An Animated Introduction to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Philosophical Recipe for Getting Over the Sources of Regret, Disappointment and Suffering in Our Lives

The idea of acceptance has found much, well… acceptance in our therapeutic culture, by way of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief, 12-step programs, the wave of secular mindfulness practices, the body-acceptance movement, etc. All of these interventions into depressed, bereaved, guilt-ridden, and/or anxious states of mind have their own aims and methods, which sometimes overlap, sometimes do not. But what they all share, perhaps, for all the struggle involved, is a general sense of optimism about acceptance.

One cannot say this definitively about the Stoic idea of amor fati—the instruction to “love one’s fate”—though you might be persuaded to think otherwise if you google the term and come up with a couple dozen popularizations. Yes, there’s love in the name, but the fate we’re asked to embrace may just as well be painful and debilitating as pleasurable and uplifting. We cannot change what has happened to us, or much control what's going to happen, so we might as well just get used to it, so to speak.




If this isn’t exactly optimism in the sense of “it gets better,” it isn’t entirely pessimism either. But it can become a grim and joyless fatalistic exercise. Yet, as Friedrich Nietzsche used the term—and he used it with much relish—amor fati means not only accepting loss, suffering, mistakes, addictions, appearances, or mental and emotional turbulence; it means accepting all of iteverything and everyone that causes both pain and pleasure, as Alain de Botton says above, “with strength and an all-embracing attitude that borders on a kind of enthusiastic affection.”

“I do not want to wage war against what is ugly,” he wrote in The Gay Science, “I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse.” Readers of Nietzsche may find themselves picking up any one of his books, including The Gay Science, to see him doing all of the above, constantly, on any random page. But his is never a systematic philosophy, but an expression of passion and attitude, inconsistent in its parts but, as a whole, surprisingly holistic. “My formula for greatness in a human being,” he writes in Ecce Homo, “is amor fati

That one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it… but love it.

Although the concept may remind us of Stoic philosophy, and is very often discussed in those terms, Nietzsche saw such thought—as he understood it—as gloomy, ascetic, and life-denying. His use of amor fati goes beyond mere resignation to something more radical, and very difficult for the human mind to stomach, to use a somewhat Nietzschean figure of speech. “It encompasses the whole of world history (including the most horrific episodes),” notes a Leiden University summary, “and Nietzsche’s own role in this history.” Above all, he desired, he wrote, to be a “Yes-sayer.”

Is amor fati a remedy for regret, dissatisfaction, the endlessly restless desire for social and self-improvement? Can it banish our agony over history’s nightmares and our personal records of failure? De Botton thinks so, but one never really knows with Nietzsche—his often satirical exaggerations can turn themselves inside out, becoming exactly the opposite of what we expect. Yet above all, what he always turns away from are absolute ideals; we should never take his amor fati as some kind of divine commandment. It works in dialectical relation to his more vigorous critical spirit, and should be applied with a situational and pragmatic eye. In this sense, amor fati can be seen as instrumental—a tool to bring us out of the paralysis of despair and condemnation and into an active realm, guided by a radically loving embrace of it all.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

350 Animated Videos That Will Teach You Philosophy, from Ancient to Post-Modern

Philosophy is not an idle pursuit of leisured gentlemen and tenured professors, though the life circumstances of many a philosopher might make us think otherwise. The foremost example of a privileged philosopher is Marcus Aurelius, famous expositor of Stoicism, and also, incidentally, Emperor of Rome. Yet we must also bear in mind that Epictetus, the other most famous expositor of Stoicism, whom Aurelius quotes repeatedly in his Meditations, was born a slave.

Against certain tendencies of modern thinking, we might hazard to believe that both men shared enough common human experience to arrive at some universal principles fully applicable to everyday life. Stoicism, after all, is nothing if not practical. Consider, for example, the emperor’s advice below—how challenging it might be for anyone, and how beneficial, not only for the individual, but—as Aurelius makes plain—for everyone.

Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to mine, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of divinity, I can neither be harmed by any of them, nor no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my brother, nor hate him. For we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.

Yes, a passage that might have come from the speeches of Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, or Martin Luther King, Jr. also belongs to the philosophical traditions of ancient Rome, though in the mouth of an emperor it may not sound to us as compellingly radical.




Nowadays, several million more people have access to books, literacy, and leisure than in Marcus Aurelius’ era (and one wonders where even an emperor found the time), though few of us, it’s true, have access to a nobleman’s education. While currently under threat, the internet still provides us with a wealth of free content—and many of us are much better positioned than Epictetus was to educate ourselves about philosophical traditions, schools, and ways of thinking.

We can learn about the Stoics, for example—or get the gist, and hopefully a taste for more—with Alain de Botton’s video appetizer at the top, just one of 30 short animated videos on the philosophy YouTube channel of his School of Life.

We can cruise through a summary of Aristotle’s views on “flourishing” in the video above, narrated by the always-affable Stephen Fry as part of the BBC’s “History of Ideas” series, currently up to 48 uniquely animated videos featuring other smart-sounding celebrity narrators like Harry Shearer and Gillian Anderson.

The Macat series of philosophy explainer videos (136 in total) may lack celebrity cred, but it makes up for it with some very thorough short summaries of important works in philosophy—as well as sociology, psychology, history, politics, economics, and literature. “The essential purpose of politics is freedom,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1958 The Human Condition, we learn above, a work of hers that is not focused on mass murder and totalitarianism. Arendt had much more to say, and in this book, she relies on a classical distinction well known to the Greeks and Romans and all who came after them: the contrast between two kinds of life—the vita activa and vita contemplativa.

While philosophy may have become much more accessible, it has also become less “open access”—in the sense of being a public affair, taking place in city squares and actively encouraged by statesmen and ordinary loiterers alike. For all its possibilities—and we hope they can remain—the internet has never been able to recreate the Athenian ideal of the philosophical public square, if such a thing ever really existed. But projects like Wireless Philosophy—sponsored by Yale, MIT, Duke, and other elite institutions—have sought for years to introduce people from every walk of life to the kinds of ideas that Athenians supposedly threw around like frisbees in their spare time, including Plato’s notion (via his mouthpiece, Socrates) of “the good life,” which University of New Orleans professor Chris Surprenent, summarizes above. See all of Wireless Philosophy's 130 animations here.

The material is out there. We've highlighted 350 philosophical animations above, and also separately gathered 170 Free Online Philosophy Courses. And, if you’re reading this, it’s a good bet you’ve probably got a little time to spare. If it’s an old-fashioned sales pitch you need to get going, consider that for just pennies, er, minutes a day, you can become more knowledgeable about ancient Greek and Roman thought, Kantian ethics, 20th century Critical Theory, Nietzsche, critical thinking skills, Scholastic theological thought, Buddhism, Wittgenstein, Sartre, etc., etc, etc., etc. That said, however, acquiring the concentration, discipline, and will to do your own thinking about what you’ve learned, and to apply it, has never been so free and easy to come by for anyone at any time in history.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Books Did Wunderkind Philosopher J.S. Mill Read Between Ages 3 and 7?: Plato’s Apology (in Ancient Greek), Cervantes’ Don Quixote & Much More

I left much of my reading of C.S. Lewis behind, but one quote of his will stay with me for life: “It is a good rule,” he advised, “after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” I believe his advice is invaluable for maintaining a balanced perspective and achieving a healthy critical distance from the tumult of the present.

Reading works of ancient writers shows us how alike the mores and the crises of the ancients were to ours, and how vastly different. Those similarities and differences can help us evaluate certain current orthodoxies with greater wisdom. And that’s not to mention countless historians, novelists, poets, playwrights, critics, and philosophers from the past few hundred years, or several decades, who have much to teach us about where our modern ideas came from and how much they’ve deviated from their precedents.




For example, 19th century liberal political philosopher John Stuart Mill is now widely admired by conservative and libertarian writers and academics as a proponent of individual economic liberty, the free market, and a flat tax. And they are not wrong, he was all of that, in his early thought. (Mill later supported several socialist causes.) Many of his other political views might be denounced by quite a few as the excesses of campus activist leftism. Adam Gopnik summarizes the Victorian philosopher’s generous slate of positions:

Mill believed in complete equality between the sexes, not just women’s colleges and, someday, female suffrage but absolute parity; he believed in equal process for all, the end of slavery, votes for the working classes, and the right to birth control (he was arrested at seventeen for helping poor people obtain contraception), and in the common intelligence of all the races of mankind. He led the fight for due process for detainees accused of terrorism; argued for teaching Arabic, in order not to alienate potential native radicals....

Can people to Mill’s left on economics learn something from him? Sure. Can people to his right on nearly everything else learn a thing or two? It’s worth a shot. Mill championed engaging those with whom we disagree (he greatly admired Thomas Carlyle; the two couldn't have been more different in many respects). He also argued vigorously for “’liberty of the press’ as one of the securities against corrupt or tyrannical government.” Before nodding your head in agreement—read Mill’s arguments. He might not agree with you.

And what did John Stuart Mill read? In Chapter One of his autobiography, Mill gives a detailed account of his classical education from ages 3-7, during which time he read “the whole of Herodotus,” “the first six dialogues of Plato,” “part of Lucian,” all in their original Greek, of course, as any young gentleman of the time would. Mill's father, Scottish philosopher James Mill, intentionally set out to create a genius with this advanced course of study.

Lapham’s Quarterly excerpted the passage, and turned the many books Mill mentions into a list called “Early Education.” You can find all of the titles below, including the ancients mentioned and over two dozen “modern” works (that is, since the time of the Renaissance) Mill read as a child in English, including Cervantes' mammoth Don Quixote. Most of us will have to make do with translations of the Greek texts, but take heart, even Mill “learnt no Latin until my eighth year." The list shows not only Mill’s daunting precocity, but also how essential classical texts were to well-educated Europeans of any age.

It also highlights what kinds of texts were valued by Mill's society, or at least by his father. All of the authors but one are men, all of them are Europeans, most of the works are histories and biographies. Given Mill’s broad views, his own recommended reading list might look different. Nonetheless, Mill's account of his extraordinary early years gives us a fascinating look at the relative breadth of a liberal education in 19th century Britain. What ancient authors did you read as a young student? Or do you read now, between books, essays, articles, or Twitterstorms du jour?

 

In Greek

Aesop--The Fables

Xenophon--The Anabasis, Memorials of Socrates, The Cryopadeia 

Herodotus--The Histories

Diogenes Laertius--some of The Lives of Philosophers

Lucian--various works

Isocrates--parts of To Demonicus and To Nicocles 

Plato--Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Cratylus, Theaetetus

 

In English

William Robertson--The History of America, The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V, The History of Scotland During the Reigns of Queen Mary and King James VI

David Hume--The History of England

Edward Gibbon--The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Robert Watson--The History of the Reign of Philip II, King of Spain

Robert Watson and William Thompson--The History of the Reign of Philip III, King of Spain

Nathaniel Hooke--The Roman History, from the Building of Rome to the Ruin of the Commonwealth 

Charles Rollin--The Ancient History of the Egyptians, Carthaginians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Macedonians and Grecians

Plutarch--Parallel Lives

Gilbert Burnet--Bishop Burnet's History of His Own Time

The Annual Register of World Events, A Review of the Year (1758-1788)

John Millar--An Historical View of the English Government

Johann Lorenz von Mosheim--An Ecclesiastical History

Thomas McCrie--The Life of John Knox

William Sewell--The History of the Rise, Increase, and Progress of the Christian People Called Quakers 

Thomas Wight and John Rutty--A History of the Rise and Progress of People Called Quakers in Ireland

Philip Beaver--African Memoranda

David Collins--An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales

George Anson--A Voyage Round the World

Daniel Defoe--Robinson Crusoe

The Arabian Nights and Arabian Tales

Miguel de Cervantes--Don Quixote

Maria Edgeworth--Popular Tales

Henry Brooke--The Fool of Quality; or the History of Henry, Earl of Moreland

via Lapham's Quarterly

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Research Finds That Intellectual Humility Can Make Us Better Thinkers & People; Good Thing There’s a Free Course on Intellectual Humility

We may have grown used to hearing about the importance of critical thinking, and stowed away knowledge of logical fallacies and cognitive biases in our argumentative toolkit. But were we to return to the philosophical sources of informal logic, we would find that we only grasped at some of the principles of reason. The others involve questions of what we might call virtue or character—what for the Greeks fell into the categories of ethos and pathos. The principle of charity, for example, in which we give our opponents a fair hearing and respond to the best version of their arguments as we understand them. And the principle, exemplified by Plato’s Socrates, of intellectual humility. Or as one punk band put it in their Socratic tribute. “All I know is that I don’t know. All I know is that I don’t know nothing.”

Intellectual humility is not, contrary to most popular appearances, reflexively according equal weight to “both sides” of every argument or assuming that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. These are forms of mental laziness and ethical abdication. It is, however, believing in our own fallibility and opening ourselves up to hearing arguments without immediately forming a judgment about them or the people who make them. We do not abandon our reason and values, we strengthen them, argues Mark Leary, by “not being afraid of being wrong.” Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, is the lead author of a new study on intellectual humility that found “essentially no difference between liberals and conservatives or between religious and nonreligious people” when it comes to intellectual humility.




The study challenges many ideas that can prevent dialogue. “There are stereotypes about conservatives and religiously conservative people being less intellectually humble about their beliefs," says Leary. But he and his colleagues “didn’t find a shred of evidence to support that.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that such people have high degrees of intellectual humility, only that all of us, perhaps equally, possess fairly low levels of the trait. I’ll be the first to admit that it is not an easy one to develop, especially when we’re on the defensive for some seemingly good reasons—and when we live in a culture that encourages us to make decisions and take actions on the strength of an image, some minimal text, and a few buttons that lead us right to our bank accounts. (To quote Operation Ivy again, “We get told to decide. Just like as if I’m not gonna change my mind.”)

But in the Duke study, reports Alison Jones at Duke Today, “those who displayed intellectual humility did a better job of evaluating the quality of evidence.” They took their time to make careful considerations. And they were generally more charitable and “less likely to judge a writer’s character based on his or her views.” By contrast, “intellectually arrogant” people gave writers with whom they disagreed “low scores in morality, honesty, competence, and warmth.” As a former teacher of rhetoric, I wonder whether the researchers accounted for the quality and persuasiveness of the writing itself. Nonetheless, this observation underscores the problem of conflating an author’s work with his or her character. Moral judgment can inhibit intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness. Intellectually arrogant people often resort to insults and personal attacks over thoughtful analysis.

The enormous number of assumptions we bring to almost every conversation with people who differ from us can blind us to our own faults and to other people’s strengths. But intellectual humility is not genetically determined—it is a skill that can be learned, Leary believes. Big Think recommends a free MOOC from the University of Edinburgh on intellectual humility (see an introduction to the concept at the top and a series of lectures here). “Faced with difficult questions,” explains course lecturer Dr. Ian Church, “people often tend to dismiss and marginalize dissent…. The world needs more people who are sensitive to reasons both for and against their beliefs, and are willing to consider the possibility that their political, religious and moral beliefs might be mistaken.” The course offers three different levels of engagement, from casual to quite involved, and three separate class sections at Coursera: Theory, Practice, and Science.

It’s likely that many of us need some serious preparation before we’re willing to listen to those who hold certain views. And perhaps certain views don't actually deserve a hearing. But in most cases, if we can let our guard down, set aside feelings of hostility, and become willing to learn something even from those with whom we disagree, we might be able to do what so many psychologists continue to recommend. As Cindy Lamothe writes at New York Magazine’s Science of Us blog, “we have to be willing to expose ourselves to opposing perspectives in the first place—which means that, as daunting as it may seem, listening to friends and family with radically different views can be beneficial to our long-term intellectual progress.” The holidays are soon upon us. Let the healing—or at least the charitable tolerance if you can manage it—begin.

via Big Think

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Philosophy of Rick and Morty: What Everyone’s New Favorite Cartoon Has in Common with Albert Camus

"Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody's gonna die." So, in one episode of Rick and Morty, says the fourteen-year-old Morty Smith, one of the show's titular co-protagonists. With the other, a mad scientist by the name of Rick Sanchez, who also happens to be Morty's grandfather, he constitutes the animated team that has entertained thousands and thousands of viewers — and made insatiable fans of seemingly all of them — over the past four years. To those few who haven't yet seen the show, it may just look like a silly cartoon, but the true fans understand that underneath all of the memorable gags and quotable lines lies an unusual philosophical depth.

"The human desire to fulfill some special existential purpose has existed throughout history," says video essayist Will Schoder in his analysis of the philosophy of Rick and Morty. But the titular duo's adventures through all possible realities of the "multiverse" ensure that they experience firsthand the utter meaninglessness of each individual reality.




When Morty breaks that bleak-sounding news to his sister Summer with the now oft-quoted line above, he actually delivers a "comforting message": once you confront the randomness of the universe, as Rick and Morty constantly do, "the only option is to find importance in the stuff right in front of you," and their adventures show that "friends, family, and doing what we enjoy are far more important than any unsolvable questions about existence."

Schoder, also the author of a video essay on Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon's mythological storytelling technique as well as one we've previously featured about David Foster Wallace's critique of postmodernism, makes the clear philosophical connection to Albert Camus. The philosopher and author of The Stranger wrote and thought a great deal about the "contradiction between humans' desire to find meaning in life and the meaninglessness of the universe," and the absurdity that results, a notion the cartoon has dramatized over and over again, with an ever-heightening absurdity. We must, like Sisyphus eternally pushing his rock uphill, recognize the true nature of our situation yet defiantly continue "to explore and search for meaning." Morty, as any fan well knows, offers Summer another solution to her despair: "Come watch TV."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Philosophy of “Optimistic Nihilism,” Or How to Find Purpose in a Meaningless Universe

In one account of human affairs, an all-powerful deity rules over everything. Nothing can occur without the knowledge and sanction of the omnipotent creator god. In a much more recent iteration, we inhabit an unimaginably complex computer simulation, in which every thing—ourselves included—has been created by all-powerful programmers. The first scenario gives millions of people comfort, the second… well, maybe only a handful of cult-like Silicon Valley techo-futurists. But in either case, the question inevitably arises: how is it possible that there is any such thing as true freedom? The idea that free will is an illusion has haunted philosophical thought for at least a couple thousand years.

But in the existentialist view, the real fear is not that we may have too little freedom, but that we may have too much—indeed that we may have the ultimate freedom, that of conscious beings who appeared in the universe unbidden and by chance, and who can only determine for themselves what form and direction their being might take. This was the early view of Jean-Paul Sartre. “We are left alone, without excuse”—he famously wrote in his 1946 essay “Existentialism is a Humanism”—“This is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free.” Freedom is a burden; without gods, devils, or software engineers to fault for our actions, or any predetermined course of action we might take, each of us alone bears the full weight of responsibility for our lives and choices.




Emerging from comforting visions of humanity as the center of the universe—says the narrator in the video above from philosophical animation channel Kurzgesagt—“we learned that the twinkling lights are not shining beautifully for us, they just are. We learned that we are not at the center of what we now call the universe, and that it is much, much older than we thought.” We learned that we are alone in the cosmos, on a completely insignificant speck of space dust, more or less. Even the concepts we use to explain this overwhelming situation are totally arbitrary in the face of our profound ignorance. Add to this the problem of our infinitesimally brief lifespans and inevitable death and you’ve got the perfect recipe for existential dread.

For this condition, Kurzgesagt recommends a remedy: “Optimistic Nihilism,” a philosophy that posits ultimate freedom in the midst of, and solely enabled by, the utter meaninglessness of existence: “If our life is the only thing we get to experience, then it’s the only thing that matters. If the universe has no principles, then the only principles relevant are the ones we decide on. If the universe has no purpose, then we get to dictate what its purpose is.” This is more or less a paraphrase of Sartre, who made virtually identical claims in what he called his “atheistic existentialism,” but with the added force in his “doctrine” that “there is no reality except in action… Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realizes himself.” We not only get to determine our purpose, he wrote, we have to do so, or we cannot be said to exist at all.

In the midst of this frighteningly radical freedom, Sartre saw the ultimate opportunity: to make of ourselves what we will. But this dizzying possibility may send us running back to comforting prefab illusions of meaning and purpose. How terrible, to have to decide for yourself the purpose of the entire universe, no? But the philosophy of “Optimistic Nihilism” goes on to expound a thesis similar to that of the Zen popularizer, Alan Watts, who has soothed many a case of existential dread with his response to the idea that we are somehow separate from the universe, either hovering above it or crushed beneath it. Humans are not, as Watts colorfully wrote, “isolated ‘egos’ inside bags of skin.” Instead, as the video goes on, “We are as much the universe as a neutron star, or a black hole, or a nebula. Even better, actually, we are its thinking and feeling part, the sensory organs of the universe.”

Neither Sartre nor Watts, with their very different approaches to the same set of existential concerns, would likely endorse the tidy summation offered by the philosophy of “Optimistic Nihilism.” But just as we would be foolish to expect a six-minute animated video to offer a complete philosophy of life, we would be painfully naïve to think of freedom as a condition of comfort and ease, built on rational certainties and absolute truths. For all of the disagreement about what we should do with radical existential freedom, everyone who recognizes it agrees that it entails radical uncertainty—the vertiginous sense of unknowing that is the source of our constant free-floating anxiety.

If we are to act in the face of doubt, mystery, ignorance, and the immensity of seemingly gratuitous suffering, we might heed John Keats’ prescription to develop “Negative Capability,” the ability to remain “content with half-knowledge.” This was not, as Lionel Trilling writes in an introduction to Keats’ letters, advice only for artists, but “a certain way of dealing with life”—one in which, Keats wrote elsewhere, “the only means of strengthening one’s intellect,” and thus a sense of identity, meaning, and purpose in life, “is to make up one’s mind about nothing—to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts.”

Keats' is a very Zen sentiment, a moody version of the "don't-know mind" that recognizes emptiness and suffering as hallmarks of existence, and finds in them not a reason for optimism but for the indefinite suspension of judgement. Still, the approach of Romantic poets and Buddhist monks is not for everyone, and even Sartre eventually turned to orthodox Marxism to impose a meaning upon existence that claimed dependence on the hard facts of material conditions rather than the unbounded abstractions of the intellect.

Perhaps we are are free, at least, to commit to an ideology to assuage our existential dread. We are also free to adopt the tragic defiance of another Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, who confessed to something of an “Optimistic Nihilism” of his own. Only he referred to it as a “pessimism of the intellect” and “optimism of the will”—an attitude that recognizes the severe social and material limits imposed on us by our often painful, short, seemingly meaningless existence in a material world, and that strives nonetheless toward impossible ideals.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Makes The Death of Socrates a Great Work of Art?: A Thought-Provoking Reading of David’s Philosophical & Political Painting

When we think of political propaganda, we do not typically think of French Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David. There’s something debased about the term—it stinks of insincerity, staginess, emotional manipulation, qualities that cannot possibly belong to great art. But let us put aside this prejudice and consider David’s 1787 The Death of Socrates. Created two years before the start of the French Revolution, the painting “gave expression to the principle of resisting unjust authority,” and—like its source, Plato’s Phaedo—it makes a martyr of its hero, who is the soul of reason and a thorn in the side of dogma and tradition.

Nonetheless, as Evan Puschak, the Nerdwriter, shows us in the short video above, The Death of Socrates situates itself firmly within the traditions of European art, drawing heavily on classical sculptures and friezes as well as the greatest works of the Renaissance. There are echoes of da Vinci’s Last Supper in the number of figures and their placement, and a distinct reference of Raphael’s School of Athens in Socrates’ upward-pointing finger, which belongs to Plato in the earlier painting. Here, David has Plato, already an old man, seated at the foot of the bed, the scene arranged behind him as if “exploding from the back of his head.”




Socrates, says Puschak, “has been discussing at length the immortality of the soul, and he doesn’t even seem to care that he’s about to take the implement of his death in hand. On the contrary, Socrates is defiant… David idealizes him… he would have been 70 at the time and somewhat less muscular and beautiful than painted here.” He is a “symbol of strength over passion, of stoic commitment to an abstract ideal,” a theme David articulated with much less subtlety in an earlier painting, The Oath of the Horatii, with its Roman salutes and bundled swords—a “severe, moralistic canvas,” with which the artist “effectively invented the Neoclassical style.”

In The Death of Socrates, David refines his moralistic tendencies, and Puschak ties the composition loosely to a sense of prophecy about the coming Terror after the storming of the Bastille. The Nerdwriter summation of the painting’s angles and influences does help us see it anew. But Puschak’s vague historicizing doesn’t quite do the artist justice, failing to mention David’s direct part in the wave of bloody executions under Robespierre.

David was an active supporter of the Revolution and designed “uniforms, banners, triumphal arches, and inspirational props for the Jacobin Club’s propaganda,” notes a Boston College account. He was also “elected a Deputy form the city of Paris, and voted for the execution of Louis XVI.” Historians have identified over “300 victims for whom David signed execution orders.” The severity of his earlier classical scenes comes into greater focus in The Death of Socrates around the central figure, a great man of history, one whose heroic feats and tragic sacrifices drive the course of all events worth mentioning.

Indeed, we can see David’s work as a visual precursor to philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle’s theories of “the heroic in history.” (Carlyle also happened to write the 19th century’s definitive history of the French Revolution.) In 1793, David took his visual great man theory and Neoclassical style and applied them for the first time to a contemporary event, the murder of his friend Jean-Paul Marat, Swiss Jacobin journalist, by the Girondist Charlotte Corday. (Learn more in the Khan Academy video above.) This is one of three canvases David made of “martyrs of the Revolution”—the other two are lost to history. And it is here that we can see the evolution of his political painting from classical allegory to contemporary propaganda, in a canvas widely hailed, along with The Death of Socrates, as one of the greatest European paintings of the age.

We can look to David for both formal mastery and didactic intent. But we should not look to him for political constancy. He was no John Milton—the poet of the English Revolution who was still devoted to the cause even after the restoration of the monarch. David, on the other hand, "could easily be denounced as a brilliant cynic," writes Michael Glover at The Independent. Once Napoleon came to power and began his rapid ascension to the self-appointed role of Emperor, David quickly became court painter, and created the two most famous portraits of the ruler.

We’re quite familiar with The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, in which the subject stands in an awkward pose, his hand thrust into his waistcoat. And surely know Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass, above. Here, the finger pointing upward takes on an entirely new resonance than it has in The Death of Socrates. It is the gesture not of a man nobly prepared to leave the world behind, but of one who plans to conquer and subdue it under his absolute rule.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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