The Philosophy of Despair

As an absent minded philosopher I’ve spent a great amount of time reading and studying philosophy.  Not necessarily understanding it mind you, but trying to. I believe struggle is one of those activities that gives life purpose and struggling to stay awake many a night reading deontological treatises is definitely a challenge but it in turn also gives my life meaning. Because of my own predilections, I’ve spent most of my recreational struggle time up to now bogged down in Kant’s transcendental idealism, Hume’s skepticism, and Hegel’s ‘civil society’ and by extension Marx’s dialectical materialism.  Trying to understand world politics forcing me into the arena of political philosophy as it were, though I would much rather run around with Nietzsche’s madman armed with a lantern. Running through the streets dressed in a robe is much more my style. Recently though I had a chance to jump into the 20th century and pursue Wittgenstein and Camus.  Given the current political spirits awakening around the world, I thought it a good idea, but in the process of inhaling Camus’ thoughts on rebellion (a subject near and dear to my heart), I jumped slightly backwards in time again and found Lev Shestov lurking in the background, a better Nostradamus than Nostradamus in my opinion, and definitely a John the Baptist to Camus.

Lev Shestov is a fascinating philosopher, and as a sort of forefather to absurdism, his The Philosophy of Tragedy, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, is not to be missed, but what drew me to him was his stance on hope.  Nietzsche’s musings on hope helped me in my late teens to formulate my interpretation of the Pandora’s box myth.  One of my many catchphrases is hope is the worst of all torments, and I believe our Christian sensibilities within western culture helped incorporated the Greek myth of Pandora with, how shall we say… blinders on to the worst of all torments side of the Pandora equation. What Nietzsche tried to bring to our attention with his prose, Lev Shestov compounds upon with his fiery critical style…really a rallying call to reawaken the sovereignty of self within us all. As a man in his early 40s now, it is always nice to discover something new that stirs the soul. My favorite work of Shestov so far is In Job’s BalancesHighly recommended for absent minded philosophers everywhere.

So what is the philosophy of despair?  Shestov’s wiki actually does a pretty good job summing it up:

Shestov’s philosophy is, at first sight, not a philosophy at all: it offers no systematic unity, no coherent set of propositions, no theoretical explanation of philosophical problems. Most of Shestov’s work is fragmentary. With regard to the form (he often used aphorisms) the style may be deemed more web-like than linear, and more explosive than argumentative. The author seems to contradict himself on every page, and even seeks out paradoxes. This is because he believes that life itself is, in the last analysis, deeply paradoxical, and not comprehensible through logical or rational inquiry. Shestov maintains that no theory can solve the mysteries of life. Fundamentally, his philosophy is not ‘problem-solving’, but problem-generating, with a pronounced emphasis on life’s enigmatic qualities.

His point of departure is not a theory, or an idea, but an experience, the experience of despair, which Shestov describes as the loss of certainties, the loss of freedom, the loss of the meaning of life. The root of this despair is what he frequently calls ‘Necessity’, but also ‘Reason’, ‘Idealism’ or ‘Fate’: a certain way of thinking (but at the same time also a very real aspect of the world) that subordinates life to ideas, abstractions, generalisations and thereby kills it, through an ignoring of the uniqueness and livingness of reality.

‘Reason’ is the obedience to and the acceptance of Certainties that tell us that certain things are eternal and unchangeable and other things are impossible and can never be attained. This accounts for Shestov’s philosophy being a form of irrationalism, though it is important to note that the thinker does not oppose reason, or science in general, but only rationalism and scientism: the tendency to consider reason as a sort of omniscient, omnipotent God that is good for its own sake. It may also be considered a form of personalism: people cannot be reduced to ideas, social structures, or mystical oneness. Shestov rejects any mention of “omnitudes”, “collective”, “all-unity.” As he explains in his masterpiece Athens and Jerusalem:

“But why attribute to God, the God whom neither time nor space limits, the same respect and love for order? Why forever speak of “total unity”? If God loves men, what need has He to subordinate men to His divine will and to deprive them of their own will, the most precious of the things He has bestowed upon them? There is no need at all. Consequently, the idea of total unity is an absolutely false idea….It is not forbidden for reason to speak of unity and even of unities, but it must renounce total unity – and other things besides. And what a sigh of relief men will breathe when they suddenly discover that the living God, the true God, in no way resembles Him whom reason has shown them until now!”

Through this attack on the “self-evident”, Shestov implies that we are all seemingly alone with our suffering, and can be helped neither by others, nor by philosophy. This explains his lack of a systematic philosophical framework.

But, and this is a very important but, this despair leads us to a place beyond Pandora’s hope.  A place from which we don’t surrender to despair but struggle against it in order to free the individual from externalized sources of tyranny.  Again from the wiki:

But despair is not the last word, it is only the ‘penultimate word’. The last word cannot be said in human language, can’t be captured in theory. His philosophy begins with despair, his whole thinking is desperate, but Shestov tries to point to something beyond despair – and beyond philosophy.

This is what he calls ‘faith’: not a belief, not a certainty, but another way of thinking that arises in the midst of the deepest doubt and insecurity. It is the experience that “everything is possible” (Dostoevsky), that the opposite of Necessity is not chance or accident, but possibility, that there does exist a god-given freedom without boundaries, without walls or borders. Shestov maintains that we should continue to struggle, to fight against Fate and Necessity, even when a successful outcome is not guaranteed. Exactly at the moment that all the oracles remain silent, we should give ourselves over to God, who alone can comfort the sick and suffering soul. In some of his most famous words he explains:

“Faith, only the faith that looks to the Creator and that He inspires, radiates from itself the supreme and decisive truths condemning what is and what is not. Reality is transfigured. The heavens glorify the Lord. The prophets and apostles cry in ecstasy, “O death, where is thy sting? Hell, where is thy victory?” And all announce: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.” (Quoting 1 Corinthians 15:55, 2:9)

Furthermore, although a Jewish philosopher, Shestov saw in the resurrection of Christ this victory over necessity. He described the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus as a transfiguring spectacle by which it is demonstrated that the purpose of life is not “mystical” surrender to the “absolute”, but ascetical struggle:

“Cur Deus homo? Why, to what purpose, did He become man, expose himself to injurious mistreatment, ignominious and painful death on the cross? Was it not in order to show man, through His example, that no decision is too hard, that it is worth while bearing anything in order not to remain in the womb of the One? That any torture whatever to the living being is better than the ‘bliss’ of the rest-satiate ‘ideal’ being?”

As an agnostic pagan or pagan agnostic, or simply First Circle virtuous pagan, I find Shestov’s views on God very interesting, almost gnostic.  Here we find God when in a state of ultimate despair.  When we move beyond the carrot of hope and the stick of punishment wielded by those soulless minions of orthodoxy (an excellent phrase from a Star Trek Deep Space Nine episode), we come to a place beyond time and space, a place of true self, and I believe it acts as reboot to that program of individuality, and in essence becomes an extended act of rebellion against the exterior world.  It is the source of the ascetic hermit’s faith, drawn from the bottom of that well of despair with the world at large, in fact drilling through the well to reach the wellspring of self from which an individual can accept hope for what it is, the worst of all torments and the ultimate tool of tyranny. This revelation thus making clear the nature of true freedom derived from the act of rebellion; that simple voice stating,  “Enough, no more!” reverberating through the body, mind, and soul, breaking the chains of tyranny’s reality over the individual and  reinstating personal sovereignty in the process and making all things possible.

At the very least, a nice dream to consider on a sleepy afternoon, while procrastinating working on your taxes.

Theme Music: Five For Fighting Devil in the Wishing Well

3 thoughts on “The Philosophy of Despair

  1. “As an agnostic pagan or pagan agnostic, or simply First Circle virtuous pagan…”

    Yea and verily, but what of us heathens? Though I thoroughly enjoyed your close with returning to one of the Certainties!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I had a logic professor who offered a nuanced take on heathens and pagans, something like if all heathens are pagans, but not all pagans are heathens, how many agnostics can sit on the head of a pin. It was an extra credit essay question. Using my firm grasp of logic I simply answered there are no atheists in foxholes because they can’t fit. At any rate, as always, all are welcome in Hell. Thanks for the comment!


  3. :keyboard: I like the atheists in foxholes quote – as a relaxed agnostic (heathen or pagan, depending on the day or time) – when I was finishing grad school I attended an Episcopalian Palm Sunday service with some extended family and went up for a blessing from the padre and contributed to the plate when it passed by… though it was the only Canadian currency visible (holdover from driving the Alcan, my summer commute back then).

    Liked by 1 person

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