Meaninglessness, horror and philosophy


My friend Hal Bauer called my attention to a radio interview with a young philosopher named Eugene Thacker, author of In the Dust of This Planet: the Horror of Philosophy, Volume I.

Thacker, a self-described pessimist and nihilist, thinks that horror fiction—in which nothing makes sense and something bad can happen at any moment—is a good guide to the modern predicament of living in a meaningless world.

My argument with Thacker is that he treats meaningless as a fact, and I think meaninglessness is a choice.

The old Greek and Roman philosophers were not concerned about meaninglessness.  To them, the purpose of philosophy was to teach you how to endure hardship, pain and death, with dignity and without whining.

Christianity created meaning.   The Christian church taught people they were actors a drama that extended from birth to the afterlife, and from Creation to the Last Judgment.

I once read Dante’s The Divine Comedy as part of a reading group, and was saw how Dante gave every little thing that he encountered a theological significance, a metaphysical significance and a moral significance.  It would be wonderful to see things that way, I thought.

The disappearance of this significance is hard on people who can’t believe in Christianity, but who’ve grown up in a civilization formed by Christianity.

Thacker tries to get this back through the study of occult philosophy, which does indeed give things metaphysical and magical significance.

There may well be “hidden worlds” as occult philosophers believe.  If you think, as I do, that everything that exists is the result of impersonal natural laws and of the decisions of sentient beings, then the occult is the realm of natural laws and sentient beings we don’t know about.

The problem with occult philosophy, as opposed to empirical science, is that it provides no criteria for distinguishing truth about the “hidden world” from meaningless gobbledegook.

In science, if the experiment doesn’t work or the prediction doesn’t come about, the theory is not true—or at least is subject to doubt.  In occult philosophy, the only criterion is whether it rings true to you personally.

If you can’t believe in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or any of the other established religions, I recommend you took at the classic Greek and Roman philosophers.  Broadly speaking, they were concerned with happiness, not with meaningfulness, and they pursued happiness in two ways.

One was to learn to appreciate life’s blessings, however small, and to not make yourself unhappy wishing things could be different from what they were.  The other was to live your life in such a way that you could look back on it with justified satisfaction at having done your duty.


In The Dust of This Planet – Radiolab.

Playing: In the Dust of This Planet.

In the Dust of This Planet: an excerpt from the book.

The Sight of a Mangled Corpse, an interview with Eugene Thacker.


Afterthought.  [8/9/2015]

My remark about Greek philosophy was a simplification of knowledge that was superficial to begin with.

By the classic Greco-Roman philosophers, I meant Aristotle, who in the Ethics taught that the virtuous person is happier in good fortune and bad fortune, and Xenophon, Isocartes, the Stoics, the Epircureans, Plutarch, Cicero and Lucretius, who believed that happiness came from pursuing excellence or doing your duty, or that you can prevent yourself from being made unhappy by things you can’t control, or all of the above.

None of them thought that it was necessary to have complete knowledge of human destiny to be happy or virtuous.

I ignored a mystical-occult strain in Greco-Roman philosophy which began with Plato’s parable of the cave and included the mystic visions of the Pythagorean Brotherhood (which I know virtually nothing about) and the neo-Platonists (ditto).

If you want a good, basic book on this topic, I recommend Gilbert Murray’s Five Stages of Greek Religion, especially the chapter on “The Failure of Nerve”, which is about the turning to mysticism and the occult.

I think there are many ways to lead a meaningful life that are compatible with uncertainty and metaphysical ignorance.  You can devote your life to pursuing excellence in some vocation, craft or sport.  You can devote your life to the pursuit of knowledge.  You can devote your life to a cause.  You can devote your life to service of community or humanity.

Or you can simply embrace the duties and pleasures of ordinary life.

Or you can find meaning in the cultivation of existential angst.  But this is a choice, not the human predicament.

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