The original idea for this reflection came from this tweet; credit goes to the user for his insight.
As human beings, we desire purpose. Once a man has found his purpose, he will undergo hunger, pain and all manner of deprivation in service of it. In other words he will live for it, and if need be, die for it. This sentiment, once commonplace in human societies, is alien to our modern culture. Yet the desire for purpose is something everyone feels; every person has felt the desire to find one’s place in the world. However, modern existence is characterized by the fact that our society self-avowedly has no answer to the question of existential meaning. Thus, the default state for modern people is one of nihilism, a belief in nothing, which leaves the human spirit hollow and empty.
This sentiment is most potently felt in youth when a person is going through the natural process of developing their identity. The modern West, just like every previous society, takes the task of inculcating its youth very seriously. From an early age children are exposed to a barrage of messages from media and schools meant to form them into the state’s ideal of a liberal citizen. In 19th century Prussia, the state endeavoured to inculcate nationalism and an ethic of service to the state into its youth. In modern Canada, the state and corporations work to inculcate youth with the ethics of diversity, secularism and social liberalism.
These are the hegemonic values of our society and they are as present as the air we breathe. Eventually young people reach the age where they go to university and there they are given the time and space to ask the big questions about purpose and meaning. The vast majority of people take an attitude of apathy and pass their time engaging in distractions like drugs or videogames. Another large portion of people take the implicit hegemonic values they were taught in their childhoods and make them the explicit centre of their personality. These people end up becoming part of the left and dedicating their efforts to the eradication of intolerance and bigotry wherever they happen to find it
Yet for many the left is not appealing. Generally, this originates with an intuitive rejection of what the left says, rather than a fully formed argument against leftist ideology. Whatever the case, people who wish to escape existential apathy but do not want to join the left, will typically consider joining the right. At universities, the right is represented by the local campus conservative club. However, because modern conservatism offers no substantial opposition to the left, and no serious answer to existential questions, it can never be a satisfactory response for a young person’s search. Insofar as conservatism even tries to offer a response to existential questions, it is perfectly summarized in the tweet that inspired this article as the belief that “we can pick up the fragments of our culture by putting on three-piece suits.” For those that have gone through the swamp of modern institutional conservatism, they will be familiar with the milquetoast, sterile aura of the modern conservative movement.
This false dichotomy between Conservatism and Liberalism leaves one at something of a dead end. Unfortunately this dichotomy is the Bed of Procrustes into which all modern thought is forced. Being stuck between two lifeless materialist alternatives, our horizons turn grey on every side and even the possibility of idealism begins to vanish.
In recent years, a growing segment of young people have turned to vitalism as an escape from this trap. The contemporary idea of vitalism was introduced by the twitter user “Bronze Age Pervert” or “BAP” for short. BAP is a very important cultural figure for young people on the right and the idea of vitalism is a more serious alternative than Conservatism and Leftism. However, while vitalism has many positive aspects it ultimately offers no more of an escape from nihilism and materialism.
The vitalist proposition essentially revolves around the idea that nature is made up of competing wills that are exerting themselves. The world is a great arena wherein generation, development, and destruction exist together side by side. From the blades of grass in the field to the great beasts of prey, every living thing is in a constant struggle to assert itself. In short: life lives. A being that strives towards power and beauty is manifesting is own imperative to live. To truly live is to become that which is superior, to be a master over one’s domain.
We must agree that to live a vital life is good, but the flaw in vitalism is that, separate from a Christian foundation, vitalism is like an edifice built on sand. To begin with we can look at a fundamental dichotomy vitalism draws between that which is vital and that which is degenerate. We might replace either or both of the two words with various synonyms: good vs. bad, life-affirming vs. life-denying, but essentially this dichotomy refers to the idea that things which promote life and give an organism vitality are vital, and things which detract from this imperative are degenerate.
If we look at the etymology of the term degenerate we find that it is composed of two Latin root words: de, meaning in this case, “away from,” and genus, meaning “kind” or “species”. What is important to grasp here is that the concept of genus, relies on our ability to classify reality into various “kinds” of things based on the unique nature of each category of thing. For example we might say that a tiger, who by virtue of living its whole life in a zoo has lost its natural ability to hunt in the wild, has degenerated from the ideal type of its kind. However, as I pointed out in a previous article, the normative weight of genus categories and ideal types rests entirely on whether they describe something of the essential nature of a thing. If we take the nominalist view, in which all categories are constructs, then it is not possible to say that something should strive towards an ideal type, or that it is bad for something to be deviating from the nature of its kind. For then the natural response should be that the category itself was developed as a tool to serve some human purpose and that we might just as easily develop a system of categorization where what was previously ideal is now considered degenerate and what was previously degenerate being now considered ideal. The issue is that neither the old nor the new system of categorization would be meaningfully describing the underlying reality of any individual thing or the world as a whole. Therefore the only choice would be to arbitrarily select one arbitrary way of seeing the world over all the other arbitrary ways of doing so.
What this issue points us to is what the Calvinist theologian Cornelius van Til called the problem of “Autonomous Man”. That is to say that when Man seeks to appoint himself as the ultimate judge and interpreter over creation he finds that he lacks any coherent standard by which to interpret reality, and thus he must necessarily fall into nihilism.
Whether consciously or unconsciously some have responded to the problem of autonomous man by attempting to synthesize out of vitalism and various other elements some form of pagan belief, or at the very least a desire to return the world to the pagan virtues.
The issue with this is that paganism is a fundamentally nihilistic worldview. A good concise expression of this fact can be found in David Bentley Hart’s essay Christ and Nothing. I must here include the caveat that I am by no means endorsing David Bentley Hart’s heretical theological views, but I am referring to this article in particular as a good summation of pagan nihilism. David Bentley Hart explains:
The great Indo-European mythos, from which Western culture sprang, was chiefly one of sacrifice: it understood the cosmos as a closed system, a finite totality, within which gods and mortals alike occupied places determined by fate. And this totality was, of necessity, an economy, a cycle of creation and destruction, oscillating between order and chaos, form and indeterminacy: a great circle of feeding, preserving life through a system of transactions with death.
The first important element we can draw from this are that above the gods themselves lies fate, arbitrary and inescapable. So while in the temporal realm we do have an oscillation between order and chaos, the whole of existence fundamentally rests on a foundation of chaos. That is to say that beyond temporal order and temporal chaos we have fate which is mistress over both gods and men. The gods are gods because they are immortal and they have more power than men, but they are by no means all-powerful. The gods are moreover, not just flawed morally, but often live dominated by vice. The Greek myths are full of stories of incest, rape and murder between the gods and by the gods towards mortals. Indeed stories of the gods’ degeneracy are so common in the Greek myths that in Plato’s republic Socrates argued for censoring and rewriting myths in order not to promote iniquity amongst the population. Meanwhile, fate is a personification of the ultimate unknowable randomness which characterizes all of existence. She knows no justice, has no reason and cares not whether she gives or takes away. Fate is the primal inescapable universal chaos which at all times threatens to collapse what temporal order.
The second element of Hart’s description comes as a result of the first: existence is fundamentally transactional:
Gods and mortals were bound together by necessity; we fed the gods, who required our sacrifices, and they preserved us from the forces they personified and granted us some measure of their power. There was, surely, an ineradicable nihilism in such an economy: a tragic resignation before fate, followed by a prudential act of cultic salvage, for the sake of social and cosmic stability.
Pagan religious life was dominated by sacrifices and ceremonies essentially aimed at pacifying the gods by buying them off. Within this great cosmic economy people would sacrifice things of value in order to receive some measure of power that would protect them from the vicissitudes of fate.
This underlying fact about the pagan worldview is not just found in academic descriptions of it; the greatest minds of the pagan world reflected on this problem of nihilism within their belief system. For example we have Socrates’ famous question which can be paraphrased as “are things good because the gods say they are good? Or do the gods believe in the good because it is good in itself?”. The implication here is that if the gods decide what is good, what is good is defined arbitrarily by the gods and morality is simply a subjective preference. In which case we are stuck with nihilism. Or the gods are receiving knowledge of what is inherently good from some source outside themselves and simply believing in it because it is true. In this case we have to postulate that there is something higher than the gods which is the source of the good in the universe (we know this source of the good has to be higher than the gods because it is the source of truths which they merely adopt).
We can also look to the opening lines of Homer’s Iliad for a more poetic and existential description of pagan nihilism:
Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring Of woes unnumber’d, heavenly goddess sing! That wrath which hurl’d to Pluto’s gloomy reign The souls of mighty chiefs slain; Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore, Devouring dogs and vultures tore: Since great Achilles and Atrides strove, Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove!
We tend to imagine the ancient heroes in a golden halo of glory produced by their great deeds, but Homer opens what is arguably the most important text in Hellenic culture with what is almost a lament of senseless carnage. We have an image of “mighty chiefs” the heroes of antiquity, slain by the army of which Achilles was part. Their bodies are left chopped up on the beach to be ripped up into mincemeat and devoured by dogs and vultures. We have here the peak of human beauty in the form of the mighty warriors slain by Achilles ending up as nothing more than food for the lowest scavenging animals.
At the end of the line Homer even speaks of the sovereign doom which decides the fates of men. And while he does also speak of the will of Jove it's worth considering that the story of the Trojan war in the Iliad does not show Jove or any of the other gods as in control of fate. While they can use their power to try and enact their wills, they are not the ultimate sovereign, fate, or as Homer puts it doom is sovereign. For example the whole Trojan war was started because the goddess of strife: Eris, manipulated Athena, Hera and Aphrodite into getting into a fight.
Of course this petty conflict devolves into the Trojan war where each side has some of the gods’ favour. The war results in a great bloodletting and the destruction of the great city of Troy. Achilles dies during the sack of Troy by being shot in the heel by an arrow; an ignominious ending to the life of the greatest hero of the age.
In some ways, the chaos that dominates the Iliad reminds one of French philosopher Joseph De Maistre’s famous reflection on violence in the world written during the French revolution, over 2000 years after the Iliad:
In the whole vast domain of living nature there reigns an open violence, a kind of prescriptive fury which arms all creatures to their common doom”. De Maistre speaks of the multitude of plants which die and are killed. The animals are placed over the plants and feed on them. But animals also kill one another, from small insects to the great mammals there are predators.
Finally, he speaks of man:
Over all these races of animals man is place, and his destructive hand spares nothing... He kills to obtain food and he kills to clothe himself. He kills to adorn himself, he kills in order to attack, and he kills in order to defend himself. He kills to instruct himself and he kills to amuse himself. He kills to kill... And who in this general carnage will exterminate him who exterminates all others? Himself. It is man who is charged with the slaughter of man
From these observations, De Maistre concludes that this universal violence is a law:
Thus is accomplished the great law of the violent destruction of living creatures. The whole earth perpetually steeped in blood, is nothing but a vast altar, upon which all that is living must be sacrificed without end, without measure, without pause, until the consummation of all things, until evil is extinct, until the death of death.
What marks out De Maistre’s reflection from the nihilism of paganism is that concluding phrase in which he says that chaos and violence will continue until the death of death. Because De Maistre is a Christian, he believes that Christ won victory over death on the cross, and there will be an end of days when the whole earth is renewed and the ocean of blood flows no more. In other words, De Maistre’s Christianity gives form to history. Rather than being chaos, history is in God’s hand and events are directed according to His plan. History flows to the ends which God has set for it like a river flows to the sea. So rather than being ruled by the random twists and turns of fate, we are ruled by the sovereign will of God who gives not just our life, but the whole cosmos a foundation of order and meaning.
We find this encounter between the Christian and pagan worldviews summed up in the Bible in John 18:37-38:
Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end have I been born, and to this end am I come into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice. Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find no crime in him.
Here the Roman imperial official Pontius Pilate is asking a rhetorical question. He is not asking Jesus to explain what truth is, rather he is giving the verbal version of shrugging his shoulders. To him the idea of truth is not absolute like it is for Christ.
However, for many, the ultimate nihilism of paganism and vitalism will not disturb or even surprise them. Many even on the right have imbibed the relativism of our age, and rather than rejecting it, they seek to use liberal ways of thinking for right wing purposes. Thus it is very common to find people arguing, “maybe there isn’t an ultimate truth, but for practical purposes we ought to live in line with the pagan virtues and vitalism.” This is a consequentialist or utilitarian argument which says that based on our chosen metric, living according to our chosen set of virtues will produce the greatest amount of happiness for people. In a previous article I have outlined why utilitarianism fails as the basis for ethics, but here I would like to give some specific criticisms of the use of utilitarian logic in order to justify vitalism. Firstly the issue with all utilitarian arguments is that they rely on the assumption that everything people want is pleasure in the hedonistic sense. While you could argue to someone that their life will be better in the long term if they work towards vitalism, they could on utilitarian grounds respond that they don’t care about any of that and that they want to have as much pleasure as possible right now. For them, maximizing their dopamine might mean engaging in deviant sex acts and doing a lot of drugs.
The other issue with the utilitarian approach is that its difficult to imagine something less vital than utilitarianism, which is a dispassionate and dreary approach to life. Basing your worldview on maximizing pleasure points and minimizing pain points reduces your being to a rudimentary calculus. Utilitarianism is the triumph of quantity over quality. Just as the higher cannot be subordinate to the lower, It is impossible to ground a vitalistic life on utilitarian calculation.
The issues with utilitarianism as a justification for vitalism will be apparent to some and so instead they may resort to rejecting reason as a standard for justification in similar way to Nietzsche. This is essentially the idea that “I do not need a justification, I will simply act through the arbitrary imposition of my will”. The issue with simply abandoning the principle of justification is that then removes all the weight from behind one’s opposition to the false dogmas of modernity. The progressive using the same arbitrary imposition of will can now assert that they will to change their gender. People who end up rejecting liberal-progressive dogmas do so because they are convinced of their falsehood through argument. People come to the right because they are inspired by the vision of a better world. By rejecting reason and justification we lose the power that drew us away from the false dogmas and towards the truth in the first place.
In addition to these fundamental issues with pagan or atheistic vitalism, there are also practical issues with grounding a society in the pagan virtues. The pagan world was by and large a degenerate place. Among the Greeks and the Celts, pederasty (homosexual pedophilia) was considered to be a social norm and in many places the relations between an adult man and a prepubescent boy were considered to be a rite of passage for the boy. Famously, in the Bible we find descriptions of the degeneracy of the Canaanites whose iniquity was famously exemplified by their practice of sacrificing children to their god Baal. This practice was noted in the Old Testament of the Bible as well as by Greek and Roman writers such as Plutarch.
While Rome was a more conservative society than some of the others of its time, it also had its own problems with degeneracy. There is a famous story about Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi brothers, who was renowned for her virtue. Once, while speaking to some other Roman women, she was asked by the others why she didn’t dress ostentatiously and display fine jewelry, Cornelia responded by saying that her children were her jewels. This story was told by the Romans to show a contrast between the traditional virtues displayed by Cornelia and the materialism and degeneracy of most of the other roman women.
The decline of Roman morals became such an issue that the emperor Augustus instituted a series of laws aimed at restoring public morals, such as introducing the right of fathers to kill their daughters if she had committed adultery. These measures were motivated in part by Augustus’ concern over the declining birth-rates among the old-blood Roman families.
It was only with the introduction of Christianity to the Roman empire and then the rest of Europe that a coherent moral code was introduced that corrected many of these widespread social ills. It is here worth considering the Christian doctrine of sin. The term “sin” originated as an archery term meaning to “miss the mark”. That is, if we imagine an archer shooting a target, when he misses it is a “sin”. Christianity teaches that being and the good are aspects of God which emanate from him to form the metaphysical structure of creation. Thus, all of creation is good by its nature because all the things that God created are good. However, at the Fall, Man chose to direct his will away from the purposes which God designed him to fulfill. This introduced sin into the world which corrupted creation. Thus, when we struggle with sin, we are struggling with our tendency to will things differently to that which God intended for us. Sin or evil in itself has no being or existence. Since God is the source of all being, to direct your will against God is to turn away from the source of being and the good. We can imagine as an analogy to this, God as the sun, and the light that emanates from him being the things we receive from God, such as being and the good. As we move closer to God we receive more of the light, and as we move further away we receive less of the light. Movement away from God is purely the product of our will directing itself away from good things and thus towards the negation of the good, evil. Evil therefore is not a thing in itself but rather a privation of the good.
In a similar way to this, we consider vitality and life-affirming force to be part of what we receive from God. Jesus speaks of himself as the vine and of us as branches which can either be grafted on or cut off from him. Since he, as the vine, is the source of life for the branches, any branch that is cut off will wither away and die. Thus to have a vital life one must be connected to the source of vitality which is God.
To conclude, I would like to quote from the book of Ecclesiastes which is the reflections of King Solomon trying to find meaning in the world separate from God. We begin with Ecclesiastes 1:1-9:
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
Here we find a description of man’s desire as a bottomless pit which no matter how hard one tries, can never be filled. All of man’s efforts are like the streams which flow into the sea yet never fill it. Indeed, the eye can never see enough, nor the ear hear enough, to fulfill man. There will never come a point when the hedonist has seen enough or done enough such that he has achieved what he is looking for. Generation after generation, men act out the same patterns. Just as a child will make the same mistakes his parents did as children, so too will all men make the mistakes of those who came before them. Moreover, not only the mistakes but the same triumphs, the same small pleasures, bitter disappointments, delusions and insights will be repeated over and over again from generation to generation. At some point, every man must die. Then, all the people who knew him will die, and then all the people who know of him will die. In this light, we can understand the book of Ecclesiastes’ description of vanity as chasing after the wind. We get the image of a man’s life in and of itself as a breath in the wind.
So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter. Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive. Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.
Here, we have the recurrent condition of our fallen world, the fact that throughout all of time, there have been and will be people oppressed and rulers who live in iniquity. This will probably not surprise anyone, it is increasingly the case that the decrepitude of our own national circumstances and the corruption of our system are clear for anyone with eyes to see. However, many who profess vitalism will likely take a Nietzschean approach and despise weakness and praise strength. They will say that the reality of this life is that one must seek power because with it, one will not be oppressed.
Yet we ought to remember that for the oppressor there is no comfort either. This may sound a strange thing to say: the oppressors are clearly better off in material terms. But consider our elites, who are a gaggle of decrepit and mediocre men. In their corruption they have built our society into a degenerate edifice. These are not people with a vital energy driving them, they are the personification of the vices of our system and more than any of us they are dominated by those vices. Power and wealth cannot transform the degenerate into the superior, they only allow what is degenerate to express its nature.
The most striking element of that section of Ecclesiastes is, however, the latter portion which states that it is better to be dead than alive, but better than both is to have never been born and see all the evil which is done under the sun. This rejection of life is the logical endpoint of our present society and any society that rejects God. The ideas that “I do not want to bring a child into the world” and “life is meaningless” are increasingly common among regular folk, especially young people. It is the sign of a people who have lost their vital energy because they are cut off from God, and no cult of vitalism premised on atheism or paganism can bring that vitality back.