27 December 2013
The Philosophy of the Absurd
by Fr. Seraphim Rose
Orthodox Word #106 [Sept.-Oct. 1982]
This study was written by the late editor of The Orthodox Word as a subchapter in his book The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man, on which he was working at the time of his conversion to Orthodoxy in the early 1960's and which, unfortunately was never finished Although written 20 years ago, this in depth study rings true, for today we see only too clearly the disastrous effects of this philosophy of the absurd.
The present age is, in a profound sense, an age of absurdity. Poets and dramatists, painters and sculptors proclaim and depict the world as a disjointed chaos, and man as a dehumanized fragment of that chaos. Politics, whether of the right, the left, or the center, can no longer be viewed as anything but an expedient whereby universal disorder is given, for the moment, a faint semblance of order; pacifists and militant crusaders are united in an absurd faith in the feeble powers of man to remedy an intolerable situation by means which can only make it worse. Philosophers and other supposedly responsible men in governmental, academic, and ecclesiastical circles, when they do not retreat behind the impersonal and irresponsible facade of specialization or bureaucracy, usually do no more than rationalize the incoherent state of contemporary man and his world, and counsel a futile “commitment” to a discredited humanist optimism, to a hopeless stoicism, to blind experimentation and irrationalism, or to “commitment” itself, a suicidal faith in “faith.”
But art, politics, and philosophy today are only reflections of life, and if they have become absurd it is because, in large measure, life has become so. The most striking example of absurdity in life in recent times was, of course, Hitler’s “new order,” wherein a supposedly normal, civilized man could be at one and the same time an accomplished and moving interpreter of Bach (as was Himmler) and a skilled murderer of millions, or who might arrange a tour of an extermination camp to coincide with a concert series or an exhibition of art. Hitler himself, indeed, was the absurd man par excellence, passing from nothingness to world rule and back to nothingness in the space of a dozen years, leaving as his monument nothing but a shattered world, owing his meaningless success to the fact that he, the emptiest of men, personified the emptiness of the men of his time.
Hitler’s surrealist world is now a thing of the past; but the world has by no means passed out of the age of absurdity, but rather into a more advanced — though temporarily quieter — stage of the same disease. Men have invented a weapon to express, better than Hitler’s gospel of destruction, their own incoherence and nihilism; and in its shadow men stand paralyzed, between the extremes of an external power and an internal powerlessness equally without precedent. At the same time, the poor and “underprivileged” of the world have awakened to conscious life, and seek abundance and privilege; those who already possess them waste their lives in the pursuit of vain things, or become disillusioned and die of boredom and despair, or commit senseless crimes. The whole world, it almost seems, is divided into those who lead meaningless, futile lives without being aware of it, and those who, being aware of it, are driven to madness and suicide.
It is unnecessary to multiply examples of a phenomenon of which everyone is aware. Suffice it to say that these examples are typical, and even the most extreme of them are but advanced forms of the disorder which surrounds every one of us today and which, if we know not how to combat it, takes up residence in our hearts. Ours is an age of absurdity, in which the totally irreconcilable exists side by side, even in the same soul; where nothing seems to any purpose; where things fall apart because they have no center to hold them together. It is true, of course, that the business of daily life seems to proceed as usual — though at a suspiciously feverish pace — men manage to “get along,” to live from day to day. But that is because they do not, or will not think; and one can hardly blame them for that, for the realities of the present day are not pleasant ones. Still, it is only the person who does think, who does ask what, beneath the distractions of daily life, is really happening in the world — it is only such a person who can feel even remotely “at home” in the strange world we live in today, or can feel that this age is, after all, “normal.”
It is not a “normal” age in which we live; whatever their exaggerations and errors, however false their explanations, however contrived their world-view, the “advanced” poets, artists, and thinkers of the age are at least right in one respect: there is something frightfully wrong with the contemporary world. This is the first lesson we may learn from absurdism.
For absurdism is a profound symptom of the spiritual state of contemporary man, and if we know how to read it correctly we may learn much of that state. But this brings us to the most important of the initial difficulties to be disposed of before we can speak of the absurd. Can it be understood at all? The absurd is, by its very nature, a subject that lends itself to careless or sophistical treatment; and such treatment has indeed been given it, not only by the artists who are carried away by it, but by the supposedly serious thinkers and critics who attempt to explain or justify it. In most of the works on contemporary “existentialism,” and in the apologies for modern art and drama, it would seem that intelligence has been totally abandoned, and critical standards are replaced by a vague “sympathy” or “involvement,” and by extra-logical if not illogical arguments that cite the “spirit of the age” or some vague “creative” impulse or an indeterminate “awareness”; but these are not arguments, they are at best rationalizations, at worst mere jargon. If we follow that path we may end with a greater “appreciation” of absurdist art, but hardly with any profounder understanding of it. Absurdism, indeed, may not be understood at all in its own terms; for understanding is coherence, and that is the very opposite of absurdity. If we are to understand the absurd at all, it must be from a standpoint outside absurdity, a standpoint from which a word like “understanding” has a meaning; only thus may we cut through the intellectual fog within which absurdism conceals itself, discouraging coherent and rational attack by its own assault on reason and coherence. We must, in short, take a stand within a faith opposed to the absurdist faith and attack it in the name of a truth of which it denies the existence. In the end we shall find that absurdism, quite against its will, offers its own testimony to this faith and this truth which are — let us state at the outset — Christian.
The philosophy of the absurd is, indeed, nothing original in itself; it is entirely negation, and its character is determined, absolutely and entirely, by that which it attempts to negate. The absurd could not even be conceived except in relation to something considered not to be absurd; the fact that the world fails to make sense could occur only to men who have once believed, and have good reason to believe, that it does not make sense. Absurdism cannot be understood apart from its Christian origins.
Christianity is, supremely, coherence, for the Christian God has ordered everything in the universe, both with regard to everything else and with regard to Himself, Who is the beginning and end of all creation; and the Christian whose faith is genuine finds this divine coherence in every aspect of his life and thought. For the absurdist, everything falls apart, including his own philosophy, which can only be a short-lived phenomenon; for the Christian, everything holds together and is coherent, including those things which in themselves are incoherent. The incoherence of the absurd is, in the end, part of a larger coherence; if it were not, there would be little point in speaking of it at all.
The second of the initial difficulties in approaching the absurd concerns the precise manner of approach. It will not do — if we wish to understand it — to dismiss absurdism as mere error and self-contradiction; it is these, to be sure, but it is also much more. No competent thinker, surely, can be tempted to take seriously any absurdist claim to truth; no matter from which side one approaches it, absurdist philosophy is nothing but self-contradiction. To proclaim ultimate meaninglessness, one must believe that this phrase has a meaning, and thus one denies it in affirming it; to assert that “there is no truth,” one must believe in the truth of this statement, and so again affirm what one denies. Absurdist philosophy, it is clear, is not to be taken seriously as philosophy; all its objective statements must be reinterpreted imaginatively, and often subjectively. Absurdism, in fact — as we shall see — is not a product of the intellect at all, but of the will.
The philosophy of the absurd, while implicit in a large number of contemporary works of art, is fortunately quite explicit — if we know how to interpret it — in the writings of Nietzsche; for his nihilism is precisely the root from which the tree of absurdity has grown. In Nietzsche we may read the philosophy of the absurd; in his older contemporary Dostoevsky we may see described the sinister implications which Nietzsche, blind to the Christian truth which is the only remedy for the absurd view of life, failed to see. In these two writers, living at the dividing point between two worlds, when the world of coherence based on Christian truth was being shattered and the world of the absurd based on its denial was coming into being, we may find almost everything there is of importance to know about the absurd.
The absurdist revelation, after a long period of underground germination, bursts into the open in the two striking phrases of Nietzsche so often quoted: “God is dead” means simply, that faith in God is dead in the hearts of modern men; and “there is no truth” means that men have abandoned the truth revealed by God upon which all European thought and institutions once were based. They have abandoned it because they no longer find it credible. Both statements are indeed true of what has, since Nietzsche’s time, become the vast majority of those who were once Christian. It is true of the atheists and satanists who profess to be content or ecstatic at their own lack of faith and rejection of truth; it is equally true of the less pretentious multitudes in whom the sense of spiritual reality has simply evaporated, whether this event be expressed in indifference to spiritual reality, in that spiritual confusion and unrest so widespread today, or in any of the many forms of pseudo-religion that are but masks for indifference and confusion. And even over that ever-decreasing minority who still believe, inwardly as well as outwardly, for whom the other world is more real than this world — even over these the shadow of the “death of God” has fallen and made the world a different and a strange place.
Nietzsche, in the Will to Power, comments very succinctly on the meaning of nihilism:
What does nihilism mean? — That the highest values are losing their value. There is no goal. There is no answer to the question: “why?”
Everything, in short, has become questionable. The magnificent certainty we see in the Fathers and Saints of the Church, and in all true believers, that refers everything, whether in thought or life, back to God, seeing everything as beginning and ending in Him, everything as His will — this certainty and faith that once held society and the world and man himself together, are now gone, and the questions for which men once had learned to find the answers in God, now have — for most men — no answers.
There have been, of course, other forms of coherence than Christianity, and forms of incoherence other than modern nihilism and absurdity. In them human life makes sense, or fails to make sense, but only to a limited degree. Men who believe and follow, for example, the traditional Hindu or Chinese view of things, possess a measure of truth and of the peace that comes from truth — but not absolute truth, and not the “peace that passes all understanding” that proceeds only from absolute truth; and those who fall away from this relative truth and peace have lost something real, but they have not lost everything, as has the apostate Christian. Never has such disorder reigned in the heart of man and in the world today; but this is precisely because man has fallen away from a truth and a coherence that have been revealed in their fullness only in Christ. Only the Christian God is at the same time all power and all love; only the Christian God, through His love has promised men immortality and, through His power to fulfill that promise, has prepared a Kingdom in which men will live in God as gods, having been raised from the dead. This is a God and His promise so incredible to the ordinary human understanding that, once having believed it, men who reject it can never believe anything else to be of any great value. A world from which such a God has been removed, a man in whom such a hope has been extinguished — are, indeed, in the eyes of those who have undergone such disillusionment, “absurd.”
“God is dead,” “there is no truth”: the two phrases have precisely the same meaning; they are alike a revelation of the absolute absurdity of a world whose center is no longer God, but — nothing. But just here at the very heart of absurdism, its dependence upon the Christianity it rejects is most apparent. One of the most difficult of Christian doctrines for the non-Christian and anti-Christian to understand and accept is that of the creatio ex nihilo: God’s creation of the world not out of Himself, not out of some pre-existent matter, but out of nothing. Yet, without understanding it, the absurdist testifies to its reality by inverting and parodying it, by attempting in effect, a nihilization of creation, a return of the world to that very nothingness out of which God first called it. This may be seen in the absurdist affirmation of a void at the center of things, and in the implication present in all absurdists to a greater or lesser degree, that it would be better if man and his world did not exist at all. But this attempt at nihilization, this affirmation of the Abyss, that lies at the very heart of absurdism, takes its most concrete form in the atmosphere that pervades absurdist works of art. In the art of those whom one might call commonplace atheists — men like Hemmingway, Camus, and the vast numbers of artists whose insight does not go beyond the futility of the human situation as men imagine it today, and whose aspiration does not look beyond a kind of stoicism, a facing of the inevitable — in the art of such men the atmosphere of the void is communicated by boredom, by a despair that is yet tolerable, and in general by the feeling that “nothing ever happens.” But there is a second, and more revealing, kind of absurdist art, which unites to the mood of futility an element of the unknown, a kind of eerie expectancy, the feeling that in an absurd world, where, generally, “nothing ever happens,” it is also true that “anything is possible.” In this art, reality becomes a nightmare and the world becomes an alien planet wherein men wander not so much in hopelessness as in perplexity, uncertain of where they are, of what they may find, of their own identity — of everything except the absence of God. This is the strange world of Kafka, of the plays of Ionesco and — less strikingly — of Beckett, of a few avant-garde films like “Last Year at Marienbad,” of electronic and other “experimental” music, of surrealism in all the arts, and of the most recent painting and sculpture — and particularly that with a supposedly “religious” content — in which man is depicted as a subhuman or demonic creature emerging from some unknown depths. It was the world, too, of Hitler, whose reign was the most perfect political incarnation we have yet seen of the philosophy of the absurd.
This strange atmosphere is the “death of God” made tangible. It is significant that Nietzsche, in the very passage (in the Joyful Wisdom) where he first proclaims the “death of God” — a message he puts in the mouth of a madman — describes the very atmosphere of this absurdist art.
We have killed him (God), you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker?
Such, in fact, is the landscape of the absurd, a landscape in which there is neither up nor down, right nor wrong, true nor false, because there is no longer any commonly accepted point of orientation.
Another, more immediately personal, expression of the absurdist revelation is contained in the despairing cry of Ivan Karamazov: “If there is no immortality, everything is permitted.” This, to some, may sound like a cry of liberation; but anyone who has thought deeply about death, or who has encountered, in his own experience, a concrete awareness of his own impending death, knows better that that. The absurdist, though he denies human immortality, at least recognizes that the question is a central one — something most humanists, with their endless evasions and rationalizations, fail to do. It is possible to be indifferent to this question only if one has no love for truth, or if one’s love for truth has been obscured by more deceptive and immediate things, whether pleasure, business, culture, worldly knowledge, or any of the other things the world is content to accept in place of truth. The whole meaning of human life depends on the truth — or falsity — of the doctrine of human immortality.
To the absurdist, the doctrine is false. And that is one the reasons why his universe is so strange: there is no hope in it, death is its highest god. Apologists for the absurd, like apologists for humanist stoicism, see nothing but “courage” in this view, the “courage” of men willing to live without the ultimate “consolation” of eternal life; and they look down on those who require the “reward” of Heaven to justify their conduct on earth. It is not necessary, so they think, to believe in Heaven and Hell in order to lead a “good life” in this world. And their argument is a persuasive one even to many who call themselves Christians and are yet quite ready to renounce eternal life for an “existential” view that believes only in the present moment.
Such an argument is the worst of self-deceptions, it is but another of the myriad masks behind which men hide the face of death; for if death were truly the end of men, no man could face the full terror of it. Dostoevsky was quite right in giving to human immortality such central importance in his own Christian world-view. If man is after all to end in nothingness, then in the deepest sense it does not matter what he does in this life, for then nothing he may do is of any ultimate consequence, and all talk of “living this life to the full” is empty and vain. It is absolutely true that if “there is no immortality”, the world is absurd and “everything is permitted” — which is to say, nothing is worth doing, the dust of death smothers every joy and prevents even tears, which would be futile; it would indeed be better if such a world did not exist. Nothing in the world — not love, not goodness, not sanctity — is of any value, or indeed even has any meaning, if man does not survive death. He who thinks to lead a “good life” that ends in death does not know the meaning of his words, they but caricature Christian goodness, which finds its fulfillment in eternity. Only if man is immortal, and only if the next world is as God has revealed it to His chosen people, Christians, is there any value or meaning to what man does in this life; for then every act of man is a seed of good or evil that sprouts, to be sure, in this life, but which is not reaped until the future life. Men who, on the other hand, believe that virtue begins and ends in this life are but one step from those who believe that there is no virtue at all; and this step—a fact of which our century bears eloquent witness — is all too easily taken, for it is, after all, a logical step.
Disillusionment, in a sense, is preferable to self-deception. It may, if taken as an end in itself, lead to suicide or madness; but it may also lead to an awakening. Europe for five centuries and more has been deceiving itself, trying to establish a reign of humanism, liberalism, and supposedly Christian values on the basis of an increasingly sceptical attitude toward Christian truth. Absurdism is the end of that road; it is the logical conclusion of the humanist attempt to soften and compromise Christian truth so as to accommodate new, modern, that is to say, worldly, values. Absurdism is the last proof that Christian truth is absolute and uncompromising, or else it is the same as no truth at all; and if there is no truth, if Christian truth is not to be understood literally and absolutely, if God is dead, if there is no immortality — then this world is all there is, and this world is absurd, this world is Hell.
The absurd view of life, then, does express a partial insight: it draws the conclusions of humanist and liberal thought to which well-meaning humanists themselves have been blind. Absurdism is no merely arbitrary irrationalism, but a part of the harvest European man has been sowing for centuries, by his compromise and betrayal of Christian truth.
It would be unwise, however, to exaggerate in this direction, as apologists for the absurd, and to see in absurdism and its parent nihilism signs of a turn or a return to hitherto neglected truths or to a more profound world-view. The absurdist, to be sure, is more realistic about the negative and evil side of life, as manifest both in the world and in man’s nature; but this is after all very little truth in comparison with the great errors absurdism shares with humanism. Both are equally far from the God in Whom alone the world makes sense; neither consequently has any notion of spiritual life or experience, which are nourished by God alone; both therefore are totally ignorant of the full dimensions of reality and of human experience; and both have thus a radically oversimplified view of the world and especially of human nature. Humanism and absurdism, in fact, are not as far apart as one might have supposed; absurdism, in the end, is simply disillusioned but unrepentant humanism. It is, one might say, the last stage in the dialectical procession of humanism away from Christian truth, the stage in which humanism, merely by following its internal logic and drawing out the full implications of its original betrayal of Christian truth, arrives at its own negation and ends in a kind of humanist nightmare, a sub-humanism. The subhuman world of the absurdist, though it may at times seem eerie and bewildering, is after all the same one-dimensional world the humanist knows, only rendered “mysterious” by various tricks and self-deceptions; it is a parody of the true world, the world the Christian knows, the world that is truly mysterious because it contains heights and depths of which no absurdist, and surely no humanist, even dreams.
If, intellectually, humanism and absurdism are distinguished as principle and consequence, they are united in a deeper sense, for they share a single will, and that will is the annihilation of the Christian God and the order He has established in the world. These words will seem strange to anyone disposed to take a sympathetic view of the “plight” of contemporary man, and especially to those who listen to the arguments of absurdist apologetics which cite supposed scientific “discoveries” and the all-too-natural disillusionment that has come out of our century of war and revolution: arguments, in short, that rely on the “spirit of the age,” which seem to make any but a philosophy of absurdity next to impossible. The universe, so this apology runs, has become meaningless, God has died, one knows not quite how or why, and all we can do now is to accept the fact and resign ourselves to it. But the more perceptive absurdists themselves know better. God has not merely died, said Nietzsche, rather men have murdered Him; and Ionesco, in an essay on Kafka, recognizes that “if man no longer has a guiding thread (i.e., in the labyrinth of life), it is because he no longer wanted to have one. Hence his feeling of guilt, of anxiety, of the absurdity of history.” A vague feeling of guilt is indeed, in many cases, the only remaining sign of man’s involvement in bringing about the condition in which he now finds himself. But man is involved, and all fatalism is only rationalization. Modern science is quite innocent in this respect, for in itself it must be, not merely neutral, but actively hostile to any idea of ultimate absurdity, and those who exploit it for irrationalist ends are not thinking clearly. And as to the fatalism of those who believe that man must be a slave to the “spirit of the age,” it is disproved by the experience of every Christian worthy of the name — for the Christian life is nothing if it is not a struggle against the spirit of every age for the sake of eternity. Absurdist fatalism is in the end the product, not of knowledge nor of any necessity, but of blind faith. The absurdist, of course, would rather not face too squarely the fact that his disillusionment is an act of faith, for faith is a factor that testifies against determinism. But there is something even deeper than faith which the absurdist has even more reason to avoid, and that is the will; for the direction of a man’s will is what chiefly determines his faith and the whole personal world-view built upon that faith. The Christian, who possesses a coherent doctrine of the nature of man and should have thereby a deep insight into human motives, can see the ultimate responsibility the absurdist prefers to deny in his disillusioned view of the world. The absurdist is not the passive “victim” of his age or its thought, but rather an active — though often confused — collaborator in the great undertaking of the enemies of God. Absurdism is not primarily a phenomenon of the intellect, not simple atheism nor mere recognition of the fact of an absent God — these are its disguises and rationalizations; it is rather something of the will, an anti-theism (a term applied by Proudhon to his own program, and seen by de Lubac, in The Drama of Atheist Humanism, as a key to understanding other revolutionaries), a fight against God and the Divine order of things. No absurdist, to be sure, can be fully aware of this; he cannot and will not think clearly, he lives on self-delusion. No one (unless it be Satan himself, the first absurdist) can deny God and refuse his own truest happiness in full consciousness of the fact; but somewhere deep within every absurdist, far deeper than he himself usually wishes to look, lies the primordial refusal of God which has been responsible for all the phenomena of absurdism as well as for the incoherence that indeed lies at the very heart of this age.
If it is impossible not to sympathize with some at least of the artists of the absurd, seeing in them an agonized awareness and sincere depiction of a world that is trying to live without God, let us not for all that forget how thoroughly at one these artists are with the world they depict; let us not lose sight of the fact that their art is so successful in striking a responsive chord in many precisely because they share the errors, the blindness and ignorance, and the perverted will of the age whose emptiness they depict. To transcend the absurdity of the contemporary world requires, unfortunately, a great deal more than even the best intentions, the most agonized suffering, and the greatest artistic “genius”. The way beyond the absurd lies in truth alone; and this is precisely what is lacking as much in the contemporary artist as in his world, it is what is actively rejected as definitely by the self-conscious absurdist as it is by those who live the absurd life without being aware of it.
To sum up, then, our diagnosis of absurdism: it is the life lived, and the view of live expressed, by those who can or will no longer see God as the beginning and end, and the ultimate meaning, of life; those who therefore do not believe His Revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ and do not accept the eternal Kingdom He has prepared for those who do believe and who live this faith; those who, ultimately, can hold no one responsible for their unbelief but themselves. But what is the cause of this disease? What, beyond all historical and psychological causes — which can never be more than relative and contributory — what is its real motivation, its spiritual cause? If absurdism is indeed a great evil, as we believe it to be, it cannot be chosen for its own sake; for evil has no positive existence, and it can only be chosen in the guise of a seeming good. If up to this point we have described the negative side of the philosophy of the absurd, its description of the disordered, disoriented world in which men find themselves today, it is time to turn to its positive side and discover in what it is that absurdists place their faith and hope.
For it is quite clear that absurdists are not happy about the absurdity of the universe; they believe in it, but they cannot reconcile themselves to it, and their art and thought are attempts, after all, to transcend it. As Ionesco has said (and here he speaks, probably, for all absurdists): “To attack absurdity is a way of stating the possibility of non-absurdity,” and he sees himself as engaged in “the constant search for an opening, a revelation.” Thus we return to the sense of expectancy we have already noted in certain absurdist works of art; it is but a reflection of the situation of our times, wherein men, disillusioned and desolate, yet hope in something unknown, uncertain, yet to be revealed, which will somehow restore meaning and pupose to life. Men cannot live without hope, even in the midst of despair, even when all cause for hope has been, supposedly, “disproved.”
But this is only to say that nothingness, the apparent center of the absurdist universe, is not the real heart of the disease, but only its most striking symptom. The real faith of absurdism is in something hoped for but not yet fully manifest, a “Godot” that is the always implicit but not yet defined subject of absurdist art, a mysterious something that, if understood, would give life some kind of meaning once more.
All this, if it seems vague in contemporary absurdist art, is quite clear in the works of the original “prophets” of the age of absurdity, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. In them the revelation of absurdity has a corollary. “Dead are all the gods,” says Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “Now do we desire the Superman to live.” And Nietzsche’s madman says, of the murder of God: “Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become gods, merely to seem worthy of it?” Kirillov, in Dostoevsky’s Possessed, knows that, “If there is no God, then I am God.”
Man’s first sin, and the ultimate cause of the miserable condition of man in all ages, was in following the temptation of the serpent in Paradise: “Ye shall be as gods.” What Nietzsche calls the Superman, and Dostoevsky the man-god, is in fact the same god of self with which the Devil then, and always, has tempted man; it is the only god, once the true God has been rejected, whom men can worship. Man’s freedom has been given him to choose between the true God and himself, between the true path to deification whereon the self is humbled and crucified in this life to be resurrected and exalted in God in eternity, and the false path of self-deification which promises exaltation in this life but ends in the Abyss. These are the only two choices, ultimately, open to the freedom of man; and upon them have been founded the two Kingdoms, the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man, which may be discriminated only by the eye of faith in this life, but which shall be separated in the future life as Heaven and Hell. It is clear to which of them modern civilization belongs, with its Promethean effort to build a Kingdom of earth in defiance of God; but what should be clear enough in earlier modern thinkers becomes absolutely explicit in Nietzsche. The old commandment of “Thou shalt,” says Zarathustra, has become outmoded; the new commandment is “I will”. And in Kirillov’s satanic logic, “The attribute of my godhead is self-will.” The new religion, the religion not yet fully revealed that will succeed the old religion of Christianity to which modern man thinks by now to have delivered the final blow — is supremely the religion of self-worship.
This is what absurdism — and all the vain experimentation of our day — is seeking. Absurdism is the stage at which the modern Promethean effort hesitates, entertains doubts, and has a faint foretaste of the satanic incoherence in which it cannot but end. But if the absurdist is less confident and more fearful than the humanist, he nonetheless shares the humanist faith that the modern path is the right path, and in spite of his doubt be retains the humanist hope — hope not in God and His Kingdom, but in man’s own Tower of Babel.
The modern attempt to establish a kingdom of self-worship reached one extreme in Hitler, who believed in a racial Superman; it reaches another extreme in Communism, whose Superman is the collectivity and whose self-love is disguised as altruism. But both Naziism and Communism are extreme forms — their phenomenal success proves it — of what everyone else today actually believes: everyone, that is, who does not stand explicitly and absolutely with Christ and His Truth. For what is the meaning of the gigantic effort in which all nations have today joined to transform the face of the earth and conquer the universe, to bring about an entirely new order of things wherein man’s condition since his creation will be radically transformed and this earth, which since man’s fall has been and can be nothing but a place of sorrow and tears, is to become, supposedly, a place of happiness and joy, a veritable heaven on earth with the advent of a “new age”? What does this mean but that man, freed of the burden of a God in Whom he does not believe even when he professes Him with his lips, imagines himself to be God, master of his own destiny and creator of a “new earth,” expressing his faith in a “new religion” of his own devising wherein humility gives way to pride, prayer to worldly knowledge, mastery of the passions to mastery of the world, fasting to abundance and satiety, tears of repentance to worldly joy.
To this religion of the self absurdism points the way. This is not, to be sure, always its explicit intention, but it is its distinct implication. Absurdist art depicts a man imprisoned in his own self, unable to communicate with his fellow man or enter into any relationship with him that is not inhuman; there is no love in absurdist art, there is only hatred, violence, terror, and boredom — because in cutting himself off from God, absurdist man has cut himself off from his own humanity, the image of God. If such a man is awaiting a revelation that will put an end to absurdity, it is surely not the revelation that the Christians know; if there is one point on which all absurdists would agree, it is the absolute rejection of the Christian answer. Any revelation the absurdist, as absurdist, can accept must be “new.” About Godot, in Beckett’s play, one character says, “I’m anxious to hear what he has to offer. Then we’ll take it or leave it.” In the Christian life everything is referred to Christ, the old self with its constant “I will” must be done away with and a new self, centered in Christ and His will, be born; but in the spiritual universe of “Godot,” everything revolves precisely about the old self, and even a new god must present himself as a kind of spiritual merchandise to be accepted or rejected by a self that will tolerate nothing that is not oriented to itself. Men today “wait for Godot” — who is, perhaps on one level, Antichrist — in the hope that he will bring appeasement of conscience and restore meaning and joy to self-worship, in the hope that is, that he will permit what God has forbidden and provide the ultimate apology for it. Nietzsche’s Superman is absurdist, modern man with his sense of guilt obliterated in a frenzy of enthusiasm generated by a false mysticism of the earth, a worship of this world.
Where will it all end? Nietzsche and the optimists of our day see the dawn of a new age, the beginning of “a higher history than any history hitherto.” Communist doctrine affirms this; but the Communist reorganization of the world will, in the end, prove to be no more than the systematized absurdity of a perfectly efficient machine that has no ultimate purpose. Dostoevsky, who knew the true God, was more realistic. Kirillov, the maniacal counterpart of Zarathustra, had to kill himself to prove that he was God; Ivan Karamazov, who was tormented by the same ideas, ended in madness, as did Nietzsche himself; Shigalev (in The Possessed), who devised the first perfect social organization of mankind, found it necessary to deliver nine-tenths of mankind to absolute slavery so that one-tenth might enjoy absolute liberty — a plan that Nazi and Communist Supermen have put into practice. Madness, suicide, slavery, murder, and destruction are the ends of the presumptuous philosophy of the death of God and the advent of the Superman; and these are, indeed, prominent themes of absurdist art.
Many feel — with Ionesco — that only out of thorough exploration of the absurd condition in which man now finds himself, and of the new possibilities this has opened up for him, may a way be found beyond absurdity and nihilism into some new realm of coherence: this is the hope of absurdism and humanism, and it will become the hope of Communism when (and if) it enters its period of disillusionment. It is a false hope, but it is a hope that may, for all that, be fulfilled. For Satan is the ape of God, and once divine coherence has been shattered and men no longer hope for the absolute coherence God alone can give to human life, the counterfeit coherence that Satan is able to fabricate may come to seem quite attractive. It is no accident that in our own day serious attention is being given once more by responsible and sober Christians dissatisfied alike with facile optimism and facile pessimism, to a doctrine that, in Western Europe at least, was almost forgotten for centuries under the influence of the philosophy of enlightenment and progress. (Cf. Josef Pieper, The End of Time; Heinrich Schlier, Principalities and Powers in the New Testament; and before them, Cardinal Newman.) This is the doctrine, universally held by the Churches of the East and West, of Antichrist, that strange figure who appears at the end of time as a humanitarian world-ruler and seems to turn creation upside-down by making darkness seem light, evil good, slavery freedom, chaos order; he is the ultimate protagonist of the philosophy of the absurd, and the perfect embodiment of the man-god: for he will worship only himself, and will call himself God. This is no place, however, to do more than point out the existence of that doctrine, and to note its intimate connection with the Satanic incoherence of the philosophy of the absurd.
But more important even than the historical culmination of absurdism, whether it be the actual reign of Antichrist or merely another of his predecessors, is its supra-historical end: and that is Hell. For absurdism is, most profoundly, an erruption of Hell into our world; it is thus a warning of a reality men are all too anxious to avoid. But those who avoid it only find themselves the closer to it; our age, the first in Christian times to disbelieve entirely in Hell, itself more thoroughly than any other embodies the spirit of Hell.
Why do men disbelieve in Hell? It is because they do not believe in Heaven, i.e., because they do not believe in life, and in the God of life, because they find God’s creation absurd and wish that it did not exist. The Starets Zossima, in The Brothers Karamazov, speaks of one kind of such men.
There are some who remain proud and fierce even in hell... They have cursed themselves, cursing God and life... They cannot behold the living God without hatred, and they cry out that the God of life should be annihilated, that God should destroy Himself and His own creation. And they will burn in the fire of their own wrath for ever and yearn for death and annihilation. But they will not attain to death...
Such men, of course, are extreme nihilists, but they differ in degree only, and not in kind, from those less violent souls who faintly curse this life and find it to be absurd, and even from those who call themselves Christians and do not desire the Kingdom of Heaven with all their hearts, but picture Heaven, if at all, as a shadowy realm of repose or sleep. Hell is the answer and the end of all who believe in death rather than life, in this world rather than in the next world, in themselves rather than in God: all those, in short, who in their deepest heart accept the philosophy of the absurd. For it is the great truth of Christianity — which Dostoevsky saw and Nietzsche did not see — that there is no annihilation, and there is no incoherence, all nihilism and absurdism are in vain. The flames of Hell are the last and awful proof of this: every creature testifies, with or against his will, to the ultimate coherence of things. For this coherence is the love of God, and this love is found even in the flames of Hell; it is in fact the love of God itself which torments those who refuse it.
So it is too with absurdism; it is the negative side of a positive reality. There is, of course, an element of incoherence in our world, for in his fall from Paradise man brought the world with him; the philosophy of the absurd is not, therefore, founded upon a total lie, but upon a deceptive half-truth. But when Camus defines absurdity as the confrontation of man’s need for reason with the irrationality of the world, when he believes that man is an innocent victim and the world the guilty party, he, like all absurdists, has magnified a very partial insight into a totally distorted view of things, and in his blindness has arrived at the exact inversion of the truth. Absurdism, in the end, is an internal and not an external question; it is not the world that is irrational and incoherent, but man.
If, however, the absurdist is responsible for not seeing things as they are, and not even wishing to see things as they are, the Christian is yet more responsible for failing to give the example of a fully coherent life, a life in Christ. Christian compromise in thought and word and negligence in deed have opened the way to the triumph of the forces of the absurd, of Satan, of Antichrist. The present age of absurdity is the just reward of Christians who have failed to be Christians.
And the only remedy for absurdism lies at this, its source: we must again be Christians. Camus was quite right when he said, “We must choose between miracles and the absurd.” For in this respect Christianity and absurdism are equally opposed to Enlightenment rationalism and humanism, to the view that reality can be reduced to purely rational and human terms. We must indeed choose between the miraculous, the Christian view of things, whose center is God and whose end is the eternal Kingdom of Heaven, and the absurd, the Satanic view of things, whose center is the fallen self and whose end is Hell, in this life and in the life to come.
We must again be Christians. It is futile, in fact it is precisely absurd, to speak of reforming society, of changing the path of history, of emerging into an age beyond absurdity, if we have not Christ in our hearts; and if we do have Christ in our hearts, nothing else matters.
It is of course possible that there may be an age beyond absurdity; it is more likely, perhaps — and Christians must always be prepared for this eventuality — that there will not be, and that the age of absurdity is indeed the last age. It may be that the final testimony Christians may be able to give in this age will be the ultimate testimony, the blood of their martyrdom.
But this is cause for rejoicing and not for despair. For the hope of Christians is not in this world or in any of its kingdoms — that hope, indeed, is the ultimate absurdity; the hope of Christians is in the Kingdom of God which is not of this world.
For more on this subject by Fr. Seraphim, get the book Nihilism:
Nihilism: The Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age
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also can be purchased directly through St. Herman Press