Beyond Indifference

By David Cromwell

There is an intense feeling that we all experience during our best moments that life has meaning; that it is priceless, and filled with immense potential. The seventeenth century French philosopher Blaise Pascal expressed this as ‘authentic existence’, in contrast to ‘inauthentic existence’ in which people tend to waste their lives in amusements or trivialities. Likewise, the twentieth century German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote of: ‘Being that degrades itself in the mediocrity of everyday life’ and of our ‘forgetfulness of Existence’. In other words, we can become so swamped by the minutiae of just surviving, day by day, that we forget to enjoy the feeling of being alive in the world. Why is this?

The ‘Outsider problem’

In a series of seven books published in the 1950s and 1960s, Colin Wilson tackled this existentialist question which he termed the ‘Outsider problem’. Wilson’s ‘Outsider’ is someone who thinks deeply about society’s prevailing values, and who does not – or refuses to – conform to the requirements of being a ‘civilised’ or ‘respectable’ person. Put simply, Wilson addresses Socrates’ question, “How should I live?” and observes that: “The man who is interested to know how he should live instead of merely taking life as it comes, is automatically an Outsider.” (Wilson, ‘The Outsider’, Phoenix, London, updated 2001 edition, p. 66). Examples of Outsiders that Wilson considers are T. E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’), Nietzsche, Van Gogh, Geoff Fox (founder of the Quakers) and the Buddha.

As part of an extensive and fascinating overview of – mostly western – literature, art and philosophy, Wilson examines the Outsider’s attempts to explore the meaning of human life. In this overview, Wilson outlines – but then ultimately rejects – the nihilism and meaninglessness that underlies the output of various existentialist writers and philosophers in the twentieth century, notably Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre (“Man is a useless passion”, wrote Sartre).

Wilson summarises the impact of Sartre’s existentialism thus: “[it] removed the universal backcloth against which mediaeval man acted out his dreams, with a sense that everything he did would be brought up on judgement day. In its place, says Sartre, there is only the infinitude of space, which means that man’s actions are of no importance to anyone but himself.” (Wilson, ‘Introduction to the New Existentialism’, Hutchinson, London, 1966, p. 152)

Wilson cannot accept that Sartre’s pessimistic view might represent reality, and he synthesises an alternative view of the human condition from history, art and literature to counter such pessimism. This is Wilson’s attempt to develop an optimistic ‘new’ existentialism, building on the work of several philosophers, notably Edmund Husserl and Alfred North Whitehead. Wilson draws connections between their philosophical work, in which the analysis of human experience is paramount, and the deep insights into the human condition explored in art and literature by William Blake, Rainer Maria Rilke, Vincent van Gogh, George Bernard Shaw, Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy and many others.

As Wilson argues towards the conclusion of his second book, Religion and the Rebel (1957), “the only way one can talk about the problems of ‘meaning’ in life is by showing them in terms of living people.” Therein, he argues, lies the great power of the best poets, dramatists and novelists. “True existentialism”, Wilson says, “is the dramatic investigation of human nature through the medium of art.” (Wilson, ‘Religion and the Rebel’, Ashgrove Press, Bath, 1984 edition, p. 300)

One of Wilson’s favourite existentialists is, in fact, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. When Raskolnikov, the central character in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, considers the possibility of being executed for the murders he has committed, he reflects that “he would prefer to stand on a narrow ledge for all eternity, surrounded by darkness and tempest, rather than die at once. The fear of death has raised his consciousness of freedom to a point where he becomes aware of the absolute value of his existence. The ‘indifference threshold’ has been completely destroyed.” (Wilson, ‘Introduction to the New Existentialism’, p. 129)

Wilson’s concept of the ‘indifference threshold’ is the realisation that: “There is a margin of the human mind that can be stimulated by pain or inconvenience, but which is indifferent to pleasure.” (Wilson, ‘The Outsider’, 2001 edition, p. 295) He expands further: “the recognition that man’s moments of freedom tend to come under crisis or challenge, and that when things are going well, he tends to allow his grip on life to slacken.” (Wilson, ‘The Outsider’, 2001 edition, p. 295) He provides the example of Sartre who once wrote that he felt at his most free and alive while working in the French underground resistance, while at constant risk of betrayal and death.

Spring bloom and a burst appendix

An example from my own experience of breaking through the ‘indifference threshold’ was when I fell ill halfway through a scientific cruise on the British research ship, Discovery, in April 1997. We were in the northeast Atlantic, undertaking physical, chemical and biological surveys of the ‘spring bloom’. This is the seasonal upsurge in the production of microscopic marine plant life known as phytoplankton. The process is an important natural cycle in the Earth’s climate system. The spring bloom is, in fact, the oceanic equivalent of what we observe at the same time of year on land: a riotous coming-alive of plant and animal life.

For me, however, the spring bloom was marked by the acute failure of my appendix. We were several hundred miles offshore, west of the Spanish town of Vigo. There were no surgical facilities on board Discovery, and the nearest ship with suitable facilities – HMS Argus, a hospital ship in the British navy’s royal fleet auxiliary – was too distant. I would have to be evacuated from Discovery and taken to hospital in Vigo.

It took two days before we got close enough to the land for a Spanish coastal rescue helicopter to rendezvous with Discovery. It was just after five o’clock on a beautiful morning – the sun had just come up – when we caught sight of a distant bright light in the blue sky indicating the helicopter’s approach. Ensconced in my bulky orange survival suit, I was strapped into a covered stretcher and hauled on board the helicopter. As I was being pulled up, I managed to wriggle one hand free to wave goodbye to the scientists, officers and crew on the Discovery below. Although I was dangling precariously over the ocean, and was in considerable discomfort from the appendicitis, I had this intense feeling of being alive. In the end, I was operated on successfully that afternoon, and a week later I was back home, recuperating well and with a renewed enthusiasm for life.

Indifference arising from clutching desire

For Wilson, the indifference threshold “was an absolutely fundamental recognition. It meant that ‘life-devaluation’ – the opposite of freedom – is due to our curious laziness, to a childish ‘spoiledness’ that gets resentful and bored in the face of minor problems. And freedom – the moment of vision, of poetry – is due to a certain unconscious discipline of the will.” (Wilson, ‘The Outsider’, 2001 edition, p. 295)

But how does one actually break through the “indifference threshold”. Or, to put it another way, how does one move from ‘inauthentic existence’ to ‘authentic existence’? Wilson answers:

“There are two ways. First of all, one must live constantly in the face of death, recognising it as the ultimate necessity. (Gurdjieff had also declared that man could escape from his fallenness if he had an organ that made him constantly aware of the date of his death.)” Wilson continues:

“There is another way… Poetry and myth can bring man [sic] closer to the realm of pure Being.” (Wilson, ‘Beyond The Outsider: The Philosophy of the Future’, Arthur Baker Limited, London, 1965, pp. 97-98)

This is an intriguing, but nonetheless a frustrating and inadequate response. Much though I admire his work, a major failing of Wilson’s approach, in my opinion, is that he skirts around the idea that the problems of human existence are rooted in the overpowering sense we all share of the essential self, which we refer to as “I” or “me”. To adopt a Buddhist perspective, we are forever grasping at an independent self that does not exist in reality. (This subtle though important concept need not detain us here; but see, for example, the section titled ‘The Emptiness of I’ in Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s ‘Eight Steps to Happiness’, Tharpa, Thulverston, 2000, pp. 191-195)

In the Buddhist view, it is attachment to this illusory self that gives rise to endless dissatisfaction and suffering as we try to quench our bottomless human desires. Wilson touches on this truth when he quotes a character called Job Huss in the H. G. Wells short story, ‘The Undying Fire’:

“Man. is born as the beasts are born, a greedy egotism, a clutching egotism, a clutching desire, a thing of lusts and fears.” (Wilson, ‘Beyond the Outsider’, quoted, p.33)

That phrase, “a clutching desire”, encapsulates the Buddhist concept of suffering that arises from attachment to a self-centred mind.

Wilson is also on the right trail when he recalls the character Mitya in Dostoyevsky’s classic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, who “is made to realize that the earth is full of suffering human beings, and that no one can be whole and complete without a sense of kinship with the suffering of all other living beings.” (Wilson, ‘The Outsider’, 2001 edition, p. 201)

This powerful realisation, too, has parallels in Buddhist teachings. The eighth-century Indian sage Shantideva puts it simply in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

“All the joy the world contains
Has come through wishing happiness for others.
all the misery the world contains
Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.”

Adopting this selfless approach is a true and worthy demonstration of Nietzsche’s “will to power”. That such a great philosopher did not recognise this application of his valuable concept was truly a lost opportunity in the development of western thought. (We return to Nietzsche below.)

Contemplating death

Recall Wilson’s remark above that “one must live constantly in the face of death, recognising it as the ultimate necessity”. In summarising Heidegger’s philosophy, Wilson concludes that: “We are all trapped in a world of dreams inside our own skulls, and nothing short of the threat of immediate death will wake us up to intense appreciation of our lives.” (Wilson, ‘Introduction to the New Existentialism’, p. 25) Or, as Dr. Samuel Johnson expressed it succinctly: ‘when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’ In Christianity, too, there is the notion that one’s Maker may take you from the present life at any time: a compelling reason for believers to live out the present moment as though it could be one’s last.

I have an example from my own life that sometimes gives me cause for thought. When I was six years of age, one of my best friends was killed in a road accident. I wasn’t there when it happened. In fact, we had just moved home to another town. But I knew where the car had hit Barry; it was en route to a favourite spot where a group of us used to play. I’ve often gone over in my mind’s eye what might have happened that day. A momentary distraction, Barry rushing excitedly across the road, not seeing the car, and the driver not being able to stop in time. I was told that Barry had died instantly. The tragic loss of that young life still disturbs me today, some thirty-five years later. If I happen to be feeling irritated or ungrateful or thwarted in some way, sometimes I recall Barry and the preciousness of human life; and how we can never really know in advance the time and manner of our own death.

In Buddhism, contemplating one’s own death is strongly encouraged in order to generate the necessary motivation for training the mind on the path to enlightenment. There is simply no time to waste. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explains that the main obstacle to making our human life meaningful is that we are “so attached to worldly activities [that] we do not have a strong wish to practice Dharma” [essentially, the Buddha’s teachings]. Gyatso is clear what the first step must be: “to overcome this obstacle we need to meditate on death.” (Gyatso, ‘The Meditation Handbook’, Tharpa Publications, London, 1995 edition, p. 37)

Indeed, Shantideva was rather blunt in admonishing himself in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: “This is no time to sleep, you fool!”

We can also hear this sense of urgency – of the pressing need to wake up immediately from daily life’s mediocrities and corrupt societal values – in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In the discourse titled ‘The Vision and The Enigma’, the prophet Zarathustra -the mouthpiece for Nietzsche’s uncompleted philosophy of ‘the revaluation of all values’ – encounters a curious sight:

“A young shepherd did I see, writhing, choking, quivering, with distorted countenance, and with a heavy black serpent hanging out of his mouth.

Had I ever seen so much loathing and pale horror on one countenance? Had he perhaps gone to sleep? Then had the serpent crawled into his throat – there had it bitten itself fast.

My hand pulled at the serpent, and pulled: – in vain! I failed to pull the serpent out of his throat. Then there cried out of me: ‘Bite, bite!

Its head off! Bite!’ – so cried it out of me; my horror, my hatred, my loathing, my pity, all my good and bad cried with one voice out of me.-” (Nietzsche, ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’, Dover Publications, Mineola, 1999, p. 109)

Commentator Anthony M. Ludovici explains the meaning of the parable: “the young shepherd is obviously the man of to-day; the snake that chokes him represents the stultifying and paralysing social values that threaten to shatter humanity, and the advice “Bite! Bite!” is but Nietzsche’s exasperated cry to mankind to alter their values before it is too late.” (Nietzsche, ibid., p. 249)

The unanswered question of what would Nietzsche’s Superman actually do?

Nietzsche was concerned that man should transform himself into an Übermensch (the ‘Overman’ or ‘Superman’), in an evolutionary step up from human life. He demanded greatness (the ‘Superman’) and insisted that everyone needs ‘to find one’s own way.’ However, I agree with the writer Michael Tanner when he inserts a cautionary note:

“But one hardly needs to go from that to the extreme of demanding that everyone has the highest possible profile. By definition, greatness is a rare quality. That does not mean that most people should be despised or regarded as eliminable for not possessing or aspiring to it.” (Tanner, ‘Nietzsche: A Very Short Introduction’, OUP, 2000, p. 95)

Indeed not! As I mentioned earlier, Nietzsche never explained exactly what it was the Übermensch was supposed to do with his superhuman abilities. Perhaps this was a deliberate omission to avoid being overly prescriptive. More plausibly, in my view, it was simply because Nietzsche’s vision ultimately failed him. (Although we must bear in mind that his productive life was tragically cut short: his last eleven years were spent insane). Certainly, there is no indication on Nietzsche’s part that the Superman should use his advanced powers to reduce suffering and to boost happiness amongst all people; indeed, amongst all living beings. On the contrary, Nietzsche abhorred the concept of compassion (or ‘pity’), believing it to be a prime characteristic of a discredited and weak ‘slave’ – as opposed to worthy or ‘noble’ – morality.

In The Anti-Christ, written just before his final collapse, Nietzsche explains why he held this disparaging view of compassion: “One loses force when one pities. The loss of force which life has already sustained through suffering is increased and multiplied even further by pity.” (Nietzsche, ‘Twilight of the Idols’ and ‘The Anti-Christ’, Penguin Classics, London, 2003, p. 130)

He reinforces the message:

“The weak and ill-constituted shall perish: first principle of our philanthropy. And one shall help them to do so. What is more harmful than vice? – Active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak.” (Nietzsche, ibid., p. 128)

This is a shocking statement. It is difficult to reconcile it with the interpretation sometimes proffered that Nietzsche was simply attacking the misguided morals of those who would wish to intervene in the lives of others.

Although we should certainly not accept everything that Nietzsche argued, Tanner’s view of one of Nietzsche’s major themes is worth noting, namely that:

“What he [Nietzsche] portrays, in book after book, is the gradual but accelerating decline of Western man into a state where no values any longer impress him.” (Tanner, ibid., pp. 36-37)

Nietzsche defines the values that, for him, constitute ‘good’ and ‘bad’:

“What is good? – All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man.
“What is bad? – All that proceeds from weakness.
“What is happiness? – The feeling that power increases – that a resistance is overcome.”
(Nietzsche, ibid., p. 127)

The will to power should indeed entail overcoming a resistance: namely, surmounting Wilson’s “indifference threshold” in order that we come to feel truly alive, creative and connected with others. But again, we have to ask: is this sufficient? Is surmounting the ‘indifference threshold’ only about making us feel better? What would Nietzsche’s Superman actually do with his amazing talents and noble morality? The question has never been adequately answered, to my knowledge.

Total compassion, not total indifference

Matthieu Ricard, a French Buddhist monk describes the search for meaning in almost Nietzschean terms, as “a constant attempt to break out of and blow apart all the tight, encrusting layers of illusion”. (Jean-François Revel and Matthieu Ricard, ‘The Monk and the Philospher. A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life’, Schocken Books, Random House, New York, 2000, p. 314)

Ricard explains that the path to wisdom and compassion involves transforming the mind. But rather than leading to a state of detachment or even nihilism, as detractors of Buddhism might claim, “the more you persevere in this process of inner transformation, the more you find that wisdom, serenity, and joy break through to you and impregnate your whole being – and that, unlike the pleasures of the world, they’re completely independent of any outer circumstances. They can be experienced anywhere, at any time, and increase the more you use them.” (Revel and Ricard, ibid., p. 318)

In his 1970 book, Poetry and Mysticism, Wilson speaks highly of Buddhism, highlighting its scientific approach to studying consciousness and how it rejects unverified belief or dogma. However, he ultimately rejects Buddhism because it supposedly has too “negative” an aim. (I believe, also, that Wilson cannot accept that Buddhism refutes the concept of an independently existing self. Instead, Wilson is attracted to Husserl’s notion of a “transcendental ego” or a “real self”. We do not explore these concepts further here.)

It is worthwhile quoting the relevant section from Poetry and Mysticism at length as it indicates some basic misunderstandings about Buddhism, perhaps still commonplace in the west, that we can then address below:

“[A]none who has ever fallen under the spell of Buddhism – or other eastern religion, for that matter – will have discovered the drawback. You can determinedly withdraw your mind from the objects of sense, assure yourself that you are free of all desire – and nothing whatever happens. You just sit there. You cannot ‘contemplate’ merely by wanting to contemplate. In fact, you soon realise that contemplation is closely bound up with desire. When you first perform that mental act of rejecting your desires and obsessions, the feeling of freedom is magnificent, and the mind is launched like a rocket, powered, by the desire you are rejecting. This is why religious conversions are such emotionally violent experiences. When there is nothing more to reject, the mind becomes static. And there is a world of difference between serenity and mere lack of motion.” (Wilson, ‘Poetry and Mysticism’, Hutchinson & Co., London, 1972, p. 30)

In the above paragraph, Wilson would have us believe that he has actually managed to extinguish all his desires – highly unlikely unless he were on the verge of enlightenment! – and that he then found himself ‘just sitting there’, doing nothing. His mind became ‘static’. Wilson says elsewhere that achieving such a state allows one to be indifferent to problems that may be afflicting us (or others). However, as the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard explains, to achieve enlightenment is not a supreme state of indifference, but exactly its opposite:

“[T]he goal of Buddhism is a complete and ultimate understanding of the phenomenal world, both inner and outer. Subtracting oneself from reality solves nothing at all. Nirvana is the very opposite of indifference toward the world. It’s infinite compassion and love toward all beings in their totality.” (Revel and Ricard, ibid., p. 177)

Wilson concludes his rejection of Buddhism as the ‘solution’ to the ‘Outsider problem’:

“I would not go so far as to reject the whole Buddhist concept of contemplative objectivity; it can be achieved in flashes. But I am inclined to believe that when the aspirant sits cross-legged and concentrates the gaze at the end of his nose, his immediate aim should not be a state of contemplation. It is too negative. The mind requires a more positive aim.” (Wilson, ibid., p. 30)

In fact, the positive aim that Wilson has managed to overlook is the elimination of suffering and the promotion of happiness amongst all living beings, everywhere. What could be more positive than that? Perhaps we should not be too hard on Wilson, however. During his major phase of working out an approach to the ‘new existentialism’, in the 1950s and 1960s, accurate and accessible books about Buddhism – particularly about Mahayana Buddhism, with its central emphasis on compassion and love – were few and far between in the West. For much of the twentieth century, westerners who wrote about Buddhism tended to present it as an austere philosophy of detachment and an empty, dead universe. The supposed aim of the practising Buddhist was to achieve a supreme state of detachment or worldly indifference; to be totally unswayed by life’s vicissitudes. This is a deep misunderstanding.

By way of contrast, Ricard points out that “inner equanimity is neither apathy nor indifference. It’s accompanied by inner jubilation, and by an openness of mind expressed as unfailing altruism”. (Revel and Ricard, p. 32) That “inner jubilation” echoes Nietzsche’s joyful affirmation of life, as expressed in his writings. However, a key attribute that should go hand in hand with this inner jubilation is unfailing altruism; unlike Nietzsche’s call for a ‘noble morality’ that despises pity as a weakness! There is a world of difference between joy as the selfish will to power, and joy as the compassionate will to serve and empower others.