“I want everything to be explained to me or nothing. And the reason is impotent when it hears this cry from the heart. The mind aroused by this insistence seeks and finds nothing but contradictions and nonsense. The world itself, whose single meaning I do not understand, is a vast irrational.”
After a long history of brow-wrinkling, brain-twisting, mind-sweating reason, Western philosophy finally came to its own tentative brand of crazy wisdom. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Western “thinkers” began to bump up against the bitter conclusion that the intellect could not comprehend the world or its meaning. By mid-twentieth century, the movement known as existentialism had pronounced the failure of reason and the death of classical Western philosophy.
The existentialists challenged both God and reason, and thus the Western claim that humanity has a special place in creation. We were no longer the chosen ones, watched over like children by a beneficent God our Father, nor was intellect capable of discovering truth or finding higher meaning for our lives. These conclusions, along with the discoveries of Darwin and Freud, shattered the Western psyche. The individual mind and soul—the twin darlings of Occidental philosophy and religion—were no longer the centerpieces of creation, and it became the grim project of the existentialists to mourn their passing and write the elegies. The despair felt by these late Western thinkers was both personal and collective; regret for themselves and for their culture.
“Forever I shall be a stranger to myself. In psychology as in logic, there are truths but no truth. Socrates’ `Know thyself’ has as much value as the `Be virtuous’ of our confessionals. They reveal a nostalgia at the same time as an ignorance.”
While the existentialists were often great tricksters, overturning moral codes and belief systems, they too became victims of the resulting confusion. Unlike the Taoist and Zen Buddhists, who found liberation in a life without meaning, many existentialists were driven into severe depression by a universe that offered no answers. Without God or reason, these philosophers looked into an empty, purposeless existence. Despair filled their lives and their literature: Nausea, Fear and Trembling, The Concept of Dread, No Exit.
“The world can no longer offer anything to the man filled with anguish.”
Although most existentialist philosophers explored the realms of crazy wisdom intellectually, in their own lives they were destined only to become martyrs to this new Western understanding. What the existentialists lacked, though some of them yearned for it, was a way out of their minds. A few of them tried the way of the absurd.
In the “absurd” we hear occasional echoes of the Tao. Both are names for the same nonrational cosmos, indifferent to human concerns as it sweeps everything along on its inexorable course. Confronted with this “absurd creation,” Albert Camus wrote of the “absurd man” who must find a different approach to life and another mode of understanding:
“For the absurd man it is not a matter of explaining and solving, but of experiencing and describing. Everything begins with lucid indifference.”
Any Eastern sage would be pleased with Camus’ phrase, “lucid indifference,” which sounds similar to the “just being” of Zen or the deliberate “non-doing” of the Taoists. However, unlike the Taoist at peace with the Tao, Camus could never make peace with the absurd, and it is widely believed that he committed suicide. He was well aware of his dilemma.
“If I were a tree among trees, a cat among animals, this life would have a meaning, or rather this problem would not arise, for I should belong to this world. I should be this world to which I am now opposed by my whole consciousness and my whole insistence upon familiarity. This ridiculous reason is what sets me in opposition to all creation. I cannot cross it out with a stroke of the pen.”
Camus wanted out of his mind and into “being.” Instead of his “insistence on familiarity” he wanted to become comfortable with unfamiliarity. But no Taoist or Zen master was around to give him lessons; there was no tradition in the West for Camus’ yearnings, no methods to transform his “existentialism” into a way of life. He was a man of philosophy, and when the thinking game could not hold him up, he sank.
Of all the existentialists, the nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche came closest to forging a new approach to life, based on a universe without God, morality or reason. Although many disagree with Nietzsche’s attempts to resolve absurdity, others might award him the title of crazy-wisdom master.
“I live in my own place
have never copied nobody even half,
and at any master who lacks the grace
to laugh at himself—I laugh.”
—Inscribed over the door to Nietzsche’s house
Nietzsche developed his own unique crazy-wisdom philosophy which has a great deal in common with both the ideas and styles of presentation of the Eastern sages. There are moments, when Nietzsche, exploring his wild, anarchistic beliefs, sounds exactly like an old Taoist holy fool:
“All that is good is instinct—and hence easy, necessary, free. Laboriousness is an objection; the god is typically different from the hero. (In my language: light feet are the first attribute of divinity.)”
Nietzsche’s divine “light feet” are right in step with the Taoists, but his own heavy boots would not allow him to walk quite so softly. Instead, he felt it necessary to kick apart the foundations of European civilization. With a trickster’s chaotic spirit and a jester’s skeptical insights, Nietzsche took it on himself to destroy all previous Western thought and history. In this task, he saw himself as the great fool philosopher, a crazy-wisdom prophet come to herald the new age.
“It seems to me more and more that the philosopher, as a necessary man of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, has always found himself, and always had to find himself, in opposition to his today: the ideal of the day was always his enemy. Hitherto all these extraordinary promoters of man, who are called philosophers, and who rarely have felt themselves to be friends of wisdom, but rather disagreeable fools and dangerous question marks, have found their task, their hard, unwanted, inescapable task, in being the bad conscience of their time. By applying the knife vivisectionally to the very virtues of the time they betrayed their own secret: to know of a new greatness of man, of a new untrodden way to his enhancement. Each time they have uncovered how much hypocrisy, comfortableness, letting oneself go and letting oneself drop, how many lies, were concealed under the most honored type of their contemporary morality, how much virtue was outlived. Each time they said: `We must proceed there, that way, where today you are least at home.'”
Nietzsche believed European civilization was sunk in superstition and ignorance, holding on to worn-out myths and ideologies. He called for “revaluation of all values,” and for a special race of supermen to arise, face the blank slate and create a new world. In exhortations such as “Mankind must become better and more evil,” we can hear the familiar Taoist sense of irony and paradox. Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu might even have quoted Nietzsche in their disputes with Confucius. Although Nietzsche’s adversary was the Christian church, he has the same Taoist crazy-wisdom attitude toward moral absolutes and commandments.
“My demand upon the philosopher is known, that he take his stand beyond good and evil and leave the illusion of moral judgment beneath himself. This demand follows from an insight which I was the first to formulate: that there are altogether no moral facts.”
Nietzsche obviously had not read Chuang Tzu, but he was certainly one of the few in the West to come to a similar understanding. In a section of his book Twilight of the Idols, which he subtitles, “How The ‘True World’ Finally Became a Fable,” Nietzsche sounds just like a Zen crazy-wisdom master as he puts forth his own version of truth. Nietzsche’s first proposition is:
“l. The true world—attainable for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man; he lives in it, he is it.”
Nietzsche believed that truth is found in “being” rather than knowing, but like Camus, he had no one to teach him how to be. Nonetheless, Nietzsche seemed to understand what is required. In his fifth proposition, he comes a step closer to Zen when he refuses to even go on the search for truth, and decides to have breakfast instead.
“5. The ‘true’ world—an idea which is no longer good for anything, not even obligating—an idea which has become useless and superfluous—consequently, a refuted idea: let us abolish it!
(Bright day; breakfast; return of bon sens and cheerfulness; Plato’s embarrassed blush; pandemonium of all free spirits.)”
Nietzsche did not believe in “truth” or knowledge, and he himself wanted out of the game. Although he was a philosopher, he spoke like a spiritual seeker who was looking for a different approach to life.
“I want, once and for all, not to know many things. Wisdom sets limits to knowledge too.”
Like many crazy-wisdom masters, Nietzsche saw the human craving for knowledge and significance as our most distressing quality, keeping us grim and out of balance.
“Gradually, man has become a fantastic animal that has to fulfill one more condition of existence than any other animal: man has to believe, to know, from time to time why he exists; his race cannot flourish without a periodic trust in life—without faith in reason in life. And again and again the human race will decree from time to time: `There is something at which it is absolutely forbidden to laugh.'”
Although the existentialist philosophers had crazy-wisdom insights, they remained in the context of the Western game of reason. The existentialists sensed that there was another approach to life, but they were never able to find the Taoist or Zen masters’ state of grace. In the end, it may have been Jean Paul Sartre who best summarized the difficult existentialist position as well as the previous two millennia of Western philosophy with this simple assertion:
“Being has not been given its due.”