Nikos Kazantzakis was a Greek philosopher and author of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ. Some readers of this blog alerted me to the fact that he also wrote a sort of epic prose-poetic rant that’s on the same wavelength as the philosophy/religion I’m exploring here and similar in particular to a summary of this blog I wrote, called The Rant Within the Undead God. Kazantzakis’s epic rant is called The Saviours of God (SG). After reading it, I was intrigued by the similarities and differences between our views. What follows are some of my thoughts on that text, so fair warning: this commentary contains spoilers. If you haven’t yet read SG, you might want to do so before reading this article. And if you do read it, I found that the second half, beginning with the section, The Vision, is the more important one. But the whole piece is full of rich, idiosyncratic and darkly poetic imagery so I do recommend all of it.
The Saviours of God
Kazantzakis poetic rant is about life, the universe, and everything. It’s just the sort of writing that I most prefer: it’s inspired, which is to say that it reads like the author was possessed when he wrote it. The writing seems to flow directly from the unconscious, bypassing the ego censor and tapping into deep truths. This is how I try to write in this blog’s rants and it’s why I call them rants, although I try to mix more argumentation with the poetic or comedic tangents. The ideal would be to produce a piece of writing that reads like it was written by an alien force, by some transcendent power from the future that gets to the heart of the matter, blasting past all obfuscation, social games, and politically correct conventions. In other words, the goal is to read or to write prophetic, religious scripture, a text so powerful that people wrongly idolize it and invent myths to explain its origin. What’s called divine revelation in textual form is just an inspired work of rhetorical art, nothing more. But the fun of consuming or of producing this art is that you feel swept away, like your blinders are torn off and you catch a glimpse of the code behind the matrix. That’s what I aim for and SG feels inspired to me. As Kazantzakis himself says,
You shall never be able to establish in words that you live in ecstasy. But struggle unceasingly to establish it in words. Battle with myths, with comparisons, with allegories, with rare and common words, with exclamations and rhymes, to embody it in flesh, to transfix it!
God, the Great Ecstatic, works in the same way. He speaks and struggles to speak in every way He can, with seas and with fires, with colors, with wings, with horns, with claws, with constellations and butterflies, that he may establish His ecstasy.
SG takes the form of a prophet’s plea to change our conception of God so that we can live better. Kazantzakis assumes there’s a difference between the esoteric and the exoteric, between the unknowable mystical truth and the mere masks of God. And Kazantzakis’s vision of divinity is quite peculiar. It reminds me of the myth of Sisyphus. Whereas the mainstream monotheistic idea is that God is a flawless person, Kazantzakis says that God is imperfect, that he’s a vagabond who struggles between two eternally opposing forces, one pulling him down into entropy and lifelessness and the other raising him up to freedom.
My own body, and all the visible world, all heaven and earth, are the gravestone which God is struggling to heave upward…God struggles in every thing, his hands flung upward toward the light. What light? Beyond and above every thing!...God cries to my heart: "Save me!"God cries to men, to animals, to plants, to matter: "Save me!"Listen to your heart and follow him. Shatter your body and awake: We are all one…
The metaphysical dualism here is similar to the presocratic philosopher Empedocles’s distinction between the powers of Love and Strife, which he says explains the mix of harmony and conflict in nature. And like Sisyphus, who is forced to roll a boulder up a hill with no guarantee of success, God can actually fail, bringing the whole universe down with him. The meaning of our life is to save God and thus ourselves, by fighting on God’s side in his eternal struggle: “Whatever rushes upward and helps God to ascend is good. Whatever drags downward and impedes God from ascending is evil.”
There are wonderful chapters in SG on the oneness of all living things. Take this passage, for example:
You are not one; you are a body of troops, One of your faces lights up for a moment under the sun. Then suddenly it vanishes, and another, a younger one, lights up behind you.The race of men from which you come is the huge body of the past, the present, and the future. It is the face itself; you are a passing expression. You are the shadow; it is the meat.You are not free. Myriad invisible hands hold your hands and direct them, When you rise in anger, a great-grandfather froths at your mouth; when you make love, an ancestral caveman growls with lust; when you sleep, tombs open in your memory till your skull brims with ghosts.Your skull is a pit of blood round which the shades of the dead gather in myriad flocks to drink of you and be revived.
If only libertarian individualists would take that mystical perception to heart. And again:
An erotic wind blows over Earth, a giddiness overpowers all living creatures till they unite in the sea, in caves, in the air, under the ground, transferring from body to body a great, incomprehensible message.Only now, as we feel the onslaught behind us, do we begin dimly to apprehend why the animals fought, begot, and died; and behind them the plants; and behind these the huge reserve of inorganic forces.We are moved by pity, gratitude, and esteem for our old comrades-in-arms. They toiled, loved, and died to open a road for our coming.We also toil with the same delight, agony, and exaltation for the sake of Someone Else who with every courageous deed of ours proceeds one step farther.
This is just the sort of idea I had in mind when I wrote Should We Procreate to Honour our Ancestors? although I took the idea from Richard Dawkins.
The military imagery in SG, too, lends itself to existential interpretation. Living things “march” along with God and should choose to “fight” with him for freedom: “battle to give meaning to the confused struggles of man.” Existential authenticity is a struggle because the prognosis is not good: in the end, we’re all doomed, because life is absurd and tragic. We’ve all been thrust into a bad spot, cursed with reason in an uncaring universe. The basis for the military imagery in Kazantzakis’s vision of God seems to be the existential sense of life’s grimness or perhaps the Buddhist’s understanding of life’s inherent suffering. But whereas I follow Schopenhauer’s sort of monism, Kazantzakis’s view is, as I said, dualistic. The downward pressure on God and God’s imperfection serve the purpose of theodicy, whereas the upward, constructive force and the potential for freedom are sources of encouragement. And yet, because Kazantzakis’s view is perfectly dualistic, he’s neither pessimistic nor optimistic. What’s left, I think, is Stoic resignation in the face of existential absurdity. God’s struggle is eminently worthy but ultimately futile because the two governing forces are equally matched. God is a little like Buridan’s Ass, stuck between two equidistant haystacks. In Kazantzakis’s words:
These two armies, the dark and the light, the armies of life and of death, collide eternally. The visible signs of this collision are, for us, plants, animals, men.The antithetical powers collide eternally; they meet, fight, conquer and are conquered, become reconciled for a brief moment, and then begin to battle again throughout the Universe - from the invisible whirlpool in a drop of water to the endless cataclysm of stars in the Galaxy.Even the most humble insect and the most insignificant idea are the military encampments of God. Within them, all of God is arranged in fighting position for a critical battle.Even in the most meaningless particle of earth and sky I hear God crying out: "Help me!"
What is the struggle’s purpose? At first, Kazantzakis’s answer is similar to Yahweh’s answer to Job:
This is what the wretched self-seeking mind of man is always asking, forgetting that the Great Spirit does not toil within the bounds of human time, place, or causality.The Great Spirit is superior to these human questionings. It teems with many rich and wandering drives which to our shallow minds seem contradictory; but in the essence of divinity they fraternize and struggle together, faithful comrades-in-arms.The primordial Spirit branches out, overflows, struggles, fails, succeeds, trains itself. It is the Rose of the Winds.Whether we want to or not, we also sail on and voyage, consciously or unconsciously, amid divine endeavors. Indeed, even our march has eternal elements, without beginning or end, assisting God and sharing His perils.
But he discovers a clue, instead of leaving his reader completely in the dark:
We discern a crimson line on this earth, a red, blood-splattered line which ascends, struggling, from matter to plants, from plants to animals, from animals to man.This indestructible prehuman rhythm is the only visible journey of the Invisible on this earth. Plants, animals, and men are the steps which God creates on which to tread and to mount upward.Difficult, dreadful, unending ascension! Shall God conquer or be conquered in this onslaught? Does victory exist? Does defeat exist? Our bodies shall rot and turn to dust, but what will become of Him who for a moment passed beyond the body?Yet these are all lesser concerns, for all hopes and despairs vanish in the voracious, funneling whirlwind of God. God laughs, wails, kills, sets us on fire, and then leaves us in the middle of the way, charred embers.
Pantheism and the Existential Struggle
My interpretation of this clue rests on a broader interpretation of Kazantzakis’s peculiar God. What sort of God needs saving by his creatures? As I said, he’s explicit about the difference between insider and outsider levels of understanding:
I do not care what face other ages and other people have given to the enormous, faceless essence. They have crammed it with human virtues, with rewards and punishments, with certain ties. They have given a face to their hopes and fears, they have submitted their anarchy to a rhythm, they have found a higher justification by which to live and labor. They have fulfilled their duty.But today we have gone beyond these needs; we have shattered this particular mask of the Abyss; our God no longer fits under the old features.Our hearts have overbrimmed with new agonies, with new luster and silence. The mystery has grown savage, and God has grown greater. The dark powers ascend, for they have also grown greater, and the entire human island quakes.Let us stoop down to our hearts and confront the Abyss valiantly. Let us try to mold once more, with our flesh and blood, the new, contemporary face of God.
As I said, this new, contemporary face of God is that of the fragile, homeless being who needs our help in his struggles.
I think the key influence on Kazantzakis here is Darwin. When Kazantzakis says, “The mystery has grown savage,” he seems to have in mind the brutal, Darwinian view of life, and this leads Kazantzakis to a process theology as opposed to a Platonic one as in standard Christianity, in which God and heaven are fixed, static, and as I say elsewhere, therefore lifeless. But I’d go further and say that the simplest interpretation of Kazantzakis’s myth of God, the desperate freedom fighter, is to think of this God in pantheistic terms. After all, if anything’s struggling, torn between constructive and destructive forces, it’s the natural universe. God, then, represents the organism’s potential to shape the universe’s evolution. God is a lost vagabond in that he’s the average between the two extremes, the void of chaotic quantum fluctuations and the freedom to create and to enjoy creations. God is caught between death and life, annihilation and plenitude because the universe can go either way. Nevertheless, God is different from Buridan’s Ass, because God has a preferred direction, whereas according to the determinist, the donkey would be frozen and unable to decide which haystack to eat. God prefers life, freedom, and creation. He struggles upwards to save himself, to fight the forces that oppose him.
Now this makes for an interesting comparison with the Gnostic, Mainlanderian theology I’ve been recently exploring. According to these dark, but eminently plausible myths, God would indeed be beset by negative forces since no person could cope with God’s position. The role of God would turn anyone into an infantile tyrant. Such is the wisdom of psychology and social science to which the monotheist is committed as soon as she personifies the presumed transcendent source of natural order. So the monotheistic God would indeed struggle not to go completely insane and perhaps not to destroy himself to end his torment. Kazantzakis leaves open the possibility that God could falter on his way up the cosmic hill, that he could give up as the downward pressure against his transhuman impulse overcomes him. But his theology implies, rather, a stalemate, since he says the two sides are eternally in contention.
I read Kazantzakis as saying, then, that God represents Life’s preference for nature to evolve in a way that favours either life or, more realistically and less hubristically, some unfathomable, awe-inspiring end that somehow, at least, vindicates or honours Life’s struggles. The worst-case scenario would be for all our suffering to be pointless, for the universe to peter out and for the transhuman dream of perfect autonomy and creative power to be dashed as some countervailing forces degrade Life and everything else. There’s a hint of just this demonic architecture in the natural utility of the dominance hierarchy and in social power’s ironic corruption of its user, both principles combining to guarantee the tragicomedy of politics we see throughout history. Powerful leaders emerge because power must be centralized for the governing of large groups, the alternative being anarchy and total war. But the leaders are inevitably corrupted by their role and when they fall, society falls with them until a new society emerges, thanks to the ambition or lucky placement of a new leader, and so on. What’s demonic about this is the natural regularity of this pattern, as though there were some invisible barrier that prevents societies from evolving in a healthier, more sustainable way.
As to Kazantzakis’s ideal of freedom, I have hopes as well as doubts (see here and here). What Isaiah Berlin called the negative view of freedom is actually the amoral permission to sin. Above the doorway to hell could well be found a plaque that reads, “Here you’ll be free to do whatever you want, as long as you know you can want anything at all.” Without some direction, which is to say some constraint on freedom, perfect freedom to do whatever you want is a precondition of hell. But Kazantzakis doesn’t prescribe any such open-ended freedom. He offers specific advice on how to live, based on his metaphysics and theology. For example, because all living things are united in their suffering, we should take pity on fellow creatures. I happen to agree with this, more or less, but the point is that there’s some imprecision, not to mention emptiness, in saying with Kazantzakis that the ultimate ideal is freedom. This sounds rather like a US Republican weasel word that distracts from the true goal (maintaining the stealth oligarchy as the most natural and therefore best social order). At best, then, freedom can be only part of the reason to “save God, by battling, by creating, and by transmuting matter into spirit.” The hard questions remain: How should freedom be used? What would an awakened, posthuman intelligence do with its perfect self-control? Why go on living at all? Why join the struggling God or why prefer nature’s creative potential, if there’s just as much destruction as creation in the universe?
As I pointed out, Kazantzakis sees a clue in what I’ve called the complexification and evolution of natural processes. In particular, he says, there’s implicit purpose in Life’s march from a state of dumb simplicity to our godlike level of sentience. Of course, science doesn’t recognize any such destiny of life’s evolution. And I’m inclined, rather, to think that if there’s any purpose of evolution’s creativity, it’s the negative one of eliminating as many options for finite embodiment as possible, so as to more fully transmute the transcendent source we call God into a manageable form that might be destroyed for all time. In any case, there’s surely great power in the myth (fictional story) that all living things are united by our struggles not just to spread our genes but to adapt to environments, to heroically overcome obstacles, to deal with predators and with our physical and mental limitations. You can even dispense with the boundaries between individuals and species, and think of the great Tree of Life.
I think Kazantzakis is a little more optimistic than I am, though, about Life’s potential for greatness. He’s enough of an insider to avoid blindly anthropomorphizing natural processes. He knows that God (the power of natural creativity) wouldn’t be partial to living things, let alone humans, since organisms are united also with nonliving things by their physical finitude. But he seems hopeful that Life has a purpose that vindicates all our struggles. I too am hopeful that existential integrity, which is to say contentment with harsh truth and a distaste for delusion, makes for a heroic life, despite the ascetic implications. And I too naturalize the aesthetic ideal of creativity, by comparing our creativity in overcoming angst with the complexification and evolution of all natural forces, our task being to create the enlightened, posthuman form. But I’m inclined to think of our salvation as the result of a rebellion against nature and God, not of a joining with them. For Kazantzakis, the war is between our highest self, which sides with the best in nature, and the annihilating force that would defile the ideal of creativity. For me, the war is entirely within us, because everything is tainted, including us: the struggle is for a state of existential grace in spite of the whole universe which mocks that goal. Even when someone is enlightened, the result is ironic, as in Eastern mysticism, since the hero wins only the deathlike state of nirvana, as she recognizes she’s really no thing and that the best freedom is liberation from all of nature.
Between Idolatry and Mysticism
There’s an ascetic balance between relenting to the temptation to project ourselves onto inhuman nature and so to vainly idolize the masks of God, and nihilistic mysticism that ends ultimately in suicide. Despite Kazantzakis’s poetry about the unity of all living things, the fact is that people alone are truly cursed by reason, and thus our war with nature is unlike most animals’ struggle for survival. Moreover, the human ascetic or omega person is the real-life struggling vagabond, the tragic hero that should have inspired Kazantzakis’s myth of the marching God. Certainly, all animals struggle, but what makes God’s struggle excruciating in SG is that his human qualities make him merely godlike. God knows enough to be cursed by reason but not enough to escape from that curse without suffering; for example, God doesn’t know whether he’ll succeed in the end, but he knows he’s got to try because his ideals lead him on. Of course, there is no such God. Nature is thoroughly inhumane because the world is impersonal; living things are cosmic aberrations. So the real existential heroes are the actual, marginalized creatures, the introverted outcasts and losers who are compelled to sabotage their prospects for happiness, because they suspect that happiness is only for dead souls, for weak-willed, self-made, albeit hard-working robots. The existential hero battles the horror and the angst with which reason punishes her, as well as the social forces of conformity for the sake of superficial happiness, and she trusts that there’s some nobility in sublimating that horror and angst with some creative endeavour and in disengaging with that society and renouncing unworthy idols.
Kazantzakis himself strikes this balance in the last chapter of SG when he errs on the side of pure mysticism. He speculates that the ultimate truth, beyond even the myth of the struggling God that needs to be saved by us, is the silent peace in the Abyss, in the unmasked, transcendent source of everything:
Silence means: Every person, after completing his service in all labors, reaches finally the highest summit of endeavor, beyond every labor, where he no longer struggles or shouts, where he ripens fully in silence, indestructibly, eternally, with the entire Universe.There he merges with the Abyss and nestles within it like the seed of man in the womb of woman.
But then he ends SG with a surprise. Capitalizing his summary of his poetic rant, he says,
“BLESSED BE ALL THOSE WHO FREE YOU AND BECOME UNITED WITH YOU, LORD, AND WHO SAY: "YOU AND I ARE ONE."
THRICE BLESSED BE THOSE WHO BEAR ON THEIR SHOULDERS AND DO NOT BUCKLE UNDER THIS GREAT, SUBLIME, AND TERRIFYING SECRET: THAT EVEN THIS ONE DOES NOT EXIST!”
Where this leaves Kazantzakis, I think, is with the merely aesthetic ideal of creativity. SG, his myth of God, is just a work of art, nothing more. Is there really a God? Is there really a best way for everyone to live? Will all our struggles really be vindicated one day? There’s dubious Scientism in assuming that we can know the answers to these philosophical questions or even that we should settle for answers were they offered. The factual truth, as best as we can tell, is what scientists tell us: we clever animals are anomalies in a mostly lifeless cosmos. Our brains are limited compared to what exists, so like naive children we ask questions that are too big for us and we tell tall tales to satisfy our curiosity. That’s the achievement of philosophical speculations and of theological myths.