A reflection on the Fragments of Empedocles of Acragas
Previously I have rejected the life of the ascetic and the hedonist as being a radical simplification of the nuanced relationship between human nature and the ideas of good and evil (see on Asceticism and on Pleasure). I attempted to unite these paths in an attempt to find moderation, but I confess looking back that this binary distinction appears somewhat simplistic. After my recent reflections, I would posit that an individual’s conception of the best way to conduct one’s life is based upon their understanding of the nature of life – not from a biological sense but in its metaphysical conception. Thus, I think it is valid to examine the root beliefs which underpin the differing codes of behaviour. Unfortunately, I am required to make some distinctions for this argument to be comprehensible; However, I think that a delineation can be made between those who see the world as changeable or unchangeable by personal agency, and those who see life as primarily negative or positive. With this framework in mind, I will then examine if we can transcend the destructive tendencies of the more extreme aspects of these points of view.
The first worldview is the conception of the world as changeable and positive, what I will label an ‘Ascent’ worldview. This argument can be drawn from the prophetic branches of major religions, utopian and progressive philosophies (such as Marx, Hegel and John Stuart Mill) and even within the progressive model of science seeking the Theory of Everything. These worldviews are predicated on the conception of human agency as having ‘purpose’ – as in you choose to be saved or to help the struggle. They also view the world as positive, in that they believe in the ‘perfectibility’ of this world. This has had a positive impact (depending on your conception of good) throughout history in the way that these movements have liberated the oppressed and overturned stagnate social orders. However, it has also resulted in widespread destruction, death and disaster in the form of revolutions, wars and purges.
The second worldview sees life as changeable and negative, which I will call a ‘Shielding’ worldview. This line of thinking sees the human project as a constant struggle against chaos, with every step ‘forward’ towards comfort, safety and pleasure at the risk of backsliding into the brutish and destructive state of nature. Such thinking is apparent in the priestly traditions of religions, conservative and reactionary political ideologies and the philosophy of such thinkers as Thucydides, Thomas Hobbes and Edmond Burke. Individuals who accept this branch of thinking are sceptical of the ‘Ascent’ worldview, seeing it as potentially overturning the status quo and risking the safety of all. This ideology has had a positive impact in restraining the worst excesses of revolution, but at the same time has acted as a means of legitimising exploitation and suffering by those in positions of secular power.
The third worldview sees life as unchangeable and positive, which I will label an ‘Willful’ worldview. This school of thought dismisses the actions of the ‘Ascent’ and ‘Shielding’ worldviews as futile in their quest to control history and instead advocate for the retirement from such secular concerns and a focus on nature and conduct self. Such views can be found in the mystic branches of religion and the thinking of philosophers such as Epicurus, Kierkegaard or Heidegger. The focus on the self and one’s relation to the world over the body politic, these individuals delve into the project of ‘self-construction.’ Although a potent antidote to nihilism, this line of thinking can lead to subjective morality, selfishness and a willingness to overlook means for ends.
The final concept of life sees it as unchangeable and negative, which I will call an ‘Empty’ worldview. The roots of this concept are manifold, with examples in Dharmic faiths (Jainism and Sannyasa in Hinduism) with its goal of moksha (final liberation) or the philosophical standpoint of Arthur Schopenhauer. An individual in this tradition would similarly reject life itself as nothing more than suffering. Such a worldview encourages complete disengagement with the world and retirement to contemplation in the hope of reducing suffering. Unlike its positive counterpart, the ‘Willful’ worldview, the ‘Empty’ ideal sees a rejection of the ‘world as one’s canvas’ – the concept of creating one’s own meaning. If taken to a materialist extreme it results in Nihilism, the most corrosive of all potential positions.
The question now stands: if we can map these differing conceptions of life, are we thus able to overcome these artificial boundaries and come to a syncretic or transcendent worldview? In my opinion, the more one attempts to systematise their viewpoints the less likely such a unity of thought is possible. Perhaps the only way that society can hope to incorporate the valid criticisms and restrain the destructive excesses of each worldview is through a balance of power between all four – unsteady and fluid but better than the domination of any singular element.
George Frederic Watts, Hope, 1886