be one with the world, the healthy way to deal with it is to overcome existential loneliness through love and connection to others. Most religions proclaim this as the ultimate goal, exemplified by mystics like Jesus and the Buddha. But existential loneliness can also be alleviated by narcissism: by setting oneself at the center of the universe, the universe is identified with one’s self. This is usually accompanied by tyrannical, sadistic control over the world. Even more dangerous, the existential problem can be solved by destroying all others. Existential fear and feelings of powerlessness are alleviated by destroying that which is separate from the self.

The need to have an effect on the world can be satisfied by loving and nourishing others, but it can also be satisfied by controlling, hurting and destroying them.

Stimulation can be achieved through creative activity, but it can also be achieved through cruelty and destruction. The latter strategy is effortless, and requires neither sensitivity nor discipline. Some people are emotionally so numb, and so unable to be alive and creative, that the only way to feel something is to harm themselves or others. They may murder, just to feel alive.

Fromm notes that if we develop to the highest possible degree the constructive, loving way to deal with existence, we become fully human. Those who go into the opposite direction are existential losers. But both ways are adaptive to dealing with existential problems.

Sadism is an example of a destructive way to deal with existence. Fromm defines it as the need to wield absolute control over another living being. Absolute power means that the sadist can hurt and humiliate someone who is utterly at his mercy. This effectively makes the sadist a god, in relation to that person. As an example for a highly sadistic person, Fromm analyzes Stalin. Stalin often had the wives of his subordinates arrested, and he kept the husbands working for him, such that they had to see him every day. They had to condemn their spouses for their betrayal of communist ideals. It is not hard to imagine what satisfaction Stalin derived from wielding such absolute power over his subordinates. Sadists strive for power over people, because they are crippled themselves, unable to be truly alive.

Fromm calls love of life, growth, and creativity biophilia; attraction to control and destruction he calls necrophilia. According to Fromm, every individual is located somewhere on a continuous spectrum between biophilia and necrophilia. A biophilic person is someone who is drawn towards life and growth, who strives to develop love and connection. A necrophilic person is someone who is drawn towards control and destruction, who wants to subjugate others, to cripple them, to prevent their growth, and to destroy them. Many people are located somewhere in the middle, such that their destructive tendencies are somewhat mitigated by their potential for love. Some people, Hitler for example, are at the necrophilic extreme of the spectrum, mystics like Jesus or the Buddha approach the biophilic ideal.