Tag Archives: Nihilism

Politics, Thermostats, and Existentialism

Control theory has been introduced in previous posts, in the context of explaining or describing the nature of the complexity of our political systems, and specifically whether an existential orientation towards politics is justified or not.

If causes and effects can be reliably identified and consistently traced through our political systems, then the existential assumption that our political systems are irreducibly complex is invalid, and therefore an existential orientation towards politics is unnecessary. However, if our basic assumptions about how our political systems work can be shown to be fatally flawed, particularly pertaining to our understanding of what our political systems control or do not control, then conventional conceptions of citizenship based on these assumptions of coherence and control will be fundamentally inadequate—or, worse, actively contributing to the apathy and pessimism which characterize so much of our contemporary politics. As such, because Existentialism is explicitly premised on taking meaningful action in an implacable world that repels ultimate meaning, an existential account of citizenship is the only orientation towards politics that can not only embrace this incoherence but still motivate meaningful and enduring political engagement.

This installment will thus demonstrate one such fundamental challenge to our unquestioned assumptions of the ultimate coherence of our political systems from the application of control theory, and why an existential approach to citizenship is the most appropriate response.

What the thermostat knows

As described in more detail in previous installments, a control system is any system whose components act together in such a way as to stabilize against disturbances some quantity or property in the ambit of the system. Notably, there is only one basic way that control can be exercised. To the degree the components of a system perform the functions described by control theory, and relate to each other in the order described by control theory, that system—regardless of its physical composition or complexity—will be exerting control over the quantity or property in its focus.

The prototypical example of a control system is the common household thermostat:


Believe it or not, even at this rudimentary level of explanation a proper understanding of how control systems must function to exert proper control already reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of political control which is evident at all levels of society, from regular people, to politicians, to academics: The one basic aspect of control systems that most people confuse—and which results in fundamental errors in the attribution of control, which is such a critical aspect of political systems—is in their identification of what is the focus or target of control.

As demonstrated above, for the thermostat to function as such there must a component which senses the ambient temperature of the room as the input, converting that into a feedback signal. This feedback is then compared against a reference signal (i.e., the setting of the thermostat), returning the magnitude of the difference between the present room temperature and the desired room temperature as an error signal. This difference is then translated by the output function into a change in the state of the furnace (off or on, or no change if the error signal is within the parameters). The action of the furnace then contributes to the temperature of the room.

However, the temperature of the room may in turn also be subject to other influences in the external environment (open doors, summer or winter weather outside the house, a crackling fire in the room, etc.). As such, the temperature of the room—as the combination of the results of the output of the system and any environmental perturbations—is then sensed by the feedback function, compared against the reference, and on and on. Again, only by these specific components performing these specific functions in this specific order does the thermostat fulfill its intended purpose of controlling the temperature of the room.[1]

This likely seems a basic, obvious, and superfluous example, with little relevance to the question of control in and by political systems. For as trivial as this example might seem, though, this demonstration of the sequence of functions and relations which are necessary for control suddenly becomes very significant when this basic understanding of control is applied to politics.

Fundamental misconceptions of control

Keep in mind that if the components of a system do not perform these necessary functions in the proper relation to the other components, even the simple thermostat will not be able to control the temperature of the room as intended. If the comparator compares the reference signal to the output signal, or the feedback function processes the error signal instead of the input quantity, then this chain is broken and the room temperature is not stabilized or controlled.

However, when asked to describe how a control system operates, even one as basic as a thermostat, most people will say that what is being controlled is the output of the system.[2] This makes superficial sense, as this output is the ‘product’ of the system, and therefore what seems to be the purpose of the system, but this is a fundamental mistake. Notably, this is the same fundamental mistake that many people also make in their attribution of control to political systems.


As demonstrated in the basic thermostatic model above, control systems do not stabilize their outputs; rather control is produced by focus on inputs (i.e., true control systems control their inputs, not their outputs).[3] The outputs are necessarily related to the inputs, otherwise there would be no cause-effect relationship to be manipulated for the purposes of control, but, contrary to these appearances, true control systems do not actually control their outputs. This distinction is exceedingly important in the attribution or assumption of control in and by political systems.

Consider a thermostat that did control its outputs in the way most people assume. Such a configuration of control would necessarily look like this:


Even this rudimentary example demonstrates the significant issues which arise from this common misconception of control. For one, as can be seen, this would mean that the action of the thermostat is indifferent to the temperature of the room, and is concerned instead only with the output of the system (i.e., the level of heat produced by the furnace). Another consequence of this misconception of control is that the reference signal would now also have to pertain to the amount of heat produced by the furnace, and not to the temperature of the room. The end result is that such a system would control the level of heat coming out of the furnace, and not the temperature of the room, which is the presumed purpose of a thermostat.

Political systems: Out of control?

Now consider control conceived in this way—as the control of outputs and not inputs—applied to a political system, such as a policymaking agency, for example. Assuming that all the necessary components have been identified, and that they perform the requisite functions in the proper sequences, this configuration of control would look like this:


From this configuration of control based on this common assumption that political systems control their outputs, there are a couple of conclusions which have unnerving implications for our understanding of politics, and therefore for our motivations for meaningful political engagement:

  1. If political systems actually do control their outputs in this way, they would be closed systems fundamentally disconnected from their political environments. In this case, these political systems would be exerting control, but only of themselves and not in response to ongoing changes in some aspect of society at large that we assume are the purpose of our political systems.
  2. If this common conception of control is instead a misconception of control, and our political systems are in fact controlling their inputs in the proper way, then this means that most people fundamentally misunderstand how our political systems actually work. In this case, people are assuming that our political systems are controlling something that they are not. The subsequent problem is that this means we do not actually know what our political systems are controlling—they may well be controlling some aspects of social life, but the problem is that we have not yet identified what those aspects of society are.

The upshot from this rudimentary demonstration is that either we do not understand how our political systems actually function, or our political systems do not function as we assume they do, specifically in terms of what they do or do not control, which is the primary justification for our political institutions and agencies.

This fundamental misconception of how our political systems actually work is one reason why the first and second principles of the Existential Citizenship Project are so important, because otherwise the result is the pervasive and uncritical acceptance of more or less mythological accounts of how our political systems operate. To the degree that our explanations of political systems do not explain how they actually operate is also the degree to which prescriptions for action based on these flawed explanations are liable to mislead and disappoint, leading to widespread apathy or nihilism. Because we either do not understand how our political systems work, or because they fundamentally defy explanation, what is needed are justifications for political actions that do not rely on the coherence of the system or on our comprehension of it. Again, these fatal flaws in our basic understanding are why an existential approach towards politics is the most apt orientation for political engagement.

Existentialism and political control

That said, there is also still the possibility that our political systems do in fact control their inputs in the proper way, as described by control theory. If this is the case, then we might be able to comprehend the system after all. The basic diagram of political control properly conceived in this case would look like this:


Again, as a proper control system, this means that an input quantity is detected by some feedback function within the policymaking entity, which is then compared in some way against a preferred ‘level’ of policy, generating an error signal of the difference that initiates an appropriate output. In the context of a policymaking entity, this output would presumably be a level or quantity of policy.

However, even if this is how our political systems actually work, there is still a substantial problem revealed by this control theory approach that does not yet appear to have a satisfactory resolution: What are the inputs into such a system (i.e., what is the actual controlled quantity)?

Again, this controlled quantity would not be the ‘level’ of policy, as this is the output of the system itself, which would result in the self-referential ‘closed thermostat’ model diagrammed above. So this input must be something else. Given how we conceive of our political institutions, these inputs would ideally be some effect in society at large as the focus or target of policy. There are any number of possibilities for these controlled quantities, depending on the political system being analyzed (Public preferences? Political mandates? Bureaucratic imperatives? Etc.), but the identification of these inputs is ultimately an empirical matter.

To my knowledge, though, there has been very little work done on identifying the inputs into political systems as a focus of control as suggested by control theory.[4] I have yet to see the inputs of specific policymaking systems—when they are discussed at all—treated as the proper focus of control, much less the inputs for political systems as a whole. This absence of attention in the literature to inputs as controlled quantities strongly suggests, again, that we do not as yet know what our political systems actually control, which means that even with a proper conception of control we do not yet adequately understand how our political systems actually work. This is in addition to the fact that the general conception of political systems as controlling their outputs is still a fundamental mistake, and therefore that most people—including most politicians and academic scholars—still fundamentally misunderstand how our political systems as systems of control actually work.

Given these fundamental flaws in our basic understanding of how our political systems work, even with a proper conception of control, our traditional justifications for political engagement based on these assumptions of coherence and control are at best inadequate and at worst actively contributing to the apathy and pessimism which characterize so much of our contemporary politics. What is needed instead is a conception of citizenship capable of acknowledging this fundamental incoherence of our politics and yet is still able to motivate meaningful and enduring political engagement. The only philosophical stance explicitly premised on taking meaningful action in a world that defies our understanding is Existentialism. This is why an existential account of citizenship is the only viable orientation towards politics in the face of all this fundamental uncertainty.

[1] Another simple example of the importance of the focus of control systems on their inputs and not their outputs is to think of a driver steering a car as a control system. In this case, the inputs are the events outside the windshield as the focus of the attention of the driver, the reference signal is provided by the lane markers, and the desire of the driver to keep the car in its proper lane and to avoid obstacles, and the outputs are the motions of the hands of the driver on the steering wheel which affect the position of the car. If the driver were to be controlling their outputs, as is the common assumption about control systems, the driver would be focusing on their hands on the steering wheel, and on keeping those motions within certain parameters, which is obviously a disastrous way to drive a car. Instead, by focusing on the proper inputs, the driver is able to respond effectively to even unexpected events using their outputs to adjust the orientation of the car according to these inputs.

[2] This evidence is admittedly anecdotal from my own experiences over years of asking people seemingly inane questions like “So what do you think a thermostat controls?”, but this misunderstanding of basic control principles has been my repeated experience. By all means go ahead and try this out yourself, and let me know what you find out.

[3] In well-functioning control systems, the outputs may often behave in a consistent manner correlated with the inputs that might appear to be control, but this is because the outputs are a systemic response to the inputs—not because the outputs themselves are being controlled (i.e., as the inputs change, so also will change the outputs). On the other hand, because the system is responding to both its own outputs and perturbations in the environment, the outputs can sometimes vary widely from one moment to the next, depending on the magnitude of the error signal that is generated. However, in a proper control system, these wild swings in output will be contrasted with a relatively steady input signal—again, because what is being controlled are the inputs and not the outputs, this seeming lack of correlation of inputs with outputs is in fact a sign of true control. What is more important in assessing the presence or absence of control is the relation between the inputs and the reference signal.

[4] At least in the domain of public policy, which is the area I have looked for control in the most. In other areas of research in political science and theory it may be that political control is properly conceived as control of inputs, and is therefore studied appropriately, but I have not yet encountered evidence of this.

Complexity, Absurdity, and the Problem of Political Control

“Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.”[1]

Similar to this recommendation from Hannah Arendt, the first basic tenet of the Existential Citizenship Project is that as much as is possible our political systems must be confronted as they are.[2] The second basic tenet of the Existential Citizenship Project is that not only are our political systems irreducibly complex, they are also Absurd. In other words, according to the Existential Citizenship Project, the first steps for meaningful and enduring political engagement are to acknowledge and accept the irreducible complexity and absurdity of our real world political systems.

At first glance, the acknowledgement of this inherent absurdity probably appears an admission of defeat, and an invitation to apathy. This is because, as discussed in much more detail in other installments, one enduring legacy of the Enlightenment has been the exaltation of hope—but hope conceived in a particularly pernicious way. This conception of hope is actually the root cause of much of the apathy, cynicism, and nihilism which characterize so much about our contemporary political systems.

Recognition of this inherent absurdity and complexity is a fundamental principle of the Existential Citizenship Project because this Absurdity and complexity are the source—at least in part—of the frustration of the hopes that people invest into their political systems. Therefore, what is needed are explanations which a) accept these inherent though (seemingly) unsettling features of our political systems, AND b) are still able to motivate meaningful and enduring political engagement. This is what the Existential Citizenship Project provides.

Absurdity and complexity

That said, there is an important distinction to be made between complexity and Absurdity, especially in the context of political control—or the ultimate lack thereof. Absurdity in this existential sense describes the conflict between our innate human need to find meaning and the ultimate lack of inherent meaning in things. As such, Absurdity does not pertain so directly to control (or not), in that we could be able to effectively trace how causes are manipulated to realize specific effects through the system, and yet our political systems could still be fundamentally Absurd (i.e., lacking objective meaning). Thus, Absurdity is more of a philosophical or metaphysical question than a mechanical or logistical question.

A good technical definition of complexity is the increasing abstraction of effects from their causes (i.e., the more complex a system, the more steps between the initiation of a cause and its eventual effects). In terms of assessing political control, the accurate identification of effects from their actual causes, and the definitive assignation of responsibility for outcomes, are assumed to be fundamental functions of political systems. Thus, the increasing abstraction of causes from their effects would fundamentally impede both of these basic functions of political systems in the real world.

Compared to Absurdity, complexity is much more of an empirical than a philosophical question. The degree to which this complexity can be demonstrated empirically (i.e., that presumed causes are not related to their assumed effects) is also the degree to which our political systems do not function as we assume they do. Again, a fundamental assertion of the Existential Citizenship Project is that contemporary political systems are in fact irreducibly complex in this more mechanical and logistical sense, which is a major factor in the apathy and nihilism that are the bane of contemporary politics. As such, one of the primary thrusts of the Existential Citizenship Project is to still provide effective motivations for meaningful and enduring political engagement even in the face of this fundamental separation of political causes from their political effects.

Complexity and political control

So, are our political systems irreducibly complex? This can be a difficult question to definitively answer. One way to begin to answer this question, though, is through the identification of what is meant by control in and by political systems, and how this control is evident (or not).

A substantial issue in political and social theorizing is that most people—including most theorists, who should really know better—tend to take political control as a given, and to assume that control in and by political systems is more or less obvious. These are both fundamental errors in reasoning which are responsible for so many of the longstanding blindspots and contradictions which have bedeviled political theory and practice for centuries.

Assuming control as a given or accepting it as proven anecdotally is not a solid foundation for either theory or practice—especially if, as asserted by the Existential Citizenship Project, political systems are irreducibly complex and therefore defy the reliable identification of causes and their effects.[3] That said, this assertion could be wrong—which is the prevailing view—in that political systems are not irreducibly complex, and that significant causes can be reliably paired with their effects. However, this identification of political causes and their political effects cannot be simply assumed by fiat, but rather must be hypothesized, demonstrated, and verified. Until the assumption of political control is tested in this way and satisfactorily verified, it is little more than a useful fiction.[4]

Therefore, to begin to answer these questions about the nature of political control what is needed is a concise way to define, describe, and identify control in and by political systems. Although this might seem to have been the purpose of the bulk of political science and theory from the very beginning, precious little attention through the centuries has actually been given to identifying, and verifying control in and by political systems. Much ink has been spilled in describing political control, but considerably much less ink has been spilled in actually verifying these descriptions of control.

Control theory

This is where formal control theory from engineering has such an important role to play. Control theory provides the basic model of the exclusive principles by which control is realized. In essence, a control system is any system whose components act together in such a way as to stabilize against disturbances some quantity or property in the ambit of the system. In particular, this control is achieved via feedback, through the system reconciling the effects of its own prior actions on the controlled quantity with the influence of the environment, resulting in the purposive, self-regulating behavior characteristic of control systems.

This likely sounds similar to cybernetics, which has a long history in the social sciences, as summarized here. This previous post discusses in more detail the differences between this control theory approach and cybernetics. Specifically, control theory names the basic components and describes the relations between components within a system that are required for control. Thus, a control theory approach is distinct from cybernetics in that it is not just about postulating control or identifying isomorphisms, but rather specifying the chain of relations which which result in control.

To the degree the components of a system perform the functions described by control theory, and relate to each other in the order described by control theory, that system—regardless of its physical composition or complexity—will be exerting control over the quantity or property in its focus. Likewise, to the extent that the components of a system do not function or relate in the ways described by control theory is also the extent to which that system is not exerting control over its ostensible focus.

To demonstrate, as illustrated in the rudimentary diagram below, for a system to stabilize or control a specific quantity, there must be a few necessary components which perform some basic functions:

Basic Control System

First, there must be a mechanism or process that performs a feedback function by sensing as input what is to be controlled and transforming this sensory input into a sensible signal for the system. The next step for control requires a comparator to compare this feedback signal with a reference signal, generating an error signal as the difference between these two signals. This error signal must then be received by an output function which converts this error signal into an appropriate output signal by initiating the proper response in the repertoire of the system.

This output quantity is then often subject to other influences from the environment outside the control system which can also change this quantity. The combination of system output and environmental influences results in a new input quantity, which then feeds back into the system via the feedback function, is translated into a new error signal, and so on. The result is the constant regulation of the controlled quantity, even in the face of external perturbations, that is characteristic of true control systems.

Politics and control

Given this basic account of what is needed for control, the next obvious step is to apply this model to policy and politics. This is the relatively straightforward process of identifying the functions and relations of real-life political systems with the corresponding components of the control model. To the degree that all the necessary components can be identified, and these real world isomorphisms perform the requisite functions in the requisite order, then these political systems can be said to exercise control.

Again, while the general assumption is that political systems obviously exercise control over their particular domains, to my knowledge these assumptions of control have not been tested in any direct or systematic way. The preliminary work I have done in this regard—which will be described in subsequent installations (with more diagrams)—has yielded a couple of unexpected results: First, that most conceptions of political systems are, on their face, not capable of exerting control in the necessary way, and, second, that most political systems therefore do not perform the functions ascribed to them. The implications of this disconnect between assumption and reality will be discussed in more detail in subsequent installments.

In particular, the extent to which the application of control theory to politics reveals this ultimate lack of control is also the same extent to which this widespread assumption of control—which informs not only theory but practice—has been for the most part a useful myth. The implications of such a conclusion for the actual practice of politics, and for the practice of the ostensibly scientific study of politics, cannot be underestimated. This ostensible lack of control is one reason why the recognition of this ultimate lack of control, and the frank acceptance of this ultimate lack of control, are such fundamental and necessary principles of the Existential Citizenship Project: So that hopes are not misplaced, resulting in apathy or nihilism, so that effective action can still be undertaken, but with eyes wide open, and so that the world can be loved as it is.

[1] From Amor Mundi: Civility and Politics (weekly newsletter of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College), at http://hac.bard.edu/news/post/?item=19795#il-mondo-va-a-destra

[2] …to the extent we are able to comprehend this reality, that is.

[3] To be understood in the non-trivial and non-tautological sense. The effects of many political events, such as elections, can be identified with their causes in a tautological sense (the effect of winning the election was caused by garnering more votes than the other candidates). Cause-and-effect in this sense of control is meant more in the Humean sense as the identification of those conditions which will necessarily result in the anticipated effects, such that changes in the ‘treatment’ of these causes can be reliably associated with subsequent changes in outcomes as the desired effects.

[4] Per methodological fictionalism, as described first and perhaps best by Hans Vaihinger in his The Philosophy of ‘As if’ (1925), the unverified assumption of political control may still be not only a useful but a necessary fiction. However, given the methodological role of fictions, as compared with hypotheses and verified ‘facts’, this also means that political control as such cannot be asserted or maintained as a factual description of political systems, but rather is a convenient tool or bridge to testable hypotheses.

Nietzsche and the New Existential Citizen

One enduring critique of Nietzsche of particular relevance to the Existential Citizenship Project—besides the widespread misperception of him as a nihilist mentioned before—has been his apparent aversion to actual politics, and particularly his lack of prescriptions for political action.[1] His aversion to politics is not only apparent at the level of institutions (e.g., in his denunciations of the state as the “coldest of all cold monsters,” and that “only where the state ends, there begins the human being who is not superfluous”[2]), but also even in his more metaphysical conceptions of human nature itself.[3]

Nietzsche, the individual, and the State

For example, consider the declaration of Nietzsche that, “Every philosophy which believes that the problem of existence is touched on, not to say solved, by a political event is a joke—and pseudo-philosophy.” In particular, according to Nietzsche, the problem with conceiving of politics as a solution for our fundamental, existential problems results from the collective organization of the State as such itself:

Many states have been founded since the world began; that is an old story. How should a political innovation suffice to turn men once and for all into contented inhabitants of the earth? [That people think the answer to existential questions might come from politics shows] that we are experiencing the consequences of the doctrine…that the state is the highest goal of mankind and that a man has no higher duty than to serve the state: in which doctrine I recognize a relapse not into paganism but into stupidity. It may be that a man who sees his highest duty in serving the state really knows no higher duties; but there are men and duties existing beyond this—and one of the duties that seems, at least to me, to be higher than serving the state demands that one destroys stupidity in every form, and therefore in this form too. That is why I am concerned with a species of man whose teleology extends somewhat beyond the welfare of a state…, and with [this kind of man] only in relation to a world which is again fairly independent of the welfare of a state, that of culture.[4]

In other words, according to Nietzsche, the emergence of the State as a substantial form of collective human organization has not even been a step backwards for humankind, but rather a step nowhere. Likewise, against the assumption that the highest purposes of humankind are realized via or under or within this collective, Nietzsche is concerned instead with the kind of people capable of existing outside of or beyond the State.

A philosophical stance this dismissive about the relation of humans with collective political organizations like a State would seem to offer little by way of support for a project to promote more meaningful political engagement like the Existential Citizenship Project. Such is not the case.

Democracy, individualism, and the existential citizen

This animus against the State as an institution and against politics in general is a function of the ultimate goal of the philosophy of Nietzsche: The elevation of truly excellent individuals with the unique capacity to create their own values. This emphasis on the individual is also why Nietzsche is so often—and so justifiably—accused of being antagonistic to democracy. The combination of this animus against collective action and the exaltation of the individual would seem to render moot any substantial application of Nietzsche’s thought to politics, and particularly any applications to real-world, day-to-day politics which are the focus of the Existential Citizenship Project.

However, there is more to the philosophical project of Nietzsche than meets the eye. On the one hand, Nietzsche is openly and defiantly antagonistic towards democracy. For Nietzsche, democracy represents the decadent urge for the great levelling of humanity and the dilution of individual greatness, which again is his ultimate standard.[5] All of that being said, though, there are strands of thought in the work of Nietzsche which point towards an interesting reconciliation of individualism with political engagement, against the intentions of even Nietzsche himself, which are particularly appropriate for an existential conception of citizenship.

For example, Lawrence Hatab, in his 1995 book A Nietzschean Defense of Democracy, combines the agonistic and perspectival aspects of democracy with Nietzsche’s core concept of will to power, while discounting the necessity for a notion of rights in democracy and revising its traditional egalitarian rhetoric, to offer a Nietzschean conception of democracy that enhances individuality in the ways Nietzsche celebrates. Thus, while Nietzsche himself may have been overtly anti-democratic, which would seem to invalidate the application of his thought to a project to enhance participation in representative government, interwoven throughout his work are threads of thought which contribute substantially to the conception of existential citizenship I propose.

As such, in reconciling all these different threads, the Existential Citizenship Project represents not only an extension of the thought of Nietzsche to politics, and a refinement of existentialism as it pertains to politics, but also a substantial clarification of politics itself via existentialism. In particular, the ways that existentialism justifies political engagement will be shown to reconcile the hyperindividualism of Nietzsche’s project with meaningful political action. The result is the kinds of independent yet engaged citizens that more conventional conceptions of citizenship have aspired to for centuries, but failed to accomplish thus far.

Again, as discussed in much more detail elsewhere, these previous conceptions of citizenship have fallen short in large part because these conceptions of citizenship have been constructed upon a distinctively modern (i.e., non-heroic or non-tragic) understanding of people and of politics. Filling in these holes is the primary contribution of adopting existentialism as the primary orientation towards politics, and of adopting Nietzsche as a specific lens.


Nussbaum, Martha, 1997. “Is Nietzsche a Political Thinker?” International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 5: 1–13; See also https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche-moral-political/#4


Thus Spoke Zarathustra I:11


For example, in section 21 of Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche describes how the “Dionysian liberation from the fetters of the individual finds expression first of all in a diminution of, indifference to, indeed, in hostility to, the political instincts.”


Untimely Meditations III: 4


For example, “Who still wanteth to rule? Who still wanteth to obey? Both are too burdensome. No shepherd, and one herd! Every one wanteth the same; every one is equal: he who hath other sentiments goeth voluntarily into the madhouse.” (Z Prologue 5)

The Life-affirming Values of the Existential Citizen

What we value determines the focus of our energies and our estimations of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’, and success and failure. In the context of political engagement, which is the focus of the Existential Citizenship Project, whether a person gets involved in politics or not, and which issues or candidates they support or not, obviously depends on the values of that person. Likewise, as the values of a person change, so also will change their political involvement accordingly, as a reflection of these changes in their values.

The source of values

Where do these values come from? This may sound like a question with obvious answers, but it is one of the most profound questions of philosophy. The answer that Friedrich Nietzsche has for this question is that to be human is to be a “valuator,”[1] or to assign significance to things. In other words, assigning values to things is just something that we do as humans, which distinguishes us from other animals. The way that Bernard Reginster describes the nature of this valuing in his book on Nietzsche’s work, “To evaluate is to give color to a world that is, in itself, evaluatively colorless.”[2] As an example of both the need and the function of this impulse to value, consider that the incapacity to assign value to or to perceive the value of things is one sign of clinical depression.[3]

To the degree that Nietzsche is correct about this innate impulse to value suggests a couple of things: First, that there is no escape for us from this innately human impulse to assign or to assume values, and, second, that we are not just reading these values from nature (otherwise, we would not have changes in the values we assign to different things, or have the differences in our perceptions of values that are the very fabric of our political discourse).

However, even if we do have this innate human impulse to assign values to things, this does not yet explain where these values come from. Again, the origins of these values would not be an issue if these values were inherent in the things being valued, or otherwise objective (i.e., given to us from an external source independent of our individual or even collective beliefs). Since they are not, though, if the value of these values is to be accurately assessed, then the origin of these values needs to be established.

If the values of things are neither inherent in the things themselves nor objectively given, the next most likely possibility is that people get their notions of value from the people, institutions, and social milieu around them. At first glance this might seem unobjectionable, necessary, and obviously beneficial, as the sharing of common values seems the glue which holds societies together. However, the uncritical adoption of these conventional values is only beneficial if these common values are in fact the best values for us, in the sense that they will motivate us to achieve the highest or the best outcomes, whatever these might be determined to be.[4]

What if this is not the case? From his many extensive moral histories and genealogies,[5] Nietzsche concludes that these traditional, conventional values are for the most part life-negating, in the sense that they are not realizable in this world (i.e., they require supernatural intervention or another metaphysical world other than this one to be realized), or they explicitly condemn life in this world, or compliance with these values is harmful to life.[6] Nietzsche saw this negation of life by the prevailing values of society as the gasoline on the fire of the pervasive nihilism that was consuming the post-Enlightenment culture of his time for the way these values not only could no longer provide the ultimate meaning they once had, but were also actively removing such meaning from the world.

Luckily, per Nietzsche, this cultural inheritance is not the only source of values: Instead of uncritically accepting the values given us, we can create our own tables of values—if we have the fortitude to do so, that is. Describing how these new values can be created, and who can create them, is a major focus of the project of Nietzsche. Likewise, because this core problem of the loss of meaning is still with us, as the product of our conventional values, the Existential Citizenship Project is also premised upon the need for a revaluation of values, with the goal of creating those values which will motivate meaningful and enduring political engagement regardless of the success or failure of our political projects.

Creation of new value

The first step in this creation of values, according to Nietzsche, is to devalue all those conventional values that are hostile to life in this world as it actually is—such as this naïve conception of hope discussed before—which lead to disappointment, withdrawal, and, eventually, nihilism. The next step is to develop or exert the will to create new values that affirm life in this world as it is, even when these values conflict with the most cherished values of society—which they inevitably will.

To create these life-affirming values requires first confronting the world as it is, because otherwise our orientation towards this world becomes one of hostility or detachment.[7] This confrontation comes primarily as the acceptance that life in this world includes suffering, and sometimes great and pointless suffering, as well as the frustration of even our most sincere desires. Because we will always encounter suffering and obstacles in this world, and because so many of our desires will so often go unfulfilled, our fundamental motivation for action (i.e., what we value) cannot be freedom from unease, the fulfillment of our wants, or the completion of our actions according to our desires.[8] If the absence of suffering and the fulfillment of our desires are our ultimate values, what Nietzsche characterizes as “the universal, green-meadow happiness of the herd, together with security, safety, comfort, and alleviation of life for every one,”[9] then the inevitable frustrations of this world will eventually become the invalidation of our most deeply held values. This end state is nihilism, as the belief that these values are simply not realizable in this world, or rather that life and the world do not have an ultimate purpose, or at least not an ultimate purpose that includes the realization of our highest values.[10]

This presents a rather thorny problem, though: If even the desire for the realization of our goals leads to nihilism, what else could be the grounds for our highest values that will still motivate us to action even as we recognize the ultimate arbitrariness and absurdity of life? The answer to this question constitutes one of the central questions of existentialism.

When the goal is not the goal

In other words, the core of the project of Nietzsche—as with most subsequent existentialists—is to find a way to motivate engagement with life while “facing up to the terrors of nature and history,”[11] and without seeking refuge through detachment or withdrawal. Notably, this is the same question that the Existential Citizenship Project provides the answer for, only in regards to political engagement in particular (i.e., what can the grounds for meaningful and enduring political engagement be, even in the face of the arbitrariness and absurdity of politics, and the high likelihood of the frustration and failure of even our deeply personal political projects?)

The answer that Nietzsche provides—and that the Existential Citizenship Project applies to political engagement—is that instead of making the outcome of our actions our highest value, the desire to seek out and overcome resistance must become an end in itself. As Bernard Reginster puts it in his book The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism, the way one does this, according to Nietzsche, is by valuing not only the overcoming of resistance, but by also valuing the resistance to overcoming, as resistance to the temptation for completion.[12]

By this is meant that instead of valuing the results of our actions as our ultimate end, the overcoming of resistance itself must become our ultimate goal—with the corollary that the greater the resistance, the greater the achievement.[13] Only through embracing these kinds of values will we never run out of motivation for action, given that the world as it is supplies constant challenges and disappointments, which then also precludes descending into apathy or the nihilism that robs our lives of meaning. Further, as will be discussed in more detail elsewhere, life-affirming values of this vein also necessarily entail the searching out of ever greater resistances to overcome after each success. The implications of this for meaningful and enduring political engagement will also be discussed in subsequent posts.

The life-affirming values of the existential citizen

The preceding discussion has been primarily about the solution of Nietzsche for the existential crisis of nihilism in general. Such a broad application of existentialism to life itself and to the world are incompatible with the religious or metaphysical beliefs of many to most people, which presumably narrows the scope of the application of these principles. However, as mentioned elsewhere, one of the greatest benefits of the Existential Citizenship Project is that limiting these principles to the domain of politics actually greatly expands their scope of application and their utility to anyone seeking meaningful and enduring political engagement, regardless of religious belief or political ideology.

Reality must be confronted

So how does this prescription by Nietzsche for the creation of new values apply more precisely and exclusively to politics in general, and to specific political actions?

First, it requires the unflinching confrontation of the domain of politics as it is, and not how we might wish or hope it to be. This is the first principle of the Existential Citizenship Project, for without this unblinking assessment of politics, any actions taken will begin with the wrong trajectory, and thus be less likely to hit their mark.[14]

This does not assume a complete or perfect or unchanging understanding of the political system or of the specific policy domain in question. Instead, this means gathering as much information as possible given one’s circumstances, as well as constantly updating this understanding of reality in the face of new information. More will be said about this point in subsequent posts, but this frank confrontation with the realities of the political system is a core principle of the Existential Citizenship Project.

The political system is not only irreducibly complex, but also Absurd

The next stage of the creation of values for meaningful and enduring political engagement—which is the natural product of the first—is the recognition that the political system is both irreducibly complex and Absurd.

As discussed in more detail elsewhere, a good technical definition of complexity is the increasing abstraction of effects from their causes. This increasing distance between effects and their causes does not mean that political causes and their effects can never be identified. This is rather the much more modest claim that the connections between these causes and their effects cannot be consistently or definitively identified, except in trivial or tautological cases (e.g., that the person who wins an election will assume that seat, etc.). There may be consistent regularities and correlations between events, but the conclusive identification of causes for effects will be elusive and always susceptible to being supplanted by new findings.

That said, as the Existential Citizenship Project applies existentialist principles like this exclusively to politics, one can believe that there is a mindful deity guiding the events of this world according to a preordained plan, or that there is at least a benevolent order to the universe, and still accept the empirical evidence—which will be presented in subsequent posts—about the irreducible complexity of the political system.

The Absurdity of politics is similar to complexity in some ways, but also substantially different. As also discussed elsewhere, in existentialism writ large, the Absurd is a technical term for the conflict between our innate human need to find meaning and the ultimate lack of inherent meaning in the universe. The Absurdity of politics is thus not only that causes are so often dissociated from their effects, but that even the identifiable events and outcomes of the political system do not have inherent meaning of their own.

In other words, the only the meaning or value that political occurrences have are the meaning or value that we give to them. Again, this is not to say that things do not happen for (often) identifiable reasons. Rather, this is just to say that the things that do happen do not carry or convey inherent values which we then perceive. Instead, we supply the meaning or significance of these events (this is why people can have such different reactions to the same political events—not because their ‘value-perceiving organs’ are malfunctioning, but simply because they are applying different values).

Existential values for meaningful and enduring political engagement

The third stage for developing meaningful and enduring political engagement that avoids this Venus flytrap of nihilism involves the actual constitution of the values or motivations for one’s political action. This is perhaps the most important step, but it requires passing through the previous two steps to lay its proper foundations.

When people choose to get involved in politics, it is usually because of some specific event or issue or overarching idea, with the goal to obtain a specific outcome—in other words, they hope to achieve some end, and this hope in the future serves as the primary motivation for their actions. Choosing a specific end as the prime motivation for political engagement seems not only natural, but also the only motivation possible. However, as discussed above and elsewhere, this hope-based orientation towards politics is the ground in which nihilism is sown.

The key issue is that because control over outcomes in politics is so diffuse and complicated, the fervor of one’s feelings and the intensity of one’s efforts may or may not result in the realization of the desired outcome. Perversely, the intensity of one’s efforts and fervor for the cause is often directly related to the intensity of the disappointment if that outcome is not realized. In other words, the less one cares, the less the failure to realize a specific political outcome matters; just as the more one cares, the more one is impacted by failure, and therefore the deeper the subsequent apathy or nihilism which are such a concern for the stability and endurance of representative political systems. Thus, resolving this issue about the source of this apathy and nihilism would be a major boon for those concerned with citizen participation and the quality of representative government.

So if hope is not a valid motivation for political engagement, for all the reasons previously discussed, then what are the proper values for meaningful and enduring political engagement? This is where the existential recommendations from Nietzsche provide important clues.

For all the reasons discussed before, the approach most likely to prevent this slide into political apathy and nihilism, while still motivating intense engagement in political struggle, is through the creation of life-affirming values that Nietzsche recommended, only applied to politics in particular. As such, the primary recommendation of the Existential Citizenship Project in regards to the orientation towards the political system most likely to produce not only meaningful but also enduring political engagement regardless of the success or failure of a specific political project is from the point of view of overcoming resistance in the process itself, and, in fact, seeking out ever greater resistances.

This is a much different proposition than the more conventional hope-based approaches to political engagement. As such, exactly what such an orientation would be like is difficult to conceive at this point, but for all the reasons previously discussed, this is likely to be the best approach to politics to both protect against apathy or nihilism, and to motivate meaningful and enduring political engagement regardless of the success or even failure of deeply personal political projects. The elaboration of this kind of novel orientation towards the political system will constitute a substantial aspect of the subsequent development of the Existential Citizenship Project.

What do you think? Is this the right prescription for meaningful and enduring political engagement? Or does it miss something important? Leave me a comment and let me know what you think about this post or about the Existential Citizenship Project.

[1] Thus Spoke Zarathustra I 15.

[2] Reginster, B. (2006). The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism. Harvard University Press, p. 87.

[3] For example, from Psychology Today, “Regardless of the initial causes, depression will not improve without emotional investment in creating and sustaining value…the result of creating and maintaining value is a revitalization of the sense of meaning and purpose that diminishes in depression.” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/anger-in-the-age-entitlement/201106/value-meaning-sadness-and-depression); See also “Valuation of Life as Outcome and Mediator of a Depression Intervention for Older African Americans: The Get Busy Get Better Trial” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5788279/)

[4] An important meta-meta-ethical point here regarding the valuation of values themselves is that the standard for judging values is going to depend on what is assumed to be the highest or best outcome for humans. If the ideal outcome is assumed to be what is best for the collective, then the ‘best’ values will be those which contribute the most to the good of the collective; whereas if the ultimate good is conceived as the fullest realization of the essential natures of individuals, then the ‘best’ values will be those which contribute most to this end (as well as the possibility for all sorts of permutations of these two ends, e.g., that what is best for society is the fullest realization of individuals, etc.).

Regardless, the primary issue is that assessing the value of values itself requires the estimation of values. One significant aspect of the project of Nietzsche, and perhaps his most subtle and elegant work, which unfortunately cannot be elaborated at this point, is his attempt to define an ‘objective’ basis for the valuation of values, while acknowledging that there are no longer any objective bases for valuation. This is where the hyperindividualism of his existential orientation come into play, in that what is objectively most valuable to me is my willing to overcome the resistance to my individual aspirations. Again, Nietzsche proposes a complex yet elegant argument here for the reconciliation of the seemingly contradictory claims of both a loss of objectivity and an objective value, which unfortunately I cannot develop further at this point.

[5] Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (1886); On the Genealogy of Morality (1887); Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer (1888); The Antichrist (1888)

[6] Reginster (2006), pp. 45-47; WP 11-12, 343; BT, Preface 4; Ecce Homo IV 7; TI V 4.

[7] There is another subtle and complicated point here, which I am still in the process of working out, which again involves two seeming contradictions by Nietzsche. While on the one hand he often calls for and praises the honest confrontation with this world, he also often acknowledges the utility and even the need to stop at superficial appearances, for example, in his criticisms of the uncurbed ‘will to Truth’ as another cause of nihilism (WP 3; Gay Science 344) and in his praises of his beloved Greeks: “Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for that is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, worlds, in the whole Olympus of appearance. Those Greeks were superficial—out of profundity” (Gay Science, Preface 4).

In the context of the Existential Citizenship Project, I am not sure yet how or even if Nietzsche’s injunction to live by appearances applies to motivating meaningful and enduring political engagement. The frank confrontation of the reality of politics is core principle of the Existential Citizenship Project, as otherwise the temptation is to diverge into a hope-based rationale for political action, which more often than not culminates in apathy, cynicism, or outright nihilism. In his philosophy, Nietzsche reconciles this seeming contradiction through references to beneficial illusions of art (GS 107, 299) as a “will to deception [with] a good conscience” (GM III 25). How or if this fits into the Existential Citizenship Project, I am not sure yet.

[8] “Well-being as you understand it — that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible…” (BGE 225)

[9] BGE 44

[10] Reginster (2006), 27; TI, V 6; Z III 12; GM, III 28; GS 107).

[11] Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Friedrich Nietzsche,” vol. 5, Macmillan, New York, 1967, p. 507.

[12] Reginster, B. (2006). The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism. Harvard University Press, p. 11-12.

[13] TI, V 3

[14] See footnote #7

Hope, Tragedy, and Meaningful Political Engagement

At its core, the main goal of the Existential Citizenship Project—to provide incentive for meaningful and enduring political engagement—is an offshoot of the original project of Friedrich Nietzsche to overcome nihilism. Thus, in many ways, to understand the aims of Nietzsche is to understand the aims of the Existential Citizens Project, and vice versa. That said, as will be demonstrated in this post and others, the Existential Citizenship Project also significantly modifies and extends the ideas of Nietzsche, in particular by substantially expanding the scope of their application well beyond what he foresaw or intended.

Again, the original project of Nietzsche was to identify the causes of the creeping nihilism of his time, as the debilitating belief that meaningful action is pointless or impossible in this world, and to explain how this nihilism can be overcome. Likewise, the goals of the Existential Citizenship Project are to also identify the causes of the apathy, pessimism, and nihilism which characterize so much of the political engagement, or lack thereof, of our politics today, and to also provide guidance for how this malaise can be overcome. So far, so good, with this narrowing of focus to just political engagement seeming to be the only difference.

However, these recommendations from Nietzsche famously focus on the promotion of a radical aristocratic hyperindividualism as a counterbalance to the spread of this nihilism, which he saw as infecting the majority of people through their uncritical acceptance of prevailing values and beliefs. Such an elitist and highly individualistic emphasis seem fundamentally at odds with the purpose of the Existential Citizenship Project to promote the widespread engagement of ordinary people with day-to-day politics. This post and subsequent posts will begin to show how the Existential Citizenship Project actually reconciles this hyperindividualism of Nietzsche with a decidedly communitarian concept of political engagement to produce a new kind of citizen, but also how this new conception of citizenship would not be possible without the prescient insights of Nietzsche into the nihilism of his time, or without his highly original and provocative recommendations for the overcoming of this nihilism.

Nietzsche and nihilism

To begin, on the one hand, most intellectual and political leaders of Nietzsche’s time were announcing contemporary European culture and civilization as the crowning achievement of history, and even Europeans themselves as the culmination of biological evolution, owing in large part to the success of the Enlightenment project in realizing the highest ideals and moral values through rationality and optimism. In contrast, Nietzsche saw instead a fatally sick culture that was in decline because of these same ideals and values, but also in denial and unable to recognize its own sickness.

For example, as Nietzsche describes of himself in the preface of one of the last collections of his writings:

What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism. This history can be related even now; for necessity itself is at work here. This future speaks even now in a hundred signs, this destiny announces itself everywhere; for this music of the future all ears are cocked even now. For some time now, our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect.[1]

Gloomy passages like this one are why Nietzsche is all too often perceived as a proponent of this nihilism he foresaw. However, the bulk of his writings, and the main thrust of his entire philosophical project, show the opposite: That while Nietzsche may have been a prophet of this nihilism, he was also its most pointed and vocal critic.

Hope as a cause of nihilism

In particular, Nietzsche diagnosed this nihilism as the product of the inability of these prevailing Enlightenment values based on rationalism and empiricism[2] and optimism[3] to provide the ultimate meaning for life that humans need.[4] In other words, while these values may have been instrumentally effective in fostering the increasing identification of causes and effects (i.e., in effectively promoting a scientific orientation towards the world), this identification of causes and their effects does not of itself provide any greater objective meaning for the world—rather, it removes such meaning from the world without replacing it with anything else.[5] Because humans have an innate need for meaning beyond basic cause-and-effect, the inevitable result of this demystification of the world, according to Nietzsche, is nihilism as a loss of meaning or motivation.

A history of this valuation of rationality and of its inherent shortcomings will have to wait, but a previous post traces the history of our uniquely modern conception of hope via the transformations over time of the myth of Pandora, and of the perverse role of this conception of hope in actually engendering the apathy and cynicism that characterize so much of our contemporary politics. As such, it bears noting that Nietzsche also identifies this uniquely modern conception of hope as a primary cause of the creeping nihilism in modern Western society, and also invokes the Pandora myth we have inherited from the ancient Greeks to help explain why this is such a problem.

For example, in his book Human All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, first published in 1878, in the section Nietzsche titles a “History of the Moral Feelings,” he provides an aphoristic account of different aspects of the moral feelings which have guided humankind to its present state. Of these moral feelings, Nietzsche describes hope, but does so in the way the ancient Greeks saw it, in contrast to the way we moderns see it. This is an important point for Nietzsche because these contrasts reveal substantial differences in worldview, with direct implications for the emergence of the nihilism Nietzsche describes of the Europe of his time. This is also an important point for the Existential Citizenship Project because what Nietzsche indicates about hope here also pertains to the apathy and nihilism of our contemporary politics, for which the Existential Citizenship Project provides the remedy:

HOPE. Pandora brought the box of ills and opened it. It was the gift of the gods to men, outwardly a beautiful and seductive gift, and called the Casket of Happiness. Out of it flew all the evils, living winged creatures, thence they now circulate and do men injury day and night. One single evil had not yet escaped from the box, and by the will of Zeus Pandora closed the lid and it remained within. Now for ever man has the casket of happiness in his house and thinks he holds a great treasure; it is at his disposal, he stretches out his hand for it whenever he desires; for he does not know the box which Pandora brought was the casket of evil, and he believes the ill which remains within to be the greatest blessing, it is hope. Zeus did not wish man, however much he might be tormented by the other evils, to fling away his life, but to go on letting himself be tormented again and again. Therefore he gives Man hope—in reality it is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of Man.[6]

We moderns see hope as an obvious good, as a palliative for the evils and other misfortunes which occur in the world through the expectation of better things. In contrast, as Nietzsche describes here and I describe in more detail elsewhere, the ancient Greeks—at least before their own descent into nihilism—instead saw hope as the worst of all the evils, precisely because of the way it focuses our minds not on our present, actual circumstances but on the expectation of a better future which may or may not happen when or the way we want.

In other words, the ‘evil’ of hope conceived in our uniquely modern way is that the more our expectations of a better future go unfulfilled, especially in dire circumstances, the more likely we are to see our needs and desires (i.e., our values) as not conducive with or realizable in this world, which is nihilism. In contrast, the Greeks of this era, whom Nietzsche calls “the best turned out, most beautiful, most envied type of humanity to date,”[7] avoided a nihilistic worldview for as long as they did by embracing a tragic view of life as beautiful even without ultimate meaning, and in choosing to confront this world as it is. That even these “cheerful” Greeks eventually succumbed to decadence and nihilism was for Nietzsche an important lesson both in understanding how such a thing could happen and how it could be avoided.[8]

Tragedy and the loss of heroism

It also bears remembering at this point that Nietzsche was originally a philologist, or what we would now call a comparative linguist, but which during his time also involved extensive study of the classics, with a special focus on ancient Greece. As such, he was deeply familiar with the language, history, and the culture of the ancient Greeks. This familiarity is in part why he so often used them as a template for his critiques of his own time, including his identification of hope as not only an evil, but the greatest of the evils, and of the deleterious effects which have resulted from the modern exaltation of hope.

For example, in his first book, Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (changed by Nietzsche to Birth of Tragedy, or Hellenism and Pessimism in later editions), Nietzsche describes early Athenian drama, in which a robed and masked chorus enacts a pageant on stage, as an analgesic the ancient Greeks developed to confront and transcend the ultimate meaninglessness of the universe—the awareness of which was the tragedy of this life for the Greeks.[9] “With this chorus,” Nietzsche writes:

The deep-minded Hellene, who is so singularly qualified for the most delicate and severe suffering, consoles himself—he who has glanced with piercing eye into the very heart of the terrible destructive processes of so-called universal history, as also into the cruelty of nature, and is in danger of longing for a Buddhistic negation of the will. Art saves him, and through art life saves him—for herself.[10]

In particular, this consolation from the tragedy of existence came from the ritualistic participation of the audience in the dramatic spectacle. The combination of the themes of the tragedy, the rhythmic voice of the chorus, and the identification of the audience with the chorus produced an ecstatic feeling of unity that Nietzsche called ‘Dionysian’ (for the god of wine, fertility, theater, and epiphany):

For we must know that in the rapture of the Dionysian state, with its annihilation of the ordinary bounds and limits of existence, there is a lethargic element, wherein all personal experiences of the past are submerged. It is by this gulf of oblivion that the everyday world and the world of Dionysian reality are separated from each other.[11]

However, Nietzsche also goes on to describe how this emancipatory aspect of Greek drama was lost with the introduction of episodic narrative into Greek drama, which emphasized coherence, realism, and resolution over enigmatic profundity.[12] This turn to a much more structured narrative form of drama is now lauded as a pivotal innovation in the evolution of early modernist culture. For Nietzsche, though, this change in the dramatic ethos mirrored the more widespread movement of Greek culture away from the heroic affirmation of life as beautiful in spite of its ultimately tragic nature, and towards the Socratic rationality and optimism which were to go on to constitute such fundamental aspects of Western thought and science.[13]

According to Nietzsche, the move away from this communal celebration of the tragedy of this world reflected the collective loss of nerve of Athenian society, resulting in a nihilism-fueled decadence which sapped the moral and physical strength of the Athenians, thereby precipitating the subsequent decline and eclipse of their civilization.[14] Nietzsche identifies this same dynamic in the trajectory of European culture, culminating in its own inevitable decline into pessimism and nihilism.[15] This is also the same relation between hope and nihilism that I identify in contemporary American politics.

Nietzsche, nihilism, and existential citizenship

However, as mentioned before, what is extremely important for our present purposes is that, for all his bad reputation, Nietzsche is not just a disgruntled critic or a pessimistic nihilist. Instead, he goes on to provide a positive prescription to counteract this inexorable malaise in his overarching project of what he calls the revaluation of values. The remedies for nihilism that Nietzsche proposes via this project are not just esoteric philosophic doctrines, but practical principles for action meant to be applied and tested to real life.

This is why the project of Nietzsche has such direct relevance to our politics today via a new existentialist conception of citizenship. How this Nietzschean revaluation of values can be applied today to inspire both meaningful and enduring political engagement, even in the face of the failure and defeat of deeply personal political projects, will be the focus of subsequent posts.

What do you think? Is hope a toxic influence in politics? Can tragedy be a legitimate basis for meaningful and enduring political engagement? Leave me a comment and let me know what you think about this post or about the Existential Citizenship Project.

[1] Will to Power, Preface, 2.

[2] As the belief that certain truths exist, and that human reason and experience are the chief sources of knowledge of those truths.

[3] As the belief that these truths will be evidence of an underlying beneficial order of the universe—as enforced by a deity or not—that is ultimately discoverable by human reason and experience.

[4] Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I 15.

[5] Birth of Tragedy, “Attempt at a Self-Criticism,” section 1.

[6] Human All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Book 1, 71.

[7] BT, “Attempt at a Self-Criticism,” section 1.

[8] Ibid.

[9] BT, “Attempt at a Self-Criticism,” section 4; BT 1.

[10] BT, 7.

[11] Ibid.

[12] BT, 11.

[13] BT, 17-18.

[14] “Attempt at a Self-Criticism,” section 4, in Birth of Tragedy

[15] Ibid.; See also Will to Power, chapters 1 (“Nihilism”) and 2 (“Concerning the History of European Nihilism”)

The Real Lesson of Pandora’s Box, or Why We Need a Politics Beyond Hope

This is my introduction to the Existential Citizenship Project. I will roll out the Existential Citizenship Project in subsequent posts, filling in more of the details as I go, until a complete picture emerges.

One of the starting points of the Existential Citizenship Project is the unconventional claim that hope, as conventionally understood, is a root cause of many of the most pressing problems in contemporary politics, and particularly those pertaining to citizen engagement (e.g., apathy and pessimism). This is likely going to sound to most as a patently ludicrous claim. However, as the Existential Citizenship Project unfolds over time, evidence of all different kinds—historical, empirical, philosophical, etc.—will be provided to demonstrate this point.

The primary exception people will take to this proposition that hope is not a solution but a cause of so many fundamental problems in politics will likely stem from the difficulty most people will have in even imagining any other motivation for positive political engagement than hope. This is a quite understandable, but also quite mistaken, point of view. Again, the weight of the accumulated evidence will show instead that, despite the fervor with which this widespread belief is held, hope is ultimately a toxic influence in politics.

This claim is likely to be heard by most as an invitation to apathy, cynicism, pessimism, and nihilism in politics, because—obviously—what else could a politics without hope be but apathetic and nihilistic? This conclusion, though, is based on a false dichotomy, confuses causes with their effects (i.e., apathy, cynicism, and nihilism are not the absence of hope, but rather the product of hope), and is itself symptomatic of the very problems in perception and understanding which stem from this pervasive blind faith in hope.

As such, the main purpose of the Existential Citizenship Project is to offer an understanding of people and of a politics beyond hope that allows for the frank acknowledgement of politics as it actually is (i.e., unclouded by hopeful misconceptions of the political system), while also still providing a justification for meaningful and enduring political action that resolves all of the issues created by hope-based political engagement.

The Real Lesson of Pandora’s Box

To adequately explain where this misguided belief in hope comes from, and why this fundamental error is so prevalent in contemporary politics and society, would require at least a book-length treatment. That said, I can at least give a thumbnail sketch here to provide a skeleton framework of both the need for and the benefits of the Existential Citizenship Project.

Our hope

One quick way to demonstrate the origins of this uniquely modern and politically toxic conception of hope is through tracing the transformations over time of the Greek myth of Pandora.

There are countless variations of this myth, as a fable, as a children’s fairytale, and as a common metaphor. The basic gist of the contemporary narrative is that a female character named Pandora has a gilded box given to her, with the instructions that the box should never be opened. Eventually, usually because of insatiable curiosity, the box is opened and found to contain evils, or vices,[1] which then escape into the world to plague humankind. Afterwards, though, the embodiment of Hope is found as the last thing in the box, which acts as a salve for Pandora. Thus, the general moral of this story is that in the end, no matter how bad the world gets, there is still the soothing consolation of hope that will take away the sting of all the evil and viciousness in the world.

The conception of hope revealed in this story, which for us moderns has become little more than a quaint children’s story or easy metaphor, is so interwoven through the fabric of contemporary Western (i.e., modern liberal) culture that its full implications hardly ever raise an eyebrow. However, our version of this fable is actually such a fundamental reconfiguration of the original Greek myth that the two versions are practically incompatible.

The differences between the original myth and our version of it reveal heretofore unrecognized implications of our contemporary collective worldview, with real world consequences for our politics. Thus, the utility of the seemingly trivial children’s story of Pandora is this capacity for indicating the breadth and the depth of these implicit assumptions about hope, in the process demonstrating the very real need for the Existential Citizenship Project.

Their hope

According to the prevailing scholarship, the earliest known version of the Greek myth of Pandora is usually attributed to Hesiod, a near contemporary of Homer and also generally considered the creator of didactic (or moralizing) poetry. Like Homer, the writings of Hesiod are still principal sources on Greek mythology and on other important aspects of ancient Greek life.

There are different versions of this myth from this era as well, but the seminal version from Hesiod begins with Zeus seeking retribution against mankind for accepting from Prometheus the gift of fire which Zeus had commanded be kept exclusive to the gods. Zeus thus asks his son Hephaestus to fashion a beautiful female form out of earth and water upon which the other gods would bestow all their gifts, asking specifically for Hermes to bestow her with “a shameless mind and a deceitful nature.”[2] Zeus then calls her Pandora (from the Greek, meaning “all-gifted”) and sends her down from Mount Olympus to be the first human female, as “a plague to men who eat bread,” and “an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction,” as the price for fire.[3]

In particular, Zeus sends Pandora to Epimetheus, the brother of Prometheus. Even though Prometheus had previously warned Epimetheus not to accept anything from Zeus “for fear it might prove to be something harmful to men,” Epimetheus is enchanted by the beauty and gifts of Pandora and takes her as his wife. At some point during her time with Epimetheus, Pandora encounters a large, heavy jar[4] and removing the lid releases all that was within. Before the arrival of Pandora, according to Hesiod, “the tribes of men lived on earth remote and free from ills and hard toil and heavy sickness which bring the Fates upon men,” but in opening this jar Pandora scatters “all these” (i.e., the ills, toil, and sickness), thereby causing “sorrow and mischief to men,” fulfilling the retribution of Zeus.

In the denouement of this story, Hesiod writes how after all the ills of mankind had thus been scattered by Pandora, “only Hope [Elpis] remained there in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar, and did not fly out at the door; for ere that, the lid of the jar stopped her by the will of Zeus […] who gathers the clouds. But the rest, countless plagues, wander amongst men; for earth is full of evils and the sea is full.” In other words, although Hope was initially included among the other evils in the jar, at the last moment Zeus caused Hope to be caught by the lid, and to not escape the jar. Why Zeus did this, though, is not explicitly explained by Hesiod.

The original understanding of hope

Etymologically, the definition and usage of elpis as hope in the Greek is somewhat ambiguous, though in general meaning expectation, which could be for the good or for the bad. For the ancient Greeks, though, there was a clear tendency in the valence of hope (elpis) as expectation.

One quick demonstration of the ancient Greek understanding of hope is found in the famous history of the Peloponnesian War by the historian Thucydides, in which he invokes elpis as hope or expectation around 150 times. Of particular note in this regard, observes one commentator, is the degree to which Thucydides constructs this history “on the fatal contrast between what men say and the underlying reality of their situation,” via his repeated invocations of “logoi menergoi de (‘this was what was said’…’but in reality’),” especially as the difference between their elpis, or their delusions about their abilities, versus the reality (akribea) of their actual situations.[5] For example, the Mytileneans in their revolt against Athens are described by Thucydides as acting boldly with expectations (elpisates) greater than their actual powers, only to be crushed by their own hubris and by the failings of their supposed allies.[6]

In the context of the Pandora myth in particular, Willem Jacob Verdenius addresses the questions of whether hope was intended as a good or an evil, and whether hope was kept in the jar for the benefit of mankind (i.e., the jar as a “pantry”), or from mankind (i.e., the jar as a “prison”).[7] After working through all the possible permutations, and referring to other examples from the literature, Verdenius ultimately concludes that “the only possibility left is that it is the expectation of evil,” (also concluding that this contextual evidence likewise indicates that the jar held only evils, and specifically not moral evils such as vices but rather misfortunes that can befall humankind).[8]

A statistical analysis of the work of Hesiod by Leineiks supports Verbenius’ conclusion in finding that elpis as an expectation of evil appears five times as often as an expectation of good.[9] Thus, per Verbenius, the most appropriate interpretation of the original intention of Zeus for including Hope with all the other evils in Pandora’s jar was so that “any evil which was to strike man should be seen coming,” That Zeus caused Hope to be confined within the jar at the last moment Verbenius takes to mean that by thus retaining Hope in the jar at the last moment Zeus decided instead that these misfortunes should come unexpectedly upon humankind, because otherwise “this continual expectation of evil would have made life a torture beyond bearing,”[10] which would have been a penalty disproportionate to his intention in punishing mankind for their appropriation of fire.

A New Hope?

Again, the Pandora myth should not be taken as a literal belief of the Greeks in gods and jars of Evils, but rather more as a common story the Greeks shared with each other that reflects a communal understanding of how the world works. As such, what this story reveals is that the ancient Greek understanding of hope was clearly much different than our own, such that hope was generally seen by them not as a virtue at all, for the foolhardy actions it prompts, or for the lack of action it can induce, or for the subsequent pessimism that it spawns when it is unrealized. Given the magnitude of these differences in cultural orientations towards hope as revealed via the Pandora myth—and particularly given the harmful effects of hope in contemporary politics, which is the primary motivation for the Existential Citizenship Project—a reasonable question is how and why did this change in the conception of hope occur?

Dora and Erwin Panofsky identify the changes in the Pandora myth with the increasing influence of Christianity in Western society, observing that “curiously enough, the Fathers of the Church are more important for the transmission—and transformation—of the myth of Pandora than the secular writers.”[11] For example, they describe how Church Fathers such as Tertullian and Origen invoked comparisons of Pandora with the biblical Eve “in an attempt to corroborate the doctrine of original sin by a classical parallel, yet to oppose Christian truth to pagan fable.”[12] Notably, this is also when other details of the classical story began to be changed, such as the vessel morphing from a large earthen jar to an ornate box,[13] as well as the contents of the box being described as both Goods and Evils, and so on.

These modifications of the Pandora myth, though, also signaled a much more profound shift in European society at large, marking the emergence of a new conception of hope based primarily on the Christian belief in an afterlife. Given the singular role of hope in Western religion and politics, and the magnitude of this change in the understanding of hope, it is remarkable how little attention has been given to this evolution of hope in Western intellectual history. As described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) entry for “Hope,” although discussions of hope “can be found throughout the history of philosophy and across all Western philosophical traditions [and] almost all major philosophers acknowledge that hope plays an important role in regard to human motivation, religious belief or politics,”[14] hope has curiously not been the focus of the same kind of systematic attention as other attitudes like belief and desire. As such, this move from pre-Christian accounts of hope as “an attitude to reality that is based on insufficient insight into what is true or good” towards hope as “one of the most central virtues of a believer” represents one of the most substantial—if woefully underanalyzed—changes in Western thought over time.

Hope and Nihilism: The Terrible Twins of Modern Politics

There is obviously a much more extensive history to be related here, tracing the Christianization of Western moral and political thought, and the subsequent penetration of this new concept of hope into the very bones of modern liberalism, which time and space do not permit. Regardless, this redirection of political focus and civic virtue away from present circumstances and towards an abstract and idealized future will be shown to be the key characteristic of the modern conception of toxic hope, and therefore a catalyst of the political nihilism which inevitably follows.

Notably, this tendency towards nihilism is particularly evident when this otherworldliness of hope is removed from its original theological contexts and is completely secularized. As described in great detail and depth by Friedrich Nietzsche throughout his writings, once these values and ideals become unmoored from the original religious contexts which imbued them with their seemingly transcendent significance, the secularization of these theological concepts practically ensures this nihilism as “the ultimate logical conclusion of our great values and ideals.”[15]

This is not to say that a political hope based in religious belief is somehow exempt from this inevitable slide into nihilism. In fact, as will also be shown, the real world exigencies of actual day-to-day politics are brought into even higher relief in comparison with the elevated expectations of religion, with the result that the subsequent crash is even more extreme in either the depth of the apathetic withdrawal from political life or as fanatical absolutism which is the antithesis of reasonable compromise. In other words, regardless of whether this hope is based in religious or secular beliefs, the inevitable byproduct of its lack of fulfillment is disillusionment, which leads to apathy, pessimism, cynicism, and, ultimately, nihilism.

Thus, what is needed is a justification of and for meaningful political engagement that does not depend upon hope. Providing this justification for meaningful and enduring political engagement beyond hope is the central cause and purpose of the Existential Citizenship Project.

What do you think? Is hope a toxic influence in politics, or its saving grace? Is a politics without hope even possible? Leave me a comment and let me know what you think about this post or about the Existential Citizenship Project.

[1] These evils are portrayed in different forms (e.g., stinging moths, malicious fairies, noxious vapors, and so on), but almost always as the embodiments of Greed, Envy, Hunger, War, etc.

[2] The version of the Pandora myth related here is from the H.G. Evelyn-White 1950 edition of Hesiod’s Works and Days, reprinted in Panofsky, D. & Panofsky, E. (1978). Pandora’s Box: The Changing Aspects of a Mythical Symbol. Princeton University Press, pp. 4-5.

[3] There is also an extensive literature on the role of Pandora as the first woman, which is particularly noteworthy given the intentions of Zeus for Pandora as plague upon mankind, and on the connections drawn between the biblical Eve and Pandora, but this is not the focus of this piece.

[4] As detailed by Dora and Erwin Panofsky (1978, 8), the actual provenance of this jar is unclear from Hesiod’s account, although the jar is also “never represented as a personal possession of Pandora, brought down by her from Mount Olympus.” Instead, per Hesiod, the fateful jar is just in the house of Epimetheus and Pandora, “taken for granted as forming part of [their] domestic establishment, so to speak.” The Panofsky’s go on to observe that some readings suggest that the jar was sent to Epimetheus by Zeus, or that it was originally sent by Zeus to Prometheus, or that satyrs delivered it to Prometheus, who then forwards it to Epimetheus with instructions to not open it nor to let Pandora into his house in case she might open the jar. Still other more recent readings suggest that Prometheus had satyrs steal the jar from Zeus before he could release the evils into the world, which he then forwards to his brother with the previous instructions, and that this may have been such a common understanding of the myth of Pandora that Hesiod was not inclined to include it in his own account.

[5] Clay, Diskin (2007). Plato Philomythos. In Woodard, R. D. (Ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Greek mythology. Cambridge University Press, pp. 210-211; 234.

[6] Morrison, J. V. (2006). Reading Thucydides. Ohio State University Press, p. 127.

[7] Verdenius, W. J. (1971). A ‘Hopeless’ Line in Hesiod:” Works and Days” 96. Mnemosyne, 24(Fasc. 3), 225-231.

[8] (1985) A Commentary on Hesiod: Works and Days, Vv. 1-382. Brill: Leiden, p. 70.

[9] Leinieks, V. (1984) Elpis in Hesiod, Works and Days 96. Philologus 128 1–8.

[10] Verdenius (1971), p. 229.

[11] Panofsky (1978), p. 11.

[12] Ibid.

[13] This change from a jar to a box in the Pandora story, which seems like such a relatively minor detail is—somewhat bizarrely—the primary focus of the book-length exegesis of the Pandora myth by the Panofsky’s, as compared to the changes in the conception of hope, which seems a much more critical and fundamental aspect of the myth. I think this focus itself, though, is representative of the myopia of many Western scholars in regards to the substantial differences of the modern liberal conception of hope from that of other cultures, as revealed by the contortions scholars, including the Panofsky’s—put themselves through to avoid naming Hope as one of the Evils.

[14] Bloeser, Claudia and Stahl, Titus, “Hope”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/hope/&gt;.

[15] Will to Power, Preface, 4.